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Wu (Hao) Tai Chi Training Tips

These are selected excerpts from class lectures in loosely chronological order, as they are introduced to the main class. The chronological order matters because it shows how each requirement is introduced over time, after the student has learned previous ones, and how each requirement is refined and modified according to the learners' progress.

  • Thirteen Requirements - essential requirements in tai chi that must be fully understood and practiced in order to progress in this art.
  • On Yi (Mind Intent) and Qi, etc.
  • On Sinking Qi to Dan-tian.
  • On Martial Spirits Requirement.
  • On Single-move practice, etc. (3/24/2001):
    • Practice the first 3 moves of the 49 form when you don't have time to practice the entire forms everyday, such as when traveling. This could be just as effective as practicing the whole 49 forms.
    • Practice the 49 form in times of 2, i.e., practice the 49 form for 2, 4, 6, etc., times each session.
  • On the 'protecting the stomach' requirement (3/25/2001):
    • Some people translate this requirement into 'protecting the abdomen,' but stomach (or upper abdomen) is the correct translation. When we sink the qi on the back, starting from the shoulder blades, we need to separate the qi into two bands as they approach the lower back: one will wrap around and reach the stomach area in front (not the abdomen area, which is lower)--which is what 'protecting the stomach' refers to--the other will continue to go down and reach the hip and then all the way to the heels.
  • Some training sequences for sinking qi (6/2001)
    • for starters, try sinking qi from collar bones down to dan tian, in two bands (instead of just a single stream from between the two collar bones); also sink qi from 1) shoulder, 2) elbow, down to 3) wrist. in the back, sink qi from below shoulder blades to back hips, all the way down to the heels.
    • later we will vary the above by: sinking qi from back of neck (spine top) to shoulder, elbow, and wrist.
    • we will vary above still by: sinking qi from elbow to wrist, this is to help you forget your shoulders, because the thought of trying to relax your shoulders will actually get in the way of relaxing them.
  • On yin and yang (7/2001):
    • Tai chi is (all) about yin and yang: if you raise your arms upwards externally (as in some of the forms), inside you have to sink your qi downwards in order to balance that.
    • An old tai chi saying: from nothing [no tai chi] to something [tai chi]. That is, in doing the forms, before you start, you have no tai chi: you're not separating front and back, up and down, etc. The moment you start your form, you have tai chi, because you have to differentiate your full side from your empty side, in all of your body: front vs. back, up vs. down, left vs. right, etc. For beginners, the differentiation is very coarse, we might just separate front from back (of the body). But as we advance to higher levels of practicing, the granularity of differentiation will get finer and finer: e.g., you have to tell the full side from the empty side in your forearm, legs, etc. And you do this intuitively without thinking, to your entire body. That's why there's another saying in tai chi:
      • Full body tai chi.
  • While moving back and forth in push-hands (7/19/2001):
    • Focus more on your skeletons and how they align correctly to give you a good overall structure, instead of thinking about which muscles to stress, weight distributions, etc.
    • Imagine your lower legs and feet like suction cups: they expand (not just in the feet, but around the lower legs, too) and stick to the ground, and you have to sink all the way down to the heels, so that you feel like you get your support from deep under the ground.
  • In search of 2 (or more) imaginary hands and 1 imaginary leg, part 1 (7/21/2001)
    • Try to imagine two extra hands extended from your elbows. These two will lead the two real hands and will always point downwards to the ground. For example, when your real hands are raised, these two imaginary hands will point downwards and give you balance.
    • As you move your hands, try to imagine all four hands moving and leaving a trace behind. In other words, instead of thinking about only moving your hands from point A to point B, try to connect point A and point B into one line and focus on the trajectory formed by this line. One analogy often used is to imagine your forearms as tree branches and your hands as the smaller braches stemming out of these main branches.
    • Use these imaginary hands (extended from your elbows) to connect with the lower part of your rib cage.
    • One of the Wu (Hao) masters, Li Baoyu, was nicknamed "Thousand Hand Buddha" exactly because of his proficiency in this requirement: he practiced tai chi as if he's got thousands of hands coming from his arms.
    • One implication of this requirement is you're no longer restricted by your physical hands as to where you can apply your jin, since you can use your mind to create imaginary hands and apply jin with them. That's why one tai chi idiom goes: Raising one's arms without fixed directions.
  • On Jin (8/13/2001)
  • Cross support and sequence of movements (8/25/2001)
    • In addition to sinking qi straight down, also sink in cross directions, this helps keep internal integrity.
    • Before each movement of limbs, sink internally from the root of that limb first. For example, the root if the right arm would be the right shoulder and you need to sink from the right shoulder down to dantian before moving the right arm.
    • Dantian can be divided into left and right parts. When pushing to the left, e.g., right dantian (which would be the full side) would be lowered and support the left dantian (which would be the empty side).
  • On sinking, etc. 9/9/2001
    • Sink not only to the full foot, but also to the empty foot, so that you're balanced.
    • Before you step out and touch the foot on ground, make sure you can take it back any time without moving your body. Then, before you shift the full side to front, make sure the frontal leg feels the tension first, which signifies the weight transfer.
    • In some moves that involve rotating or standing with one foot, the key to balance is to use the knee of the empty foot to control movement.
  • Tips for the "pull/push exercise" (10/12/2001)
    • Keep your eyes open, find a target in front, and push toward that target. This helps to align your mind and jin (internal power), in addition to qi. As you pull back and lower your body, try to sense a support coming from your feet all the way to your hips (at front) and lower back, as if your upper and lower bodies meet there, then use that support to push your hands forward.
    • Try to get a sense of expansion in your forearms, as if they became larger, but not your upper arms.
    • This exercise is especially effective in relieving lower back problems if done persistently for more than 30 minutes a day for at least 100 days.
  • Sinking to bottom of feet (10/27/2001)
    • For every "closing" in the form, sink qi all the way to bottom of feet, feel the support coming thereof, up to the elbows and hands, move your tail bone slightly forward as if to take the sunk qi, then move. Your shoulders should feel like they're sitting on the feet this way. At higher level of practicing, you should feel like your feet are at your shoulders.
    • When pushing with two hands, you should feel like there are extra hands behind your back, and your elbows should always sink deep to the ground.
  • More on the push-pull exercise (12/2/2001)
    • This is used to train the "From Nothing to Something" and "Sinking Qi to Dantian" requirements for now. When done right, front upper legs should feel heavy, tight, and expanded. The lower spine should feel warm. (If you practice tai chi without getting any part of your body warmed up, the effects are likely to be limited.)
  • Sequence of "store" and "sink" when practicing forms (4/8/2002)
    • "Store" in front (three bands - one goes to dantian and two go to hip at front) first, 
    • then sink from lower back to bottom of feet, 
    • then push or move forward. 

This sequence applies to all push and moving forward.

  • Ho Fa Xian Zhi (Starting Later but Reaching [or Arriving] Earlier [ or Sooner]), etc. (4/13/2002)
    • This refers to starting with yi (mind) from the body, with sinking, etc., but extending the reach of this mind further into where the hand is pointing. Also, this relates to the sequence of: yi dao (mind reach), qi dao (qi reach), jin dao (power reach). In other words, it starts with the mind controlling the qi, and jin will follow. Note that we believe the popular interpretation of "starting later than the opponent but responding faster than him" is incorrect.
    • Try to get the connection between sinking and pushing, instead of treating them as two distinct moves.
    • Many people err on the side of not sinking enough times - once they sink, they think that's enough and this makes them lose flexibility. One should sink every time before one moves.
    • One trick to making one more stable, especially between moves, is by sinking [qi to dantian at front and to heels at back] again.
  • Qi distributions, qi fields, etc. (April 27, 2002)
    • Within each begin->following->open->close session, keep your mind along the paths of hands and arms movement, these paths form the qi field (qi shi) of your tai chi.
    • Qi is distributed along whole arms, starting from shoulders. As your qi reaches the hands, it should've distributed throughout the arms, instead of moving from shoulders to hands.
    • As your qi moves from shoulders to hands, another "band" of qi should move along the corresponding side of the torso. For example, the right side of your body should have qi moving in sync with the qi movement along the right arm.
  • The "loosening shoulders" and "sinking elbows" requirements, etc. (May 4/5, 2002)
    • Make circular movements (in backward and downward directions) in shoulders, elbows, and hips before each push. This is the trick to the "loosening shoulders" and "sinking elbows" requirements. This also corresponds to Li Yi-yu's Four Words Secrets of Push hand (Hold, Lead, Relax, and Send [Qing, Ying, Song, Fang]). Without these circular movements, it's easy to degenerate into head-on blocking [ding] during push hand.
    • Before each push, make sure you get the support from bottom of feet first.
    • One step up from the "loosening shoulders" requirement is the "emptying shoulders" requirements. This is the key to training for the "sinking shoulders to the feet" feeling.
  • "Manipulate jin as in shuttling silk". (June, 2002)
    • Imagine silks connecting between wrists and shoulders, and between hips and heels. Every time you push, imagine these silks pulling you back and create the traction against the pushing.
  • "Distribute qi along both arms and manifest it in both hands." (June, 2002)
    • Imagine qi fully distributed on both arms and expanded beyond both arms. 
  • "Qi like buckets of water in your body." (July, 2002)
    • Imagine qi like hydraulic fluids that floats within one's body through mind's control.
  • "Sinking the shoulders". (January, 2003)
    • This is the most important of the 8 "torso requirements". Without sinking the shoulders, it will be difficult to realize the other 7 torso requirements.
    • The way to do it is to bring shoulders all the way down to the feet for every "closing" move (figuratively, not literally).
    • The tip of the spine controls the hand movement, whereas the tailbone controls the leg.