How do I raise the spirit of vitality?

“Could you tell me if there is a specific exercise to raise the spirit of vitality?
Or could this be just any exercise at all rather than a specific one?
I have been learning tai chi and it talks about Spirit/Shen and its importance,
but I haven’t a clue exactly what it means. I know to feel full of spirit means you feel on top of the world and ready for life- this is what I would like to feel.”

Well, that’s a tricky one to answer. You have to ask what is meant by “spirit”. In the Mongol language, for example, there are a whole plethora of words that in English would translate in “spirit” and they all mean something slightly different. The Chinese word “shen”, I think, could be translated into several different English words depending on context. In English we have to add more words to a sentence containing “spirit” to add context. For example, “spirit of vitality” – this would be the sense of feeling full of energy and ready to face the world that you talk about. But there are other words that we translate as “sprit” that have all sorts of meanings, from the mundane to the profound – and all slightly related. For example to “raise the spirit” can mean something as mundane as keeping the posture upright with the head up, or as profound as the creative realm of the tree of life.

This idea of being upright (physically, mentally and spiritually) is a big thing in Tai Chi – we are told to “let a light and intangible energy raise to the head top” in Yang Cheng-Fu’s 10 Important Points.

Yang Cheng-Fu

So, to get to the other part of your question – how to do it. There is no specific exercise for raising the spirit of vitality. Rather, it is a part of the postural requirements of Tai Chi, so it should apply in all exercise orientated towards Tai Chi practice. You want to feel as if your head if being pulled up by a thread from the crown point (between the tops of the ears). The result should be that the back of your neck gently lengthens and the chin tucks in. As always, you don’t want to achieve this posture with force, so don’t push your head into it. You should find that if you stand, focus on your breathing, generate that lightweight observation of self that is required in Tai Chi, your head and neck posture should naturally want to assume this posture.

Everything in Tai Chi works together. If you are breathing well, then it will encourage your posture to be upright and strong, which in turn will encourage you to ‘raise the head top’. If you can remove stress and tension from the body then the weight will sink down simultaneously, so you should feel strongly rooted into the ground and drawn up from the crown at the same time. These two pulls in opposite directions provide balance. You are separating yin and yang in the body – again, another part of the Tai Chi process.

I hope that helps.

Shen, Xin, cats and the Tai Chi classics

brown tabby cat

Photo by Immortal shots on

In this post I’m continuing with my current theme of the mind and Tai Chi Chuan.

Animals don’t “think” like we do most of the time. I bet you could argue that the species known for problem-solving like crows, chimpanzees, dolphins and dogs do their fair share of thinking, but in my previous post I was describing a state where you are doing Tai Chi without thinking. Just being.

You can see it in their eyes. Just look at that cat above. Cats are great examples of this, because they are around us often they’re easy to observe, but if you can observe animals in the wild you’ll see that they are in this state most, if not all, of the time.

There are various references to cats in the Tai Chi classics.

“The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit,
and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.”

Shen, we can loosely translate as spirit, but if you just substituted the words “inner state” there instead I think it would better equate to what the author was trying to convey, but he or she did did say Shen for a reason, as we shall see.

The word “Spirit” in English is tied up with all sorts of (organised) religious connotations which get in the ways and are not helpful.

A better understanding of what is meant by Shen would perhaps be, ‘underlying spirit of nature’. The part of you that is connected to this underlying spirit of nature is known as the Xin in Chinese. If it’s aligned with nature your Xin can produce your Yi (intention), which in turn can produce the physical movement (Qi) which in turn produces action (Li) all working in harmony with nature. You and your environment are one, working and acting together.

There are various versions of this ‘working in harmony with nature’ sequence written about in old Chinese writings – the Xin harmonises with the Yi, the Yi harmonies with the Qi and the Qi harmonises with Li being the most common and also forming the 3 internal harmonies of the famous Lie He, the 6 harmonies with are written about in all sorts of Chinese martial arts.

My Xing Yi teacher, Damon Smith did a whole podcast episode about the word “spirit” and what it means in Asian traditions connected to shamanism, which I find helpful in understanding. I would listen to the whole thing, but around the 8-minute mark he talks about this sequence and how Shamans use it to act in harmony with nature in their own lives or when practicing shamanism:


Cats and the Tai Chi classics

To me, the section of the classics that says “The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat”, alludes to the idea that on the outside the victory in combat may look overwhelming and great – like that of the falcon seizing a rabbit triumphantly, but on the inside, you need to be quiet and calm and in harmony with nature – the exact qualities you can see in a cat patiently stalking a rat.

Of course, the flacon is like that on the inside when catching a rabbit, but it’s not easy to see on the outside. Human-loving cats, however, are easier to observe.

A cat crops up somewhere else in the Tai Chi classics too:

“Walk like a cat.”

That doesn’t mean get down on all fours, it means to adopt the same mental qualities as mentioned earlier to your stepping. Don’t just rush in blindly or recklessly: be calm, patient and at one with your environment.

Remember, as it says in the classics:

“All movement is motivated by Yi and not by external form”.

But perhaps Bruce Lee said it best in Enter the Dragon:

“Don’t think! Feel!”