Tai chi can be used as a powerful form of Taoist moving meditation, which starts with balancing the emotions—that is, the emotional energy body. Tai chi can also be practiced to acquire martial arts skill and as a health system.
The latter is what you might see people doing in the park. Although tai chi can also be practiced as meditation, almost all forms widely available are NOT directly connected with a meditation tradition. So if you practice tai chi, you will want to be aware of these distinctions.
Since the Wu Style Tai Chi Instructor Training is coming soon, I thought it would be useful to talk about tai chi and how it connects with emotional well being and specifically the Taoist meditation tradition.
Tai chi done for martial arts or health may have meditative aspects because, well, that is the nature of tai chi. Then, there is tai chi that is part of a more complete system that leads to meditation, which is almost completely unknown in the West.
In this case, tai chi becomes a part of a much larger game: that of spirituality.
When you practice spiritual tai chi, you will inevitably have to work with your emotional body.
What Is Meditation?
Many people have different ideas about that which can be called “meditation,” so if you want to make the distinction of practicing tai chi for meditation, you must start by examining the question: What is meditation?
In the Taoist Water Tradition, the practitioner aims to peel away all that is false, so it’s helpful to consider that which meditation is NOT.
Just having a calm mind is not meditation. Yes, having a calm mind is important to meditate, but it does not encompass all that meditation can do for you. So, in the same vein, meditation is not simple stress reduction either.
Today, many people use the term meditation when they are really aiming for peace of mind and stress relief. These are important benefits of meditation, but they are not the end game.
So if meditation is not a calm mind or a state devoid of stress, then what is it?
From the Taoist perspective, genuine meditation is that which leads you toward complete spiritual awakening.
Meditation practices can calm you down and sooth unbalanced emotions—to a certain degree—but if you wish to resolve what lies at the depth of your emotions, traumas, essential dissatisfaction with life and the blockages lodged deep inside your unconscious mind, only then can you begin the real work of meditation.
Smoothing Your Emotions
In terms of a meditative practice, all tai chi encompasses meditative movement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has the power to penetrate to the core of your being.
You need a specific methodology for this depth of practice, which goes far beyond thinking about being relaxed, releasing daily stress and feeling better about yourself.
A tai chi practitioner could manifest extremely smooth movement that looks like what many people would call meditation and yet the person could still be a raging volcano inside and/or spiritually disconnected.
The classic example within the tai chi tradition is Yang Cheng Fu’s older brother, Yang Shao Ho, from the third generation of the Yang family. He was small, a dramatically better tai chi practitioner than Yan Cheng Fu and in terms of martial arts, the guy was just a fire cracker. Well, he ended up committing suicide. This is not the sign of an emotionally healthy person.
Likewise, if we look back to the lifetime of the original Yang founder and his two sons, one of his sons tried to hang himself as a result of the pressure he felt from his father to become an exceptional martial artist. Fortunately, he did not succeed, but obviously he was not emotionally healthy even though he trained tai chi at a very high level.
Both of these individuals could probably take more pressure in their daily lives than most of us could imagine in the West, but at the depth of their emotions, something was rotten or shall we say unresolved.
A genuine spiritual person, who has gone through the purification process, the process of clearing out, balancing and releasing everything at the absolute depth of their emotions, does not share this negative quality – they have done the inner work to heal or resolve the inner blocks.
Some people, who are exceptionally competent in the world (business, family, government) and appear to be smooth on the surface, are actually emotionally disturbed at their core. Meditative practice will help them to cope with the stresses involved with living a life, but to truly discover happiness, balance and harmony, they will have to deal with the deeper emotional energies. Few practices offer the ability to do this, Tai chi does.
Tai Chi to Balance Your Emotions
All the major styles of tai chi—Yang, Wu, Chen, Hao and combination styles—can help you deal with surface-level emotions, calm you down, release the stress lodged inside your nervous system and maintain your overall health and well-being.
Attaining these health and emotional benefits are the reasons why 95 percent of all people practice tai chi.
However, if you want to practice a style of tai chi that has within it a meditation tradition, then the style you choose is critically important. The style matters.
The only style for which I’m aware that has a meditation aspect is the Wu style of Tai Chi. Although I’m also a lineage holder in the Yang style, I teach the Wu style taught to me by my teacher Liu Hung Chieh, a Taoist master, almost exclusively for this reason.
Many people have asked me to teach the Yang style since I came back from China in the 1980s. However, I’ve always focused on the Wu style because I learned the whole Taoist meditation tradition within it, which, ultimately, is more valuable for people than obtaining any-high performance characteristics to become a superlative martial artist.
I should mention that I’m not referring to the Wu style martial arts tradition. My teacher Liu studied with Wu Jien Chang, the founder of the Wu style who also happened to be a practicing Taoist.
However, he never taught the Taoist meditation material within his tai chi form. He incorporated what he knew for his personal practice, but Liu learned the Taoist meditation aspect separately while living in Sichuan Province for 10 years.
I once had a conversation with Yang Shou Zhong, who was the great grandson of the original Yang. We were moving furniture one weekend, and I asked him about meditation.
He said, “Look, I can’t tell you about it. My family has never practiced Taoist meditation.”
At that time, I assumed that he had studied Taoist meditation because he was an exceptional tai chi student. He confirmed that the Yang family had never done Taoist meditation with, “We practice qigong and there are parts of qigong in martial arts that have great similarities to Taoist meditation, but our system is based on martial arts and qigong—not meditation.”
When I studied with Feng Zhi Qiang (Feng Zhiqiang) in China, he was pretty much the top Chen style practitioner at that point. He is particularly famous for his Push Hands skills and created a well-respected short form. I once made a reference to the Chen style and meditation, and he stopped me, “No, the Chen style is not meditation. It’s qigong that can lead you in the direction of meditation. If you only want to learn meditation, you must go to a meditation master.”
He made it very clear that the Chen style did not have a meditation tradition. Like Yang, he left no ambiguity.
I am just reporting what I found from those I learned from in China. Can you practice any style of tai chi and integrate meditation. Absolutely, yes.
However, traditionally I found the Taoist meditation tradition completely integrated within the Wu Style form. That is now what I teach. The Wu Style has smaller movements enabling you to focus on what is happening inside (rather than larger external movements).
It should be obvious that each style has its own special characteristics–which is why there are different styles. Meditation can be a key feature of the Wu Style with the right teacher. Spiraling movements would be a key feature of the Chen Style. It depends what you are looking for in your practice.
Two Stages of Tai Chi as Meditation
If you want to practice tai chi as a spiritual art, then the first stage of practice is about releasing stress—just like all training in Taoism. Then, the “enlightenment process,” as we’ll call it, can begin from this space. Just as you must learn how to read and write in primary school before you can take on the more advanced work in later years.
Ordinary tai chi, or any form of tai chi that is not leading toward the enlightenment process or the depths of spirituality, cannot really be called meditation.
Even still, ordinary tai chi can balance the energy channels of your body, and the energy moving between your internal organs and glands. So with that tai chi can positively influence negative emotions.
Then, again, emotions can be triggered by more than a biological response if you have underlying anger, fear, grief—you name it. If you have more of these underlying negative emotions, then, generally, it will take very little to make you feel bad. You may become prone to emotional outbursts or implosions because there is confusion in your energy channels, the energy moving between your internal organs may not be moving smoothly, glandular secretions can be interrupted—basically, everything in your body is out of whack.
So, for example, if you were having a bad hair day, you may have just put on a hat and let it ride, but instead you find yourself tearing out your hair and going berserk. Let’s not even consider what might happen if that guy on the road cuts you off again! My point is the way in which the energy inside your body is working can make you prone toward a happy face or an unhappy face.
Ordinary Tai Chi: How Healthy Is It?
If you practice tai chi as an ordinary art, then you have to consider the underlying principles of that form and the ways in which your practice can affect your system.
For example, if you practice any form of tai chi with very, very slow-motion movements, the question is: Will it lock into your system a depressive mode? Moving very slowly can bring on the symptoms of depression for someone with the proclivity. However, that person could practice the same form in a way that could lift the depression.
Take a person who practices a lot of Push Hands or the Chen style with its many explosive movements who also has a tendency toward rising anger. Well, anger and explosiveness are tightly physiologically linked. How can you practice in a way that you don’t incite the anger?
A good teacher is going to make all the difference in this situation because the necessary adjustments can be made based on an understanding of the internal mechanisms at play.
Yang Sho Ho, who committed suicide, could manifest incredible explosive energy, throwing people against walls when pushing hands. He used to break the bones of his practice partners all the time when he pushed hands with them. The anger went to the extreme, and all extremes turn to their opposite.
When yang goes to its extreme, it turns yin and when yin goes to its extreme, it turns yang. The yang of all that explosiveness set him up for the depression that followed.
Now we have a much bigger issue though—depth of emotion. Some emotions get lodged in the subconscious mind, very deep, self-destructive emotions that can make people completely dysfunctional. Ordinary tai chi can smooth it out a bit by balancing the energy of the body, but the internal mechanisms also need a way of releasing and clearing. So the second stage is when we approach tai chi as a meditation and this goes much deeper to look at and clear emotional blockages.
Clearing Emotional Blockages
Taoist meditation employs two techniques for rooting out and clearing negative motions. The first is a general cleansing and the other is used to deal with a specific emotion.
Even if you have a specific problem—depression, fear, greed, insecurity, extreme arrogance, or a really horrible event that happened in your life—you can just continue on clearing out everything in general until eventually you get rid of the problem.
However, for some people, they may want or need to go for the specific problem to get some relief from the fear, grief, pain, etc. that their experiencing.
If you have a giant boil on your arm, you can try to improve the health of your skin, but it’s going to make a lot more sense to choose a treatment that goes straight for the boil at that moment in time. In the Water method of Taoism, Lao’s Tse’s tradition, you can make use of agendas when dissolving for specific problems. I have written several books about Taoist meditation and agendas so I can’t go into it here. What you can do is combine the Taoist Meditation methods with your tai chi.
Practicing Tai Chi as Meditation
Maybe it’s because I’m growing older, but I’ve come to realize that the greatest problems that plague people have nothing to do with their health. I continue to teach all of the health and martial arts applications for tai chi. Saying this, more and more I am offering the meditation tradition in my trainings because I feel this is going to be the most useful tool for people as they develop their tai chi practice.
This summer, I’ll teach a month-long instructor training on the Wu Style Short Form, where I’ll introduce more elements of Taoist meditation in the Wu style of tai chi, going deeper than I have in previous trainings. Hope to see you there or at a future retreat.