Ten Important guidelines for the practice of tai chi chuan
Based on Yang Chengfu’s Ten Important Points.
Interpretation by Ian Sinclair
These 10 essential points were initially dictated to Chen Weiming by Grandmaster Yang Chengfu in the early 20th century. Since then they have become like scripture to many tai chi teachers and students.
Each of these principles relies on the others. If one is mastered, the others will follow naturally. But is one is missing, the others will also fail. My interpretation of these may be my best effort. But it is also likely the farthest thing from the truth that you will find. I suggest researching as many versions as you can, and coming to your own understanding.
1. The energy at the top of the head is light and sensitive, allowing the spirit of vitality to reach top of the head.
This is the first and most important of the 10 essential rules of tai chi. If the head is not properly aligned, the whole body will be out of alignment and the energy will be disrupted.
The meaning of “the top of the head” is important here. Most people tend to hold their heads as if the middle is the top. This causes the nose and chin to raise up, tilting the head and creating pressure in the neck. The proper “head top” is a point called “baihui.”
“Baihui” is the name of an point on the “governing vessel” described in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and qigong. The point is located on the mid-sagital line and directly above the ears. If you place one index fingers at apex of each ear and them move them up along the head, the point where they meet will usually be baihui. If you have hair there, you can grab the hair with your fingers and lift straight up. This will straighten and relax the next while allowing the chin to drop slightly. In this position the head will be able to turn more easily and without stressing the cervical vertebrae. You may also notice that the eyes become brighter and you mind becomes clearer. You will eventually notice the positive affect this posture has on your energy level, balance, power, and overall well being.
If you have no hair at you baihui point, you can place two or three fingers flat on baihui and press upward against them with your head.
Alternatively, you can simply imagine that you are balancing a leaf on baihui.
There are some who place weights on the head to keep it upright. One tai chi teacher I heard of practises his form while wearing an eighty pound iron hat. (He started with less than five pounds and gradually worked his way up to eighty pounds over several years.
2. Sink the chest and raise the back.
Most people hold a fair amount of tension in there ribcage. This is due to bad posture, emotional patterns, and poor breathing habits. Proper posture requires deep breathing and relaxation of the ribs. People who don’t breath with the abdomen, will compensate by breathing with the chest. This causes an internal conflict for the core muscles, and may lead to back, lung, and digestive problems. Chest breathing is typically shallow and inefficient, and interferes with the proper movement and power of both body and mind.
When practising tai chi, the chest should not be puffed out, but relaxed and “sunk.” However, when people who habitually hold tension in the ribcage try to sink the chest, they tend to tilt the whole ribcage forward, creating a slouching posture.
“Sink the chest and raise the back” means to relax the ribs so the front of the chest can drop down, while the spine remains upright.
This requires the inhalation to expand the lungs downward and expand the waist.
This allows the chest and back to be conduits for the power and energy that is generated in the lower belly.
3. Relax the Waist.
The core muscles in the waist area are very important, powerful, and complex. With a relaxed waist the breath will move, the extremities will work together, the qi will be strong, and the balance will be un-compromised. The waist, in this case, includes the area below the ribs and above the pelvis. In most people, the waist is usually very tense and rigid. Relaxing it fully can take quite some time. As I tell my students, “A waist is a terrible thing to mind.” But it is definitely worth it. Tai chi depends on the waist being able to move in a relaxed and balanced manner.
4. Distinguish between full and empty or “Differentiate substantial from insubstantial.”
One of the cardinal errors in tai chi chuan is allowing any two parts of the body (or mind) to become “double-weighted,” which is the opposite of differentiating between full and empty. Being double-weighted is often mistakenly taken to mean that the weight is equally distributed on both legs. In fact, one can have the weight equally distributed on both legs and still not be double-weighted.
Double-weighted means that tension between two parts of the body is causing bracing or counter-levering that inhibits relaxation and movement. If there is tension between the legs, it will inhibit mobility and power generation. To avoid this, one must make sure that there is no resistance to the smooth flow of movement and energy between different parts of the body. If the left leg becomes substantial, the right becomes insubstantial. If the right arm becomes full, the left becomes empty. I tai chi, the change from full to empty or substantial to insubstantial should happen without any tension or resistance.
In the case of the legs, this makes for a lot of work for the quadriceps.
5. Sink the shoulders and drop elbows.
If there is inappropriate tension in any part of the body then the power cannot flow smoothly through it. This is especially obvious in the arms and shoulders. If the shoulders tense up then the power of the arms is essentially isolated from the power of the rest of the body. This is not only bad for the health of the shoulders and ribs. It also means that the momentum generated by the rest of the body cannot be transmitted to the hands.
The shoulders and elbow, while capable of a wide range of motion, have only a small range where they function well and harmony with the stabilising muscles and connective tissue of the core. If the elbows rotate too far or are pulled too far forward or back then they loose strength and usefulness.
However, if they shoulders sink down and the elbows drop down then the other parts of the body, such as the waist and hips, must rotate more in order to put the arms where they would otherwise be able to move on their own.
When tai chi teachers talk about the shoulders sinking, we don’t mean that they should slouch forward. Rather, they should drop as low as they can in their natural position.
Likewise, when tai chi speaks of the elbows dropping, we don’t mean that they should always be bent. The elbows can be dropping when the arms are extended (though the elbows should not be hyper-extended.) If you extend your arms at shoulder level in their most natural and relaxed direction, and imagine that bowling balls are hanging from the tips of your elbows, then your elbows should be dropping. If you then bend your elbow without rotating them, the elbows will drop toward the ground.
6. Using The Mind Instead of Force
First we learn to not fight ourselves. Then we learn to not fight the opponent.
A common mistake that we make when we are trying to do tai chi correctly, is to add more tension than is needed. In fact, we often add tension that is counter productive in order to ensure that we are working hard enough.
When teaching tai chi solo forms, we often have to keep reminding students that there is no actual opponent there. If you feel resistance when you are doing a solo form, it can only be coming from you.
If you experience resistance while you are trying to apply a technique on an opponent in a fight, then you are using the wrong technique.
As soon as you use force, it can be turned against you by a skilled opponent. So we must use solo practice to train ourselves to co-ordinate our mind, energy, and physical power in such a way that it will not oppose us.
In the beginning, relaxation allows students to use their will to lead the body. This causes the qi to naturally flow in support of the physical strength. As the body becomes more relaxed, the qi becomes more powerful and the mind becomes more clear, then the process changes a little.The intent “yi” leads the energy “qi” which leads the strength “li.” Eventually the three become one.
7. Coordination Of Upper And Lower Parts
“When one part moves, everything moves. When one part is still, everything is still.”
The sedentary modern lifestyle has caused many of us to move the various extremities in isolation from each other. We sit move by tilting our torso and moving our arms through inefficient or even dangerous ranges without using our legs at all. Even workouts and weight lifting at the gym isolate the different parts of the body. Tai chi requires that the power of one part of the body be connected to the rest of the body.
When the arms move, the legs should move with them. The hands and feet, elbows and knees, shoulders and hips, should all move in concert. We should not find ourselves moving our hands when the legs have already stopped. And we should not be shifting our weight without the arms contributing to the flow of energy.
8. Harmonise the Inner and the Outer.
The extremities are connected by the core. And the core is profoundly influenced by the subtle workings of the mind, qi, and emotion. Harmonising the inner and outer parts of the body requires not only strength and control of the core muscles in connection with the arms and legs. It also requires that thought, emotion, and internal energy be harmonised with the movement.
Connecting the core to the extremities involves the relaxed alignment of bone, fascia and stabiliser muscles. This improves agility, balance, power, sensitivity, reaction time, speed, and awareness. This is why tai chi also requires an understanding of the relationship between thought, emotion, and posture.
9. Continuity without interruption.
This sounds redundant, and maybe even a little bit redundant. But that is only because it saying the same thing a different way. That is to say, the idea is repeated. Perhaps that is worth saying again….
One of my teachers was fond of saying, “If you stop, you are not doing tai chi.”
“Well, of course” I thought. I knew that you can’t be doing something if you stop doing it. What I wasn’t aware of was how often one part of me or another stopped.
We all breath “continuously” to stay alive. But that does not mean that we breath without interruption. So to move the entire body continuously in perfect consort with mind, body and breath may require a little practice.
When this skill is achieved, or even approached, the results are amazing.
10. Seek stillness in motion.
The tranquility implied here goes deeper than any normal sense of ease. This stillness is the stillness that harmonises yin and yang.
It is said that “When yin and yang move, they separate. When they are still, they combine.” When yin and yang are separate, then the attacking energy cannot increase without sacrificing defensive energy. The converse is also true. When yin and yang are still, they combine.
This enables us to follow the point between before and after that the great zen teacher, Takuan, spoke of where there is no attachment.
No ego, no fear, no anger. There is no particular emotion. But there is great energy.
There is not attack and no defence. There is not past, no future, and no present.
It is not a matter of simply being here now. There is no now.
Tai chi allows us to be totally in harmony with the Universe. The “attackers” are defeated by the nature of their attack, and by their own attachments.