Stages of Learning Taijiquan As a Martial Art

Taiji is both a martial art and a good health exercise for people of all ages.  As a matter of fact, when it was first invented several hundred years ago, it was even more used as a martial art, e.g., to protect villages from bandits or as body guards for transporting people and goods.  That is why Taiji is also known as Taijiquan, the fist of Taiji.

Just like learning everything else, be it learning to read, write, mathematics, riding a bicycle, cooking, drawing, playing a musical instrument, or playing soccer, there are several stages in the learning process, i.e., there are several skill sets one needs to learn.  When one has learned a particular skill set, then one can proceed to learn a more advanced skill set, and it takes repeated practice to learn and retain a skill set.  For example, in mathematics, one first learns the basic skill set of arithmetic, composing of skills of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.  Then one learns the skill set of algebra, composing of skills of using variables, equations, and solving the equations.  Then one learns the skill set of geometry, composing of skills of learning the relations between lines, shapes or figures, space and their various properties such as area and volume.  Then one learns the skill set of calculus, composing of skills of learning to divide things into smaller and smaller parts (differential calculus) or adding smaller parts into larger parts (integral calculus).  The learning continues to other skill sets, perhaps leading even to inventing new skill sets.  Furthermore, the learning is not necessarily linear, i.e., one doesn’t have to finish learning one skill set before proceeding to learning another skill set.

This article describes the stages of learning Taijiquan as a martial art in terms of its basic skill sets.

Fundamental Principles of Taijiquan:  The first skill set of learning Taijiquan is to learn about the fundamental principles of Taiji, such as:

  • Relax the body and mind; this helps to reduce stress and increase one’s sensitivity and awareness of an opponent’s intentions and moves
  • Keep the upper body straight, as though there is a rope attached to the top of one’s head going straight up to the ceiling; this facilitates the necessary constant shifting of directions
  • In general do not have one foot directly in front of the other foot, i.e., have the two feet separated in the transverse direction by about one shoulder width; this helps to increase stability
  • When stepping down with the front foot, step down first on the heal, and then step down on the toes; this helps to make all parts (leg, body, and hand) of a person moving simultaneously toward the opponent and thus increase the power of the attack
  • Keep the waist flexible and loose; this helps to increase the power of one’s punches and kicks by adding the rotational power of the turning of the waist
  • Do not oppose an attack head-on, but utilize the opponent’s motion to get the opponent off balance and counter attack appropriately; this helps to defeat a bigger and stronger opponent

When I say that this is the first skill set of learning Taijiquan, I do not necessarily mean that every Taiji teacher will start their first class with teaching these principles.  Usually what they teach in the first couple of classes is the beginning of some basic form set, such as the Yang Style 10 Form, 16 Form, or 24 Form, or the Chen Style 24 Form, 56 Form, or 81 Form.  However, earlier on when they are teaching one of these form sets, they should also explain and emphasize the previously mentioned fundamental principles, because it is extremely important for the students to learn doing the forms following these fundamental principles.  Otherwise, it is much more difficult and time consuming to correct them once the students have developed bad techniques and habits.

Basic Forms:  As already mentioned, usually some basic form set is taught to beginning students while also learning the fundamental principles of Taijiquan.  The reason that a set of forms is practiced together, and not just individual forms is because by combining a number of forms together to become a form set, then it would take several minutes to practice the whole form set so that practicing a form set can become an aerobic exercise by stimulating the heart and lung.  Also, different forms may illustrate different martial applications.  So practicing a form set is practicing multiple martial applications.  In an actual fighting situation, a fight seldom ends after the first encounter.

Qi Development:  Taijiquan is an internal martial art which means that it emphasizes the development of Qi. [1]  Although Qi may be a very puzzling concept to non-practitioners, it is almost as real to practitioners as their blood, their pulse, or their breath.  But it requires persistent exercises over many months/years to develop.  Qi is usually developed via meditation exercises (standing, sitting, or lying meditation exercises).  For example, stand upright with legs separated by one shoulder width with knees slightly bent, elbows by your side, hands pointed forward at stomach height, thumbs pointed upward, and the other fingers curled and left and right fingers pointing to each other.  Relax your whole body and mind.  Take deep slow breaths.  As you breathe in, lower the diaphragm and expand your abdomen forward and also expand the back of your abdomen backward, and as you breathe out, raise the diaphragm and contract your abdomen (both front and back), known as Natural Lower Abdominal Breathing.  Or conversely, as you breathe in, lower the diaphragm but contract your abdomen, and as you breathe out raise your diaphragm and expand your abdomen, known as Reverse Lower Abdominal Breathing.  In either case, as you breathe in, imagine that you are pulling in and depositing your Qi in your Dantian (an area about 2-3″ below your navel and 2-3″ inside your body which is considered to be the reservoir for storing Qi), and as you breathe out, push the Qi from the Dantian to the rest of your body, e.g., to your palm and fingers as you strike an opponent.

If you practice such standing meditation on a regular basis (if not daily, then multiple times per week, with each practice lasting 30 minutes or longer), then Qi will become more real to you, and you will feel Qi developing and circulating inside your body.  In the previous paragraph, even though we associate the inhaling and exhaling of air with respectively the deposit of Qi in the Dantian and the expulsion of Qi from the Dantian, as you advance in your Taijiquan skills, the deposit and expulsion of Qi can occur at any moment and it doesn’t have to depend on other bodily motions, including inhaling and exhaling.

Push Hands Exercises:  Doing Taiji form sets is an individual exercise.  However, a martial art application always involves at least two people.  Therefore to practice Taiji as a martial art, i.e, to practice Taijiquan, one has to go beyond practicing form sets.  That is the purpose of practicing Push Hands when two people practice together with each trying to get the opponent off balance.  Each person can use his/her repertoire of offensive and defensive moves, including peng (棚), lui (捋), ji (挤), an (按), cai (採), lie (洌), zhou (肘), and kao ().  By touching the opponent in a relaxed way, you can sense your opponent’s motions and intentions, and your opponent cannot so easily sense your motions and intentions.  So by knowing your opponent and the opponent doesn’t know you, you already have the battle half won.  You can practice static push hands in which you do not take steps, and dynamic push hands in which you can take steps forward or backward.  Click here for a video of some simple push hands [2].

Rooting and Making Kua Flexible:  Rooting means to sink your body weight and have your feet rooted to the ground. [3]  While doing this, your body must be relaxed and your Qi must be lowered to the Dantian, which is the reservoir for Qi.  With the feet firmly planted on the ground, then you can generate more power.  With your body relaxed, that power from the feet can be transferred to the upper body.  At the same time, Qi from the Dantian reservoir can flow to another part of your body, e.g., to your striking hand in a martial art application, thus increasing your power.  In Taiji the involvement of the mind is very important.  Initially,you may not be able to feel your Qi.  So you use your mind to guide the movement of Qi.  For example, during a long and strenuous exercise you may become hot and your face becomes red, then you can use your mind to imagine that your Qi is being led from the face and top part of your body down to your Dantian.  Similarly, when you warm down by raising your hands upward while breathing in slowly and then downward while breathing out slowly, you can also imagine that you are guiding your Qi from the head/upper part of body to the Dantian as you are moving your hands downward while breathing out.  With regular and continued practice, you should be able to sense your Qi, but still letting your mind to guide your motions.

The ability to make your kua flexible and have more control over it is a very important skill in Taijiquan.  As a matter of fact, it is critical for reaching advanced levels.  Even though this was known from ancient days and was mentioned in the Taiji classics, it is a skill that is not necessarily widely taught or understood.  The kua is related but not the same as the hip.  The kua is the junctional area between the abdomen and the thigh on either side of your body; it is also known as the “inguinal crease.”  The skill is to be able to sink and rotate the kua (which is different from rotating the hip or turning the knee) by slightly lowering that part of your body and slightly folding the inguinal crease. This position resembles a cat ready to pounce on a rat.  It puts the weight of your body more on your feet, and not on the knees, and allows you to spring forward/upward, and therefore provides more power in martial applications.  Again, it takes regular and continued practice to perfect this important skill. [4]

Integrating Internal Movements and External Movements:  The next stage is to improve the flow of Qi so that it is more guided by the mind, and not so much by the physical movement of the body, or even the breath.  In other words, the required external motions and breathing that previously led to generation and circulation of Qi can be gradually reduced to smaller and smaller amounts, so that ultimately it can arise almost spontaneously, essentially under the control of the mind.  This requires constant and persistent practice of all the previous skills  To get to this advanced stage of Taijiquan as a martial art, even when you are practicing the form sets by yourself, you always have one or more imaginary opponents fighting you.  But when you are in an actual fighting situation, you should have confidence in yourself by staying calm and relaxed as though there is no opponent around you.

Concluding Remarks:  Taijiquan is both a good health exercise and a good martial art.  Although to learn to do some basic forms may be easy, to learn the various skill sets to become an expert Taijiquan practitioner from the martial arts perspective is complex and takes many years of constant and persistent practice   Just like learning any complex subject, be it mathematics, arts, music, or physics, there are several skill sets one has to learn.  The learning process is not necessarily linear, i.e., one doesn’t have to finish learning, or master, one skill set before proceeding to learn another skill set.  One could simultaneously be practicing several skill sets at the same time.  But the commonality in learning is that the amount you achieve is proportional to the amount of work you put in, although different people may have different proportionality constants.

 


[1] In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or in Chinese martial arts, Qi is an internal life force or energy that can increase the attacking power and also the absorbing power of a practitioner.

[2] Click here for another video on Taiji Push Hands.  The book The Essense of Taijiquan Push-Hands and Fighting Technique by Wang Fengming contains a detailed discussion on Push Hands.

[3] See, e.g., articles on rooting in “Taiji Forum” and in “Tai Chi Society.

[4] For a short explanation of the position and movement of the kua, see sample video.  For more explanation of the kua and its importance in martial arts (as well as in other sports), see, e.g.,

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