The Quintessence of Wu (Hao) Style Tai Chi*
By LIU JISHUN
Wu (Hao) style tai chi has a set of strict requirements regarding its practice. From the external to the internal, each requirement is clearly stated.
The first stage is the practice of external forms starting from the basics. This stage can be further classified into two phases:
- The movement of the posture, and
- The torso methods (shenfa)
In tai chi, it is considered that knowing the movements of the form indicates the knowledge of the fists, while knowing and understanding the torso methods is Taiji. With these two combined, then it is called tai chi.
The second stage is the practice of internal structure, also called the internal energy (neijin), that is the practice of magnificent posture (qishi). The internal energy appears internally and not externally. It also indicates the opening and closing of the mind and qi. This second stage can be further classified into three phases:
- Separation of the mind and qi; internally there is a feeling of separation between the muscles and the bones.
- Distinguishing between the mind and qi, that is using the working movements of the separated muscles and bones, to sense the magnitude of the magnificent posture – big or small, long or short, thin or thick, etc. Where the mind reaches, the qi reaches and the energy (jin) reaches. Moving as if not moving; to have then it exist, not to have then it is non-existence; suddenly appears and disappears, this must be clearly distinguished in each and every movement, and finally,
- the agility in separating the mind and qi, that is the whole body is united as a whole, where the body will automatically follow the mind.
Stage 1: External Posture (waixing)
Phase 1: Movements of the posture, from Commencing Form to the Closing Form there are 96 postures.
1. The hand posture, from the shoulder to the fingers.
Loosening the shoulders: the shoulders must be downwardly loosened. In every movement the shoulders must be naturally loosen. Avoid lifting the shoulders.
Dropping of elbows: the elbows must point downwards. When raising the hand, bend the elbows. When withdrawing the elbows, do not withdraw the elbows until they are behind the body.
Sitting of the wrist: the wrist must not be flat and bend inwardly. The tai chi form does not contain any hook-hand movements.
Straightening the palm: the palm must be upwardly straightened and hollow at the center of the palm. Avoid flattening the palm.
The fingers: the five fingers are comfortably stretched open. Avoid straightening the fingers, the fingertips are slightly pointed upwards. Both hands must not cross the middle border, each hand protects half the body.
2. The body posture, in accordance with the principles of starting, connecting, opening, and closing.
“Starting” – The shoulders align with the hips, that is, forming the body posture into the four major directions.
“Connecting” – Stepping forward corresponds with raising the hands. For example, the left leg and the left hand are in front, then the left hip and the left shoulder must be in front, corresponding with each other, the body is slightly sideways, that is forming the body posture into the four sideways (four corners).
“Opening” – similar to the “connecting” formula mentioned above.
“Closing” – The back leg moves to the front, the hand at the back moves to the front and close (i.e., bring the two hands together), the body turns from sideways to the front and the shoulders align with the hips, forming the body posture into four major directions.
3. The footwork, in accordance with the movements o starting, connecting, opening and closing and transform them into substantiality and insubstantiality.
“Starting” – Bend the knee and half-squatting down of the substantial leg, lift the heel and move the insubstantial leg beside the substantial leg.
“Connecting – Stepping forward of the insubstantial leg. Move the insubstantial leg forward forty five degrees, the heel lightly landing on the ground and the sole slightly raised, the knee is slightly bent.
“Opening” – Push forward with the substantial leg, maintain the knee in a slightly bent position (i.e., d o not straighten the insubstantial leg), shift the center of gravity forward and form a bow stance with the insubstantial leg. The landing o the whole insubstantial leg on the ground to form a bow stance must follow the forward shifting of the center of gravity. Imagine the knee is directed upwards.
“Closing” – Moving the back leg and place it beside the front leg. Lift the heel first with the toes touching the ground. When changing direction, pivot whit the heel of the insubstantial leg, the center of gravity still remains in the substantial leg.
3. The spirit of the eyes.
When “starting” and “closing,” the eyes look forward. When “connecting” and “closing,” look to the left when stepping out with the left leg, likewise look to the right when stepping out with the right leg. The eyes must look straight ahead.
4. The head
Keep the head upright. Avoid tilting the head. The neck must be naturally relaxed. Tucking the chin slightly inwards.
5. The waist
The waist must be straightened. Avoid collapsing or sinking the waist, and avoid leaning backwards.
6. The hips
The hips must be straightened. Avoid sloping/slanting the hips. When distinguishing between substantiality and insubstantiality, use the substantial hip to lift the insubstantial hip.
7. The knees
Avoid downward pressing of the knees. Imagine the knee is always directed upwards when squatting down, pushing forward or forming a horse stance.
Phase 2: The essentials of the torso methods
Holding in the chest, stretching the back, keeping the head upright (suspending the head top), suspending the crotch, loosening the shoulders, dropping of elbows, wrapping the crotch, and protecting the upper abdomen.
Keeping the body upright, distinguishing between substantiality and insubstantiality, sinking the qi down to the dantian, attentive spirit and martial spirit.
The eight torso methods and the five essential requirements are mainly concerned with the correctness of the internal adjustments. However for the beginner, the emphasis shall be on the external forms, and slowly grasp and understand the various aspects of tai chi step by step.
The eight torso methods and the five essential requirements cannot be put into practice all at once. The thirteen principles should be put into practice only ONE at a time. For example, when practicing tai chi, start with the principle of suspending the crotch, followed by keeping the head upright. This is to fulfill the requirement of coordination between the upper and lower parts of the body. Also this requirement is closely related with keeping the body upright and distinguishing between substantiality and insubstantiality.
At the next stage, the emphasis should be on holding in the chest and stretching the back. The key is to practice well the torso method of holding in the chest is the ability to loosen the shoulders. The next stage of practice is followed by dropping of elbows, protecting the upper abdomen and wrapping of crotch. If the eight torso methods are well practiced, then the ability to sink the qi down to the dantian can be expressed. All the symmetrical requirements of above and below, front and rear, left and right, substantiality and insubstantiality, takes time to practice. After persistent practice, all the principles will be balanced, coordinated, and integrated. And when these principles are fully implemented in each and every movement, what is expressed is Taiji.
In order to coordinate the upper and lower limbs with the trunk of the body, one should give emphasis on their interrelationships. Also, to master the skills of tai chi, one must pass through the so-called “storing” stage. “Storing” means to store up or save up, without causing the external forms and the torso methods to become desultory and uncoordinated. The key is the integration of the five bows. In Wu style tai chi, the upper and lower limbs and the trunk of the body are considered as the five bows:
- Two bows of the lower limbs with the legs and hips as the tips of the bow, the knees as the handle of the bow.
- Two bows of the upper limbs with the shoulders as the tips of the bow, the elbows as the handle of the bow.
- The bow at the trunk with the lowest vertebra and the lumbar vertebra (where the shoulders meet the spine as the tips of the bow, the waist as the handle of the bow.
The word “storing” means the interrelation between the handles of the five bows. In other words, always concentrate on keeping the elbows down, imagine the knees are always directed upwards, and combine them with the torso methods of loosening the shoulders, protecting the upper abdomen, etc. store the four handles of the above and below at the waist in order to form the body as a fully stretched bow. This fully stretched bow then uses the waist as the handle of the bow, the knees and the elbows as the tips of the bow. Thus the upper and lower limbs, and the trunk of the body must operate as a unit in order to complete the whole process of “storing” up of energy.
If the energy (jin) can be stored, it can also be released. This requirement must be fully understood in the first stage of practice. hence practitioners must concentrate on this.
Once the “storing” word is fully understood and practiced, then the movements will have the expression of coordinating between the upper and lower limbs. At this level, one can then practice the four character words as starting in the “withdraw-release secret formula” – “holding up,” “luring,” “loosening”, and “releasing.”
To “store” well requires a good execution of “luring.” The “luring” process must attract a big piece, that is, lure the opponent’s to the front, and store the energy.
If the energy can be stored, it can also be released. One must release the energy in a straight line. When releasing the energy, practice the “straight-energy release” first, followed by the practice of “horizontal energy release,” the so-called “one straight-two horizontal.”
Stage 2: Internal Posture (neixing)
Stage two involves the practice of internal posture, known as “internal energy.”
Internal posture indicates the internal movement. First it requires the cultivation of qi in order to have the energy change internally. This also illustrates the adjustment needed between the mind and qi, which is the key towards the magnificent postures of tai chi.
The first phase is the separation of the mind and the qi, namely the “opening” character.
Sink the qi downwards, and raise the spirit upwards. The qi follows the movements of the muscles and sink downwards while the spirit follows the skeletal system and rises upwards. When practicing tai chi, the feeling of separation between the muscles and the bones must be felt.
Sinking the qi downwards is closing, and so is inhaling.
Raising the spirit upwards is opening, and so is exhaling.
Within opening there is closing, within closing there is opening, within inhalation there is exhalation; within inhalation there is exhalation; these are all interdependent. This is in accordance with the practice guidelines of “The mind and qi server as the primary role, while the muscles and bones (i.e., body) is secondary,” which is the true essence of tai chi practice.
The second phase is distinguishing between the mind and qi, namely the “clear” character. The magnitude of the magnificent posture – big or small, long or short, thick or thin, etc. can be adjusted at will, and accomplish the skill of “action is born of non action” and “suddenly appears and disappears.”
At this level, the “threading” character must be added. That is all of the body’s joints are linked together, with the feeling of “directing the qi like treading a pearl with nine bends without hindrance.” And in push hands one can express the effect of “where the mind reaches, the qi reaches and the energy (jin) reaches.”
The third and final phase is the agility in separating of the mind and qi, namely the “agility” character. At this level, one can fully express the skill of “arousing the spirit of postures,” and the “flowing of qi within the body without hindrance,” with the body united as a whole.
According to the ultimate skill of tai chi, the expression of whole body as Taiji is always present regardless of whether practicing the form, pushing hands, rising, walking, sinking, sleeping, etc.
The above is just a brief introduction to Wu style tai chi and its guidelines for practice.
* Originally appeared in Tai Chi Masters On True Essence (in Chinese), pp. 176-180, Chinese Broadcast and TV Publisher, Beijing, China, 1992, ISBN 7-5043-2032-3/G.757. Translation by National Neigong Research Society.