Neigong exercises used within the Wudang style of Tai Chi
The Wudang system of Tai Chi consists of 5 elements of training, which can each be regarded as a separate art in itself. Put together they build a complete Tai Chi practitioner. Cheng Tin Hung once remarked that missing development of any one of these five pieces would lead to a ‘crippled’ product. Each aspect must be given proper attention and development.
At the very core of the system are the Neigong exercises. Considered by Tong Chi Kin (one of Cheng Tin hung’s champion fighters) to be the ‘spiritual’ side of Tai Chi training, the neigong exercises develop the practitioner in all sorts of ways. Many of these ways can benefit your health on a multitude of levels, all of them can enhance your potential as a martial artist enourmasly. Don’t make the mistake that on their own they will make you a good fighter, because they won’t. They will however give you tools to build, develop and refine some very important qualities as a practical martial artist.
Below is a video of Dan Docherty (my teacher) demonstrating some of the body strengthening benefits of neigong
The 12 Yin Neigong exercises
A static position, with two parts, each held for 1,3 or 9 mins each. This means at the advanced level you are in this gruelling position for 18 mins. This neigong exercise builds high levels of strength and power in the legs, strengthens the muscles of the core and develops good spinal awareness as well as a rock solid stance. The position mimics a tortoise in its shell and helps to encourage diaphragmatic breathing, which activates parasympathetic nervous activity, which is your rest and digest mode. When your diaphragm expands downward when you breath, the following exercises will become much more effective, in terms of their internal development aspects.
Doing one minute is tough, doing nine is extremely demanding. You will need to develop real efficiency of body and mind to be able to do the tortoise at this level. It therefore builds a lot of resilience and determination.
Embracing the one
The Taoist concept of ’embracing the one’ is a reminder that everything in the universe is quite directly related and that at higher levels of operation there is a feeling of ‘unity’, rather than separation. This neigong exercise is another standing static, meditational posture. It can be done with the eyes closed or open, though on the first repletion eyes closed is advised. It’s done for 2, 6 or 18 minutes depending on your level of training (and time). It’s not as physically demanding as the tortoise and when approached correctly is incredibly relaxing. We can sometimes focus more on posture and alignment or on achieving deeper levels of relaxation. The objective is to let any tension not required to hold you in position, melt away. The face and stomach are key areas. A nice tip is to hold the static positions like you are having a warm bath. In Taoist literature they keep making the pint that the ‘Tao’ enters into emptiness and stillness. So an objective of these types of static neigong exercises should be to let the body become ’empty’ and to remove as much unnecessary tension as possible. The exercise strengthens the whole body with an additional emphasis on the deltoids. A friend of mine who was a weightlifter noticed he had put on muscle mass from doing this exercise, and considered it a type of ‘hypertrophy’ training. Something i’d never considered before but makes sense.
Lifting a Golden Plate
This exercise is similar to the previous one, although the hand and arm position is modified. This strengthens the shoulder girdle in a different way and give good awareness of the all important scapular.
Jade Rabbit Facing the Moon
This exercise is preceded by the mysterious saliva swallowing, common to many Taoist derived neigong practices. We then perform 41,111 or 333 repetitions of the exercise. This involves squatting with the spine held completely upright (different to a fitness squat). This is combined with a synchronised hand extension/stretch downwards. Its a fairly deep squat, which develop strength and endurance in the lower body. The rotational stretch of the lower arm stimulates the connective tissues of the arms and refines a smooth, rotational hand action which has practical applications. there is also some internal pressure built up in the lower abdomen, which combined with the deep breathing method used will massage and relax the internal organs.
Red Capped Crane Stretches its Feet
This neigong exercise develops the muscles and connective tissues of the forearm, in both the flexion and extension positions of the exercise. There is also a body opening stretch which may stimulate the internal fascial layers, known as Huang in Chinese. These are the tissues that keep the organs in place and according the Chinese medicine conduct ‘electrical/Qi’ in a very efficient way within the body. this exercise is also designed to stretch the lungs and also develops the ability to coordinate upper and lower body movements precisely into a specific ‘Fa Jin’ movement. Its done at 41, 111 or 333 repetitions.
Civet Cat Catches the Rat
This exercise loosens the shoulder joints and develops well structured and aligned arm movements, which incorporate fascial extension. This leads to less power leakage in practical application. It also helps to train the use of torque with extending arm techniques and very precise use of focussed power. The connective tissues around the shoulder will get stronger and help shoulder stabilisation, whilst becoming more flexible. Another exercise done at 41,111, or 333 repetitions.
Flicking the Whip on the Left and Right
This exercise is done for 111,333 or 1011 reptitions. It loosens the wrists and finger tips, relaxes arms muscles and teaches you how to achieve a ‘double pulse’ which is where your muscles fire once to launch the movement and once again to focus it. This is an important skill for any high level striker, martial artist. All strikes must be delivered in a whip like manner and this exercise is a method par excellence, to develop the skill.
White Ape Pushes Out its Paws
This exercise uses a rotational stretching movement to target what some Taoist Qigong practitioners refer to as the ‘girdle’ area. This is the area around the hips and waist. This important area is well worked in this exercise with 41,111, or 333 repetitions. The deep breathing and rotational movements provide additional stimulation and massage to the internal organs. Power is developed by learning to sink the centre of gravity whilst the arms are extended and the use of the powerful muscles of the core is incorporated.
Swallow Pierces the Clouds
This neigong movement is trained at 111,333 or 1011 repetitions. It trains the shape and structure of the arms, stretching and developing the connective tissues whilst stretching the entire arm. It also builds flexibility into the waist and shoulder girdle/pecs. Smooth movement skills are cultivated, helping you to increase the quality and ‘sureness’ of your arm techniques. Your stance and knee alignment are also challenged and developed, so that you become aware of your lower body structure as your upper body rotates. With regular practice this becomes ingrained and completely second nature.
Leading A Goat Smoothly
This exercise further develops the waist and internal organ massaging. The wrists are ellipsoidal joints and this exercise develops your ability to control adduction and abduction in your techniques. this not only keeps the joints loose but can assist you in practical applications. The drill teaches you how to express power in the horizontal place, similarly to a discuss thrower. This is extremely useful for striking and grappling techniques. With refinement you learn howe to control your shoulders, waist and arm structure to produce the best alignment for expressing forces on the horizontal plane. Movement quality is also developed, with the name of the exercise informing you that a smooth and refined quality is what we are seeking to develop. Trained at 111,333 or 1011 repetitions
Giant Python Turning its Body
This exercise is another one that works at the level of the ‘girdle’ around the waist. It also rotates the body and helps massage the internals. The shoulders are stretched and the connective tissues and muscles across the front of the body are stretched and exercised. The Radius/Ulna joints in the forearm receive stimulation via their constant rotation. From a practical perspective you will develop a clean and smooth forward expression of power, delivered in a very accurate way and utilising focussed power. Wrist alignment and control is also developed.
Elephant Shakes its Trunk
Some say this is a Yang exercise within the yin set and its certainly quite physical demanding. Its done at 111,333, or 1011 repetitions. It devlops the ability to issue force using the opening and closing of the rib muscles combined with waist rotation and the use of gravity.It develops shoulder, latismuss and pectoral flexibility and is a good stimulus to the heart and lungs and leg muscles.
The Yin set of neigong exercises are designed to be relatively softer than the ‘Yang’ exercises. They have traditionally been for the development of a strong and healthy physique, development of refined movement and technique awareness and ability. Some authors discuss these exercises in terms of meridians and so on, but the tradition in this style has been to discuss them in terms of more tangible and material variables.
The yin neigong set in conclusion
The yin set tends to be done fairly slowly in an environment where you are not going to be disturbed. The second static exercise is performed between each of the moving exercises, for a short duration in order to encourage deeper levels of relaxation. Essentially the exercises work on the levels of muscle, bone, nerve, connective tissue, awareness and relaxation. Therefore they are an excellent systematic way to train the entire body and mind in a way that also encourages deep levels of relaxation and sense awareness, which has its own merits beyond the scope of this post. The exercises are extremely enjoyable to practice and should form a regular part of a Tai Chi students practice.
The yang set is a powerful aspect of the training, featuring greater complexity and physical challenges. there are also more ‘standing meditation’ exercises as well as a seated breathing and mantra meditation. Together they form an ideal daily training practice for the Tai Chi Chuan practitioner, leading to an extremely strong, power and well coordinated body and a calm and tranquil mind.
The 12 yang set neigong exercises
- Tiger’s Paw
- Golden dragon coiled around a pillar
- White horse pounds it’s hooves
- Plant the fence
- Wu Gang chopping laurels
- Rhinocerous facing the moon
- Reclining tiger stretching it’s waist
- Monarch of the mountain coming out of it’s cave
- Boatman rowing the boat
- Hungry eagle looking for food
- Macaque leaping through the trees
- Old man burning cinnabar