You cannot separate the practise of Taijiquan from it's Daoist philosophical roots. Daoist thought states that in the beginning before creation there was Wuji or emptiness, from this emptiness came a spiralling force which created existence ('gives birth to the myriad things'-Dao De Jing) and gave rise to Yin and Yang, the duality in everything. The catalyst or motive force that created this happening was called the Taiji and Quan means fist, so Taijiquan can translate as 'Grand Ultimate Fist' or 'the boxing style that uses the motive force of creation'.
The Yin Yang symbol that everyone is familiar with represents this spiralling motive force, but it's the moving symbol, as in the Lotus Nei Gong logo that is more relevant, as this signifies an active Dan Tien or energy centre. This energy centre once moving quicker, reels the energy or qi through us and connects us to Heaven and Earth. Everything in the universe vibrates and our aim is to bring a vibration force into our bodies so that we can use it for martial arts and healing, without this spiralling force Taijiquan is no more than a set of movements.
It is widely considered that the Chinese martial arts can be traced back to the Shaolin Buddhist temple in Henan Province with the Shaolin Fist. After the eventual collapse of the temple, many styles were created and spread rapidly throughout China.
Zhang San Feng was a monk who studied at the temple and is usually accredited to being the founder of Taijiquan. On leaving the temple he studied at the equally famous Wudang Daoist temple and became a Daoist immortal.
There were other styles of boxing prior to Zhang San Feng that may have also influenced the development of Taijiquan, these included, 37 Boxing, Congential Boxing and Nine Little Heavens, but whatever the true beginnings of Taijiquan, today we have many styles such as, Chen, Yang, Wu and more.
The style of Taijiquan that we practise in the class is a derivative of the Yang family form and the Zhengmanqing form.
Most people practise Taijiquan for the health benefits, the slow continuous movements relax the body, lowering stress and helping to boost our immune system.
Nei Gong or internal work is a process which is applied to our practise and makes the internal arts, 'internal'. We systematically work our way through this process, our small tissues became soft and pliable, our tendons are lengthened, our joints are opened to allow the qi to flow through them and our fascia is able to slide over our organs creating an internal 'wetsuit', opening the bodies of man to spiritual attainment. When we practise with these principles, our health improves almost as a by-product, our health is not the end goal, that is a spiritual awakening, but if we live longer because of good health it gives us more time to reach this ideal. Indeed, if it wasn't for the health aspects of Taijiquan it may have died out long ago.
Taijiquan is a complete fighting system containing strikes, kicks, locks and throws but we must maintain the correct balance between combat and health. Too much emphasis on combat can inflate the ego and create the energy of anger throwing our liver out of balance, too little or no fighting strategies or application knowledge waters down this profound martial art to no more than external movements.
The human condition is to live with fear, fear of the future, fear of death, this can have a detrimental affect on the energy of the kidneys, which are considered very important in Chinese medicine, but through the martial arts we aim to face the unknown and rise above this fear by being in the present.
We need to gain a balanced understanding of both sides of the coin, we practise the form slowly at first so that we can relax and condition the physical body and develop this energy, but eventually the movements are practised fast for use in a combat situation.
As we progress in our study we develop 'root' or an energetic sinking that creates a strong connection to the earth through the feet, allowing us to yield to the oncoming force.
We also practise something called Chan Si Jin or silk reeling and also Fa Jin or internal power. These are very important elements of the Nei Jia or internal arts such as Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan. Through the continuous twisting and spiralling of these drills we create an internal power or pressure that when issued through Fa Jin, is very powerful but doesn't rely on muscles which are regarded as dead power in the internal arts.
A deep level of understanding in Taijiquan is attained when we practise Toui Shou or push hands, which is a sensitivity drill with a partner to test ones structure and later, more importantly, to test the strength of our energy. Without Toui Shou practise Taijiquan would be missing a very important element.
The key to a deep and profound understanding of Taijiquan is found in Yin Yang theory, without which you are not doing Taijiquan, but also in Five Element or Wuxing theory which is used in Chinese medicine and the Bagua or Eight Heavenly Symbols which map out mathematically the nature of existence as written down in the great Daoist book, Yi Jing or Classic of Change.
In the Classics it is stated that Taijiquan has eight key energies, they are; Peng (Expanding force), Lu (Contracting force), Ji (Horizontal force), An (Suppressing force), Cai (Plucking force), Lie (Splitting force), Zhou (Elbow force) and Kao (Bumping force). These eight energies can be utilised in push hands practise and later in an advanced stage - combat situations, where their use can take on an abstract form quite different from most martial arts.
Main image; Taijiquan in Shanghi China. Top left; Paul and I practising tui shou. Top right;Applications from the form. Middle; At the retreat in Sweden. Bottom left; Press from the form. Bottom right; Practising Hunyuan Taijiquan.