Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Sinking the Qi to the Dantien

Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.

What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )

My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.

I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.

The Most Important KATA in Karate 🥋

Power is just one factor. Don’t obsess over it.

Aldo vs McGregor

When was the last time you saw MMA coaches or fans having a massive long, protracted argument about the best way to produce power? I can’t remember it happening. I don’t think that’s because they don’t care about it – they obviously do – but I think they recognise that it’s part of the whole that makes up a fighter, not the only thing to focus on. Being able to take a punch to the face or body without crumpling into the canvas is obviously a more important skill. Being able to produce a powerful stomp into the ground when you’re punching the air, leaving your fist vibrating and shaking to demonstrate the enormity of your power… is very good for show, but what about for real? Can you do that when you’re tired, you’ve already been hit twice in the body and kicked six times in the same leg?

MMA coaches and commentators talk a lot about Conor McGregor’s left. It’s one of the most famous KO weapons in MMA. He’s sent a lot of consciousnesses on a short break to Valhalla with it. I was listening to Coach Zahabi breaking down the Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier fight (video below). He calls McGregor the “One punch KO type guy”, with a “kill shot”, a “touch of death”. But on that night the KO didn’t happened. Coach Zahabi talks a lot about about what Poirier did to take the sting out of it – by constantly wearing McGregor down, clinching him, not playing his game.

If you look at the GIF above of Aldo vs McGregor you can see McGregor knocks Aldo out while moving backwards (Tai Chi people, feel free to yell out “Repulse Monkey!” here – it will do you no good, but it will make you feel better 🙂 ) this reveals what’s more important than power – timing. Power as the goal seems fruitless to me – what matters more is timing. If I could bottle timing and drink it I’d be drunk on it all the time!

The internal martial arts, with their emphasis on intricate, subtle and detailed body methods, qi, jin, “internal strength”, (and not much actual fighting), tend to fall prey to this obsession with power too easily. How much power do you really need? My answer is always “enough”. Once you go beyond “enough” then you start to detract from other areas of your game – timing, position, fluidity, flow, etc.. Power is part of the whole system of movement that should go with every Chinese martial art – if you extract that one aspect and look at in isolation then you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Here’s the breakdown by Coach Zahabi:

The boxing is tightly reeled

The Classic of Fighting is part of Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis, a collection of works also known as the Xing Yi Classics. (I once got into a bit of a tiff about these documents being attributed to Chen Changxin in error, but that’s another story.)

Photo by Dan Galvani Sommavilla on Pexels.com

The Classic of Fighting is one of the more practical works in the classics, and contains some fascinating insights on martial matters. Amongst the verse is this part:

“The outstanding person boxes through freely releasing technique. It is also useful if the boxing is tightly reeled using Qi in the haft grip”. 

The translation I’m using here is by my teacher Damon Smith and Shan Gao, and is reproduced in full in Xing Yi Quan, A study of Tai and Tuo Xing by Glen Board.

“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.

Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:

“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”

I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements. 

It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.

The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. Of course, “fist” “boxing” and “martial art” are all implied by “Quan”, so it’s all open to interpretation.

Either way, it’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The frequent references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on Pexels.com

 

 

 

Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale 
move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.

His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:

1) moving from the dantien

2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.

3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing.  You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.

Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.

1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”

I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.

I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.

I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:

The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is. 

out of order text on persons belly

I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.

The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.

In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.

Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.  Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).

If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.

So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.

tiger stretching over brown trunk during daytime

A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:

From the Tai Chi classics:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing
and advantageous position.”

“The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.”

Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.

This is what I mean, Oliver.

The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.

In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.

 

 

Two recent stories

I’m still using this blog for posting my ideas and blog posts, but I’ve decided to start putting a few new stories onto my new Medium page.

I’m using Medium as a place to post more polished articles. They’re basically my better blog posts that I’ve tidied up a bit and made more coherent.

Here are the first two I’ve done:

Let me know what you think!

 

 

The punch you didn’t see coming

action adult athlete athletes

Photo by Coco Championship on Pexels.com

I’ve already talked about how we use jin (planet force) all the time. I think there’s a good example from MMA and boxing that sheds some more light on this.

When boxers or MMA practitioners get knocked out by a punch it’s usually from one they didn’t see coming. The counterpunch is a deadly strike in combat because at the very moment you think you are punching them, they’re hitting you. Its effectiveness is partly down to surprise, and often you get a double impact because the attacker is moving forward into the punch of the counter attacker – a perfect example of ‘using their own force against them’.

But the surprise factor and force on force don’t explain why a punch that the guy doesn’t see coming is often twice as effective as a punch he is mentally prepared for.

I believe the answer is to do with jin and the subconscious mind. When you can see a punch coming, your brain can – in the fractions of a second you have available, – make subtle postural adjustments so that the force is absorbed by your body better against the ground. This is similar to the idea of a jin path to the ground we’ve already talked about. I believe we automatically and subconsciously do this in response to any impact we can see coming.

When we can’t see that punch coming it’s more damaging because we are not ‘in position’ to receive it as well.

The next time you watch a boxing match or an MMA match, think about this idea and see if it looks true on the slow-motion replay.

The upsidedown world of Tai Chi

man performing handstand

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

I’d like to give a quick shout out to Cook Ding’s Kitchen who reposted one of my blog posts “Don’t Try“, which gave me the chance to read it again. It was about using less effort and not forcing things. Difficult words to live up to.

This started me thinking about one of the things that can help in using less effort in Tai Chi. A good trick is to turn our normal perspective on the human body upside down. We normally think of doing things with our arms and hands and don’t think much about the legs at all. In Tai Chi we want to reverse that.

If we watch a boxing match, for example, we tend to look at what’s going on with the hands a lot, since that’s where all the action is, and generally miss the subtle changes of the legs.

low angle photo of two men fighting in boxing ring

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

Tai Chi is boxing with the legs: You use your legs like arms, and your arms like legs. When you’re doing the Tai Chi form, stop using your arms to ‘do’ things and put all your focus into using your legs to do it. It’s a bit like walking on your hands: your arms and legs swap their normal functions over.

When doing the form or applications, your toes grip the ground, your weight moves fully forward or backward on the feet (no wishy-washy stances floating about in the middle ground, please), you are sunk and slightly low in your stance so you can get fully into your legs. In contrast, the upper body should be empty. Relax. Let the arms go where they need to go, but don’t move them there deliberately. Let your legs, directed by your middle, do the work. Think them into position with a directed focus (yi).

The Press posture is a good example of what I’m talking about:

ycf2

Yang Cheng Fu – Press

You put your inside hand on the outside arm wrist and push towards the opponent in a linear direction. Because you’re forming a particular shape with your hands in Press, it’s tempting to do this move with your arms cut off from the body. Instead, the power needs to come from the ground via the legs. Drop down and release from the dantien area to the ground and let the power of the ground rise up to the hands. Done right, you’re hitting the opponent with the force of the planet (jin), not just the force of your body.

As it says in the classics:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers.”

and

“The whole body should be threaded together
through every joint
without the slightest break.”

and

“All movements are motivated by yi,
not external form.”

 

 

 

 

Staying rounded in Taijiquan

My Xing Yi teacher invented the word “chalicity” as an English equivalent of the Mongol phrase “Bak Tam Stay Saub”, which means (very roughly) “a bit like a capacious container”. So, chalicity means, “a bit like a chalice.”

A chalice, or a cup, is a rounded structure designed to contain a fluid with no leaks, and has parallels for both the mental aspect and physical aspect of a posture in the internal arts.

jametlene-reskp-21xmyDjZPck-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In the context of his shamanism practice, chalicity is more about the mental parallel – the space inside the cup reflecting the space inside a mind that is empty of thought.

However, in the context of Taijiquan and martial arts, you can think of ‘chalice-like’ as the physical structure of the body creating the space necessary to contain “Peng” energy, that is, the ground force used in internal arts expressed through a rounded structure.

Think of Peng energy as being the fluid inside the cup and your body as being the structure of the cup. Or you can think of it as the air inside a rubber ball. If you keep your body rounded, it holds the Peng energy nicely. If you don’t, it leaks out.

The posture requirements of Taijiquan

All the posture requirements of Taijiquan create a rounded structure for the body. Here are some:

1. Head suspended from above

2. Elbows drooped.

3. Chest sheltered / back lifted

4. Shoulders rounded.

5. Chi sunk to the dantien.

6. Kua rounded

7. Knees bent.

These requirements create the structure for your ‘chalice’ within which you can hold the Peng force.

These days all internal martial arts make use of Zhan Zhuang, “standing like a tree” standing postures, which the practitioner is required to hold for extended periods, work the same way. They all maintain this same Peng shape, with gently rounded limbs and upright spines.

adult and cub tiger on snowfield near bare trees

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Xing Yi Quan uses the San Ti Shi standing posture which has 6 requirements, two of which are bear shoulders and tiger embrace. Together these two requirements mean your torso and arms take up the same chalice-like posture. You maintain the Peng shape. It’s all the same idea.

Maintaining structure while moving.

Structure isn’t something that’s meant to be achieved only in a static posture. Part of what you’re training when you perform a Tai Chi form, for example, is the ability to keep this Peng shape as you move.

If you keep the requirements you can maintain Peng. If you break the requirements then your Peng force will leak out of your body, just as water would leak from a cup with a hole in.

So, if you start to drop your head or stiffen the neck, for example, or straighten your legs or raise your elbows, you lose the natural power of the body working together all powered from the ground, and you have to start muscling it to compensate in your techniques.

So, to work in internal arts, all the techniques need to be expressed within the framework of this structure, and some techniques in martial arts just aren’t suited to maintaining this Peng structure.

Take for example, a side kick.

jason-briscoe-HN_4K2diUWs-unsplash

Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with a side kick, but you physically can’t keep the body ‘rounded’ while performing a side kick to the opponent’s chest because of the angle you need to open your hip to. Just look at the photo.

I think that’s one reason why you don’t often see the a side kick in most Tai Chi forms or in fact in Xing Yi or Bagua. The kicks you do see in the internal arts tend to not take the hip out of alignment with the rest of the body.

Does that mean you can never do a side kick again? Of course not, but generally, you need to keep your rounded structure at all times when practicing internal arts, that way you keep your Peng energy rounded and the true power of the internal martial arts can be expressed.