PRINCIPLES of Form
The Art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan comes in many shapes and sizes. However in the West, there are five
main styles taught, These are, Yang, Chen, Wu, Hao and Sun. Each of these styles, traditionally
taught, individually, also come in many shapes and sizes. There are many reasons for this, but
probably the the main one is that the Art is taught orally, and of course each individual
Master/Teacher has his/her own personal understanding of the Art, which is in turn passed to
his/her students, who in turn continue this cycle. On the surface this may appear to be a cause for
concern. However this is certainly not the case, as each individual is unique, and so of course, it
follows that so to will be their understanding and T'ai Chi experience. This is change, driven and
caused by a set of unchanging PRINCIPLES. These PRINCIPLES are common to all styles of T'ai
Chi Ch'uan, and are the foundation of the Art.
The Principles are the hardest part to acquire when speaking of studying and practising T'ai Chi
Ch'uan. If it was simply a case of transmitting a few words to gain an insight as to what these
Principles are, then this Art would be learnt quickly and easily by almost all who wanted it. However,
this is certainly not the case, and the student must be prepared for a long and often arduous journey,
if they wish to comprehend the PRINCIPLES of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. This journey requires practice,
patience and perseverance. Traditionally progress was and still is measured in decades.
The first step is of course finding the style that you think would most suit you to begin learning.
Youtube is awash with literally 100's of videos, showing T'ai Chi forms from all of the styles
mentioned above. Make sure you know the differentiate between Modern and Traditional forms.
You have to make the decision which path you follow in this respect. As a beginner, it is highly
unlikely that you would know the difference. So speak to someone who does and make a decision
from there. Personally, I would always follow the Traditional way and teachings, as this was and is
the origin of the Art.
Step two requires finding a qualified teacher of your chosen style. A teacher that you are
prepared to put your trust in. Remember, many years will be spent with this teacher and there must
be no doubts in your mind regarding the teacher. If there are, all will be to no avail and failure is
Don't be afraid of getting in touch with local teachers and ask if you can come to a class. This gives
you the opportunity of meeting the teacher and seeing what is being taught. Please remember that
this is your journey and correct decisions at this stage are very important. The teacher should be
more than happy to answer any questions that you may have.
Step three is following the guidance of the teacher and practising what is being taught on a
regular dailly basis. It is imperative as a Westerner to thoroughly aquaint yourself, through reading,
with the historical and philosophical basis of what you are learning. It is also imperative that you
have an open mind, leaving all pre-conditioned thoughts and/or beliefs out of your new learning
experience. There are many excellent books available for this purpose and some of these are
"if you read for one hour, practice for ten"
Step four is coming to the realization that we aren't involved in some kind of mystical search, but
rather that we are getting to know ourselves a lot better through the study and practice of our chosen
system. There is a well repeated saying in T'ai Chi Ch'uan, "before you know others, you must
first know yourself". There is much to be gained from analysing this advice. We must first begin
the long journey of quietning the mind and relaxing the body. If the mind isn't quiet, the body won't
relax. It's as simple as that. Each system offers it's own route of progression towards these goals
and it is imperative to follow the instuction given to the letter at each stage of progression. Never
feel that you can add your own variation to the given instructions, as this will surely end in failure at
least and/or mental or physical damage at worst. The Art you have chosen to study has evolved
over a very long period of time and tinkering with it is definitely not recommended. One must
search for the li (principle) hidden within the shape and form of each posture (and transition). My
teacher repeatedly mentioned the "three P's" Practice, Patience and Perseverance.
Set time aside for daily practice and study. Beginning student's should think in the terms of 15 - 30
minutes of practice daily. Imagine you had decided to learn to play the piano. You would be
expected to practice for 15 -30 mintes daily if progress was to be made. There is no difference in
learning T'ai Chi Ch'uan. 30 minutes of practice gives 30 minutes reward. Don't strive for
perfection. Your body and mind must be allowed to adapt naturally to the new daily regime. Your
teacher will give you corrections as you progress and at times these will be subtle, at other times
quite obvious. Paying attention to these corrections and actually putting them into practice, is the
best route to progress.
Becoming aware that T'ai Chi Ch'uan has a Civil side and a Martial side. Civil relates to internal
cultivation, (Chi-gung and meditation) Martial relates to external work, (forms, techniques, functional
use) When both of these have been mastered then one can say that they have progressed to a high
level of attainment. Remember it takes two hands to make a clapping sound. This is Yin and Yang
in action and the understanding of it can be found in the beginning posture on any form, from any
correctly taught traditional system.
Now the nitty gritties.
The classics inform us that "it's" rooted in the foot. So we may well ask, what's rooted in the foot. The answer lies in the correct practice. Correct practice is something that has to be worked on for a considerable amount of time. Some people never actually get there however, and there are many reasons why.
1) Many give up too early, thinking that they have found the answer after completing a form.
2) Many just simply don't have the will to practice.
3) Many don't listen to their teacher and go off 'doing their own thing'.
4) Many think that the next field is always greener, changing teachers and systems. To no avail at all.
5) Many think that the teacher is holding back his/her knowledge and so become disgruntled.
6) Many simply just don't have the intellectual and/or creative capacity to grasp the 'concept'.
So then, the list is long and these are only a few of the reasons why many people don't achieve the level of correct practice. However, we are really only interested in the people who do, as these are the people who become teachers and masters etc. They hold the key to your progess. This key is in the form of guidance and it is you alone, through committed and prolonged effort, who finds the answers to the questions at hand.
As mentioned earlier, there are numerous "principles". Each principle has to be found and understood, then put into practice. Even though the principle is found through practice, it isn't actually being correctly practiced until found. As the old saying goes, "no one said it was going to be easy". Never forget, you are attempting to learn an extremely subtle and profound art form, passed through many generations, by very competent and highly skilled masters of the art.
Western systems of education, social grooming etc, make it very difficult for the average Western student to shrug off the years of complete and utter garbage that has been passed to them, Cluttering minds and affecting every aspect of health. All of this has to eventually go, leading to an open and honest mind, when approaching the art. This can be very difficult, but obviously not impossible. Only you can control you. Another well used quote from the Classics puts it quite clearly, "before you know others, you must first know yourself". And this is the real beginning of the T'ai Chi Ch'uan journey, getting to know yourself.
There is in actual fact very little that can be written about finding the Principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. As one needs constant correction from someone who knows. However after having learnt a form and accompanied by the relevant Standing practice (Chi-gung), one can start to look and feel (again with the proper guidance). However as way of a clue to "it's rooted in the foot" one can begin to look for the straight line in the feet. Further than this, one needs a teacher and continual daily practice. This cannot be emphasied enough!
The Tai Chi Ten Essentials of Yang Cheng Fu
The list of tai chi ten essentials were transcribed by Chen Mei Ming c.1925
Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Form
1 The Energy at the Top of the Head Should Be Light and sensitive
2 Sink the Chest and Raise the Back
3 Relax the Waist
4 Distuinguish Full and Empty
5 Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows
6 Use the Mind not Strength
7 Unity of the Upper and Lower Body
8 The Unity of Internal & External
9 Continuity Without Interruption
10 Seek Stillness in Movement
The following Tai Chi Ten Essentials are a more detailed version in a different order, as taught in the Yang Family Tradition by Graham Horwood.
The Earth Element of Taoism is at the heart of the Ten Essentials for the Earth is the Central Equilibrium which is the womb and tomb of the other four phases of change from the Wu Hsing. This centring concept being the Mother principle of Tai Chi. Central Equilibrium centres the energy of the mind, body and soul. It acts as the template of correct body alignment for Tai Chi and chi kung as well as any discipline or sport because it augments the natural chi flow of the body. The following guidelines will centre the organism enhancing the conditions for self defence and health. Even beginners will be able to feel their own chi in minutes, by adopting these methods. It will, as well reinforce the chi of the more experienced.
1) One should never ‘double weight’ during the form, implying that 70% of the weight should always be on one foot or the other. Double weighting causes the chi to stagnate in the lower limbs effecting the distribution of chi throughout the whole body. The same principle applies to the body as any structure, the superior is only safe if the base is secure. Therefore 70 % of the weight of each foot must be positioned over the ‘Bubbling Well Point’, Yongquan, (K.1) with the other 30% left on the heel. This applies to both the ‘weighted’ yang and the accompanying yin foot. This relates to the yang foot of the front and back stances as well. With the exception of such postures as ‘Raise Hands’ where the yin foot is resting gently on the back edge of the heel. Whereas a back stance like ‘Crane Cools Its Wing’ has the yin foot with a 30% weight focus on the Yongquan, the remaining 70% on the Yongquan of the back foot. The ‘Bubbling Well Point’ is a where the Earth ‘chi’ enters and leaves the lower part of the body. This is the root of all the Tai Chi stances, if this part securely adheres to the Earth and intermixes with the chi of the Earth, it helps safeguard Central Equilibrium. The Tai Chi classics refer to this loss of adhesion as floating. It is not by coincidence that this point is the start of the Kidney channel which is the home of pre-birth chi and when K1.is stimulated, it will engender more chi, increasing stability. This 70/30 bias accords with natural law. For example there is 70% water (yin) to 30% land (yang) ratio on the planet Earth. Also the body is a mass of 70% yin to 30% yang, therefore a wholesome diet should contain a natural input of 70% yang foods to 30 % yin and so forth, preferably organic, of plant origin, in season and grown in a similar climate. ( refer to my forthcoming health book-www.taichi-horwood.com)
In order to maintain Central Equilibrium one has to keep the organism as a balanced energy sphere. This means that all yang parts of the body must be convex and all the yin aspects have to be concave. This spherical principle is a basic law of physics, so imagine the human condition to be like a sealed energy ball. However if one pierces a ball, the structure breaks down. This energy ball is maintained by chi flow which is best kept spherical by adopting these ‘family’ methods of Central Equilibrium. Energy can ‘leak’ at every major joint of the body, thus loosing its inner pneumatic quality.
The outer, convex part of a circle is yang and the inner concave aspect being yin. Take an inflated tyre the outer yang side is supported by the inner yin arc, thus holding its pneumatic qualities of support and comfort.. The same law of dynamics applies to chi, therefore a convex aspect will assist yang chi to flow in yang channels and a concave shape will encourage yin energy to run in yin channels.
The feet should arc and cup the ground with the outer topsides of the foot making a convex curve, with the soles (soft aspect) being concave, always ensuring that K.1. is rooted. Chi rises up the body naturally as we age. Therefore the higher the centre of gravity the nearer death. Consequently if chi rises prematurely it indicates an unhealthy condition. This is why the Tai Chi classics prescribe that one breaths with one’s feet, loosely meaning one must keep the centre of gravity in the middle of the body at the Tan Tien. The feet being yang and the head yin, figuratively keeping the human centred between the forces of heaven and earth.
2) Front stances are measured by the width of one’s own shoulders. Whereas a back stance aligns both feet within a parallel corridor structured on the inside by the heel of the weighted, yang, back foot and by the outer edge of the hip of the yin leg. The feet of a front stance should trace the circumference of an imagined Tai Chi yin/yang diagram, which encloses every stance. The diameter of this circle should be equal to the width of one’s own shoulders, (Fig.1) with the toes of each foot being slightly turned in.
The knee of the yang, weighted, leg must be over the toes of the yang foot and the knee of the yin leg must be aligned with the toes of the yin foot. Otherwise the chi will leak or block. The knees of the legs should be subtly flexed out with the toes gently pointing in creating an inner concave and outer convex to the shape of the legs. Problems with the lower limbs, where chi flow has been inhibited by accident or illness causes a yinnising of the legs, where the knees buckle in towards each other. This can be seen in multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and their like. Also if a person naturally has feet that turn in, it indicates a yang constitution whereas if the feet turn out, it shows the person to be more yin. This can even be seen in very young children even before they walk determining the type of constitution inherited from the parents before and during gestation.
3) The sacrum must be kept plumb. This means that the hips and the pelvis should be aligned in an horizontal plane, thus preventing displacement of the necessary vertical quality of the spine and the aural chi. Chi has many orbits in the body besides the meridians. There are also eddies of energy which flow in and around the organism. For example chi flows out of the top of the head by way of the Baihui (GV.20) creating an circular aura around and down to the feet.. This arc is reinforced and interacts with the horizontal flows which are mainly controlled by the alignment of the hips and shoulders. These energy fields can now be captured by Kirlian photography. Master Chu was unaware of Kirlian photos of the body but his alignment principles accord exactly with these now visible energy auras.
Drop the shoulders implies that the arms should hang loose, keeping the shoulders in a relaxed horizontal plane which ensures that these energy paths remain ordered as well retaining the hermetic quality of Tai Chi. The horizontal alignment of the hips and shoulders also help keep the spine vertical. The spine should also have a gentle convex bow shape, thus accentuating the three main gates of chi amplification on the Dumo. The first is the Ming Men which stimulates kidney chi (GV.4). The next is the Shenzu (GV.12) located between the shoulder blades assisting chi to be fed to the arms. Lastly the Jamen (GV.15) at the base of the hairline at the middle of the neck controlling the medulla oblongata and all its nerve and brain functions. The human Medulla Oblongata is the only one in any species on Earth to be directly over the spine and under the brain. The Tai Chi dictum ‘the head must be kept light and sensitive’ refers to the cranium summit point, the Baihui (GV.20), acting as though it was being pulled up vertically. This ethereal point is the bridge between the upward flow and the descending arc of chi in the microcosmic orbit, invigorating the centres of the brain. The Baihui is considered a point equated with Niewan or Nirvana, enlightenment. If the Yongquan is well rooted and the Baihui is light and sensitive the body will be in harmony with the chi of Heaven and Earth.
The tongue is curled up to lightly touch the roof of the mouth, linking the Dumo and Renmo channels. Here the tongue creates an outward facing curve (convex) to attract the chi to the inner (concave) aspect of the tongue in its descending phase. The chin is kept in and the chest concave, at point Shanzong (CV.17) on the sternum, if this point is painful when pressed, undue stress is being placed on the heart chi.
4) The arms must be relaxed and held in a circular fashion at all times. Depending on technique one being side convex and the other concave. Hence ‘seek the straight from the curve and the curve from the straight’. The elbows and shoulders must be kept low and loose, which keeps the chi centred at the Tan Tien. If the shoulders are raised the chi will float out of the body by way of the lung. This ‘negative chi’ posture causes a raised shoulder effect which can be seen in asthmatics and when people are frightened. Whilst pointing the elbows downwards one should hold them slightly away from the body to prevent any restriction of chi flow. If the elbows are directed towards the knees in this way, it protects the floating ribs.
5) The wrists, ankles, knees, elbows, hips and shoulders must be kept relaxed and rounded and never held at acute, chi blocking angles. These six joints are called the six thieves for when they are out of alignment the energy will leak out. Chi flows more readily around a circular frame. Always keeping the yang sides of the body and limbs convex and the yin aspect concave. The yin side of a person is determined by where the yin meridians are, being the front of the body, the inside of the arms and legs. Whereas the yang aspect of the limbs and body is where the yang chi runs, mainly on the outer surface of the arms and legs and back.
6) The spirit moves the chi that moves the body. ‘Thought chi’ follows the mind and as the mind intent becomes stronger, the conscious chi will become more powerful. The mind’s eye is always focussed at the Tan Tien thus creating a connected circuit form centre to periphery. This seemingly impossible task is started by simply visualising that the chi is circulating as outlined below in the chi kung. With practice, this inner ideation process of chi projection will pave the way to more involved patterns of chi circulation. After a while and relative effort as the thought chi becomes clearer, it will follow the intent of the mind more easily. One must remain ‘Sung’, which loosely translated means to keep relaxed while maintaining all of the controlling parameters of Tai Chi’s Central Equilibrium.
7) Yang Cheng Fu declares ‘Relax the waist’. The waist rules the body’. Here he means if the waist is rigidly held and not supple there will be no connection between upper and lower. I specified in,1, that if there is no root there is no real posture and the waist must act like the centre of a wheel being the central pivot thus being able to control the deflection of attacks and smoothly issue back power. Supple waist supple chi. This is accomplished firstly in a physical manner by ensuring all movements adopt ‘Chan Shu Jian, the silk cocoon reeling’ technique which screws the weight and chi into the rooted leg and out to the limbs simultaneously .
This process is then internalised by ideation where the chi does the ‘turning’ instead of the body thus making the outer twist invisible. The chi is directed outwards to the upper limbs and simultaneously down to K1. in two complimentary, spirallic actions, with the waist being the centre of each twist of chi.
8) ‘Use the mind not strength’ is where the nei kung or internal systems exploit the ability of the mind to move ‘thought chi’ chi around the body, consciously. This controls the nervous impulses which govern the muscles and tendon movement of the limbs, in a smooth and very efficient manner. In this way the body’s internal energy is harnessed more effectively because if rigid tension is used as in external forms of exercise the mother chi is depleted more quickly, as well as restricting the passage of chi in the channels. The wei kung systems like karate and kung fu train the body’s reactive nerve systems rather like a machine gun, firing out wasteful impulses through the motor and sensory nerve fibres. Although this type of movement has initial success it will eventually cause internal damage also slowing down nerve reaction and response time. This stressful type of strength damages liver chi, creating a viscous circle by impairing the chi of the muscles and tendons.
Therefore external disciplines are slower, more harmful, wasteful and need to rely on ‘tricks’ to arrive at moderate results. Chi, trained by nei kung, is like an electrical force field, utilising the meridians to focus the chi in a continuous stream of energy around body, reacting immediately at the command of the mind. This method can be used in healing by passing the chi along blocked channels of a patient or martially by disturbing the chi flow in an assailant. The power and result of the chi implanted is adjusted by mind intent. The more sophisticated one’s ability, the more possibilities one’s chi projection has. The first stage is to imagine that the chi is flowing out to the periphery on a yang breath and back to the Tan Tien on an in breath, this is explained in the ball breathing below. After a period of perseverance and careful reflection, one can replace the physical actions by the intent of thought chi, using the body as a vehicle for chi transportation.
The relative success of developing chi will depend on the amount and quality of pre birth chi available. The initial training of ‘thought chi’ is the debacle of the legendary ability of the adepts of Wudang and the Yang Clan to levitate, as well as being responsible for the many cited and unusual feats that these determined specialists were able to accomplish, perhaps exaggerated over time, but who knows. The Yang Family’s very private joke of duping the despotic Emperors and Courtiers of the Ching Dynasty for two centuries is certain and was only made possible by these hidden secrets of mind intent which is the way they retained their prowess and their necks in tact for so long.
9) ‘Continuity without interruption’ is a Tai Chi phrase poetically elucidated by Lao tzu, who wrote that the ocean is mightier than the river because it lies below. This natural system of distillation and supply is only made possible by the constant rhythm of Nature, which generates this classic example of the flowing, circular pattern of creation. The same is true of a human being, if one moves in a gentle relaxed, constant, controlled, spirallic and centred way, the chi will respond accordingly. The outer is a reflection of the inner and vice versa. This is one of the main reasons that the apparent empty, slow deliberate movements of Tai Chi Chuan can secrete under its popular visual image, a dynamic system of self defence and self-improvement.
10) ‘Seek stillness in movement’ is the opposite to the Chi Kung ideal of seeking movement in stillness. This is where the body is kept still, permitting one to activate the jing into chi, fuse it with the mind then circulate it around the body in chi kung or Tai Chi. This is counter balanced by maintaining an ’empty’ state whilst practicing Tai Chi. Here one has to incorporate the formula of chi kung and the tenets of Central Equilibrium in a total intrinsic blend. These principles will then become second nature arriving at the point of an innate, stillness in movement. Chi will only manifest itself when the organism is quiet and still, preparing the way for ‘Tung Chin’.