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Understanding Traditional Yang Style Taijiquan

by Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, May 3, 2010

In order to analyze the traditional Yang Style Taijiquan sequence, it is necessary to understand how martial sequences are created and the purpose they serve. Taijiquan is not a dance or abstract movement. A proper understanding of the root of the art will help you practice more effectively. The following is an excerpt from the revised edition of Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style book.

Three Levels of a Sequence

A martial sequence, called "taolu" (套路) or "tan" (趟), is a combination of many techniques, constructed in the imagination of the creator to resemble a real fight. The creator of a sequence must be an expert in the style and experienced enough to see the advantages and disadvantages of a form, technique, or even just a step or stance. Within a martial sequence are hidden the secret techniques of a specific style. Chinese martial sequences commonly contain two or three levels of fighting techniques. The first level is the obvious applications of the movements and contains the fundamentals of the style.

The second level is deeper and is usually not obvious in the movements of a sequence. For example, a form might contain a false stance at a particular spot. This stance allows the practitioner to kick when necessary, but this kick may not actually be done in the sequence. Experienced martial artists can usually see through to this second level of applications.

The third level is the hardest to see, but it usually contains the most effective techniques of the style. These third-level techniques often require more movement or steps than are shown in the sequence and must be explained and analyzed by the master himself. In addition, when a proficient martial artist is able to understand to the depth of the third level, he or she can understand the secrets hidden "behind" the form of the four categories of fighting techniques. Therefore, a Chinese martial sequence has several purposes:

  1. A sequence is used to preserve the essence of a style and its techniques. It is just like a textbook that is the foundation of your knowledge of a style.
  2. A sequence is used to train a practitioner in the particular techniques of a style. When a student practices a sequence regularly, he can master the techniques and build a good foundation in his style.
  3. A sequence is used to train a student's patience, endurance, and strength, as well as stances, movements, and jin.
  4. A sequence is also used to help the student build a sense of enemy. From routinely practicing with an imaginary opponent, he can make the techniques alive and effective in a real fight.

The taijiquan sequence was created for these same purposes. However, as an internal style it also trains the coordination of mind, breathing, qi, and the movements. Because of this, the yang aspect of taijiquan training comes slowly in the beginning and then gradually incorporates speed and an external manifestation of the inner essence. The yin side of the training is to practice taijiquan at a slower and slower speed, in order to cultivate a more deeply meditative mind that, in coordination with correct breathing, will develop stronger qi.

Fundamental Moving Patterns

Though Yang Style Taijiquan has many different versions that can have 24, 48, 81, 88, 105 or more postures depending, in part, upon the method of counting, but it actually contains only 37 fundamental martial moving patterns, called the thirty-seven postures. These fundamental moving patterns form the basis of more than 250 martial applications or techniques. Within the sequence, many postures or fundamental techniques are repeated one or more times. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. To increase the number of times you practice techniques that are considered more important and useful. This, naturally, will help you learn and master them more quickly. For example, ward off, rollback, press (squeeze), and push (downward pressing), considered the most basic fighting forms, are repeated eight times in the long sequence.
  2. To increase the duration of practice for each sequence. When early taijiquan practitioners found that the original short sequence was not long enough to satisfy their exercise and practice needs, they naturally increased the time of practice by repeating some of the forms. Doing this lengthened sequence once in the morning and/or evening is usually sufficient for health purposes. However, if you also intend to practice taijiquan for martial purposes, you should perform the sequence continuously three times, both morning and evening if possible. The first time is for warming up, the second is for qi transportation training, and the third time is for relaxed recovery.

This book will highlight methods of advancing your taijiquan practice from a shallow to deep level, both in its martial arts yang aspect and its deeply meditative yin aspect. The key points of taijiquan postures will be discussed. Then, fundamental taijiquan training practices will be summarized. Finally, traditional Yang Style Taijiquan will be introduced, along with the Yang Style Long Form. If you have difficulty assimilating the movements of this sequence, you may refer to the DVD, Tai Chi Chuan Classical Yang Style, published by YMAA. YMAA has also published several books that can add substantially to your understanding of the martial applications of this traditional sequence. This detailed information is in the books Tai Chi Theory and Martial Power, Tai Chi Chuan Martial Applications, The Essence of Taiji Qigong, and Taiji Chin Na.

How to Practice Taijiquan Sequence

Normally, it takes at least three years to learn the taijiquan sequence and to circulate qi smoothly in coordination with the breathing and postures. You should then learn to transport qi and develop qi balance. Even after you have accomplished this, there is still more to learn before you can be considered a proficient taijiquan martial artist. You must learn how to strengthen your qi through practice, you must develop a sense of having an enemy in front of you during the sequence, and lastly, you must learn how to train jin during the sequence.

In taijiquan, qi plays a major role in jin. When qi is strong and full, then the jin will also be strong. An important way to strengthen and extend your qi is to practice the sequence slower and slower. This is the yin aspect of taijiquan practice, which helps you to build both a strong, concentrated mind and internal qi. If it usually takes 20 minutes to finish the entire sequence, increase the time to 25 minutes, then 30 minutes, and so on. Do not add any more breaths. Everything is the same except that every breath that is used to lead the qi gets longer and longer. In order to do this you must be very calm and relaxed, and your qi must be full like a drum or balloon, first in your abdomen and later in your whole body. If you can extend a sequence that normally takes 20 minutes to one hour, your qi will be very full and fluid, your mind calm, and the postures very relaxed. When you do the sequence at this speed, your pulse and heartbeat will slow down, and you will be in a deep self-hypnotic meditative state. You will hardly notice your physical body, but instead you will feel like a ball of energy. When this happens, you feel you are transparent.

Develop a Sense of Enemy

Even when you can do the form very well, it may still be dead. To make it come alive you must develop a sense of enemy. When practicing the solo sequence, you must imagine there is an enemy in front of you, and you must clearly feel his movements and his interaction with you. Your ability to visualize realistically will be greatly aided if you practice the techniques with a partner. There are times when you will not use visualizations, but every time you do the sequence your movement must be flavored with this knowledge of how you interact with an opponent. The more you practice with this imaginary enemy before you, the more realistic and useful your practice will be. If you practice with a very vivid sense of enemy, you will learn to apply your qi and jin naturally, and your whole spirit will melt into the sequence. This is not unlike performing music. If one musician just plays the music and the other plays it with his whole heart and mind, the two performances are as different as night and day. In one case the music is dead, while in the other it is alive and touches us.

If you don't know how to incorporate jin into the forms, then even if you do the sequence for many years it will still be dead. In order for the sequence to be meaningful, jin and technique must be combined. An important way to do this is to practice fast taijiquan. Practicing fast taijiquan is part of the Yang aspect of taijiquan, and it allows you to manifest your internal qi into external forms and power. Once you can do the sequence of movements automatically and can coordinate your breathing and qi circulation with the movements, you should practice doing the form faster and faster. Remember, if you ever get into a fight, things are likely to move pretty fast, so you have to be able to respond fast in order to defend yourself effectively. If you only practice slowly, then when you need to move fast your qi will be broken, your postures unstable, and your yi scattered. If any of this happens, you will not be able to use your jin to fight. Therefore, once you have developed your qi circulation you should practice the sequence faster until you can do it at fighting speed. Make sure you don't go too fast too soon, or you will sacrifice the essentials such as yi concentration, qi balance, breath coordination, and the storage of jin in the postures. When doing fast taiji, do not move at a uniform speed. Incorporate the pulsing movement of jin so that you are responding appropriately to the actions of your imaginary enemy. It is difficult to develop the pulsing movement of jin solely by doing the sequence, so you should also do jin training either before or concurrently with the fast taijiquan. If you are interested in knowing more about taijiquan jin development in detail, you should refer to the book Tai Chi Theory and Martial Power.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, is a renowned author and teacher of Chinese martial arts and Qigong. Born in Taiwan, he has trained and taught Taijiquan, Qigong and Chinese martial arts for over forty-five years. He is the author of over thirty books, and was elected by Inside Kung Fu magazine as one of the 10 people who has "made the greatest impact on martial arts in the past 100 years." Dr. Yang lives in Northern California.



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