‘SUBSTANCE’ in Yang-Style Tai Chi


Yang-style Tai Chi had its roots in the successful martial art routine developed by Yang for training competitors in hand-to-hand fighting. The routine is performed as a gentle, slow and graceful routine, found to be excellent exercise because it uses every joint and muscle in the body together with providing excellent exercise for the brain via the learning process. While there is no intention of teaching ‘hard’ martial arts in this discussion, it is useful to refer here to the significance of the hard martial art movements to maximise the exercise benefits.

Learning and practising the routine of the Tai Chi form offers major health benefits. Just doing Tai Chi will give some benefits and it is not fundamental that students perform the movements precisely - everyone will differ to some extent in how they perform it. For those with more Tai Chi experience, adding substance is the next step towards refining their Tai Chi and gaining more of the potential exercise benefits together with mental satisfaction from the continuous flow.  Experienced students are able to begin to refine their tai chi.

What is Substance? Senior Master Chi Min says learning Tai Chi is in two stages: -
1.    The form: This comprises the basic movements and their sequence.
At Celestial, the Yang-style Tai Chi form with its 108 movements is taught in six levels spread over a year. This is to give students time to learn the basic movements and their sequence in the routine. Learning the routine requires significant mental and physical focus and offers the realistic prospect of health benefits.

2.    The substance: This is refinement of the manner in which the movements are done - not what is done but how it should be done. Incorporating substance into one’s Tai Chi is 3-fold:
•    Cultivation of Qi (energy)
•    Cultivation of Qing (strength)
•    Cultivation of Shen (Spirit)

Key principles of Tai Chi substance.  When Grand Master Eng Chor was appointed an international Tai Chi judge, I asked him what were the main factors to be considered in assessing competitors. His reply was along the following lines: -

  1. Slow, continuous and flowing movements with no posturing.
  2. Each movement must go through the final posture of the respective martial art movement.
  3. The finish of each movement should be readily visible, clean and not blurred into the next.
  4. Energy is applied (‘focussing the chi’).
  5. The energy input should not be visible to the observer.

Implementation of Tai Chi Substance
1.  Continuous: There must be no pause or posturing between movements. This links the sequential movements into one smooth, graceful and flowing routine. This is a new and beneficial challenge for the brain, adding a feeling of satisfaction in performance of the routine.

2.    Tempo and flow: The pace of each component of the movement must be slow, gradual, steady and controlled by the brain, not by the normal reflexes, i.e.
-    arm movements generally dictate the steady tempo and continuity of flow
-    weight transfer occurs gradually and only with both feet in contact with the ground
-    stepping and kicking of the feet are slow and deliberate
-    turning/bending of the body is controlled
-    twisting of the spine brings the core strength muscles into play
-    the gradual re-orientation and strengthening/relaxing of the hands is so gradual it is hardly noticeable, but the position and orientation of the hands generally signify the finish of the movement, its martial basis and giving much expression to it.

3.  Show the final posture of the martial art movement: Going through the final posture of the martial art movement is a key factor in maximising benefits from the exercise while still maintaining continuity and tempo.

4.  Co-ordination: The various components of the movement must be co-ordinated to reflect the purpose of the martial art movement, e.g. the ‘Brushed Knee’ movement represents one hand blocking a kick and a strike to the front with the other hand. The relative timing of the components is crucial for coordination and reflecting development of maximum power in the martial movement.

5.   The visible finish: The finish of the movement must be clearly visible. At first glance this appears to present a conundrum – how can the finish of each movement be shown clearly if there is continuous flow? The answer lies mainly in timing and coordination of the components of the movement to reflect the final instant of the martial art movement, e.g. consider the final posture for a push/strike to the face as in the ‘Brushed knee’ and the relativity to a martial art strike and delivery of maximum power at the instant of impact by coinciding finish of: -
•    the turn of shoulders, hips, head and body
•    weight transfer
•    straightening of the striking arm to off-lock
•    positioning of the arms, hands, fingers in particular
•    strengthening of muscles throughout – right from the back heel
•    exhaling.
Then continuing through the movement into the next without pause, gradually relaxing the muscles.

6.   Energy input: Energy should be applied gently and gradually up to the key point of the movement, e.g. the imaginary contact of the strike in ‘brushed knee’, and applied in all parts of the body where the muscles are used for that martial application - right from the back heel through the legs, back, shoulders, arms and hands, but not enough energy to be obvious to the observer. Then continue on through, relaxing all the muscles and flowing into the next movement. This is good, gentle toning and stretching exercise for muscles, joints, ligaments and attachments, and it also assists greatly in showing the finish of the movement. Continue without pause and flow into the next movement.
To get a feel of the application of energy, in practice put more energy into it – imagine you are striking hard through a suspended basketball, and feel all the muscles in use in doing it!

Bob Maver (Retired Executive Instructor)
Celestial Tai Chi College