Since sight is arguably our primary means of perception, our attention quite naturally tends to focus on things that catch the eye. In sports or any body art, therefore, we are most readily captivated by the athletes' physical abilities--agility, speed, jumping, balance, strength, and the like. Likewise, our own training tends to focus on our physical development, external postures, and movements.
The ancient Chinese philosophy of exercise is very different from the West. First of all, Chinese feel that the inner and outer must work together and be developed in a balanced manner. This philosophy is built into the very nature of taiji quan. All too often, the taiji quan student's internal work is limited to memorizing the form. This is obviously unbalanced. Secondly, taiji quan is designed to harmonize the internal and external. If our practice leans heavily to one side, it can never prepare us for the high levels of this art. Therefore, to experience the full richness and true benefits of taiji quan we must practice from the inside out. The following three areas are very important for internal development.
I've always said that the breath is a bridge between the internal and external. Much has already been written on the subject of inhale-exhale practice during the form.
I'm against violence and I don't like it in our society. But I do emphasize usage because it gives meaning to our movements. Lacking this knowledge, mind and movement are split. It will be almost impossible to achieve the depth and fullness contained in taiji quan. Moreover, movements will also suffer from misinterpretation.
The mind is the internal control center of the body. It sets priorities and requirements, and issues the orders that direct the body's movements. Knowledge of the usage adds a necessary dimension and depth to taiji quan. Without it, the body will follow improper commands that result in unsuitable action.
Take, for instance, focus and relaxation. Indeed, the mind must relax so the body can relax to move in a flowing manner. But "relax" does not mean blank or empty in mind or body. This type of emptiness brings numbness, nothing; whereas, relaxation gives us flexibility.
While the body is performing, the mind should not be totally empty. Our attention must focus--yang--and at the same time, relax--yin. Yin and yang work in concert, not separately. Focus and relaxation are complementary mental muscles which, when properly used, improve our art and our wellbeing. To learn how to use them, we must move one step further: know the usage.
Like the mind, it exists in the body, not as thought but as a physical structure. Located, unseen, in the back of our bodies, it is ignored by most practitioners.
When we were babies, movement involved our entire bodies. As adults, we've learned from daily life, sports, natural fighting, stress and job-related movements, to restrict our torsos and act primarily with our arms and legs, extending to feet, hands, fingers. In other words we've drifted away from our spines.
Taiji quan--and all other kung fu styles--is primarily a whole-body exercise which requires both internal as well as physical skills, and torso involvement as well as kicking legs and waving arms. Very importantly, our internal organs must be protected. Many kung fu instructors talk about strengthening the lungs, a healthier liver, or even treating your heart problem. From a martial arts perspective, the internal organs are not tools for fighting or improving your taiji quan but the beneficiaries of a complete and correct training.
The real backbone of all taiji quan movements and postures is the spine. All movements must originate in the spine, not our limbs. The only way to accomplish this is to change our thinking--consciously and consistently ask our bodies to reverse a lifelong habit. In the beginning it may be difficult to see any improvement but gradually we'll get more control.
As an example, before I buy any book I always check the Table of Contents. Of course a provocative title, promotional materials, attractive covers, or intriguing chapters can capture my interest. But only the Contents will give me an overview of the book's structure--the author's starting point, debates, theories, direction of thought, and conclusions. You see, the chapters and sections are our arms and legs, and our movements; the Table of Contents is the backbone. The chapters and sub-sections are attached to the contents, just like our arms and legs all relate through our spine. Yes, we can move an isolated arm, leg, fingers and toes just as we can lift excerpts from a book. But when we practice taiji quan, the overview, the essential structure, the whole-body movement must be present.
So first, the proper sequence is: begin with the spine, then arms and legs follow. The spine links it all together. Secondly, the spine is the leader, directing other parts of the body to complete the entire movement. Thirdly, move the spine by twisting, not shifting. Shifting is created by the legs, sometimes by the waist. Of course, twisting also involves waist and hips which help to convey the spine's commands to the arms and legs. Twisting gives us more working distance, setting the fundamental stage for the curving chan si jing movement.
Of these three areas--breath, usage, spine--breath exercise is the most accepted and practiced within the taiji community. The mental element is the most important and widely recognized, though less well understood. Though the mind is our commander-in-chief, backbone motivation is critically necessary for successful training. Since it is the least discussed and practiced, I want especially to share its importance with taiji lovers. Practice it with every single movement every day. The body will begin adjusting to the idea and our way of practice will become established. Then, once we move where will we start? With the backbone, the taiji way!