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Building Skills with 3 Core Methods
Yang InterviewNurturing WaysMind and BodyBuilding SkillsBuilding Skills

The following article is based on information from an interview with Yang Yang by T'AI CHI Magazine, and material from Yang Yang and Bruce Ching, a Chen stylist in Ann Arbor, MI, who also conducted an extensive interview with Yang Yang. By Marvin Smalheiser

Originally published in the February 1995 issue of T'ai Chi Magazine.
Reprinted here courtesy of Wayfarer Publications.

To see Yang Yang perform the Chen style or to feel the way he can bring forward his internal energy would make it hard to believe that he was born with a heart defect that prompted a doctor to say he probably wouldn't live long. Nor would you think that, at 34, he would be patient enough in his approach to developing higher T'ai Chi Ch'uan skills that he would consider Wuji standing meditation one of the cornerstones of practice for developing real T'ai Chi internal energy.

A lawyer and an apprentice to the famous Chen stylist Feng Zhiqiang in Beijing, Yang Yang (his family name and given name are both Yang) believes his practice of Chen style, beginning when he was 12 years old, cured his heart condition. He also feels it enabled him to successfully pass the physical exam required in China to pursue university studies.

Yang, who is now enrolled at Illinois State University, Normal, IL, in a graduate economics program, feels that the "virtually unlimited" power of internal force should be built on the foundation of form, push hands and wuji meditation.

By working with these three methods, he said, a practitioner will gradually develop and understand internal T'ai Chi, or "soft" force, which is so often misunderstood.

"Actually, the power of the internal force is virtually unlimited and can be developed to much higher levels than external brute force."

After the foundation practices are established over a period of time, he said, "the flower" of technique can be added.

"Attempting to employ technique without first establishing a solid foundation cannot truly be considered an art form. This mistake is often made by beginners overzealous to achieve martial ability."

Yang said his teacher, Feng Zhiqiang, "has developed his force to a very, very high level. His force is felt immediately when practicing push hands, and is quite overwhelming and intimidating. To the recipient, this 'soft' force can indeed be exceedingly strong and penetrating. Perhaps a better description of T'ai Chi force would be 'flexible' or 'elastic,' to contrast with the 'rigid' external force."

Yang said there are a number of principles that people seeking to develop T'ai Chi force need to understand and follow and which were outlined in Feng's book in Chinese, "Entering the Door of Chen Style Taijiquan," published by Peoples Sports Publishing House, Beijing, 1992.

The first involves the transfer of energy, which Yang said involves using the heart, or xin, to move the internal energy and then using the energy to move the body.

"Gradually, you can transfer essence (jing) to qi (ch'i), transfer qi to spirit (shen), and then make the spirit light. When the spirit is light enough, you will experience 'ling,' which is the outward result or manifestation of a light and agile spirit."

Examples of ling, he said, are when you intuitively perceive a situation, or when your body is so light and agile that you achieve instantaneously, instinctual reactions during push hands.

When the force becomes available, he said, the hard and soft aspects must be put together correctly.

"T'ai Chi is the interaction of Yin and Yang. You must have both. If you are too soft in your practice, you cannot increase your internal force. Similarly, if you are too hard, you will not accumulate internal energy."

Yang said it is necessary to be aware of hard and soft in both the form and push hands.

"In the form, you should have the intention of hard and the intention of soft. Gradually, you will no longer have the intention, but will achieve the result. At this level, your 'body will listen to your mind' and you can explode energy in any direction at any time."

In push hands, he said, it is also important to have hard as well as soft energy. "Gradually, the force between you and your partner should increase. It is at this time that you will steadily increased your internal force, and begin to understand the 'sticking' force. To only be in physical contact will not lead to understanding the T'ai Chi sticking/adhering force."

Yang said that another aspect that Feng emphasized is not using tense force (shuo li). "If you use tense force, your internal energy cannot circulate and your body will be stiff. Eventually, you may experience health problems where the energy is stuck. In push hands, if you use the tense force, you will give your opponent the opportunity to push you."

Tense force was also described as insisting on pushing the "difficult" part instead of changing to the "easiest" part. "You should strive to achieve maximum benefit from your force."

If your body is tense, he said, you will feel uncomfortable, especially with your breathing and upper chest. He said this is called, "nu," and added that high shoulders are an example of this error.

Correct posture, Yang said, is essential, otherwise internal energy may rise, cutting off the root and causing a person to float like a plant in the water. He said a lot has been written in the U.S. about correct posture and that the literature here on posture is even more abundant than that in China.

"To over-emphasize posture, however, is case of losing sight of the forest because the trees are in the way.

He said that if posture is correct, it will allow the following:
  1. Rooting of the body.
  2. The unimpeded flow of internal energy and transmittal of force.

"These are the criteria upon which a student's posture should be evaluated for the development of T'ai Chi boxing skill. Every movement of the form has an intended purpose and is an expression of power in a specific direction," Yang said.

"The posture is incorrect if the body mechanics do not allow for the correct and intended expression of force. Again, the T'ai Chi form, push hands and standing meditation are all necessary for the student to learn correct posture."

Yang cautioned that it is not good for beginners to have the intention to use T'ai Chi Ch'uan for fighting in order to rush the process of learning self-defense. "If you are too brutal, you will lose the quiet of your heart and limit yourself by restricting your spirit and internal energy.

"And you should not treat your practice as if T'ai Chi were a hard-working job. If you do, over time you may create health problems. In China, an analogy is the making of a fine wine. Time and patience are requisites."

He added that in order to capture the flavor of T'ai Chi, a student should pay close attention to Yin and Yang.

"In the Chen style tradition, the term 'double-weighted' is used to describe the mistake of using stiff or stagnant energy as opposed to light and agile movement derived from the interaction of Yin and Yang. (It is not a description of physical weight distribution.)

"The outward manifestation of Yin and Yang is perhaps more easily discernible with the Chen style than with other popular styles. Regardless of style, however, the internal aspect of T'ai Chi boxing should always be a dynamic interaction of Yin and Yang."

Another important essential for T'ai Chi practice emphasized by Yang and his teacher, Feng, is the concept of Yang, a character in Chinese that refers to nourishing or nurturing vital energy. It embraces the idea of developing oneself to become stronger in vital energy and is different from the word Yang as in Yang and Yang.

"Even when practicing the form," Yang said, "you must pay attention to the idea of Yang. You cannot always release or explode your energy. Yang is the nurturing of the vital energy. To do wuji (standing meditation), to do the form and even push hands is to nurture energy."

A second way to nurture vital energy, he said, is to eat healthy food. A third way he said is very important is spiritual Yang. "Daily life is very complicated and the ability to control your emotions is very important."

He gave an example of losing one's camera and accepting the loss and deciding to buy another one. If one were to get mad and stay mad or unhappy the whole day, it could be harmful to health and the qi, or vital energy. "If you nurture yourself spiritually even in an emergency, you will be able to be very quiet and able to handle the situation. To keep your emotions stable and mature is a way to nurture your vital energy. Usually when people get very, very mad at something, it really hurts their vital energy.

"In China people believe that when people have serious emotional problems all the time and are unhappy or sad, it can be easy to get sick. They even explain this as a cause for cancer."

This kind of nurturing effort, Yang said, also connects to another question about meditation.

"I really think it is the time during meditation to change your personality. It is the time to change your ability to control your emotions. At the very beginning of meditation, you may find it difficult to calm down, so it may help to repeat a word like 'quite' and concentrate on the dantian. Gradually, gradually, it will help you to have more power to control your emotions and become more mature and stable.

"You have to try to improve yourself and change yourself a little bit at a time. I think that the time when we practice T'ai Chi is to cultivate your personal nature and personality.

"So when you do the form and meditation, be very calm, very patient and if at first you are not, you have to work hard at it and then it will really change." Yang's emphasis on wuji and meditation, he said, is not only his own but also from Feng, who considers it a very basic part of T'ai Chi. "We say from wuji you have T'ai Chi. Before you practice the form, do wuji to really feel you have entered nothingness. Stand there for five minutes or 10 minutes. Just concentrate on the dantian and think 'quiet' and then begin the form." He said the standing meditation has several beneficial effects.

"One is to make the body stable and round. Keep your kua rounded like an arch, keep your chest rounded in slightly and maintain a round body."

The results of the practice, he said, are sometimes felt by people who feel their hands becoming numb or warm or pulsating. "Some feel their bodies become really big and some feel their legs go into the ground. Some feel there is a cloud just above their head. Generally, after you try it for several months, you can feel it when you do the form or in push hands. The T'ai Chi partner will feel more T'ai Chi flavor, soft but very strong."

Yang said that Feng's approach to teaching and the practice of the Chen style and the nurturing of energy was very scientific. "If you put more energy in, then you have more energy. If the energy leaks out, then there is a loss. It is like putting gas in a car to make it run. If you keep driving at a high speed, sooner or later it will stop."

Feng, he said, would caution people not to exhaust their energy.

"He is very open and has a good sense of humor," Yang said of Feng. "he is very smart and has studied a lot of things by himself. My instructor in my home town said that Chen Zhaokui remarked that he though Feng was the smartest person in the world."

Before Feng retired, Yang said, he was in charge of a department at a heavy industrial plant, and because of his martial art knowledge and real power he was able to work very well with the employees there.

Yang met Feng in the summer of 1982. He had previously met and studied with Chen Ziaowang and arranged an appointment with him in Shanghai where there was a national martial arts seminar. In Shanghai, Yang met Feng.

"Feng taught three huge classes of almost two hundred people and after the seminar Gu Liuxin kept him in Shanghai to teach the Chen style, which was not very strong there at that time.

"Feng's T'ai Chi force is real T'ai Chi force. It is soft, but it is impossible to resist. By soft, I mean that it is soft in comparison to tense, rigid force."

He said that Feng, who is about 5 foot, 6 inches, is able to uproot people much larger than himself.

When Feng was in Shanghai in 1982, he gave a push hands demonstration. Usually, masters demonstrate with a student, Yang said, but this time Feng demonstrated with a well-know qigong and T'ai Chi master who was known to be very rough.

"So if it's not your student and he's very good and you want to demonstrate, you have to be much better than him so you can control the situation. We watched the demonstration and really understood the stories we had heard before."

Yang said that there was another story about how a very heavy machine fell down in the factory where Feng worked. Feng caught it and held it up until it could be secured. "There was a wrestling team in his factory and he just let them -- about 10 people -- stand one-by-one lined up to push him and he pushed just once and the people all fell down at once.

"Sometimes when he tells you the application of the form, he will do some push hands and you can really feel the force come into your body. It's real T'ai Chi force -- it is soft, but it is impossible to resist. Through push hands with him, you can understand, 'Four ounces can deflect a thousands pounds.'

"After you try one time with him, sometimes you're scared because you can feel his force -- it's very strong.

"If your internals are very good, you can overcome a big size differential. Most people with internal force can handle people a little bit bigger than themselves. But some people can handle someone much bigger. Not many people can reach the level of handling someone considerably bigger than themselves. Master Feng can just throw them away. Not too many people reach that level."

Yang said that if a student practices wuji, form and push hands correctly, then it will not take a long time for them to experience qi.

He said that if you do push hands with someone who does wuji, you will feel that he is strong, but the force is not like brute force. "You can feel it is soft but irresistible. You will definitely feel the force. And when you are pushed with that kind of force, you feel it is a different kind of force."

An important aspect of internal development, Yang said, is the use of intention. "The minds leads the internal energy and the internal energy leads the force. In the whole body the force is integrated."

The effort in wuji posture, in form practice and in push hands should be natural with the body correctly aligned and relaxed to personify T'ai Chi principles, Yang said.

"You try to pursue the middle state between the soft and hard to find a balance. You can't be too soft because then you can't build the internal energy. If you are too hard, it chokes off the internal energy."

Yang thinks that overuse of peng energy in practice can be harmful, particularly for beginners, since it can result in muscles staying tense. Practice and use of peng energy should be natural. "Go to the form, go to push hands, to meditation and let everything be natural.

"Peng is a force directed upward and outward," he said. "If you use peng all the time, will you keep your body tense? And if you keep your body tense, how can you relax enough for the internal energy to go through?

"Sometimes, I think the over stressing of peng strength can be even worse than if you don't practice T'ai Chi, because if you make your muscles tense, according to Chinese medical theory, the energy cannot go through and you may feel pain.

"In think if Westerners talk too much about this, their muscles may have some problems and they will feel pain. So I really believe naturalness and relaxation are the basic things we have to pay attention to when we practice. But here I want to say that being natural doesn't mean that you collapse your energy or muscles."

Yang said that silk reeling force should be practiced as a separate exercise from the form.

"I think that most people here know the basic chan si jin silk reeling force, but we have to practice seriously. Every day we need to practice. This is a cumulative process, a little bit, a little bit each day.

"Also, we can combine it. First do it separately, and the form separately and then gradually incorporate it into the form. I think if you can understand silk reeling force in a simple method, you can understand it when it becomes complicated.

"The simple meaning is to just rotate and go forward and backward, while at the same time changing in different directions."

Yang said that for health benefits silk reeling exercises can exercise the joints and move the qi throughout the body. "They can improve your coordination and improve your balance. For the martial art aspect, it enables you to move away and have another part of your body come into use if someone touches you." The practice of fajing, explosive force, should not start before someone has practiced form at least one year, he said.

"You can listen to your body. If you want to use the explosive force, it comes out, not very good at first, but it comes out somewhat. So I suggest practice about one year after you know the basic form and then try to do some fajing explosive force. But for daily practice, the first time you practice form, don't use fajing."

When using fajing, he said a person should first relax, then compress like a spring and then relax and release energy, staying relaxed.

To achieve a high level of push hands skill, Yang said, is difficult today. "When I was in China I didn't meet many people who had reached a level of 'four ounces deflects a thousand pounds." Also, in ancient times, people usually took this art as a profession such as a body guard so their job required much practice. They had to have time and energy to do that.

"But for modern society, I think most people take it for health. So it's impossible for you to practice the form 40 times a day. Without practicing enough times, how can you reach the ancient peoples' level?"

Yang said that on the other hand, people today have modern techniques to study. He suggested that at the beginning partners do simple single hand push hands to get some feeling of their partner and listen to their force. Then gradually try to change it, moving away or exerting force. Then it can progress to double hand and moving step.

"And for two-person practice, I think it's important when there is a big difference between the people.

"If your partner is very big and he already has a very strong brute force, how can you practice? I think really in training you have to use just exactly as much force as your partner can hold.

"If you have too big a size difference and your partner is very strong and he uses his body to put all his weight on you, I don't think you can really use the T'ai Chi force to accomplish something if you are at an early state of development.

"Both of you will go to using brute force. And if both of you use brute force, you cannot improve your push hands ability. But if you practice very hard and on the right track, you can grow to the level of overcoming any size difference."

Yang said that if the stronger person can cooperate and not use more strength than his opponent can handle, then both sides benefit. One person learns to control his own force and the other learns to deal with another's force.

"For example, if I'm very big in size and you are small in size, I can try to adjust my force to the amount I feel you can handle. I help you, cooperate with you, but at the same time I'm helping myself.

"I don't think now that so many people can, like the old stories about the famous masters, just touch you and throw you away. There are not so many. There are some in modern society, but I don't think there are too many."

The use of peng in push hands, Yang said, has to follow theory and cited Chen Xin's book in which he said: "You cannot use force and cannot be without force. Choose the middle between these two."

It is very reasonable to use peng as a reaction force, Yang said. "The question is how can you act? With peng you have to move away and with peng you have to (at the same time) come to (the partner). That is technique."

Yang said the basic purpose of push hands is to try to understand the partner and to improve the ability to listen to his force. "When you are pushing, keep your body close to your partner and try to touch more, touch as much as possible and get as close as possible. It will make him feel very awkward.

"But the difficult time is the time you make progress. To touch more you will have to listen more and it can help you more. You can get more benefit from it. So I call it 'sticky force.'

"It's like soccer. Someone throws the soccer ball at me. I use the chest to relax. I can hold the ball without it bouncing back. So think of what we are doing in push hands. It's not fighting and it's not form.

"When we do it, we have to improve our listening ability. For listening ability, you have to touch more so that all the time you can feel what your partner is going to do and how you can move away and how you can do something to hinder your partner."

Yang said that in training, "the most simple thing is the most basic, the important thing. For example, with an application, you can have a thousand activities, because in a 3-dimensional world, we change direction and we can change combinations. But the basic thing is that you have to practice form to make yourself strong and do push hands to understand your partner.

"If you can do the basic things well, you can have a thousand activities to explain it. And sometimes you cannot explain a spontaneous application, but it's coming from the form or from push hands."

Yang said there are advantages and disadvantages for American students in China. He said in China people know more about what T'ai Chi is about and probably some member of the family practices.

"Also, in China, we emphasize some martial arts morality and spiritual things, like respect. You learn to treat your classmates like brothers, sisters and family members and to respect your instructor. But these kinds of things are not emphasized so much in the U.S.

"The advantage for people in the U.S. is that people think about everything more positively, ask questions and have more spare time to practice. My personal feeling is that it's not a big problem for Americans to study. If they try hard to improve both sides, there will be no problem.

Yang, while he was a university student in Shanghai, completed in the all-university martial arts competition and won first place in 1981, 1982, and 1983 in competition with all T'ai Chi styles.

It was a difficult time in China when Yang started to learn T'ai Chi. There were no organized programs and most practitioners relied on self-study and many teachers had to teach secretly.

He began to study because he was born with a heart defect and the doctor said he could not live long. By the time he was 12 years old, his health was very bad and his family couldn't afford the expensive fees for surgery.

"One day one of my relatives from Xian visited us. Another purpose for his visit was to stop at the Chen family village because he liked T'ai Chi and had practiced it for a long time. He said, 'Why not try T'ai Chi and see whether it will work?'

"I found that the heart problem was gone in 1977, about five years after I started. This was very fortunate because with a heart ailment I could not expect to go to a university. But I passed the health examination and the doctor said there was no problem so I was accepted."

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, qigong and internal energy exercises such as internal martial arts are believed to treat the problem that he had, he said.

Like qigong, the first benefit you get is for your health; and if your inside energy, qi, is strong, it can solve all kinds of problems, inside or out. "I think that in most of the cases where it works, there are problems with internal organs such as men's problems, digestion, and heart ailment. If you practice an internal style, it will completely change or improve the function of the organs."

When he started learning about 1972, Yang said, "The people who practiced in that period were people who were really devoted to T'ai Chi. But there were not many, even though our town was near the Chen village.

"So I studied with several well-known masters in my hometown. One was Wu Xubao and another was Yuan Shiming. They had studied at the Chen village. Since my hometown was administratively in charge of the Chen village, there was a close relationship.

"I was fortunate because the masters in my town knew each other. I studied from the first one and then he said, 'Okay, now you can study from the other,' and he would introduce me to other masters. He would say, 'This one is good in push hands,' and "That one is good in yi lu (the first Chen form)' and 'This other one is good in pauchui,' and he would say, 'Okay, just try to study from everyone.

"Most teachers had a very good relationship because there was no commercial pressure from making money teaching. Everyone shared the arts."

When Yang went to China Textile University in Shanghai in 1979, he sought out and studied with Gu Liuxin, the top Chen style teacher there.

"He was very strong and also had a very good education. He also was a very high Communist official, so he took advantage of his political position to save the martial arts during the Cultural Revolution. He was very, very good.

"When I met him he mentioned that if I was really interested in studying this kind of martial art I should go to Beijing to study with Feng Zhiqiang."

In the summer of 1980, Yang went home and his teacher told him that the famous Chen Zhaokui was visiting and he should study with him. "My master told Chen Zhaokui, "This is my very good student, Yang, and he has a very good education and I like him, would you be willing to train him?' Master Chen said ok, so that summer I studied with him and had private classes.

"Private classes meant that he allowed me to go to his place. I practiced and he told me how to correct my form and revealed some applications. But the application is just to explain the form and why you practice this way and to give some meaning to help you understand the form. One day when I was in his room, Chen Xiaowang came from the Chen village to visit his uncle and I was introduced to him.

"A half year later Chen Zhaokui died. It is a sad story because at that time his political situation was not very good. He died too early, because everyone said he was the best one in qi na."

Subsequently, Yang would stop in Zhenzhou on summer vacations to get corrections from Chen Xiaowang and in 1982 he met Feng Zhiqiang at the national seminar held in Shanghai.

By Marvin Smalheiser
Marvin Smalheiser is Editor/Publisher of T'ai Chi Magazine

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