5.d.ix.-five-levels-of-gong-fu-choy-chia Section

Master Chen Xiaowang's

Five Levels of Skill in Tai Chi Training


By Howard Choy and Ahtee Chia


Since the publication of our interview with Master Chen Xiaowang (see "Chen Xiaowang: Keeper of the Tai Chi Secrets" in Inside Kung Fu Magasine), many readers have requested more inform­ation about Chen family tai chi. Most people want know what they can do to improve their tai chi training. I posed this question to Master Chen, and replied that just as we learn to crawl before we walk and walk before we run, tai chi training is done a progressive way.


He emphasizes that initial training in the basic principles provides the foundation on which more advanced skills are built. You must be patient and master one level before attempting the next. Progress in tai chi does not depend on how many forms you have learned, but rather on how well you are able to absorb and integrate the principles in your form. It does not matter which style of tai chi you practice or whether your stance is high or low. What important is that you are able to harness your chi and circulate it to all parts of your body. Your movements will then look soft yet powerful, your demeanor relaxed yet alert.


According to Master Chen, there are five levels of proficiency in tai chi training, as described here, and each has its own aims and training methods. Knowing these can help you assess your own level of achievement and what you need to work on to make progress.


Level One: Form and Posture

Correct posture forms the foundation of tai chi chuan. This is necessary before the chi can flow prop­erly. To adopt the correct posture, keep the body vertical, the head held as if suspended from above, the shoulders and chest relaxed, the waist supple, the knees bent, and the groin open. Let your intrinsic chi settle and sink to the dan tian, or lower abdomen. You may not be able to do this straight away, but aim for gradual correctness in relation to direction, angle, position, and movement of the limbs to attain the right postures.


Do not aim for perfection. Your tai chi form will be angular and disconnected. This is normal for a beginner. With diligent and proper practice, after six months you should be able to master the shape of the form. You will also start to feel the chi in your body. At this stage, you are using the movement to generate the chi. As you become more familiar with the form, you will begin to understand the intrinsic jin, or dynamic energy. However, you will start to feel some movements of the chi even though you can­not get it to flow smoothly and join them up.


This stage is said to be one yin and nine yang. It is like a pole that is poked into the ground. Being shallow and lacking a proper base, it is easily pushed over. At this stage, there is too much yang and not enough yin. Sparring and push-hands are not recommended.


Level Two: Chi Flow

At this level, you will begin to feel the movement of the intrinsic chi. Keep practicing the form to gain more fluidity and smoothness of movement. Do not bob up and down. Keep an even height of posture throughout. Although you are now able to feel the intrinsic chi, you are not yet able to direct it. There are two reasons for this.


First, your chi is uncoordinated and your posture is not quite right. You still do not understand the sub­tler details. For example, in trying to hollow the chest, you collapse it too much, or in trying to keep the waist supple, you make it too loose. Or you may stick your buttocks out too far and push your chest forward. Your posture will need to be adjusted in order for you to gain proper coordination of the body and eliminate all contradictions of purpose, to gain unity of the internal with the external.


Internal harmony means that the heart unites with the mind, the chi with the strength, and the sinews with the bones. External harmony means that the hand is coordinated with the feet, the elbow with the knee, and the shoulder with the hips. It is only then that the external is unified with the internal, where the open exists within the closed, and the closed exists within the open.


The second reason is that you may be doing the form either too fast, so that you lose the smoothness of the movement, or too slowly, so that your move­ments become disjointed.


At this stage, the "reeling silk" exercise is very important, and you should use the technique in your movements. The Classics say, "In 'reeling silk' the chi originates from the waist, permeates everywhere, and is ever present."


To do "reeling silk" properly, first relax the shoul­ders, sink the elbows, hollow the chest, drop the waist, open the groin, and bend the knees. Start with the hand at the dan tian. The hand leads the elbow, the elbow leads the shoulder, the shoulder leads the waist. On the return cycle, the waist acti­vates the shoulder, the shoulder activates the elbow, and the elbow activates the hand. On the upper hall of the body, the wrist is coordinated with the trunk, and on the lower half, the ankles turn the legs. The body is like a tree—the roots represent the legs, the tree trunk the body, and the branches and leaves the arms and fingers. The chi circulates from the roots to the trunk and then to the leaves and then retraces its path to the roots again.


During the first level, you will feel that you are making rapid progress. However, at the transition from the first to the second level, you will feel that you are not making progress at all. Your chi moves sometimes and not at other times. When you express energy (fa jing) in a punch, you may make a snapping sound, but when you try to do the same in push- hands, nothing seems to work.


At this stage, it is easy to feel discouraged or frustrated, and you may even give up. A strong determination and persistence is required. What you need to do is re-examine your form; go back to basic principles. Correct your posture, and move the whole body as a unit. When one part of the body moves, the whole body moves. There is no excess or deficiency; flow with the changes, and rotate and move naturally.


Everybody has the potential to achieve success in tai chi with proper training. This level usually takes four years to complete. Your chi will start to flow, and you will understand how to use it. Your confidence will increase, and your tai chi will start to become more interesting.


Push-hands and form practice require the same skills. Any problems or gains that you acquired in your push-hands practice will also manifest in your form, and vice versa. Pay attention to the basic movements of peng (ward-off), lu (rollback), ji (press), and an (push). If your upper and lower body are coordinated, you are not easily defeated: you will be able to use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.


The problem at this level is that you may find it difficult to attain perfect coordination; your opponent can use this weakness to defeat you. An opponent can also lead you into a weak position and then defeat you. You may use too much or too little force. You may not sink your energy enough. Because you still cannot deflect your opponent's energy, you tend to use force against force. You may need to step back, you may lose your balance easily or may hang on to your opponent when pushed. Generally your movements are not crisp and clean. This level is two yin and eight yang—still incomplete and uncoordinated.


Level Three: Moving from a Large Circle to a Medium Circle


"Circle" implies not just the movement of the hands and feet, but also the internal chi movement. To improve your tai chi, you must progressively decrease the circle—from large to medium to small, and finally to no circle. You start with the big circle to make it easier to feel your chi, but as you progress, your sensibility and control is more subtle and you can decrease the circle.


Third-level training is the transition from big circle to medium circle. The Classics say "Where the mind goes, the chi goes and the body follows."


Once at this level, you need to learn to use your mind. During the first level, you concentrated on learning the shape and postures of the form. At the second level, you worked on eliminating the contra­dictions of body movement and chi flow and learned to correct your posture so that your intrinsic chi flows freely. At level three, you have a good under­standing of the chi flow, you are beginning to use your mind and not just brute force, your movements are light but not floating, and you can sink your chi without being stiff. You try to make the external look soft and the internal strong. There is softness within the hardness. Your whole body is coordi­nated, and you have eliminated most of the bad habits.


At this stage, you must not just concentrate on the chi flow and neglect the external movements. There must be a synthesis of body and mind; other­wise the chi will not flow freely. During the second level, your breathing may be too shallow or too deep because you are not relaxed or your movement is not coordinated with your breathing. Pay attention to your breathing—let it be natural and coordinated with your movement, especially where the move­ment is complicated or requires speed and subtlety.


Work on gaining a better understanding of the martial application of the movements. Do more push-hands training, fine-tune your posture, under­stand how to express your jin, how to deflect and change your energy flow and increase your intrinsic chi. By working on the practical application, you gain a better understanding of correct posture. In addi­tion, you will become stronger and can start prac­ticing the tai chi weapons forms such as the broadsword, double-edged sword, spear, and staff. You will also be able to practice the explosive move­ments on their own. Your confidence will increase, and after about two years you should progress to the fourth level.


In summary, at the third level, you gain a basic understanding of the coordination of the internal chi flow with the external movement. You are able to correct yourself if necessary, your movements are natural, and your internal chi is full. However, your intrinsic chi is still relatively weak, and your body-mind coordination is not yet perfect. When you push hands with someone of lesser skill than yourself, you can use technique to overcome him. However, if you do it with someone more advanced, you will feel that you don't have enough peng jing, or ward-off energy, and your chi is easily penetrated. You will lose your bal­ance and your body-mind coordination, and your energy is easily read.


This level is said to be three yin and seven yang. Your skills are still not altogether proper.

Level Four: Moving from a Medium Circle to a Small Circle


At this level, you progress from the medium circle to the small circle. This is quite an advanced level. You are very close to ultimate success. The martial appli­cation is even more important at this stage. Work on circulating your chi, and pay attention to coordinat­ing your breathing, the movement, and the martial application. All your movements must be continu­ous, without weakness in any part of your body, and the intrinsic chi will permeate your whole body.


When you practice the form, imagine that you are surrounded by attacks, but when you fight, imag­ine that there is no one around so that your move­ments are swift and natural and you will maintain your composure. The training method for this level is the same as for the third level, except that the cir­cle is smaller. Your internal jing will be strong, and you will be able to attack and defend with the same movement. Your chi and your mind will be coordi­nated. Your chi will circulate wherever you direct it.


Your posture is now stable, and you are not eas­ily defeated in push-hands. You can deflect the other's energy with subtle body movements and can change direction and energy in rhythm with the changes in direction and energy of your opponent. Your inter­nal chi is completely coordinated with your external movement, and you can sense what your opponent is going to do before he moves. Your fa jing, or expressed energy, is cleaner, and your attack is accu­rate. You can easily find your opponent's weakness.


This stage is said to be four yin and six yang—you are now an accomplished martial artist. This level takes about three years.

Level Five: Moving from a Small Circle to No Circle

From form to the formless. Your movements are now alive and coordinated, your internal jin is full, and you seek excellence within excellence. A day's work is a day's achievement. You can change endlessly, and your energy is invisible. Internally, there is move­ment between the substantial and the insubstantial, but externally no movement or change is visible.


From a fighting point of view, the hard and soft become one, and you are relaxed and alert. Full of springy energy, you can defend and attack at will. You can express chi with any part of your body. Your whole body is sensitive and alive. In other words, you can use any part of your body like a fist and strike anywhere at will.


This level is said to be five yin and five yang - perfect balance. Your yin and yang is continuous without end; when you move, it is in harmony with he tai chi principles, so everything is possible. You lave gained mastery of the body and the mind. Your mind is tranquil and calm, and even when you are attacked suddenly, your equipoise is undisturbed. There is no limit to your tai chi development, and the ultimate goal seems attainable.


Now You Have the Road Map

Master Chen explains that the five levels of proficiency in tai chi training can be likened to a road map. If you are lost and want to get to your destination, you must first find out where you are at prese­nt and in which direction you should be heading. Although the tai chi journey is one without an end, at least now you can find out where you are and roughly how you can achieve your goal.


Howard Choy and Ahtee Chia are both architects studying Chen Family tai chi chuan with Master Chen Xiao Wang in Sydney, Australia.

This material ap­peared in the May 1992 edition of Inside Kung-Fu magazine