Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 232
Tai Chi Chuan – Opening and Closing Sequence
There was a fabulous book written by Herman Hesse entitled “Magister Ludi”. One of the best books ever written. In any case, there is a line in the book that has always remained in my head, and applies so strongly to Tai Chi practice. I quote:
“In each new beginning there dwells a magic source.”
So true. And we can explore this magic every time we begin a round of Tai Chi. Through the years of my practice, I have changed how I start my practice, from nothing special, to full standing meditation. It really doesn’t matter how one starts, but, as an instructor and trainer of instructors, there needs to be some agreement of how we will do the form. So I am sharing the latest version of how we start our opening sequence, since this sets the stage for all that is to follow.
1) Mountain Top Stance
In almost every spiritual tradition, the seeker heads to the highest mountains to find unity with the life force. The Daoists in China where Tai Chi was developed, lived in the mountains – especially Wu Dang Mountain. The holy men of the Himalayas live a contemplative existence in the clear, high mountain air. Through the ages, the mountains have seemed the best place to attain selfhood. So I add this element to my opening.
When I arrive at the place of practice, I take some time to just stand and empty body and mind. Then when I feel ready, I sink my weight onto my right foot, bending the right knee – squatting. I roll up onto the left big toe, and when the balance is solid, I move the left foot next to the right foot. The feet are parallel. I then stand up tall. This stance imitates a mountain. The weight of the lower body sinks down and blends with the mountain. Even though we stand on the top, we allow our lower body to feel the whole mountain with its base deep in the earth, not just a pile placed on the top of the earth. Feel the center of the earth by relaxing downward. At the same time, the top of the head is lifted into the heavens. The earth (yin energy) gives support to the body/mind to open to the yang energy of the cosmos.
2) Wuji stance
From the top of the mountain, I next move into Wuji Stance which allows the time to attain a state of nothingness – Wuji. I sink the weight onto the right foot, roll up onto the left toe, and when balanced, step to the left as far as I can with the left foot, without moving any weight off of the right, supporting leg. Touch the left heel first, then roll the foot down as you shift the weight to the center of the stance. Feet end up hip or shoulder width apart, whichever is most comfortable. Toes face straight ahead with the insides of the feet parallel. I then stand up straight. Knees are relaxed – not locked. Spine is straight without being stiff with the pelvis slightly tucked under. The top of the head is lifting with the chin slightly tucked under. The body weight relaxes into the feet with the pressure on the Yung Chuan (Bubbling Well) point. The breathing is relaxed, using dantien breath (lower belly). Allow all thoughts to melt away. Concentrate on breathing. Take as much time as you need.
3) Setting the Goal
It is in the Wuji Stance that I set the goal or focus for this round of practice. It is important to have a clear direction set in one’s mind before practice in order to train the mind to stay focused and not wander. There are unlimited areas to focus on, including: breath, feet, center, hands, eyes, application, smoothness, speed, relaxation of muscles, etc. Whatever it is, set it in your mind before practice and do your best to stay on that goal. When you find your mind wandering, come back to the goal. As the years of practice go by, you will notice the time between loss of focus gets longer. You are gaining one of the most important benefits of Tai Chi practice.
4) Horse Riding Stance
When ready, I move into the state of Tai Chi. This means I am moving from nothingness (Wuji) into separation of this universal chi into yin and yang. I sink the weight down, allowing the yin energy to move to my lower body, especially the lower dantien and legs. I squat until the knees just cover the toes – no further. It can be a bit less, depending upon ones level of fitness. It is very important to have the knees point in the same direction as the toes. The yang energy rises up from the lower dantien, lifting the upper body, and especially filling the middle and upper dantien. I have just separated the universal chi into yin and yang and I have set the level my body will stay at throughout the entire form.
5) Peng, Lu, Ghee, An, Meditation
The opening sequence, Commencement Of Tai Chi Chuan, continues with a warm-up meditation on the four basic energies of Tai Chi: Peng or Expand, Lu or Contract, Ghee or Press, An or Push. Most forms go right from Wuji stance into the second movement – Ward Off. I picked up this added sequence somewhere along the line and I feel it really helps to set the mood. It is not necessary, yet it is effective.
From Horse Riding Stance: As you press energy downward into the legs, your body rises, and as you do, the arms expand upward and outward, parallel to each other, until the arms are parallel to the floor, and just lower than the shoulders. It is important that the rising of the body and arm expansion happen at the same time. The arms raise as if there are strings attached to the top of the wrist, not the hand or fingers. The wrists rise, fingers hanging. This coordinates with a rising of the body until one is standing straight up. As the body approaches full standing, the hands and fingers fill. Be careful not to lock the knees. This is Peng Energy, like blowing up a ballon. To reiterate: as the energy pushes downward into the feet, the body is forced upward. At the same time, the arms expand to the front and upward to end at middle chest level.
Next, one starts to sit back down into Horse Riding stance. As the body lowers, the elbows sink in towards the body until the upper arms are almost, but not quite, next to the ribs. The hands are just slightly higher than the elbows. Fingers face forward, almost, but not quite, parallel to the floor. It is like catching a ball thrown towards the center of the body. The Lao Kung point in the center of the palm becomes more solid (like holding a ball) during this part. This is Lu or Contracting Energy.
Next, one stands back up. At the same time the two hands expand outward, basically parallel to the floor, as if pushing something forward and slightly inward toward the center. The palms face forward, fingers standing up, but not too stiff. The elbows do not extend so far forward that they lock. This is Ghee or Press.
The final energy, An, is composed of two parts. First, the body lowers back into Horse Riding Stance. At the same time, the arms move towards the body, as they did for Lu. After the upper arms arrive at the sides of the body, the body stands back. As the body rises, the palms push downwards in the front of the body, fingers face forward. Use the center of the palm (Lao Kung point). It is sort of like, moving from a squat, you place your hands on a solid flat surface at about waist level, push your self up by pressing the arms down. When the hands are fully down, the hands relax and the fingers move to facing down. Palms face the rear. There is a feeling that there is something behind the center of the palm trying to push the hands forward, but don’t let them move. Now we are ready to move into movement #2 – Ward Off Left.
Note: This Openning sequence is clearly shown on some of my Tai Chi videos on YouTube. This one is clear so you can see the instructions in action. Copy and paste the link and watch until :43 seconds in.
When you have finished Conclusion, you are back to Wuji Stance. It is very important to take a few moments to gather the energy you have accumulated into the lower dantien. You do this by placing the mind on the lower belly and allowing the breathing to return to normal. The energy of the body will follow the mind, so it will primarily move to the place of attention – the dantien. Take as long as you like and enjoy the feeling. This is also a good time to set goals for the rest of the day as your body/mind is integrated.
When ready, shift the weight onto the right foot, roll up onto the left toes, and bring the left foot next to the right. You have returned to the Mountain Top. When ready, you can come back down into your normal life. Wuji to Tai Chi – Tai Chi to Wuji. Perfect.
First Saturday Workshop (Oct. 5, 1 to 4 PM) continues with Yang Style 54 Movement Sword Form.