Tai Ji Quan

Foundation Practice

First, it's impossible to over emphasize the need for repetition and persistence in the development of practice. To understand any movement, it must be repeated again and again, over a long period of time.

Review of the Metaphysics

Wuji creates Taiji creates Yin and YangThe diagram on the right shows the basic metaphysical development that underpins both the physical exercises of Taiji Quan and the symbolic language of the Yijing. The foundation of all differences is the vacuum of Wuji - the empty circle which contains no polarization. Vacuum polarization is well known in quantum physics, and Taiji spontaneously arises, the very idea of polarity: Yin and Yang, but still bound together, wrapped around each other. Then, as Yin and Yang separate, the axis of polarization lengthens, and the potential difference between the poles increases (for a more detailed description of this, please read this Intro page).

The following three simple exercises express this metaphysical development in direct physical terms. It's difficult to grasp from just descriptions; photos help, but personal instruction is better. If you already have a practice, then adopt whatever elements from your syllabus serve the same role.

Remember, what's most important is repetition and persistence (more on this later).

Wuji Standing

Just standing.
Balanced, even, upright and neutral.
How else is it possible to identify the base energy,
the principle axis of the body?

Wuji StandingTake the feet to shoulder width, relax the soles and align the ankle, knee (slightly flexed) and hip; connect cleanly from the soles to the centre of the whole. Tuck in the pelvis, sink the sacrum and feel the lumbar region open. Relax the shoulders, let the weight of the arms draw them down, relax the hands. Tuck the chin, and lead the intent up out of the crown of the skull. Touch the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Let the abdomen take the breath. If anything collapses anywhere, rebuild it. Learn to relax into the shape, and let the natural structure of your muscular-skeletal system do the work for you.

The easiest posture? The most important.

Everything connected with the physical body starts here. Wuji Zhan (無極站), empty standing. Through the Wuji Stance we identify the spine; and from there, rooting is emphasized with the downward press of the palms as you move into the Ready Stance. Then, from readiness comes movement...

Cloud Hands

Widen the root and sink;
balanced and central, turning about the principle axis.
Empty the axis out, into the turning circumference;
always connected to the centre.

Wuji Standing identifies the principle axis of the body, the spine. Cloud Hands (雲手) then rotates about that axis.

Open the feet wider than the shoulders, feet turned out slightly; with the knees flexed, the weight follows the line through the joints as the centre sinks and connects down into the ground. Tuck in the tail and sit into the stance. Turn about the centre, let the hip fold in slightly with the turn to each side. Hips and shoulders turn together, and the rotation flows out through the arms. There are three circles here. Firstly, the spine is rotating from left to right and back. Secondly, each arm makes a circle, one clockwise, the other counter, overlapping and moving together. Finally, the wrists and forearms turn, palm inward and palm outward. This three-circle movement (三繞動) is a fundamental principle of Taiji movement.

The short video loop above shows the basic Cloud Hands pattern (QuickTime plugin required).

Once you are used to the basic pattern, try big circles, small circles, slow circles and quick circles. Try letting the weight move from side to side with the rotation. Try various combinations, but always drive the movement from the rotation of the centre.

When ready, the continuous rotation of Cloud Hands spirals onto the centre line to find stillness and resolves to San Ti (三体) Standing...

Three Segment Postures

Shape creates and contains intention;
even in stillness, separating the weight gives intention direction.
With one full, the root sinks; with one empty, potential arises.
Pass everything through the centre.

San Ti
Brush Knee Twist Step
San Ti
Brush Knee Twist Step
With feet shoulder width apart, one foot slides forward a natural step, the knee is slightly bent drawing the posture forward a little so that although most of the weight sinks into the back leg, there is just a little in the front. The pelvis is tucked in, and the spine is upright. Let's call this posture San Ti (三体 - literally "three body"). The three segments of the posture are the legs, providing the root; the spine from the sacrum to the crown, giving the core; and the arms, giving the posture expression. With the asymmetry of the posture, Yin and Yang separate - from this, intent acquires direction.

The initial separation of yin and yang here is in the weighting: is the weight in the back or the front of the stance. In the first posture the weight is in the back of the stance, so we also need to work a posture where the weight is in the front of the stance. A good posture for this is Brush Knee Twist Step.

In fact there are four distinct asymmetric standing postures that we need to work with: we have already identified the spine as the principle axis of the body, and incorporated the first polarity, the location of the weight. This is at the back in San Ti and to the front in Brush Knee. But in both of these stances there is no rotation of the torso; the spine remains neutral.

  Strum the Lute Draw the Bow
Strum the Lute
Draw the Bow

This brings us to the second polarity in the foundation practice: whether the spine is rotated or not. If we take the San Ti posture and rotate the torso across the empty front leg, then we have a variation of the posture Strum the Lute. If we take the Brush Knee posture and rotate the torso across the weighted front leg, then we have the posture called Draw the Bow. These are shown on the right.

Each of these postures needs to be worked separately. To begin with, aim for a minute in each posture, on each side: San Ti, left foot weighted, then right foot; Brush Knee, left foot weighted, then right foot; Strum the Lute, left foot weighted, then right; and finally Draw the Bow, left foot weighted, then right. Eight separate postures, giving around eight minutes of standing as a starting point.

Of course, in the traditional hand form, each posture is the end point of a transition and it is important to work movement as well as standing. The former develops and strengthens your root, that latter develops continuity and connected flow. Therefore, after holding each posture left and right, practice a number of repetitions of the movement through the posture. Each of these postures can be moved through both forwards and backwards, allowing a comprehensive, yet simple set of practice patterns.

To conclude the practice, after completing the work with Draw the Bow, it's good to do a little more Cloud Hands (or perhaps White Crane Flaps its Wings) and then finally, a few minutes of Wuji Standing, to bring everything back to centred stillness. Remember, this is not just physical exercise, the mind must be completely engaged with the practice at all times. It's not enough to go through the motions thinking about something else: be aware of the posture and movement throughout, always working to integrate the mind with the body.

A Final Note on Metaphysics

The diagram at the top of this page shows how Taiji separates to give yin and yang as distinct forms of energy. In this basic diagram, only a single polarization is shown. In terms of the exercise sequence described here, that is embodied in the front/back weight distinction, and it would amount to only doing the San Ti and Brush Knee postures. The inclusion of the additional polarization, considering the torso in terms of being neutrally aligned or rotated relative to the sagittal plane gives the remaining two postures.

Bigram LatticeThis pair of polarities, and the resulting four postures, is represented symbolically by the bigrams. Traditionally known as the four images (四象 si xiang), the lattice energy diagram for these symbols is shown on the right. In the art Baugua Zhang (八卦掌) the bigrams typically represent combinations of left/right and up/down. In this practice they represent combinations of front/back and neutral/rotated. Thus: San Ti is the pure yin symbol, the bottom bigram; Brush Knee is the left middle bigram, with a yang line in the lower position and yin above ; Strum the Lute is the right middle bigram, with a yang line in the upper position and yin below ; and fianlly Draw the Bow is the pure yang symbol, the top bigram .