Principles and Practice: The Tai Chi State and Song

 Stephen Frost / Pam Hultgren

INTRODUCTION

Our purpose in writing this article is to capture the latest Shenlong teaching since 2015 and to be a resource and reference for English-speaking students.

It is not possible to cover everything in one article, so we have started with a concept that is fundamental to everything else. This is the concept of the Tai Chi State and its relationship to the principle of Song.

The source for all the information has been our own notes and conversations with senior brothers and sisters. In particular, we wish to thank and acknowledge the teaching of senior brother Wang Chun-Chao, who selflessly and patiently has answered many of our questions seeking clarification so that we could faithfully represent the teaching.

THE LAST THREE YEARS

If you asked students what they thought were the main things that have been covered over the last three years, everyone would come up with a different list and emphasis. We have ventured into a risky area by providing the following list, with the hope that students will at least get an idea of the scope and depth of the learnings. As previously stated, we will only be giving our perspective on the very first of these principles and practice.
1. The Tai Chi State and Song
2. Overcoming Distractions and Calming the Heart (Xian Mo Jiang Xin: XMJX)
3. Using the Golden Beam to Rebuild the Column
4. Light Things Rise: Heavy Things Sink (Qing Sheng Zhuo Jiang: QSZJ)
5. The importance of Da Chen Fa
6. How to move the Chi to the 5 Energy Centres
7. Moving the Chi: “Fake it till you make it”
8. The relationship between structure and energy
9. Master Wu’s insights post San Qing Temple
10. Master Wu’s practice guide-book
11. The relationship between Shen and Yi
12. The interplay of Yin and Yang and how it permeates all the Forms
13. Working with the Yong Chuan
14. How to be natural in your Tai Chi
15. Using the Cheng Fu points and how they connect to the rest of the body
16. Other natural partners and connections in the body
17. How to move and connect the body in a unified manner, maintaining fullness of Chi in the whole body at all times
18. How to transition between each of the 37 Forms
19. Following the internal movement as if the body was like a part-filled water bag
20. Using the sliding step (Stealing a Half Step) to generate momentum and the feeling of movement inside the body
21. Using Stealing a Half Step to connect with your partner
22. How to combine your energy with your partner’s energy so that two become one
23. How to get the Chi streaming continuously to use in Fajin and how to recognise and diagnose where your Chi is disconnected
24. The use, function, and regulation of the breathing

THE TAI CHI STATE

So, what is the Tai Chi State? Firstly, it may be helpful to say what it isn’t. It is not a state of mind that is produced by force of imagination borne out of some strong mental imagery or visualisation. It is not a trance-like state, where we are disconnected from the environment surrounding us. It is not a state of mindlessness (as one would be if unconscious or in a drunken stupor) where we have given up control of our minds.

Senior brother Wang Chun-Chao says “The Tai Chi State is unified through Chi and distributed through the whole body by Song.” Additionally, “Song is the method that is applied to get rid of tension.”

So, here is our first insight into what the Tai Chi State is. It is being fully present in both body and mind, but without tension or mental fixation. In the Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan attributed to Wang Tsung-Yueh it says: “A feather cannot be placed, and a fly cannot alight on any part of the body.” This means that our feeling-awareness is in the body at all times while we are in the Tai Chi State.

The second thing is that whenever we are not in the Tai Chi State, our body becomes full of tension – everywhere. Therefore, being Song is not the objective or end goal of our practice, we use Song as the method to deal with tension. This is a key concept that will enable us to go deeper into the art of Tai Chi.

Another way, perhaps, to think of this is that we have to “pay attention” at all times and we have to maintain that condition without mental or physical force. Over time this condition (i.e. The Tai Chi State) will become patterned into our mind and body. Using Song as the method means that we simply maintain all the conditions necessary for a Tai Chi body. For example, suspend the head-top; release the Kua; sink the Chi etc. When we maintain those conditions, our body is always in a state that is full of Chi and ready at any time it is needed.

When we are in the Tai Chi State, we are able to join more effectively with our partner. Grandmaster Wu used to say that you should cover and connect to your partner physically, energetically, and spiritually (with Shen) – in essence two become one. When two become one, it is then possible to truly follow the Tai Chi mantra of stick, adhere, join, and follow. When we join with our partner, it means that we become one nervous system. In the Tai Chi State, we know our partner as well as we know ourselves. We do not have to use any effort to move our own arms, legs, or body. So, when we truly join with our partner it should not require any effort or thought to move them as we are one entity. If we are not truly joined in this way then we are still both using our own idea to move and it becomes the same contest as every other martial art method uses i.e. speed, strength and technique.

Stick and adhere are like the Yin and Yang of sticking – two different qualities, so to speak. However, they are not separate; they are simultaneous. Grandmaster Wu would say Yin and Yang at the same time, but in different places/spaces. The joining is also dependent on the Shen including and covering your partner – something bigger than yourself. Brother Wang uses the analogy of casting a silk cloth over your partner. In the Tai Chi State and when we are truly joined as one entity, when I move my partner moves because he is one with me.

A very popular Tai Chi student of Yang Cheng Fu was Master Li Yaxuan. He describes a similar experience of being covered by his teacher’s Shen whenever they joined hands:

“Whenever I practiced push hands with Grandmaster Yang Cheng Fu, I had a most peculiar feeling, which I’ve always remembered. Every time when I began by merely touching his hand, I felt drained of all resistance, every part of my body became utterly weak. When Grandmaster Yang simply touched my arm, I can’t explain it but I felt that every part got absorbed into him somehow. It was as though somebody had thrown a giant net over me. No matter how I moved I couldn’t get away and my every movement just put me at a further disadvantage. Even though I knew Grandmaster Yang’s hand was just placed on me lightly, still it felt incredibly heavy. I couldn’t really move, but I couldn’t not move either. Trying to power my way out of it was hopeless but trying to get out gently didn’t work either. Whether I tried to move quickly or slowly it was all equally useless.”

Brother Wang says that he likes this story because it is very helpful in understanding the correct information about Grandmaster Yang Cheng Fu and the Yang School of Tai Chi. He says the statement below sounds incredible, but it is believable.
Even though I knew Grandmaster Yang’s hand was just placed on me lightly,
still it felt incredibly heavy.”

Master Li felt heavy because his force and his own weight were returned back to him by Grandmaster Yang’s light hands and body. Brother Wang believes this is an authentic story because he recalls a time when he had exactly the same experience doing push hands with Grandmaster Wu. He said that he even complained saying, “Why do you put so much force on me?” Grandmaster Wu answered, “The force is not mine, it is all yours.” Indeed, Grandmaster Wu’s hands were light and not heavy at all. Brother Wang says that he now understands what was happening at that time.

This sounds wonderful, but how do we apply it? Well, that involves applying our Tai Chi strategy. Brother Wang said that Grandmaster Wu would say our Tai Chi strategy enables us to not only make our partner become one, but also to cooperate with us so that we can stick, join, adhere, and follow. The Tai Chi strategy is of a high level and enables the weak to overcome the strong. Without applying the Tai Chi strategy, everything reverts back to using rules of the everyday world, where we each use our own idea and where every person is ruled by acquired bad habits such as competition, greed, grasping, desire and ego.

How to use Tai Chi strategy is beyond the scope of this article. However, it will be a central theme of this International Shenlong meeting and brother Wang has given us a foretaste saying:

“When you engage in combat, if you want to maintain the Taiji state (i.e. two becomes one), you need to be in charge of your opponent’s movement. For example, lead your opponent away from you if he intends to push you by uprooting him in the beginning. Grandmaster Wu would often uproot us at each turning point, but we did not even realise that. Yes, your opponent does not realise it otherwise your strategy will fail.”
Brother Wang added, “Remember what Master Li said about his experience with Grandmaster Yang,

“No matter how I moved I couldn’t get away and
my every movement just put me at a further disadvantage.”

This is the main reason why our partner is willing to cooperate with us, otherwise he will put himself into greater danger. As an opponent, his role is not to cooperate. It is you and your strategy that puts your opponent in danger and thereby makes him cooperate with you. So, Grandmaster Wu asked us to be real as we practiced push hands. In this manner, both can improve.”

THE NATURE OF SONG

What is the nature of Song when used in the context of the Tai Chi State? It is worth repeating what brother Wang tells us:

“Song is the method that is applied to get rid of tension.”

Song isn’t applied for its own sake nor is it an end goal of our practice. It is actually just a practical pre-requisite to kick-start the many stages of internal energy in the body.

Many translations of the term Song use the word relax, however, it means more than just relax. When adding the word Fung (i.e. Fung Song), it also means to release and let go. For example, it is like when a lady with long hair tied up in a bun undoes the bun and lets her hair fall down. The falling hair has a kind of springy natural movement under the force of gravity. It isn’t just limp and lifeless, which is often the thing that comes to mind with the word relax. Many Tai Chi students in the west incorrectly think that relax means to have a kind of jelly, wet-noodle sort of a body. This flaccid body is too Yin and not an appropriate vehicle for internal energy.

The Song state is always a fine line, or sweet-spot, between not tensing on the one hand and not collapsing on the other. We have to always be consciously committed to achieving maximum relaxation and to let go of all tension in everything we do. Achievement in Tai Chi depends on getting physical tension out of the way and Song is the method that Tai Chi uses to achieve that. This is unique to Tai Chi in the development of internal energy. One person describes Song as the Prime Directive that guides our practice and is the basis of all we do.

Brother Wang explains:

“Song is purposeful and is not subjective. Song is meant to maintain the Taiji state. The nature of the Taiji state is the universe is about to explode (blow up) and (or) the Ying and Yang is about to separate. The keyword is about, which means on the threshold. In terms of body, the body is full of Chi and is about to blow up. Grandmaster Wu liked to describe the moment at Fajin as being like the blowing up of a balloon (to the point of bursting). In other words, in the Taiji state, the body is like a bow that is fully pulled. Of course, it means Chi. The purpose of Song is to let go of the tension in the muscle, tendon … so that Chi can fill the body. In the Taiji state, the whole body is evenly tense in a dynamical sense (i.e. the sweet-spot). So, one of the Tai Chi classic books of literature says the body is like Song and not like Song; is about to explode, but not exploding yet.”

APPLICATION

Overcoming Distractions: Calming the Heart (Xian Mo Jiang Xin: XMJX)
One of the best ways to achieve this quality of Song and experience being in the Tai Chi State is through the standing postures. The primary one in our method is Overcoming Distractions: Calming the Heart (Xian Mo Jiang Xin). Brother Wang says that the design of this practice is so unique that it creates a specific structure where tension is almost unavoidable if we use our normal thinking and approach to physical movement. The objective of the standing postures is to force us to find a way to use the movement that we had as a new-born baby (i.e. use the whole body) to help release tension. For example, the ankles can help release the tension of the wrists as the wrists rotate inward by keeping the ankles relaxed, the back Kua (the Cheng Fu supporting points) can help relax the thighs, etc., until we can stand there comfortably and begin to enjoy the open and close of the breath and body.

Using the Golden Beam to Rebuild the Column (Golden Beam)
The advice from Brother Wang is that we should practice the Golden Beam with the same attitude and approach as Overcoming Distractions. He says, if you are comfortable with Overcoming Distractions, you can continue to include it in your practice, along with the Golden Beam. Otherwise, it is fine to just practice the Golden Beam by itself.

The objective of the Golden Beam is to rebuild the column that is deteriorating due to ageing. The method is to fill Chi into the spinal column from the ground by creating a Golden Beam, as shown in Figure 1. When you point the middle fingers and extend into infinity (both sides), it is Shen that leads Chi in the body out and the Chi from the ground will rise up to form a continuous stream from the ground, up the back and out through the arms and fingers, extending into infinity.

At the same time, the column rises up and aligns as if there were a straight line through to the head-top. To have a better Golden Beam, the arms and hands should be straight like a beam and the pointer fingers (i.e. middle and index) should be aligned. In the beginning, use a little internal activation of the fascia(Endnote i) (not muscular force) to loosen shoulders so that it seems there is a little space in the joints. The joints should not feel sticky, or tight. You should not use muscular force; simply hang the muscles from your structure. If we tense our muscles then the fascia can’t be stretched, or tensioned. Perhaps a better word would be to activate the fascia. If we relax our muscles then we are able to do this internal stretch, which then connects all the membranes, fascia and connective tissue in our body.

Also, the front of the ankles, back of the knees, Kua and back Kua (Cheng Fu supporting points) should be relaxed too. Try to hold this stance for a while until you have a feeling of the Chi moving. Maintain the fullness of Chi in the body, arms and hands as long as you can.

Light Rise: Heavy Sink (Qing Sheng Zhuo Jiang: QSZJ)(Endnote ii)
Once you feel Chi flowing out from the middle fingers, you can do the following:

  1. Breathe naturally and don’t try to control your breathing. Our breathing is always the primary rhythm that the Form rides upon and that other things follow.

  2. Feel the gravity working on your body and follow it by dropping all the heavy things in the body (i.e. heavy things sink) as you exhale. When the heavy things sink, the light things will rise. This rising Chi is called Clear Chi (Endnote iii) and it rises up through the body in-between the body’s membranes and tissues, together with the Chi from the ground (i.e. Earth Chi). Once you feel comfortable and get some achievement (i.e. Gong (Endnote iv) ) in this practice, you will find stronger Chi will be pushed out to the index and middle fingers. Light Rise: Heavy Sink is a natural phenomenon and you just Song and let it happen. Do not try to add anything. All that is needed is to guide the Light Rise to the head-top using the Shen.

  3. You can also rotate two hands clockwise and counterclockwise by keeping the Chi streaming out through the index and middle fingers (pointers). In that way, it seems the whole line of the back, which contain the Lu, is used. The Lu are the same long muscles that are used in the Bellows exercise (Tuo Yue Gong). The Lu should be very relaxed and filled with Chi. They connect the hands with the lower body (lower part is Cheng Fu, upper part is Jia Ji). It is important not to rotate the two hands in isolation, without connecting the whole body. Eventually, the whole line from the legs, through the whole body should feel connected. Don’t use force, simply try to loosen the joints and limit the rotation along the line.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, we want to leave you with these words of encouragement from brother Wang; “Take a playful attitude when working through these postures. Experiment, don’t be too serious, make mistakes, but also remember that tension is there every second if you neglect it.”

ENDNOTES

i. Professor Cheng calls this connective tissue the sinews and says that this is where the Chi moves through the body. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Taoist theory on how the body works is quite complex, however, for internal work (Nei Gong) we can narrow our focus on the connective tissue for the purposes of this article. The body has muscles, bones, tendons, sinews, membranes and viscera (organs) etc. and they are all needed for our body to function. The skin and muscles are the most external of all these and in Nei Gong they are not given too much emphasis. We simply try to hang the muscles from our skeleton and focus on activating the connective tissue to facilitate the movement of Chi. The sinews include the tendons (depending on how you categorise them), ligaments and cartilages in the human body. Tendons are fibrous connective tissue attaching muscles to bones. The cartilages help keep the body connected. The sinews are all involved in the movement of Chi in the body. In TCM and Taoist theory, the sinew channels are of vital importance as pathways for conduction of Wei Chi at the surface of the skin. Wei Chi provides an immune system-like barrier, or first line of defence, that protects the body from harmful pathogenic factors that can cause illness and disease.

In TCM, the fascia, or membranes, are called Moa(膜). They are the superficial and deep connective tissue that anchor, connect and wrap, the muscles and organs and are vitally important for the movement of Chi through the body.

In their book, Hara Diagnosis: Reflections of the Sea, Kiiko Matsumoto and Stephen Birch use the term Huang (肓) for membrane and they say that the membranes are: “… the space between the organs, bones, and flesh. It is that through which the yang chi streams.” In TCM, the Triple Warmer (San Jiao) is considered one of the twelve vital organs of the body and regulates the flow of energy through the organs. Matsumoto and Birch make the connection between the Triple Warmer and the membranes. They state: “The Triple Warmer was seen as a continuous network of oily membranes connecting the upper, lower, internal, and external portions of the body. As early as the twelfth century, in China the Triple Warmer was identified as an area of fascia. Or the network of membranes or fasciae in the body.”

In the book Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Giovanni Maciocia says the membranes: “… refer to other types of connective tissues such as the fascia (superficial and deep), the mesenterium and omentum and the stroma encapsulating the organs. Thus … the membranes represent a whole range of connective tissue, including … superficial and deep fascia … They cover the whole body with a layer immediately below the skin and an inner layer wrapping and anchoring the organs, muscles and bones. In particular, the membranes have three functions: they anchor the organs, they connect the organ among themselves, and they wrap the organs. The ‘Classic of Categories’ says: ‘The membranes are in between the abdominal cavities and the muscle patterns … they extend up and down in the crevices.’ The acupuncture point of Ren-6 (Conception Vessel) is considered the source of the membranes.” This acupuncture point is called Qihai, or the Sea of Chi and is located on the lower abdomen at the level of the Tan Tien.

ii. Qing means: light; clear; pure; clean. Sheng means: to rise. Zhuo means: heavy; muddy; turbid; dirty; coarse. Jiang means to descend; fall; drop.

iii. It is very important to understand what we mean by the Clear Chi rising. Many other schools use the concept of rebounding the Chi from the ground. Brother Wang reminds us that, in fact, there is no rebounding of the Chi. Rebound gives the impression that you are using some resistance from the ground. In the Tai Chi State, we want to avoid any tension in our body. If we use the concept, or have the idea of rebounding the Chi, then there is a danger of creating a great deal of unnecessary tension, or resistance, by pushing off from the ground at the balance-centre of our foot (Yong Chuan). Trying to find a resistance point to push off from is quite a common mistake that many Tai Chi practitioners make.

As we have said, the Chi in the body sinks mainly because of the influence of gravity and Song. As the Chi sinks, there is an opposite process and direction happening with the Chi rising up. This is a natural phenomenon when we release and let go of all tension. At the same time as the Clear Chi rises, there is another Chi from under the ground/earth rising up through our Yong Chuan into the body. We call this Earth Chi. Brother Wang says that a possible physical interpretation of this phenomenon may be explained as the effect of the negative pressure when our body is Song. It may be the result of Chi diffusing from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, or like a dry sponge that soaks up water. Therefore, we should not put purposeful force or weight onto the Yong Chuan, or use any kind of resistance to rebound from the ground. The Tai Chi Classics tell us that we should step like a cat. When the Yong Chuan opens up, it should have a feeling of cupping, or gentle suction at the Yong Chuan.

iv. Gong (功) in Chinese is usually translated as work or skill. In this context it means skill, or more particularly mastery of that skill. Grandmaster Wu would say that the first thing a new student would acquire was Eye Gong (Fu) – they could see and intellectually understand what to do. The second was Doing Gong (Fu) where they could put it into practice. We can further divide this ‘Doing’ Gong into two levels. The first level is achievement in learning the movements or method being taught to a level where one is comfortable and familiar with the technique or method. The second level is attaining mastery of that method or technique so that the ultimate goal of the practice has been achieved. In other words, once a method has been practised for long enough that it achieves its goal, it can be said to have transformed into a ‘Gong’. This may be a subtle difference, but an important one. For example, someone who practices and trains with the aim of making Tai Chi a performance artform is only concentrating on the physical aspect and they get stuck in the level of technique and physical training. In this scenario they miss the true goal, which is to achieve real internal skill; they never achieve the real Gong Fu. Grandmaster Wu would say that to achieve Gong (Fu) requires a long period of time, with quality practice and repetition.

published in “Yuan Ji" journal, vol.3, 2019.4

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