Taijiquan Main Features & Basic Rules
A. The Main Features
1. Mildness and Gentleness The basic stance is steady and unrestrained, and the movements should be smooth and gentle. Without strenuous punches and vigorous leaps.
2. Continuity and Evenness From beginning to end, all the movements, including shifting of the weight and moving from one posture to another, are closely linked in an endless chain without a break They follow one another at an even and unhurried pace like floating clouds or a smooth running stream.
3. Natural and Circular Movement The style of Taijiquan distinguishes itself from others by it’s unique circular movements of the upper limbs, avoiding direct and straight impact, which is in conformity with the natural curvature of bodily joints. The exercise helps shape one’s movement into gentle curves with a natural grace.
4. Concord and Consistency Through the exercise with every single movement or position, the practitioner’s upper half and lower half, “Inner Self” (attention and breath) and “Outer Self” (the torso and limbs) must be at one. There must be perfect coordination of the whole body, with the waist as the main axis. Even the feet and hands have to follow the body without discord.
Such are the main features and requirements of Taijiquan.
1. The Mind Directs All The Movements
Except for the reflexes, all human action must be directed by the mind. Likewise, in practicing Taijiquan, the mind (particularly its power of imagery) is dominant, directing the practitioner’s attention completely to his action throughout the entire process. As in pushing out, he must see the image in his mind before he pushes out his hands.
For instance, at the “Opening form” when both arms are gently raised, the practitioner must first picture the action before he actually does so. When he intends to hold down his “qi”(breath or center of attention) there must have a vision of something going down to the depths of his abdomen. As the stream of his consciousness runs on, so do his actions, threaded as if it were on a string.
In fact from “Opening Form” till “Closing Form” all actions are directed by the mind, or rather, mental images. As the saying goes, ”The mind is the master, the body its servant” or “The body follows the mind”
Therefore the following must be observed
From the beginning, the practitioner must be perfectly calm, with nothing on his mind, except making sure his head is erect, the body and arms relaxed and his breathing smooth. He is not to start unless he is sure of all of these. This is most essential before practice begins. And the serenity of mind must last throughout the whole exercise, whether the action is simple or complicated, the stance high or low.
Only in this way can his mind be fully concentrated and guide every minute detail of his action, other wise he is bound to be in a mess or flurry. Taijiquan requires “calmness through action” and “action under calmness”. Thus there will be no excessive mental strain or fatigue in practice.
B. Full Concentration
Apart from being calm, the practitioner must direct his attention to his actions and see that every movement conforms to the basic rules throughout the exercise. He must never allow his eyes or mind to wander during practice. However, beginners often neglect this rule of “Concentration”.
This can be overcome through practice, which will make the actions follow the mind naturally, and when the two are in perfect harmony, strength will grow.
2. Relax; No Hard Force
“Relax” here does not mean complete slackness, but a loosening of certain muscles and easing off certain joints and movement without using hard, inflexible strength. The correct stance is to hold the spine naturally erect, so that the head, body and limbs can all move with ease. Do not lean forward, backward or side-ways; just maintain a correct steady posture with what is called “well regulated strength” or “internal force”. When your arms are to be rounded, keep them fully rounded; when your arm is to be bent, bend it as required and with the right amount of strength while all the other muscles are relaxed.
Beginners will naturally find it difficult to keep within the limits.
They should however, first learn to relax with all the joints unhampered by strain so as to keep their muscles flexible. From “relaxation” they will gradually learn to master strength, and keep moving continuously with fluidity and perfect harmony.
3. Coordinate Upper and Lower Half To Achieve Harmony
Taijiquan is an overall physical training. It is often so described:
“A single movement sets the whole body in motion” and “Action goes from foot to leg and then to body in complete harmony”. This illustrates the meaning of the word “Coordination”.
Theoretically, beginners may know well that the lumbar spine is the axis of most motions and that the limbs should follow the movement of the body, yet owing to discord between mind and body, it is often difficult for them to achieve complete coordination or harmony in action. Therefore, it is better to start with practice of separate “forms”, such as, the “Opening Form”, “Wave Hands Like Moving Clouds” etc. in order to coordinate body and limbs. They should also practice certain steps in footwork, such as, the “hollow step”, ”bow step”, and shifting of weight and footsteps to strengthen the supporting lower limbs and master the rudiments of footwork.
Then they can go on to combine the two into one through the whole series and gradually master the art of coordination so as to give their body a thorough training and a balanced development.
4. “Master Hollow and Solid Transformation To Keep Balance”
On learning the basic movements and coordination, the learner should direct his attention to the “hollow-solid” transformation and shifting of the weight center, which go through every movement and step of the exercise. He should also pay attention to the movement of his body and hands, turing them from hollow to solid or vice versa, in definite contrast and without pause, so that his stream of consciousness flows on in spite of variation in movement from beginning to end. If he fails to master the subtle transformation, his footwork will surely flounder, causing sluggish movement or instability. The saying “The gait of a cat, the strength of a silkworm” aptly describes the deftness in footwork and evenness of strength in movement of Taijiquan. The key to it is precision in “hollow-solid” transformation, which keeps body and limbs well balanced in motion.
However complex the movement may be, the learner should first of all keep himself unhurried and unstrained, which is the fundamental requirement of Taijiquan called “central gravity”. Before turning always keep the balance first; while moving ahead or back always set the lifted foot on ground before shifting weight gradually. Meanwhile the lowered, relaxed waist and hips as well as the “hollow-solid” movement of hands all add to stability.
Thus trained through constant practice, the learner will never lose his balance whether he moves swiftly or slowly.
5. Breathe Naturally
Taijiquan requires that the practitioner’s breath to be natural, free from panting. Beginners should breather as they normally do, without trying to adjust their breath to the movement of the exercise. When they get more skilled, they can adjust it merely by their own awareness of the pace and stretch of their own movements.
Three Stages for Practice
A. Stage One
In Stage One, the training items are the basic forms (at completion) and
Movements (in transition) i.e., master the rudiments: the steps, the footwork, leg
movements, body positions, forms of hands, hand movements and direction of
eyes. All these must be correct, steady, gentle and preformed with ease.
B. Stage Two
The focus of attention in this stage is on the transition from one movement to
another and the basic rules until the movements are well connected and
coordinated, curved and flexible, and cultivated with a natural grace.
C. Stage Three
It is said that practicing Taijiquan is a process of acquisition “from skill to appreciation”. “Appreciation” here means insights into movements and mastering strength.
In the past, indeed, there were interpretations of Taijiquan that tended to mystify rather than clarify the meaning of its movements and training process. Following are targets for training in the final stage, and perhaps, a few words of explanation are necessary:
1. “Hollow-Solid” Well Defined; Hardness and Softness Intermingled
Every Taijiquan movement embodies a process of unification of opposites.
Often one leg or hand “hollow”, the other “solid”, and the roles are interchanged. At the end of a movement the joints and muscles should be left flexible for action, and this is called “solidity in hollowness, hollowness in solidity”. This means that exertion should be kept within limit.
Although it is aimed at the main target, minor (other possible) targets are not overlooked, and there is hardness in softness of movement and softness in hardness to avoid either stiffness or flaccidity. Every movement at any moment contains mutually accommodating opposing forces, and proceeds through their contention and mutual cooperation.
2. Continuity and Unity of Strength
Here continuity and unity mean that strength must run on, shifting from one part of the body to another without any break, while the whole body, with the waist as the pivot, is well coordinated in movement.
The greatest variety on movement lies in the arms, which fully demonstrate the incessant flow of strength.
For instance, when the arm moves out or in, the forearm would turn slightly outward on in with the attention on the middle finger or thumb. This allows variation to occur with fluid, continued and unified strength.
3. Concentration and Presence of Mind over Action
Beginners’ minds are mostly occupied by “ What comes next in action?” or “Am I doing it right?” As they get on, they will turn their attention to the application or transmission of strength, guiding it conscientiously with their minds, which are alive with imagination. However they should note:
a) Full concentration does not mean dull and pointless mental strain.
b) Practice should be an enjoyable experience.
c) The mind, strength and movement are one, and in that order.
4. Breathing Naturally Adjusted to Movement
It is to be applied only where there is up and down or open and close are apparent. One should not make an arbitrary “Inhale-Exhale Program”
and work on it throughout the whole exercise, as this will do more harm than good.