I wanted to continue a thought I had about the thread in the Miscellaneous Forum about how to know one is doing something right. Essentially, I want to propose for discussion some of what the philosophical principle “taiji” means for practice of Taijiquan. Since “taji” is one of the quintessential principles of Taijiquan, I thought this forum would be more appropriate than “miscellaneous.”J
I find the concept of “taiji” to be at the heart of many issues I have discussed with Taiji friends. It has also been a great source of frustration as I have struggled with my practice and also struggled to explain concepts I have found to be simple at their core, but hard to put into words. Writing this has allowed me to release some of that frustration and organize my thoughts for future discussions. As you can see from the length of this post, for which I apologize, I seem to have been one frustrated person.J
In putting down my thoughts, I am shamelessly plagiarizing the ideas of others and lay claim to nothing original. I assume anybody interested in reading a post this long has read enough about Taijiquan or will read enough so that he or she can identify the general sources of what I am discussing. What I am doing is simply putting my own slant on what I understand of others’ ideas.
From what I have read, it seems that the relationship between yin and yang can be thought of in at least four different ways. I am not proposing that any of these describe reality, but rather that they provide different ways of viewing reality. In other words, I am approaching this as philosophy, not physics, cosmology, or religion.
The first way is the state of “wuji” (no pole, no extremity, no polarity, chaos, tohubohu, without form and void, etc.). In this state, yin and yang are not distinguishable. Although they may be pregnant with possibilities, there is no dynamism. Change is a meaningless concept for wuji.
The second way is the state of “taiji” (great pole, great extremity, great polarity, supreme ultimate, etc.). In this state, all is in motion and dynamic. Yin and yang are distinguishable, but inseparable and mutually dependent. Change is an inherent aspect of “taiji.”
In the third and fourth way, one can view yin and yang as separate things, either “in balance” or “out of balance” (hence, I count these as two different ways). From Zhang Yun’s writings (either from his sword book or online essays, I do not recall which), I understand that viewing yin and yang as pure qualities corresponds to the term “liang3 yi4” (the two powers/symbols). I believe this is a reference to the solid (yang) and broken (yin) lines (yao?) used in Yi Jing/I Ching hexagrams and trigrams. I would, however, appreciate it if anyone has any insight as to what exactly “yi” means in this context.
Of these four ways of viewing yin and yang and the relationship between the two, I am proposing that only the second one (“taiji”) is important for traditional Taijiquan as taught by teachers such as the Yangs. I want to discuss this issue somewhat, because some secondary writings I have read by U.S. practitioners seem to assume a different view. I have also had discussions with friends who do Taijiquan, who seem to view having yin and yang “in balance” as a sufficient principle in itself to guide their practice. Others seem to imply or teach that practice of Taijiquan merely involves exploring and becoming acquainted with a full range of yin and yang states.
Before I continue, let me make two points. First, I am not analyzing the intrinsic worth of anyone’s practice. I am, however, trying to distinguish certain views from what I see as inherent in what the Yangs and others teach. I find this necessary to avoid confusion.
Let me try to illustrate this point so that I can minimize any offense I may offer to those who view Taijiquan in ways that absolutely contradict some of what I put forth here. I see the process of learning Taijiquan much as the process of learning another language and so will use linguistic analogies.
French and Spanish are both wonderful languages, but applying French grammar to Spanish or vice versa does not produce the best result. Using the same label for similar, but different phenomena (such as “the present perfect tense”) can blur important distinctions. The distinctions between “he” and “she” in French, Spanish, or German, even when applied only to people, do not really match up to the distinctions in English. Chinese verb tenses are not really “tenses” at all. Japanese pronouns are not really pronouns. Sometimes, the harm in using imprecise labels or mental frameworks is quite subtle, though extensive. The fault in Ptolemy’s theory of an earth-centered universe was not in how he predicted the motion of the planets, which was largely accurate, but in how his view skewed the West’s understanding of the universe.
In my view, there are many ways that people have developed exercise and martial art systems that employ the concepts of yin and yang that do not correspond to the second view of yin and yang I have described above (“taiji”). Whether or not such systems call themselves Taijiquan or deserve the term more than the system taught by the Yangs and other similar teachers is an entirely separate question from what I am trying to explore here. There may even well be theories of Taijiquan that account for all the teachings that claim that name. I, however, do not find such all encompassing theories useful as practice guides and prefer to approach different views in the Taiji community separately on their on terms.
A second point I would like to make is that there is great linguistic difficulty talking about the differences between absolute and relative states, distinctions I view as necessary in talking about yin and yang. If we take the English word “height,” we have a word that is usually a description of an absolute characteristic that can apply equally to things that are high or low. In other contexts, it can apply only to things that are unusually high. For instance, the phrase “a plane flying at an impressive height” could not readily refer to a plane flying unusually low. On the other hand, the phrase “Look at the height of that plane!” could have almost any connotation, depending on context.
The word “tension” can apply to things that are rigid and not relaxed and thus prevent the transmission of physical forces, e.g., tense muscles. It can also apply to when two different forces are so intimately linked that any change in one affects the other, i.e., the tension on a fishing line or in a tendon. I would propose that the former is the enemy of good Taijiquan and that the letter is essential to good Taijiquan. Accordingly, when someone says to eliminate all tension when doing Taijiquan, I think care must be taken in interpreting what is meant.
The word “loose” in English, and I believe in Chinese (i.e., “song”), can apply to that which is disconnected, such as loose vegetables. “Loose” can also apply to things that are not knotted, rigid, or unduly constrained, i.e., a chain that is hanging “loose.” I would propose again that the former is the enemy of good Taijiquan, but the latter is essential.
What to make then of talk about the necessity of being “relaxed,” avoiding “tension,” and being “loose”? Perhaps, it would be better to talk about seeking “loose tension” or the “tension possible in being loose.”J The imprecision of language and translation becomes an impediment to communication and understanding.
Distinctions between what is absolute and what is relative are even more problematic between languages, because they are not handled uniformly. For instance, if I recall correctly, the Latin word “altus” could apply to a “tall” tree or a “deep” lake. The essence of the word was descriptive of the distance from the norm, not the inherent loftiness of the object.
A phrase such as “Taijiquan must contain movements with small circles” has different possibilities from language to language. In Spanish and Portuguese, “with slow movements” could be translated in two different ways that, although not rigidly distinguished, tend to signal different degrees of objectivity and absoluteness. The two ways that occur to me are: “Que tiene/tem círculos pequeños/pequenos” and “que tiene/tem pequeños/pequenos círculos.”
To my ear, the first phrase implies that the only relevant circles are those that would be objectively classified as small; whereas the second phrase implies that some kind of circle or another is important and that the ones necessary for Taijiquan will give an impression of smallness. Doing the former, I might make sure that whenever I make a circle, I make it small. Doing the latter, I might make sure only to notice that the moves I learn contain lots of little circles. I think it is difficult to advance very far in Taijiquan without clearly understanding what is required in such matters.
The literature of Taijiquan has many statements about what is soft, empty, substantial, slow, quick, nimble, light, heavy, etc. I think these statements are difficult to translate exactly and so are often translated inconsistently. They are perhaps somewhat ambiguous, even in Chinese. I think not being aware of this potential has implications for practice if one relies on the classics for guidance.
If we are told that a leg should be empty, does this mean that the leg is supposed to feel as if it has qualities of emptiness, or rather that it should have more such qualities than some other standard, perhaps the other leg? Put differently, should the leg feel empty, or just feel as if it is emptier than something else? If Taijiquan should be soft, do we mean that the muscles should literally feel soft, or that Taijiquan should be softer than some other standard? Maybe even being soft is not enough, if the softness does not reach the necessary standard.
It seems to me that the state of Taiji is about the dynamic tension between opposites and that the emphasis on use of the mind is to identify which state of that tension is appropriate to any particular purpose or moment. Slow practice of the form helps in clearly identifying and choosing among the contrasts in one’s own body. Practice of form also prepares one for recognizing contrasts in the opponent’s.
Let me give a physical example.
If one brings the fingertips of one hand together and then wraps a rubber band around the fingers, one can experience the contractive power of the rubber band by trying to separate one’s fingers in an expanding circle/sphere. The contrast between the expansive qualities of one’s fingers and the contractive qualities of the rubber band is clear.
If one then removes the rubber band and lets the muscles in the fingers go completely slack, the tendons in the fingers will naturally curl the fingertips toward the thumb side of the palm heel, as if grasping a tree limb. At this point, the contrast between the tendons that curl the fingers and those that expand the fingers is not clear, even though the opposing tendons in the fingers have reached equilibrium. In short, the equilibrium no longer feels dynamic.
If one then begins to uncurl and expand the fingers/fingertips equally in a natural circle (as if the palm was on the surface of an expanding balloon or as if one were trying to stretch out the now absent rubber band), one can still feel the contractive power of the tendons working against your motion on the inside of the fingers. I think this feeling is what being “song” in the joints is all about. One feels a clear contrast between the expanding and contractive qualities in joints such as those of the fingers. Both aspects of the feeling are necessary.
If one expands the fingers so far that they begin to bend backwards, I believe that the mechanics of the finger joints begin to deaden the contractive sensation, since the positioning of the joints begins to interfere with the contraction of the tendons. Paradoxically, this is a position that is easier to maintain and that requires less effort in certain aspects than the “correct” one. Even more subtly, I believe one can initiate a sensation of freezing or locking of the fingers in any position, such that the contractive power of the tendons is overcome and no longer felt. This again is “easier” than maintaining the feeling of contrastive tension and can be mistaken for being “song.” I am proposing that this is the type of locking or freezing tension that must be avoided, as opposed to the type of dynamic tension that facilitates communication between forces.
If one can feel the sensation I am describing, the question still remains as to how much is enough at any particular moment or for any particular purpose. How much should one uncurl the fingers?
As I understand the Yangs teachings, we are normally told to “shu1” the fingers. As I understand it, this term can be translated as either “extend” or “relax.” In practically all the postures, the line of force or path of the “jin” that is favored seems to be one that extends straight from the wrist out through the fingertips. Thus, I propose that we need to “extend” the fingers to be in tune with this “jin” path and that merely “relaxing” them and allowing them to feel as if they have curled up is incorrect.
One distinction I would like to point out is that “extending the fingers” is not the same as “making them straight.” In working with people who have been influenced by such views as the “beautiful lady’s wrist,” I have often encountered difficulty in expressing that making the fingers curled or straight or “relaxed” or “rigid” is not really the issue. Again, I refer to the second view of yin and yang I described above (“taiji,” rather than “liang yi”).
“Making the fingers straight” involves focusing on the line of force that ultimately bends the fingers backwards. This is literally working at cross purposes with focusing on the line of force extending along the fingers and the palm. Doing the former activity, one focuses on locking the fingers in one particular position, at the expense of other more important feelings. Doing the latter activity, the fingers become “straight, but not straight,” or rather, “naturally straight.” Approximate straightness is the result, not the immediate focus.
Needless to say, one does not focus on the lines of force that require the fingers to spread further and further apart from each other. Doing this would result in what I understand to be an ideal Bagua palm, but not a Taiji palm.
It is tempting to view specific finger positions as inherently “song” (“loosened and extended”) and correct; however, this cannot be the case. Taijiquan has fist techniques. If the finger position used in a particular palm position is inherently “song” and correct, the fingers in the fist positions cannot be, since they are more or less in an opposite formation. How to reconcile this? Are fists merely exceptions to the rule of being “song”? I think the solution to the puzzle is in clearly distinguishing between focusing on assuming positions from the feelings to be cultivated by or while assuming positions.
Early in my study of Taijiquan, I read much about leaving the fist in a “relaxed” position, which I understood to mean “using minimal muscular activity.” This always bothered me, because in most hard styles, we are told that having any “give” in the fingers forming a fist makes them vulnerable to being broken on impact. The whole point of making a fist in these styles is to have the fingers as tightly clenched as possible, leaving no hollows to weaken the structure. When I encountered the Yangs teachings, I understood the fist was to be “not too loose and not too tight,” held together with some strength, but still “lively” and not stiff. I found this quite hard to understand.
Using the logic I apply above to the palm, I propose that in the case of a fist, one is supposed to focus on the contrast between the expansive qualities of the tendons on the backs of the fingers with one’s efforts to curl the fingers using the inner tendons. As long as the dynamic tension between these is clearly felt, the fist will remain “lively” and naturally conform its shape to whatever use it is put to. Each joint of each finger needs to be felt and brought within the feeling of dynamic equilibrium. Contrast this feeling with either the slack fist or the stiff fist the Yangs tell us to avoid for their Taijiquan. As one’s fist encounters something hard, the impact forces are simply brought within the feeling of equilibrium. The feelings are continuous and always palpably in equilibrium.
If what I describe above seems to make any sense and you can give any credence to it, see if you accept expanding this view of “fangsong” (“loosening/relaxation”) to all the joints and associated tendons in the body. Rather than letting the muscles go slack, I am proposing that one should feel clearly the opposing forces working on the tendons and that the ratio of these forces is determined by how the mind intent (“yi”) wants to direct the energy (“jin”). In other words, one should feel a palpably dynamic equilibrium in each of the joints that changes with every movement and also with one’s intent. It does not matter whether you want a palm or a fist. Your joints are linked like the sections of a spider web, the ratio of forces in one joint cannot change without changing those of every other joint in the dynamic equilibrium.
To clearly feel the opposing forces, the joints should be near their limit of movement (i.e., extended); however, what the “limit of movement” is must be defined more by what posture or geometry the mind is trying to adopt than by what an anatomist would have to say about joint angles. For instance, the joints are collectively just as extended in the “withdraw” phase of the Push Posture as they are at the end. The only difference is that different lines of force are favored in different positions.
In Repulse Monkey, the outside front of the palm heel extends all of the tendons that link the various joints between it and the point of the rear elbow. In Turn the Body and Chop with Fist, one first feels a contrast between the right chopping fist as it pulls tendons forward and the left rear elbow as it stretches tendons backward. Then one feels the opposition between the palm heel of the left striking hand pulling tendons and sinews forward and the right rear elbow extending tendons and sinews backward. Every posture and every transition has its dynamic tension between right and left, up and down, front and back, clockwise and counterclockwise. The dynamic tension in any one joint is no greater and no less than the tension in any other joint, since the tendons and muscle fibers link the limbs into one web-like system.
Other oppositions or states of dynamic contrast are, of course, important for systems such as what the Yangs teach. One example is the contrast between the thrusting (“deng”) and propping (“cheng”) forces in the legs. Another contrast is hidden in the exhortation to “Loosen up the waist,” which can be seen as contrasting the clockwise and counterclockwise forces transmitted by the legs or the opponent to one’s spine. I see “Containing the chest and rounding out the back” and “Dropping the shoulders and suspending the elbows” basically as warnings to maintain the proper equilibrium in the arm, shoulder, and back muscles, rather than as focusing only on isolated limb positions. Consult the Twenty Character Motto elsewhere on this site for where I am deriving this view.
I propose that distinguishing substantial/full and insubstantial/empty really has less ultimately to do with shifting weight from one leg to the other than with clearly feeling the contrast between the pushing power in one leg and the supporting power in the other. The two together are what produce the leg movement important to Taijiquan. As another participant on this board once put to me, one contrasts which leg is emptying with which leg is filling. What empties from one leg goes to fill the other one. What fills one leg is taken from what is emptied by the other. Emptying becomes filling. Filling becomes emptying. The dynamic contrast matters, not really any absolute quality of either leg.
Going back to my original premise, let me explore an example of why I believe merely talking about opposites is not sufficient to describe Taiji practice.
Some martial arts have offense in their defense, by having blocking or deflecting techniques intended to damage or inflict pain upon an opponent’s striking limb. Despite the presence of offense and defense together, I do not see this as a state of taiji, since there is no dynamic contrast. In Taijiquan however, one uses the Eight Gates (the primary energy techniques contained in the hands) in ways that keep offense and defense in a state of dynamic tension. In the basic four hands Push Hands drill, each use of the four square energies (Press, Push, Roll Back, and Ward off) begins in a defensive way that starts down a path towards an offensive denouement. The offensive and defensive aspects are immediately present in each technique, but their prominence is in direct contrast to each other. For Taijiquan, offense in defense and defense in offense does not mean merely that the two happen simultaneously.
If you accept this view of dynamic contrast/equilibrium, I see other secondary implications. First, any principle consistent with this Taiji principle should be “scaleable,” i.e., just as true at the small level as at the big level, and generally present at both at the same time. In other words, Taijiquan should be “fractal.” If I can steal a description from the book Jurassic Park, I can give as an example of a fractal pattern the saw-tooth pattern formed by the grains of sand along the ridge of a pile of sand at the beach. This same pattern is recognizable on a large scale in the saw-tooth pattern formed by the ridge of a mountain range. Roll Back is not just the unitary movement that is done from the beginning to the end of the postural sequence of that name, but what is done within each inch of the sequence. “Understanding Energy” develops as one begins to feel these patterns in one’s opponent with less and less information.
Another implication of viewing Taijiquan as an exercise in playing with dynamic contrasts is that one can derive maximal physical benefit only by matching one’s practice to one’s physical abilities. Weightlifters advance their fitness at whatever age and at whatever level of fitness by lifting weights appropriate to their state of training. Copying the amount of weight someone else lifts almost guarantees training too hard or too lightly. How hard a particular muscle should be exercised is particular to that muscle and not particular to the age of the person or his or her natural ability.
How far one should sink in Needle at Sea Bottom or Push Down (Snake Creeks Down) or how high one should lift one’s leg in the kicks should be the same. Trying to meet some external standard, such as touching one’s fingers or bottom to the ground or kicking to shoulder height, means disturbing the equilibrium in the rest of the body, training some sub-optimal physical state, and training one’s mind to be comfortable with this as a goal. The Taijiquan of an 80-year old is just as nourishing and just as valid as that of a 20-year old. The only difference is that the 80-year old needs it more and has less room for error.
One last dynamic contrast or dynamic equilibrium I would like to propose is the one between “inner” and “outer.” We often discuss Taijiquan using shorthand references that imply Taijiquan is somehow unique among martial arts in containing a rich assortment of internal aspects. This can create annoyance in some who are aware that other arts have internal aspects and that the difference between external and internal arts is not really rigid or clearly defined. A more subtle problem with focusing too much on “internal” aspects of Taijiquan is that it leads to viewing “inner” and “outer,” yin and yang, as pure qualities (liang yi), rather than focusing on the dynamic contrast/equilibrium between the two (taiji).
Many practitioners have difficulty coordinating upper and lower. In a posture like Push, the legs and arms finish extending at different times. It is tempting to believe that mere repetition will smooth out this problem, but I do not believe this to be the case. One can monitor one’s posture and simply make sure to stop moving the arms and legs at the same time, but this is hardly natural or integrated movement.
I see the secret as lying in appropriately contrasting what needs to be done in the mind with what needs to be done in the body. If one squats down in a room and jumps up to try to touch the ceiling, no thought need be given to coordinating upper and lower. The fingers, arms, spine, and legs all straighten smoothly and simultaneously. This is not something one really needs to drill. The movement comes naturally.
In Push, the movement should come just as naturally, but often does not. Why? I believe the problem is that our minds often see Push as something that is defined by hand movement, rather than by the whole body. As we learn more Taijiquan, we try to add leg movement onto the hand movement, but our general conception of the movement does not change. We try to fit our leg movements into a pattern we see as defined by the placement of our hands. We tell ourselves we are using integrated whole-body movement, but really are not. We may even try to repeat the movement again and again to try to “memorize” the timing. I see the fault as lying in not seeing upper and lower, inner and outer as two contrasting aspects of the same thing. We see them as “liang yi” (yin and yang as pure opposite qualities) to be balanced, rather than as “taiji” (yin and yang as contrasting aspects of one thing) to be experienced.
Because I see “inner” and “outer” in dynamic contrast, I do not see manipulating qi with the mind as an important part of what the Yangs and similar teachers advocate. Manipulating qi with the mind deals only with training the “inner.” Too much mind can be just as bad as too little. I have the same opinion about training an “iron will” or cultivating “spirit.” Similarly, weight training and cardiovascular activities focus on the “outer.” At least in basic Taijiquan practice, all these things are trained together in dynamic equilibrium. Training them separately implies going down a different path. Again, whether such a path is useful, better, or worse than what I have described I leave for a different discussion.
I would welcome feedback on all or any part of this post. The simpler an idea is, the more words one can use to say even less about it. The more words used, the more certain they will contain errors and the potential for misinterpretation. I am sure that my views will continue to evolve and would appreciate course corrections earlier rather than later. If you agree with any of these ideas, please develop them further. If you disagree with them, please give a suggestion of your alternatives. I have dealt in depth with only a few of the yin-yang oppositions important to me and would appreciate it if others could describe those important to them.
Happy and fruitful practice,