All agree that the aim of the traditional energy arts from China is to develop radiant health and energy, to balance mind and body, and to encourage a harmonious relationship with one’s environment. The student training in these disciplines – for example, in /t’ai chi/, /bagua/, or /qigong/ – aims above all to cultivate his or her /Qi/ in such a way as to promote robust vitality and vibrant mental and physical good health. But these goals and the means to achieve them can be difficult to understand, and even the most sincere and dedicated student can easily go astray.
My first rule of teaching is therefore not to allow my students to master all the wrong things perfectly. The health and improved function of mind and body that traditional Chinese methods of energy cultivation seek to cultivate over a lifetime of practice can be achieved /only/ on the basis of the kind of bodily alignment, muscular activity, breathing, and intention (or “/Yi/”) that I emphasize in all my classes. Without a proper understanding of these basics, training is pointless at best and harmful at worst. Indeed, serious martial artists often damage their minds and bodies by training hard without proper attention to the basics, while those who train only for health by practicing the “gentle movements” of, for example/, t’ai chi/ or /qigong/ find that, without those same foundations, the promised benefits of truly robust health and vitality continue to elude them. My classes therefore endeavor above to help the student unearth these foundations despite years of neglect, misuse, and misunderstanding.
The benefits of training that develops and refines these foundations are enormous:
- The student’s mental and physical health improves dramatically
- Strength and balance improve,
- Old injuries heal better,
- New injuries are less likely,
- Sleep and digestion improve,
- The harmful effects of day‐to-‐day stress are overcome,
- The student acquires a method of training for health and energy that he or she can practice anywhere, at any age, and in any condition without having purchase expensive equipment or memorize esoteric forms or doctrines.
These same benefits are denied to anyone who ignores the foundations, but no teacher can do for his students the hard work necessary to uncover them for themselves. There is no shortcut. This is why an effective teacher can best guide the student in this project of self-‐discovery only by means of example, not by dispensing wisdom and learning. But unless the teacher himself embodies in his own movement the mental and physical skills he seeks to help his students uncover, those who come to him for instruction are likely to head down the wrong path from step one.
All my classes, therefore, emphasize proper /bodily alignment/, correct /muscular activity/, efficient /development of Qi/, constant refinement of /speed and power/, and cultivation of /Yi/. The collective cultivation of each of these aspects of training leads to the ultimate goal of training: the perfection of /Shen/ or spirit.
Without proper alignment, energy cannot flow smoothly throughout the body. One’s health is adversely affected. One’s martial arts are ineffective. And one’s ability to flourish in one’s day-‐to-‐day life is compromised. The student must therefore learn how best to position his or her skeleton in order to support any activity at all. This is step one.
Everyone knows that good bodily alignment supports muscular work. That’s why we’re told, for example, to lift with our knees, not with our backs: bent legs support weight the back cannot. However, students of the so-‐called internal arts are often told as well to relax and be /sung/ and to use their /Qi/. The fact is, however, that only muscles can move the body. While it is true that one needs to learn to work without muscular tension, to sacrifice muscular work for the sake of relaxation robs one of the real benefits of training. Students in my classes always feel they have more energy after even a physically demanding workout than when they came in. One cannot relax away the stresses of day‐to‐day living. Simple relaxation cannot build the kind of energy needed for robust health and vitality in the face of the kinds of pressure people confront nowadays.
/Development of Qi/
The broader cultural significance of the notion of /Qi/ is a matter of debate; what is clear, however, is that the only way to build energy by means of muscular activity on the basis of proper alignment is to have the muscles adequately supplied with oxygen. Most of our breathing is very inefficient, because we exhale most of the oxygen we breathe in. I teach the /efficient/ use of the breath to support healthy mental and physical functioning. This is a matter not just of deeper and smoother inhalations, but also of proper exhalation as well. Efficient breathing is the key to why, as I noted above, my students have more energy after even a strenuous workout than they have before.
/Speed and power/
Power is a function of how many muscle groups one can bring to bear on any given physical task; its relevance is obviously not limited just to the martial arts. The balanced use of muscular effort is essential in avoiding the kinds of injuries that plague young and old alike. Speed is a function of how rapidly a person can gather together the muscle groups responsible for his or her power. Both speed and power are improved as one uncovers more and more involuntary neuromuscular connections in the body. As a person ages, it becomes more and more difficult to build new muscle by means of exercise. There is, however, no limit either to the number of neuromuscular connections one can uncover or to the speed with which those connections can be recruited. This is why some of my older students are faster and more powerful than their much younger and stronger classmates. And it is why those students’ health and energy continues to improve over time rather than declining.
“/Yi/” is a difficult word to render helpfully into English, but “mind” or “intention” are not far wrong. Traditionally, we say that /Yi/ guides /Qi/, while the /Qi/ powers the muscles. This means, roughly, that all intelligent movement begins with a thought. For example, when you reach for a glass, you raise your arm. Your arm does not just rise. An arm /raising/ is the accomplishment of a task or a project. If everything is functioning smoothly, raising your arm is the expression of an intention (/Yi/) to do so. And many such movements are accompanied by an inhalation (supported, that is, by /Qi/). The power of the movement comes from that in-breath. And that power generates energy. Check for yourself. Do this simple experiment: get out of your chair as you inhale; now compare how that feels to getting out of the chair as you exhale. The former movement is supported by /Qi/; the latter is not. The effect is quite different. Ideally all the movements in a t’ai chi form should feel like the former and never like the latter.
/Shen/ is the most difficult notion to explain in plain English, but you can get some idea by recalling the little experiment I just mentioned. The effect of standing up while inhaling is to /unify/ the /Yi/, the /Qi/, the muscles, and the skeleton. In short, the whole person stands up as one. If the mind is distracted, the breath weak, the muscles working against themselves, and the alignment poor, the person is more a /heap/ or jumble than a single individual expressing him or herself in action. That enhancement of that sense of wholeness is a central part of what is meant by /Shen/, and it is the achievement of a lifetime.
It is my view that my students should be able to develop each of these aspects of training. Doing so requires continuous and intelligent effort on their part and, eventually, a great deal of hands-‐ on personal help. Much of that effort is devoted to the practice of so-‐called standing meditation or /Zhang Zhan/. The apparently static postures of /Zhang Zhan/ allow a student to develop all aspects of training mentioned above – but only if the student understands that, far from being the passive observation of the passing inner show or the achievement of mystical states, this kind of meditation is a form of action and that the supreme health and energy it cultivates are the result of the highest forms of mental and physical activity.