From Ma Hailong, President of the Jianquan Taijiquan Association Shanghai
Translated by Dr. Martin Boedicker, edited by Kit Gerould
Vitality (jingshen) is an important aspect in the training of Tai Chi Chuan. To improve vitality, one should concentrate during training on ten points:
1. To be centred
The centre is the place which does not moving while one is opening and closing, stretching and bending. When practising Tai Chi Chuan one must keep the idea of being centred in the whole body. Here are two aspects to consider:
- The body posture
In the classic The Song of the Thirteen Basic Movements it is stated: "The coccyx is centred and aligned and the spirit (shen) reaches to the top of the head." Here the back serves as a support and in this way one keeps the centre and is aligned. Following the idea of being hung up from the top of the head the lower jaw is lowered a bit. Thus respiration is easy and flowing, and if one breathes fully into the belly and the chest, heart/consciousness (xin) and qi are centred and harmonious.
- The central equilibrium
The central equilibrium is maintained not only while in a fixed posture, but also in movements, i.e. in the five kinds of steps. Whether one advances, retreats, looks to the left or right, one should always keep the central equilibrium and does not make the mistake of leaning to the side, forward or backward.
2. To be aligned
In every posture one should try one’s best to be absolutely aligned. One should avoid standing bent or twisted. In every movement one must be always stable. One should not lean forwards or backwards. If the centre is stable, one can easily open and close. Otherwise one makes the mistake that "full (shi) and empty (xu) are not clearly differentiated".
Firmness is related to stillness without movement. One must strive for a firm mind. In the book of The Great Learning (Daxue) it is stated: "If one knows where one has to go, one is firm." This means that one is firm, if one recognizes, what your aim is. An expression of the firmness is: "Heart/consciousness (xin) and qi are clear and harmonious. The vitality penetrates everything." This is one of the roots of Daoism. When practising Tai Chi Chuan, vitality must be protected through clarity, peace and non action (wuwei). It should not be impaired by the outside world. In the Noted Discussions of Shen Hui (Shen Hui Yulu) firmness is explained in the following way: "As soon as one is firm, one has also insight. As soon as one has insight, one is also firm."
Gentleness means to avoid absolutely being directed by hardness. One tries to unfold the movements evenly and with ease through naturalness (ziran), without the feeling of stiffness or stagnation.
Stillness means that one has to strive to concentrate fully on vitality. There are very many explanations in Chinese philosophy of the term stillness. In the book The Great Learning (Daxue) it is stated: "If one knows where one has to go, one is firm. If one has firmness, then one becomes still. If one has stillness, one is peaceful." In the Daodejing of Laozi it is stated: "Achieve the extreme emptiness (xu). Keep the complete stillness. The ten thousand things (wanwu) will prosper. I can see their return." In Buddhism it is stated: "If the spirit is clear and calm, stillnesss bring insight and the insight produces wisdom." In the thoughts of classical Chinese philosophy, stillness is a high ideal. Whatever school one follows, one must achieve this important stage. When practising Tai Chi Chuan one speaks of three ideals of stillness:
- The stillness of the body
The stillness of the body is of great importance. It leads to calm and deep respiration. That is also what is meant if one says: "The qi sinks into the dantian". In Chinese thinking, three kinds of dantian are differentiated. The lower dantian is in the area below the navel. The middle dantian is within the chest area and the upper dantian is between the brows. With stillness in the body, qi and thus the breath can naturally (ziran) sink into the dantian. This idea is also incorporated in the concept of vitality.
- The stillness of heart/consciousness (xin)
In old China the heart/consciousness (xin) is closely connected with vitality. The movements in Tai Chi Chuan are filled with lightness and agility. This is an expression of the concentration of vitality and a result of the stillness of the heart/consciousness (xin).
- The stillness of the spirit
The stillness of the spirit refers to the natural (ziran) relaxation of the body. This is the advanced stage of acting through non-action (wuwei) and it is very difficult to reach. One must practise hard for a long time, and the deepest insight is needed.
6. Lightness and agility
Lightness is the opposite of heaviness. This is an important characteristic of the martial art Tai Chi Chuan. Lightness can be also understood as softness. In the Mental Elucidation of the 13 Basic Movements it is stated: "Extreme softness leads to extreme hardness." Further, the movements are shaped by agility. All movements are co-ordinated. In Chinese, agility can also be understood as sensitivity. Therefore, if one is light and agile one can relax and sink. In the partner exercises one can thereby control by sticking and adhering, which makes it possible to follow and connect without losing or resisting. However, in no case do lightness and agility carry the meaning of carelessness. One does not use explosively breaking out strength, because this could cause the error of double weighting. Carelessness and double weighting are two big errors when practising Tai Chi Chuan, and must be avoided at all times. In the case of fist and hand punches, as well as the kicks, one stretches the limbs, but never pushes through completely or makes them hard. Thus it is also stated: "The power appears to be relaxed, but is not relaxed. The power is ready to open, but it does not open."
7. To be connected
In Tai Chi Chuan all movements are connected. The connection of the movements must be perfect and without error. An important point thereby is the slowness. The search for slowness and being connected is an ambitious goal in Tai Chi Chuan: "The long boxing flows continuously like a long river and the sea."
8. Roundness and aliveness
While exercising Tai Chi Chuan one makes round movements with hands and legs. In the steps one moves in circular arcs. One should not to go straight forward or back. Aliveness has the meaning of agility. Here there are three aspects to be discussed: - The movements have to be completely round. Nothing stands out, collapses or is interrupted. Everything must be merged into a harmonious whole. - Agility and not holding are of great importance. Stretch and bend, open and close, advance and retreat, look up and down – all these happen freely and unhindered. - Roundness develops around the waist as the axle. The turnings become thereby agile and arms and legs have space to move. This is completely like the relationship between a wheel and its axle. This relationship should not be broken, because otherwise the movements fall into disorder.
Conscientiousness has two important aspects:
- The first aspect of conscientiousness is seriousness. One strives very seriously for real and deep ability. Under no circumstances may one take things easy. For all movements, everyone must be precise and without errors. It is also said: "If one concentrates completely on one point, then one strengthens everything."
- The second aspect of conscientiousness is to fathom something deeply. An old proverb says: "As cut, as filed, as carved, as polished." To fathom something one needs practice and deep thinking. That this is also a pleasure explains Confucius in the Analects: "To learn and to repeat the learned within times, is this is not also a pleasure?"
Perseverance has also two aspects:
- The first aspect is persistence. Whether in cold weather or oppressive heat, one should not interrupt the training. Thus it means also: "One practises also in the hottest summer time and in the coldest winter days.”
- In its second aspect, perseverance refers to a certain training time. One can increase one’s own efforts gradually, starting at whatever stage or condition one is in. It is important not be too hasty. The time spent on training and the amount of basic work could be, for example, 45 - 60 minutes. This should contain hard basic work. Only this makes it possible to achieve a high level of ability.