How to Understand and Apply the 10 Essentials

Zhang Fuxing

The well-known 10 Essentials of T’ai Chi Ch’uan were dictated by Yang Chengfu and put down in writing by one of his senior students named Chen Weiming.

It is generally acknowledged that they are of vital importance to every T’ai Chi practitioner, no matter what form or which style one has learned or is learning. That is to say, every T’ai Chi practitioner should have an overall understanding and mastery of these important principles, and apply them to daily practice, so as to acquire an ideal effect.

For the convenience of T’ai Chi practitioners, as well as enthusiasts, I am now trying to offer a somewhat detailed but easy to understand interpretation of the 10 Essentials.

1. Reach the Top of the Head Upward

“Reach the top of the head upward” is also called “Lifting the top of thehead” or “Suspending the top of the head.” All these technical terms are applied in qigong, as well.

In the light of Yang Chengfu’s explanation, “Reach the top of the head upward” means to hold the head and neck upright and keep the head in a slightly rising manner, as if it were suspended at the top from above. This indicates that when you reach the top of the head upward, you are required not to put forth external strength. Just use your mind-intention to do that.

Yang clearly told us: “Never exert force. If you use force instead of mind to reach the top of your head upward, your neck will become tense and stubborn, and the flow and circulation of your qi and blood will be affected adversely.”

Truly, the practice of T’ai Chi sets strict demands on the position of the head and neck. During the process of performing, your head and neck should always be kept in a straight state, but without any tension and stiffness. The movement of the head and neck must be in unison with the turning of the torso and the change of the body’s direction and position.

What is even more important is that the neck muscles must remain relaxed, and the head not be allowed to bend forward or lean backward, or tilt to the left or right.

For instance, when you are doing the postures such as “Needle at Sea Bottom,” and “Snake Creeps Down,” you should beware of bowing your head. And when you are doing the posture of “Wave Hands like Clouds,” you should avoid your head wagging left and right. Such mistakes quite often occur in the performance of some practitioners, especially beginners.

Practice proves that only when you are able to reach the top of your head upward in the proper way (e.g., the top of your head feels as if it were suspended from above) can the above-mentioned requirements be achieved.

Practice also shows that this point, “Reach the top of the head upward,” not only has a great and direct influence on the relaxation of the entire body and mind and on the circulation of the blood and qi, but also is closely connected with other items of the 10 Essentials. So it is absolutely necessary to take it seriously.

2. Hold the Chest Slightly In and Keep the Back Slightly Rounded

This set of technical terms is also applied in both T’ai Chi and qigong. “To hold the chest slightly in,” Yang said, “can make the qi sink down to the dantian naturally.” He said that in practicing T’ai Chi, “you must shun protruding your chest. If the chest is thrown out, the qi will come up and crowd in the chest. This will result in a top-heavy state of your body, and you will be easily toppled over.”

“To keep the back slightly rounded” is closely related with “To hold the chest slightly in.” Yang said: “So soon as your chest is held in, your back will become rounded automatically.

When the back is rounded, the qi will be able to nestle up against the back; then your intrinsic energy that can be discharged through the spine will be tremendously powerful, and you will be unmatched anywhere.”

“Hold the chest slightly in and keep the back slightly rounded” can be achieved naturally through a deep and long exhalation.

It is considered that the state of the chest and back that occurs just as you finish a deep and long exhalation is the best condition required in “holding the chest slightly in and keeping the back slightly rounded.”

Whether you are doing solo practice or push hands training, you must keep your chest and back in the required condition; otherwise, the qi will well up in the chest, causing the upper part of the body to be heavy, the lower part light, and the feet unable to take firm steps.

In order to make the required condition of the chest and back come into being easily, it is advisable to change chest breathing into natural abdominal breathing.

What is called natural abdominal breathing is to gently expand your lower abdomen outward as you breathe in, and to slowly contract your abdominal muscle as you breathe out. This can be of great help in sinking the qi down to the dantian and keeping your chest and back in the required condition.

3. Relax the Waist and Loosen the Hips

“The waist,” Yang said, “plays a dominating role throughout the whole process of T’ai Chi practice. If you can relax your waist, you will be able to have a strong base, and your feet will become stable and forceful.”

The waist serves as the connection of the upper part and lower part of the of the body. In practicing, not only the coordination of the arms and legs but also the control of the center of gravity and the maintaining of balance must be achieved through the waist.

The waist is generally likened to the axle of a vehicle. Yang said that all the movements, including alternations between “emptiness” and “solidness” and change of direction should pivot on the waist.

It is your waist that brings your torso, your four limbs, and all other parts of your body to act together as an integrated whole.

So you must give special heed to your waist at all times, and keep it in a relaxed state with the sacrum right in the middle. Otherwise, it will be incapable of playing the pivotal role in your performance, and, consequently, the discordance of the movements of your four limbs and torso will inevitably arise.

However, the relaxing of the waist is inseparable from the loosening of the hips. You can hardly acquire a real relaxation of the waist without loosening your hips.

The so-called “loosen the hips” mainly means to loosen the joints of the hips. When your waist is relaxed and your hips are loosened, your legs and feet will feel light, flexible, and full of energy. It will be easier to get the qi to sink down, and your movements will become nimble, steady, and harmonious.

So you must try your best to keep your waist relaxed and your hips loosened during practice, particularly when your movements are under the transidon from “emptiness” to “solidness.”

But it must be kept in mind that relaxing the waist and loosening the hips should be done by using mind-intention rather than muscular force. If you use force, your waist will likely become more tense and dead-locked.

What is more, you will very easily cause your buttocks to appear in a protruding state, which is regarded as taboo to the art of T’ai Chi. In addition, while doing the postures such as “Needle at Sea Bottom” and “Snake Creeps Down,” you should avoid bowing your waist too much.

4. Distinguish Between Emptiness and Solidness

Yang said, “It is of the foremost importance to distinguish between emptiness and solidness while practicing T’ai Chi.” Referring to the question about what is “emptiness” and what is “solidness,” he illustrated with an example that if your “whole body’s weight is resting on the right leg, then the right leg is solid and the left leg is empty, and vice versa:”

“If you can distinguish between emptiness and solidness,” Yang said, “the movements of your legs and the turning of your body will be light, nimble, and effortless; if you fail to do so, then you will be hard to make steps, unable to stand steady, and easy to be uprooted.”

Distinction between emptiness and solidness is easier said than done. It is really a very complicated problem, since in the process of practice all the movements and postures and most parts of your body are inevitably involved in the question of distinguishing between emptiness and solidness.

According to the requirement of distinguishing between emptiness and solidness, during the practice, both your arms and legs should be constantly alternating between emptiness and solidness in a united action.

Each movement should be carried out in such a condition in which two opposite and yet complementary elements (or forces) — namely emptiness and solidness, or softness and firmness, or Yin and Yang — are always holding each other up, while also unceasingly transforming from each other.

This is just like what the Tai Chi symbol shows: Yin-Yang opposites unite; there is Yin in Yang, and Yang in Yin. Namely, emptiness and solidness unite, and there is emptiness in solidness, and solidness in emptiness. This means that there is no absolute emptiness or solidness. Both of them are relative.

Then, how does one distinguish between emptiness and solidness? Regarding the legs, it is generally thought that the leg that is bearing the weight or the leg that is making an “attack” is considered to be solid, and the other one is empty.

For example, in the “bow step” stance, the front leg that is taking most of the weight is solid and the rear leg is empty. In the posture of “Kick with Heel,” the leg that is undertaking the “kick” action is considered to be solid, and the other one is empty.

Distinction between emptiness and solidness in referring to the legs is closely related to the shifting of weight, so special attention should be paid to the shifting of your weight during practice.

Regarding the arms/hands, it is generally thought that the arm/hand that gives expression to the substance of the movement is considered to be solid, and the arm/hand that takes subsidiary or concerted action is considered to be empty.

For instance, in the posture of “Intercept and Punch,” the right hand that has turned into a fist and is assuming the “punch” action is solid, and the left hand that is attaching to the inside of the right forearm is empty.

In the posture of “Wild Horse Waves Its Mane,” the arm/hand that is moving forward and upward along with the body’s move and turn is considered to be solid, and the other arm/hand that is descending to the side of the hip is empty.

In practicing, the “solid” leg or arm and the “solid” movement itself are required to be steady and substantial; the “empty” leg or arm and the “empty” movement itself are required to be light and agile.

Remember that only when you distinguish between emptiness and solidness clearly, can you then maintain good equilibrium and avoid those common .defects, such as double-weighting, discontinuity, faltering, heaviness and clumsiness, and practice in a calm, nimble, smooth, and continued y.

5. Sink the Shoulders and Droop the Elbows

Yang said, “To sink the shoulders eans to have the shoulders loosen and no down. To droop the elbows means to let the elbows go down and keep them in a drooping state.”

When engaging the practice, you should consciously keep your shoulders relaxed and sunk. If you fail to do so, Yang said, “your shoulders will be squared or shrugged; then the qi will rise up. If you retain qi in your chest, your body will float, and your arms and legs will become heavy, feeble, and clumsy.”

Your elbows should always be kept relaxed and drooped. What is extremely important is that when you move your arm, you should let the tip of the elbow point down as far as possible.

It is because the elbow is so closely eelated to the shoulder that the moment the tip of the elbow raises up, the shoulder will become squared or shrugged.

So you must guard against raising the tips of your elbows during practice, especially when your arms are moving apart from each other horizontally to both sides of your body, or when you are doing the movements in the posture of “Wave Hands like Clouds.”

The hand/arm movements often produce an immediate influence on the shoulders and elbows. In practicing, if you stretch your hand to excess, you will likely have your arm straightened completely, thus making the sinking of the shoulder and the drooping of the elbow impossible.

On the other hand, the sinking of the shoulder and the drooping of the elbow also must be conducted properly. If they are overdone, your arm will be inevitably crooked unduly, which is also incorrect and should be avoided.

During the process of practice, your arms are always required to bend a little, to keep them in an arc-shape. That is to say, your elbows should never straighten completely, nor bend unduly.

While discussing how to correctly deal with the shoulders and elbows, as well as the arm movements, we cannot help but refer to the demands on the hand and wrist.

According to the fundamental principles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, when you push your hand forward, you should let your palm open out with the fingers slightly curved and the wrist slightly bent up.

When you draw your hand backward, you should let your palm slightly contract with the wrist slightly bent down. You may learn and grasp these skills through practicing some basic movements, such as “Press” and “Push.,,

6. Use the Mind Instead of Force

Yang pointed out: “It is said in the Classics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan that, ‘You must use the mind instead of force to direct all the physical movements.’ When you are practicing, relax your entire body completely. Do not let any external, awkward strength remain in the muscles, bones, as well as blood vessels to tie yourself up, so that you will be able to handle your body and the four limbs at will, and your movements will be light and nimble.”

Yang said that maybe there are some people who raise the question: “If you don’t use energy, how can you develop energy?” In answer to this question, he said that in the human body there are many “channels and subsidiary channels” (generally known as “meridians,” in English), which may be compared to the irrigation canals and ditches in the fields.

Just as the water can flow unceasingly to irrigate the fields when the canals and ditches are not blocked, the qi (vital energy) will be able to flow freely throughout the body when those “channels” are not stuffed up. If those “channels” in the body are filled with awkward muscular force, the qi and blood will stagnate, and the movement, of the body will be heavy and clumsy.

If you use your mind, not force, to lead your movements, Yang said that your qi will go wherever your mind intention directs, and then your qi and blood will circulate all over the body without hindrance. If you can keep on practicing in this way, in time you will be able to acquire the real, intrinsic energy.

Yang said that when a practitioner has really mastered the art of T’ai Chi and attained the intrinsic energy, his arms will be as soft as cotton outwardly, and yet as hard as iron inwardly,and the weight of the arm will be very heavy.

Summarily speaking, “to use the mind instead of force” means that, in the whole course of performing T’ai Chi, all the body movements should be carried on under the conscious direction of the mind.

Your mind is like a thread running through all of your movements, leading and dominating every action. In other words, you should always focus your mind on what posture or movement you are going to play and how to do it well.

Before actually doing a posture or movement, you must have a clear idea of that posture or movement in your mind; thus, your anus, legs, and body will be able to act together consciously to embody what you have conceived in your mind. For instance, when you are going to practice, “Golden Cock Stands On One Leg,” an idea of that posture should appear in your mind first. Thus, your body and four limbs will be able to assume that posture naturally and effortlessly.

If you are going to do the “Roll Back” movement, you may imagine that there is an opponent standing in front of you (T’ai Chi Ch’uan, you know, is originally a kind of traditional Chinese shadowboxing), and you want to “roll back” the opponent.

Then you will naturally assume the position to hold one of his arms with both your hands and begin to do the “Roll Back” movement. It is believed that only when you practice in this way, can you do your postures and movements correctly and appropriately, and only when your postures and movements are correct and appropriate, can you reap more benefits of T’ai Chi Ch’ uan.

7. Coordinate the Movements of the Upper and Lower Parts of the Body

T’ai Chi Ch’uan is an internal form of Chinese boxing, as is described in the T’ai Chi Classics: “It is rooted in the feet, develops in the legs, is dominated by the waist, and functions through the fingers. The feet, legs, waist, and arms must act as a unified whole.”

This, Yang said, “denotes that you must make the upper and lower parts of your body coordinate with each other while playing T’ai Chi.” He further emphasized, “Only when the hands, waist, feet, and even the eyes move together in harmony, can it be stated ‘The upper and lower parts of the body are coordinated.’ If one part of the body does not move, the whole body will be disordered and confused.”

T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as an holistic and all-sided fitness art, is intended to exert training on the practitioner’s whole body, including the inner organs, as well as the mind, nervous system, and breathing.

Such a purpose of overall training can only be achieved through a series of concerted actions of the torso, the four limbs, and all other parts of the body. Therefore, during the practice of T’ai Chi, you must be aware of all of your body parts and coordinate them well, in order to reach a perfect alignment of the whole person.

For instance, when you are practicing the posture “Wave Hands like Clouds,” the rotation of your waist swings your arms to circle in front of your chest. Along with the arm movements, your palms constantly turn inwardly and outwardly.

Your legs take sidesteps again and again, while supporting the whole body, which is uninterruptedly shifting its center of gravity left or right.

Your head and neck turn around naturally in pace with the turning of the torso, and your eyes keep on looking at the hand that is traveling past your face, thus forming a sequence of whole body movements in which the upper parts and lower parts of your body are closely coordinated. All the movements of your arms, legs, and other parts are well harmonized.

To coordinate the movements of various parts of the body is easier said than done. Some practitioners have already practiced T’ai Chi for a rather long period of time, but they still cannot make the different parts of their bodies act in harmony. Some parts often move at a faster or slower speed than others. For example, as playing the posture of “Grasp the Bird’s Tail,” the legs have already formed the “bow step” stance, but the hands have not yet “pressed” or “pushed” out, or vice versa.

It is of great importance to coordinate all movements of various parts of the body. Without a good coordination of movements, you can never play T’ai Chi in a manner of lightness, nimbleness and steadiness, to say nothing of smoothness and gracefulness.

8. Create a Harmony Between the Internal and External Aspects

Yang Chengfu said that what is underlined in the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is none other than the mind. As the saying goes, “The mind is the commander, and the body is at the mind’s beck and call.” So long as you can concentrate your mind and raise your spirit, your movements will be light and agile.

“The postures of T’ai Chi Ch’uan,” Yang said, “are not beyond the scope of `emptiness and solidness’ and `opening and closing. The so-called `opening’ means that when the posture is open, not only are the hands and feet open, but the mind is also open together. The so-called `closing’ means that when the posture is closed; not only the hands and feet are closed, but the mind is also closed together. When the internal and external aspects are well harmonized, the performance of T’ai Chi will become a unified whole, and reach a perfect state.”

“Create a harmony between the internal and external aspects” is a demand that is set mainly on the advanced T’ai Chi practitioners.

Generally, people think that the “external aspect” indicates the movements of the limbs and the body, and the “internal aspect” signifies the activities of the mind, or nerve center. Yang not only said, “The body will follow wherever the mind directs,” but also said, “The qi will be wherever so soon as the mind-intention goes.” That is to say, during practice the qi is also undergoing training under the direction of mind. So the “internal aspect” should include the move of the qi.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as an internal martial art, lays emphasis on cultivating qi. Qi is usually defined as lifeforce, or vitality. According to the theory of traditional Chinese medicine, qi is the fundamental substance that sustains life.

The reason that a man is alive is because he has qi. Once his qi is exhausted, he will die. So qi means life. What is called qigong is to cultivate and develop qi-the life force. T’ai Chi Ch’uan also deals with qi. So it is regarded as a kind of qigong.

The cultivation of qi, however, must be conducted through regulating and practicing breathing, because there is a particular relationship between qi and breathing. They are as inseparable as fish and water, because everything that has life needs to breathe. Breath represents life. So, if you want to cultivate and develop qi, you must do proper breathing exercises.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan demands that the practitioners adopt abdominal breathing. Through the practice of abdominal breathing, you can make your respiration become slower, deeper, and longer, creating a favorable condition to combine your breathing with your physical movements.

Here are certain general and basic rules concerning how to match your breath with movements:

While the hand-arm movements are going upward, backward or inward, you are asked to breathe in. While the hand-arm movements are going downward, forward or outward, you are asked to breathe out. While your arms are moving in different or opposite directions, your breath should follow one of your arms that accords with your breathing at that time.

If you can have your mind, body, and breathing harmonize well in a natural way, then your T’ai Chi practice will reach a high level, and will be able to benefit you even more.

9. Maintain Continuity

Yang said that T’ai Chi Ch’uan differs from external martial arts. The external martial arts usually demand that practitioners put forth their acquired muscular strength. So in each movement or posture there are both starting and stopping. And in the whole process of performance, severance can be seen every now and then. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is the mind, not force, that leads the movements, so that all the movements can be carried on from the beginning to the end in a continued and uninterrupted way.

In the T’ai Chi Classics, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is also called “Chang Ch’uan” (meaning long boxing) and is compared to a great river that flows on and on without stopping and breaking. Also, the motion of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is often likened to drawing silk from a silkworm cocoon, which, of course, must be done slowly, gently, and unhurriedly.

Otherwise, the silk thread will be broken. Both these comparisons, Yang said, are used to show that T’ai Chi Ch’uan must be practiced continuously and unceasingly, like flowing water, without any breaks.

Even during the transition from one posture or action to another, you have to stop for just a split second. Also, during the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, your energy breaks off momentarily. Yet your mind-intention still joins and connects your movements together as a continued and unified whole. This is Just as the old Chinese saying goes: “The lotus root snaps, but its fibers stay joined.”

“Maintain continuity” is one of T’ai Chi’s cardinal characteristics. Although it contains very complicated movements and has a great variety of postures, T’ai Chi Ch’uan must be played in a well integrated manner.

Some T’ai Chi experts say that a successful performance of T’ai Chi Ch’uan should look like “a seamless, heavenly [??]be.” Therefore, when you have been able to do every posture and movement correctly in the main, you should strive to practice the whole form in an uninterrupted and incessant way.

That is to say, you are required to connect all the postures, as well as movements, with one another in an orderly and natural manner, and to make the ending of the preceding movement be the very start of the following one. There is no break or junction between two movements or postures. The whole performance looks like floating clouds and flowing water, without stopping in the entire course of practice.

10. Seek Tranquillity in Movements

Yang said: “The external martial arts make a feature of being good at jumping and tramping, and at exerting tremendous muscular strength. However, after finishing a practice, there is no one who doesn’t pant and feel tired.”

Regarding T’ai Chi Ch’uan, he said that during practice, you are asked not only to drive and control your movements by “internal tranquillity,” rather than external strength, but also to maintain the tranquillity while movements are going on. He said that T’ai Chi Ch’uan must be practiced slowly: the slower, the better. Slow practicing may help to make your breathing become deeper and longer and your qi sink down to the dantian easily, thus avoiding the shortness of breath, the swelling of veins and blood vessels, as well as other defects.

To seek tranquillity in movement is a special point in the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. When an experienced and skilled T’ai Chi practitioner is performing, outwardly he is moving slowly, gently, and continuously, like flowing water, without stopping and breaking, but inwardly he is quite calm, as “calm and tranquil as a mountain.”

This indicates that his movements are carried on under a special condition, in which he is highly focusing his mind on what he is doing. However, his outward movement and inward tranquillity are closely interrelated. The latter is the prerequisite for the former.

Without inward tranquillity, it is impossible to bring forth comfortable and graceful movements. So, whenever you do T’ai Chi practice, you should try your best to keep yourself in a calm and peaceful state mentally, and make yourself wholly absorbed in every movement or posture you are practicing. By doing so, you will be able to achieve and maintain tranquillity in movement.

In addition, the practice of slow, deep abdominal breathing has proven to be an effective method to regulate and calm the mind, and cause it to enter a tranquil state. Abdominal breathing can also exert training on your inner organs. This is because your diaphragm will constantly rise and fall, along with the expansion and contraction of your lower abdomen, in the process of practicing abdominal breathing. This can cause your internal organs to be massaged, and can bring you great benefit.

In conclusion, I want to say that the 10 Essentials are closely interrelated. In studying and applying these important principles, you should not overlook any one of them. If one of them is not mastered or applied well, the mastering and application of the others will be affected adversely.

Zhang fuxing is author of Handbook of T’ai Chi Ch’uan Exercises and teaches T’ai Chi and qigong in Louiseville, KY.