In this short tai chi training tip, we will discuss the difference between internal and external as it relates to your tai chi stance, and a simple exercise how to make sure you are cultivating the internal component.
Tai Chi’s Three Stages of Development
First, we must understand the 3 stages in our tai chi development (this information was directly transmitted to me by Grandmaster Wang Xi’an):
From this we see that according to Master Wang, internal is just highly refined external. Sorry, but there really are no secrets!
So how we relate this to our tai chi stance…
Relaxation is the Key
Internal development requires a high level of relaxation (fangsong) or “letting go” – meaning, intentionally letting all tension in our bodies sink downward (with gravity) and releasing it into the ground. Initially this requires that we have a very clear grasp of correct structural alignment!
With our tai chi stance, at first we build up leg muscle strength (external) through lots of repetition of basics and forms. If our legs are not strong, we can not relax our upper bodies to allow the sinking of the upper body tension. So we accumulate lots of qi in our upper torso (not good!) Maybe we can squat really low, even sit on the ground! But this really has nothing to do with internal development. (Part 2 of this article will discuss how low is too low?)
Sinking the Qi or Scoring Points?
We can observe this external leg strength and flexibility very often in modern wushu and tai chi competition forms – the performance is very impressive on the outside, but look a little closer and mostly what you will see is a lot of upper body tension and using rigid muscular force as the source of power.
As our legs strengthen (externally) we can relax our upper bodies more and more and let the tension sink into the ground (internally). All of the benefits that go along with internal development, such as root, dantian rotation, silk reeling, etc. will grow day by day.
OK so how do we develop this?
When you practice your form, stop at any point and hold your posture. Breathe 5 or 6 times while holding this position. With each exhalation, begin at the very top of your head, and intentionally let go of any tension that you sense, and move down with it inch by inch. Initially this can be quite demanding, both physically and probably more so mentally! But don’t give up! Do this as a part of your regular training for a few minutes each day and gradually increase the time with this. Slowly you will feel you can relax much better, and you are now developing the internal component!
Last word is, when you start developing internally, it doesn’t feel strong! Any feeling of strength is actually just more tension! So you may find it hard to monitor your progress… A sure way to measure your internal skill is to hold a stance and have a partner push you. You may be surprised how much force you can now take, and not feel the need to resist it with force, but rather the stronger the force applied, the more it seems you can relax! (actually you are now conducting the outside force through you and into the ground).
For those of you reading this article and feel it is oversimplified, I apologize. But tai chi was never meant to be complicated! Practice this exercise for some time and it will sink in!