I had already dabbled in Japanese martial arts. Taiji was like a breath of fresh air, I found it both fascinating and fulfilling. It also reflected more accurately my growing interest in Buddhism and Daoism and their expression in Chinese art and culture. After several years he returned to Malaysia. I visited him there and learned and saw aspects of Taiji I had not seen in the UK.
I also saw Thai and Malaysian martial arts whilst in Southeast Asia. This had a significant impact upon my personal development and my inclination towards Qi Gong as a therapeutic and spiritual path.
Eternal Spring: Taijiquan, Qi Gong, and the Cultivation of Health, Happiness and Longevity
It also inspired me to seek out a high level teacher in China. Michael Acton's painting of one of the great teachers of Buddhism, Shnatarakshita, displayed in the Namgyal Temple in Dharamsala. Master Li was a life long practitioner of Chinese martial arts and was a highly respected Taiji master and Qi Gong doctor. It was my good fortune to meet him and I considered myself lucky when he invited me to study with him.
I studied the weapons and martial strategies and learned the rare Kuai Quan Fast form — said to be the original hand form. For centuries, Eternal Spring Qi Gong, which sprung originally from Taoist temples, was known only to a select few, being handed down from master to only three disciples and so on as was the tradition of ancient times. He wanted to contribute and share the precious legacy of the method to the world for the health and happiness of all people.
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In addition, Taijiquan is considered to be one of the internal schools of boxing. The practitioner must undergo a strict re-education in body mechanics, movement, Energy awareness and cultivation, as well as the technical training of a martial vocabulary that is found in the various forms. This is all before embarking upon two-man sets designed to develop the characteristic martial qualities that define Taijiquan.
This early building of the right Taiji body, mind and martial power Jin is really important, and without this achievement the later stages will not yield the best results.
It is also said that they have greater durability and longevity when they have been achieved, and in fact bestow good health and a renewed vitality in spite of age. It is also said that the external styles which rely on strength, speed and martial applications cannot be maintained into older age and at some point, unless they become internalised, ability and health may be lost or compromised.
Taiji is also considered a profound health practice because many of its most famous practitioners maintained their good health well into old age, living much longer than the life expectancy of their time. In Chinese culture this would be attributed directly to the regular, skilled practice of Taijiquan. Its reputation for good health, balance, mental clarity and robust strength and vigour into old age is without equal.
It is always interesting when teaching standing and walking step in Qi Gong, and especially Taiji, how difficult many people find it. This does not mean that they had it so wrong in the first place, since they evidently have the mobility to function adequately in the world, but bringing it within the sphere of awareness and bringing it under scrutiny changes significantly the sense of our mobility, co-ordination and balance. It also casts a revealing light on our posture and functional and co-ordinative skills.
When we begin to question our habitual mode of walking we are undertaking in our adult life an investigation of something we probably all feel we left behind in our childhood: upright mobility and learning to stand and walk. Qi Gong and Taijiquan training requires us to become particularly aware of our movement and posture and how we hold and balance ourselves. Qi Gong and Taijiquan all should start with an investigation into our standing and walking skills, since there is generally, by the time we have reached adulthood, much that needs to be addressed in bringing both standing and walking into conformity with Qi Gong and Taiji principles.
It is a conformity that has evolved to give us optimum health, comfort and happiness. Standing is a chance to consider some of the alignment principles that we have mentioned in Chapter 10, and walking is a chance to apply those principles to movement and balance. Cultivating an awareness of postural alignment is less about forcing the body into a newly adjusted shape and more about building relationships between previously disparate parts and slowly increasing awareness of both external physical and internal energetic components, as well as really beginning to feel the force of gravity and how it acts upon us.
Many people who come to Qi Gong have health issues and some of those health issues are exacerbated, or indeed caused, by postural and mobility problems. So in learning the postural principles of Qi Gong and Taijiquan, you must be careful and progress slowly, lest you exchange one problem for another.
Forcing new body shapes can be damaging. Postural alignment must be both explained and demonstrated. Manipulating the student is also beneficial, but more important perhaps is the time spent on guided standing and walking practice. This establishes over time a clear idea of what exactly needs to be remembered and adjusted and allows for the experience of simple practice to lay sound foundations of awareness of alignment, co-ordination and balance.
When the mind is able to hold the idea of a connected shape, then the shape arrives, albeit slowly. Generally practice should begin with standing, and stepping first without, and then with, arm movements. Both Qi Gong and Taijiquan use both forward and backward stepping. Backward stepping can present new and sometimes novel sensations that bring us directly into an awareness of our sense of stability and the relationship between our front and back.
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Revisiting our standing and walking skills serves the purpose of addressing posture and co-ordination, and gives us an important opportunity to begin work on understanding stability and balance in motion. Qi Gong and Taijiquan aim to create an efficient and highly developed awareness of weight distribution and relaxed movement, driven less by excessive and often over-compensatory muscle tension, and more by ground force and smooth mechanical efficiency.
Developing these skills is fundamental and comes first. Fundamental to this idea of efficient functional mobility is developing relaxed, smooth and integrated movement and an increased ability to focus the mind on maintaining correct physical structure. Practice requires regulating the integrated relationship of the external physical components and the internal energetic components. The main way of establishing the external co-ordinative skills is to maintain a sense of connection between the shoulder and opposite hip, elbow and opposite knee, and hand and opposite foot.
In addition the vertical connection between the base of the torso and the top of the head must be asserted. Building this awareness creates a sense of integration in forward and backward as well as rotational movement. If you joined up these points diagramatically with elastic lines and moved about, you would see how the external elements of the body should be connected to retain a sense of cohesion in movement. In addition, you will very quickly see how, if you overextend or over-rotate shoulders and hips, you will lose that relationship, and hence lose your integration and possibly your sense of balance.
The internal energetic components are much more complicated and are often neglected, since they take some time to develop. They begin with the mind, or mental idea Yi Nian and the intention to create coherent posture and movement. The mind intention leads the Energy Qi to form the shapes and smooth and integrated movement. Constant practice refines movement and the elastic strength Jin that evolves from correct Qi Gong and Taijiquan practice. That relationship is described as mind intention Yi mobilising Energy Qi which supports the internal force Jin.
Qi Gong and Taiji training must therefore deal with establishing these connections. It is obvious that the external connections are the best place to begin, and this can be done with standing and walking practice. More advanced walking practice in Taijiquan will incorporate martial movements taken from the slow form and repeated in forward and backward stepping, as well as more complex step routines. The primary purpose is to establish the connections and to cultivate the quality of Energy required to fulfil the movement, and eventually the right amount of power and stretch to achieve the fluidity.
The vocabulary of movement must become so habitual that it totally replaces previous habitual modes of standing and moving. Proper alignment must build an awareness of the downward gravitational force and the return ground force so that the vertical axis facilitates the distribution of weight efficiently downwards while allowing the efficient return of the ground force up.
From this energetic experience we understand all our mobility and functionality. It is the context of our awareness. In turn the sense of the return upward force generated from the ground must rise up comfortably without hindrance. Your physical structure must therefore be appropriately aligned so that the forces within and on the body can be distributed effectively. The skeleton should feel erect, as if pushed upwards in opposition to the ground, while the big muscle groups should feel as if they are sinking, pulled downwards by their own relaxed mass. The challenge is to refine the integrating link between the torso through the pelvis into the legs and the feet.
Simply standing allows us to cultivate an investigative inner awareness. It is an opportunity to simply stop, sense and cultivate our stillness and symmetry and feel the internal energetic climate and currents. We quickly realise that we can adjust this climate by simply standing, sensing and dissolving habitual tension. If we observe ourselves internally, systematically moving through our bodies Fang Song Gong , relaxing the muscles and the joints and noticing areas of stress and tension, not only can we change our physical self but we begin to feel layered aspects of our very being and realise that we can change the inner climate for the better.
Simply standing allows the undistracted awareness of our sense of being in space. Basic standing is used for much fixed-step Qi Gong practice and is the beginning and end posture of all Taijiquan forms.
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Its natural simplicity also allows the opportunity to develop the directing mental intention that is required in much Qi Gong. Generally standing may be accompanied by the hands laid on top of each other over the external location of the internal Lower Dan Tian. Mental focus here combined with standing engenders a naturally relaxed and attentive feeling and awareness of Energy at our centre.
It also puts us directly into contact with our three primary axial centres — Lower, Middle and Upper Dan Tian. Because walking is more complicated and requires more physical exertion, it must be introduced slowly. Generally, stepping skills should be developed first, followed by hand—arm co-ordinated movement.
Stepping or walking step practice in Taiji brings about integration of movement. It encourages a new awareness of our lower body mobilty and the pelvic link to the spine. It allows us to work on retaining relaxed alignment and horizontal stability when stepping forward and backwards. When hand movements are added it is the beginning of building the connection and integration of upper and lower.
Body alignment must therefore be in place, since otherwise most people find that they are trying to regulate too many elements.
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In addition when the hands are introduced, typically extending one out and withdrawing the other, with simultaneous advancing and retreating leg movements, we soon discover that waist rotation is also required.