Tai Chi And The Five Integrities


by Kenneth van Sickle

The body uses several energies, pneumatic (breath), hydraulic (circulatory), mechanical (muscle & bone), and electromagnetic (nervous system).

Tai Chi, uses these energies in dynamic and subtle ways..
Tai Chi is energy management. Energy needs a channel, if the channel is blocked, the energy will not flow.

The beginning Tai Chi student runs into tensions that stop energy flow, the master watches them do the form and notices these tensions, points them out to the student and suggests ways to slowly get rid of them.

The first priority of the form is to relax, to get rid of tension.

First the gross energy blocks are handled , shoulder tension blocks energy to the arms, hip tension blocks energy to the knee, knee tension to the feet, stomach tension shallows the breath, these and other energy blocks short circuit the system, like an electrical short, or a kink in a hose.

Once a block goes away the energy flows through until it hits the nest one to be worked on.

When all blocks are gone the energy (“Chi” in Chinese) flow freely through the body and then can be managed to produce extra normal energy, to heal or to use as self-defense.

As the student progresses in the form, many things are being addressed simultaneously, alignment, centering, rooting, sensitivity,internal massage and martial awareness all come after the relaxation process has started, they are dependent on relaxation.

The body is gradually ease, pushed by the consideration and will of the student, to align, to find it’s natural position again, to become a functional piece of architecture.

If, for example, the ankle is pronated (caved in toward the other foot) the knee and the hop will also be out of line. This might all manifest as lower back trouble. When the ankle is corrected the whole system will realign and that back trouble will be relieved. The Tai Chi form allows for this kind of healing.

The constant repetition of the form achieves many things. It gets the motor running. The form must be done twice daily, this is the “sine quo non” of Tai Chi. The motor must be kept running once it has started. It is like a generator, once it stops it takes a while for it to start again.

This generator develops “intrinsic energy”. This is a combination of energies and its generation must not be interrupted just as we must keep breathing.

Internal exercise systems keep gaining energy, and can be continued into advanced age. Tai Chi and Yoga masters do not necessarily live longer than other people, but they are almost always fit and vital up until their last hours.

Tai Chi forms have a very precise choreography. The Yang form as taught by Cheng M’an-Ching, has 36 postures. Each follows in the same order every time the form is done, one move flows into the next at the same speed, without interruption.

The form can be done slowly 7-10 minutes. Many do their daily routines at this speed, or very slowly, 20-60 minutes, for advanced energizing or to heal the body.

Each Tai Chi posture has multiple purposes. One move might be for aligning the ankle (ones own); avoiding a kick (someone else’s); and massaging the spleen. Most moves have more than one martial application.

All the moves are always concerned with centering, alignment and balance.

Centering has to do with one’s place in space, being there securely and at ease with the body, knowing where the center is and where the edges are. Being aware of the essential you, and therefore of what surrounds you.

Alignment is simply about good architecture, to be built or rebuilt correctly. All animals including man are born with the same probability of physical perfection and most animals achieve it.

When we are children we get frustrated, ignored, threatened and physically punished….these acts make us tense up, either temporarily or permanently.

Tensions wear us down, harden our bones and decrease our vitality.

“Lao Tsu” said that we “stiffen and harden” where as in youth we are “tender and pliable”. Tai Chi is a way to replace that hardness with pliability.

The perfect balance of animals is only achieved by man when it is studied, as in athletes or circus performers. Consider what any seal, cat, goat or dog can do without thinking.

When we tense up, from fear or whatever the cause, it puts pressure on the bone, not the normal off and on pressure of exercise or work but a constant unrelenting pressure. This kind of pressure fatigues and hardens the bones and muscles, making them stiff and unpliable, weak and insensitive.

In the process of learning Tai Chi, these tensions are relaxed.
In a relaxed state, the blood flows fully and appropriately through the veins and arteries nourishing the body and pulsing oxygen into the brain.

The breathing is slow and even and in the stomach. When we exert ourselves we begin to breathe in the chest area (also when we panic).

The muscles are alive and relaxed and only tense when they are doing something. The nervous system is quietly sending messages that are appropriate to the reality of the external stimuli. And all is well.

When we become tense all these processes speed up and change their character and load ( they have evolved to be able to do that without any damage to the system).

As we know, adrenaline is issued to help the body handle trouble. It makes us breathe harder to get the oxygen around. It prepares the blood to clot quicker, it even makes our hairs stand up as a skin protection, even though we don’t have enough hair left to make a difference anymore.

Studies with Baboons have shown that another substance is issued under stress. These “Stress Hormones”, act with the adrenaline to prepare for danger, the whole body is readied for a physical confrontation.

In order to do that, many other body functions are put on 2nd priority. As soon as the danger is over, the systems switch back to normal. But, what happens if the Baboon/person considers itself in danger all the time? All the body’s systems are functioning at an inappropriate rate, we are prepared for a danger that doesn’t exist. In this state, normal life becomes difficult to handle.

In addition, it seems that the Stress hormones inhibit the Immune System. The Baboons that are low in the hierarchy are invariably sick animals.

As far as I know, these studies do not take into consideration the lack of positive input. The Baboon that is constantly being chased or intimidated, doesn’t get many hugs or loving glances.

People that actually are under stress all the time, don’t have time for love and good feelings, and people who consider themselves to be under stress, and are therefore always tense, are less lovable, more difficult to be comfortable with.

“MORAL”: Since Baboons can’t afford Tai Chi lessons, you will have to take them!

In the Western world, and most of the Eastern one also, we are more and more into immediate gratification, “I WANT IT NOW”, “WHERE CAN I BUY IT”, “LIFE, MADE EASY”. Tai chi doesn’t lend itself to that attitude. Tai Chi is slow, gradual and thoughtful, precisely because that, is what relaxes and vitalizes.

Tai Chi doesn’t “DO IT” for you, you do Tai Chi, and the more you do it, the more you benefit.

Once you do the form, in the morning, just after arising and, just before retiring, you are doing Tai Chi, you are generating health and vitality. If you miss doing the form even just 3 or 4 times a week, you are merely playing and perhaps maintaining a status quo.

After 5 or 10 or 20 years, (as long as it takes), when you have truly relaxed and your chi is flowing perfectly, you may no longer need to do the form as often because every move you make, follows the principles of Tai Chi, and the generator is always working.

Cheng M’an Ch’ing shortened the form from 105 moves to 36 moves. He was both lauded and criticized for doing this. He told us that the form was too long. If people must do a 20-30 minutes form twice a day, they are a lot less likely to do it than a 5-10 minute form.

For those who need or want more of a workout, the “Short Form” can be repeated 2 or 3 times and one will get the same benefit that you do from the long form.

Professor Cheng left out only 9 or 10 moves, most of the shortening came from leaving out repetitions.

The moves that he did leave out were mainly martial and since he was a doctor and his highest priority for Tai Chi was health, he wouldn’t have left out any moves that had any health benefits that other moves didn’t cover.

Some masters say “NO PAIN, NO GAIN” in order to inspire their students to do the form every day. I really think that most of the pain comes from the thought of doing the form, let’s say at 1 A.M., when you are tired and sore. As soon as you start to do the form you begin to relax and feel better, so that by the time you hit the bed you will sleep sooner and deeper.

The form cannot be done simply mechanically, like let’s say painting walls. It must be done with sensitivity and depth, like painting a portrait, then it will develop deeply and permeate the rest of your life.
After completing the form, it takes 6 months to a year and a half to learn the form so that one does not have to think about the choreography, the student is ready to begin “PUSH-HANDS”. Having learned to relax while doing the movements and under no stress other than the rigors of remembering, one advances into the next stage and introduced to “CONTROLLED STRESS”

Push hands is a physical dialogue wherein the two“partners” take turns trying to break down the very things the student has worked on all that time.

Student#1 “YANG” tries, (softly and slowly) to misalign, to unbalance, to find the center and to uproot student #2 “YIN”, who without using muscular strength, tries to neutralize the “PROBE” of “YANG”. Once the probe has been neutralized (yielded to), the students automatically change roles. “YANG” becomes “YIN” and the one who neutralized, now “PROBES” (pushes) toward the one who before was the aggressive one.

This continuous changing of roles is something like 2 man sawing. It gives both the “PLAYERS”, a chance to experience both sides of the game, active “YANG” and passive “YIN”.

Push hands works in several ways, if you are pushed 1000 times the same way, and you try to neutralize it correctly each time, you will probably succeed,….if your pushed over and over by a more advance player, she/he will point out the possible neutralizations, and you can practice them.

Tai Chi is Taoist in nature, it doesn’t clash, it yields, it follows the natural path, it “Rides the horse in the direction its going”. It gently leads the strength that seeks to topple it, off balance, off center, so that it topples itself.

“Man, born tender and yielding
Stiffens and hardens in death
All living growth is pliant until death transfixes it.
Thus men who have hardened are “KIN OF DEATH”
And men who stay gentle are “KIN OF LIFE”
A hard hearted army is doomed to lose
A tree hard fleshed is cut down
Down goes the tough and big
Up jumps the tender sprig.”

“Lao Tzu” #76 (Trans. Witter Bynner)  600 B.C.

In push hands you learn that the principles you learned while doing the form do work. All you need to do is keep relaxed, aligned, centered, balanced, rooted and aware of the space you’re working in.

After you have gotten the basics of Push hands down, and you no longer need to think about the moves, you begin to notice that you automatically/spontaneously do moves from the form. You “discover” the self defense application on your own. In this way you really get the idea—then practice.

Most find that any psychological/social problems show up as soon as they start Push hands, and that it is a compact safe condition in which to work them out.

As you advance farther into Push hands you begin to develop more and more sensitivity t the other person’s energy (Listening to energy), to the point that you can tell just how someone is going to move any part of their body by being in contact with one small point on their body, (Interpreting energy).

This sensitivity transmits itself to your occupation, sports and your social life.

Axioms And Principles

—Tai Chi is process, the point of it, is the evolution of
the practitioner, not the acquisition of the art.

—Have no holes or breaks, no hollows or projection.
All moves are appropriate, no excesses or deficiencies.

—Don’t let your knee go farther forward than your toe,
in 70%—30% position, don’t sit all the way back onto your heel.

—Push the “opponent” from within your space, if they
enter into your space (all things equal) they are yours.

—The push is in a straight line, as when you try to find
the center of a Ping Pong ball and push it down into the water, the neutralization is circular, as when the Ping Pong ball slips away.

—Neither puff up nor collapse, do not brace
or run away from.

—It is not good to balance by gripping the floor with
the foot, or by shifting the weight, left and right side, like a tight rope walker. Balance in a vertical line like a plumb line, through the ground on the bottom, and through the top of the head to the sky.

—Excess of hardness (yang) brings softness (yin), just as
excess of sorrow brings joy, and excess of joy brings sorrow.

—“Appear like a hawk after a rabbit”, seek a perfectly
straight line of attack towards your quarry’s center…“With the spirit of a cat after a rat”,. When a push is neutralized, immediately realign on the opponent’s center.

—Be cohesive in the center and expansive on the outside.
—Discern the full from the empty,..Root in one leg at a time
while the torso revolves like a vertical cylinder on top of it.

—Feel the air around you so that it becomes heavy and begin to
notice its ebbs and flows.

—The body is rooted a the bottom, and light and flexible
on top like a tree.

—Don’t use force against force, borrow the imposing force
and return it

—Where there is tension, the life force (chi) is suppressed, when
tension leaves, chi returns

— The bull is a great strong beast, and can be handled by one
small person if they apply a small amount of energy to the right place (the ring in the nose).

—The head is held up as if a string is attached to the sky, like
a marionette,…the coccyx is held down as if there is a weight on it….the spine is stretched between the two.

—The arms do not move independently, they move with the body.

Tai Chi Ditch Digging

“Tai Chi” used in this way, to describe a way of doing something, means to use the principles of Tai Chi to accomplish something in the most efficient (ultimate) way.

One principle is to use the most economical, least energy draining energy available.

As applied to digging with a shovel, most of us who use a shovel, push and stomp on it to get it into the ground, then bend and shove it down to break the earth, use the strength of our backs to lift it and the muscles of our arms to throw it. This of course, makes it back breaking work.

If you use the principles of Tai Chi, it works like this: You place the shovel’s edge on the ground, step on it using your whole body weight on the handle (creating a lever), and break the earth out. You then reach down with the other hand and using your thighs (the largest muscle) lift straight up. Now take a step in the direction the shovel is pointing, the arms, if relaxed, will swing in that direction, then stop the shovel and the dirt will continue to it’s destination (momentum/inertia).

Here we have used gravity, leverage, inertia, momentum and the least amount of our muscular energy as possible.

Many people who dig a great deal, will end up doing it this way eventually through trial and error. We can save a great deal of time and energy if we apply the principles of Tai Chi to all of our activities, physical, social, professional, etc.

The Ping Pong Ball

It is much harder to submerge a floating Ping Pong ball with the tip of one finger than it is to push a person. However, some parallels do exist.

Its buoyancy is due to the fact that it contains air, (Chi). The sphere contains more, relative to its surface, than any other shape.

Its ability to move quickly is due to its lightness (relaxation), and its ability to seek the surface so directly is due to its roundness (alignment).

The pushing finger must go in a straight line towards the ball’s center, as with the Tai Chi push, and the ball rotates towards the direction of least resistance like a good neutralization.

The Cup Returns

If you have ever tried to blow the dust out of a cup, you will recall that you were unpleasantly surprised to find that the dust blew right back in your face.

The cup borrowed your energy and returned it to you.

If you blew into the right side of the cup, the air went to the bottom, picked up the dust and returned from the left side. If you blew into the top, it returned from the lower side, etc. If you were advanced enough to blow into the very center of the cup, the cup would become as advanced and return t you from all sides at once.

—“The flywheel turns, but the mind does not turn” In defense, the waist turns to neutralize the push of the opponent, but the mind stays still and continues to address the opponent, center to center.

The feeling you get when you push someone, and they neutralize it with a simultaneous return, would be as if you threw a medicine ball, and the instant it left your fingers, it hit you in the back.

“Differentiate between the substantial and the insubstantial”. Feel the root, the support, in the full leg along with the opposite hand,…and feel the emptiness, the relaxation in the empty leg along with the opposite hand.

The Five Integrities

Relating to efficiency and reality in doing Tai Chi form and Push hands, personally, physically, morally, martially, and spiritually.

Integrity n 1:State or quality of being complete, undivided or unbroken, unimpaired, unmarred, sound, pure.
2: Free from corrupting influence, strict in the fulfillment of contracts, soundness, honesty.

Personal Integrity

On a personal level, you must be true to yourself, in the beginning, when learning the form, do not compare yourself to others. Many students worry about not getting it fast enough, or appearing clumsy. These concerns show up as tension in the mind and the body.

Others, who learn choreography easily, think that they are progressing faster than the others and begin to form an attitude. So, if you compare, you will seem to be inferior or superior, neither of which have anything to do with reality, and only serve to create tension and divert the student from real progress.

You are as you are, you have your own assets and liabilities and you must work with and from them.

People will start out with much different abilities in memory, suppleness, tension and spatial awareness. All these seem to equalize themselves, and in the long run, it turns out that positive thinking,perseverance, and thoughtfulness, produce the best results.

Give yourself a break, learn at your speed, enjoy the experience, lighten up.

Physical Integrity

Be heavy and rooted on the bottom, light and supple on top. Don’t move the arms separately form the body, move as one unit, flowing and uninterrupted….No hollows or protrusions, weight down form the coccyx and up from the top of the head. Stretching the spine…tongue touching the roof of the mouth near the top teeth. Relax, relax, breathe, breathe, breathe….

How many times have we heard these and other principles of Tai Chi? How many times do we hear people saying: Why doesn’t Tai Chi work? Or, why aren’t I improving?

Tai Chi isn’t ballroom dancing or flying airplanes. If you forget a few basics of dancing you may look a little clumsy, or at worst step on a few toes. If you forget a few basics of aeronautics you might crash. Tai Chi falls somewhere in the middle. When you forget a few in Tai Chi, you are not doing Tai Chi. You’re sailing in the mud, surfing in the soup, and if you try to use Tai Chi to fight with, without adhering to the principles, you are jogging in a minefield.

Do it right, do it completely, it’s easy, because there’s no rush, there’s no due date.

The classics, the principles, the axioms, in short, the rules of Tai Chi, are readily available in many translations. And there are many, increasingly, good instructors around who will be willing to advise you.

Link each movement to the next without pausing. Link each movement to the next without hesitation or change of speed.

Martial Integrity

Each move in the form has multiple martial functions. As you are doing the moves, make sure that these principles are kept in mind along with the others.

If you are following the basic principles of Tai Chi, you are practicing the martial aspect correctly, and at a certain point in your studies, you can begin to address this aspect more directly.

If you are working on the martial aspect, certain elements need particular attention paid to them.

Imagine an opponent in front of you and begin to focus and issue energy to the center of that opponent. Broaden your awareness of the space around you, and other energy sources.

Pay particular attention to the substantial and to the insubstantial in relation to the issue of energy, and to the neutralization of force.

Don’t get caught up in the dance. Keep your spontaneity and flexibility at all times. Don’t anticipate or plan moves ahead of time, unless practicing a particular point.

Don’t sacrifice the integrity of your position, alignment or balance to achieve some “GOAL”. This is particularly applicable to people who brace to be able to push someone. If you brace, you are double weighted for a moment, and even though you are doing Push hands, you must stay aware that in that position you can be kicked easily where you would least enjoy it.

If you lean in with your head, you can be butted by the opponent’s forehead. If you lose consciousness of the shifting of weight, the opponent may kick you

Always remain aware and sensitive, spontaneous and flexible.

Moral Integrity

It is possible to study Tai Chi for a while, learn many techniques, use many or most of the principles and use strength to become very good at Pushing hands.

Usually, people who do this, have winning as their highest priority. Two things, at least, result from this condition: One is that the practitioner never reaches the highest level. And the other is that this person’s relative success tends to impress others and invalidate the true principles of Tai Chi.

It takes a lot of faith to continue to lose day after day to people you know you can beat if you use your strength.

—If you believe that softness overcomes hardness
—If you believe the yielding wins over clashing
—If you believe that rooting stands above bracing, then faith is exactly what we are talking about.

If you really do not believe these axioms, you should change your martial art. Because, believe me, any Sumo wrestler will be able to push you, when you use muscle strength to push with.

Many of the female Tai Chi players I have talked to, have expressed a fear to really try and push the males. They say that when they occasionally get a push in, the men get upset and push them back very hard. Sometimes hurting them.

This is male ego in one of its nastier manifestations. You would think that every Tai Chi player would be happy to see a validation of the principle of the weak overcoming the strong. Yet, when it happens, most of the strong men become children.

We must take care of our partners in Push hands. Its purpose is to learn, teach, practice; not win, the winning is in the learning.

It is a pleasure to see two people working together in Push hands, going over and over a move to again an understanding of it. Just as it is a drag to watch two people grappling, wrestling and shoving.

Don’t play over the head of your partner and discourage them. And don’t allow others to do it to you.

You learned from others, it’s your turn to teach others.

Never use your abilities in Tai chi as a threat to anyone. And certainly never use it to actually fight until you have exhausted talking, bluffing, threatening and running first. Move and then do as little damage as possible.

Don’t put down other styles, masters or forms that you are not familiar with, and even if you are.

If you are doing very well pushing because of double weighting, bracing the legs, this will not translate into fighting. Tai Chi doesn’t work in the horse stance. At close quarters it leaves one vulnerable.

You can push someone if that’s all you want to do. By abandoning all your defensive integrity to get the push, you will not reach the highest level that way.

If the player who gets pushed over and over, by others who use their strength, continues to practice using the principles of yielding and returning, she/he will sooner of later pass the “strong” one in ability.

It goes without saying that when one uses muscle strength in Tai Chi, one doesn’t get the health/relaxation benefits. (If you use external force you will get external benefits. If you use internal energy, you will get internal benefits).

The tactic agreement in Push hands is that you will both do fixed step, choreographed, (Push, Roll back, Press, Grasp Sparrow’s Tail, etc.) slow movements. If you want to accelerate or upgrade the action, introduce the idea slowly, or tell the other player. Don’t just suddenly kick or jab someone in the throat.

Any level can be played if it is agreed on.

Spiritual Integrity

At some point, you may want to explore meditation in movement. You cannot meditate while you are thinking of the moves or what you are going to do later.

Simplify, think of a light bulb, your “Tan Tien”, your spirit or preferably of nothing.

If you can get through the form without knowing you are doing it, you are on the way to your goal.

It helps to do the form slowly. It may seem too difficult to take an hour to do your form, so just start by doing the form at a speed that would take an hour if you did it all. Stop when you must, but that way you will begin to get the feeling, and perhaps you’ll find yourself going farther than you thought.

Listen to your breath.

Watch yourself do the form from above.

Some like to listen to music when they do the form. Either meditation music, space music or any slow mellow music that soothes the mind.

Some Logic

A freely falling body doesn’t feel the effect of gravity. A standing body feels the effect of gravity as it resists it. A force can only be received if it is resisted.

Inertia is a form of resistance

The lighter /smaller/ less attached a body is, the less effect a force moving against it will have..(Silk and water, get out of the way of a moving force)

The heavier /more attached/ larger a body is, the more effect a force moving against it will have.

Therefore, if a fist crashes into a hand, the hand will jump away undamaged.

If a fist crashes into a large /heavy. static body, (the inertia of that body causing it to tend to stay still), it will tend to cause damage, since the fist hits a small area of the body, focusing all of its force there.

A body that is tense, is attached and static. A body that is relaxed, is unattached and flexible.

When a fist meets a small part of a large body that is unattached, resilient and flexible (meets no resistance), it causes no damage.
Ken Van Sickle


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