Natural Way T'ai Chi School

What is Ch'i?

The t'ai chi styles that are practised today have their earliest roots in ancient Chinese taoist ideas and medical theory. In the Chinese language each word or character is made up of one or more pictures that refer to the meaning. The early versions of the character ch'i are made up from two distinct segments; a pictogram showing "rising vapour" is positioned above the pictogram of "rice" or "millet". This was given the general meaning of "vapours arising from food". The usage of the character in later literature takes on a broader meaning. It includes ideas like "that which fills the body," "that which means life," "breath," and "vapours" in general, such as clouds in the sky, or even "wind."

Gradually, in Chinese medical texts, the word became useful to describe a very fine vapour, which was thought to float through the air and, together with blood, through living things. It is a substance that borders between two states. It is almost insubstantial and non-existent and yet is very close to becoming substantial and solid. It is not really accurate to think of it as energy although it is certainly true that when the ch'i is flowing well a person will have more energy.

Ch'i circulates around the body along well-defined pathways. It flows almost in the same way that water flows from a well or a spring to become a river on its way to the sea - some points are given this reference in their names. The pathways of the ch'i can be contacted at places where the ch'i is close to the surface where there are hollows or dips on the skin. These are the acupuncture points that can be used to influence the ch'i. Some points have importance for t'ai chi and ch'i kung and it is useful to know their location.

The Origins of T'ai Chi.

Fighting arts developed using an understanding of ch'i that permitted the creation of new forces that were different from those using external muscular force. These arts are called 'internal' because the forces they create come from an internal process. The history of t'ai and how it developed is unclear. It is generally agreed that modern t'ai chi began in the early nineteenth Century when records kept by the Chen family give an account of the Chen style t'ai chi.

Today Chen t'ai chi is recognised as the oldest style and other family forms of t'ai chi can be recognised as derived from, or at least, connected to it. However the most commonly taught t'ai chi style comes from the Yang family. A student of Yang Lu-ch'an called Wu Yu-hsiang developed Wu style. Wu t'ai chi includes influences from Chen style since Wu had also studied their methods and integrated them into his practice. Hou and Li styles were also formed during this period when influences crossed over from one style to another. In all styles Wu yu-hsiang's role in the theory and transmission of t'ai chi ch'uan in the 19th. Century was pivotal.

In more recent times some masters have devised new patterns of t'ai chi in simplified form. In China, under Chairman Mao, the Beijing style was derived which has 24 steps. Cheng Man-Ching adapted Yang's long form reducing it to 37 postures and taught it in the west. This has helped to popularise t'ai chi for those people who do not have time or sufficient strength to master the longer and more demanding forms.

Within t'ai chi there are different types of practice. To understand the principles you will need to study both the form and some pushing hands. To open the body and to learn to extend the ch'i, the sword form is good to know. To gain skill with martial techniques you will need a long period of patient study and practice pushing hands together with other t'ai chi partner forms. It should be said that you do not need to practise every type of practice to achieve good results in t'ai chi since all of the benefits can come from performing the shortened form. You will always need to practise some pushing hands to ensure that your knowledge is complete.

Pushing hands and other partner exercises are designed to gain practical experience of how to neutralise a partners' force and issue your own force using t'ai chi principles. They are also a means to understand what is meant by softness, lightness, sticking and other t'ai chi qualities.

Ch'i development and understanding how to connect with ch'i can be improved by using special exercises and meditations. These are often collectively known as ch'i kung exercises. Even as a beginner these techniques can help you feel ch'i moving through your body and will give you insight into the adjustments you need to make in your physical attitude and state of mind in order to allow the ch'i to collect and move. Any ability that you acquire through your effort will transfer to your form practice and make the connection with the ch'i easier to make.

Most masters of t'ai chi also teach preparation exercises which are either for health, or to practise particular principles, or to literally prepare before the mind and body before doing the form. They are short routines that may be repeated for a few minutes at a time.

By practising pushing hands you can understand the true meaning of all t'ai chi principles. Pushing hands is the way of relating to an oncoming force without using an opposing force. This relies on the taoist principle that hardness is overcome with softness and that ordinary external force is easily detected and neutralised. To abandon using ordinary external force is the first goal of t'ai chi practice. When practising t'ai chi the mind and ch'i are used to empty the force of oncoming attack and to generate a t'ai ch'i force in response.

In pushing hands exercises and when practising the t'ai chi form, when one part moves, every part moves. The movements originate with the intention of the mind, but physically from the feet. The leverage from the ground sets the torso in motion which is loose and responsive, moving freely like a ball on water. In this way the upper body can remain free of any tension and transmit the movement to the hands. The hands do not move independently otherwise this will block the free flow of ch'i. The upper body is empty and is able to respond lightly to your partner's touch. The whole body is active to enable the hands to be equally active.

The muscles in t'ai chi are softened, allowed to empty of ordinary strength, and relax. All the joints of the body are open and drawn out. The lower body drops downward, the upper body lifts to the crown of the head, the arms lengthen away from the spine, and so on. This creates a feeling that there are spaces between the bones. Relaxation is allowed to develop deeply. It is said that the ch'i is relaxed and any effort to relax is, itself, relaxed. All of this is necessary to allow the ch'i to flow freely.

If the alignment of the body is correct, and the mind relaxed, then the ch'i will sink down to one of the chambers of the lower tan tien. This focal point in the body is approximately three finger widths below the navel, on the mid-line, and about three finger widths into the body. From this area the movements can be directed to the hands using the leverage from the feet without breaking the continuity of the ch'i. The joints of the body are like the pearls on a string of pearls. The mind is the string. It is awareness of all the joints being open that unites the entire feeling of the body.

Dr Chi Chiang Tao