Yang’s 10 Important Points of Practice for Taijiquan... An Interpretation.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

It is surprising to find out just how many Yang Style Taijiquan practitioners have never heard of "The 10 Important Points of Practice", and even more surprising to find that they don't embody any of the concepts in their practice. Hopefully, the following will provide some insight into what the Points of Practice are and how to use them.

What are they?

The 10 Important Points of Practice are credited to Yang Chengfu (1883 – 1936), Yang Lu Chan’s (the founder of Yang Style Taijiquan) grandson. He was considered to be the best known teacher of Yang Taijiquan and at the Beijing Physical Culture Research Institute, together with his brother (Yang Shao Hou), Wu Jianquan (creator of Wu Style Taijiquan) and Sun Lu Tang (creator of Sun Style Taijiquan), were among the first teachers to teach Taijiquan to the general public.
 
Yang, as with many people in that era, was illiterate. So, his 10 Important Points were orally transmitted to one of his students, Chen WeiMing. Chen was a scholar who had passed his civil service exams so was in the perfect position to document the points as Yang explained them.
 
They were meant to be a guide for practice. It is believed that the original points were supposed to be memorized and chanted or recited in class to help focus the practice. There’s been some commentary that if students couldn’t remember the points they’d be sent out of the training hall.
 

Why are they “Important”?

There simply aren’t a lot of historical writings on Taijiquan. It was an orally transmitted art handed down from master to disciple and with the majority of them being illiterate, writings up until relatively recently were precious. They offered students outside of the lineages the opportunity to learn what was at the root of what they were seeing in the movements.
 
There is some discussion that Yang’s points were derived and added to from, some would say, the founder of Taijiquan, Chen Wangting (the creator of Chen Taijiquan) that had been transmitted down the lineage. Irrespective of their historical origin, Yang did allow Chen WeiMing to put pen to paper and provide all of us with a foundation for our practice even today.
 
The Points are now considered to be the cornerstone of Yang Style Taijiquan principles, as well as a strong guiding influence for other styles.
 

How do we use them?

Firstly, the points can be divided into two sets of five. The first five deal with your body. The second five deal more with your relationship to the external world and and/or an opponent.
 
The points can and have been translated in numerous ways. There is an enormous amount of depth to the original writings with a lot of allusion to Chinese thought and philosophy. Initially, you may want to take them at face value, but they are worth revisiting every couple of years as you will find more and more in them as your skills and knowledge develop. What appears to be simple becomes complex and what appears to be complex becomes simple. The idea behind one thing becomes many, and the idea behind many things becomes one. In many ways it is the embodiment of Yin-Yang and will take each of us a lifetime to work through.
 
It can be useful to select one point to re-visit; read different people’s interpretations and then work through them in your practice over months and months, thinking about how the different interpretations influence the movements. Alternately you may want to “play” with them at random but they should always be in your mind whenever you move.
 

The 10 Important Points

1. The Spirit of Vitality Reaches to the Top of the Head

The head should be upright and vertical to allow the Spirit (Shen) to rise to the very top. No strength should be used. No stretching. Just a natural erectness. If the neck is stiff then the blood and Qi won’t circulate.
 
There should be a feeling of lightness and sensitivity. Natural awareness of one’s self and the world around you. Imagine a string lightly holding your head up. That said, whatever you do, don’t float.
 
As human beings we are the interconnect between Heaven and Earth, so while we want the Shen to be up, we also need to ensure we are rooted to the ground. Don’t let there be so much “up” that you begin to float. You don’t want the Qi to rise up to the head – you need to control its rise from Dantien. So think that from Dantien down you are grounded through Yongquan on the soles of the feet. They are firmly rooted and can draw Qi up to Dantien. That Qi can then be directed to the hands but don’t let it float up too far. Yang at the top and Yin at the bottom.
Controlling the Qi leads through to the 2nd point of practice.
 

2. Sink the Chest and Raise the Back

The chest should be very slightly drawn in, not to the point where it’s concave. It should almost be like a feeling of relaxation. This allows the Qi to sink to Dantien. If you push the chest out it inhibits the control of the Qi, and holds it in the chest which will cause a top-heavy feeling, almost to the point of feeling like your heels are lifting of the ground.
 
The statement “Raise the Back” actually means that the Qi should stick to the back. All your power should be emitted from the back and then you will be in control.
 
Sometimes it helps to think of this point from an engineering perspective. When you apply force in one direction you should consider sending or holding force in the opposite direction so you remain in the centre unmoved by the transference... you remain centred! If you issue from the front you will move forward. If you issue from the back you should have a lot more power. There are a set of 17 Extraordinary Acupoints either side of the spine called Jiaji. They are located ½ thumb-width either side of the thoracic and lumbar spine. You should consider that all of those points are moving backward as you emit forward. This will keep the spine straight while not holding any tension.
 
Don’t curl the chest in too much as it will cause the spine to curve and not allow the Qi to rise. Furthermore, biomechanically it will put you at a disadvantage if your opponent pulls you or moves out of the way as you emit.
 
Again with this point, consider the Yin and Yang. The chest is Yin and the back is Yang – the curved and the straight – perfectly in balance with each other.
 

3. Relax the Waist

The waist controls the whole body. If the waist is relaxed then the feet will have power and the foundation will be solid. Changes from solid to empty should come from the waist.
 
Remember that any movement in Taiji is rooted in the feet, issued through the legs, controlled by the waist and expressed in the hands.
 
However, when we are thinking about this point we should bear in mind that the original point was “Song the Yao”. The Yao is directly translated as the waist but is more specifically the lower back in the kidney area. That said, in the martial arts it is quite often interpreted as being the entire lower back area including the hips, pelvic area, lower abdomen and lumbar spine.
 
It’s also important for you to know that this also includes what in Mandarin is known as “The Kua”. It doesn’t really have a direct translation into English but is essentially the inguinal crease and pelvic floor forming a “bowl”.
 
So, when we “Relax the Waist” or “Song the Yao” you want to think about the entire lower torso area. It should be “Loose”, “Open” and “Relaxed” but definitely not “Limp”.
 

4. Distinguish Full and Empty

The accepted translation of this stanza is that if you have the weight on the right leg then the right leg is full (Yang) and the left leg is empty (Yin). If you can’t distinguish between them then the movements will be heavy and the stance unstable. If you can differentiate them then the turns will be agile and without any force.
 
However, this can be extended to all parts of the body. If you look at the original text and the background to the history of the term “Taijiquan” the idea of “Full” and “Empty” or Yin and Yang then extends out. The term “Taijiquan” was not in use until Yang LuChan (The creator of Yang Taijiquan) went to Beijing. Prior to that it was known as “soft boxing”. When people in Beijing saw Yang Cheng Fu move – empty then full, there then not, they thought he moved like “Taiji”, sometimes translated as “the oneness that gives rise to Yin and Yang”. They looked at him and saw that there wasn’t only Taji in his legs but in his whole body. At that stage they added the term “Quan” or “Fist” to “Taiji” to give us the name for what we practice today.
 
So, we should take this point further and consider in all of the body which is Yin and which is Yang at any given moment. That can really challenge even the greatest practitioner at times. Think of the following:
  • If the right leg is Yang then the left hand is Yin
  • If the attacking hand is Yang, the defensive hand is Yin.
  • If the upper hand is Yang, the lower hand is Yin.
  • If the forward leg is Yang, the back leg is Yin
  • If you are rising then up is Yang and down is Yin but if you are sinking then the bottom is Yang and the top is Yin
  • Internal is Yin, External is Yang, Active is Yang and Still is Yin
and so on...
 
However, let’s consider the overarching principle in that you need to actively engage your mind to realise that there is always a differential. If you are playing Push Hands, when your partner is full, you are empty; if your partner is empty then you are full.
 

5. Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows

This point is very practical. You need to keep the shoulders relaxed and down. If they lift up the energy rises up and you have no control of it. From a biomechanical viewpoint if the shoulders are elevated you have less power in the arms.
 
The elbows are an extension of this. If the elbows are raised then the shoulders are tensed ergo, you have the same problem.
 
Again, we need to “Relax” or “Song” both parts. They should merely be an extension of the movement from Dantien. The only time you actively engage the elbows is for an Elbow Strike “Zhou”, similarly “Kao” with the shoulders, although even in both of these scenarios the shoulders and elbows can’t be tensed. Essentially, allow both of them to be open and receptive – to feel, to respond - if there is no tension you can melt easily.
 
The other thing to consider with this point is that in sinking the shoulders and elbows you will allow the armpit to open. Don’t hold the arms close in. The armpits are like an energy gateway so don’t lock the gate.
 
We have now gone through the points that are more Physical in terms of your body posture. Now we will go through the points focussed on how you and your body relate to the external world and a potential opponent. These take a long time to understand and even longer to “master” but let’s give it a go...
 

6. Use The Mind and Not Strength (Use Yi, Not Li)

You must use your mind while keeping the entire body relaxed at all times. Essentially use awareness of everything around you instead of force and strength. Even the slightest muscular tension creates blocks in the tendons, ligaments, joints, fascia, blood vessels and meridians, impeding the ability to respond quickly and effortlessly. You should feel like you are water – it can’t be held – it’s soft yet can move a mountain. If you feel the arms of a high level practitioner they will feel soft but extremely heavy, like “iron wrapped in cotton wool”.
 
“The Yi controls the Qi”: The mind controls the energy. So wherever the mind goes the Qi will follow. Therefore, if we keep the mind free of obstruction, the Qi will also flow freely.
 
There is a translation from the 3rd century BCE Confucian work “Lushi Chunqiu” saying,
“Flowing water and a door hinge do not rot because of their constant movement. The relationship between form and Qi is the same: if the form does not move, the vital essence (Jing) does not flow; if the essence does not flow, the Qi will stagnate.”
 
Relating to this point, we’ve been taught to keep an opponent’s incoming force superficial, “floating on your surface but not connecting to you”. Similarly, when you intend to issue force, you need to make sure you actually connect to your opponent completely. To achieve this your mind must be calm and still... no fear, no anger, no tension... just “be in the moment”... take and respond with impartiality... a very, very Daoist concept.
 
You could perhaps consider this point in the first instance as your body being completely relaxed with no tension; to then start having a mental sense that you do have power but don’t need to exert it; that should you wish to exert the power it will respond to any force that comes in contact with it but only in answer to the force applied. It’s very much like the analogy “Bend Like Bamboo”... go with the wind and weather then return to your original position. Don’t resist, yield. Think of bamboo bent over and how much force it has on the rebound. It doesn’t tense itself at all. It simply comes from physics. Your body is no different. Allow it to bend and it will recoil. However, just like bamboo, you must always know where your root is. Don’t forget that this concept only works if you have a stable foundation. If your movements lack foundations you are nothing. So, root then allow everything above to be empty.
 
You actually need to overcome an enormous amount of automatic response with this point but keep going back to the initial stanza... if you “think” you can bend and relax, then you can!
 

7. Unity of the Upper and Lower Body

As previously mentioned, any movement in Taiji is rooted in the feet, issued through the legs, controlled by the waist and expressed in the hands. All of this should be a continuous circuit of Qi. Imagine you have a fuse wire running from your foot to your hand. Strike a match with your foot and the fuse will burn quickly up to the hand where the force will emanate. If any aspect is out of order then the power is lost. The movement should be considered as one “Qi”.
 
Many people believe that Taijiquan should be learnt from the hands down. However, the root is in the feet. If you can master the foot rooting, then work up from there and the hands will simply respond. Once you have got to that stage, you then work back down the body by removing the “Will or Intent” from the hands etc. so everything becomes a fluid whole.
 
You also need to ensure that the eyes are in unison with the movement. The eyes are quite often the forgotten yet extremely important aspect of Taijiquan practice. If the eyes are alert and following the movement, there will be increased power and control. This aspect of Taijiquan is a fundamental principle of biomechanics so don’t relegate it to the “some ancient guy thought it was important” pile.
 
However, initially as a practitioner you will simply follow the motion of the body. As you develop more skill then your spirit should rise up to dictate the need and direction at any particular moment in time in terms of the eyes. They will mirror the need.
 
It should also be noted with the eyes that they too work on Yin and Yang. Consider the fact that if you are attacking the eyes should look through the opponent... Yang and far, whereas in defence the eyes should be closer and utilizing peripheral vision... Yin.
 

8. Unity of Internal and External

The Spirit is the Leader and the Body is at its Command!
 
If we raise the spirit then the movements will naturally become light and fluid. Remember Point 1 “Raise the Spirit to the Top of the Head”.
 
Now, let’s think about the rest of Internal and External unity. Again we should think about the Yin and the Yang; Opening and Closing, Rising and Falling, Full and Empty, Breathing In and Breathing Out, Drawing Qi in and Sending it Out, Drawing the eyes and the Mind in and out. All should be a harmonious one.
 
So, when you think about a defensive movement, the body moves in, the spirit moves in, the eyes move in, the breath draws in, the Qi draws in. When you think about an offensive movement, the body moves out, the spirit moves out, the eyes move out, the breath goes out, the Qi and power emit out. All work together – both the external body and the internal mind, energy and breath. They are one. Just as we considered “Unity of the Upper and Lower Body” previously.
 
Harmony and Balance in all things.
Through this and the previous point we need to think of the Six Harmonies:
3 External
  • Shoulder and Hip Harmonize
  • Elbow and Knee Harmonize
  • Hand and Foot Harmonize
3 Internal
  • Xin and Yi Harmonize (Spirit and Intention/Mind Harmonize)
  • Yi and Qi Harmonize (Intention/Mind and Energy Harmonize)
  • Qi and Jin Harmonize (Energy and Body/Power Harmonize)
 

9. Continuity without Interruption

Essentially, once you commence, going from stillness to movement, you do not return to stillness again until the end of the routine. You need to continually flow. Think of it as circular and never-ending. That said, you still need to define each movement.
 
There are a couple of classical analogies for this point. One is “To be like a Wave on the Yangtze River”. When you stop and start, there are breaks in the movement. The power is exhausted before new power arises. In fighting, this time is where you are at your weakest and a good fighter will look for this moment in his opponent. In Taijiquan we don’t allow that point to occur. As long as the “wave doesn’t break” we still have inherent power. One continual Qi.
 
The other analogy is to “Move the energy like reeling silk from a cocoon”. Again, if you stop reeling, the silk will spin off. Similarly if you pull to quickly the silk will spin off. If you want to stop reeling you must slow down gradually.
 
You need to also consider this in your breathing and use of Qi and Jin. Don’t ever breath in and out 100%. Only 70% breath in and 70% out. Only emit 70% of your Power. That way you always have something in reserve.
 

10. Seek Stillness in Movement

External martial artists exhaust their Qi and get out of breath quickly. The idea with Taijiquan is that even after hours of practice our Qi will be full and our breathing even.
 
Try and be with the movement and think that even though we are moving we are still. Yin and Yang – stillness and movement but in movement we are still.
 
The slower you practice the better. The breathing should become slow and long, allowing Qi to sink to Dantien.
 
Allow your mind to be still. Let you mind be with each movement when you are doing the movement. Don’t think about the next movement. Put all your focus on the “now”.
 
In many ways this is the hardest point for us to achieve as we are always planning ahead. The day is full of diary appointments and juggling commitments. How often to you just sit with the moment: smell the flower, feel your breath, taste one morsel of food, hear a distant bird call? All your Taijiquan practice should be like that. Don’t focus on what comes next in the routine but savour the very essence of the movement you are currently doing. At that point you are at one with the movement, with your body, your mind, your Qi, your Power and the world around you.
 
This point is also the time to really focus on the breathing. Don’t ever get out of breath doing Taijiquan. The breathing should always be “Fine, long, quiet and slow”.
 
In summary, if you actually use these 10 points you will have a lifetime’s work in implementing them into your practice. All of a sudden you will realise that “doing” Taijiquan and “understanding” Taijiquan are two completely different things.
 
However, the most important point of all is to embrace every opportunity you have to explore how Taijiquan feels and what impact it has on you and your life as it is priceless.