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The Alchemy of Tai Chi

By Steve Rowe

A strange challenge – in Beijing in the early 1800’s in the house of Prince Daun sat two men facing each other with their right fists pitted against the other.


Yeung Lou Sim (also known as Yang Lu Cha’n) the founder of Yang style Tai Chi Chaun or “Soft Cotton Boxing” as it was commonly known had been teaching many nobles of the Qing dynasty refusing challenges until he had been made the “offer he couldn’t refuse” by a boxing master of high prestige…….

Yeung Lou Sim sat calmly as the boxing master began to sweat profusely and his chair started to creak as if it were about to collapse. Suddenly he got up and said in a gentle tone to the onlookers “The master’s skill is indeed superb, only his chair is not as firmly made as mine.”

This is one of many stories epitomising the soft, polite, yet deadly art of Tai Chi Chuan. As with all Martial Arts, the roots of Tai Chi are shrouded in mystery and legends with most popular research tracing the roots to Chang San Feng at the turn of the 14th Century. Chang learned the Shao-Lin Chuan and combined this with the philosophy of the I Ching and Taoist breathing and immortality techniques. It is not my intention to go into the history in this article, but more the practical advice and philosophy within Tai Chi that is relevant and interesting the students of other Martial Arts.

The Snake and the Crane

There are many versions of the story of the meditating monk/Chang Sang Feng watching the battle between the snake and crane and emulating the movements seen in a vision to structure Tai Chi/Kung Fu. Most Martial Arts have forms that display those roots and are often only thought of on a physical level, but I would like to look deeper. Tai Chi is the alchemy of the human life force, it is said that it takes the base energies and transforms them into the human and then spiritual energy. These symbols cross all cultures.

The snake represents all that binds us to the earth it has no legs or wings and therefore cannot stand or fly away from it. It represents the energy at our root chakra, that of mortality, fear of death, the power survival, fervent lust, sexual desire or religious fervour.

The crane represents our aspiration towards the heavens and spirit. It represents flight and therefore the human aspiration toward the heavens, our evolution to stand upright, and our need to break the bonds of these lower energies to become free and more spiritual.

So this is the position of mankind, suspended between the snake and the bird and the Martial Arts is our system of spiritual alchemy that helps us to develop the necessary wisdom to purify our energy. This is also why dragons are special, as “flying serpents” they represent the state of mankind and embody the striving for wisdom. Thus St Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland and St George killed the dragon replacing the “old” symbols in our own culture with those of Christianity.

The Alchemy Process

In most systems of healing and meditation now popular in the west, our life force is taken from the root chakra (snake) and purified, up through our sacral chakra, (instinctive), To our solar plexus chakra (deep emotion – guilt, anxiety, stress) to our heart chakra (higher emotion – love – compassion) to our throat chakra (expression) to our third eye (visions, dreams, inspiration) to our crown chakra (bird -higher spirit). This process will be dealt with in more depth in a later article on healing, but for the moment I just want to outline the process so that you can understand the vital relationship between the chakras and the transformation of energy.

The root chakra energy is called “Ching” converting to “Chi” at the sacral (“Dantien” in Chinese “Seki Tanden” in Japanese) this is converted to “Geng” at the Solar Plexus and “Sun” at the Crown Chakra. (These names are in Cantonese, in Mandarin “Geng” becomes “Jing” and “Sun” becomes “Shen”).

If Chi is like a cloud, Geng is like thunder, it gives power to the Chi and this development is the mark of a proper Martial Artist. It is said that Geng is like the warrior and the gardener, the warrior does what is necessary on the battlefield and is then able to go into the garden and smell the roses. He is capable of great etiquette, compassion and strength at all the right times. Many people in meditation go straight from Chi to Sun and bypass Geng, this makes them dreamers and incapable of dealing with the real world. Geng makes the warrior face reality along with his own emotional and spiritual development.

Short-term power is called “Lik” and is likened to striking a musical note, it is strong only for a short period of time and then fades quickly. This is like over enthusiasm, anger and fiery emotions, whereas Geng is like a full symphony and has enormous depth and stability. In Japanese Martial Arts we might replace Geng with “Aiki” and the qualities of the Geng warrior with “Kigurai” (the bearing and demeanour of a senior Martial Artist).

Western science has explanations for much of the old wisdom and often it supersedes it, but some of the old wisdom is still too profound for modern science and makes the bottom line more understandable by symbols and stories to “Mr Average”. We all use analogies in class to teach something complex.

I often replace the word “Chi” or “Ki” with “animation” as this describes our practical use of it. The more that we can “animate” our entire breath, mind and body, the more we are using our life force positively and allow this alchemy to take place, this is often called “raising the spirit”.

I refuse to use the terms “soft” and “hard” in relation to any Martial Art and say that we are all searching for the “optimum” technique and use of energy, there is only the “right amount” of force/tension/power, relative to any situation and a student could only be “too hard” or “too soft”. So as Martial Artists we have to seek out the knowledge and discover the “optimum” wherever it is.

The Five Hindrances

In the search for the optimum, we can encounter many problems, the Buddha gave five hindrances to the search for enlightenment in the “middle way” that match these problems accurately, I rearranged them so that I could memorise them as SALAD, they are:

Sloth (laziness)

Anger (aggression)

Lust (greed/desire)

Agitation (nervousness/dissipation)

Doubt (depression)

I think that sums up just about all our problems and needs no further explanation at this point, but it is important that we recognise them particularly when looking outside of our own field of expertise.

The Ten Important Points

Let’s look at some of the advice contained within Tai Chi and see how this can help, I must stress at this point that the interpretations are mine born from personal experience and study and are deliberately interpreted here to help those practising other arts. It may seem at times that I am “knocking” other arts, where in fact my purpose is to highlight where Tai Chi knowledge may benefit practitioners of those particular systems:


“The energy at the top of the head should be light and sensitive.”

This helps us to “raise the spirit” in the right manner. We should feel as if suspended at the crown of the head from above and this helps to make us light and properly upright. It helps to align the chakras “like a pile of seven gold coins” and gives us the posture of the model “with the book on her head”. When teaching Karate I have to constantly correct this fault with 99% of the students. This means that even when in a front stance, they still have most of their body weight on the rear leg! It also means that if their spirit is not raised, their movements become too aggressive and their responses “over the top” and not appropriate.

“Sink the chest and raise the back.”

Before Mankind stood upright the front of our body faced the floor. Our chest was closed and naturally protected the vital points on the front of our body and our back opened to be strong. To reproduce this we “sink the chest and raise the back” to make our body strong and confident. This also encourages us to breath from the stomach and “sink the Chi” bringing power to the legs and abdomen. Another benefit is to bring the elbows in front of the body to enable us to issue the power from the feet and body to the hands.

“Relax the waist.”

It is said that the waist is the ruler of the body. It transmits the power from the feet and legs into the upper body hands. In Karate we often put the accent on the hips and forget to teach the waist! The waist rotates using some of the most powerful muscles of the body and the hips “vibrate”, this is how we connect the power from the feet to the hands. In Tai Chi this body shaking is called “Fa Geng” (“Fa Jing”) and even in the “Bubushi” it states that “the feet must support the hands”. It is by concentrating on the rotation of the waist and the middle that we determine what is “full” and “empty” in movement.

“Distinguish between full and empty.”

Only when all of the weight is on one leg and none on the other can it said to be full and the other empty. Distinguishing between full and empty is the first principle in Tai Chi. When this is done then movements can be soft and agile and we can control our balance. It is surprising how many other Martial Artists never know where their centre point of balance is (it’s almost never where they think it is!) and how clumsily they move as a result.

“Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows”

As soon as you raise the shoulders or the elbows you cannot transmit power. This is a cardinal sin any Martial Arts system. Most untrained people will “push” their arm out from the shoulder making the technique very weak, and it’s amazing how many “high grades” still do this! You cannot lock, throw, strike, or dislocate effectively until you have learned this principle.

” Use the mind and not strength”

This really is the secret of the internal systems. The fact that most of us are clumsy and tend to use far too much tension and effort. The mind is the key to achieving the optimum. If we practise using the minimum amount of effort to achieve our goal but the maximum amount of skill and mental concentration, awareness, direction and focus, then we are far more likely to get there in the most efficient manner.

“The unity of upper and lower body”

From the feet, to the legs, to the waist to the hands, the flow of energy must be unbroken, if just one thing is out of place, then everything fails. I often think of the lower body as yang, strong and powerful and the upper body as yin, soft and pliable with the waist as the manipulator.

“The unity of internal and external”

The body is only a slave to the mind. By raising the spirit and spreading the awareness throughout the body, developing a spatial awareness as well as the skills of using the body properly we will achieve that unity. The combination of mind body and breath is vital to this unity. Every contraction and expansion, opening and closing of the body must include the same movements of the mind.

“Continuity without interruption”

This is where Tai Chi does particularly well, but it is also in the other systems. In Karate we learn like by joining up the dots in a drawing. First we learn where the dots are, then we learn how to join them up into a continuous line, then we learn how to colour the drawing in, finally we should be able to paint a masterpiece where everything blends perfectly. The problem can be that many never get beyond the dots……

“Seek stillness in movement”

This is guidance in how to develop “Geng”. To not fall into the trap of “Lik” and elevate the pulse, practise slowly to lengthen the breath and still the mind. To sink the Chi (Ki) into the lower abdomen so as not to cause excitement, this way your movements and calculations will not become desperate and erratic. Only a still mind can perceive accurately.


We need to retain that which is valuable and share it between the arts to help us to understand what we do better. Much of the old ways were taught through symbols, stories, poems and songs. We have to delve a little bit deeper than the surface to understand them and also look back through our own culture to find similar teachings, these then need to be verified through real practise find their value.

I see no barriers between the arts other than political. In seeking “truth” hard and soft, fast and slow only become relative to any situation, names like Karate, Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Aikido and Judo are not barriers but ideals to strive for, “empty (of intention) hand”, “skilful person”, “grand ultimate”, “way of harmony” and “soft (gentle) way”.

We live in the “information age” and so much more is available to us thanks to modern technology, with video, television, computers and modern modes of travel. But there is a huge difference between knowing about something and having “direct knowledge” of it. The most effective way of passing this on is by “direct transmission” from one who has already made the journey.

So we are still left with the best way to learn is to find the right Instructor, pay your dues by being attentive to the instruction, support that with hard work and training and allow the alchemy to work. Pay regard to the hindrances and don’t allow them hold you back. Broaden your understanding from the information that is available from all other sources and relate it back to your direct instruction.

Turning lead into gold is not easy, every step is laden with confrontation with the hindrances, but alchemy is the “short cut”, I know of no other way of “earning your wings”.

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