A question from a beginner

A question from a beginner

Postby mcquagger » Wed Nov 28, 2001 10:26 pm

I recently bought the book "Handbook of Tai Chi Ch'uan excercises" by Zhang Fuxing to begin my education in Tai Chi and I have been having problems with mind focus and relaxation. Let me firt say that I was a hyperactive child and at the age of 27 I still have an abundance of nervous energy. I just cant seem to calm my mind...I mean thoughts and idea's and trivial things always seem to break any hopes for concentration. I guess my reason for posting is to find out how other people with the same problems may have handled them.
Should I just continue to practice my movements or should I stop before I develop bad habits or, will continued practice help bring everything together. Any advice would be appreciated.

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Postby LarryC » Thu Nov 29, 2001 4:49 am

In my humble opinion you should simply continue your practice. Learning Tai Chi is such a long-term process (a lifetime)that you probably can't realistically expect any instant gratification in the area of concentration. I do believe that the study of Tai Chi has great potential for teaching yourself to focus. And without focused concentration one won't make much progress. The two develop concurrently.

Good practice,

[This message has been edited by LarryC (edited 11-28-2001).]
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Postby mcquagger » Thu Nov 29, 2001 5:59 am

Thanks for the advice LarryC, I just wanted to make sure I wasnt getting ahead of myself by learning the forms before I had learned the focus.

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Postby ZhongDa » Tue Dec 04, 2001 9:49 pm

hello!, just wanted to add my cents here.

as far as concentration:
we all have our 'monkey minds'. i truly believe that to concentrate on being 'empty' or in the zone is really a silly practice.

dont block things out. rather just be where you are at the moment. so when thoughts arise during any of your TCC practice just let them pass and go back to the movements.
the worse thing you can do is create aversion to your own thoughts intruding on your 'quiet time'.
i find it much more practical to simply stay in the present moment. know too that some days are better than others. by far. hehehe.
some days my head sounds like MTV....others its just a quite snow fall. : )

is a good book to check out.

good luck.

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Postby Charla Quinn » Thu Dec 06, 2001 6:20 am

[QUOTE]Originally posted by mcquagger:
[B] I recently bought the book "Handbook of Tai Chi Ch'uan excercises" by Zhang Fuxing to begin my education in Tai Chi and I have been having problems with mind focus and relaxation. Any advice would be appreciated.
Hi McQ,
Do you have a good teacher available? If not, I would suggest you find one. It's pretty difficult to learn TCC from a book, no matter how good the book. This web-site has a listing of teachers, and I recommend those who have studied with the Yangs, or study with Yang Jun himself, depending on where you live. Perseverance is important in learning TCC, and it sounds to me as if you may have it! Good luck
Charla Q.
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Postby Audi » Sun Dec 16, 2001 11:31 pm

Hi McQuagger,

I would agree with the earlier replies, but just wanted to add two thoughts.

If locating a teacher is somehow difficult, I would also suggest going to seminars or making special occasional trips to make sure that you have a good understanding of the basics. Learning in this way can put extraordinary demands on the mental and physical effort needed to assimilate what is transmitted in brief sessions, but I think it beats starting from a book.

My second thought is that sometimes monkey mind comes from mentally reducing T'ai Chi movements to something inappropriately simple. To my thinking, doing T'ai Chi exercise should feel like it requires as much constant attention as juggling, balancing on one leg, playing scales on an instrument, or similar exercises.

If one has a good enough understanding of Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essentials, focusing on these can calm and center the mind. If ten are too many, which is almost always the case with me, you can focus on some subset of them or even vary what you focus on from posture to posture.

In my opinion, most T'ai Chi principles have layers to them; however, they also have an on/off quality to them whereby a moment's inattention creates a fatal defect. If one can feel this balance, focusing the mind comes from the constant minute adjustments needed to follow the demands of the body and to keep as close to the center of the zone described by the principle as possible.

To be more concrete, let me describe some of what I mean with the Preparation Posture from the form. (In Yang Zhen Duo's form, this posture requires standing up straight with the feet parallel and shoulder-width apart. The hands hang down naturally to the sides, perhaps with a slight curve and the fingers touching the side of your legs. The legs are straight, but the knees do not lock.) Doing the basic posture requires little concentration, and the mind can wander; however, consider adding some of the following "internal" content.

Is the head truly centered as if suspended from above? Where does your mind's eye place the precise top of the head? Are the shoulders and fingers truly extended within your body frame, i.e., "song"? Is the waist truly loosened with the pelvis lengthening the spine? Is the spine vertically loosened, or can you feel noticable kinks? Can you feel springy vertical energy in the knees, or are they too locked or too bent? Does the hip socket feel loosened and as if resiliently supporting the weight of the trunk? Can you feel the pressure of one foot pushing into the other? Is your mind still listening to your body, or is it a one-way conversation? Does your body begin to feel like one unit of energy? If someone were to push you on the shoulder from the side, which joints would absorb the energy? Only a few?, or multiple ones? Is your weight on the bubbling spring or on your heels or toes?

Taking a mental inventory of these somewhat concrete sensations can easily take ten or more seconds. As one moves into the next posture, one must continue the inventory each and every moment of the exercise. As one drops one of these mental balls and juggling the principles becomes impossible, simple throwing the "ball" back into play will begin to force you to resume juggling.

Do not be disturbed when all the ball come crashing down, simple resume where you left off. As you do this more and more, you should find that you can go longer and longer stretches while maintaining all the principles active and dynamic in your head.

Learning these principles from a book is all but impossible, but being shown one of them correctly on even one occasion is enough to begin the juggling. By the way, beware of principles that seem either hopelessly complex or too simple. In my view, they are very concrete things, but are extraordinarily hard to describe in simple words. It is easier to hint at them and let people recognize them through their own exploration.

I hope this addresses your question, and that my musing are not too scattered.

Take care,
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Postby Bob3 » Wed Dec 19, 2001 3:00 am

The above threads have some good advice to heed, but perhaps I can give a different perspective. Finding a good teacher for Tai Chi is probably the best approach. If learning only from a book or two, consider the following points:
(1) At first, get to know the postures in the book so that you can move from one to the other without reference. This is the outer layer of the external form.
(2) Take a look at each external posture. If the position feels comfortable, likely you are not doing something quite correct. Most of the Tai Chi postures will initially feel awkward or uncomfortable until the body is trained to move differently.
(3) Take care to follow the shifts in weight from foot to foot carefully. A little lazyiness is easily developed when the weight is not fully shifted from one foot to the other, or a posture is not fully attained prior to moving on.
(4) Examine each posture transition for arm and leg movement. While the movements can be large, this is the mostly the result of waist movement rather than arm or leg movement.
(5) Examine the posture movement for the various parts of the body. When the movement or posture is complete, all of the body parts should have ended movement at the same time. If one part has ended movement before another, then the move is not coordinated.
(6) When all of the above are accomplished, then the more subtle parts of the movements can be examined, such as the points brought out by Audi.

Finally, a couple words of guidance: Empty the mind, listen to the body. What do these mean? Empty the mind is very difficult to achieve. It means to eliminate or not dwell on any extraneous thoughts except on the matter of performing the Tai Chi movement. Thus the whole body is under control of the mind and the whole body is unified to move into the correct posture. Listen to the body is another difficult concept. It means to be aware of each little part of the body as it moves or is still. At first, be aware of the weight, and positions of the hands and feet. Eventually, be aware of the positions of each bone in the hand or in the spine. This is a gradual awareness that improves over time and with good practice, but not repetitive practice. That is, repetition of a movement in Tai Chi is wasted if just the movement itself is repeated. It is of benefit to make progress only when with each repetition, the empty mind listens to the variances of the body while performing the movement and compares this to the perceived ideal.

The movements of Tai Chi are graceful and flowing smoothly when done correctly. This takes much dedication and practice to make this happen. When you get to this point, then much more will open to you...

Have joy in embarking on the way...
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Postby JerryKarin » Fri Dec 21, 2001 11:24 pm

Suppose you notice that your mind has wandered. If you then think, "I shouldn't be thinking about this now" - that is another extraneous thought, and leads to more... So what to do? Go back to the requirements for the current move. Do this every time the focus drifts. Little by little, it drifts less. In the background as though through a kind of peripheral vision you are observing in your moves the status of the ten essentials or some subset of the ten.
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Postby DavidJ » Sat Dec 22, 2001 11:24 pm


One thing you might try is to acknowledge what is on your mind, then put it aside to pick it up later. Stand for a moment, take a deep breath and begin your practice.

When practice is done pick up your thoughts where they left off.


David J
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Postby Audi » Sat Feb 02, 2002 7:37 pm

Greetings McQuagger (and everyone else):

I have been thinking about your original post and had some new thoughts. These may have no bearing on your particular situation, but I thought you or others might find some specifics helpful, or at least entertaining. I have tried to make my thoughts concrete and describe a framework that should be useful for whatever postures or exercises your book provides.

I have not addressed the issue of “relaxation,” about which I feel quite passionate; but hope to do so in a later post in response to something someone posted about Taijiquan being bad for the knees. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, all Taijiquan practitioners do not mean the same thing when they speak about “relaxation.” I have encountered at least three different views of relaxation, and the two most commonly and clearly described in the available literature in the U.S. is, in my opinion, absolutely disastrous for an understanding of what Yang Zhen Duo (and other traditional Yang teachers) teach.

As I understand the other aspect of the problem you have posed, it involves the difficulty of keeping the mind involved with the movements and focused on Taijiquan. I think just about everyone reaches a point in their practice where a certain level of comfort is reached with gross physical movements, and we have difficulty keeping our mind occupied. This is a critical point in anyone’s development, because different paths open up, which are not equally beneficial. One path that I think is particularly troublesome is to see the movements only as something to do more and more smoothly or with more and more ease and relaxation, etc., like dancing, for instance. Another problematic path is to see Taijiquan as an ever-increasing collection of details that only matter to “high-level” practitioners.

The movements require particular mental frameworks that demand constant attention. In this way, I think Taijiquan is like chess. Good chess players do not simply calculate moves and memorize useful tricks and board positions. They have very specific, but non-obvious ways of viewing the board and the relationship between the pieces. These ways can be taught. They are really basic to proper chess and not really the stuff of experts. While the ability to concentrate can vary during a game, it is hard to conceive of playing serious chess absent-mindedly. Likewise, one’s concentration can vary during Taijiquan, but the mental framework should be too immediate to allow your mind to truly wander. Without the mental framework, it becomes hard to keep the mind occupied and the practice becomes empty of inner content. Although one can dance quite beautifully while mentally on automatic pilot, my opinion is that the nature of serious Taijiquan does not allow this any more than one can absent-mindedly walk a tightrope.

A personal milestone in my practice was when I began to interpret many principles of Taijiquan in terms of feedback loops. Viewing principles in this way means that one is continuously orienting oneself between polar opposities, rather than trying directly to discover, generate, copy, or simulate anything. This, in fact, is one interpretation of what the term “taiji/t’ai chi” refers to, i.e., a state where two polar opposites continuously harmonize without separating. For me, this makes trying to conform to principles during form movements quite immediate and intimate. It does not matter where I am mentally or physically, only where I am going from moment to moment. It also does not matter where I have been, because I must in any case reassess my “direction” from moment to moment. I am walking a mental tightrope.

To give you an example of what I mean, stand on one leg with your knee straight or even locked. If your balance or strength is insufficient, simply put the ball of your other foot as lightly as possible on the ground.

Notice what the muscles controlling your ankle are doing. (If you have nerve problems, this exercise will not work, however.) Without your mind giving specific commands to your muscles or “qi,” they are continuously cooperating to maintain your balance. The various muscles pull at each other with varying strengths and lengths. While your mind can indeed wander, the nature of what you are doing provides instant feedback as long as your intent is to remain standing up straight. When you put both feet firmly on the ground, this intent is no longer sufficient to be automatically aware of what your ankle muscles are doing, because many other physical shortcuts are available to you. I mention this to point out that all “intent” is not created equal and how one focuses the mind is actually quite important to how you relate to your body.

I would not recommend the above exercise as a “Taiji” exercise, since it involves focusing on the movement of only a single joint. In my opinion, Taiji movements are best thought of as whole-body or, better yet, all-joint movements. I would also not recommend the above exercise because the focus of the mind is really not correct from a Taiji perspective.

To change the above experiment to conform to more “Taiji” lines, I would propose focusing the mind in one of the ways the “First Essential” is described. While standing on one leg as described above, focus the mind on standing as if the crown of the head is being suspended from a point in the ceiling. Feel as if the vertebrae are pearls on a string. Do not feel as if your neck and spine are like a balanced stick or a stack of blocks, because this cultivates feelings of dead stiffness, whether or not your muscles are tight or loose.

Whether you are still or moving, the crown of your head is continuously orienting (again, not “oriented,” but “orienting”) upward toward the point in the ceiling. While the top of your head is emptying upward, your tailbone is being pulled downward by your gentle muscular action, gravity, or a combination of both. Your spine feels as if it is lengthening. Every vertebra has a natural relationship to every other (i.e., like the pears on the string), but none of them has to have a fixed absolute position. Whether your spine is wobbling like a spinning top, undulating like a cobra, or swaying like a rope, the top of your head is constantly orienting and causing corresponding effects all the way down your spine. A side effect of all this is that your balance should be much better than in the first exercise I described above. This is despite the fact that your mental focus is not even in your foot. Also, the more actively you engage all of your spinal muscles, the stiller your posture will be. (“Movement within stillness.”)

Do not think of making your head or spine “erect,” or you will use improper local strength. You will incorrectly privilege the muscles of the neck over those of the rest of the vertebrae. Another mistake is to view someone who can do this well and try to directly copy their stillness. This usually produces stiffness. The idea is to copy their “movement” or what they are trying to do with their muscles. This produces the stillness. This is what I understand to be the mind leading the body or the “yi” leading the “qi.”

Basically, all you are doing is pulling up what can be pulled up, pulling down what can be pulled down, and harmonizing the two. One can analyze this in detail, but the secret is not in the detail, but in the correct visualization of the simple polarity. I think this can be felt in various ways, but here is one proposal.

As you feel you are pulling up on your skull, you should feel that you are pulling down on your shoulders. This feeds into one of the other Ten Essentials (“Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows.”). The two opposing pulls should leave the vertebrae in your neck feeling very open. As the middle of your back is pulled upwards, you should feel your tailbone pulling downward. This should leave your lumbar vertebrae (i.e., your Chinese waist) feeling loose and open (another of the Ten Essentials). As you lift your pelvis to keep it level and push down with your knees, your hip sockets (i.e., “kua’s”), should feel open.

What I am describing are activities to perform or feelings to experience, and not postures to be held. Practice is for deepening and clarifying the feelings, rather than for perfecting set responses.

One issue that often plagues practitioners is how much muscular effort to exert. In my opinion, this is ultimately an incorrect focus. If one maintains the proper mental focus, whatever muscular effort is used will be fine and instinctively matched to the particular application. This is what I understand Yang Zhen Duo to be referring to when he talks about “ziwo jingan,” which I think Louis translated elsewhere on this site (under the description of the Palm Methods under Taiji Information) as something like “self-arising sensation of strength.” If one has clarity, merely opposing the upward pushing of the head with the pull of gravity may be enough. If one is trying to lift someone or something off the floor, more muscular effort is required. If, however, one tries to calibrate the amount of muscle to use, whatever value one arrives at will be stiff and wrong. This is just like the first exercise I described above. Focusing on how to calibrate the strength used by the ankle is unnecessary and counterproductive.

If you focus on “pearl string” feeling while doing your Taiji movements, you should feel as if any movement of your limbs requires corresponding compensations in your spine. Your focus should be absolutely continuous (like walking a tightrope) and not intermittent. Every step should represent a mental challenge to your visualization of the “suspended string of pearls.” Every time you lift an arm, you should feel a need to balance the energy exerted with continuous subtle spinal movements. Every individual joint movement should feel “constrained” because your whole body must be involved (i.e., “moving with one ‘qi’”)(“not one feather can alight”). Collectively, however, your movements are unconstrained and nimble. All of this, I would maintain, comes from simply focusing your mind on mediating “upward energy” with “downward energy” within the constraints of your anatomy, rather than standing like a lump. All the details I have inartfully described above are unimportant in themselves, but fall out of the simplicity.

The last thing I will say is that I believe that the “intent” I have described is something visible in good practitioners, but subtle. Even their small movements look purposeful and linked with other movements. They show few or no gaps in their intent. Any gaps in intent are visible, but do not necessarily correspond with pauses in outward movement. Someone’s head can be moving or still, but lack a sense that it is orienting and drawing upward. If one does not know what to look for, however, one may mistake stiffness for stillness, movement for orientation, robotic coordination for integration of movement, and pauses for gaps in internal intent. Trying to copy the external movements without a feel for what the practitioner is doing internally is nearly impossible.

I hope this is helpful. I welcome any differing thoughts, questions, or clarification.

Happy and fruitful practice,
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Postby glittalogik » Wed Oct 16, 2002 12:36 am

Audi, do you have unnaturally supple hands, or do you use special techniques to avoid RSI? Every post of yours that I've seen has been more like a thesis...don't your wrists hurt?
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Postby Hans-Peter » Wed Oct 16, 2002 10:54 am

Hi Audi,

great post!
About three parts I need further informations to understand them definitely.

1. Is in your opinion ment by (chinese) "waist" actually only the "lumbar vertebrae" or do you see the lumbar vertebrae as a part of the waist?

2. You wrote:
"Do not think of making your head or spine "erect" or you will use improper local strength".

You also emphasize the spine and the head to imagine as the "string of pearls". Doesn't this imply that the spine has to be erect?
Hiow does your model work when imagine the string of pearls while keeping the natural curves of the spine, particularly the curve of the lumbar spine during form practice?

You also wrote:
"As you lift your pelvis to keep it level and push down with your knees..."

Isn't this "lifting of the pelvis" the straigthening of the lumbar curve? How could this be done without an improper local muscle strenght (e.g. in the bottom muscleas of your pelvis)? Or do you mean with
"lifting of the pelvis" another physical action here?

3. You also wrote:
Another mistake is to view someone...
This usually produces stiffness. The ideal is to copy their movement or what they are trying to do with their muscles. This produces the stillness. This is what I understand to be the mind leading the body or the yi leading the qi."

At the moment I cannot understand how you see these things related. Why do you see it as "yi leads qi" if someone tries to copy what another tries to do with his muscles?
How do you know what the other "tries" to do?
Yi leads qi - what does this mean to you and where's the difference to "mind leads the body"? I'd love to understand what you mean but I cannot grasp the essence clearly while reading through this part of your post.

Please initiate your "unnatural supple" hands to write some more words.

My best
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Postby gene » Wed Oct 16, 2002 8:37 pm

Hi Audi (and everyone):

And while you're loosening up those wrists, let's talk about the following: "If one maintains the proper mental focus, whatever muscular effort is used will be fine and instinctively matched to the particular application." I like this quote because it contains the concepts of being natural and instinctive. I think that babies have a natural suppleness and "mind/no mind" that we unfortunately unlearn as we get old and crotchety, and that taiji attempts to recapture. In the practical world, however, you know what often happens when people test and explore the principles in push hands. Even if a person goes in with the principles firmly ingrained, often, when she feels imbalanced, she resorts to brute strength and muscle tension. At the lower levels of taiji where most of us dwell, doesn't some thought have to be given to the appropriate measure of muscular effort? Otherwise, don't we tend to fall back upon what we "know" - localized muscle strength - as soon as we're threatened?

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Postby Eulalio Silva » Thu Oct 17, 2002 5:26 pm

Hello mcQuagger,

In response to your "concentration" problem, I would like to interject this with the hope to really "cure" the basic problem.

I have responded to different forums here and I seem to respond the same answer because it is the only way that would really maximize your exercises and meditations)

I practice STANDING-STILL-MEDITATION...It is the most basic of all Internal arts whether for martial arts or for health.

This meditation is simply standing..(observing the same rules...relaxation of mind and body....slightly bent knee and elbow while the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth or palate)

This beginning form is the first and foremost drilled to students and most of the "old school" tai chi use this as a prerequisite for up to 2 years before the master can teach the student the form and movement.

What can be attained and what is the purpose, you may ask? It is the gradual relaxation of our mind and body (song or sung)....Breath into your Tan Tien to collect the CHI. start with 10 or 15 min....until you can go for even an hour! It is outright boring until you feel the effect of CHI being absorbed into your Tan Tien.

This is the Wu JI or the nothingness...the beginning or rather the precursor of tai chi...before tai chi, there is nothingness...then movement comes in and Yin and Yang splits into distinct polarities that complement the TAO. this is where the form comes in...the movement and the techniques.....but before you can start moving, you should learn to stand.

Empty your mind and just let it sink to your TAN TIEN as long as possible. Visualize the CHI storing there. Feel your whole structure form into one cohesive and one unit. Thats the time you can move.

If you practice this 15 to 30 min. a day...in 2 weeks, you can feel the swellness of the CHI...and start storing it in your TAN TIEN. This is also the precursor of NEI KUNG...which means Internal work...then you can use your YI or I (intention) to move the CHI within your body.

Moving this Chi or rather spiraling this energy with the movement is similar to Silk Reeling exercises. So without this CHI feeling...movements are really without CHI and therefore not really within the internal arts.

What separates internal arts to shaolin or external arts is the dissemination of CHI, absorption, and issuing of it through movement as an external manifestation. But the main key is still your mind.

The mind follows the CHI. So in your case or for most of us all, movements or form can delay or prohibit you to study the efficient way of Tai Chi.

Here is a couple of books that would surely help you:

1. Warriors of Stillness, meditative traditions in the Chinese Martial arts by Jan Diepersloot

This is by far the most comprehensive book on the most basic of all internal arts through the meditation of WU JI TAI CHI or nothingness....standing still and nei kung.

Master Cai, well known for his "empty force" who can move opponents without touching...and so as an extension of his obviously awesome push hands.....he did not even master the whole Tai Chi movement repertoire but mastering the most basic source of absorption of CHI, converting it to JING (internal power) thru centralization of power. excellent book

2. The Empty Force, by Paul Dong...another excellent but written in simple style. An advocate of standing still meditation most specially practiced from variations of I-Chuan (yi or I...mind intention Boxing..which is another derivative of Hsing-I)....methods are described and easily read. The source of all internal arts through the absorption of CHI to our Tan Tien, saving it, closing it...and then learning it to disseminate throughout the body (another way is thru Chi Kung--breathing and Chi coordination and movements)...eventually, the issuing of JING in martial arts or health applications.

SO there it is....before we can walk, we should learn to stand. So before we can do our movements, likewise, we should learn the Wu Ji (or nothingness)...otherwise there will be no Tai Chi.

Hope this can help you.

Eulalio Silva
Eulalio Silva
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Postby Hans-Peter » Fri Oct 18, 2002 1:00 pm

Hi Eulalio,

what you've said in your last post sounds fairly standard to me, but I completely disagree with what you've mentioned about the difference between Taiji and Shaolin (= external) martial arts. Also in all external martial arts I've had the chance to learn a little bit, every serious practioner tries to reach the same goal as one who practises internal martial arts. They only use different ways. I've practised standing meditations from the first day I've learned external arts and nowadays, while having been in so many workshops, schools a. o. of the internal branch, I often have to ask myself if it's not that the external martial arts uses this tool more intensive.
But anyhow - also in Shaolin arts the main goal is to develop the inner chi to it's maximum. Every real Shaolin master would say this. If you'd read some interviews they gave, you'd notice this clearly. I just have an example in front of me (I can easily find dozens of them), and I'll give you only 3 excerpts of what Master Shi Guo Lin, student of the current abbot of Shaolin monastery said here:
"...Which weapon you choose to learn is not as important as the inner chi that controls the weapon"

"Many people see the so called hard styles and equate them with external martial arts and sof styles with internal martial arts. In reality there are no differences between internal and external nartial arts. External martial arts include the internal factors and internal martial arts include the external factors. This is Yin and Yang."

"Shaolin training and Chan practice form the perfect unity of yin and yang. Look only at yin - yang becomes clouded and obscure. Look only at yang - yin becomes clouded and obscure. Train to balance both your mind and body - and the forces of yin and yang will find the perfect balance. The Buddha called that balance "Enlightenment."

Why do you refuse to look for yang in your Taiji? I'm sorry if I should have interpreted something you've tried to say wrong - but I'm wondering since longer time, that even the most external of all martial artists (=Shaolin) couldn't see a difference to the internal arts but so many internal artists - like you - find so much differences and can identify and define them so easily with so easy words. What do you think - why can venerable Shi Guo Lin not see them?

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