Exercise Tai Chi: 55-Step Flow Form

 

Tai Chi (Taijiquan) is a martial art some few hundred years old. An important element is a series of linked movements called a “form” which is based on fighting movements. There are “empty hand” forms and weapons forms.

In the 1920s three major figures in Taiji worked together to adapt the empty-hand forms of their respective styles. Yang style’s Yang cheng-fu and Wu style’s Wu Chien-chuan smoothed out the forms and got rid of explosive postures, jumps and other abrupt time changes to make their forms easier for the general public to learn. Sun style’s Sun tu-t’ang also created a style with smooth, flowing movements omitting more vigorous martial elements. The work of these masters during this decade saw the emergence of what could be called “Tai Chi Exercise” with its distinctive slow, even movements that are practiced primarily for exercise rather than emphasising vigorous martial training.

It must be stressed that all styles of Tai Chi have kept the full martial art training for those who want to pursue that path. The fourth major Tai Chi style – Chen – did not adapt its empty hand form and today still contains explosive fast movements with the slower gentler ones.

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century two of the most influential Tai Chi “Exercise forms” were created from the Yang tradition:

  1. The Simplified 24-Step Taijiquan was created by a group of masters organised by the Chinese State Physical Culture and Sports Commission in 1956. The form was simplified, repetitions removed and postures balanced by performing them on the opposite side. The form takes no more than five minutes to perform.
  2. Cheng man-ching’s Simplified 37 Posture Form was created probably in the early 1950s. Cheng eliminated most repetitions and removed some postures, which reduced the performance time to about ten minutes. The postures are performed with the spine more upright. It was not until the 1960s that it became widespread.

In recent decades there has been more focus on introducing Tai Chi or the elderly and those with a range of health issues preventing them from performing robust exercise. Simplified forms have been developed to improve the barriers to Tai Chi and to introduce it to a wider range of people. These simplified forms contain only a few postures; the idea is that students do not have to devote years to learn complex postures in order to gain benefit. However, the simplification process can frequently result in movements that are almost too easy. Students can find them repetitive and monotonous and uninteresting to perform. This can be frustrating because mindfulness in moving exercise is best achieved by interesting movements or movements with meaning. Tai Chi’s martial intent makes it “interesting”. If simplified forms lack the martial element they are indistinguishable from Qigong. In Qigong, mindfulness can be achieved by focusing on the body and visualizing internal energy / Qi and directing it to various parts of the body. So-called “Easy Taiji” forms that adopt the abstract mindfulness of Qigong rather than the worldly mindfulness of the martial arts can be enjoyable if the movement contains enough variety. If too repetitive they become an `empty-headed’ chore like many modern Western exercises.

In a Tai Chi form there should always be martial intent with continuous flow, stepping and an awareness of single-weightedness.

And so we come to the 55 Step Flow Form, which is an amalgamation of Cheng man-ching’s short form and the 24 Step Yang form that has been abridged and adapted in the tradition of “Exercise Tai Chi” evolution. I removed the kicks, squats and postures requiring weight placed entirely on one leg because it is not efficient to have leg strengthening and “core exercises” in the midst of a moving form (that’s what the Chinese Wand Exercises are for!). In addition, too much emphasis on placing all the weight on a single leg – which is what happens in traditional tai Chi forms – can create an uneven strain on the lower back. Eliminating these type of movements has resulted in a more balanced and flowing form.

I also changed footwork and weight distribution to reduce knee loading when moving forwards in bow posture. Every posture is performed on both right and left sides. The result is an interesting flowing form lasting about five minutes. More crucially I have changed Cheng man-ching’s idiosyncratic footwork (completely shifting weight from one foot to the other, then stepping out with the empty foot without any adjustment whatsoever of the weighted leg). The only explanation I have found for this is that his method “opens the kua” (hip-joint). But there are safer and more efficient methods of doing this.

Summary of the 55 Step Flow Form:

1. There are no kicks, squats or single leg standing postures.
2. No more than about 65-70% of weight transferred to the front leg in bow posture.
3. With transitions between postures requiring all the weight to be on a single leg, that leg should be directly under the body and only slightly bent.
4. When stepping forward in postures such as Parting Wild Horse’s Mane and Brush Knee, the opposite leg is first brought back under the body before stepping out.*
5. Stances are no more than shoulder width.
6. Every posture is performed on right and left side.
7. Each postures occurs twice only – once right and once left
8. Breathing is taught from the outset and integrated with each posture.

*Many articles have been written about avoiding injury when placing all the weight on the forward bent leg in traditional Tai Chi forms. They offer complex, long-term solutions.

In the three examples below of traditional Tai Chi forms, the left (bent) leg is in front of the body and has its knee about 8-12 inches in front of the hip. With the right leg off the ground the weight of the entire body is on the left leg. This means that the left knee is taking the body’s weight at a vulnerable position.

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The 55 Step Form avoids this technique and only places 100% of weight on a leg if the knee is under the hip (so that the leg is almost straight).

55 Step “Flow Form” Postures list on PDF Document

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Search for the Hatchet Taiwan Wand Method

`Search for the Hatchet’ is one of the more challenging Chinese Wand Exercises. It involves bending forwards and raising the arms behind us as we hold the wand behind the back either side of the body.

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There is a style of Chinese Wand in Taiwan that has an identical technique. However, their wands are shorter which makes the posture a little more challenging. This posture is one of many presented by Bruce Johnson in his original book which also feature in exercises in China and Taiwan today.

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What Can You Learn in Two Days?

There is a thread on a Linkedin group titled `Two day Teacher Certification Programs Cheapen Tai Chi.’

The gist of the thread was outrage at certification courses that claim to make you a Tai Chi instructor over a weekend. Tai Chi, as we know, takes a long time to master. It needs many months and years before one can even think of teaching. It is clearly impossible to become a teacher of the art in two days.

Yet Tai Chi instructors condemnation such courses for `cheapening Tai Chi’ is not purely altruistic. Professional and semi-professional instructors are concerned with how they would make a living. Most Tai Chi instructors only make enough money to survive or, if part-time, to earn a little extra, but the fact remains that teaching Tai Chi is a major source of income for most instructors, so these types of `courses’ have the potential to impact directly on their income.

Tai Chi instructors who have spent many years, time and money to build up their skills do not want people with little experience teaching their art. If I was a master baker and someone set up a training school offering a two-day commercial baking course I would point out that it had taken years of hard work, effort and teaching from master bakers to get where I was – and that the artistry and quality of my work would reflect that.

The two-day Tai Chi teacher certification program is illogical and morally suspect. If an art is so simple that it can be learnt in two days, why would anyone want to be taught by people who learnt in this way? Why wouldn’t they just take the course themselves and not have a teacher at all? And when the `teachers’ of this two-day program take on students are they going to provide courses longer than two days? Of course they are! How else can they make money? But when their students realize that their teachers only had two days what’s to stop them from taking the same course and start teaching themselves?

The world will be full of `certified Tai Chi teachers’ and nobody to teach because everyone will be a certified teacher. It’s a pyramid scheme.

But…

But when people are hungry, bread is bread. People are clearly in need of learning a health and fitness exercises that will calm them down and relieve the pressure of living in the modern world. This is exactly what Tai Chi does – but so does Qigong and Chinese Wand Exercises. These arts are easier to learn than Tai Chi and can be leant more quickly.

One instructor posted “What can you learn in just two days?”

In terms of Tai Chi, very little. But in two days you can learn to follow simple instructions involving clear linear movements and breathing patterns; all within a comprehensive set of exercises that is an effective and efficient daily health and fitness routine. Two Chinese systems which fit the bill are:-

  • The 18 Taiji-Qigong Exercises (Shibashi)
  • The 17 Exercises (Chinese Wand Exercises.)

When people are hungry for an efficient simple easy to learn daily exercise routine they do not have to spend years paying class fees.

A two-day program should teach people to empower themselves and learn exercises they can use every day of their lives without any further intervention.

My Tai Chi Linage

I practiced Tai Chi for over 30 years and have a direct linage to Dr Cheng man-ching. His senior student, Dr Chi Chiang Tao, was my teacher’s teacher for about a decade. This video, shot in the 1970s, shows Dr Tao with my teacher and other students in a London park during the 1970s.

 

 I was elected Hon President of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain in 2013.

Although Taiji is wonderful and unique martial art and a fascinating moving meditation I no longer practice it as daily health and fitness routine.

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Michael Davies is Hon President of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain and author of `Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Amazon UK page http://amzn.to/1yPqjZK
Singing Dragon Blog Interview http://bit.ly/1yPqogd
Google Books Preview http://bit.ly/1vCadPZ

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Wudang Kung Fu Short Staff

I recently discovered, via a Jiangan practitioner, an old Chinese person living in the West who has practiced wand exercises since childhood. This person originally comes from the WuDang area of China. When shown the techniques of Jiangan 17 Exercise Routine this person recognised some. In fact, the Wudang area was on my `shortlist’ of places where wand exercises may still be practiced in China as an exercise, rather than a martial art weapon, even if it is only `behind closed doors’. The `Wudang Kung Fu Short Staff” is about the same length as the pole used in Jiangan. The WuDang Staff is a martial art but it can be adapted for the fitness exercises. Research is still ongoing to discover how many people in the region still practice health and fitness wand forms and how closely they relate to the 17 Exercise Routine.

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Michael Davies is Hon President of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain and author of `Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Amazon UK page http://amzn.to/1yPqjZK
Singing Dragon Blog Interview http://bit.ly/1yPqogd
Google Books Preview http://bit.ly/1vCadPZ

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Jiangan Postures Similar to Qigong Forms

Certain Jiangan postures are similar to some ancient Qigong postures but the methodology and body mechanics are very different and unique.

In the photos below you can see some Qigong (Taoist Yoga) postures on the left that resemble some Jiangan exercises on the right. This does not indicate that the wand exercises are a derivative of these Qigong sets, only that a common ancestry may be reasonably assumed.

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Michael Davies is Hon President of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain and author of `Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Amazon UK page http://amzn.to/1yPqjZK
Singing Dragon Blog Interview http://bit.ly/1yPqogd
Google Books Preview http://bit.ly/1vCadPZ

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Copper-embedded and carved wands

Bruce Johnson’s describes his introduction to Dr Cheng, his teacher, in the first chapter of his book. The meeting took place in old Dr Cheng’s house in Shanghai in 1945. It was in a room full of bamboo furniture that Johnson first saw the four-foot wands he was later to use in the exercise he would bring to the West.

“Some of these wands looked very old and the carving and Chinese lettering on them had been worn smooth. There were also greenish-black spots on the wands that were actually pieces of copper.”

There were carvings of images and Chinese characters on the wands. Some were ingrained with pieces of copper, which is thought to retain the body’s Qi energy). The Chinese believed that copper was connected to health and `Qi vitality’.

The three-foot wands of Taiwan’s `Qigong-rod’ system may be the closest relative to Jiangan. Some techniques are similar to the ‘s standing exercises but other techniques involve massaging and stimulating acupuncture points in the body. The wands, made in three sections that join together, are embedded with greenish-black spots of copper the way described by Bruce Johnson in his book.

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Wands with carved symbols
The Chinese Health Qigong Association use carved bamboo rods for their routine. The dimensions of their wand (called `杖’ – zhang – meaning `cane’ or `stick’) are the same as Jiangan. The carvings are beautiful and lovingly done. The Association, in their book titled `Taiji Wellness Stick’ recognise the cultural importance of placing carvings on wands:

 “[The wand] is carved into auspicious patterns or with text about health….both ends of the stick are carved with auspicious cloud images…”

The Association’s book does much to support the `meme’ of carved wands for health exercise in Chinese culture.

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Michael Davies is Hon President of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain and author of `Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand

Amazon UK page http://amzn.to/1yPqjZK
Singing Dragon Blog Interview http://bit.ly/1yPqogd
Google Books Preview http://bit.ly/1vCadPZ

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