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How to Get the Best out of Taijiquan

By Tu-Ky Lam

Millions and millions of people are learning or practicing Taijiquan every day, but a lot of them do not get the full benefits of doing it. To get the best out of our Taiji practice, we need to know the real intent of each component of Taijiquan training, match it with our need, and then concentrate on doing these parts.

Breathing

Many people breathe normally during their Taiji practice. They miss out on a very good benefit of Taiji training, which can rejuvenate their energy, and keep them young and energetic. Many people have chronic illness, which nobody (including doctors) knows why. Traditional Chinese medicine says there is blockage in their energy paths. I think there is also blockage in their internal organs, which, like our bones and muscles, need exercises regularly so that they can be full of life.

Taiji and Qi-gong practitioners consider breathing important. They breathe in and out of their kidneys. In other words, they use abdominal breathing to improve their health and fitness. Kidney in this context means the kidney and the neighboring internal organs in our lower abdomen called dan-tian. People who are tired all the time (chronic fatigue), have problems with their stomachs, bowels, and even impotence should work hard on abdominal breathing. (For more details, see my article on the Rotation of Dan-tian on my site.)

I use reverse abdominal breathing (dan-tian rotation) not only in my practice but also in my daily life. I breathe with my abdomen when I am walking, sitting, and even lying in bed. It has become my habit. My stomach initiates breathing any time it feels like without me giving orders. The result is I feel energetic most of the day - a great feeling. (When I was on a long flight to and from London, I breathed with my abdomen to give me more energy and help my blood circulation with very good result.)

Taiji routines

These are the main parts in Taijiquan training. When people learn Taijiquan, they learn the routines. The purpose of the routine is to loosen up our joints and tendons, to build up a structure with which we can still maintain our balance when other people try to upset it. It provides very good exercise on our physical body - bones, muscles and tendons, and so keep us healthy and fit.

One of the major intents of the routine is to stretch our joints and tendons to increase our qi flow and internal strength. So during your Taiji practice always try to lift you head top up to make your neck and torso longer - from two to five millimeters longer. You should also stretch your arms by making the shoulders drop away from the torso, the elbows away from the shoulders, the wrists away from the elbows, and fingers away from the wrists. Always sit on one of the legs (sometimes both) to know your substantial and insubstantial and stretch your legs when you shift weight. For example, from reverse bow stance to bow stance, your back foot push down and your back leg pushes forward while your front leg pushes down on the ground. (Note your front leg should not pushes forward.) This process is reverse when you change from bow stance to reverse bow stance.

To build a structure requires a lot of practice. If you train hard according to what has just been said you will eventually get to "song" (all your joints and tendons are loosened and lengthened. And you are relaxed.) and have a good structure where you can neutralize an attack and counterattack easily.

Two of the major features in Taijiquan training are slow and soft. We practice slowly so that we can have good co-ordination of the whole body by using our waist/torso to move our arms, and we can feel how the internal power developed from standing postures carried over to our hands.

We are soft or relaxed so that we can observe and feel our opponent's movements, and react quickly. In Chen Taijiquan, we also need to train on the fast and strong aspects of Taijiquan so that both the Yin and the Yang aspects of Taijiquan are fully covered.

Weapons' routines

Some teachers teach Taiji weapons' routines such as sword, saber, spear, and guan-dao (long handle broad sword). They all look graceful and interesting. Learn these if you want. But you will need to add an extra 15 minutes a day to practice them. If you want to spend only 40 minutes a day on practicing Taijiquan, you will be much better off just doing Zhan-zhuang and the routine.

Martial art's application

This is the major intent of the Taiji routines. Taijiquan is a martial art so each move has its special intent or use for a self-defence situation. Beginners need to know it so that they can concentrate better, have better qi flow and can practice with a sense of purpose. Eventually, they will be able to use it for self-defence.

The best way to learn the martial art's application of each move is from your teacher. Failing this, a video tape or a book on martial art's application of your style will be helpful. At the first stage you can only know how each move is used in self-defence, and with the cooperation of your fellow students you can also apply the techniques on them. Later on when your internal strength develop, you will get better and be able to do it without their cooperation.

Zhan-zhuang

This is the foundation of Taijiquan. Both beginners and advanced practitioners have to do it every day to improve their health and internal strength. In fact, the main purpose of doing standing posture is to build up our internal force. But its flow-on benefits to health are tremendous.

Zhan-zhuang is a very good weapon against the winter colds and flu. Doing standing exercises half an hour a day can reduce your chances of getting colds or the flu by 70% to 80%. Even when you get the flu, it is not so serious as to put you in bed for one or two weeks. It will be mild, and you need only a couple of days' rest with some pain killer. People who have weak legs, especially the elderly, and always want to sit down instead of standing or walking, can benefit from doing standing exercises.

From the martial art's point view, standing exercises increase our internal strength, harden our bones, and give us a good body structure so we can better defend ourselves against an attack.

Power discharge

In Chen style Taijiquan we have palm strikes, elbow strikes, punches, kicks, which look very much like those in the external schools (Shaolin or Karate). The difference is in their execution. We are still very relaxed and hit hard only at the point of contact. This is good for self-defence, but requires a lot of training. To be able to discharge power, you will need to spend a lot of time doing zhan-zhuang to develop your internal strength first. Then use Bai Ba Qi Gong Zhuang as a means to carry your internal strength over to the palm strikes. Your movements should be swift, lively, springy and explosive like a whip (if you train hard), and not as stiff as a piece of stick (if you do not train hard).

Strength training programs

These mainly refer to the use of equipments such as the long pole, Taiji stick, Taiji ball, Taiji drum (like a barrel filled with concrete or gravels), Taiji tube, etc. (See my article on the Benefits of Doing Strength Training Programs.) They help to increase our strength quickly but are only recommended for people under 55 years of age as they consume too much energy.

Push-hands

This is a two-person Taiji practice where each tries to upset the balance of the other. There are only eight moves in push-hands practice, of which four are more important than the others - ward-off, roll-back, press and push. Push-hands is a means to test our body alignment, and it bridges the gap between the form and sparring. People who want to put their Taiji skill (including body alignment) to the test and want to improve it should not miss this part of training.

Individual movements

This is mainly for self-defence. We cannot practice all the individual movements in the routines as there are too many of them. I group them according to their use in self-defence such as shoulder strikes, elbow strikes, palm strikes, punches, kicks, etc. and ask my students to practice these until they become automatic.

Sparring

This is the last part of Taijiquan training. Very few people take part in this as most people do Taijiquan for health and for fun. Moreover, people start learning Taijiquan quite late and are too old to fight. (The age limit for San-shou competition in China is 35.)

However, young people should spar with practitioners of other martial arts systems. You cannot be a good fighter unless you have fought many times. Do the standing postures to develop strong internal force, learn how to carry over the force into sparring, do push-hands and individual movements, and then go out to fight. Do not worry whether you win or lose. Analyze why you have won and lost, and try to improve. Slowly you will be good at sparring.

Useful hints

As there are so many parts in Taijiquan training that not many people have time or the chance to do all of them, knowing which parts to concentrate on is important. Here are some useful hints.

If you reserve half an hour a day for training, then spend 15 minutes on standing exercises and the other 15 minutes doing the form. Try to incorporate breathing into your training to maximize the benefits. Find more time to do push-hands with your friend if you can. This is fun and can increase your interest in Taijiquan.

If you have more time, then find any other parts that interest you and work on them. To see good result for health you need to train properly for at least 30 to 40 minutes every day. For self-defence, two or three times longer.



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