By David F. Dolbear
The basic internal work of Northern Wu Taijiquan (NWTJQ) begins with the training of kaihe (opening and closing) in the deep core body cavities. The gradual development of correct postures and body attitudes coincides with this core training; in other words, correct postures emerge from the inside out. That is why it is futile to try to simply copy the appearance of the postures of an expert in this style of taijiquan.
The actual internal process has both yin (mental) and yang (physical) aspects. The mind wills the internal movement, and the physical body gradually learns to respond. Very specific training methods are used to develop these skills. Moreover, there is a logical progression in the training that allows one to improve developmentally. As each internal skill is mastered, complex associations among all the parts of the body are clarified.
Specific training methods are not given out casually. In the past as well as the present, a master might not reveal the “secrets” due to jealousy, or fear that a student might surpass him or her in skill. As a result, many styles of taijiquan have lost valuable training techniques when a master died. In my own experience learning from Chinese experts, information is given at the point when the student can benefit from it. When one has mastered a particular technique, one is then given a new skill to perfect and understand. If one does not receive sustained instruction from a given teacher over a long enough time, one will not be given the more advanced training techniques. Of course it is also true that some teachers simply do not have the information themselves. Some techniques need to be closely supervised by the teacher. In this way injuries or incorrect application of the methods can be avoided. This is important for developing a logical, sustained sequence of teaching/learning.
At first, some degree of force may be required to open and close the joints. This is acceptable for a period, since at least there is some movement in the joints. However some degree of caution and supervision is necessary so as not strain deep connective tissue causing injury. At this stage one is using outward li (force) to produce inner change.
After a long period of correct supervised training, one sees that complete opening and closing in the joints can only be gained through active relaxation, guided by one’s conscious intention. As one gradually learns to let go of residual tension in the muscles, the ligaments, tendons and fascia begin to stretch. If tension remains in the muscles, the potential for the connective tissue to stretch is limited. At high levels of skill, every change in movement is initiated by the relaxed elastic extension and contraction of the connective tissue (tanxing jing). At this level, the opening and closing is a purely internal process.
The first and most difficult joints to be addressed are the sacro-lumbar joint and the sacro-illiac joints on either side of the sacrum. In many people these joints may be functionally fused, showing very little movement. Limited range of motion in these joints can result in susceptibility to injury and stiffness. Movement of the lower extremities begins in the sacrum and pelvis. If these areas are capable of relatively big, relaxed movement, the legs and trunk can be trained to follow. If range of motion is limited, the legs and torso must be moved by forcefully engaging various muscle groups. This results in stiff, awkward movement. Think about how you could move your lower extremities when you were a child. Climbing trees was no problem because you could easily swing a leg up over a tree limb. Over time most of us stopped climbing trees and such. We gradually lost that flexibility in the sacrum and hips. This may be a result of too much time spent sitting in a chair. Also, most people spend almost all of their upright time walking or standing on level surfaces. The strength and flexibility of the muscles and joints are not consistently challenged.
Let me digress for a moment. When I first went to Beijing in 1989 to study NWTJQ with Liu Changjiang, I would practice in the early mornings at a park near Liu laoshi’s home. Every morning a man practiced his own unique Qigong there. He spent about an hour every morning climbing around in the trees like a monkey. He must have been 70 yrs old or so, but he was amazingly agile. His trunk, legs and hips were as limber as a 10 year old tree climber.
Voluntary internal manipulation of these joints is a requirement for developing the unique correct postures of NWTJQ. Many individuals have very limited voluntary control of these body areas. Most people don’t even know exactly where they are. This should have you diving for a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to see exactly what you look like in there. It’s obviously difficult (impossible?) to control a body part if you are guessing at its location.
The internal work of NWTJQ encourages you to find and gain voluntary control over these “hidden” areas of your body. The postures and transitional movements ceaselessly challenge and expand the range of movements in these joints. Over time, one can gain the skill of xu dong (empty movement). Here the relaxed changes in the body’s core allow one to use the mind to guide the movement of the limbs and torso with no overt force. This skill develops very gradually with correct supervised practice. The deep core openings are conducted incrementally through all of the body’s joints to the very ends of the extremities. Closing the core joints reverses the process, as closing is conducted back to the core. The active mind guides these changes without recourse to physical effort.
To better understand this idea, hang a towel over the end of a broomstick. Rotate the broomstick. The towel moves as the broomstick is turned. The towel represents your muscles. The broomstick is your skeleton, and your hand represents the deep core openings and closings in your body. Qi, guided by your intention to move your skeleton, moves the bones while the muscles relax and follow.
It must be noted that some versions of taijiquan being practiced today do very little to develop these areas of the body. In many cases, the postures have been simplified and made so easy that the joints are not challenged to any degree. NWTJQ recognizes the importance of developing and maintaining range of motion in these often neglected areas of the body. Obviously the training will be more difficult and perhaps more uncomfortable than with some other styles of taijiquan. The rewards, however, are many. Maintaining youthful control of your body for as long as you live is one reward for the effort expended. Or you could of course start climbing trees again.