Mr Liu: Key Points for Tai Chi Practice
Roy Wilson, a long-time Tai Chi practitioner who trained with me in England, interviewed me about Cheng Man-ching, my teacher Liu Hsi-heng, and my time in Taiwan. I have adapted a short excerpt:
Q. What did Mr. Liu emphasize in practice? What did he think it was important for the student to work on in order to make progress?
A. He taught us to be honest in practice, to do the movements thoroughly and with full concentration. Merely putting in time or repetitions was not enough. In solo practice he emphasized repetition of single movements from the Tai Chi Form, done on both left and right sides, and a set of exercises that involved repeatedly shifting the weight and turning the waist with different upper body movements — he called it the Essential Movement Exercise or the Foundation Exercises, or sometimes simply, The Bitter Exercises, as they were so knackering on the legs and fairly monotonous. He worked more on moving practice rather than static practice (e.g. holding postures), in contrast to Ben Lo, his good friend and classmate under Cheng Man-ching, whose classes focused on holding postures until the legs give out.
More important are the qualities he required of us, and that is relaxation and centredness (sung and zheng). These two were foremost. He would say if you are not straight and centred then you cannot be thoroughly loose and relaxed because your muscles will have to be tensed to counteract the skewedness. And being straight and upright is no use if you are rigid like a soldier at attention. And the straightness and relaxation are to be more than physical — those qualities are to be in our mind and heart. If there isn’t uprightness in the heart then there will be some of that uncentredness manifest in the body; likewise, if the body seems loose but there is anxiety in the mind or tension in the heart, then it will limit the suppleness of our movements, especially in how we respond in pushing hands or other partner practice.
In pushing hands practice, these same two qualities were essential, but added to that was the constant exhortation to yield and neutralize. And later, that the neutralizing and the counter move are one. But first comes the yielding, always the non-resisting response to the other person. He said, `Go wherever they want, give them whatever they want, everything but your central equilibrium’. That was the only condition, that you flow wherever you need to to avoid resisting, always keeping centred and relaxed. And the best way of doing this is to focus on`investing in loss’, especially in the early to intermediate stages. In Tai Chi, ‘investing in loss’ means willingly engaging in the process of learning by being pushed over and over again, usually against a wall, trying only to yield and neutralize, with no thought of counter attack. Gradually, when your neutralizing skill develops then the counter begins to come out naturally; when your partner has lost balance, then it takes just a little bit of force to topple them. Hence the paradox of putting aside the desire to win resulting in a more easeful tendency to `win’. In both Form and Pushing Hands, Mr. Liu urged us to train the basics well, keeping focused on the simple, most fundamental things — `If you practice deeply and get one movement well, then all the other moves will improve; if you practice many things then most likely everything will be mediocre’.
The full interview appeared in Tai Chi: The International Magazine of Tai Chi Chuan (August 2008, vol. 32, No 4).