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.