The Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan is the most popular form of Tai Chi Chuan in the world today. It is practiced all over the world for health and self-defence. The training sequence in modern classes seem to be first doing the form then followed by correction of the individual postures. The traditional method of learning was quite different.
The traditional training sequence can be arduous, long and difficult. We hear of Yang Pan Hou running away from home to escape it and Yang Jian Hou attempting suicide by hanging himself because of it. So harsh was the training in the old days. Wu Tu Nan, who died recently, was made to train under a high table to make sure that he did his form in a low strenuous manner but retained relaxed nature of the art. Yang Zheng Ji, Yang Cheng Fu's son recalls the training he and his brothers had to go through under his illustrious father where after the training he didn't even have the strength to walk up the stairs to his room and had to crawl up on all fours. The postures were done until they got it absolutely right if they made repeated mistakes they were beaten. Training was even more important than their school studies and was their first priority. So harsh was the training, even for such young children.
One thing to note before we go on is that the Yang Postures are learnt in a very extended manner and only later are they refined to using smaller movements to achieve the same effect and at a later stage, expanded again so that each point along the large movement contains an application.
Single Posture Training (Tan Lian)
Here is where the posture in its static form is learnt. All the aspects that contribute to proper structure, rooting and chin development are also taught at this stage. Examples of these aspects are breathing into the abdomen, hollowing the chest and raising the back, sinking the eblows, sinking the kwa, no double weighting, etc.
Here the posture is held statically and gravity allowed to act to allow it to guide the student to an efficient structure held with the minimum effort. Important here is the ability to root stably, the 8 stabilities (Ba Wen) are emphasized, this entails being stable when force is applied to the posture from the 8 cardinal directions, one at a time, this trains proper rooting and strong legs.
To be very clear, this learning of connection is not termed peng or peng jing. In chinese, peng does not denote total body coordination acting towards a point, that is jing. At this time students are yet to develop the proper connection and coordination to manifest jing. They simply develop the ability to allow the centre of gravity to act downward using the leg structure.
At this level, all the aspects of the posture are scrutinised very closely to make sure that the student does not pick up any bad habits that will affect his progress latter on. The chinese have a saying pertaining to this 'easy to learn boxing, hard to correct it' (xue chuan yong yi, gai chuan nan). The bad habits are caught and corrected at this initial stage rather than corrected later when they have become more 'ingrained'. The period of time held for each posture varies from teacher to teacher though stories coming down have indicated that the standing time for each posture could be as long as 2 hours. This is practiced till the posture's alignment, aspects and focus have 'set', normally this would usually last for about a month per posture.
Single Moving Posture Training (Tan Xing Lian)
Here movement is added to the static posture. All the aspects learnt above are retained. Here is where the student begins to learn about jing and its manifestation through proper coordinative movement of the body.
The application of the posture is also taught here but the individual chins that contribute to its effectiveness are not studied in detail, that comes later. The movement here is taught to be smooth, continuous, like reeling silk, i.e. it is slow, steady and continuous. Sensitivity and relaxation in motion is also trained here, with the emphasis on the movement likened to 'swimming in air' till the air aquires a heavy quality. The origins of the movements in openning and closing and Tun Tu (swallowing and spitting) are also taught here.
The addition of motion and a start and end point of the posture usually caused some of the aspects to be lost along the path of the movement and so close scrutiny was again applied to make sure the student didn't pick up any bad habits. The points usually checked for was proper structure, proper chin generation from the feet and directed by the waist and back, proper rooting and transference of root, smoothness, continuity of motion and lightness. The posture was repeated over and over again until it was perfected, normally this would take another month of training per posture at this stage.
Walking Training (Jou Lian)
The above two steps occur for each posture and then this step is added. The moving posture is linked to the previous on learnt in sequence. Then a new posture is learnt beginning again with single posture training. During Jou Lian, the emphasis is to learn a smooth transition between the postures whilst retaining all the qualities and aspects learned and trained when learning the postures. The whole process is repeated till the entire Jou Jia or walking sequence also known as the form or pattern is learnt. The linking of the newly learnt posture with the previously learnt one in the sequence is usually not very smooth at the start and it takes practice to smoothen out the flow. The momentum from the beginning to the end of the form should remain the same one momentum.
Sometimes certain postures make more sense when they are linked in sequence with others. With the combination of two or more postures a deeper understanding of how they work together in sequence is learnt. The transition of the root from one leg to another is also much more important now as is stability and agility in motion and sometimes this is tested by the teacher to ensure that all the aspects are retained.
Form Training (Jou Jia)
Form Training Occurs throughout the training of the art, from the very beginning to the highest levels. The Middle Frame is practiced initially and at advanced levels the Fast Frame, Low Frame, High Frame and Large Frame are practiced. These methods of doing the form derive from Yang Pan Hou and Yang Chien Hou.
Medium Frame (Zhong Jia)
After the entire sequence has been learnt, for a time the practice is confined t the middle height which is the way the form was initially learnt. The objective is to further train in the aspects and the flow of the form as well as improving the moving root. This in time builds up the body in the development and usage of internal strength as well as the focus for each posture and the transition of the energies.
Fast Frame (Quai Jia)
The next stage of training of the form is to increase the speed of the form and to move from mainly stationary step to moving step for some of the techniques, the same aspects should be retained despite the increase in speed, the postures during this are are also a little lower than in the middle height (from now on referred to as the medium frame). Agility is a key goal of this level of training, rooted in Tai Ch'i Chuan is not dead rooting where one is stuck to the ground but a rooted agility that is stable in motion. Flow is very important in this stage of motion as it is easily lost when performing the movements at speed.
An example of the set practiced at this stage is Yang Cheng Fu's Tai Ch'i Long Boxing. The sequence varied somewhat from the normal set but most of the techniques remained the same. This kind of training is more combat oriented though the focus is still on the flow, changes and utilisation of energy rather fixed martial applications, this aids in formless application. At this stage of training the set is often called the 'fast frame' (quai jia).
Low Frame (Di Jia)
After gaining stability, agility and speed without losing the aspects that make good Tai Ch'i Chuan, the next level is to train endurance and proper alignment at a low height. Here the speed is almost as slow as the middle frame but the postures are done very low with knees about parallel to the ground and later even lower. In lowering the height, one should not sacrifice the aspects which ensure that the posture can be held with the minimum of effort. The progress to this level should be gradual and not rushed, rushing it could cause alot bad habits to be picked up resulting in a loss of all the benefits learnt earlier.
Yang Shao Hou and Yang Pan Hou used to make their students practice under a kind of high table which was used in the kitchen for the preparation of food. One should not loose agility and proper structure even at this low height. It trains also suppleness of the body and builds up the musculature and structure for truly great and explosive power generation. But one must bear in mind that the goal ofTai Ch'i Chuan is not the generation of great power but how to beat a great power with a lesser one, great power appropriately applied yields much more than the same brutishly applied. The form at this level of training is called the 'low frame' (di jia).
High Frame (Gao Jia)
A good root is not based on a low stance but rather on the good connection path from the centre of mass down to the ground so that any force applied on to the mass is directed downwards through the connection path to ground via the legs. Also techniques can be refined so that the same effect can be achieved with a minimum of movement. A combination of these two requirements gives rise to this level of training where rooted agility and efficient technique are the goals of training. After training the root connection and suppleness in the low frame, this next level of training applies this in refinement. Here the energy is refined until it could be concentrated and released to a point, any point on the body for that matter.
The high frame of training is also evident in the Wu Yu Xiang lineage in which the stances are higher and the movements smaller and more condensed. Yang Cheng Fu's son Yang Zheng Ji practices his form in this high frame. Because of its high standing characteristic, the form at this level of training is called the 'high frame' (gao jia).
Large Frame (Da Jia)
After refining the technique so that a minimum of effort and movement is required to effect it, the form once again expands out to the proportions of the medium frame, again with large movements and stable steps.
Why so? Though externally these two frames of training appear much alike, in this level of training each part of the movement contains within it a technique. Does it mean that one should be concious of the specific application throughout? No, this is because what is trained is the transition of energy to counter energy, so only the movement of energy is savoured.
In any attack, it is the energy behind the attacking limb or implement that is the effecting force, so Tai Ch'i Chuan deals with this rather than just merely the physical limb or implement. An understanding of how energy is applied in countering such attacking energy has been built up through all the different frames of training. So at this level of training, the transition of energy throughout the technique has meaning. This is the meaning of the feet, inches, hundredth parts and thousandth parts in Tai Ch'i Chuan.
Yang Cheng Fu practiced his form in this large frame where the energy is internalised. Such was his control over it that he was never defeated. Most practitioners of the Yang style perform the large frame (in reality only doing the medium frame since Yang Chien Hou's form was just as extended) of Yang Cheng Fu and slowly seek to refine the understanding of the energy within the form to a point where each part of the technique has meaning. Because of the large movements of Yang Cheng Fu's form, this type of form is called the 'large frame' (da jia).
Push Hands Or Hitting Hands (Tui Shou, Da Shou)
Here is where the chin learnt in the form is broken down, isolated and specifically analysed and studied. At the first stage of push hands, the first 4 of the 8 chins of Tai Ch'i Chuan (aka the first 4 effecting chins of the first 4 posture of the 13 are learnt), i.e. Peng chin, Lu chin, Ji chin, An chin. They are studied in terms of their specific characteristics, application, effects against each other. Also isolated and studied here is Advance and Retreat, two of the 5 steps of the 13 postures.
At this stage, knowledge of the effecting chins in TCC prepares them for eventual transition into formlessness where the techniques are no longer confined to those learnt in the form and where the chins and their correct application learnt through the form take precedence in appropriate response not limited to fixed techniques.
Beginning with fixed step, single hand and later both hands in coordination it progresses to moving step. The practice is centred around the chins being studied and the motion restricted to advancing and retreating. Though the initially the exercise is choreographed, the point is not to make smooth choreography but to learn how each of the chins work with each other and so the techniques need to be carried out in ernest and the sensitivity and understanding of each of the chins at work against the other's centre made an important goal in the practice.
This is actually advanced push hands. Here the latter 4 chins of the 13 postures are isolated, studied, analysed and understood, i.e. Tsai chin, Lieh chin, Chou chin, Kao chin. They are also studied in terms of their specific characteristics, application and effects against each other and the first four chins of the 13 postures. The remaining 3 steps of the 5 steps of the 13 postures, Look to the Left, Watch the Right and Central Equilibrium are isolated and studied. All with the same aim as above.
Da Lu is learnt first with choreographed steps and in a curve with large stepping and later progresses to be be practiced in a line with little stepping involved. Eventually it is done in a free fashion with the chins interplaying freely. At a later stage all eight chins and five directions are freely practiced in free style pushing hands. This practice prepares the student for san shou which is the application of all that has been learnt so far in a combat situation.
There are two primary methods for training san shou, one coming down from Yang Ban Hou and the other from Yang Cheng Fu. We look at the two methods below. Both aim to achieve the same utlimate goal of formless and appropriate application to a random situation with the greatest effectiveness using the principles of Tai Ch'i Chuan.
Initial San Shou Training Method 1
Fixed San Shou
Once the chins are understood and their application refined, practice of them in the postures is introduced in a fixed fashion where one technique in the form is pitted against another, this adds a new dimension and refinement of the techniques because of the deeper understanding of the key elements and jings that make them effective and also because they are used against each other in pseudo-combat application. Push hands should be understood to be just practice drills when fixed and unfixed, so free style push hands is not the same as free style San Shou.
Fixed San Shou is learnt one couplet at a time and may eventually be linked to form a two man practice set. Important to note here is that very realistic situations are practiced, including breaking contact, timing, approach and angles. The practice though fixed is in ernest to gain an advantage over the opponent but the goal is not winning or losing but to train each other. This is the same for push hands practice.
Initial San Shou Training Method 2
San Tui Shou
San Tui Shou is where the san shou techniques are worked into the free style push hands repetoire, one at a time, gradually progressing to free style san shou with fixed techniques. Free style san shou with fixed techniques is the free interplay of the san shou techniques learnt at this stage but kept to within the taught repetoire. Later this progresses to free style san shou.
Free Style San Shou
This is where initially the teachniques from Fixed San Shou and San Tui Shou are practiced in a free unsequenced manner then evolves to emphasize appropriate action suited to the random situation even if that action is not a standard technique. Here the free play of the effects of chin are truly given and is as close as you can get to actual combat but without the intent to harm. Experience is built up here and formless application of the art developed.
Normally the weapons were learnt only after becoming accomplished in the fist set (medium frame), push hands and san shou. The weapons forms are the application of the aspects and principles of Tai Ch'i Chuan in the use of weapons. Yang Tai Ch'i Chuan has three weapons: the double edged sword (jian), the broadsword (dao) and the spear (chiang). The training sequence for the weapons are much the same with the fistic training with the form, the two man practices like the sticky sword, broadsword and spear.
By Peter Lim Tian Tek.