“Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form.”
A guy on a discussion forum called Wayne Hansen uses that quote in his signature. I don’t know if this is a famous quote from an old master, or if it’s just something that Wayne thought of himself, but it’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!
I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, upper body muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, talked about in the Tai Chi classics.
(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).
What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how Tai Chi is done, which is pretty standard in Chinese martial arts. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, which have very little explanation, and are only useful for people who already understand what they mean. So let’s break this one down and see where we get, starting with:
1. Fang song
In Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to fang song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body. Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.
Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it sacrifices flexibility. This sort of force tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. In contrast, relaxation can be more like thick sea ice – strong and solid all the way down.
But to be both powerful and relaxed a body also needs to be:
On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives together at the same place at the same time. If you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all arriving together in a unified purpose then you can use relaxation to create a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story. You also need:
The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking, which can be described as dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing, enables power from the ground to rebound up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.
I often read people who criticise sinking as merely “pushing from the legs”. They say that this will just be too slow. To that I’d say, go and ask a boxer if his punches are too slow, because that’s what a boxer does. But more importantly, that’s not what I’m talking about.
It’s true, the legs are very much involved in generating power from the ground, but when you can effectively drop your weight down it’s not a physical movement of pushing from the legs that matters. It’s the internal movement of power that is important, the jin. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not going to be too slow to use.
Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it in your form. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day, right? Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.
Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.
Just look at that picture of the famous Yang style Tai Chi teacher, Yang Cheng Fu. You can see how relaxed he looks and how his weight is sinking down.
He’s got it.