by ‘ChiBelly’ (Marshall Rosenstein)
As a beginner practicing Taijiquan, your teacher may have told you “do not raise your qi.” But what does this mean? If you are told not to raise your qi, you are probably not at the point where you have a sense of qi anyway. So it’s not a particularly meaningful statement to beginners. However, if you can raise your qi so that your teacher notices you are doing so, then it must be the case that you can also sink your qi.
Similarly, in the preparatory phase of the Taijiquan form, you are admonished to “sink qi to dantian.” This is also a fairly meaningless statement to a beginner, but teachers like to say it anyway to induct beginners into the unfathomable mysteries of Taijiquan.
I thought a couple examples might be useful to you.
The swimming pool in my community opens ever year on Memorial Day, which is always the last Monday in May. Since this holiday is considered the beginning of the summer vacation season, my daughter usually wants to spend the entire day in the pool. Those of us who live in northern New England know that just because we call it “summer” does not mean that the water temperature in the pool is tolerable to a sane adult; in fact, it is typically so cold that it is barely bearable for the parent who would rather not battle hypothermia while indulging his child.
Most of the children and perhaps two of the parents will enthusiastically jump in to the pool, but I haven’t yet acquired the nerve damage that makes me feel comfortable doing that. I’m one of those wimpy types who starts by dipping my feet in the pool, and then inch-by-inch sinks a little deeper as my skin accommodates.
This of course is the proper Taiji way to enter a cold pool, because it requires a sort of deep internal focus while simultaneously keeping one’s intention on one’s enemy: the random obnoxious child who sees the fear in my eyes as he attempts to use his “push hands” technique to “accidentally” splash me with icy water (my daughter knows better than to splash me, because I will quickly leave the pool and then have to start the whole process over again while she waits impatiently).
Eventually, however, I get to the point where I can dunk my head under the water and a few moments later, I can fully relax, enjoy the feeling of the water, and feel safe from those little enemy combatants. One could say that my qi is finally flowing freely.
If you are one of those people who enter a cold pool in the manner I do, then you can understand the general concept of “raising your qi,” but I’ll give another similar and quite literal example.
I have been to a few hotels in Japan as a child, and the rooms all had ofuros – these are bath tubs meant for soaking and relaxation rather than cleaning yourself. The water that you use to fill the bath is extremely hot, and the mental and physical experience of getting in is very similar to getting in to a cold swimming pool.
When you first dip your foot into the bath, the temperature is very uncomfortable. Although only your foot is in the bath, the discomfort attacks your mind first, which then affects the rest of your body, even though no other part of your body is in the water. In other words, while your foot is the only part of you that is actually hot, your mind causes the rest of your body to react anyway with one or more of the following symptoms:
- The muscles of your upper body, especially above the dantian, are tenser than your feet which are actually experiencing the stress.
- Your breath is shallow and quick.
- Your abdominal wall is pulled inward so that the internal organs are compressed upward.
- The structure of your body is optimized to pull you out of the water rather than sink you into the water. For example, you might raise one or both of your shoulders so that it is easier to grab something above and pull yourself out.
These symptoms are just that – symptoms of raising your qi, but not the actual raising of your qi itself. Raising your qi is initiated by your mind and its intention in relation to the activity of your body. In this example, your mind actively resists the sensations coming from the part of your body that is underwater and your sense of awareness (and wellbeing) is actually more in the upper body than lower body. As a consequence, your upper body gains a certain kind of tensed energetic focus which is organized to resolve your physical and mental stress via your upper body. In addition, if you keep this mental state for long, your upper body experiences a kind of “stagnation,” where your blood, breath, and energy no longer circulate freely and you begin to feel unwell.
This is “raising your qi.”
Eventually, your body accommodates to the heat of the bath, and your mind stops resisting the feeling. You allow yourself to succumb to the sensation, becoming deeply aware of your body as the heat envelops it. You join your body in its sensations rather than flee from them. Once you are fully in the water:
- The muscles of the body are uniformly relaxed.
- The breath is deep, and slow like you are at rest.
- The abdominal wall relaxes, giving you a full feeling as your internal organs gravitate downwards.
- The structure of your body is configured however you choose it to be (e.g., when you reach for your glass of wine, your arm does exactly what it needs to perform the action, and no more).
Think about the sensation in your body the moment you stop resisting the heat or cold and suddenly feel a deep sense of “ahhhhhh…,” where you release not only your breath, but the tension and energy you’ve been holding. Suddenly your body feels very heavy, especially in your middle. Your energy moves down.
This is “sinking your qi.”
Let’s translate this notion to Taijiquan practice.
When you first practice sinking into your stances, your legs will not be accommodated to the exercise and will feel pain. This is like the cold of the swimming pool or heat of the ofuro, only much worse (using our particular lineage method anyway – can’t speak for others). Even if your stance is technically correct after adjustment by your teacher, if you are a beginner, you will still tend to be energetically incorrect, because your mind will resist the pain in your legs, rather than join and succumb to the sensation. You most definitely will not feel a sense of “ahhhhhh…”
Instead, your upper body will tend to be tense, your breath will tend to be shallow and quick, abdominal wall tight, shoulders raised, etc. Instead of characterizing your energy as “ahhhhhhhh..,” it can be characterized as “grrrrrrrrrrr….” or “eeeeeeek…” (Chinese might say “aioooooo….”). Your legs will not have a heavy sensation of root, and your upper body will feel like it is floating. With the pain in your legs, your mind will seek comfort by fleeing the pain and creating a sense of untamed focus in your upper body. Your energy flows upwards, and stays there.
One major achievement in your Taijiquan basic skill (jibengong) is to have the feeling of “ahhhhhh…” rather than “grrrrrrrr…” when you practice your form and push hands. However, this does not mean that your upper body is flaccid, like in a hot bath, but rather there is no unnecessary tension that isn’t a functional part of your movements. Until you can do this, you are still raising your qi. But consistently sinking your qi is a matter of degree. It is a slow and gradual process that takes years. During that process, you can work on the sensation of “joining the water” by practicing the following:
- Relax your upper body, face, and neck, and especially do not lift your scapulae / raise your shoulders.
- Breath deep, slow, and low, allowing your abdominal wall to expand and contract rather than focusing on your chest.
- Working on joining / succumbing your mind to both your stance and movement, rather than resisting or letting other thoughts distract you.
If you practice these points consistently, you’ll be on your way to success in Taijiquan.
About the author:
Marshall Rosenstein is a 21st generation disciple of Chen Family Taijiquan under Marin Spivack of Chen Zhaokui Taijiquan Association North America. http://molingtaiji.com
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