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The Golden Principles of Tai Chi

The Chinese Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan by Chee Soo

I thought I would put this here because I have come to study this one page in Chee Soo’s Tai Chi book so often over the last couple of years that I have almost memorized it. The reason is, it is such a useful page because it contains these principles which apply to pretty much all the moves not just individuals so learning even one of these principles is a real eye-opener and can have a profound influence on your forms.

The Golden Principles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan

  1. Keep your body erect without stiffness.
  2. Everything about you should be completely relaxed, especially the mind.
  3. Maintain the heel and toe principles for all foot movements.
  4. Co-ordinate the movements of the upper and lower halves of the body.
  5. Harmonize the internal and external physical aspects of the body.
  6. Ensure that there is a continuity of movement at all times, and that all movements follow a curve or circular form. Movements are never straight lines in T’ai Chi.
  7. Study the many Taoist breathing exercises.
  8. Learn to breathe deeply through your lower abdomen, and keep your tongue against the roof of your mouth.
  9. Extend and let your vitality power flow on all outward movements.
  10. Recall and relax your vitality power on all inward movements.
  11. Live the Ch’ang Ming way (Taoist macrobiotics).
  12. Study the laws of life within the realms of the spiritual path (Tao).
  13. Study the use and harmonization of the vitality power and macro-cosmic energy, which are the internal and external, physical and spiritual energies.

The Chinese Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan by Chee Soo page 34

Let’s have a look at these principles in more detail:

1. Keep your body erect without stiffness

So firstly we know that Tai Chi is a natural form of movement, and if we look at probably the most common form of movement for humans in the natural world it is walking. Even when someone is running they do not lean forwards, the spine is kept upright and straight.

Tai Chi is a tapestry of influences and we can look at this principle from two of these principles, one is the health aspect which represents the movement of Qi or energy around the body, and the other is self-defence.

For health reasons, we are keeping upright because this is the least amount of physical stress on one of the key structural components of the body which is the spine. The spine is a series of small bones balanced one on top of the other and if it is kept upright and in a straight alignment then it simply takes less effort to keep the body in place. The spine is really quite weak in comparison to other structural elements such as the limbs which are supported by single large bones and are easy to keep in place. The spine cannot take much stress and when you are leaning this increases the stress on the whole body and this burns up energy. We don’t want to be burning up energy while we are moving as the whole purpose of the exercises is to build up a store of life-giving energy so keeping a good posture is vitally important. We can see this from other types of exercise of the energy body like Qigong which was in part influenced by Indian Yoga, and in Yoga and meditation, one of the key factors is keeping the spine straight so energy is free to move along the key channels int he spine such as the Governor vessel.

In self-defence training another reason to have a good upright posture is to keep on balance, the last thing we want when interacting with forces affecting the body from the outside is to end up on the floor, and when we are leaning this is exactly what tends to happen. This is why it is also vitally important to include partner work such as sticky hands with our training because this teaches us exactly what happens when we lose our balance and equilibrium. Here we can see how forms or solo exercises go hand in hand with partner work where we can prove to ourselves the effects of incorrect forms when we have to interact with other people who may be trying to upset our balance. In this way partner work is playing an important role in developing strong balance and keeping us on our feet, especially as we get older and our balance is likely to fail, ending up with a fall and potentially damaging consequences. As we get older falling down is likely to have much more serious consequences because we simply cannot heal so easily from injury, and so preventing falling becomes a much better investment in energy instead of calling on our body to heal itself after we have been injured which could take weeks if not months and have other serious consequences on our health.

Avoiding stiffness is important if we consider the next principle which is staying relaxed.

2. Everything about you should be completely relaxed, especially the mind.

Relaxing is one of the prime considerations in Tai Chi exercise. Relaxing the body while we are moving allows us to use the built-in equilibrium which we have been training since we first started to walk and which is also built-in from the evolutionary structure we are inheriting from our parents and our ancestors. Relaxing also minimizes the amount of energy burned up through stress. When the body is tense it is literally fighting against itself and this costs a lot of energy. Also when the muscles are tense this reduces the free flow of energy around the entire system. It is this energy that constantly nourishes the body and the organs and replenishes energy and also regenerates the body. If we are burning up energy through stress this reduces the body’s ability to replace and regrow the damaged muscles, tissues, nerve cells, and other bodily parts which wear out through constant use. We maybe don’t realize it but the body is always replacing itself right down to the cellular level. Skin tissues and organs take 2-3 years to regrow and even the bones take up to seven years and are eventually replaced. The body you have now will be completely replaced in seven years, and so learning to reduce stress on the physical level will give your body adequate tools to do the job. Wasting energy through stress is really a bad idea because it ages you. Add to this the amount of energy wasted if the mind is also causing stress, in fact, the mind can burn up more energy during your practice than the body does so it’s vitally important to relax the mind. instead of constantly calling on the mind to do everything instead we can access a relaxed unconscious mental state that has already done the bulk of the work letting your body move in a natural state of equilibrium, this is the most efficient way to move.

Tai Chi is a form of moving meditation and simultaneously a type of qigong or energy-building exercise, so if we are really relaxed when we are doing our Tai Chi we can enter a meditative state and allow ourselves to mentally and physically regenerate. In health terms this is vital, but even in terms of self-defence then when we are attacked we have to have trained ourselves to relax and stay focused so we can pick up the important clues coming in that guide us as to what we need to do to protect ourselves. In fact, being relaxed is also a very good preventative measure because a calm mind will allow us to pick up the situational clues we need to stay out of trouble in the first place. If we don’t learn how to stay calm under pressure we are more likely to panic and freeze and become an easy target for the attacker.

Relaxing, and appearing relaxed, are also an important deterrent to the attacker, tension makes us appear weak and fearful. Acting relaxed is not as convincing as actually being relaxed, an attacker can pick up on this with animal instinct even in the absence of obvious physical clues, so the quicker you learn to stay relaxed whatever the circumstances the better. There is a great story about this by a Taoist philosopher called Zhuangzi called “The fighting cockerel”. Search Google and see if you can find the story.