If we were to learn “Tai Chi” as an exercise, instead of practicing it as an internal art form, 太极拳 (Tai Chi Quan), then we do not need to bother with Qi and Yi.
There are so many definitions of 太极拳 or Tai Chi Boxing floating around that it has been shortened to just Tai Chi in English, which is incorrect. However, « 太极 (Tai Chi) » does not refer to the martial art of Tai Chi Quan, as we know it. Rather, « 太极 (Tai Chi) » is a concept in Chinese philosophy meaning our supreme potential. The character, « 拳 (Quan) » means “Fist” as in a martial art form, or a type of boxing, a sparring form. Without an understanding of Chinese culture and Mandarin, it is no wonder that it is widely misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Thus, we have it that Tai Chi Quan is sometimes erroneously likened to qigong as well. Qigong is more a repertoire of stationary breathing exercises whilst Tai Chi Quan is a choreographed routine of movements which is coordinated to your breathing as well. But, if you take away the Qi and Yi from your Tai Chi Quan practice, then it becomes nothing more than a mere exercise and not an internal martial art form.
Certainly, as with all exercises, Tai Chi exercise improves physiological and psychological health outcomes when you persevere and embark on a regular exercise program. Even if you practice Tai Chi Quan loosely as a sort of exercise, you will still reap health benefits. Many studies have already proven the efficacy of Tai Chi Quan for a large array of health conditions such as balance and stability in older people, reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis, ease fibromyalgia pain, and improve quality of life in people with heart disease, cancer, and those with Parkinson’s disease.
reference : Nccih.nih.gov. 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tai-chi-and-qi-gong-in-depth> [Accessed 28 May 2020].
Already, practising Tai Chi Quan comes with so many health benefits. Imagine if you were to practise it as a martial art instead with the intervention of Qi and Yi? Then, its benefits multiply manifold. Building Qi and Yi into your training will unlock the 太极 or supreme potential in you.
Tai Chi Quan was created based on the doctrine that our universe is governed by the principle of interactive contrasts, delineated in the I Ching, “The Book of Changes”. It is believed that there is a complement for every aspect of our existence. The movements in Tai Chi Quan mirrors a state of dynamic balance between contrasts in speed versus slow, power versus gentle, action versus stillness, upper body versus lower body, etc.
To practice Tai Chi Quan as an internal martial art form means that you focus your training under the principles of body focus, mind focus and breath focus. Let’s take a step back to consider what Internal means in the context of Tai Chi Quan.
Internal – meaning inside. Inside your body, inside your mind and your intention. Therefore, your body focus is the 神 (shen), or body awareness. Your mind focus is the 意 (yi), or intention. The aim of the training the shen and yi focus is to cultivate your 气 (qi), or internal energy. The goal of your training will be to harmonise these three internals. When you can harmonise your 神 (shen), 意 (yi) and 气 (qi), you will be able to apply them at will into your techniques.
So how does yi fit into Tai Chi Quan training?
Yi, or intention can be thought of as the active aspect in training. Yi is the mental ability to fixate on one thing and our intent to do something. It is the driving force behind our movements. It also guides our movements. For example, when you are young, when you try to move your eyebrows, you have to focus your yi on your eyebrows and keep trying until you can move them in the way that you want. So similarly with Tai Chi Quan training, we use our yi to command the way we move and how we move. Hence, the articulation of our yi will determine the efficacy of our movements. The more refined we can direct our yi in detailing our movements, the better the results of our movement. So, another key point is not getting distracted by our surroundings during training. Without distractions, we will be able to focus more on commanding every muscle, joint, tendon, ligament, and tissues according to our intention. Hence, it is very important to focus on that present moment or mindfulness when we are training.
In order to have very fine control over our movements, we need to spread our yi throughout our whole body so that it spreads through every joint and reaches the tips of our fingers, toes and top of our head. A good analogy would be to borrow a phrase from Bruce Lee, we need to let our yi spread throughout our body and “be like water”.
“Start by doing what’s necessary, then what’s possible; and suddenly, you are doing the impossible.”
~ Saint Francis
For example, when we are doing silk reeling, the dynamics when we are exhaling should look something like this:
Externally, when doing song kua, shift your weight, then turn / rotate your torso.
Internally, when turning, you need to sink your yi into every muscle, and throughout your tissues. Bear down with your weight into the rooted leg, and melt into the ground/floor.
At the same time, as we exhale, breathe out and downwards to enhance your sinking. As you breathe downwards, you are putting pressure into your diaphragm, your belly should expand out in all directions (front, side and back of your belly).
Now put your awareness on your soles. Your weight should be equally distributed between the ball and the heel of your feet and not the blades of your soles. Gently press into your rooted leg and you should try to feel the reaction force from the ground.
Then try to direct this energy or the qi to your fingertips. Don’t tense up or your qi will be blocked along the way. Calming your mind will help you to song further and relax your body thoroughly. This will then enhance the flow of the Qi.
This is all happening simultaneously. As a beginner, you train by concentrating on one area first. Keep training in each area until your body accustomises. When you keep doing this over a period of time, your body will gradually execute them at the same time.