Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Taijiquan - Cultivating the Mind, Body, and Spirit.

I’ve always had an affinity for Asian culture which was rooted in an early love for the martial arts. I studied a few different martial arts from childhood on, including Tae Kwon Do, Karate, and Taijutsu through the Bujinkan system. While I learned valuable lessons from each of these experiences, my ultimate goal through training in the martial arts was self improvement, discovery, and awareness.

Due to this I eventually came to learn the art of Taijiquan (or T’ai Chi Ch’uan) under my Shifu, Shi Deru who is a 31st generation master of the Shaolin Temple and direct disciple of grandmaster Shi Suxi, a former abbot of the Temple. (translation: tai = “supreme”, ji = “ultimate”, quan = “fist” *note: While there are various similar translations, this is the one I’ve encountered the most.) In the three years I’ve been his student I have been exposed to various forms of Qigong, Yang style Taiji, Chen style Taiji, and Yang sword Taiji.

Many people consider Taiji as nothing more than a form of exercise, and while it is an excellent form of exercise, it is important to understand that Taiji is a martial art, and the movements are based in fighting techniques and applications.

Taiji is more than just a “kata” or pre-arranged sequence of movements. It is a system in which the movements are synchronized with breathing, as well as intent, to integrate the mind, body, and spirit. This is an important point about Taiji; basically when we practice Taiji it is, as my Shifu told me, a microcosm of the Universe. In the Universe everything is in motion and everything is connected.

When we practice Taiji, and synchronize our breathing with the movements to become totally present in the form, we cultivate energy and instigate it’s flow through the body connecting every aspect of our being. It is the same thing, just a smaller scale.
This is the reason Taiji has often been referred to as a moving meditation. We use the movements to bring our attention into the present moment, then we synchronize the breathing with the movements to engage every aspect of our being with the form the same way that we use our breath as an anchor in seated meditation. When our mind becomes distracted during seated meditation we simply bring our attention back to our breath-and in Taiji practice we bring our attention to every inch of the movement we are performing.

Coordinating the breath with the fluid movements of the Taiji form is essential if we are going to experience the benefits from this art. The best way to learn this is by first learning Qigong.

Qigong (or Chi Kung) means “energy work”, and is a practice for aligning the body, breath, and mind for health, meditation, and martial arts training; and has it’s roots in Chinese medicine, philosophy, and martial arts (from Wikipedia). This practice of cultivating energy has a very positive impact on Taiji, and due to the complexity of the art of Taiji, Qigong is where beginners should spend most of their practice as they begin to build proficiency in the Taiji movements and forms.
The basic principles of Taiji, according to Mantak Chia, are:
  1. Concentrating the mind and chi.
  2. Relaxing in movement while distinguishing the full (yang) from the empty (yin).
  3. Keeping the body rooted to the ground and the center of gravity low.
  4. Keeping the bone structure aligned with the forces of heaven and earth and transferring the earth force through the bone structure into a single point of discharge.
  5. Allowing the chi to circulate and move the muscles, bones, and tendons in slow, coordinated movements without ever pushing the physical limitations of the body to extremes and moving smoothly and continuously with total body integration.

Chia further states that the benefits from learning and practicing the Taiji forms and postures are:
  1. They open and undo energy blockages in one’s energy channels.
  2. The slow and gentle taiji movements stretch one’s energy channels and keep them supple and strong.
  3. The rhythmic movements of the muscles, spine, joints pump energy through the whole body.
  4. Taiji is an exercise that gives you more energy than it uses up.
  5. After taiji you feel relaxed and invigorated.

To me the purpose of martial arts study is for self cultivation and improvement, and not for combative or sport reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect those who participate in the combat sports, particularly those that bring the traditional side of their martial arts training into the combat arena by displaying respect for their opponent, their sport, and themselves.

Consider this point, in his book, “The Shaolin Monastery”, Meir Shahar makes the point that the empty hand techniques with the fighting monks came about long after the development of the weapon techniques, particularly the staff that the fighting monks were quite fond of. This indicates that the empty hand techniques had no application on the battlefield against staffs and bladed weapons and instead were used as a form of mind, body, and spirit cultivation.

I can honestly say that the two things that have had the most positive impact on my health and well-being have been adopting a plant-based diet; and adding meditation, Qigong, and Taiji practice to my health and fitness training. I have written extensively about the benefits I’ve experienced through many blog articles, as well as in my book “Abundant Health: Fitness for the Mind, Body, and Spirit”.
In upcoming blog articles I will dig a little deeper into the art of Taiji and talk about some of the different styles and benefits.

Thanks for reading, and if you have had any experiences in meditation, Taijiquan, Qigong, or any of the other internal arts, please share in the comments below!