Relaxation (Fang Song)

Excerpted from Yang Zhenduo’s
Zhong Guo Yang Shi Taiji, 1997, ‘Thoughts on Practice’ p163-164
Translated by Jerry Karin

2. Earlier in this book I have already talked quite a bit on the subject of ‘fang song’ or relaxation. Let’s connect related concepts by separately mentioning the terms ‘soft’ (rou) , ‘limp’ (ruan), ‘strength’ (li) and ‘energy’ (jing) so that these can be distinguished, which is helpful in practicing taijiquan.

In martial arts, we often hear the analogy made between ‘steel’ and ‘energy’ (jing). Likewise, ‘coarse strength’ (juo li) can be likened to ‘iron’, because ‘steel’ comes from ‘iron’ and the source of ‘energy’ is also naturally from ‘coarse strength’. Coarse strength is natural strength and is an inherent product of the human body. Coincidentally, the current graph used in Chinese for ‘energy’ (jing) includes ‘strength’ (li) with ‘work’ (gong) added to it. I am not sure if this was really the intent of those who designed this graph, but looking at this graph can surely help serve to explain the relationship of the two.

‘Adding work’ or refining, refers to the way in which, during the process of production, we use the method of high temperature forging; correspondingly for coarse strength we use the method of relaxation (fang song) to remove the stiffness of coarse strength. Both are means to an end.

The process of refinement causes the two to manifest something which seems contradictory to its original nature. For example the water used for tempering steel and drinking water seem similar, yet there is a difference in the nature of the two. The water used to temper steel – like the removal of the stiffness in coarse strength – brings about a flexible resilience. Drinking water, on the other hand, is ‘limp'; it does not have this nature of bringing about flexible resilience. Therefore when we refer to ‘coarse strength’ – which has had its stiffness removed – as soft but not limp, it is because ‘soft’ has this flexible resilience, which is to say it includes within it the ingredient for ‘energy’ . This is just what the late Yang Chengfu meant by “Tai Chi Chuan is the art of letting hardness dwell within softness and hiding a needle within cotton”. If the factor of ‘energy’ is not present, this is ‘limp’. ‘Limp’ is not the same thing as ‘soft’.

After iron has been beaten thousands of times and refined hundreds of times, it changes its nature and becomes steel. Steel is firm internally and highly reflective externally. Iron by contrast is not only less flexible but its external appearance is rough. ‘Coarse strength’ , after undergoing persistent training for many days, months, and years can also be made to change its nature and become ‘energy’ (jing). When ‘energy’ (jing) is manifested it is soft, flexible and strong and able to embody the coordinated activity of the entire body. When ‘coarse strength’ is manifested the movements are stiff and the response is in a portion of the body only, rather than the whole body. The two are extremely different.

Relaxation and training should both be conscious (or purposive). That is just what our predecessors meant by “consciously (purposely) relax and unconsciously (unintentionally) create hardness”. If one can really achieve relaxation (fang song), it will be transmitted into the combining of the body activity with the ten essentials, naturally creating the material conditions so that ‘energy’ (jing) will arise according to the requirements of the moves. If you try to create ‘energy’ (jing) directly, paradoxically you become limited by ‘energy’ (jing). When we say “use intent rather than strength”, the main idea is that you should not use ‘coarse strength’ but rather ‘energy’ (jing).

Translation Copyright © 2001 Yang Zhenduo. All rights reserved


A Personal Odyssey

The Third Rep: 2000-12-25
Guest Commentary by Carol Ann (Chidlaw) Bauer

The practice of Tai Chi has been for me a personal odyssey. Through the last six years of serious practice, it has become a metaphor for all the elements of my life — physical, emotional, spiritual, and the inevitable blending of all those things.

To say that practicing this art is good for health is a gross understatement. We must consider the fact that there are lots of good exercise systems out there, some of them producing bigger muscles faster, quicker aerobic results, and closer-to-instant weight loss, these concepts being the American dream called Fitness. So why would one embark on the monumental task of memorizing a sequence of 108 movements heretofore foreign to our bodies — not to mention weapons forms! — (I mean, who uses a turn-around technique that requires one to turn the foot in from the hip joint while balancing primarily on the other foot, while reaching behind with one arm and pushing with the other, and in the end not toppling over, in everyday life? What on earth is Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain, anyway?), when one could drop into a quick kick-boxing class and never have to engage a brain cell while sweating almost instantaneously?

And the aforementioned are the very people who drop into tai chi class and quickly drop back out, missing the very essence of what they probably need in their over-stressed, preoccupied, anxiety-riddled lives. “It makes me crazy,” said one departing Type A. “Why in heaven’s name would I ever, EVER want to move that slowly?” Perhaps a glance in the medicine cabinet would hold a clue.

But learning to slow one’s internal pace to counterbalance a frenetic lifestyle is only one benefit of Tai Chi practice. Never mind lowered blood pressure, greater stamina, improved joint flexibility, and an almost miraculous recovery of ability to focus mentally. There is something beyond all that. It is an intangible, indefinable something that … how shall I say it? Perhaps the best way is to call it a changed perspective.

My life view, my perspective of the events that come to me unbidden, has changed dramatically. From a woman who had to MAKE things happen, I have become a woman who gracefully (well, at least sometimes) allows life to flow through me and monitors the reaction that before would have immobilized me. Just thirty minutes of Tai Chi practice feels like a small instant in my life, and leaves me both full and hungry for more.

When young, the most flattering descriptive used about me was, “You have such high energy that it’s just exhausting to be around you.” These days, a young friend who sometimes comes to me for mentoring recently said, “Well, you’re just so very, very calming, just so CALM.” (No, it is not old age. I am not THAT old.)

Of course I am in better shape than most of the population my age (okay, okay, I’m 55). Practice does have decided physical benefits. But T’ai Chi wasn’t a quick fix; it was a long, slow process that settled into my very bone marrow and has become a daily part of me. It’s the changed perspective that holds me true to this path. Without the martial arts morality, focus and discipline, I would be just another shooting star long since blipped out in its lightening-fast descent to earth. Now, rooted and grounded on the earth through long hours of T’ai Chi practice, it is only my spirit that soars to the heavens, while the body that Nature gave me continues to work smoothly from posture to posture … yes, in “real life”, too.

Bow Steps: Two Important Points

The Third Rep: 2000-07-01
by Jerry Karin

In Yang Zhenduo’s book, Zhongguo Yang Shih Taiji, 1997, for each move there is a section called “Important Points”. The important points are combined for left and right ward off. Points three and four of this group are particularly eloquent, and we include a translation of them here.

3. When you make a bow step, as the weight shifts from one foot to the other, you should pay attention to the symmetrical arrangement of the two opposing forces – one leg pushing and the other pushing back or resisting. Whether the front leg is pushing backward and the back leg resisting, or the back leg is pushing forward and the front leg resisting, the forces must be coordinated, so as to avoid pushing out too hard or resisting too hard, or pushing out emptily without any compensating resistance. The waist, if firmly in command, can propel the four limbs, cause the upper and lower body to work in concert, and better complete every move and posture. But if you fail to control the lower limbs and they do not match what is going on in the rest of the body, although the waist has the capability of commanding the four limbs, it’s no use. K So in the Tai Chi world when we particularly emphasize utilizing a whole-body movement, that is actually this matching of opposed forces, the mutually restricting coordination of the entire body. As people often say, ‘Tai Chi is a whole body exercise’ and is different from activities which involve moving sections or parts of the body only. I hope you will work hard to incorporate this point in your form.

4. Here’s how to step into the bow step: Whenever the foot which is stepping out descends to the floor, first touch the heel to the floor, next the toes grab the floor, and then finally, the knee bends and moves forward. During the entire process, as the weighted leg pushes forward and the empty leg resists, one sending and one receiving force, (especially in the case of of the resisting, empty leg) you must never stop pushing or resisting but you must also not push or resist too forcefully. If you stop one of the opposing forces then you will lose your balance and if you use too much force then you’ll be stiff; neither of these is good. If you can achieve just the right balance in this, it will create favorable conditions for upper and lower body to work in concert during transitional moves. When extending the weighted (back) leg to its ultimate position in a bow step, just as in the extension of an arm, extend until it is almost fully extended but not quite. If you over-extend then it becomes forced and looks stiff. If the back leg is bent too much, the pushing force cannot come out, and it will seem as if you have a lot of power but can’t use it. The resistance of the empty leg goes through a process of gradual engagement. First touch the floor with the heel, continue by allowing the flat of the foot to touch, then the toes grab the floor, and then let the knee bend forward, letting the bending knee and shin slightly incline forward and increasing the resistance from the front leg so as not to allow the knee to pass the toe. This way, with one leg pushing and one leg resisting, neither force subsiding or becoming too strong, the lower body will become a great deal stronger and more stable. Note that if the knee and shin of the forward leg are standing perpendicular to the ground then it is hard to utilize the resisting force and the back leg won’t be able to develop power in its push forward. If the knee goes past the toe, you’ll lose your balance and the back leg again won’t be able to develop much power Only when you make the knee and shin slightly incline forward, with the knee not going past the toe, can you thoroughly get the full strength of the two forces, pushing out and resisting, to come into play.

Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Twenty-Character Motto

The Third Rep: 2000-04-18
by Jerry Karin

This week we published a short essay by Yang Zhenduo with his commentary on the Twenty-Character Motto. I think this is a very good tip for Tai Chi players – it really works! For those who have not heard this explained by Yang Zhenduo himself at one of the seminars, I thought I would add a few remarks of my own to help clarify (I hope) the meaning.

When Yang Zhenduo explains this at a seminar, he usually does a move such as right ward off. He then takes his left index finger and points it at the inside of his right elbow. The finger points in the same direction as the right elbow. He then mimes using the finger to push the elbow outward, and seminar participants can actually observe the elbow moving outward and downward, maybe an inch or so (it’s hard to quantify this but you can definitely see the elbow move outward). You can see the right shoulder relax downward too as the elbow goes outward. He sometimes turns and points to show that the same movement has opened up a space under the armpit. It seems to me that the movement outward is a combination of relaxing the shoulder downward and opening up the shoulder and elbow joints, so that the upper arm seems to grow in length. In any case, it’s just that easy. Anyone who practices tai chi can try it. When you do it correctly, there should be an immediate, noticeable sensation, which Yang Zhenduo describes in the essay. Try it!

Excerpt from Yang Zhenduo,
Yang Shih Taiji, 1997 (Requirement for upper limbs)
Translated by Jerry Karin;
Copyright Yang Zhenduo, 2000


Extend the elbows outward; leave a hollow in the armpits. The elbows pull down the tops of the shoulders, connect the wrists and carry along the fingers.

The Twenty-Character Motto is very brief, yet its meaning is very profound and worth pursuing. Although only the various parts of the upper limbs are mentioned, following this motto can set in motion a chain of causality in which changes here affect the other parts of the body. This connection is not just mental, but you can actually feel that precisely this movement of the upper limbs causes you to ‘hold the chest in’, which in turn induces ‘pulling up the back’, leading to ‘relaxation of waist and hips’ and ultimately bringing about ‘(movement proceeds) from feet to legs to waist’, so ‘all the joints are working interconnectedly as a whole’. You can get an internal sensation of the integration of all these principles and how they support each other. The sense of energy (jing4 gan3) created by this, and the sensation of the whole-body working together are things which every player must work toward and actually experience. This is crucial to successfully learning taiji. From this we can see that the Twenty-Character motto separately relates to every individual posture of taiji and as a whole determines the connected completion of the entire form. I hope that students will diligently seek to understand this, and experience the ‘sensation of energy’ induced by this ‘extend’,’hollow’,’pull down’, and ‘connect’. This will aid your overall level of training as well as the practice of connecting the internal and external.

Seminars with Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun

The Third Rep: 2000-04-07
by Jerry Karin

Seminars with Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun these days are typically 3 or 4 days for the entire 103 – move traditional, Yang style barehand form, followed by two or three days of instruction in one weapon: sabre or sword. Sometimes the format varies from this somewhat. So if you attend the whole seminar, such as year 2000 in Portland, August 5 thru 11, it’s a full seven days spent with the Yangs and others who love the art. Seven days of taiji classes (classes are generally in an air-conditioned gym or hall), practice outdoors as well as indoors, alone and with other taiji players, conversation and meals with various subsets of the group (can start out as big as 70 to 100 people and usually filters down to 30 to 40 for the weapon). Nighttime hanging out at the dorm, you’ll find people swapping stories, deep in discussion on some detail of the form, making music on guitars and other instruments, pushing hands in a quiet courtyard, chilling out in the room with the a/c cranked up and a good book…

Who goes? Several of the Yang Chengfu Center directors will generally be there. There will be a contingent of students from the hosting center. Quite a few students from all over the country and the rest of the world will be flying in. There must be 30 of us who attended the Hood College, Maryland seminar in 1993 and never fail to make one or two seminars per summer. There have always been a lot of good push hands players among the participants, including many champs.

Prerequisites? Most participants have learned some kind of taijiquan or other martial art before. Could it be done with no prior taiji or martial arts background? It might be a little hard to keep up.

Approximately 5 hrs of classroom instruction per day is split into two sessions: morning (starting perhaps 8 or 8:30) and afternoon (starting 2:30 or 3).

After class, there generally are organized practice sessions led by experienced players, such as a center director. Small groups of people can be found practicing taijiquan, taiji weapons, push hands, da lu and other forms throughout the day and evening.

East Brunswick, NJ center director Andy Lee:

“A seminar, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a group of supervised students doing research or advanced study. Why do I enjoy these seminars, and why do I continue to attend? I love to make new friends, to meet old ones, and to be totally immersed in the art. There’s not only the physical endurance of continuously doing the form, but also the mental work of correction and observation that I enjoy . In the morning, we all have breakfast, and talk. Talking about tai chi chuan, we discuss and share our opinions of the class. The fun of lining-up and learning Chinese, so we can say “HELLO”. The joy of holding the posture as Yang Laoshi moves through the lines trying to check each student. And the delightful way we can laugh. A group of supervised students doing research and advanced study of tai chi chuan with not only the watchful eyes of Yang Laoshi, but also the helpful eyes of other players. I cannot see myself do the form, but others can. Consequently, their opinions, be they new in the art or be they old, are valuable. I came to understand this philosophy at these seminars. Moving to the sound of tai chi chuan being chanted by Yang Laoshi, surrounded by sixty or seventy players, all moving together, all breathing together, all exuberant – it’s an experience! There is no better intoxication then the surround-sound of tai chi chuan. After lunch, practicing; before the session begins, practicing, and in the evening, practicing because I have no other responsibility but to practice. Attending a summer seminar is like going away for a spa vacation. Except that in this case, the spa is devoted to good people and phenomenal Tai Chi Chuan.”

Thanks to Andy Lee for the photo from the 1996 New York Seminar.

Want to share your stories or impressions from past seminars? Email them to me at and I will publish them here. Pictures would be wonderful.


Jerry, I’ve attended seminars the past two summers and have enjoyed them both very much. A friend and I first went down to the Winchester, VA seminar in July of 1998. While we had studied a variation of Yang style tai chi it was different from the traditional Yang family style. We studied hard and took many notes. It seemed a little overwhelming , yet it was very rewarding. Last year four of us went down to the seminar in NY. We all had a great time. People we met the year before were there; it was great to see them and talk of how we were doing with our tai chi. I found the second seminar to be even more beneficial to me than the first. I had a better understanding of the form and was able to get more of the details that Master Yang was explaining. I found it interesting that while it was the same 103 posture form Master Yang was teaching his explanations of the moves were from a different approach. In Virginia (1998) he talked more of the energy and proper posture. In NY (1999) he gave explanations from a more martial viewpoint. I enjoyed the different approaches to the form. I realized that you can always continue to grow and learn something new from each seminar. I have enclosed some photos I scanned in. [...]the photo of the group practicing is from NY 1999.

Michael R. Coulon.

A Talk on Practice

by Yang Chengfu
Translated by Jerry Karin

Although there are rather a lot of different styles of Chinese martial arts, they are all alike in that successive generations have striven all their lives and with all their might to explain the principles and theory contained in these techniques, but these efforts have never been totally successful. Nevertheless, if a student will expend the effort of one day of practice, he will receive the achievements of a day of work. Over days and months this accumulates till everything falls into place naturally.

Tai Chi Chuan is the art of letting hardness dwell within softness and hiding a needle within cotton; from the point of view of techniques, physiology, and physics, there is considerable philosophy contained within it. Hence those who would research it need to undergo a definite process of development over a considerable period of time. Though one may have the instruction of a fine teacher and the criticism of good friends, the one thing which is most important and which one cannot do without is daily personal training. Without it one can discuss and analyze all day, think and ponder for years, but when one day you encounter an opponent you are like a hole with nothing in it – you are still quite inexpert, lacking the skills (kung fu) borne of daily practice. This is what the ancients meant by “thinking forever is useless, better to practice”. If morning and evening there is never a gap, hot or cold never an exception, so that the moment you think of it you proceed to do your training, then young or old, man or woman, you will alike be rewarded with success.

These days from north to south, from the Yellow River regions to the Yangtze River regions, more and more comrades are learning Tai Chi Chuan, which is heartening for the future of martial arts. However, among these comrades, there is no shortage of those who concentrate and practice hard, study sincerely, and whose future ought to be limitless, yet typically they fail to avoid two kinds of pitfall: in the first case they are very talented, still young and strong, able to apply one criticism to many places, their understanding surpasses that of most people; alas once they make some slight achievement, they are satisfied too quickly, stop in the middle and never really get it. In the second instance, the person is anxious to make rapid progress, throwing it together sloppily, so that before a year is through, they have gone completely through barehand, sword, knife and spear. Although they can ‘paint a gourd by following a template’, they really haven’t achieved the enlightenment in this. The moment you scrutinize their direction and movement, upper and lower body, internal and external, none of it turns out to be standard. In order to correct them, you have to correct every move, and corrections given in the morning are forgotten by evening. That’s why you often hear people say: “it’s easy to learn tai chi, but hard to correct it”. The reason for this saying is people trying to learn too fast. Such a group takes their mistakes and transmits them to the next generation, necessarily fooling both themselves and others, and this is the most discouraging thing for the future of the art.

In Tai Chi Chuan, we first learn the form or frame. That is to say, according to each posture name from the manual, we are taught the postures by a teacher, one at a time. The student does his best to calm his mind, and silently attentive, pondering, trying, he performs the moves: that is called ‘practicing the form’. At this time the student focuses on ‘inner’, ‘outer’, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. ‘Inner’ means ‘using intent rather than force’. ‘Lower’ means ‘the chi is sunk to the cinnabar field (dantian)’. ‘Upper’ means ‘Empty, lively, pushing up and energetic (xu1 ling2 ding3 jing4 – refers to requirements for the head). ‘Outer’ means: the entire body is light and nimble, all the joints are connected as a whole, (movement proceeds) from foot to leg to waist, sink the shoulders and keep elbows bent (low). Those beginning their study should first take the above several instructions and perfect them, pondering and trying morning and evening. Move by move, you must always carefully seek these. When you practice a move, strive for correctness, and only when you have practiced it till it is right go on to the next move. Proceed in this way until you have gradually completed all the postures. This way there is nothing to correct and you do not tend over time towards violating the principles.

In practice as you are moving, the bones and joints of the entire body must all relax and extend and be natural. The mouth and abdomen must not block breathing. The four limbs, the waist and the legs must not use strong force. Something like these last two sentences is always said by people learning internal arts but once they start to move, once they turn the body or kick the legs or twist the waist, their breath becomes labored and their body sways; these defects are all due to stopping the breath and using strong force.

  1. When you practice, the head must not incline to either side or tilt forward or backward. There is a phrase ‘you must suspend the tip of the head’. This is as though something were placed on the top of the head. Avoid at all cost a stiff straightness! That’s what is meant by ‘suspend’. Although the gaze should be directed levelly ahead, sometimes it must turn in accordance with the position of the body. Even though the line of the gaze is empty, it plays an important role in transformations and supplements what is left wanting by the body and hand positions. The mouth seems open but it’s not, seems closed but not quite. Nose and mouth inhale and exhale: do what is natural. If some saliva accumulates below the tongue, swallow it; don’t spit it out.

  2. The torso should be centered and not leaning. The line of the entire spine should hang straight and not be bent to one side. But when you encounter transformations between open and closed you should have the flexibility of waist turn which comes of sunk chest, pulled-up back and lowered shoulders. This is something you need to attend to in the beginning stages of learning. Otherwise, as time goes on it will become hard to change and will turn into stiffness, so that although you have put in a lot of practice, it will be hard to improve your applications.

  3. The bones and joints of the two arms all need to be relaxed open. The shoulders should hang down and the elbows should bend downward. The palms should be slightly extended and the fingers slightly bent. Use intent to move the arms and chi to suffuse the fingers. As the days and months of practice accumulate, the internal energy connects and becomes nimble, and mysterious ability grows of itself.

  4. In the two legs you must distinguish ‘empty’ and ‘full’. Picking up and dropping (of the feet) should be like way a cat moves. When your body weight shifts to the left, then left is ‘full’ and the right is termed ‘empty’. If you shift to the right, then right is ‘full’ and the left is termed ‘empty’. What is termed ‘empty’ is not really empty, the position still hasn’t been abandoned, but rather there is the intent of (possible) expanding or shrinking left there. What is termed ‘full’ is just weighted and that’s all, it is not using too much force or fierce strength. So when the leg bends it should go until it is straight up and down, further than that is called excessive force. The torso will tip forward and then you will have lost the centered posture and the opponent gets an opportunity to attack.

  5. In the kicks we must distinguish between the two types: toe kicks (in the manual left and right separate leg, also called left and right flap legs) and heel kicks. In toe kicks, pay attention to the tip of the foot, whereas in heel kicks pay attention to the entire sole of the foot. When the intent arrives then the chi arrives and when the chi arrives then energy arrives by itself. But your bones and joints must relax open and you must stably kick out the foot. This is the easiest time to give rise to strong force. If the body is slightly bent then you will be unstable and the kicking foot will not deliver much force.

In the process of learning Tai Chi, we first learn barehand form (a solo exercise), such as Tai Chi Chuan, or Tai Chi Long Fist; after that comes single-handed push hands, fixed step push hands, moving step push hands, big rollback (da4lu3), sparring (san4shou3); and finally comes the weapons such as Tai Chi sword, Tai Chi knife, Tai Chi spear (13 spear).

As to practice times, every day after getting up practice the form twice. If you don’t have time in the morning, then twice before bed. You should practice seven or eight times a day, but at very least once in the morning and once at night. If you have been drinking heavily or have eaten a lot, avoid practice.

For places to practice, a courtyard or large room with good air circulation and lots of light are suitable. But avoid places directly exposed to strong wind or places that are shady and damp or have poor air quality. Because once the body starts exercising, the breath naturally becomes deeper so strong wind or poor quality air, because they would go deep into the belly and harm the lungs, might easily cause illness. As for practice clothes, loose Chinese clothing or short clothing along with wide-toed cloth shoes are suitable. When you practice, if you happen to perspire a lot don’t remove all your clothing or rinse with cold water; otherwise you might get sick.

Translation Copyright © 2000 International Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan Association. All rights reserved.

One Brush Stroke At A Time

By Ed Boates,
Originally published in:
“Tongren” Spring 1999 issue.
Newletter of the Canadian Taijiquan Federation
Vol 6, Issue 1 Page 8-9

It is just like learning calligraphy, do one brush stroke at a time and be patient…1
- Yang Zhenduo

In early July 1990 at A Taste of China in Winchester, Virginia, Yang Zhenduo (third son of the famous Yang Chengfu) taught a five-day seminar on Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan. This was an event of historical significance because it marked the first time that a direct lineage member of the Yang family had taught in North America.

At the conclusion of the first day of the seminar I phoned my wife, and during our conversation she asked me for my initial impression of Yang Zhenduo. I replied, He moves like a well-oiled bulldozer: extremely fluid and enormously powerful!

What are the basic “brush strokes” of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan that Yang Zhenduo suggests be learned one at a time? They are the Ten Essentials of Yang Style Taijiquan that represent Yang Chengfu’s distillation of the Taiji classics.

Yang Zhenduo begins all of his empty hands form seminars with a detailed discussion on the Ten Essentials and emphasizes that they each must be dynamically expressed in every frame and every transition of the form.

There are three distinct stages in the practice of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan according to Yang Zhenduo:

“In the beginning normally the student just imitates and moves from frame to frame. In the second stage, after having learned the principals and essentials, the student tries to make the movements and principals become one. In the third stage, the principals and applications are combined into one and that becomes the essence. It means that the movements have intent and are no longer empty.”2

The student will reach a point during stage one practice where he or she knows the form too well. As a consequence of this mode of familiarity, the mind tends to wander during practice and the Taiji player experiences a deterioration in the quality and performance. Yang Zhenduo suggests that this situation is a primary indicator that it is time to begin the second stage of practice. At his stage he says:

“You must remember the ten essentials and apply these important principals. When you have something else on your mind, you can control your mind by directing it to implementing the important principals in each movement. This is one of the methods to regulate your mind”3

The second stage of Yang Style Taijiquan practice is a painstaking and time-consuming process. Master Yang says it takes a long time to go through it, and because it does, some practitioners attempt to skip this stage and go directly to the martial aspects of stage three practice. However, because the Ten Essentials haven’t been completely embodied, they will lack the structural and functional integrity of the body which is a compulsory prerequisite for successful martial prowess.

I have for a considerable time now been deeply engaged in the stage two practice of Traditional Yang Family Style Taijiquan. In the balance of this article, I will outline the methodology I have evolved to facilitate the embodiment of the Ten Essentials “one brush stroke at a time.”

First of all, I divide my yearly Taiji training schedule into three cycles of four months each: Jan.-Apr., “Earth”; May-Aug., “Human”; and Sept.-Dec., “Heaven”. This format provides me with at least one hundred and twenty training days per cycle. Twelve days of each cycle are devoted exclusively to each of the Ten Essentials. Therefore, each Essential becomes the focus of practice for a total of thirty-six days over three cycles.

In the preface to an article he wrote in Somatics Magazine, Dr. Paul Linden writes:

“Intention is the commitment to carry out some action. If the body is thought of as computer hardware, then intentions are the software or programming which organizes the body for doing and being.”4

Accordingly, I created personalized intentions out of each of the Ten Essentials. For example, Essential Six in the intentional form becomes I am integrating my upper and lower body.

At the time of this writing, I am n day seven on the Earth cycle and my current twelve- day focus is on Essential One. Therefore, at least once during the performance of each and every frame and transition in the form, I silently say to myself, “I am holding my head as if suspended from above.” On day thirteen, I will begin a similar twelve-day process with Essential Two and so on, until I reach the end of the Earth cycle. The same process will then be repeated during the Human and Heaven cycles.

In the Taiji literature, the Essentials are generally listed in a somewhat random order. I have followed the precedent of some Western teachers who have arranged them in a developmental sequence that goes from the top of the body to the bottom, and from the external to the internal.

The Ten Essentials’ intentions are listed below, interspersed with brief explanations for the rationale underlying the developmental process.

The first three intentions outline the essential requirements for the upper body.

  1. I am holding my head as if suspended from above.
  2. I am sinking my shoulders, dropping my elbows, settling my wrists, and extending my fingers.
  3. I am sinking my chest and rounding my back.

When these three essentials are successfully embodied, the student will be able to sink the Qi (breath) to the Dan-Tian (centre). As a result the upper body will then be connected energetically and physiologically to the centre.

The next two intentions define the essential parameters for the lower body.

  1. I am loosening my waists and hips.
  2. I am distinguishing substantial (full) and insubstantial (empty).

The successful embodiment of these two Essentials connects the lower body energetically and physiologically to the Dan-Tian.

The combinatory effect of the first five Essentials makes the realization of the next two Essentials possible.

  1. I am integrating my upper and lower body.
  2. I am moving continuously without interruption

The first seven Essentials in harmonious combination enable the body to move with a high degree of structural unity and functional integrity.

The final three intentions delineate the martial, mental and meditative essentials of Taiji practice.

  1. I am combining internal (intention) and external (application).
  2. I am using my mind instead of force.
  3. I am cultivating tranquility in movement.

When all ten Essentials are in place, the form can be practiced with martial spirit and/or meditative stillness of mind.

In the Treatise on Taijiquan in the Taiji Classics, Wang Tsung-Yueh writes, Silently memorize and thoroughly ponder. Little by little you will reach the stage where the body will automatically follow the mind.5

These works were originally written in the context of sparring and interpreting energy, but I feel they are equally applicable and relevant to the dynamics of embodying the Ten Essentials.

For several training cycles now I have been silently memorizing and thoroughly pondering the Ten Essentials “one brush stroke at a time”. I have experienced two profound benefits from this ongoing practice.

Little by little, I seem to be reaching the stage where my body is automatically following my mind. The conscious and continuos recitation of the intentions (software) seems to be gradually and efficiently programming the Ten Essentials into my body (hardware). As soon as I begin to silently recite a specific intention, I can feel the requisite Essential starting to effortlessly manifest in my body. Thus, I get occasional glimpses or “peek” experiences of what the Chinese refer to as “Wei wu-wei” – effortless effort.

Less and less frequently as time goes on, do I experience the “spacing out” phenomenon during practice that the Chinese refer to as “monkey mind”. The constant repetition of the intention helps to anchor my attention and awareness, thereby providing an excellent antidote to “monkey mind”. I still “space out” form time to time, but when I become mindful that I have lost focus, I gently remind myself, without recrimination, to return to the continuous process of reciting the intention in coordination with each movement.

Your Taiji form is your unique work of art. May I suggest that as you work on the artistic endeavor of creating your personal masterpiece, that you remember the sagely advice of Yang Zhenduo: Do one brush stroke at a time and be patient…


[1] Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 14, no. 4 (August 1990) p.2

[2] Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 19, no. 5 (October 1995) p.11

[3] Tai Chi Magazine. Vol. 22, no. 1 (February 1998) p.6

[4] Somatics Magazine. Fall/Winter 1988-89, p. 54

[5] Wile, Douglas. Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmission. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Sweet Chi Press, 1985 (p. 130)