Insights on Yang Chengfu’s Ten Principles of Taijiquan
Compiled Teachings of Master Yang Jun
“The principles are like a compass and a ruler; they show us how to draw a circle and a straight line.” - Yang Jun Laoshi
Use intent, not force
Distinguish empty and full
Practice continuously and without interruption
Seek quiescence within movement
Keep the head up
Keep the shoulders and elbows down
Sink the chest and round the back
Relax the waist
Unify upper and lower body
Unify internal and external
The ten principles are a useful guide to our daily practice. They are a set of requirements that govern body position, energy, and spirit. At first glance, the wording of the translated principles can be vague and the meaning obscure. For practitioners of taiji, oftentimes the study of them creates more questions than answers. As we become familiar with the principles over years of earnest practice, however, they become more clear and accessible. The ten principles are better realized through physical experience and application rather than intellectualization.
The goal of taijiquan is to be natural. The ten principles are the framework and natural feeling is our guide. If in pursuit of the ten principles we feel unnatural, then we are not practicing in accordance with the essence of taiji and can only pursue them to limit of our ability. We are limited in our understanding based on experience. Constant self-evaluation and guidance from a skilled instructor is required to improve and cultivate practice. When we think we have found our center, we should ask ourselves if it is natural. When we truly find our center, we will be able to clearly demonstrate the principles in the form.
A common mistake is to overemphasize the requirements described by the principles, such as sinking our chest so much that our head drops, or focusing too much on the breath resulting in distraction from the body or form. Feedback and guidance from an experienced teacher helps us stay on track.
1. Use intent, not force
“Pay attention to relaxation - no attention to hardness”
Where the mind goes, the qi and energy follow. The mind creates intent and the body moves. Shen (spirit) is the leader and the body is at its command. The heart/mind creates the orders and the qi is the flag the energy follows; the spirit is the marshal, and the body is the troops. Remember, the mind leads the qi, and the qi does not lead the mind. The mind focuses on the intent, not the breath. Notice the last part of this process is the body.
How does taiji energy manifest in the body? The goal of taijiquan is to combine our internal and external. To find the correct feeling, seek and cultivate softness. The softness we are looking for is a balance between being limp and stiff.
In physics, physical movement requires force. In our practice, force needs to be consciously refined over time, like turning iron into steel. Taiji energy is like steel, which is light and flexible, whereas force is heavy and brittle like iron. Taiji energy is refined and has technique and skill.
To practice with softness, we must first relax our body. Practicing with too much force will cause us to be stiff, making our energy too localized. Being too limp will cause our energy to collapse and make it difficult to show our spirit.
In taiji theory once yin has reached its maximum it becomes yang. Once we’ve achieved softness (yin) we can unify that softness into whole body energy (yang).
2. Distinguish empty and full
This principle applies to our self alone as well as our self with an opponent. When empty and full are clear we can change our energy and position freely. When connecting to an opponent, connect to their energy and focus less on their posture. We can also influence our opponent’s empty and full.
If empty and full are not clear, we will be double-weighted. Double-weighted is defined as the inability to change yin and yang. Not resisting will help make yin and yang clear.
3. Practice continuously and without interruption
One movement = one taiji. From the beginning to the end of each posture, there is no interruption in the energy. This is not talking about the form as a whole. Every time we show energy, it should be complete, continuous and circular, like reeling silk from a cocoon. Storage and release need to be connected without breaks. In order to make continuous movements, use a circle; don’t break the energy using sharp angles. The circles can be hidden, so remember the saying ‘find the straight in the curve and curve in the straight’.
4. Seek quiescence within movement
Taiji uses stillness to counter movement. When the body moves, the mind remains calm, allowing for a natural response. With familiarity, our mind is able to lead the movements. Practicing slowly allows the qi to sink to the dantian, which in turn clears and settles the mind.
We let our partner move first; only when we receive their intent can we respond appropriately. At this moment do not stop to think. Focus on one’s own intent and the intent of the partner. With experience we will be able to keep our mind calm and react naturally without thinking. Then we can see the whole picture and not get lost in the details.
5. Keep the head up
Good qi circulation extends from the bottom of our feet to the top of our head. Raising our head lifts our spirit (shen), helps circulate qi, and helps connect our body together (jing).
Keep our head centered and looking straight, following our intent. Our spirit resides in our heart and is shown through the eyes. Pay attention to where we are looking. Keep the mouth closed and the tongue on the roof of our mouth. Breathe through the nose naturally.
6. Keep the shoulders and elbows down
We need our lower body to be stable, middle body flexible, and upper body light. We do this by sinking the qi. If our shoulders are raised, our qi raises with them; this disconnects the lower body from the upper body. We cannot show energy this way or root. Our push will be weak and external and our opponent can easily control us.
7. Sink the chest and round the back
Do not stick the chest out. Rounding the back straightens the spine, unifies the right and left sides of our body and allows the qi to stick to the spine while it sinks to the dantian. This allows the energy to be connected from the waist to the spine.
This principle helps our waist and our hips relax, and allows our tailbone to be centered and settled. If our waist and hips are not relaxed, our upper body and lower body will be disconnected.
8. Relax the waist
Energy is generated by the kua and waist. The waist is like the handle of a whip. When the waist is relaxed, we can send the energy out to the tips of the four limbs. The upper body should be light, the middle body flexible, and the lower body stable. The waist is the key to making this possible and is therefore called the ruler of the external body. The mind is the ruler of the internal body.
9. Unify upper and lower body
Technically, this principle is describing upper, middle, and lower body coordination. Taijiquan is a whole body exercise. Use the lower body to augment the power of the upper body, sending the energy to a single point. Taiji energy has a direction, from down to up. It is rooted in the feet, issued through the legs, controlled by the waist and expressed in the hands.
10. Unify internal and external
In order to combine our internal and external we must understand each movement’s meaning. When we have intent, the body movement follows our mind. Understanding the intent causes the spirit to rise, clearly showing our qi and jing. Externally, taiji energy comes from our root and is controlled by our waist. Internally, our energy comes from our dantian and is directed by our intent.
Good taiji has these characteristics:
Correct body shape/ angle