The Treasure Missing in Many Tai Chi and Qigong Practices
by Master Yang Yang, PhD
(Sept. 28, 2010 - Editor's notes: Author of Taijiquan,
The Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power, Master Yang Yang has over 25 years of experience in
teaching Tai Chi/qigong in China and America. Having learned from several 18th generation grand masters of Chen Style
(Feng Zhiqiang, Chen Zhaokui, and Gu Liuxin) Tai Chi
in China and then earned his PhD in kinesiology from the
University of Illinois, where he remains as an adjunct faculty, Master Yang Yang
has lectured on the methods and benefits of
Tai Chi and Qigong practice at many of the nation's leading medical and academic
institutions, including the American Public Health Association, Mayo Clinic, and
the National Institutes of Health.)
My observation has been that many beginning (or even long-time) Tai Chi/Qigong (or Yoga) practitioners make the same
fundamental error: they emphasize the physical movements only. In common understanding, just as Yoga is sometimes
reduced to physical stretching exercises, Tai Chi/Qigong is sometimes reduced to physical choreographed movement.
At the extreme, the overemphasis on physical abilities or accomplishments can lead to injury, and injury is detrimental
What is not commonly understood is that nurturing energy is the essential foundation for correct exercise. The Chinese word "qi", Japanese "ki," Hindi "prana," Greek "pneuma," Latin "spiritus" - all are energy, all are the same thing.
On October 8 to 10, 2010, Dr. Yang Yang will be
holding a 3-day workshop to teach his unique Evidence-Based Taiji & Qigong
Program in Rhinebeck, New York (go to
www.eomega.org to register). In the workshop, Dr. Yang will take a straight path
to teach the essential components of traditional Tai Chi and Qigong training.
The exercises learned in the workshop can be practiced at home - they are simple
yet effective for different health related issues such as posture, insomnia,
pain, bone density, immune function, and of course vitality.
Dr. Yang Yang (Photo by Jason Lindsey)
In Tai Chi, this misunderstanding was in part intentional. Tai Chi was a closely guarded secret for most
of its history - the complete curriculum was taught only to select students, often family members.
A very well known saying in the Chinese internal martial arts community is that "I will teach you quan
(external movement), but not gong (the essential foundation of energy nurturing)." (Another interpretation of this saying is that the teacher cannot give the fundamental understanding - it is up to the student to practice, learn and understand. Nonetheless, as public Tai Chi instruction was initially purposely limited to choreographed movement only, more and more practitioners were led to equate form practice with "Tai Chi," and a smaller and smaller percentage of Tai Chi practitioners were aware of other essential, core practices of the art.)
Energy nurturing meditation is the foundation of Tai Chi/Qigong practice. I'll never forget when I was first taught this. I was the three-time champion of the Shanghai all-university Tai Chi competition. After the third year I was awarded the title of "best overall martial artist," and was given a position as Tai Chi coach at the Shanghai Chen Style Tai Chi Research Association.
Since the time I was a boy I had heard stories and dreamed of meeting Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang of Beijing, one of the greatest living Tai Chi and Qigong masters. Grandmaster Feng was a top student of both Chen Fake, the 17th generation master of the Chen Style of Tai Chi, and Hu Yaozhen, also a very famous martial artist and who, because of his promotion of Qigong through his writings and clinical practice in Beijing, was called the "godfather of modern Qigong." At that time Grandmaster Feng did not teach publicly and could be met only through an introduction from a trusted acquaintance. Through my accomplishments, and a personal introduction from Master Chen Xiaowang, in 1982 I was granted a private meeting with Grandmaster Feng while he was visiting Shanghai.
I met Grandmaster Feng in his hotel room and he said "okay, you are the champion; show me your push-hands." (Push-hands is a two person balance, strength, and reaction training that is done in the spirit of a game - it is called "playing" push-hands. Though a game, it is a measure of Tai Chi ability, and a master knows your level immediately upon engaging in practice.)
My first thought was that I should be gentle with this older man. Not only could I not budge him in the slightest, but I could not even stand in front of him - he immediately threw me this way and that, my falls broken the nearby furniture in the room (I was grateful it was a small room).
His next words are indelibly etched in my memory. He said "boy, you are the champion, but you have not even entered the Tai Chi circle yet." To which I of course immediately inquired: "teacher, how do I enter the circle?" What he taught me that day, and over the course of the next many years, was how energy nurturing meditation (i.e. Qigong) is essential for efficient Tai Chi practice, how Wuji, which means "no extreme", is the mother of Tai Chi (Taiji), which means grand extreme. This too, is a very famous saying in China, but it has been my experience that few fully understand the meaning, or how to apply the meaning to daily practice.
The importance of energy nurturing did not just manifest in my personal experience. It has been demonstrated in scientific researches, too.
In one of my published studies, we documented improved immune response to the flu vaccine in Tai Chi/Qigong practitioners relative to a control group after only three weeks of practice (one hour instruction three times a week, mean participant age 80 years). What is important to note is that, at the three week period, the participants had practiced standing and sitting Qigong meditation and select moving Qigong exercises - they had not learned the seven movement Tai Chi form that I created for the research until the fourth month. I fully believe that the measured benefit in immune system function would not have been nearly as great, or realized nearly as soon, if we had merely focused the intervention on memorizing choreographed physical movement.
Of course my intention was to design the research curriculum to be a representative sampling of my traditional training, and that meant emphasizing the essential foundation of nurturing energy!