Translated by Stephanie A.H. Divo, PhD
Edited and adapted by David F. Dolbear
Additional commentary (in italics) by David F. Dolbear
There are many summations of people’s experience regarding the effects of practicing taijiquan (longevity, health preservation, emotional stability, etc.) already available to the interested reader; therefore, this essay will not dwell on these aspects.
I believe that at this time the most pressing problems related to the perpetuation of taijiquan involve the means for teaching the art and the methods for explaining taijiquan theory; moreover, these problems also relate to people being taught.
In order to popularize and advance taijiquan, it is necessary to discover the reason for lack of success in the past, and then work out a solution to that problem.
I believe that the empirical rules and laws of the past which relate to the teaching of taijiquan are very valuable, and that they accord with human physiological characteristics. However, under the rather tougher standards of science they appear not very concrete. This is one of the reasons for the current problem.
Secondly, we must recognize the linguistic and cultural differences that exist between people; these differences impede the effective propagation of our art. Because Eastern and Western cultures differ, and their ways of thought differ as well, we must find a theoretical approach that is applicable to both.
That approach is to utilize universally accepted and understood scientific theory to study and discuss taijiquan. Only in this way will taijiquan devotees, both Chinese and non-Chinese, find benefit.
It must also be accepted that the way of thinking among the younger generation in China is also changing according to the changing of the times. The ancient, abstract Taoist teachings more often than not are distant from current taijiquan methods and are not a perfect fit. Therefore, it is necessary to have practical summary of the art that is more systematic and yet undistorted. Only in this way can we fulfill the needs of contemporary lines of thought. Otherwise over the course of time the more subtle aspects of the art will be abandoned, with the result that there will be many practitioners but few who understand it.
(Taijiquan is currently practiced by millions of people all around the world. During the time of its recorded use in actual martial combat (approximately 1600 – 1900), there were perhaps a few thousand people practicing it; few of them were really skilled in martial application. Today, In spite of the enormous increase in the number of people practicing the art, there are probably even fewer who really understand its essential principles and can employ taijiquan as a martial art using those principles.)
Taijiquan is a martial art with a relatively strong scientific nature. It possesses a complete theoretical basis and moreover possesses appropriate standard theoretical guidelines associated with different stages and levels in the training process.
Historical experience has proven that, from the stand point of athletic performance, taijiquan combines scientific principles with artistic merit. Grounded in the philosophical concept of the unity of opposites, the art also encompasses the varied fields of mechanics, medicine, psychology, physiology, and aesthetics, among others. Through painstaking practice one can fully experience and feel inside and outside one’s own body a life energy and artistic conception (yi jing) beyond that of the average person.
In researching the mystery of this art China’s scientists have from early on harbored varying levels of esteem for taijiquan and moreover have achieved varying results in their research. As a result, the relationship between the mind and the body in taijiquan has not been clearly defined. It is possible that the field of bionics, leaning towards the study of artificial intelligence, may yield some answers. The study of how thought can affect physiological function properly falls within the realm of medicine and longevity research (kang shuailiao yanjiu). China’s internal arts (neigong shu) of which taijiquan is a branch point towards the deepening of understanding of human physiological science. These arts must in the future become an accepted new and developing field of study. The focus of this field of study will be the influence of spirit/intelligence (ling xue) on human physiology in general and longevity in particular.
What is “taiji”? Why do we call it “taijiquan”?
In order to understand the depths of taijiquan one must first comprehend the principle of “great ultimate” (taiji).
The ancient Chinese view of the universe as a “great ultimate” (taiji) actually refers to the balance and tranquil state of the heavens (tai kong, i.e., the firmament, outer space). One characteristic of taijiquan is its requirement that “in movement there is nothing that does not move”. Taijiquan theory also holds the view of the human body as a universe in miniature. Clearly the purpose is to emphasize in practice the grasp of the body’s interconnected, coordinated revolving movement (yuanzhuan) and to call this interwoven, unending revolving pattern “taiji”.
The important principles of taijiquan practice include an interlocking reaction (liansuo fanying) resembling the mutual revolving motion of the heavens. In practice it is only after experiencing this characteristic in one’s own body with certainty that one can be said to have basically grasped the correct way to practice taijiquan. The coordinated and mutually gravitational circular revolving movement of the whole body resembles the balance and tranquil movements of the universe, and therefore this type of martial art is called taijiquan (“great ultimate boxing”).
(The internal feeling of interlocked rotational movement in all parts of the body is far more concrete than simply imagining the phenomenon internally. Through the application of specific practice methods the circularity can be felt quite clearly. It is this mutual internal rotation which gives rise to the coordinated circularity the casual observer sees in the external movements of a skilled practitioner.)
Athletics and longevity: The advantages of practicing taijiquan
From the standpoint of the stability of human physiology and organic function, it is necessary to preserve the balance of myriad physiological variables (bianliang). Life itself depends on this balance. For example, hormonal secretion, ph levels, blood sugar levels and omega 3 fatty acid levels all relate directly to the existence or destruction of life. In order to preserve the functional stability and metabolic normality of every tissue and organ one must unceasingly eliminate all inner and outer interferences that create imbalance. The innate mechanisms that eliminate such interferences have their origins in one’s own body.
Taijiquan’s training principles, including the aspects of thought and intention, movements and postures, and the required state of mind all demand careful observation and experience in order for one to come to an understanding of the preservation of organic balance. The essentials of taijiquan’s principles and rules are in accord with the theoretical bases of Chinese medical concepts of yin/yang balance, meridian theory and diagnosis and treatment of illness based on an overall analysis of a patient’s condition. (bianzheng shi zhi). Taijiquan practice possesses characteristically agile (qingling), relaxed and supple (songrou), even (junyun), round and lively (yuanhuo) and stable (chenwen) circular movements. The seamless application of conscious intention (yinian) in every movement and position controls the systematic relaxation of the muscle groups in each part of the body. The more attention is paid to the correct practice requirements the greater will be the health-promoting and longevity effects. Especially in the case of common age-related conditions and those engaged in strenuous mental work the benefits can be most profound.
At present every nation in the world is enthusiastically researching geriatrics, and we believe that China’s taijiquan and other types of internal arts provide concrete measures for putting geriatrics theory into practice. According to our research we believe that taijiquan’s principles are in complete accord with the characteristics of human physiology. For example, the voluntary nature of skeletal muscles, the resistance activity of these muscles, as well as the taijiquan requirement of preserving the muscles’ natural flexion, extension and elasticity all coincide with human physiological instinct. If one can grasp accurately the essential rules of practice, not only will one’s skill will be enhanced, but one can also gradually experience and observe that this art has an inner content lacking in most athletic practices.
(In a normal state the body demonstrates an innate balance between flexion and relaxation in the muscle groups. This balanced state allows the body to respond in the most efficient manner to external stimuli. If the resting state of the muscles is too tense, the muscle must relax in order for the whole body to respond to stimulus; response will be stiff and awkward. Conversely, if muscles are too lax, they fatigue quickly, are subject to overstretching and their response will be sluggish and inefficient. Through long practice of taijiquan, conscious thought combined with deep internal feeling is used to selectively control the degree of flexion, extension and elasticity in all of the body’s voluntary muscle groups. The long term result of this kind of practice is to eliminate all internal obstructions allowing the body to modulate and balance the innate muscle resistance. When one is practicing correctly, all of the body’s voluntary “core” muscles are trained in this manner as well as the larger primary muscles. This is one reason why taijiquan is called an “internal” art.)
Intense athletic exercise is mostly over-strenuous and for older people can too easily lead to injury and internal depletion. On the other hand, the practice of internal arts like taijiquan uses only a moderate amount of physical strength. Through the practice of taijiquan one may mobilize one’s intrinsic energy (qi) and clear the meridians with one’s mind. This type of adjustment and control, using a combination of relaxation, circular movement and stillness in motion, allows nutrition to be channeled to each and every internal tissue. In this way, one may preserve and enhance one’s organic vitality. During practice the slow and ceaseless flexion and extension of all of the muscle groups strengthens the sublimation of the internal functional state of all of the body’s tissues, achieving the eradication of illness and resistance to aging.
(The internal mental and physical stillness required of taijiquan practice balances the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system components. This balanced, tranquil state calms the emotions and allows the body to “listen” to each tissue’s needs and to fill those needs appropriately.)
Taijiquan is a circular exercise involving relaxation and still motion. It combines the internal arts of daoyin (“leading and stretching”) and tu na (breathing exercises) into a perfect method of “moving meditation”. In training and practice one aims to grasp the systematic relaxation that employs thought to control all muscle groups in the body and gradually combine this with breathing. After a long period of practice one will be able to experience with certainty the spontaneous revolving movement that permeates the upper and lower body and unites the internal and external. This has the effect of promoting the body’s innate ability to balance and preserve its proper physiological state. The principles behind this are at one with the traditional Chinese medical philosophy that “imbalance leads to illness”.
The above aspects of taijiquan describe in simple form a few of the author’s views on promoting and studying taijiquan. More concrete and detailed information can only be imparted on an individual basis in the training process.