What is the Wu Chi posture for in Tai Chi Chuan?

Wu Chi translates well as empty or original chi (posture). But the posture is not the important part of the practice. Let’s take a look at the meaning of Wu or emptiness. This profound concept is found in the Art of War, Tao De Ching, Chan Buddhism and of course, Tai Chi Chuan.

Thirty spokes share one hub, but the emptiness at the center makes it useful.

Tao de ching 11

Wu Chi can be translated as something like “the empty state”, “empty energy,” or “original state.” There are a few variations of the physical posture across different tai chi schools but all are fairly simple. The real purpose of wu chi is a resetting, to a default original state, which is more in harmony with the posture, breath and intent. Common principals in the physical posture are crown point is lifted, the knee joints come gently together, the other joints of the body are drawn inward gently, towards the center. In this way the body is centered and posture deviations are reset, this is especially important with older practitioners. The posture doesn’t have strict rules and must be natural.

In tai chi, the mental component of wu ji is more difficult, and more important, than the physical aspect. It also functions as a reset, but a mental one, and to achieve that you have to be able to stop your every day thoughts briefly. It’s quite difficult, especially for us in the west, usually we are taught not avoid doing this.

If I am asked then what zen teaches, zen teaches nothing.

-DT Suzuki

When my tai chi teacher, Master Li, tried to explain concept to me, he would say before you start “keep nothing in your mind.” It did not make sense at first, what he was saying was to keep, or hold, your focus on nothing. If you can achieve this, even briefly before you start your tai chi practice, it has a profoundly deepening effect on the posture, energy and quality of subsequent practice.

When I got the idea it changed they way I practice Tai Chi Chuan. In fact, when I don’t take the time to do this now I feel my tai chi practice is missing something. In or after the state of Wu Chi your movement becomes smooth and free, where you can explore what you need to work on, instead of a mechanical routine of motion. You can reverse the flow as easily as going with it. Watching a Tai Chi Master who practices wu chi has a relaxing effect.

One big misconception of wu chi is that it is only the physical posture at the beginning of the form. That it is only a quick relaxed exhale before training. While this is true to some level, to really achieve wu chi i have often to stand for not less that 20 minutes. where movement and breath work together efficiently and the tai chi principals can be employed. 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.

Above: Pictured above is the chan monk, Hsu Yun, in meditation, note his name means Empty Cloud, (Hsu = Wu). Similar to wu chi practice, Chan Buddhists contemplate emptiness, though there are other considerations in Chan, such as the what they called “the heart”, ie the heart sutra, it is more complex wu chi practice. One difference between most other types of meditation and wu chi practice in Tai Chi and Xing Yi Chuan, is that the eyes are often kept partly open. The eyes are instrument in holding the intent, especially at first. You might see some similarities and differences with the photo above and the photo of the master Sun Lu Tan below.

Wu Chi posture & concept in Tai Chi Chuan

Many Tai Chi teachers think standing in one of these simple wu chi stances whilst scanning around the body is a sufficient wu chi. This is good but it is more of the step that comes after 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 holding your intent on emptiness.

Deep single pointed focus.

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.

“Use Yi instead of Li. The brain is chaotic before the beginning movement; Then, as one enters into the state of Wuji, the mind doesn’t think, the ears don’t hear, and the eyes don’t see. One must be extremely calm before creating any movement”

Yang Fenghou

Wu Chi is the foundation of many Tai Chi skills.

Wu Chi is the practice of focusing the Yi on emptiness or nothing and keeping it there until the normal mental chatter dissolves into the distant background, where it does not have any effect on the mind or emotions. The end goal of wu chi in Tai Chi is to prepare for true, unrestricted and internal movement, along the principals of tai chi. The 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”.

Another related concept to Wu Chi is Wu Wei, which is translated as non-action. Wu Wei is often wrongly described as just going with the flow, like a boat without a sail. While it certainly is a flow state, that will enhance the performance in whatever art or task you are doing, wu chi is first required to enter this state of flow.

How to practice Wu Chi

Putting your intent on emptiness is confusing. Really in order to do that your intent has to be empty as well. Stop your thoughts altogether and it the intent will stop at some point as well. When you experience that you will be be relatively free from physical, emotional, and energetic tension. These concepts are impossible to define and you have to learn them from a teacher. The concept of Wu, or void can’t be grasped by thinking about it, only by stopping all thinking, briefly.

Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles, and the water is clear? Can you remain un-moving until right action arises?

Tao De Ching
Sun Lu Tang – Wu Chi Posture

The difficulty in practicing wu chi is that it is nearly impossible for the human mind not have an object of focus. Western people especially struggle with the concept of emptiness, in fact, we have an aversion to it.

One trick to achieving the wu chi state 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 as the finger was in before you moved it. You are now focusing on an empty space, a void. The mind will immediately resist this and look for another object. But if you can hold it on the empty space until it settles you will experience a massive shift in you mental state.

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, reducing stress and tension.

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