Shen Style Tai-Chi: The Yin and Yang of Tai-Chi
by Ichin Shen

photo, Repel MonkeyTao and Tai-Chi are ideas uniquely Chinese. The ideas are formed through millenniums of empirical experiences of ancient Taoists who achieved a serene existence with the true nature. As they put down their experiences in words, these experiences became Tao-ism, and the method was Tai-Chi. Although the ideas of Tao and Tai-Chi are easy to understand and to follow, nevertheless, due to abstraction, they are marred by modern-day incompetency-lacking of substance, exaggerated, mystified, and finally slipped into meaningless jargons. It'll be a sad story if the day comes that "Tao" and "Tai-Chi" only mean something mysterious.

To most people, the mystery of Tai-Chi lies in the question that with those flimsy forms and stagnant movements demonstrated by most of modern-day Tai-Chi Chuan, do they really work as they claim? The answer is not surprising: no, not for a millennium. The reason is simple: even though Tai-Chi may possess some mystical internal power, however, the external events must also be satisfied-power needs to be generated and timing needs to be met to balance the external pressures. Most of modern-day Tai-Chi Chuan cannot meet such challenges. Then, what's magical about Tai-Chi? To dispel some of the mystery, and hopefully to shed some light on these mysterious subjects, Shen Style Tai-Chi has been developed by the author in an attempt to reset a proper course for Tai-Chi to grow.

Inevitably, the question of how authentic is this view of Tai-Chi will be asked, however, the answer shall become self-evidenced shortly. As always, Tao, or Tai-Chi for that matter, must reach a full circle for what is "self-evidenced" must be closed-all questions answered-in the end. How can one find out all the answers? The Tao way is tracing the root.

Where is the "root"? "[Before] the beginning of heaven and earth there is no name, [thus] naming is the mother of all things." The third statement made by Lao-Zi in his Tao-Te-Ching made it clear that everything one knows about begins with a name, that is, a definition. Clearly, not because one can define things then the things exist. For a definition to be substantial it must be tangible. Then, what is "tangible"? Sages of ancient Chinese figured out that only thing tangible in reality is one's internal senses-"feeling," which is common among all people, and through such "feeling" they communicated. They left their marks in Chinese language. Early Chinese characters mimic the "feeling" of the environment they are transcending. As Chinese language evolves, the writing, maybe even the meaning, of these characters may have changed, nevertheless, as predecessors, they still carry the deepest interpretation of Chinese ideas, thus reflect the thoughts of ancient sages. That is the "root." To tracing the root, one is to transcend the language and to find the internal feeling. There one finds the true meaning of Tao and Tai-Chi.

photo, White Crane Spreads WingsTo account for their existence, sages of ancient Chinese devised a theory known as "Yin-Yang." Literally, Yin and Yang are only referred as a sense of appearance: under the Sun is called Yang, symbolizing "visible"; in the shade is called Yin, symbolizing "invisible"; nevertheless, they have been developed to become the metaphor for the two opposing forces of an existence. However, it's not because they are a pair of opposing forces that they can be called Yin and Yang. The forever entangled web of Yin and Yang depicts some interesting properties. The most important property of Yin and Yang is that they are a pair of opposing forces which form the "whole" entity; breathing-in and breathing-out, for example, are a pair Yin and Yang. Since natural breathing does not have stop-breathing in the sequence, natural breathing forms the whole breathing as alternating breathing-in and breathing-out. To satisfy such a property--the two opposing forces form a "whole," a Yin-Yang also exhibits following behaviors: (1) Yin and Yang are opposing forces, so they restrain, or "suppress," the growth of the other. As in breathing, breathing-in suppresses breathing-out and vice versa. (2) Yin and Yang are rooted in each other, thus, they are also "enhanced" by each other. In the example of breathing, as one continues to breathe-in, the ability of continuing to breathe-in is suppressed and the ability to breathe-out is enhanced. Which leads to (3) The most mysterious property of Yin and Yang: they convert to the opposing force when they go beyond the limit of their realm, as shown in breathing-at the end of breathing-in, it becomes breathing-out, and vice versa. (4) Last but not least, because they "suppress" and "enhance" each other at the same time, Yin and Yang are naturally balanced. So, if the balance is disturbed, the urge of the Yin-Yang is to return to the balanced state. The urge is so strong, at times, it is unstoppable. When the ultimate balance is reached, Yang is the exact reflection of Yin; Yang is Yin, and Yin is Yang. Yin can be "seen," then the "whole"--One--can be found. From "invisible" to "visible," Yin is naturally impregnated with becoming. Based on these properties, sages of ancient Chinese derived the structure of their existence. To continue their comfortable existence, they learned how to balance the Yin and Yang, thus formed the ancient Taoism. And Tai-Chi practice [which includes both principle and exercise] was their way.

What is "Tai-Chi" (太極)? Literally Tai-Chi means the grand terminus and actually it is referred by ancient Taoists as the grand principle of life. Ancient Taoists believed that life is a continuous process of Yin and Yang; Yin is the "substance," and Yang is the "appearance" of the substance; Yuan-Qi (元氣) is the primeval energy that moves the process. When Yuan-Qi passes through the "substance," it shines. In Chinese language, the shining (the "appearance") is called "Sheng" (), which is the acknowledgment of mind; the "substance" that Sheng attached to is called "Ming" (), which is the physical body. Collectively, "Sheng-Ming" (生命) is thus become the whole spectrum of existence known as "life." When Yuan-Qi is gone, the substance "fades" away. Is the substance gone as well? No one would know, for there is no Yuan-Qi, there is no way to detect the substance. However, when the Yuan-Qi is still flowing, life retains all its potentials. As life is the illumination of Yuan-Qi, life won't see its own death. The theory of Yin-Yang leads life to a bizarre but fascinating existence-the "eternal now." To see life as "eternal now" is difficult if not impossible. However, Tai-Chi practice shows the Way.

Ancient Taoists were practical people; they did not grieve over the "fading" of the substance but cherished the "shining" of life. Wishing to enjoy life longer and maximizing all the life's potentials, ancient Taoists devised a way called "Dao-Yin" (導引) to tap the energy of Yuan-Qi, and developed Tai-Chi practice. Tai-Chi practice is a discipline that studies Dao-Yin and the harmony of Yin and Yang for the purpose of reaching a serene existence with the true nature-where Sheng-Ming shines. Sheng is Yang, and Ming is Yin. As Sheng reflects as mind and Ming manifests as body, a unified mind and body shows not just a joyful life but also the harmonized Yin and Yang. The harmonized Yin and Yang is Unism (一元)-the realm of One. It is with such a unified mind and body, Tai-Chi practice transcends the physical world into Unism. In Unism, mind "thinks," body "moves" spontaneously. In such spontaneity, there is no time lapsed between the perception of mind and the action of the body. No "time" thus no "space," no "space" thus no body, no body thus no mind, life is only the rhythm of the Unism. For there is no "time" in Unism, there is only "eternal now." Tai-Chi practice has shown the Way to eternity.

To tap the energy of Yuan-Qi, the Way of Dao-Yin is to channel Qi. A common misconception is to think that Qi is air; however, air is only one "appearance" of Qi, the "substance" of Qi is pressure. Principally depicting any thing that moves, Qi in modern term is more like "fluid dynamics." Qi is originated in Yuan-Qi. Through breathing, Yuan-Qi enters one's body and manifests as Qi; Yuan-Qi is also known as "pre-birth" (先天之氣) Qi; Qi inside one's body is known as "after-birth" (後天之氣) Qi. If the movement of the "after-birth" Qi, or simply Qi, is sluggish or uneven, it'll be in the way and collides with Yuan-Qi, thus reduces the effectiveness of Yuan-Qi. If the movement of Qi is too fast, it'll be burned out before it can be rejuvenated by Yuan-Qi. Thus Dao-Yin is to coordinate the breathing and the body movements to channel Qi through the body ahead of Yuan-Qi thus provides Yuan-Qi a least resistant passage to fill the body. When the body is filled with Yuan-Qi, it becomes lively. Dao-Yin does enhance life; longevity is only a by-product.

photo, Left Heel KickTo do Dao-Yin, one needs to know what the structure of the body is. In the theory of Tai-Chi practice, the body is also formed as Yin and Yang. The inner body cannot be "seen," thus Yin. Yin can only be "felt"; the "feeling" forms mind. As mind utilizes Qi to probe the inner body, Qi also betrays where mind is. Through Qi, mind becomes the reflection of the inner body. Thus, to move Qi to where mind wants it to go, the simpler the mind is, the less the obstacles for Qi to overcome, thus the faster the Qi moves. The faster the Qi moves, the livelier the body is. A simpler mind must reflect a simpler body as well; but, how can one re-structure one's body? In Tai-Chi practice, the structure of the body is perceived as following: The body is [originally] one, Left and Right make two, Up and Down make four, which are one's four limbs; each limb has two sections make eight; ten fingers have 28 sections, and ten toes have 28 sections, make a total 64 sections, which are also reflected as mind. So, if mind ever wants to move Qi to where it wants to go and maintains a balance against the external pressures at the same time, it has to coordinate all those 64 sections into one harmonious unit; it is quite a complicated balancing act. Instead of dissecting one's body further into muscles and bones as Science would do, Tai-Chi practice uses the idea of "Qi and Dan-Tian." As Qi manifests as mind and Dan-Tian as body, Dao-Yin is to channel Qi through the body to the point where mind wants to go-"there"; a simple thinking, but it is to get "there" that pushes the universe to go around.

The Way of Dan-Tian is "sink"; it naturally resists expansion, and such characteristic manifests as "weight." The Yang of Dan-Tian is weight. As the weight reflects the existence of gravity, the Yin of Dan-Tian is gravity. The Way of Qi is "float"; as it floats, it expands. The Yang of Qi is force. As force has to be supported by pressure, the Yin of Qi is pressure. In this mess of Yins and Yangs, to go where mind wants to go is an interesting undertaking. To float the "weight," Tai-Chi practice uses "Jing" (, a form of Qi) to pressurize the body. An over-pressurized body is sterile; thus Tai-Chi practice moves the Jing from section to section to provide the body maximum agility. It is said that Tai-Chi practice does not use muscle power, where does the power of Tai-Chi practice come from? The power of Tai-Chi practice comes from gravity. According to Newton's law of motion, for every action there is an equal reaction. Thus, to deliver a maximum power, Tai-Chi practice has to make the body transparent to gravity, so, little power is lost in way of friction such as tensed muscles. As the old saying said, the power of Tai-Chi practice is "rooted on the heels," "controlled in the waist," and "formed in the hands." The power generated by reaction is transmitted from heels, through knees, hips, back, shoulders, elbows, and appeared in hands. To move the body ahead of the reaction power generated by gravity requires a precise timing and precision in execution. The muscle power is too coarse to do it well. Tai-Chi practice uses Jing to maintain the float of the "weight," and uses only enough muscle power to provide a channel (body posture) for Qi to flow through. More relaxed of muscles, more fluid the Qi flows. Stronger the Qi flows, higher the energy it generates. By moving Dan-Tian to drive Qi, and using Qi to drive the body, Tai-Chi practice transforms the body into a interwoven mesh of Qi that is agile and powerful. Although the body is totally relaxed, the power shown in the hands is tremendous--it is the power of gravity. Agile and powerful, Tai-Chi practice lays a solid foundation for an efficient martial art. To provide such a magical power, the key lies in the breathing. Proper breathing synchronizes Qi and Dan-Tian. Using the technique "Yin-Ru-Yang-Chu" (陰入陽出) that "'moving-in' when breathing-in" and "'moving-out' when breathing-out," Tai-Chi practice channels Qi through the body with movements that is synchronized with breathing; with practice, Tai-Chi practice reduces the body movements, so is mind, from 64 sections to four limbs, to two sides, then to one body movement--breathing--which is now mind. As mind breathes on, Tai-Chi practice utilizes Qi to move the body. As Qi balances out gravity, the body moves through space effortlessly. The discipline of Tai-Chi practice is matured when the body moves like "floating clouds and running water."

Based on the principles of Tai-Chi practice, Tai-Chi Chuan founder Zhang-San-Feng developed the original Tai-Chi Chuan, which consisted of principles of eight Jings and five directions.

The eight Jings are:

  • "Peng" (): "expand"; Peng-Jing is to fill the body with Qi like the way air fills a balloon.
  • "Lu" (): "retreat"; Lu-Jing is to yield like water-never resist, but ever persist.
  • "Ji" (): "squeeze"; Ji-Jing is to squeeze the body against an external pressure without gap.
  • "An" (): "press"; An-Jing is to press steadily so the Qi flows like a running stream.
  • "Cai" (): "pick"; Cai-Jing is to check and balance the external pressure.
  • "Lie" (): "split", or spin; Lie-Jing is to utilize the spinning power.
  • "Zhou" (): "elbow"; Zhou-Jing is to strike with elbows, which is normally for a shorter distance.
  • "Kao" (): "lean"; Kao-Jing is to strike (lean) like "falling mountain"-fast, heavy, and no bouncing.

And the five directions are front, back, left, right, and center-where the body is. They don't just mean some static directions, however, they also describe a dynamic environment that Qi can be delivered.

Eight Jings and five directions formed the so-called "original Tai-Chi thirteen forms," which laid the foundation of all styles of Tai-Chi Chuan. The purpose of Shen Style Tai-Chi is to neutralize the external pressures, be that a push, a blow, a kick, or whatever, thus to achieve a harmonized state of mind and body where serenity prevails. However, the external pressures cannot be presumed; they can come from anywhere, with any strength, and at any time. Simply put, the external pressures are unknown, thus Yin. How can one make "unknown" known without creating another illusion-for the sake of no-mindness? The secret lies in the eight Jings and five directions.

To neutralize the external pressures, one begins at the center-where one's body is. By moving one's body forward and backward, turning left, turning right, one gains a dynamic environment where one feels comfortable. And eight Jings provide us a mean to balance the ever-changing external pressures.

Jing is a mental power that utilizes Qi to maintain an open channel (body posture) for Qi to flow through. In Tai-Chi practice, how heavy the hands push is not measured in terms of numbers of force-unit but by the "feeling" of how heavy the feet push the ground. Jing must be used to suppress such heaviness and to maintain a proper body posture to deliver Qi to maintain the push. Thus, if one wishes to stop an intrusive force, one uses Peng to harmonize it; if the force is too strong, one uses Lu to get away; if there is opening, Ji-squeeze-in; if the external pressure is strong but slow, counter it with An; check and balance the external pressure with Cai, split it with Lie, and use elbows to adapt these Jings all over again for a shorter distance, and finally neutralize it with Kao. If there is no bouncing back, the external pressure is neutralized. Where one's body stops, one is back to the center.

photo, Cloud HandsAs one is back to the center, one thing becomes clear. At the balance, the internal Qi mimics the external pressures. As Qi harmonizing the external pressures, Qi also reflects the external pressures, thus Yin. And Jing is a mental power, visible to the mind, thus Yang. The balance of this Yin and Yang makes the "unknown" known. In neutralizing the external pressures, Shen Style Tai-Chi makes the unknown known, thus harmonizes one's mind and body and leads one to a serene existence.

Externally, Shen Style Tai-Chi conforms with Tai-Chi eighty-eight forms commonly practiced in mainland China. Internally, however, Shen Style Tai-Chi is the form that breathes. In breathing, Sheng-Ming shines. Shen Style Tai-Chi has returned to the root.

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