Guo-An Feng, with Gary Alberts (photographer)
Wu Chi basic stance.
In T’ai Chi, we want all movements to be initiated with the flow of internal energy-ch’i (qi). And ch’i flows much more efficiently when the body is open. Opening the body, therefore, is fundamental to effective T’ai Chi. Yet, there are many misconceptions about what it means to open the body. To many, it is just a vague concept.
To fully understand openness of the body, one must experience its subtlety on a sensory level. The optimal way to learn about openness is with the aid of good instruction. Words alone are not adequate.
Nevertheless, it is still useful to discuss openness. Hopefully, by understanding how much openness can contribute to your T’ai Chi and other pursuits, you will be encouraged to investigate openness in more depth. Understanding how openness can be developed may further your study, even when a knowledgeable instructor is not available.
Opening the body is about creating more internal space, more space in our joints, muscles, and internal areas. It is about opening the right doors so that our ch’i can flow freely. It is also about creating larger chambers for our ch’i. The more space we can create for our ch’i, the better.
It is also about opening the skin, so that ch’i can flow in and out of the body. Through opening our skin, we can project our ch’i into space beyond our physical bodies.
A primary requirement for opening the body is keeping our muscles soft and relaxed. By relaxing our muscles, we release the tension that binds or constricts our joints and internal spaces.
The goal is to do away with any unnecessary muscular tension. When we relax our muscles, ch’i can flow more easily through our joints, muscles, and other internal spaces. Conversely, an increased flow of ch’i helps create more openness.
However, there is a way of relaxing that is counterproductive. We don’t want to become totally limp and collapsed like a rag doll. Although our muscles are relaxed when we become limp, our bodies lack space and structure. Our joints and internal organs become crowded as they collapse inward. Ch’i flow is inhibited. Indeed, we become more vulnerable to injury because we have no space to absorb blows.
Yet, being open is not simply a matter of extending one’s limbs away from the body, either. Openness has to do with internal space, not external. Indeed, by straining for great extension, one can lock one’s joints and be quite closed internally. Conversely, it is possible to have one’s limbs very close to the body and be quite open internally.
Openness, therefore, involves creating space internally, while keeping one’s muscles soft and relaxed. When the body is relaxed and open, it feels pleasurable. It feels warm and heavy from being relaxed. Yet, it also feels very alive, vibrant, and energetic from being open. One feels both the potential for rapid movement and balanced and relaxed at the same time.
Why Open the Body
Opening the body is fundamental to effective T ‘ai Chi for several reasons. First, you can receive energy more easily when your body is open. With your skin and internal spaces open, you can draw ch’ i directly in from the universe-from the sun, trees, air, etc. You can also use such energy to improve your health.
When you become more adept at opening your body, you can learn to move your ch’i around. By moving your ch’i. you can make some parts of your body empty and other parts full. By making the part of your body that an opponent contacts empty, you can deny him a point to your center of balance.
Thus, when he tries to use power against you, he feels no resistance. He feels a disconcerting void. He finds no resistance, nothing to apply his power to. This is the opposite of resisting with muscles or power. You simply become yin to your opponent’s yang.
Similarly, when your body is open, it is easier to dissipate an opponent’s energy with movement. When your body is open, it will feel light and expansive. And you will move much more easily because you have minimized the resistance of tensed muscles and locked joints. By combining this easy movement with the emptiness discussed above, you can easily dissipate an opponent’s power.
The idea is to let your opponent move you without resisting or helping, as if he were pushing open a door. The challenge is to learn to do so while staying open and maintaining a form that provides you effective defensive or offensive options.
Having an open body also makes it easier to feel or “listen to” an opponent’s intentions. The more open you are, the more you will be able to feel. And the sooner you can sense an opponent’s intentions, the greater advantage you have.
Having an open body also enables one to create a tremendous amount of power from a small expenditure of energy. One example of this is spring force. To generate spring force, one opens one’s muscles and joints and expands them with ch’i to create an elastic, springy quality.
Then, one can load these “springs,” much as a tiger does when it crouches down before jumping. When unleashed, this force is much more powerful than that created by mere muscular contractions. It feels effortless. Furthermore, it requires less energy and generates more speed.
Spring force is one of the elements of explosive power, a topic I discussed more fully in a prior article (See T’Al CHI, Vol. 21, No. 5). The correct use
of one’s ch’i is another powerful element of explosive power. And having an open body is essential for an efficient flow of such ch’i.
Furthermore, an open body and efficient ch’ i flow help relax the body and free it from internal resistance, as mentioned above. This enables one to move with more speed and momentum.
Opening the body is also fundamental to the creation of peng. Peng is not a single posture. It is a type of structure or quality we should incorporate in all our T’ai Chi movements. It involves, among other things, the ability to transfer an opponent’s energy to the ground, as I discussed in a prior article (See T’AI CHI, Vol. 20, No. 6). By transferring an opponent’s force to the ground, we can stay in balance effortlessly.
Balance plays a key role in T’ai Chi. If we are out of balance, we cannot effectively dissipate an opponent’s power or generate our own. With peng, we can stay in balance, both physically and energetically.
There are two elements in creating the structure of peng. One is correct body alignment, body peng. This involves using the proper body mechanics so that we channel an opponent’s power to the ground directly. Some of the fundamentals of correct body alignment are flattening the lower back, bending the knees, and slightly folding at the hips.
Opening the body is an essential component of body peng. By opening the body, we create space within our structure. Our bodies don’t collapse under an opponent’s pressure because we effortlessly maintain an expansiveness through openness. Such structure is stronger and less fatiguing than that created by muscle power.
The other element used in creating structure is ch’i peng. Ch’i peng involves filling with ch’i the space we have created by opening our bodies. This gives one’s peng a softer and more springy feel, like a ball filled with air.
Ch’i peng is most effectively created by allowing ch’i to flow into our internal space, not by forcing or pumping ch’i in. If we force or pump our ch’ i, we have less capacity to use it in other ways, such as in generating explosive power. Furthermore, it is unnecessary to force our ch’i. With an open body, we can create very effective peng with a soft ch’i pressure.
What can make our peng more effective is creating more internal space through openness. The more space we create for our ch’ i, the softer and more springy our peng becomes. As a result, our bones and muscles are felt less by others in contact with us.
The ch’i we use to create ch’i peng can come from various sources. Many people create peng with the ch’i they have stored in their dantians. While this is effective, it is unnecessary. In addition, many tend to get hard and closed when they use dantian ch’i to create peng. Another way to create ch’i peng is to open the skin and draw ch’i from the universe. This is less wasteful and makes it easier to remain soft and open.
Peng should not be viewed as something that makes us rigid, as if we are bound by the structure we’ve created. It is something that we maintain as we move, as we extend or retract our arms, legs, etc.
Peng keeps us from collapsing or yielding to an opponent’s pressure in ways we don’t intend. Peng structure is like a basketball that will not collapse when it is rolled, spun, or bounced. But because our joints are open, we also have the ability to change our basketball’s shape into a football, soccer ball, etc. We can choose the shape that best serves our purpose. And we can combine it with a variety of movements; presses, rotations, rollbacks, etc.
Opening the body is also fundamental to many advanced techniques of manipulating the energy of an opponent. Such techniques, which are beyond the scope of this article, involve directed flows of ch’i. The effective flow of such ch’i is possible only when the body is open.
How to Open the Body
Side view of Wu Chi basic stance.
The easiest way to discover how to open your body is through Wu Chi meditation. Wu Chi means “never ending.” The Wu Chi is the infinite expanse that surrounds us in all directions. During Wu Chi meditation, you allow your body to expand into the infiniteness of the Wu Chi.
Wu Chi meditation is best practiced by maintaining a particular stance over a period of time. The less taxing the stance, the better at first. The goal is to discover the keys to opening your body. If you choose a stance that requires a lot of effort or is painful, you will be too distracted to notice the subtle signs of your body beginning to open. Later, as you become more proficient at opening your body, more challenging stances can be used.
The easiest stance to begin with is simply standing upright with your arms hanging loosely by your sides. Your feet should be parallel, shoulder-width apart, and pointed straight ahead. Your knees and hip joints should be slightly folded and loose. Your lower back should be lengthened and your lumbar arch flattened. Your chest should be relaxed, and your head balanced above your torso, with your chin in a neutral position.
Your goal should be to achieve this stance by relaxing or releasing various parts of your body, rather than by trying to force it. Tensing muscles to achieve the stance defeats the ultimate goal of opening your body.
Over time, many discover habitual patterns of tensing muscles or holding themselves, of which they have long been unaware. Some, for instance, discover that they have been holding their chests puffed up as if in a military posture.
Such a pattern of holding and tensing their muscles makes it impossible to flatten their lower backs. As a result, their mingmens-the major energy gateway in their lower backs-are closed, significantly diminishing the flow of their internal energy. Most people have a number of holding patterns that require careful self-study to release.
A common symptom of holding patterns is the locking of one’s joints. Most people, for instance, habitually lock their knee joints while standing. Ideally, you should use just enough effort that even the additional weight of a feather would cause your knees to slightly flex like a spring. Similarly, when holding your arms outward, you should use no more effort than necessary.
Often, people unnecessarily engage in isometric contractions, pitting one muscle group against another. Such overdoing not only wastes energy, but makes one stiff and slow. Locking a joint, of course, diminishes its internal space and diminishes ch’i flow. It is the antithesis of openness.
Stance emphasizing vertical axis.
Upon assuming a stance for Wu Chi meditation, your first step should be to find your balance. If you are not balanced, you will automatically tense various muscle groups to compensate. It will then be impossible to fully relax and open your body.
The second step is to quiet your mind. When you begin to meditate, your mind might be overactive, jumping from one thought to another. To quiet your mind, count your breaths. Simply count each exhale from one to ten, again and again. If you lose count, calmly start over. Once the mind is focused, it will be easier to attend to the more subtle sensations to be addressed.
The attitude with which you approach Wu Chi meditation is also very important. It is difficult to relax and open if you feel rushed or agitated. A good way to shift to a more relaxed attitude is to wear a slight smile and think of happy thoughts. This will help you to begin to relax your body and open your internal organs.
Once you feel calm, say to yourself, “I’ll keep it.” This simple affirmation will help you retain the desired effect so that you can begin to focus on other things. Use this affirmation after each step in the process below.
The next step is to begin relaxing your body. First, focus on relaxing your body as a whole by saying to yourself, “Relax, relax, relax. . .” Repeat this phrase several times with a gentle intention and simply allow your body to respond. Then, focus on relaxing specific areas of the body.
One way is to start from the head and work your way down your body, repeating the process several times. Another way is to focus on relaxing your internal organs and then work your way outward. Finally, affirm your intention to retain the beneficial changes, by saying, “I’ll keep it.”
After relaxing your muscles, focus on opening your joints. First, focus on open ing your body along a particular axis of the Wu Chi. It is best to begin with the vertical axis that extends through the center of your body into the heavens and under the ground. Start by thinking of how the Wu Chi extends into infinity, both above and below you.
Soon you will begin to feel that your body has no end, too. And then gently think of all the joints of your body along this axis simultaneously opening: your ankles, knees, hips, spinal column, etc. Say to yourself, “Open, open, open . . .”
The idea is to try to open all the joints along a Wu Chi axis at one time. You may discover, however, that some joints do not open as well as others. You may find it useful, therefore, to give special attention to specific joints. For instance, if you have a tendency to keep your knees locked, you can focus specifically on them, saying to yourself, “Open, open, open…”
By patiently allowing your body to change, your joints will begin to open. Calmly form the intention and allow change to occur. If you think too hard or intently, you are more likely to tense up and lock your joints. With a relaxed, gentle mind, you want to walk that fine edge between controlling and not controlling. This is where the magic happens.
Consider learning how to open your joints as a process of discovery. First, you may feel only vague or fleeting sensations. Later, you will become more adept at identifying the landmarks and learn how to reliably find your way. You may also begin to identify shortcuts and dead-ends.
Keep in mind, however, that what we are looking for are subtle sensations, not big, dramatic ones. Remember our goal is effortlessness and balance. If it feels intense, it probably is too intense for our purposes.
After you have become proficient at opening your joints along the vertical axis, you can begin to open along additional axes.
You can, for example, open along the horizontal axis, while holding your arms out to your sides at shoulder
height. Feel your chest, shoulder, and arm joints open out to infinity. Feel your pelvis open horizontally, as well.
Another axis extends through your front and back. Hold your arms forward at shoulder height, as if you were holding a ruler between your palms. Feel the middle of your back, between your shoulder blades and extend backwards as you open your arms forward. By learning how to open along these different axes, you learn to create the space necessary for effective peng. Thus, when you create peng, you can allow ch’i to fill all this space, giving your peng a three-dimensional fullness. When you open your joints, ch’i will begin to flow more easily through your muscles. To further this process, the next step is to focus on opening your muscles.
Again, systematically work from head to toe, repeating the intention “Open, open, open. . .” as you focus on specific muscles. Repeat this sequence as many times as necessary. Allow ch’i and blood to flow into your muscles. Feel them expand with ch’i.
Remember, however, that we are looking for subtle changes, not dramatic ones. Open softly. When completed, intend to “keep it.”
The next step is to focus on opening your skin. Think of your skin as being so open that ch’i flows easily through it. You might begin to feel your hair follicles tingle, as if brushed with an electrostatically-charged object.
Your body will begin to feel very light and expansive, like you are weightless, like you are part of the Wu Chi. And your body may sway or circle over your feet as you further refine your balance. If you are in a breeze, allow your body to sway with it.
At this point, your body is very relaxed and open, and your mind is calm, alert, and sensitive to subtle changes. This is the ideal time to pay
special attention to the flow of ch’i within your body. You may begin to feel your body move slightly with the flow of ch’i. Or it may manifest itself as spontaneous jerks, wiggles, shutters, or gyrations. Allow this to occur without restricting it or initiating it. Remember this feeling. It is extremely valuable.
Allowing your body to be moved by the flow of your internal energy is the first step in learning how to move effortlessly. Once you know how to follow this energy, you can begin to learn how to direct it with your mind. Thus, your mind, internal energy, and body can begin to work in harmony. Such harmony makes all movements more efficient and effortless. This is the harmony that one should strive for when doing the form, push hands, fighting applications, etc.
Some practice T’ai Chi for many years without ever feeling their ch’i because they haven’t learned how to open. Without awareness of their ch’i, they have no means of knowing how to move from the inside, nor how to harmonize their mind, ch’i, and body.
Attending to how your internal energy moves, you should be your ultimate teacher. It is not something an instructor can do for you. It is your direct means of connecting with what T’ai Chi is all about. With it, you can begin to know T’ai Chi for yourself. T’ai Chi becomes more than a catalog of concepts you think you understand from the words of another.
It is very important to complete each meditation session with finishing steps. Ending a meditation session without them can result in headaches, dizziness, disconnectedness, and various aches or pains.
One reason for this is that excess ch’i may stagnate in a certain area of our bodies during meditation. While our goal is to maintain balance and flow during meditation, it is not always possible to do so perfectly. Therefore, unless we intentionally sweep our bodies clear of ch’i built-up after meditating, excess ch’i may get stuck and stagnate in any number of areas. Such excess or imbalance can result in the symptoms listed above.
Another reason to do finishing steps is to return our mind/body closer to its normal state. When we do Wu Chi meditation, we are purposely opening our bodies to many energies in the universe. Some energies in the universe are good for us; others are not, such as cold, wind, pollution, and the negative thoughts of others.
When meditating, we can carefully control which energies we allow in because our attention is very focused. But were we to stay as open when not meditating, we could lose control and unintentionally harm ourselves with bad energy and bad thoughts. Therefore, it is very important that we intentionally close our bodies at the end of each meditation session.
For the same reason, we should only strive during meditation for openness within a certain range of our normal state. Although our goal is to become more open, it is most important that we do so only to the extent that we can maintain control.
The history of ch’i kung is dotted with stories of practitioners who have gone crazy by trying to go too far, too fast. Although this happens very infrequently, it does happen. We can prevent such aberrations by exercising a little common sense and by maintaining a relaxed attitude.
Emphasizing front to back axis.
What value is there in learning how to open our bodies through meditation if we have to limit our range and keep returning to our normal state? The payoff of practice is that our normal state will gradually change. We will gradually become more and more open in our normal state. And each new level of openness that we achieve will be balanced by a higher level of control.
Furthermore, as our normal state gradually becomes more open, we can achieve even deeper levels of openness during our meditation sessions.
The first finishing step is designed to close your skin and disperse stagnant ch’i. To do so, use your mind to direct ch’i from your extremities to your dantian. Simultaneously, brush your hands lightly along your skin or garments in the same area that your mind is focused. Absentmindedly brushing your arms and legs with your hands won’t be as effective. The idea is to use your mind to direct the movement of your ch’i.
The next step is to direct ch’i in clockwise circles around your dantian. As above, you may find it helpful to use your hands to help focus your mind. Do 36 circles that progressively grow in circumference. This step helps to disperse ch’i from your dantian. When you are done, say to yourself. “I’ll keep it.”
Finally, walk slowly around your practice area for about five minutes to dissipate any remaining excess ch’i. Let your arms swing loosely, alternately striking softly the kidney area of your lower back with the back of your hands. Release your mind from focusing on ch’i and allow it to return to its normal state.
Wu Chi meditation can be powerful and should not be left half-completed. If, for any reason, you are interrupted during your session, be sure to complete the finishing steps as soon as possible. It can make a big difference in the quality of the rest of your day.
Because Wu Chi meditation can be so powerful and because it requires careful control, start with short sessions. Later, as you progress, the best results can be obtained by devoting up to an hour a day to it. Nevertheless, an overriding principle is to devote only as much time as balance in your life permits. And be sure to schedule sufficient time to complete the finishing steps.
Opening the body is fundamental to effective T’ai Chi. And, like T’ai Chi, it is not quickly mastered. It has great depth and potential. Over many years of practice, you may unlock many of its secrets and mysteries. The rewards will be well worth your effort..
Guo-An Feng teaches in San Francisco, CA.