The Five Most Important
Taijiquan Skills for Beginners
Written by Nick Gudge in conversation with Master Wang Haijun.
Permission for reproduction of this article on this website has kindly been granted to SHTC by Nick Gudge.
Many people spend years studying taijiquan but for most of them their progress is slow in gaining the skills of taijiquan. Part of this is probably insufficient practice, but a significant element is not understanding the basic skills that beginners are required to develop.
It is not possible to start taijiquan training and learning at a high level. Using conventional learning as an analogy, it would be like trying to start at Phd. research Level. In reality, first there is primary education, then secondary education, then undergraduate study etc. This is equally true in Taijiquan. Without a good mental and physical understanding of the basic skills that are at the foundation of taiji, high level taiji skills will not be developed.
It is not magic, but the result of consistent and sufficient training in the correct manner.
Master Wang says: When asked what I consider the five most important skills for a beginner student in taijiquan, I listed them as
Fang Song – Loosen the body by relaxing the joints
Peng – an outward supportive strength
Chen - sunken & rooted
Ding - upright & straight
Chan Si Jing - Silk Reeling Skill
These five basic skills should be considered the early steps in taijiquan training. Without these basic skills being embedded in the body and the accompanying changes that occur during the process, a student is stuck outside of taijiquan. They are learnt through exercises and in the process of learning and training the foundation form of Taijiquan.
These beginners skills are complimentary to each other and are acquired slowly with persistence of practice. Understanding what they are does not come all at once. With the aid of a teacher, the mind grasps a bit of the idea first. Then, with considerable practice, the body gets the idea. Then with lots more practice it becomes a part of a person. It is not like a light switch, being either on or off, although some part of learning these skills can seem that way. Only when the body understands at a certain level can the mind grasp what is beyond that level. As many teachers have commented, it is not possible to jump to a full understanding. It is not a mental trick, or something to do with intellect or high intelligence.
It is a process that has many possible detours and no short cuts
I thought at first to put Peng Jing as the first skill as it is the central taijiquan skill. However, without fang song, peng jing will not develop, so I will start by talking about fang song
Skill #1: Fang Song - Loosen the Body
Fang song, sometimes referred to as simply 'song'. Song is frequently translated as “relax.” While this is true, it does not really describe the process. The joints must relax, but as a consequence other parts of the body must work hard, particularly the legs. Loosening the joints is perhaps a better translation. The result should not be a body like a cooked bowl of noodles: rather it should be like a solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff.
The term 'fang' has two meanings. The first is about something remaining under control, connected to both the mind and the body (i.e in this case not going limp.). The second is to put something down, away from you. The combination of these two meanings provides the understanding needed.
For most people studying taijiquan, song appears early on in their lessons. Unfortunately, most adults (and many children) are much stiffer than they realise. We do not know where we are tight, nor the degree of stiffness we generally maintain in our joints. In taijiquan, song describes the requirement of loosening the joints, relaxing the habitual stiffness from them, getting used to holding them without stiffness, then moving them without stiffness: Shoulders and hips, elbows and knees, the spine, particularly in the waist, the ankles and wrists
When a joint is loosened, it is free to rotate or turn without hindrance or resistance. It is this ability that is required in taijiquan. The taijiquan classics talk of even the smallest pressure of a feather or a fly causing movement, like a finely balanced and oiled ball-bearing, where even the lightest touch causes it to rotate.
How do we know when a joint is stiff? Well, initially we do not know it is stiff, but as a learning tool it is probably more effective to say that as adults they always are, usually to a much greater degree than we realise. While this is an unpalatable truth, it is a good starting point. A good teacher helps a student see where their stiffness lies. The student needs to be shown repeatedly where a joint is stiff. This is because the student neither knows that the stiffness is there nor how to loosen it. Their habit is to move with this stiffness. With practise, the joints become looser, and deeper structural stiffness becomes apparent. As the shoulders loosen, the arms feel heavier. As the hips loosen, the legs work considerably harder.
So, for the beginner, heaviness in the arms and the legs working very hard, are good indicators that the skill of fang song is being developed.
Stiffness is difficult to recognise, but the effects of stiffness are easier to see. As the joints stiffen, they rise up. As they are loosened, the body, particularly the hips and shoulders, sinks down. For a beginner it is easy to confuse bending the knees for relaxing the hips (song kua), and lowering the arms for relaxing the shoulders. One of the many reasons why taijiquan is called an oral art is that it requires a teacher who understands to show the way. Most people need to be shown the way repeatedly before they understand it in their mind, and then corrected repeatedly before they understand it in their body. Much practice through this process is required for it to make sense and take hold.
Many people get the basic idea in their mind but do not practice enough to realise it in their body
There is a method or order to progression. The forms of taijiquan are the framework on which the method is hung. Within the forms, each posture offers an opportunity to understand the various levels of loosening the body.
Other interesting articles written about or co-written by Master Wang: (External Links)