When you first start practicing Taiji Quan your emphasis is on perfecting the form. Usually on the first day you are taught the basic Wuji posture and told all the requirements that you must fulfill to hold the posture correctly. Just standing still it feels awkward, uncomfortable, and some times overwhelming to get everything right.
Franklin Fick - Tai Chi Single Whip
After a while it becomes more comfortable and natural. As you are introduced to Taiji Quan walking and single posture practice you are forced to apply all the requirements that you learned while first standing still. At first it is very difficult but just like the beginning standing posture Wuji it becomes more natural and manageable with some practice. Later you start to learn a form which puts the different postures together and with more practice realize that you have just scratched the surface.
You realize that there are levels of refinement to the requirements that you thought you knew. Only after you get to a level where the form becomes somewhat natural and you do not have to think about the basic requirements while practicing the form are you introduced to how to use your breath to circulate energy while practicing.
The basic circulation of energy used while practicing the form is the microcosmic orbit. The microcosmic orbit is both a basic and advanced practice. It is also used for sitting cultivation and uses the Ren and the Du meridians. The Du Meridian runs up the back of the body’s centerline (spine). The Ren Meridian runs down the front of the body’s centerline.
Some of the basic requirements of the form help to connect these two meridians. The body should be upright and relaxed. The tip of the tongue should touch the roof of the mouth. This allows the Qi that has risen up the Du Meridian to descend down the front of the body to the lower Dan Tien.
This circulation of Qi can be considered another manifestation of Taiji in the body. The Ren and the Du Meridians are both considered extra meridians in the body. What this means is they do not pertain to one of the organs like the twelve regular meridians in the body. The extra meridians, of which there are eight, all deal with fundamental substances or the movement of Qi. The Ren Meridian is the “sea of Yin” and the Du Meridian is the “sea of Yang.”
The first step is to learning to circulate the energy is to coordinate the movements of the form with the breathing. At the beginning this can be very difficult but it is the same as other stages of training in that with time and practice it will become more natural. This coordination of the breath and the movements should be achieved naturally without force.
When this harmony of breath and movement is achieved while practicing the form, training the form becomes a Qi Gong or energy cultivation exercise. The next step is to circulate the Qi or energy through the microcosmic orbit in coordination with the breathing and the form. As you inhale, the Qi sinks down the front of the body along the Ren Meridian into the lower Dan Tien. At the end of your exhale, the pelvis tips slightly forward and the Qi travels up the back to the head along the Du Meridian and the Qi also travels down the arms. Again this is achieved naturally without force.
When you can circulate the energy through the microcosmic orbit while practicing, the form becomes a method of cultivation and has the same benefits as sitting meditation. It is very easy to describe the methods but it is very hard to put them into practice. Some teachers do not talk about these methods but instead say things like: do not concentrate on the breath and just breathe naturally. They say that through correct practice all will be taken care off. One of my teachers who followed this way of teaching did point out that these things were happening naturally without even thinking about them as a result of correct practice over time. Other teachers point out the achievement that should be attained, but if they are not clear this can lead to some confusion. The student may think that this is a process that should be directed by them consciously and guided with their intention.
I believe that using Taiji Quan as a method of cultivation can sometimes be better that other methods including sitting. There is minimum danger of the body and meridians not being opened or ready for the energy flow because every time you practice you are conditioning the body, joints, and meridians. It also takes a lot of time and work to get to the point of using Taiji form practice as cultivation. This can be both a blessing and a curse. It is good because everything will open up in its own time when the body is ready so there is minimum danger of progressing to quickly. The main drawback is that it does take a lot of work to achieve results and not many people will be willing or able to put in the work and time.
One danger of any type of cultivation is getting stuck or preoccupied with one aspect of the whole and forgetting about the bigger picture. What happens is the practitioner gets stuck and does not progress further because they might seek similar sensations each practice time. Instead always seek to improve yourself no matter what stage you are at. Question and critique yourself and never be satisfied with your achievements. This can be hard because after many years of hard work it would seem natural to be happy with your achievements. Instead I believe that you should regard yourself as a beginner even if you are teaching other people.
If you put yourself above others then you block yourself from being able to learn from them. If you are teaching people regard yourself as a guide not a guru. I mean that you must be honest with people. If you do not know something tell the truth, don’t set yourself up as a god. You can refer student's to a better teacher than yourself. Your student will be happy. The other teacher will be happy. But I think the most important thing is that you have kept yourself honest and in doing so have given yourself the chance for further improvement because you have acknowledged that you have some room for improvement. Having this state of mind is important to cultivation and practice because it acknowledges reality instead of creating an imaginary one.
I would like to describe one more stage after the microcosmic orbit that one of my teachers introduced me to. This method allows you to draw energy from the heavens and the earth into the body and circulate it through the microcosmic orbit while you practice the Taiji form. The breathing and movement of Qi is the same as in the microcosmic orbit but the level of attainment is expanded and you start to communicate with the energy around yourself (or you become aware of this process happening). As you inhale, the Qi still decends down the front of the body along the Ren Meridian to the lower Dan Tien. At the same time, Qi is also drawn in from the heavens down through the Bai Hui (hundred meetings) point on top of the head and into the lower Dan Tien and Qi from the earth is drawn up through the soles of the feet at the Yong Quan (bubbling spring) point and into the lower Dan Tien. On the exhale the pelvis tips slightly forward and the Qi travels up the Du Meridian to the head and also out the arms.
The Bai Hui point is located on the mid-line of the head at the midpoint of the line connecting the apex of the two ears. The Yong Quan point is located on the bottom of the foot about 1/3 of the way from the toes to the heel, in the depression right beneath the ball of the foot.
The methods that I discussed here are kept secret by some and ridiculed as not being the correct method by others. They are methods that I was taught by my teachers. My goal was not to teach these methods but just to introduce them. I can see why some people would keep these methods secret. If you don’t put in years of practice these methods are just theories.
Because it is very hard to verify the movement of Qi in someone else’s body these theories could be used by people with little training to deceive others into thinking that they were at a higher level or had some answers that they did not have. Some people will ridicule these methods because they do not believe in Qi or do not think the method is correct. For the people that do not believe in Qi there is not much to say.
The people that say this is not the correct method will say that it differs from the microcosmic orbit used for sitting meditation. This is true. When doing the microcosmic orbit during sitting meditation some people guide the Qi up the back along the Du meridian to the top of the head as they inhale and descend it along the Ren Meridian during the exhale. When doing the Taiji Form it is the opposite. During the inhale Qi descends along the Ren meridian to the lower Dan Tien. After the exhale is complete at the end of a posture there is a slight pause in the breathing and the form and this is where the pelvis tips slightly forward and the Qi travels up the Du meridian to the head. So actually when doing the Taiji form the ascension of the Qi happens at the end of the exhale and just before the inhale starts. This will happen naturally when doing the form correctly.
One other thing to take into account is that some modern forms have altered the transitions between moves so sometimes the breathing will not be able to naturally combine with the movements no matter how long you practice. My goal in presenting this information was to share some of the things that I have been privileged to learn and at the same time hopefully expand your idea of what Taiji Quan practice can encompass.