The daily practice of Tai Chi by millions of people results in numerous documented health benefits. These slow, integrated mind-body movements energize the body by moving chi energy through a series of fluid body motions called ‘form’. Form practiced correctly should involve seven basic principles: Relaxation, Concentration, Coordination, Centre, Circle, Balance, and Proportion.
James, one of Henry Wang’s senior students has been teaching Henry’s version of the Yang Form for the past 25 years. During the last five years, James has focused his teaching on recognizing the Chi element with-in the form that is so often misunderstood by many practicing Tai Chi. Sensing how energy moves and can be controlled becomes an exciting addition to the study of form. His latest focus on ‘Beyond the Form’ can be applied to all Tai Chi disciplines because it recognizes an essence in Chi awareness that should be present in all Tai Chi styles. Without sensitivity to the presence of Chi, that comes with many years of teaching and study, a teacher or master will have difficulty helping students achieve the awareness of Chi movement. Henry Wang introduced Search Centre to his senior students enhancing a higher level of sensitivity to the awareness of their internal Chi. Search Centre is similar to ‘Push Hands’ but normally does not involve any physical pushingin a competitive way. The goal is to match and sense the other person’s energy field while searching for opportunities to up root or move them with a focused line of Chi directed at their centre. The emphasis in Search Centre is on taking turns, giving partners feedback on what they are attempting to do with their Chi probes. This develops ‘Ting’ or the ability to listen to what the partner is doing with their Chi. As ‘Ting’ awareness increases, so does softness and relaxation, which further enhances the ability to listen or feel what is happening to one’s own Chi, as well as your partners. Developing softness and the ability to yield to physical contact with-out losing the integrity of the form’s structure should be a priority for all serious students.
The sensitivity James has developed becomes a valuable teaching tool. James is able to sense and feel when the seven Principles are being correctly applied in the student’s form. This enables students to understand the difference between “empty form” and form that is more vital or alive. The goal for students is tolearn how to control the direction and strength of Chi flow from the root to any point of focus such as a partner’s centre. To do this they have to adapt their structure to softly mirror every movement made by their partner or opponent.
Correct form utilizes the seven principles enabling the body to flow as one unit from one position to the next while never compromising the root. A strong sense of being grounded or rooted should occur throughout the form. Daily practice of form and relaxation techniques enable students to develop ‘Ting’ or the ability to listen to their own energy movement and eventually their partners. Ting becomes useful in making Tai Chi a Martial Art. Being able to sense and stay slightly ahead of the partners movements gives the receiving or listening partner an advantage.
The gentle practice of Search Centre becomes an interesting game that can be played well into the later stages of one’s life. Serious study can develop incredible powers that are hard to explain when witnessed for the first time. Henry Wang and a few others demonstrate this incredulous phenomenon of Chi control that can be viewed onYou Tube. Go to: Henry Wang Tai Chi School also Adam Mizner Heaven Man Earth.
Bio: James actively coached High School rugby for boys and girls, as well as teams of men and women, in his first 35 years as a teacher. Coaching others has been an important aspect of his life. When he injured his back at 45, he realized his rugby coaching days were numbered.
The study of Tai Chi changed his life in a number of ways. Numerous rugby injuries became less bothersome as muscle and spinal balance began to improve. Work with ‘at risk’ students in the public school became less stressful as he learned to be less reactive. Tai Chi emphasizes overcoming the natural reflex of ‘fight or flight’. Learning to resist this automatic reflex or temptation makes difficult situations easier to handle and the resulting stress becomes less.
Replacing Rugby coaching with teaching others Tai Chi filled his need to help others with an activity that would enrich their lives. The need to teach others correctly enhanced his own learning. Weekly practice of Search Centre honed listening skills. Classes teaching beginners and advanced students form eventually helped him distil the ‘essence’ from the Tai Chi form. Teaching these finer points to others has provided him witha passion that has become one of the major focuses of his life.
The introduction to Henry Wang in the fall of 1987 piqued James’s interest when he observed how easy Henry could send students flying across the room with the lightest of touches. The mystery ofthis phenomenon became a consuming challenge for greater understanding over the next 30 years. Fortunately, a handful of students, living locally became equally interested in participating in biweekly sessions to practice Henry’s Search Centre.
Initially, changing the game from Push Hands to Search Centre was a challenge for most of the students. James’s rugby background enabled him to use many of his hard pushing skills to up-root others. Henry would regularly admonish the group to no avail in the early years. Gradually, hardness was replaced with softness enabling more sensitivity to develop.
New awareness of the centres located inside the personal space, or globe, as Henry calls it, made Search Centre more meaningful. The Search Centre group began to understand the sensation of pushing each other using only Chi directed towards their partners centre with intention. Softness became the new measuring stick for progress. With softness, the ability to understand or ‘Ting’ the partner became clearer. Regular feed-back from cooperative partners resulted in more awareness, softness, sensitivity or ‘Ting’.
The largest struggle for the group was resisting the urge to win by using ‘Ting’ to neutralize their partner before physically pushing back. Hard physical contact between partners results in the loss of sensitivity, resulting in both partners becoming hard at the points of physical contact. Search Centre, played properly, becomes an energy game using softness and chi to enhance awareness and should not be mixed with the more physical Push Hands until both partners have developed a high level of ‘Ting’.
The goal of any encounter is to develop a deeper understanding of one’s structure and how it can be used for self-defence or as a Martial Art. Structure can be achieved by practicing each posture in the form correctly. Eventually with practice and feed-back, any movement between the postures will be equally as strong and connected to the root. The moving structure becomes globe shaped enabling body contact to occur at the outer surface of the globe while it remains connected to the root. Soft contact relays information to the body about how the two centres connected. Once the centre becomes locked on, Chi can be directed towards the aggressor’s centre easily throwing them off balance.
Tai Chi should never be about going on the offensive first unless the partner has volunteered to take the role as the aggressor. The goal should be to neutralize the partner’s physical attack with rooted structure before redirecting the chi direction to lead the partner towards a path of their least resistance. Chi focused from a rooted centre towards the unrooted centre of the physical aggressor, enables the game to be played with little or no physical force. This enables the force from Chi to be identified and enhanced through regular practice of Search Centre. Hence the quote “Four ounces moves a thousand pounds”.
Sensitivity training requires cooperative partners who are willing to give feed-back. Information builds confidence to help to overcome the normal fight or flight response. Mixing natural physical reflexes or reactions only confuses progress. Dedication to matching Chi and physical movement in form practice develops better structure and a deeper root. Search Centre practice develops sensitivity and softness while sinking the Chi. Sinking the Chi builds the density of the Chi within the body. Form and Search Centre require regular practice. One without the other will slow overall progress.
addition to Henry's book
My introduction to Henry Wang, my Surfu, occurred shortly after I turned 45.
During the summer of 1987, I seriously injured my back and discovered that I was unable to continue my daily fitness program of jogging. Fortunately for me, Surfu had recently started teaching tai chi at the Courtenay Recreation Centre. I soon discovered daily tai chi practice enabled me to de-stress enough to enjoy guiding my 50 or so ‘At Risk’ students at a local high school as well as coach a newly created girls rugby team for the next ten years.
Surfu introduced me to an interesting journey of self discover. Having ignored my broken body for as long as possible, I was ready to participate in a new activity which I could share with others in the same way I had shared rugby. Practice and teaching tai chi has been the perfect fit for me.
I am honoured to be asked to write about some my experiences with Surfu Wang.
As a rugby player and coach for thirty years, I thrived on aggressive body contact. Push Hands, a Chinese martial art, was an ideal activity to satisfy my need for physical contact. I looked forward to each Sunday session at Comox Elementary School. Many of Surfu’s students met weekly there to practice Push Hands or as Surfu called it, Search Centre. Initially, senior students complained that I was physically hard and too aggressive. Softness was alien to me. How could anyone push without applying physical force? Henry often scolded us, “No, you’re being too physical, Search Centre should never result in a hard push!” We felt obligated to comply to his instruction, but soon lost interest trying to understand his directions and returned to Push Hands practice. Now after 25 years of form and Search Centre practice, I am honoured to be complimented on my ‘softness’, especially by Surfu.
Senior students were always eager to join Surfu when he conducted Search Centre demonstrations at workshops in Comox and Vancouver. I discovered the more aggressive I was while attacking him, the more explosively I was projected across the room by Surfu. This phenomenon left all of us puzzled but eager to experience it again. One example of his soft use of explosive power occurred during a demonstration to group of Investment Brokers in Vancouver. Surfu remained seated while his student Peter was standing next to him loosely clasping their right hands together. I approached Peter with my two arms extended to push Peter’s arm which offered no resistance. Peter was merely offering his arm as a prop for me to hold and push. On the second approach, as I made contact with the relaxed arm, both of my feet lifted off the floor and my body was propelled backward through the air. While airborne, I was able to turn around 180 degrees and land ten feet away facing a French Door which I hit with force, bursting them opening and startling office workers in the next room. The incredulous spectators clamoured for another demonstration. Surfu replied, “It doesn’t need repeating”.
Eventually, I became one of Surfu’s students who responded to “No Touch”, I recall the first moment vividly. We were at Lake Helen Mackenzie during one of the early summer camps, and Surfu tried to move me with chi from about fifteen feet away. I stood waiting for something to happen. Anything! I had no idea what to expect. After what seemed like minutes, I decided to move and he seemed relieved. I had faked the response because I didn’t feel any of the sensations that I usually felt when I physically approached and made contact with him. Later, I realized that I had not connected to his centre as I usually did when I approached to engage him during a demonstration. The next time he tried “No Touch”, I visualized connecting to his centre as I would if I was about to make physical contact. Sure enough, I was moved by his chi. The stronger I made the connection, the stronger and more abrupt his chi affected me. If I visualized making a rugby tackle on him, he easily bowled me over ten feet or more from where he stood. Check out the picture of Surfu and me on his web site.
This fits with the concept that tai chi is a Martial Art, or the art of self defence. My belief is that when I approach Surfu, my energy field extends in an attempt to connect with his centre. Surfu is able to sense my energy boundary and my body’s centre. This clear awareness enables him to easily move me by directing a laser like beam of chi at my centre. My body behaves like a tumble weed broken free of its mooring in the wind.
I have been teaching tai chi for over 25 years. For the first 15 years I attempted to copy Surfu's form and to demonstrate this copied ‘form’ to my students. Surfu often said, “Form should not be copied”. How is this possible I thought? I could not figure out how to teach tai chi without using the shapes I had carefully attempted to copy. He also said, “When I came to Canada I had to ‘smash down’ every thing I learned and start from the beginning.” What does that mean, I thought? Didn’t his ‘form’ look beautiful before he ‘smashed’ it down?
Over thirty years agoPeter and Ronnie Ulhmannspent some time in Taipei studying culture and language. When they asked for a good tai chi master they were told that Henry Wang was one of the best teachers of Cheng Man Ching’s Yang Form in Taipei. Surfu now claims, ‘form’ should be ‘Globe Shaped’ or ‘No Shape’. What happened to the different poses or shapes named in the Cheng Man Ching form, Ward Off, Grasp the Swallows Tail or Low Punch? How is ‘No Shape’ possible? What did he mean when he said, “It’s not a punch”? Fortunately for us Ronnie asked Surfu if he was interested in coming to Canada to teach tai chi.
My moments of understanding came slowly. After one occasion after showing my form to a group of my students, one of the students exclaimed, “That's not what you taught us!” At first I was confused until I realized that my form was no longer a series of distinct shapes, but instead had become more ‘fluid’ or perhaps ‘globe shaped’. My ‘form’ did not clearly represent the various shapes I had carefully emphasized and taught the class.
Analyzing my movements helped me to begin to understand Surfu’s concept of including the transitions between the shapes to make ‘Globe Shape’ or ‘No Shape’ possible. I began to understand when he compared tai chi movement to that of a fish. The hands are the tail of the fish. Visualizing the movement of a snake works as well. The centre of the snake behaves as our dan tien. When the snake moves forward from its centre, the tail follows. The hands are equivalent to the tail of the snake, while the root or feet behave more like the head of the snake. Surfu often compares the tai chi movements to that of various animals.
Teaching beginners ‘form’ means giving them recognizable shapes and movements they can identify with. Showing them the position of the hands first, rather than how the centre moves the hands, is much easier for new students to learn. Even though Surfu always says, “Turn the centre first”, this constant reminder often goes unheeded because most students continue to focus on copying the shapes by leading with the upper body.
Many years of form practice and guidance from Surfu helped me realize that movement doesn’t originate from the dan tien. The dan tien directs the movement. Movement begins in the ankles which are connected to the root or the ‘bubbling well’ in the feet.
Surfu’s concept of swinging the bucket helped students begin to understand how little movements of the centre can radiate out to become fast or slow movements in the hand. The demonstration helps us to understand the connection of the body’s centre to the hand. The smaller the centre and the more relaxed the torso becomes, the more powerful the chi becomes when focused or delivered to a chosen point. Surfu often compares the body’s centre to a door hinge. The movement generated near the edge of the door will be slow and have little effect. Movement close to the hinge causes the edge of the door to move dramatically. Therefore, the smaller centre movements become exaggerated as the movement nears the surface of the body. This helps explain the power of the one inch punch or push. Moving a small amount at the centre can cause a rapid, connected movement in the hands. Again these lessons were repeated regularly in our weekly classes but progress requires internal changes to our body that take time to occur.
Attending weekly classes in Surfu’s studio, we would often take turns standing next to him while the rest of the class attempted to analyze the difference between our ‘form’ and his. Often the comment was, “Surfu moves as one unit while we obviously miss one or more of the seven principles. I came to realize that movement and chi must originate in the root and be directed through the dan tien before I could begin to apply the ‘Seven Principles’ properly.
Surfu often refers to the ‘Trail’. Again the ‘Trail’ had little meaning until the ‘Seven Principles’ become evident. How do you know when you have glimpses of the “Trail”? For me the sense of the ‘Trail’ occurred when any movement began to involve the mind coordinating the movement of chi and the physical body together. The mind moved chi while the physical body flowed or moved in the direction of that energy. The ‘Seven Principles’ eventually become apparent in each movement. Simple movements became more involved until I began to have a sense of Surfu’s globe shape instead of the various static postures of the form. While believing I have a sense of the ‘globe shape’ I know that my form is far from looking as smooth and beautiful as his.
My career as school teacher and rugby coach may have prepared me to help others understand the nuances behind movement in ‘form’. Earlier in my relationship with Surfu, we had an interesting disagreement about our two styles of teaching. Surfu preferred to wait for the students to discover for themselves the ‘mysteries’ of tai chi, as he called them. This follows a Chinese tradition, whereas, teaching in the west is more about pushing the student to learn. Western culture also encourages the student to ask questions to clarify their knowledge. In Chinese philosophy, Surfu explained, asking probing questions is considered disrespectful of the master. Students are expected to wait until their Surfu feels they are ready for the next step. There is no urgency, the Surfu controls the progress and expects obedience and respect. Canadians students tend to be impatient and want to have more control in the learning process. This attitude results in hundreds of Canadian students who begin studying tai chi but fail to appreciate the health benefits, because they are to impatient or busy to appreciate the value of daily tai chi practice.
I am grateful to have had the privilege of studying with such a great Tai Chi Master. After years of questioning and practicing, I have an appreciation of what Surfu has offered us. His dedication to the perfection of his form and his soft power constantly surprise and inspire me. I am also thankful for the many tai chi friends and experiences that I have gained as a result of this on-going study. The tai chi mystery will continue to be a challenge for us to collectively solve.