In the formative days of taijiquan [so the oral history relates]; the practitioners were often illiterate in China so the intellectual side of the training was most often passed down usually in the form of “songs”. A Westerner might be more likely to call these “poems” though the rhyming aspect would often only be apparent in the original Mandarin or Cantonese. Most of those that have survived today only go back as far as the 19th Century. These were meant to pass down the history of the style as well as key theory for training.
It’s also important to realize that what was written — no matter how profound — was, and is, only a small part of absorbing the essence of any style of taijiquan. You can’t learn solely by thinking or talking about it; though you might find that hard to believe if you watched a typical modern class in which there is more discussion about moot points than there is hard work.
As to the three keys I mentioned: the first refers to cultivating an upright and structurally sound posture, much like the delightful little statuette shown at the beginning of this article; the second refers to using the earth effectively as your real base of structural support whether moving or still [Did you assume that your feet and legs held you up?]; and, the third requires that you do so without excessive force or tension. Like Goldilock’s favourite bowl of mush, “it has to be just right” although I don’t think she had to wrestle with any of the three bears in the original story in determining what suited her best.
Closer to our own time, this saying was expanded somewhat by Yang Zhenduo [the grandson of Yang Cheng-fu who is often considered the Father of Modern Yang Family taiji]. Zhenduo was fond of summarizing the Yang style at workshops in North America when he first started doing these in the mid-1990s by insisting that the secret in taiji was to be “Balanced, Upright, Uniform and Even”. He also apparently was fond of saying that taijiquan was not about relaxing though that may have been to distinguish his approach from that of Cheng Man-ching who was often considered the Father of North American taijiquan in its early days, especially in the USA.
While I like the original three word summary a lot; I think that the four word summary of Yang Zhen-duo is perhaps more complete as a succinct summary of any variation of taijiquan. It’s also important to remember that each of the six officially recognized Family styles [Chen, Yang, Wu, Hao, Sun and Zhaobao] as well as the more modern Chinese Sport College "modern" styles interpret these terms somewhat differently in how they express the physical postures and training “tricks” unique to each approach; but that’s a subject that can’t be dealt with easily in a short article so I won’t try!
Balanced refers on a beginner’s level to being able to move through the postures of the forms and methods without falling over or miscueing in physical terms. On an intermediate level, it refers to being able to differentiate how the upper and lower body must co-ordinate and also how the to achieve being weighted properly on one leg or the other and never [or rarely] equally on both. This is the physical side of understanding the interplay of Empty and Solid or Yin and Yang. On an expert level for both solo as well as martial work, this balance is emotional, physical and energetic and such a practitioner has gone beyond having to think about how to move; he or she just moves appropriately. Any mistakes made are corrected on the go in such a way that the inexperienced observor sees little or nothing of that momentary glitch in balance.
Upright refers to having a straight spine as your default mode. Different versions of taiji interpret this differently as some good teachers suggest learning to “cock and load” the spine by alternating folding at the hips and straightening from that slight lean. In general, the legitimate versions also interpet straightness as maintianing a relatively straight line form the tip of the tailbone to the crown at the top of the head.
Solo forms in the older versions of the Yang style and Wu style often have a pronounced forward lean in forward stance postures. You can see that accurately represented in the little statuette with a slight forward lean in a forward -weighted stance. Remembering that taijiquan was originally a martial art which did a lot of upright grappling and throwing, you might see the value of being able to lean judiciously and brace yourself correctly against an incoming force if someone tries to bull their way through your defenses. It’s also very hard to knock someone down or throw them if you can’t lean properly… in the right amount… and at the right time. Judo players and wrestlers, among other sport/competitive martial artists, will know what I mean. Some modern experts even say that taiijquan is still primarily a throwing/grappling art and If you are mimicing throwing someone in a solo form you will have to practise leaning forward without losing your balance.
In the end, keeping the spine vertical and minimizing stiffness, ensures structural integration and this, in-turn, ensures that your muscles and ligaments function with the minimum of resistance and stress while you are moving. In the end, being upright is the easiest way to express one of the most famous of Taijiquan principles in that “Power is rooted in the ground, transmitted through the legs, directed by the waist and expressed in the hands.”
Uniform And Even relates partly to the quality of the rhythm of the physical movement but is also related to how the breathing should become: slow, deep and even in terms of inhaling and exhaling. In doing so you inhale and exhale naturally through the nose, the mouth remains gently closed with the tongue lifted gently up against the hard palate. Depending on the teacher and the style there may be exceptions to this rule for movements that are sudden and powerful compared to the slow, gentle pace of the Yang slow forms; but it is certainly true in that style though some Yang-style teachers use fast forms for training two-person fighting or for expressing sudden changes of tempo.
As to martial training and breathing, some teachers insist on very specific patterns and methods of breathing that can seem anything but natural to a beginner. If you have access to one such teacher and trust them to have or have had at one time real combative skill, take their advice. Personally, I think the best advice is to learn to trust your lungs to do what they are meant to do by Mother Nature. If you train, with competent supervision, under stressful and speedy conditions at least occasionally, your lungs will eventually learn to adapt while under pressure and react accordingly. The big problem is that people often hold their breath more than they realize when feeling stressed. This is a habit that has to be broken.
N.B. I’m assuming that you have some kind of fitness level already in place for your age and capabilities. If you’re fat and out-of-shape, you’re going to huff-and-puff no matter how much you tell yourself to relax! Similarly, if you have never done any contact sports or training it will also be a somewhat nerve-wracking or painful experience until your body and mind get used to that aspect of training.
In the end, “relaxation” is perhaps the most important key to applying either the three or four word formula for success in any aspect of taiji training — as long as you do it properly and don’t just try to turn yourself into a spineless ball of quivering jelly in your attempts to somehow find a relaxed state!
Copyright Michael A. Babin ©2020