Damo’s Taijiquan Study
Damo Mitchell is widely known as a teacher of Daoism, Qi Gong and Nei Gong. These are the main subjects that he has been teaching internationally on workshops and courses. What is not so well known is that Damo studied Taijiquan (Tai Chi) before he began his studies of Nei Gong and these studies have continued for many years. Taijiquan is Damo’s favourite subject to teach as he enjoys the interactive nature of Taiji training and in particular Tui Shou or ‘pushing hands’.
Damo has studied Yang style Taijiquan with numerous teachers from within various lines. He has studied within the Zhen Manqing, Huang Xingxian, Nanpai and Tian Zhaolin lines. These are all variations of the Yang family tradition and each manifests the Yang principles in a unique manner. Alongside this Damo has studied Daoist Taijiquan, Chen village style Taijiquan and Hunyuan Taijiquan from the line of Feng Zhiqiang. Study across these lineages has given Damo a varied and extensive understanding of Taijiquan principles and application. He now focuses upon the Yang line with students of the school beginning with the Huang Xiangxian system before moving onto other expressions of the Yang family tradition.
The beauty of Taijiquan training is that it is based upon two of the simplest and yet, at the same time, elusive qualities: Sung and Ting. Sung is the progressive release of tension from the body and mind whilst Ting is the absorption of the awareness into the processes inherent within all aspects of being. Only when a person has managed to apply Sung and Ting to the structure of Taijiquan will they attain the ability to mobilise Qi in the form of Jin. Once a student can do this the they have ‘entered the door’ of Taijiquan study; a stage very few modern day practitioners manage to reach due to poor transmission of Taiji teachings.
The Lotus Nei Gong syllabus for Taijiquan begins by teachings students the principles of Sung and Ting. These principles are applied to various drills before the Taijiquan form is studied. Alongside this students study pushing hands, a partner drill designed to manifest the results of Sung and Ting in a tangible and directly experiential manner. These elements together provide a rounded way of developing expertise in Taijiquan.
Taijiquan is truly a jewel of Chinese culture and an art form which has sadly become watered down over the generations. It is Damo’s wish that more students have access to authentic Taiji teachings and that the art form continues to develop as an internal form of personal cultivation rather than a bad quality wrestling sport which is what it seems destined to become right now.
Progression in Taijiquan
Within Lotus Nei Gong we initially begin students with a study of the 37 posture sequence of Huang Xingxian. This is the sequence of Taijiquan that Damo has studied since the age of 14, initially with his father then later with various teachers within the Huang and Zheng Manqing lineages across the west and South East Asia. This aspect of the training highly emphasises the skills of Sung and Ting whilst building structure and fluidity around the key postures of the Yang family tradition.
As students become used to the concepts of Sung and Ting they are introduced to Tui Shou or ‘pushing hands’ though perhaps ‘pushing’ is not the best word to describe the practice. Students study the meaning of the terms stick, adhere, join and follow as these are the key tenets of the Taijiquan style. Force is studied as it moves between two people and students learn how to absorb, neutralise and return this force through maintenance of Zhong Ding or ‘central equilibrium’.
Though Huang’s Taijiquan transmission is profound, it is not necessarily ‘complete’ with regards to the Yang family tradition. For this reason advanced students progress onto the more complex form within our school which is an amalgamation of the principles of Yang Chenfu and Yang Shaohou via the teachings of Tian Zhaolin. A great deal more emphasise is placed upon the more complex aspects of the system including development of the ‘drumskin’ throughout the body and transmission of martial forces. This is a very intricate and challenging form of the Yang family art which takes a long time to learn.
Three Main Stages of Study
The first level of study in our system involves the short 37 posture form of Huang Xingxian. The emphasis at this stage is upon correct structure, the releasing of the joints, progressive levels of internal sinking and the cultivation of Ting. This is the foundation level and generally takes students round three years of regular study to get to grips with it. During this time they will study forms, principles, pushing hands drills and Taiji forces or ‘Jins’.
The second stage in our system is the longer form which focuses upon development of internal force through cultivation of Peng and ‘silk pulling’ power. The martial aspects of the system are emphasised here so those interested in Taijiquan purely for health generally stay at the first stage of our syllabus. More intricate aspects of Tui Shou are studied along with martial skills and focused adjustment of power lines in the body. This is classical Yang family Taijiquan for martial prowess.
The third stage on our syllabus is the study of the Jian or ‘straight sword’. This is the level of refinement. At this point in our syllabus we study the nature of the Yi, focus and adjustment of the skills studied at stage two in order to refine our Jin. Studying each of the three stages in Lotus Nei Gong’s Taijiquan syllabus must be done in sequence if students are ever to comprehend the teachings of Taijiquan.
Damo Mitchell Taijiquan Sequences
Taijiquan Internal Forces
One of the more controversial aspects of Taijiquan is the study and application of internal forces known as ‘Jin’. To issue these forces is known as ‘Fa Jin’. Taijiquan Fa Jin methods are an aspect of the internal arts which many no longer believe in, let alone practice. Sat at the midpoint between a Nei Gong method and a martial tool, Fa Jin teaches a Taijquan practitioner to express their internal power into a partner/opponents structure primarily during the practice of Tui Shou or pushing hands.
Within the practice of internal arts mechanics such as muscular contraction, leverage and percussive force are minimised in favour of learning how to express power as a conductive force through the soft tissues of the body. The basis of the development of this skill is relaxation of the body according to six progressive stages of release along with specific mental awareness qualities. The overriding terms for these qualities are ‘Ting’ and ‘Sung’.
Taijiquan’s martial strategy is to control the opponent upon contact. This means that from the initial connection of arms, the Taijiquan practitioner relates to the opponents force and neutralises it through subtle internal adjustments; this is a skill known as Hua Jin or ‘transformative Jin’. This adheres to the classical Taijiquan tenet of ‘leading an opponents force into emptiness’. Once again, these skills are studied through the platform of Tui Shou and then extrapolated out from the drill into a more martial context. Within Tui Shou they are amplified to the point of clear visual result and then when applying the skills into more martial contexts the skills are more subtle and take place on a deeper level.
These skills are used to control (Na) the opponents structure so that a gap can be found within their defence and a strike applied through the use of short, disruptive type internal strikes. All of this strategy and skill is developed through deep internal work and classical forms practice.
An Abstraction on Combat
Taijiquan philosophy is based around the principles of Yin and Yang mutually coexisting with one another as well as the study of the forces known as Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou and Kao. These are eight methods of manipulating pressures and energies within the body in order to govern the way in which two people may relate. This relationship is studied within the context of conflict but of course can easily be applied to the rest of life as well. This is why Taijiquan was long considered a jewel within the vast pantheon of Chinese arts; it is as much a form of meditative self cultivation as it is a study of violence.
Many now see these eight key methods as techniques meaning that they have missed the point by a mile. Taijiquan does indeed have ‘techniques’ like all other martial arts but these are secondary to the develop of Gong; true skill within the study of the internal.
Tui Shou (Pushing Hands)
An important element of Taijiquan practice is Tui Shou or ‘pushing hands’. In modern times Tui Shou is sadly often removed entirely from Taiji training or else turned into a form of low quality wrestling. In actual fact, Tui Shou is a two-person flow drill designed to enable practitioners of the internal arts to study and apply internal forces. In the practice both parties work towards learning how to root and redirect force from the other whilst releasing Jin through their partners body. In this way the passing of Jin through the soft tissues becomes amplified into a more tangible force which can uproot the partner.
These skills are studied within the framework of Tui Shou and then taken out of the drill and applied in a more subtle and martially applicable manner. At this stage the skills of Zhan, Nian, Lian and Sui or ‘stick, adhere, join and follow’ become apparent within the Taiji practitioners contact work.
Peng, Lu, Ji and An
Within Taijiquan training the four key qualities of touch are known as Peng (expansion/uprooting), Lu (sinking/rolling back), Ji (squeezing/pressing) and An (suppressing). Within Tui Shou training we amplify and train these four qualities on an individual basis but in the later stages of training we apply all four qualities simultaneously upon making contact with an opponent. This serves to disrupt the opponents tactile awareness making it difficult for them to read your structure. These four qualities then form the basis for governing the bridge (contact points) within any partner work or conflict.
The development of Peng, Lu, Ji and An has little to do with external structure or technique but rather they are developed through systematically releasing inherent tensions at various levels within the body. The release of tensions generates ‘space’ within the body which is then systematically ‘filled’ with expansion of the springy soft tissues through repeated standing practice commonly known as Zhan Zhuang. In order to maintain and develop the qualities of Peng, Lu, Ji and An within Taijiquan we then study these powers within the classical forms of the style.