Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form


“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:

2. Coordinated

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:

3. Sinking

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.

Peng, Lu, Ji, An: Grasping the bird’s tail

Teaching using Trigrams

Yesterday I taught the ‘Grasp Bird’s Tail’ sequence in the form. I don’t know why, but I drifted into talking about trigrams as I was teaching it. Trigrams are the series of three broken or unbroken lines that make up the Bagua and are usually associated with the ancient book of Chinese wisdom, the I-Ching, or “classic of changes”, which contains 64 hexagrams (two trigrams on top of each other).

This diversion into ancient philosophy is somewhat unusual for me, but not unheard of, as I usually don’t like to get sidetracked into theoretical discussions too much when I teach. I think theory has its place, but I’ve seen too many Tai Chi teachers who seem to need a whiteboard and marker pen to teach you how to throw a punch. The thing is, the trigrams aren’t purely theoretical to me, and they do have relevance to teaching and practical application, as I will explain.

The four fundamental forces used in Tai Chi are Pung, Lu, Ji and An, (usually translated as Ward off, Rollback, Press and Push) and are most clearly expressed in Yang style-derived Tai Chi forms in the section known as Grasp Bird’s Tail. Each of the energies has a trigram related to it for a specific reason.

Peng is three unbroken, or yang, lines: “heaven”
Lu is three broken, or yin, lines: “earth”
Ji is one solid, yang, line surrounded by two yin lines: “water”
An is “fire”, a yin line surrounded by Yang lines.”fire”

Heaven, earth, water and fire – four fundamental elemental forces.

Because of their symbolic makeup, the trigrams can help you understand what’s ‘inside’ the postures, and what makes them different to each other – what makes a Peng a Peng, for instance, and not a Lu? And how is that different again to a Ji? And how is An different again?

It’s about the feel of each movement.

For example: Peng is represented by three yang lines – this is maximum yang at its fullness. In this posture you should feel internally inflated – a positive, outward expression of energy at its maximum. That doesn’t mean it is “hard” – it is actually more like a large rubber ball – a springy kind of energy on contact.

Lu is represented by three yin lines. This is the most empty a posture can be, but again, it’s not lacking or depleted, it’s just empty. There’s still a structure, like the way a vase is empty in the middle. You are guiding force past you, without adding in your own force, but also without losing your own stability.

Then you get Ji and An, which mix both yin and yang lines. Ji is a solid yang line between two broken yin lines – the needle in the cotton. This is how the energy should be expressed in Ji – soft, but with a hard centre. Push is the opposite – it appears to be hard, but is open and empty inside, giving the push a warmer fire-like feel.

Again, we are talking about how each posture feels here, so words will always be inadequate, which is why the trigrams can be a useful visual symbol to represent the feeling of each energy and help you distinguish them.

The use of trigrams is not limited to Grasp Bird’s Tail. (There are another four in use in Tai Chi, which are further mixtures of yin and yang balances, but I often feel like the theory is being shoehorned slightly into Tai Chi to accomodate them into a nice neat number 8, as there’s no real reason to go as far as 8, and you could also go further.).

Once you can understand the feeling of the four energies in Grasp Bird’s Tail you can see how it applies in other areas of the form. For example – what energy do you want to express at the very end of Brush Knee Twist Step? Is it a Ji or an An with the projecting hand?

Well, the interesting thing is, you could do it either way, so long as you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Addendum: One of the joys of symbols is that you can interpret them in different ways. If what I’ve written goes directly against what your teacher has told you, then that’s fine – you can interpret these things in different ways. This is just the way I do it.

The (martial) use of Peng Jin in Tai Chi Chuan

Peng Jin gets talked about all the time in relation to Tai Chi, yet you rarely see anything shown or discussed about its usage and relationship to actual fighting. I wanted to make a video that did that, so here it is!

Tai Chi Chuan, after all, is a martial art, and not just a collection of interesting ways of manipulating ‘force’ in the body for purely health purposes. It’s a martial art that uses Sung Jin, or ‘relaxed force’ in preference to hard strength. One of the reasons why it prefers relaxation over hard strength is that it enables the use of Peng Jin. You simply can’t do Peng Jin unless you are sufficiently relaxed. In terms of martial arts it’s a very useful skill that can be used as shown in the video.

There’s much more to Peng Jin than what I’m showing here – but it would require a much longer video to go into all the intricacies. I don’t, for example, talk about how I’m doing what I’m doing, I just show what the effects are.

Another factor to consider is that Peng Jin should also be a quality that’s always present in the Tai Chi practitioner, rather than something you turn on or off for technique purposes. However it’s the subtle, but powerful, effect of the Peng ‘bounce’ on an opponent that I wanted to demonstrate, so that’s what’s shown here.

The classic “Song of the eight postures” describe Peng Jin as:

“What is the
meaning of
Peng energy?

It is like water
supporting a
moving boat.”

Imagine the way a boat bobs on the water, and that will give you a good insight into Peng.