To practice Chuan without Gong, even if you practice 10 years it is useless
Chinese Martial Arts proverb
In a martial situation, the effective use of force is a fundamental requirement. Techniques that are issued accurately and with focussed power are essential. Chinese martial artist have long talked about two different types of physical power being possible. The first is referred to as ‘Li’, which is translated simply to strength. This type of force is often considered in the ancient texts to be a clumsy type of force, issued by the bones. A bodybuilding style strength training routine would build this type of strength. Without an effective training method for building useable power, it is said in Chinese Martial Arts that your efforts will be wasted. ‘Gong’ means effort/work and Nei means inner. So Neigong is inner work designed to strengthen the practitioner in a multitude of ways.
For a martial artist, Chinese martial artists have long advocated the development and use of a different type of force, known as ‘Jin’. This is considered a far more refined and effective way to issue force, via the various techniques of the art, towards the opponent. Jin is often described as the force of the connective tissues and tendons. The type of training required to develop the elastic jin power is quite different to bodybuilding/muscular development training.
It is not unusual to come across slim built people who have trained for a long time in Tai Chi Chuan, who feel incredibly strong and heavy. This isn’t due to big muscles, it’s because of extremely well developed connective tissues, ligaments and tendons. The force they can project is extremely elastic and explosive. Their is also a quality of accuracy that surpasses the type of force developed by ‘Li’ style practice.
In Tai Chi Chuan, fundamentally we seek to develop the ability to apply force effectively in all directions and with all parts of the body. There are eight fundamental ways of using force, which we call the ‘Pa Keng’. The development of Jin and the effective use of the ‘pa keng’, eight forces, are trained in all aspects of the art, including the hand form and pushing hands.
Neigong is a practice which can be done on a daily basis. There are 24 different exercises, which are split into two sets, named the Yin and Yang sets. So most advanced Tai Chi practitioners within this style will practice the Yin set on one day and the Yang set the following. The Yin exercises are designed to relax body and mind, refine technique, enhance and develop deep diaphragmatic breathing as well as to improve the health of the body internally. The Yang set is designed more for power and strength, which comes more from the sinews and connective tissues more than the muscular system, though muscles and bones are trained too.
Additional thoughts on Neigong
As a practice that can be done on an almost daily basis, Tai Chi neigong offers us a lot of potential benefits. Over the years I have seen a lot of people practicing their sets of neigong movements and postures, and noticed that if they aren’t coached regularly very few people learn to get the most out of the exercises.
So in this short article I will attempt to give some Tai chi neigong pointers, which may be obvious, or may even be things you disagree with. Either way, I hope you find something of value.
Practice Tai chi neigong regularly, but do not over do it
Over the 25 years or so that I have been practicing these exercises, I’ve had the opportunity to try quite a few different approaches and carried out quite a few ‘experiments’ on myself (and students). In this way i’ve learned some things the hard way.
Our system of Tai Chi comes from Cheng Tin Hung, who learned from his uncle (who was senior in the Wu style lineage) as well as another mysterious gentleman, Qi Min Xuan. In the Wu style, the exercises are treated as one whole set, 24 tai chi neigong exercises which are done one after the other.
In our system, we have the concept of doing 12 on one day and 12 on the other day. The two sets are called yin and yang, and the yang set certainly includes the tougher exercises and can also be considered more metabolically demanding, producing a fair amount of heat energy. Therefore terming this set yang makes sense. There is a lineage of shua jiao wrestlers, whose main teacher was the famed butterfly king, Chang Dung Sheng, who also have the same set of exercises. They also treat them as one set not two. There is no concept of yin or yang. They also differ from us in that they call their set of exercises ‘iron shirt’ qigong. There are some technical differences here and there and generally it can be observed that they rarely sink in their stances, maintaining a moderately tall ‘horse riding’ stance. This makes sense in some regards, because a daily program of very deep squatting for hundreds of repetitions may quickly lead to a very fatigued practitioner. On the negative side it doesn’t develop the same whole body connectedness which our version does. I speculate that one of the reasons that our neigong is so effective is that it produces some considerable changes in the hormonal environment of the body, particularly the androgenic hormones, including growth hormone. This is done by creating muscular demand and stress on the larger muscles groups of the body, particularly the legs. So it appears to be a balancing act (as usual) between creating the right levels of demand and stimulation, along with making sure we recover, adapt and super compensate.
I’ve experimented a lot with doing the entire set of 24 tai chi neigong exercises on a daily basis, and what i’ve noticed is that its a very nice practice, and you feel great afterwards. You will have practiced a wide variety of movements, which will have stretched and mobilised your body in most of the ways that a human can move (martially). There is a definite feel good factor about this. The negative aspect of it is that physically and psychologically there is a better chance of staleness creeping in. Initially this could simply be boredom and less than complete mental focus on what you are doing because you are doing it too often. There is also the very real chance of overtraining. This will happen if you start to push the reputations and times. As mentioned before certain exercises are metabolically demanding, imposing a definite stress on your body. This is a good thing if you rest appropriately, and let the various systems of the body recover, adapt and super compensate. I think if you’re doing it on a daily basis the recovery and adaptation part of the equation will start to fall apart. Everyone is different, but this has been my experience. So Cheng Tin Hung’s splitting of the set is a logical and practical solution to this problem. Impose the heavier training loads one day, followed by a lighter day to enhance recovery. Again its worth taking some days off from time to time to ensure that you are getting full recovery. The exercises are deceptively demanding.
Setting an appropriate attitude
Martial arts training includes a wide array of exceptional methods of exercise and mental training. It can however also encourage an overly ‘yang’ tough guy mindset in some cases, because of the perceived martial implications of many of the training practices. It’s my belief that things like neigong should be approached carefully and with a balanced view of the subject. What is the purpose of the training? What are we out to achieve through practicing the exercises? Where should we put our focus during practice? These and many more questions can and should be asked. The answers will inform your mindset, which in turn will strongly colour your training experience and the effects of the exercises. Aquire a relaxed and comfortable mindest.
Develop a non competitive, comfortable and relaxed mindset
A competitive mindset introduces stress into any aspect of the training. Removal of judgement is an essential part of any meditative practice, neigong included, for this reason. If you are overly competitive about your practice there is a good chance you will experience a more judgemental mindset. Avoid this as it isn’t helpful in any way. Approach the exercises knowing simply that they will positively affect the rest of your practice and will improve your health. Thinking about doing more time than this person or that or more repetitions and achieving a certain level of practice will get you away from the calm, tranquil state of mind which we are seeking through neigong training. Don’t be outcome focused, cultivate a focus on the process and the main variables that we have to work with during practice. The Tai Chi classics tell us ‘The spirit is at ease and the body is tranquil’ . To enable the spirit to truly be at ease the practitioner needs to do whatever work is necessary to dissolve unhelpful, restrictive attitudes to their practice (and more).
Regulate the major variables of movement and stillness
Structure and alignment
One of the major advantages tai chi neigong training has over the hand form, when it comes to internalising key movement concepts is that things are repeated many times. In our system the basic standard is 41 repetitions, going up to over a 1000 repetitions of a given movement pattern. Your body will soak up the the new neural grooves developed by such high reputation activity. Its therefore essential that you make a careful study of what constitutes good posture, alignment and technique in each of the movements. An understanding of the function and objective of the move in question will play an important part in you fully understanding the best way to perform the technique.
To my way of thinking starting from the ground up makes the most sense in analysing your performance of each technique. Firstly, foot contact and positioning. They can be positioned parallel or slightly turned out. The main thing is that they make a good contact with the ground, with weight distributed evenly across the whole of the foot. Barefoot training is the way to go unless there are any practical reasons why this doesn’t make sense. The sensory nerves of the feet operate far better when barefoot, leading to a great sense of movement awareness and feel (proprioception). Training outside on natural surfaces is advised as it can enhance this sensory feedback mechanism as well as provide many other benefits which we will look at later. Knee and ankle alignment are also very important, with the simplest guidance being that the knees should bend in the same direction as your foot points. Stance width can vary, the most important thing is that it provides capacity for sinking and is comfortable, supporting healthy joint alignemnts.
In the Tai Chi classics, it’s written that we should ‘forcelessly suspend the head top’. This means to me that the spine should through ought the neigong set maintain a lightly uncompressed feeling throughout the set. This will lead to freer and natural movement of the vertebrae when we practice the rotational techniques. There are several possible health and performance implications of maintaining balanced spinal neutrality and a well ‘suspended head top’. Having good spinal alignment assists in efficient functioning of the nervous system, which communicates directly in a two way manner with all the organs and limbs of the body. Studies on the effect of posture and mood, as well as hormonal balance have show clearly that the alignment of the spine and positioning of the posture as a whole can directly affect the release of testosterone and other crucial ‘positive’ hormones, which counter the effects of stress. They have also shown that emotional states can be very directly influenced body spinal positioning and the postures we hold. So simply training and mastering the suspended head top and neutral spinal alignment can directly improve many functions of health and wellbeing.
Achieving spinal neutrality through suspended head top and a ‘tucked in tailbone (not to be overdone) will effect not only your physiology and psychological state, but has a direct carry over to your capacity to express trained force (jin). When we generate power in Tai Chi (and other close kinetic chain activities) we are generating the power from the large muscles of the legs and hips primarily. When issuing force (ignoring for the time being kicks) we want to transmit and express the raw power from the lower body via the limbs of the upper body. For this to happen with the most effect we need to maintain as close to a neutral spine as possible, without corruptions, which will simply leak the power, leading to far less effective techniques. This needs to be considered in all movements of the neigong, both static and moving. It’s quite common for people on the rotational and twisting exercises to lose awareness of their spinal position and alignment.
Shoulders, elbows, hands and wrist are also key variables that we need to work with to get the best results. Generally speaking shoulder positioning seems to be more problematic for most people to regulate. With practice we want to make sure that the shoulders sink naturally into the joint throughout all the movements and static postures. Once we can do this we should make sure that they aren’t pronating forwards. I notice this in many people, because it seems that awareness of this aspect of posture isn’t that common for most people. This feature is somewhat tied into spinal neutrality so if you spend time regularly become aware of this during your training you will be able to correct it.
Elbows should be relaxed and not be externally rotated out wards. This reduces the stability of the shoulder joint when exerting forces and issuing power. It also contributes to you having a higher centre of gravity leading to you being less rooted, which is a fundamental goal of neigong.
There are certain techniques in the training, which are specifically looking to develop the extensors and flexors of the wrist. Leading the goat smoothly also includes adduction and abduction movement. Being aware of what each exercise is trying to develop will help you to train the full range of flexion, extension, adduction and abduction as is relevant. this is best shown in person by your instructor.
In many other techniques, such as Civet Cat, wrist neutrality is what we are after. Achieving wrist neutrality (where there is no flexion, extension etc) helps to keep the wrist in the strongest place possible, which is important in the issuing of certain types of jin (trained force). This applies to punching movements as well as open handed movements. Fingers need to also be considered carefully in neigong practice.
Not only do they need mobilising and exercise to maintain their health and strength (Think tiger paw), they can also play an important part in achieving rock solid arm structure. In this regard you need to become aware of the fingers ability to achieve an extended and stretched feeling, leading to a stretched feeling through the entire arm and more.
There are theories of fascial networks (connective tissue) and ‘tensegrity’ (which regards the bone structure as held in place by the elasticity of the facial network) which go a long way to explaining the importance of the finger stretch phenomenon. From my own personal experience I can testify that it goes a long way towards helping me express force well, but also with a very elastic quality. This elastic jin quality seems to be a very important part of higher level Tai Chi. These slightly stretched arm structures also appear to give a lot more solidity and potency to defensive techniques.
Balance is another key concept, to be paid attention to through all the neigong movements. I often see people falling in and out of perfect balance, especially during the sinking movements, or movements such as Wu gang cutting laurels, which features some lean adjustment combined with waist rotation. In sinking movements people will often start to lean forward a lot, losing the suspended head top/lower vertebrae verticality, becoming off balance. ‘Boatman rowing the boat’ is another more complex movement pattern where people tend to have moments where they are distinctly misaligned and out of perfect balance.
Refine movement quality in your tai chi neigong practice
The first quality we can consider is connectedness. When practicing the repeated exercises of the tai chi neigong sets we are after a a completely connected movement, where all parts of the body move together in perfect sequencing. In sport science they talk about inter muscular coordination, with simply means how well the different muscle groups and connective tissues are working together in a given movement, or expression of force. When we practice a technique with a stronger and more focused intent, scientific experiments have demonstrated that there is a stronger training effect and therefore greater power can ultimately be expressed.
For this reason I believe the Tai Chi classical essays put some much emphasis on the use of visualisation and the use of powerful intent in training. By focusing on the external expression of the movement (not the inner mechanics) the inter muscular coordination is heightened, leading to a higher quality of all around movement. When this process is repeated in the systematic way, for a wide variety of movements, which express explosive force (fa Jin) then we should become adept at expressing force explosively in all directions, in any circumstance.
Sometimes in training the fa jin movements it is necessary to slow things down and reduce the vigour of the training, because we may need to attend to extremely subtle details in the timing of the movements and the whole body coordination of contracting and extending movements. From the classics ‘One part moves, all parts move’.
Lightness, smoothness and softness are all movement qualities recommended in the classical Tai Chi essays and poems. Tai chi neigong is a perfect place to internalise these concepts as a daily practice. In all movements seek to get rid of and bumpiness or deficiencies. The qualities of water are often alluded to in the classics, and this relaxed, fluid style of motion is what we are after. Becoming aware of any restrictions, or stiffness is initially important.
Visualising a better way of carrying out the movement and then doing so is next. Start to observe the highest level practitioners you can and you will start to notice these qualities and become aware of the possibilities of higher level movement quality. Lightness, softness and smoothness are intimately linked to connectedness.
Within one of the exercises (tiger paw), we are required to create tension in the hands. Whilst maintaining this tension we move the arms through various flexion/extension, internal and external rotation movements. I believe that the amount of tension necessary to create a required amount of stimulation to get a training effect, should be balanced with the other aspects of movement quality. We should develop the ability to create a lot of tension, whilst moving smoothly, surely and with continuity and a connectedness throughout the body. Im often asked about how much tension to create in this particular exercise, and whether it should be localised to just the hands or through the arms and torso. I think mainly we should be concentrating on the tension of the hands, which can also involve a contribution of the arms too. I often think back to a concept I read about some years ago, which is that of irradiation of force/tension. This is the idea proposed that by creating more tension through the entire body, we can ultimately express more low velocity force (not power). I believe tension in the abdomen was particularly linked to this phenomenon. So its food for thought, and certainly an approached used by Okinawan karate practitioners (Uechi Ryu in particular), though in my practice i don’t do this, as max force isn’t my objective. High tension and high movement quality are my priorites.
Be relaxed, determined and install vigour into what you’re doing
Enjoying your practice is probably the number one significant thing you can do to reap consistent, long lasting benefits of neigong practice, of which there are dozens. Again approaching the practice with a healthy balanced perspective, and a relaxed attitude will help considerably. Another important aspect is learning to become aware of tension thought the body, but particularly in the abdomen.
The Classics advise us to sink the ‘Qi’, meaning breath in this instance. They also tell us to keep the abdomen relaxed. The latter is a prerequisite to the former, because with excessive tension in the abdomen the diaphragm will have difficulty in wanting to expand downwards. Becoming aware of tension generally combined with knowledge of the desirability of a relaxed stomach area, the diaphragm will naturally start to descend deeper. This will lead to a gentle massaging of the internal organs, particular during the rotational exercises, where there is a lot of movement within the torso. Awareness is key for fighting tension, though attempting to actively relax every tension in the body may be a mistake. It seems to happen quite naturally when you maintain an observatory mindset, free from judgement. This is an important point to make, and i believe is key in most meditational training methods. If you constantly run around in your training or practice trying to fix this and that, you will probably cause more stress and more tension. Just becoming aware of it, but knowing it is better relaxed, the body tends to in its own time fix it itself.
The classics also advise us to ‘internally gather the spirit’ and to make the spirit firm during practice, while externally showing a peaceful demeanour. So we are maintaining a physically relaxed, emotionally neutral state, whilst encouraging a positive and resilient attitude. I think this cultivation of a positive resilient mindset within the relaxed body has many possible positive implications, psychologically as well as physiologically. Tai Chi Neigong postures can be incredibly tough training, and being to cultivate a firm resilient mindset on a daily basis can potentially have tremendous carry over into many areas of life. As a martial artist this mental fortitude and toughness is an essential quality to reach a high level of effectiveness.
In the classics we are also advised to practice in a way which is vigorous. The term used is JingShen, which implies a vigour of both attitude and movement. This can also be linked to the pointers on quality of movement. Speculatively i would suggest that adopting this vigorous approach to the training, along with this firm determined spirit will have not only positive carry over to your martial abilities and other areas of life, but also have positive physiological ramifications.
General mindset is a known contributor to hormonal functioning, which is essential for general good health and wellbeing. Hormonal functioning is related directly to the Chinese medicine concept of Jing (primordial potential), which when is in abundance has positive effects on the rest of our functioning. So the advice to adopt a vigorous/aroused attitude is certainly a good idea. Even though we are being physically and emotionally relaxed, we aren’t really passive psycholgically.
Tai chi neigong training toimprove the quality of your explosive use of force: Fa Jin
Being able to be incredibly explosive in the use of force is one of the objectives of higher level Tai Chi. The various ways and directions in which we can exert physical force are numerous. Luckily the 24 Tai chi neigong set we train has us covered. We practice releasing force directly forwards, through the centre line. We practice the lateral release of force to the front and rear. We have techniques where we explode directly downwards, both in front of us and behind. So in terms of directions of expression, it is truly a comprehensive training method
The first thing to do, when seeking to improve the quality of your fa jin, or explosiveness, is to learn to relax your limbs and abdomen utterly and completely. The higher the degree of relaxation and softness (related to the previously covered ideas), the higher your potential for power will be. This is due to the procedure of neural inhibition. Muscle systems work on a lever basis, with agonist and antagonist muscles creating the opening and closing movements of the bodies’ joint systems. These muscles work generally as pairs in phasic muscles (muscles that move us) and have control systems and error detection nerves embedded within them to detect excessive or potentially harmful movements. This means that in a given movement the handbrake is slightly on. The opposing muscles in the movement sequence have a degree of activity which inhibits fully unrestricted expression.
Training to achieve fa jin is essentially the simple process of providing maximal stimulus to the muscles helping us to perform a given movement, whilst simultaneously reducing the activity of the opposing muscles in the system – taking off the brakes.
The first step is in achieve maximal possible relaxation in the limb itself and thew body as a whole, particularly i suspect the lower abdomen/Tan Tien. The second step is to be able to visualise a completely unrestricted, arrow like expression of the movement of the limb/limbs in question to the completion point of the movement. This requires some imagination. The third step is to be able to go to a moment of absolute stillness and focus at the end of the movement. The principles of force transference can elucidate the importance of this concept, but suffice to say, the ability to momentarily stiffen the aspects of your body involved in the expression of the force in question will govern how effectively the force transfers from you into your intended target.
So we need to be extremely relaxed throughout the whole body to start. Then we need a maximal ‘impulse’ from our nervous system, which is determined by your intent. After this extremely powerful pulse/signal the limb should be completely relaxed to the greatest degree possible whilst it’s in motion. this is followed by a final, perfectly timed neural impulse to contract the limb/s at the final point of expression.
From personal and teaching experience I think movement timing and being able to relax and contract things with a high degree of control are the first things to focus on. Once you can deeply relax your start position, moving limbs and contract perfectly on point, with perfect timing, then add more speed.
Tai chi Neigong/Inner training is an incredibly enjoyable, challenging and rewarding practice. There are plenty of subtleties that we can investigate as we progress. All of these can be found in the classical Tai Chi essays. The main thing is to get a good instructor who can regularly check what you are doing and discuss the nuances of practice as they arise. Practice outdoors wherever possible, in nature. This was the way it was originally intended and will benefit you on all sorts of levels. There are three proposed levels to the neigong training, which are Inner and Outer in Unity (breathing coordinating with movement), Mind and Body in Unity (where we have high level coordination between mind and body, so our intention can be perfectly carried out). the third level is Heaven and Thought in Unity. At this level our responses are no longer confined to anything formal, but will be perfectly harmonised to suit the demands of the situation. Cheng Tin Hung refers to this as an ‘impersonal’ level of achievement, insinuating an ego free zen-like state.
This is similar to the ideals of Wu Wei, which certain Chinese philosophers including Lao Tzu, Confucius and Chuang Tzu devoted considerable study. The concept of Wu wei, or spontaneous and effortless being and action has been quite interestingly linked to the flow states of modern psychology. One of the major factors for reaching the highest levels of ‘flow’ or wu wei is often considered to be lack of sense of self – an impersonal zone as recommended by Cheng Tin Hung.
So I suspect that achieving the higher level of tai chi neigong achievement (if that is your goal), will have a lot to do with the cultivation of the appropriate attitude and mindset. The high levels of repetitions advised within our system of neigong to achieve this state may help to encourage efficiency, relaxation as well as resilience and physical conditioning. But I suspect for a lot of people higher levels of Tai Chi neigong achievement will have more to do with letting go of restrictive tendencies, attitudes and beliefs. Regular training will highly certain things for the practitioner, which we can work on in a systematic way.