Wu Chi is the first posture of all Tai Chi Chuan forms, yet it is given little attention in most tai chi classes, it is often overlooked altogether. This is a problem because it is where Tai Chi comes from. Its physical posture is natural and simple, but it is more of a mental practice than a physical one. When my tai chi teacher, Master Li, tried to explain wu chi to me it was presented as a concept separate from the postures. What is happening – and importantly not happening – with the mind, energy, and breath are the important aspects of wu chi.
It took me years to get this practice but when it did it was one of those things that changed my tai chi movement, in fact, you can divide tai chi teachers into those who understand wu chi and those that don’t, and you can plainly see by their movements to which set they belong. If you can learn to enter into the state of wu chi your tai chi will be much smoother yet free at the same time. Watching someone play tai chi that understands this will have a relaxing effect on you.
What is Wu Chi?
One big misconception of wu chi is that it is a relaxation posture at the beginning of the form. But wu chi doesn’t have a descriptive name like other postures. Wu Chi means something like the empty state or empty energy. Trying to adjust your posture to fit the description of wu chi in a tai chi book or copying the stance from a tai chi teacher is a good first step, but wu chi is more than a posture or movement and it requires a lot of patience and practice.
Many Tai Chi teachers think standing in one of these simple wu chi stances whilst scanning around the body is wu chi. This is good but it is more of the step that comes when you’re coming out of wu chi. Wu chi is not a physical posture, and neither is it moving your intent anywhere within your body, you’re not moving your focus anywhere, you’re keeping it on emptiness.
Wu chi places more importance on the state of mind than the state of the body which brings it into the realm of meditation. Westerners have by this time gained proficiency in many of the eastern methods of meditation, especially mindfulness meditation. The state of mindfulness is getting closer to the concept of wu chi, still, these states have different functions and are not the same. I have never been taught chan fa or zen meditation so I cannot comment on it, perhaps they are more similar to the concept of wu chi still.
An attempt at defining the Wu Chi practice in Tai Chi Chuan
Wu Chi is the practice of focusing the Yi on emptiness or nothing and keeping it there until everything else dissolves. The famous yang style tai chi teacher John Ding said, “Where Yi goes, Chi flows.” Focusing on nothing is easily confused with just not focusing at all. When master Li told me to keep nothing in my mind before practicing tai chi, this was the mistake I made for a long time, I just didn’t focus on anything and tried to empty my mind of thoughts. But what he was really telling me to do was “keep” or hold my attention on emptiness “nothing”.
How to practice Wu Chi
Putting your intent on emptiness means that it first must be relatively free from physical, emotional, or energetic tension. Yi, Chi and Wu, are the basic concepts required for understanding wu chi practice. Both masters that led me to my understanding of wu chi practiced Taoist meditation methods so I had a good understanding of how to move the chi using yi. These concepts are almost impossible to define and you have to learn them from a teacher. Last but not least, an understanding of the concept of Wu, or void is required.
The difficulty in practicing wu chi is that it is impossible for the mind to not have an object of focus. “Western” people especially don’t have a concept of emptiness, in fact, we have to override our cultural aversion to it. One trick is to first focus your attention on your index finger, then move the finger away but keep the point of focus, eyes, and attention, in the same position. After you can keep your focus on nothing you will be able to keep it on other subtle phenomena, such as the chi in your body.
Devoting some of your training time to learning wu chi, is one of the keys that will help you understand the rest of your Tai Chi practice.
What is the benefit of wu ji practice?
I have only scratched the surface of wu chi, there are people who devotee their entire training to it. In terms of the movement tai chi chuan, the concept of wu chi will free your form up a lot and make your movement unpredictable on offense and unknowable on defense.
In terms of the health benefits, it has huge potential for increasing mental and physical relaxation.
Different Taoist meditation methods utilize wu chi in different ways, such as releasing into emptiness. I hope to get the chance to study concept this further with a master at some point. Another related concept of Wu Chi is Wu Wei, which is translated as non-action. Non-action isn’t just doing nothing, it’s a flow state you can use that will enhance the performance in whatever art or task you are doing. Wu Chi is the gateway to many things.
Small, medium or large? A Tai Chi Chuan form can be practiced at different frames although often times each frame has a specialized form. The frame is not synonymous with the form although it is not entirely independent of it either. Each frame has it’s own benefits. Generally, the frame is first set by the width and depth of the stance, the upper body follows the lower.
The old man frame. This is practicing naturally without thinking about the frame too much or using effort. This is a good way for beginners to learn a form or to maintain your practice if you are sick or to busy to practice properly. It has meditative benefits and is good for relaxing or practicing “fan sung.” To practice this frame, take a natural walking step forward into your or bow stance. Base your upper body from this natural stance. You should not sweat when you practice this frame.
Second in popularity is the medium frame. It is commonly taught first, sometimes it is called the tiger frame. To practice at this frame take a natural walking step forward into bow stance and mark the spot where your big toe is. Lift your foot again and place your heel in that spot. Base your frame of this stance for the medium frame.
The Large frame tai chi stance can be a little wider than the medium frame stance, but it is also deeper. This frame requires some understanding of the different muscle groups of the legs and kua, without this understanding you could damage your knees practicing this frame too much. The frame is more for conditioning and it is very good if your goal is push hands.
Small frame tai chi is difficult. It is very hard to see what someone is doing when they are practicing the small frame. The movements are small and internal. Usually, someone that can do the small frame well can also fight. I personally have not learned small frame, although I have been adjusted into it a few times. Though the stance and movements were small I was quickly sweating with burning leg muscles.
I use the tagline Find Your Flow for promoting my outdoor Tai Chi classes. This is because for me practicing TCC is largely about finding and synchronizing the flow of breath and movement.
What flow is not. Momentum could easily be confused with flow in Tai Chi practice. Momentum in moving goes against the principle of “when one part moves all parts move, when one part stops all parts stop.” The movement should come from the flow not the flow from the movement.
Moving slowly with the breath but without the principals of Tai Chi including no peng, no sinking, being double weighted and other postural mistakes. All of these things will impede flow.
Some concepts to help you find your flow.
Xian Tian. In the internal Chinese martial arts, there is a concept called Xian Tien. This is translated as “before heaven” or “pre-heaven” or “pre-natal” and it refers to one’s raw energy in a natural state, before anything is added to or taken from it. Xian Tien chi is something that we already have, the practice is first to removing blocks so it can flow freely.
Short Flows and Breathing
Short, repeating flows of movement, coordinated with the breath are a useful and enjoyable training practice. It can be fun to train along with a spotify playlist. In Vinyasa yoga practice a flow starts and ends in the same postion so that it can be repeated indefinitely, there is also room for variation to work on different techniques or areas of the body. In between the start and end of the flow there are repeating key points. The key is that the movement follows the breath.
This concept has always been a part many martial arts, in Xing Yi Chuan the wu xing quan is a series of five flows, while the linking or cascade forms are larger repeating cycles. In Yi Chuan Si Li is basically the same concept. In tai chi chuan the practice is not as widely used but it is there, the sequence of grasping the swallows tail is a flow that can be repeated. Most Bagua forms are very cyclical. A great basis for developing flows are the Tien Kan exercises found in the YiZong schools. This whole practice is a series of short cyclical motifs that are so elemental they can take on the forms of any of the three arts.
In addition to Tai Chi, I practice the related art of Xing Yi Chuan. Xing Yi is a good compliment to Tai Chi and the two arts were once taught side by side in the Yi Zong school.
Wu Xing Sheng Ke – The Five Elements Transforming Ta Lu Set. This set teaches the ban bu – half step method to use distance to your advantage.
Stillness in Xing Yi training.
Xing Yi training requires a lot of stillness, holding a few postures for long periods is a big part of the training. A typical two-hour training session with Shifu Chao only required the space of a yoga mat to practice on. Forms were taught only after a lot of sweating and standing then only one at a time if we were lucky.
Stillness in Breath
Another example of stillness within Xing Yi is pausing the breath. While I was training at a seminar with the great Xing Yi Master Luo De Xiu we learned to pause breaths between one of the movements. At first, interrupting the breathing cycle seemed at odds with everything I had learned before in internal martial arts. All of my teachers emphasized linking movement with the breath. It took me a long time to realize that this is still true with pausing the breath, that is that it is the total stopping of all external and internal movement, to get next-level still the breath has to stop temporarily as well. From this stillness you can observe yourself and your opponent.
Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that combines internal strength and energy cultivation on a profound level. Today we can enjoy the health benefits of Tai Chi Chuan practice without subjecting ourselves to the bitterness of the martial arts training aspect. Still, it is important to know that Tai Chi Chuan is not a performance and should have power if needed. The concepts below are the basis of Tai Chi practice and are called the Thirteen postures or techniques. The translations of the original terms are from my teachers or my own understanding and are subjective and may not match up with some books.
Tai Chi Chuan has four fundamental energies. Tai Chi Chuan has 4 energies that all the postures stem from:
Peng: Ward Off – long range force – Peng Jin: Epanding force in general Lu: Rolling back Gi: Short-range force An: Pushing with dropping force
Tai Chi Chuan has four secondary techniques: They are: Zhou: Elbow strike Kou: Shoulder strike Cai: Pluck or yank Leih: Split or rend
The five directions in Tai Chi: The five directions are – forward, back, right, left and centered. This is obvious and the potential to move in any direction is found in every Tai Chi posture. Less obvious is that every posture is stable from incoming force from any direction. The directions, primary and secondary techniques together create the 13 postures of Tai Chi Chuan.
Some important Accupoints for Tai Chi practice are:
Yong Quan – The bubble point – The weight can land here Dan Tien – Energy Field – Can generate and control force through the waist Ming Men – top of the sacrum – needs to be unlocked to control whole-body movement
The health benefits of Tai Chi practice are now scientifically documented, but how can you be sure you’re going to maximize them in your training?
Why go to the trouble of learning Tai Chi to improve your health, when you could go for a forty-five-minute walk or swim? If you are thinking of taking up Tai Chi practice for its health benefits you should ask yourself this first. Tai Chi Chuan practiced on an external level will not be more beneficial to your health than these activities which are proven to be very beneficial themselves. Tai chi practiced properly can give you more benefits than these activities but for a beginner, learning authentic tai chi is more difficult to learn than swimming.
To answer how tai chi exercise benefits health some background info is required. There is much variation in length and character among the different styles of tai chi but all of them were created from thirteen core posture concepts.
These concepts, in turn, are derived from four primary energies/forces or jins. The four energies are 1. Peng, 2. Lu, 3. Ji and 4. An. These are the same in all styles of tai chi and are what make tai chi practice so beneficial to one’s health. You can read more about the four energies and watch a video here.
Peng Jin is the basis for all the others is the most important for both the health and self-defense benefits. Peng is usually translated as ward off but it is a difficult concept to translate directly. The idea is expansive whole-body power that protects by first meeting, grounding and then repelling incoming force. Many people that practice tai chi have the wrong idea that one should just get out of the way on the incoming force by moving and lightly putting a hand out to deflect. This is usually based on a misunderstanding of the tai chi classics saying four ounces of force deflects one thousand pounds. This type of tai chi will only give the same health benefits as a walk, a swim or perhaps a simple and light chi kung exercise. Again, those activities are all easier to learn.
On the other hand, making the development of peng jin your primary goal when you practice your tai chi form will give you a lot of benefits that other conventional low-impact exercise cannot.
Practicing peng jin requires the body to be deeply rooted and connected in a natural, relaxed way. The posture lines up through properly aligned joints, muscles, and skeletal structure and is directed to the specific area that will be the focal point of peng jin. In tai chi this is usually a forearm, palm, elbow, or shoulder. This type of training strengthens the leg and sinks and improves the balance, two immediate health benefits.
When your movements are connected and working together to generate peng in this way all parts of the body become stronger together. In training peng jin areas tension or weakness in the body must be identified and corrected or there will be a weak link in whole-body force. Releasing holding overly tight muscle groups gives you the health benefits of more energy and reduced anxiety. This type of practice is slightly deeper and requires dedicated training with a good tai chi teacher.
It is amazing how much we hold in our muscles and postural tension. A unique practice concept of tai chi training is fan song. I don’t really know how to best describe this term. In the west when we say relax or chill out we are usually reffering to someones mental state. Fan song of sung is a feeling in the body. It is akin to the state of the muscles during sleep but it allows the body to maintaining and change it’s posture and structure.
When you are in this state of sung you’re not using any unnecessary energy, instead, the body feels like it is resting, even recharging. It is a nice feeling, almost like letting go of your muscles without collapsing. If there are muscle groups, ligaments, or joints that are holding tension it will be difficult to be song in these areas, to fix this you may need to practice a static posture that releases the holding area. This practice will greatly reduce anxiety and give you more energy. In conjunction with the movement, I’m sure it helps to improve circulation as well.
Many people practice Tai Chi Chuan or internal martial arts for years and never feel a sensation of chi, some don’t believe it exists, these people would be better off doing another exercise or different martial art.
Another big health benefit to practicing Tai Chi that you can learn to work with your breath and by extension chi. Breathing is good for focus and concentration as well as energy levels.
Tai Chi beginning movements in the Yang Family 108 Form.
The first movement of the 108 tai chi form is opening to a shoulder width stance and putting peng jin, or warding off energy, into the elbows and arms.
The beginning of the Tai Chi form teaches the concepts of opening and closing. Here I am practicing loosely, just focusing on opening and closing, not too much on getting the form perfect. Opening and uniting is another translation. First, you open horizontally, everything opens then unites, second, you open and close vertically. These two techniques are very important, they teach you how to open and close with all parts of the body simultaneously. After the Tai Chi beginning form thing’s get complicated because in many of the postures one part is opening while another is closing.
Sorry about the music, I had to over-write the background music because YouTube was blocking it for copyright.
My teacher, Master Li, had me practice outside year round and I’ve been wanting to do an outdoor tai chi class forever, but because of the weather in Ireland, especially Donegal, it always seemed risky. Since the pandemic however outdoor exercise has become more common.
Tai Chi class starting in Ballymacool park, near the old house, in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. 1:30pm 10 euros or 5 classes for 40. The classes begin when the restrictions on organized exercise is lifted. Ballymacool park has better parking access then the Letterkenny town park on a Saturday.
This class will teach the first section of the Yang 108 public style with a special emphasis on Master Li’s breathing method. This is a very good place to start for those new to Tai Chi.
Wear a raincoat, hat gloves etc.. Class will only be cancelled for steady heavy-ish rain.