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Safety In Practicing Taijiquan

by Henry (Yinghao) Zhuang, August 10, 2015

Is there a safety issue for practicing taijiquan? Yes. I occasionally listen to a program on learning taijiquan while in my car. A host once asked his guest (a famous master of taijiquan), "What physical conditions are required for learning taijiquan?" The guest answered: "You can learn taijiquan as long as your knees are fine." The master's answer proposes an issue that practicing taijiquan is like a double-edged blade. If you do it right, you will be healthy and energetic with agile steps; but if you do it wrong, you will hurt the knees and it may result in diseases. I have encountered an example of this issue. A white-collar lady, merely thirty years old, had practiced Chen Style Taijiquan for many years. She wanted to switch to lao liu lu due to aching knees and asked to join our group practice.

After watching her practicing Chen Style Taijiquan, I saw that her body leaned forward on each horse stance and her knees were passing over her toes, a practice we call kneeling. I warned her: "Chen Style Taijiquan emphasizes a 'well-centered body', but you did not perform strictly to the requirements of your teacher. The accumulated malpractice led to the injuries. Kneeling is not allowed when practicing any style of taijiquan. It is a pity if you give up Chen Style Taijiquan because you have practiced it for many years and have basically mastered the forms. You should sincerely ask your teacher to correct your forward leaning and kneeling problems and appropriately lift up your stance. You are still young and the knee injuries are still recoverable." This lady left happy.

Therefore, you must control your forms when practicing to prevent your knees from injury.

Warming-up before practicing is necessary. One of the fellows in our group asked a leave of several weeks. He said he could not join us on Sundays due to a busy work schedule. Later, I learned that his hip was sprained because he kicked too hard when practicing "overturn and double lotus kick" in Wu Style Taijiquan. Although taijiquan is soft, warming up and stretching are a must before form practice. Most of the fellow practitioners take fifteen minutes for basic training before form practice. Through stretching tendons and joints and "pulling from both ends," both the bones and ligaments are loosened.

Xiao lian xing refers to a collection of selected movements for specific body organs or chronological diseases. It can serve as a preparation for da lian xing, which is a complete set of movements that helps the qi circulate throughout the entire body. Both xiao lian xing and da lian xing can be different among various schools of qigong.

In the training of pushing hands, the attacker should have good control of the force, and the defender must be protected. I lost my control twice. Fortunately, there were no accidents. Once, I pushed down too hard and destabilized my opponent's lower body, making him fall back many steps, almost falling down and hitting the back of his head on the short wall of the flower stand. Fortunately, another fellow went forward quickly and stood in front of the short wall, and an accident was avoided. But it still gave me a lingering fear. After that, I would make sure the defender was always protected in the training.

Another time, when exerting upward peng on the opponent, I applied "spinning" intent, unintentionally. The opponent was somewhat experienced in pushing hands and jumped away immediately. He did not feel discomfort at once, but after getting home, his waist felt uncomfortable and he was incapable of turning flexibly. He went to the hospital and was diagnosed as having a lumbar sprain. It took him more than one month to recover. The cause was the spinning intent I used when exerting the upward peng. The opponent jumped away and landed with both feet, but the spinning continued in the waist, which led to the sudden sprain. I reflected seriously on this incident.

Good issuing control in training is a must.

Reversed form practice

When you have completely mastered the regular form (right-side form) and can perform it with the spirit, vital essence, and qi revealing, you can switch to the reversed form (left-side form) practice, that is, switch the right hand and left hand movements, the right foot and left foot movements, and the left and right turns. If you can perform a complete left-side form as constant as the right one, your gongfu will definitely climb up to the next level. If you can put both the right side and left-side forms into application, you will not sink on one side and it will be more interesting than only practicing the right-side form.
The switch is necessary for those who want deeper gongfu. In order to meet the demand of group practicing, I practiced the reversed form (left-side form) of Yang Style Lao Liu Lu, Wu (Gongyi) Style Taijiquan, Sun Style Taijiquan and Duan Style Liang Yi slow form. The reversed form practice is helpful for developing the right hemisphere function, enhancing thinking efficiency and improving the coordination.

Important Tips

Using intent instead of strength

The Taijiquan Treatise says: "Every move is made by intent instead of strength. The first sentence of the Knack of Practicing Taijiquan is "Intent goes first," to reflect the guiding idea that intention and qi are king, and bones and tissues the court. Intent and qi are the rulers, leaders, and dominators. Bones and flesh (body) are the ruled, led, and dominated. This relationship must be clear and cannot be reversed. The body can be relaxed completely only by using intent first to achieve the purpose of not using strength. The strength here means brute force, which is caused by partial force of the disconnected and stiff body due to limited relaxation of the muscles and bones, with stagnated qi and blood and inflexible turns. If you use intent instead of strength, wherever the intent goes, qi follows. Thus, the qi and blood circulate all over the body without ceasing. Real internal force will be acquired through long-term practice.

In addition, we need to emphasize that using intent instead of strength means not using the brute force of the muscles and tendons. The practitioners of taijiquan borrow and utilize forces from others (including gravity, counterforce from the ground). Only when people stop using their own strength can they borrow it from others.

Seek open and expanded posture first, then close and compact

There is a saying in taijiquan: "Seek open and expanded posture first, then close and compact" (Expositions of Insights into the Practice of the Thirteen Postures). This is an important hint for beginners. There are two reasons: first, it is easy to achieve openness and expansion, but difficult to master compactness. Therefore, beginners should seek for openness and expansion first and gradually change large-range movements into small ones to finally achieve compactness; second, the relaxation of taijiquan must be achieved through the extension of every joint. Open and expanded movements mean stretching tendons and joints, and pulling the body parts from both ends, providing premises for removing stiffness, thus integrating the internal and the external until compactness is achieved.

Real gongfu comes from slow practice

Practice calmly and slowly. The gentle transference of body movements facilitates the inner qi to circulate slowly through even the slightest hollow of the body, enables the harmony of intent and qi, and combines the spirit and the form. One will forget both the objective world and oneself through following the qi naturally, sensing the natural flow, waiting for the natural timing, and conforming to the natural way. Only with the middle qi in the center and the void inside can the original image of taiji be revealed.

The fellows practicing taijiquan together with me often asked, "Although you keep telling us that real gongfu comes from slow practice repeatedly, we just cannot slow down." And I generally answered, "Do you recite the mind approach in your head while practicing, and practice according to the track hinted by the mind approach?" Then, they would lose their tongues.

Slow practice contains many things. Silently recite the mind approach during slow practice, which means thinking of the intent leading the form, and of course use intent instead of strength. Check to see if your body conforms to the requirements of the bodywork. Realize any deviation from the knacks. Feel how your joints are extended. Feel how the baihui leads up to the sky and how the Yongquan connects to the earth. Feel how the inner qi diffuses through your fingertips. Learn to allow the look of your eyes to follow the opening and closing with a smile on your face.

As your gongfu gets deeper, your feeling during the slow practice will become more and more subtle, and you will be happy, be enjoying, and become intoxicated in the slowness.

Breathe naturally

The movements of taijiquan are relaxing, soft, steady, and flexible, which enables "deep, long, slight, slow, and even breathing with rhythm. When initially practicing, do not pay close attention to breathing as long as it is natural and smooth. As your proficiency in the form increases, begin to include close coordination of the intent, breathing, and movements. When the internal power is well built, the reverse abdominal breathing will be activated naturally, with the lower abdomen drawing in while inhaling and expanding while exhaling, which is called the "training of qi" by the ancients. Breathing in represents closing and accumulation, and breathing out represents opening and issuing. This breathing movement is called "form breathing.

Taijiquan stresses breathing naturally. Different complexities and simplicity between postures and movements produce natural breathing of different intensities. The gongfu of qi training aims to improve the intensity and depth of breathing, adapt the opening and closing, and substantiality and insubstantiality—all are based on different ways of natural breathing.

(The above excerpt is from The Mind Inside Tai Chi: Sustaining a Joyful Heart by Henry Zhuang.)

Henry (Yinghao) Zhuang has been involved with tai chi for over thirty years. Starting as self-taught, and then seeking formal instruction, the author is in a unique position to help others on this rewarding, but sometimes solo journey of seeking health and happiness through tai chi practice. Henry Zhaung is a chief real estate appraiser, and resides in Shanghai, China.


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