Posture Testing - Embodying Key Principles – Conditioning the Body-Mind

Authentic Taijiquan training is about using the form as a tool to embody the distinctive Taiji principles of movement and posture. These principles were detailed in the Yang style by Yang Cheng Fu, and have become part of the Tai Chi classics[1] , where they are known as Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Essential Points (Box 1). Yang himself is reported to have said that if these ten points were not present in the form it was not Tai Chi. If they were present in just one posture then it was Tai Chi. On these grounds alone one could question whether what passes for Tai Chi these days is actually Tai Chi at all. The ten points are listed as single points in box 1; however, in the classical literature commentaries elaborate upon them, and these are readily available for the interested reader.

Box 1. Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Essential Points:

1)      Straighten the Head

2)      Sink the Chest and Raise the Back

3)      Relax the Waist

4)      Distinguish Full and Empty

5)      Sink the Shoulders and Elbows

6)      Use the Mind instead of Force

7)      Coordinate the Upper and Lower Parts

8)      Coordinate the Internal and External

9)      Continuity without Interruption

10)   Seek Stillness in Movement

 

Underpinning every exacting movement that is learnt in the form are the T’ai Chi principles and concepts that must be built in systematically, starting with the foundations and building up from there. Learning the movements without these principles will give you only an empty shell and hence will yield little return.If you do not work at building these principles into the body then the form is essentially ‘hollow’ or ‘empty’. Master Chu called this type of Tai Chi training ‘tai chi dancing’ and he also referred to it as ‘bean curd (tofu) tai chi’. Bean curd is soft and jelly-like – it has no substance – and he said you could see when people performed this type of form that it had no gong, no power, no substance.

Master Chu once told us that you needed three ingredients for successful training: 1) a good teacher, 2) natural ability, and 3) perseverance (practice). If you did not have natural ability you could make up for it with persistence, but even if you had natural ability, if your teacher was not teaching the right stuff it made no difference, it was all a waste of time. Grand Master Ip Tai Tak, the number one disciple of Yang Sau chung, son of Yang Cheng Fu, said in an interview that when he started training with Yang Sau chung he had to completely re-learn the whole form because the previous Yang style tai chi forms he had learnt were so different. He said that Grand Master Yang’s movements were simpler, but had more focus and precision, and "many intricate subtleties needing only small movements", but this made it much more difficult to master[2] . "When he was correcting me Master Yang often told me he was screwing my structure down"[3] .

When one sees other Yang forms performed they often seem to have a lot of ‘flowery’, superfluous movements. People comment when they see our form that it looks ‘martial’. According to Master Ip Tai Tak Grandmaster Yang also said if the form’s postures and movements were not correct, " ... whatever time and energy is put into the practice, the effort is wasted. It can be likened to pouring water into a bucket full of holes" [4].

Posture testing is a very important tool because it helps consolidate and integrate the necessary knowledge and principles into the form. Once the structural principles, combined with relaxation (song), are well integrated into the form, qi will flow freely and from this the postures will be able to harness their natural, intrinsic strength and stability. Thus posture testing is also one of the most useful tools in the Taiji training kit to help bring out non-reliance on brute strength (one of the things that appeals to me the most about internal systems).

It represents an important method through which you can assess your posture’s strength, stability and self-defence efficacy, quite objectively, through having a partner apply an external force (push or pull). I liked this aspect of empirically testing the postures that Master Chu introduced almost from day one in my training. It proved that if the postures were correct there was this ‘intrinsic power’ available to be harnessed as an alternative to external strength. I found this very exciting. However, there is a degree of exactness necessary in the structure for the postures to have this power - as the Taiji classics say, “if you are out by an inch you are out by a thousand miles’’[5] .

Most people have no idea how much their bodies and mind have been developed along the lines of using reactive strength, reflexively pushing or forcing weight and muscle back against an oncoming force or object of resistance. Also we instinctively tense up when attacked (the startle/flinch response), for example, when pushed or pulled. To change these body-mind programs takes serious transforming of the way we feel, see, think and move. Posture testing is one powerful tool in helping us change these programs, because you have to learn to relax and let go of brute strength, and simply rely on the structure.

Master Chu described this process of learning to ‘let go’ of brute strength in simple terms as learning to ‘surrender awkward strength’. Contemporary Tai Chi magazines often speak of ‘deleting excess strength’. The process of letting go of instinctive, brute strength is, as I keep saying, counter-intuitive (or is it counter-instinctive?). In Taiji circles it is often expressed as well as ‘investing in loss’. Other means that help let go of awkward strength include push hands training (tui shou) and auxiliary exercises like ‘Daruma Doll’ practice.

As with the standing training each posture in the form must be shaped around the three circle principle - each posture has the circles in the arms and the legs. In posture testing each posture of the form and transition movements between them are ‘frozen’ and tested for stability. As with testing the circles in the standing qigong, if the structure is correct – neither blocking qi (cramped or too yin) nor wasting qi (overextended or too yang) – and the practitioner is relaxed, ‘rooted’, and using mental projection (mind-intent), then the posture will be strong without resorting to external, physical strength.

By stability it is meant that the posture cannot be pulled or pushed over, is relaxed and poised, and has ‘root’. When someone pushes on your hands or pulls on them the force is transferred through the body into the ground and thus you are able to stay ‘rooted’ and stable. Thus the posture testing can help reinforce the connection between the ground, your midsection, and the extremities. It also helps bring out the relaxation-in-structure (song) necessary to achieve this. It is very common to tense up in the legs when someone pushes on you, and you panic (the instinctive startle/flinch response), and very counter-intuitive to relax under this pressure. This is what we mean about changing the mind-body program.

It is important to test the postures done both correctly, and incorrectly. When doing them incorrectly you intentionally collapse the circles or over extend them, tense up, use strength, and deliberately break the Ten Important Points by, for example, having the head out of alignment. It is important to do this testing, correctly and incorrectly, over and over again, otherwise you can delude yourself. The training gives you a direct measure of whether you are applying the Tai Chi principles correctly or not. Postures that are strong and stable should reassure you that your posture is correct and that you are applying the principles well. Postures that are weak, however, alert you to the fact that the structure is incorrect and needs further attention.

Eventually you feel a quality in the correct postures that is not there in the incorrect ones. This ‘felt-sense’ is to do with being relaxed and mentally projecting whilst under pressure. If done correctly the posture just seems to ‘click’ into place and you are able to resist relatively effortlessly compared to the struggle involved when the posture is done incorrectly and you have to use external strength. There is a high degree of mental involvement or engagement in this ‘felt-sense’ and it also feels as if there is some sort of energy flow occurring - it actually feels quite comfortable. This type of training is fun, and interesting, as you discover the finer nuances of correct structure and how strong the postures are without reliance on muscle strength. It also has health implications because it stimulates the flow of qi.

People are often amazed at this natural, ‘intrinsic’ power and their respect for the art begins to deepen. This certainly happened for me as I reflected on ‘how did they discover this stuff?’ and the fact that I would never have figured it out myself, on my own, in a million years. As my first teacher Master Liu Hsiu-chi used to say ‘some things have stood the test of time’ so we do not need to rediscover them ourselves, just respect the arts that have discovered them for us.



[1] These are a body of classical Chinese writings dating back centuries written by Tai Chi Grandmasters. Some say (e.g., Chen Man ching) that these classics should be used as a model (set of criteria) to distinguish authentic Tai Chi from incorrect systems.  Good translations can be found at http://scheele.org/lee/classics.html#tccching

[2]A video of Yang Sau Chung doing the form can be googled at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bze07WyY0C0&feature=youtube_gdata_player –thisis the formwe teach.

[3]Ip Tai Tak, 2001, Tai Chi Chuan Revelations: Principles & Concepts, London: Tai Chi Worldwide Limited, p. 167.

[4]Ibid., p. 167.

[5] Wang Tsung Yueh’s Tai Chi Quan Lun – the Old Classic Manual of Tai Chi Chaun.

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