Tai Chi and the Tao
Chief Instructor Brett Wagland
Legend tells us that Tai Chi was created by a Taoist master, Chang
San Feng of the 13th century, who resided on Mount Wudang.
Chang studied Shaolin boxing and Taoism. Eventually, he developed the
principles that influenced the nature of many internal health and
martial arts. Chang created Tai Chi as part of the training for inner
alchemy. In order for qi (energy) to build, it is important to maintain
emotional balance and refine one’s character. When the mind is steady
and calm, the cultivation of qi will develop naturally.
Chang founded Tai Chi on the following principles: relaxation,
naturalness, softness and yielding. When Tai Chi master, Yang Lu
Chan (1799–1872) defeated his opponent with a light touch, it appeared
as if he were using some sort of magic. In Tai Chi, the practitioner
waits for the opponent to attack first. By yielding and using the
opponent’s strength, he is able to apply a gentle strength to overcome a
When students learn Tai Chi, they are taught to relax, be gentle and
move slowly and calmly. You might wonder how relaxation and softness
can overcome physical strength and aggression. To see this clearly, you
need to understand the training process. All the internal arts, such as
Tai Chi Chuan (the Grand Ultimate Fist), Xing Yi Chuan (Form Mind
Boxing) and Ba Gua Zhang (Eight Trigram Palm), use the external body to
train the internal qi. The internal arts are the acme of understanding
in how to train the mind, body and spirit.
According to the Tai Chi classics, energy is rooted in the feet,
controlled by the waist and expressed through the arms, hands and
fingers. This is different from how most people use the body. Due to
tension, people generate strength from the upper body which tends to be
stiff and brittle. The internal arts call this strength wooden.
Everyone can do this but it is limited. On the other hand, when we
generate power from the feet and legs according to the internal arts, we
are using a whip like force. At first, this is a difficult skill to
learn. However, when you have mastered the whip, you will find it has
many more uses than a piece of wood.
An important requirement to achieve this flexible state is what the
Chinese call fang song. This term means to be relaxed and yet
energetic. The best experience for understanding this is to attempt to
hold a cat which moves from being totally relaxed to sudden, explosive
energy in a second. It goes from being soft as a cotton ball to moving
like a piece of spring steel. When a cat stalks a rat, its spirit
engulfs the rat before it attacks. These are the qualities we look for
in the internal arts.
Fang Song is first introduced under easy conditions such as Quiet
Standing or gentle, slow Tai Chi movements. You begin learning various
postures. You also learn how to relax or use the right amount of
strength in order to maintain the positions. As the training
progresses, more requirements are introduced, such as sitting lower or
turning the waist further, etc. In order to meet the more difficult
requirements, the body works harder. However, you still need to remain
relaxed. High level practitioners have learnt to relax under more
challenging conditions, such as slow, low walking with thighs parallel
to the ground or two person exercise such as Push Hands. The principle
of song eventually enables the body to become grounded and solid and
calms the mind.
In a physical confrontation, the internal arts focus on maintaining a
strong grounding, good structure, a calm alert mind and adaptability.
It is very different from the aggression and fear most people generate
under these conditions. Extensive training in these arts raises
our awareness levels. We can sense disharmony in ourselves and
others clearly. In challenging situations, rather than simply
reacting, we search for more mutually beneficial outcomes. To be
able to apply these skills, you need to cultivate listening energy.
This skill is developed through various exercises, mainly Push Hands,
that teach us to follow another person’s force instead of resisting or
trying to control with force.
The philosophy of Tao talks about being natural and simplifying our
lives. In Taoist lore, there is a legend about the eight immortals
one of the most famous is Master Lu Dong Bin. Master Lu left a
record of methods for attaining the Tao. Firstly, refine the mind
through tranquil sitting. This develops concentration and calmness.
Secondly, reduce desires so that we curb emotions and develop
selflessness. Thirdly, be sincere about achieving Tao. Otherwise, it
will be impossible to unite the three treasures jing, qi and shen
(essence, energy and spirit). Finally, be free of anxiety. Following
the Tao means being able to accept things as they are – following the
natural way. Although the Tao is often referred to as the Way, its
essence is being or to be.
In Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu (6th century B.C.) talks about
softness and gentleness overcoming hardness and rigidity. These are the
very same principles that Tai Chi employs in training, whether it is in
a form or self defence. The word chuan as in Tai Chi Chuan is usually
translated as fist in English. In Chinese, the meaning of fist implies
something mysterious or hidden. In the west, boxing is a sport based on
speed, strength and aggression. In Chinese internal martial arts,
boxing is based on calmness, skill and using the opponent’s strength
against himself. A refined strength (jin) is preferred over the
untrained brute strength. Brute strength comes from the muscles of the
upper body contracting and expanding. Jin comes from the sinews,
joints, bones and the coordination of the whole body, mind and qi.
According to Lao Tzu, the following qualities – kindness, frugality and
humility – are regarded as three treasures. Traditionally, a teacher of
the internal arts would observe a student for a few years before
deciding to teach him in depth. If the student was selfish, the teacher
would teach him very little and so, it would prove difficult for the
student to progress. Kindness is about having empathy and good
heartedness. If the student is cruel, the teacher would not pass on
potentially deadly skills. Frugality does not mean stinginess.
It refers to being economical and valuing simplicity. In the context of
the internal arts, it is the ability to go deep in the training and
grasp the very essence of the art. Most people think more is better.
They cannot enjoy the simple things in life. In order to learn and
progress in the internal arts, we require humility. Once our cup
becomes full, we will not be able to learn anything new. The more empty
the cup, the more tea it can hold. Humility is a sign that the student
understands that learning never ends. It is not about making himself
more important than others. Nobody likes an arrogant master, no matter
how good he is.
By training in the internal arts diligently, you will find that the
principles and practices will become part of you. You will begin to
experience the Tao. Taoists like to use the example of a six year old
child’s energy level and enthusiasm as a barometer with which to gauge
an adult’s outlook on life. Most adults have lost this sense of
openness. We find it difficult to enjoy our own company. We have
become so reliant on outside entertainment that simple things no longer
have value. The internal arts teach us the value of being natural and
at ease with ourselves and the world around us. I hope your pursuit of
Tai Chi will give you a glimpse of the Tao and enrich your life as it
has done for many others.