A stagnant body cannot move freely so we need to be aware of our body. You cannot raise an arm in a trance. The moment the force of my opponent touches my skin; my intention is already penetrating his bones. In lifting up the arms, internal force threads through the arm. If the left is heavy, the left becomes empty and the right moves in. When the right is heavy, the right becomes empty and the left moves in.
Internal force in the body is like the wheels of a car. They must coordinate and move together. Otherwise, your body becomes disoriented and weak. The problem is typically in the waist and legs. Begin by using your heart to move the body. Follow your opponent and not yourself. Later, your body will follow your heart while you are still following your opponent.
When you follow yourself, you are sluggish. When you follow your opponent, you are agile. If you can follow, you become very sensitive and can sense accurately the amount of force. You can gauge the distance of your opponent’s approach and intention without mistake. Advance or retreat, coordination is perfect. Practice this diligently and you will become skillful in your techniques.
This verse on body awareness summarizes how agility is achieved in our movements. One of the most important elements towards achieving this goal is to maintain the body’s Five Bows. The concept of Five Bows in tai chi is fundamental knowledge with which all beginners should become aware. In the practice of tai chi, the human body is considered to be made of five bows. These 5 bows consist of the main bow (spine), two upper bows (arms) and two lower bows (legs).
There are three ways that one of the bows can be broken:
- over extension
- over flexion
When a bow is broken, that part of our body becomes locked. This means that this part of the body loses its agility or the ability to move with ease. Maintaining the five bows assures that none of the bows are broken at any point in time.
Next, this verse also mentions an internal force threading through the arm. This concept of internal force has a very close relationship to the five bows. When a bow is broken, the flow of internal force is cut-off. The flow of our internal force is what moves the body and limbs. When the internal force is cut-off, the body will not be able to respond to the movement directed by our internal force. Again, we will lose agility.
During our forms practice classes, we train to move our body by engaging and using our internal force to direct the movement of our body and limbs. Moving in this manner is the most effective. It is a superior form of movement when we can synchronize the movement of all parts of the body so they are moving in unity as one collective effort. To achieve this type of efficiency of movement requires that we have all of the five bows intact at all times.
Learning this skill alone will take at least a couple of years to accomplish exhibiting this skill with a moderate amount of consistency. Since we know how essential the Five Bows skill is to all movement in tai chi practice, we introduce the concept of five bows as early as possible. This is why we have all new students coming to learn tai chi at our school begin with the Tai Chi Basics course. Learning the five bows concept starts here and continues to be a concept reinforced throughout the different levels of tai chi practice. This concept is necessary and re-emphasized during the advanced classes which you might find yourself starting some 2 or 3 years into your practice of tai chi.
With this early start, by the time a student progresses into the advance classes, it is now possible to learn to move with some success using internal force. The parts of the body start to work in concert with each other and become synchronized as a single continuous movement. Movements begin to appear smooth and fluid.
To achieve agility in push hands, we use a slightly different approach. The concept of five bows is still intricately applicable in this form of tai chi practice. In fact, any flaw in maintaining the five bows becomes easily exposed by our partner when pushing hands. A broken bow during push hands means a part of the body becomes locked. Even a push hands partner who is not too highly skilled will be able to easily detect it and use this advantage to leverage or unbalance you.
Body awareness in push hands allows us to stick or follow our opponent with extreme precision by matching the timing, distance and force of our opponent to perfection. To follow our opponent well requires that all parts of our body move with ease like a well-oiled machine. The only way to accomplish this matching of movements requires the agility afforded us in maintaining the five bows. But, it also requires that we begin all movements from the dantian. The dantian is the origin of our internal force and it directs the flow of our internal force through the rest of the body.
HEART IS CALM
You will notice that some of the sentences in this verse are very similar to what was said for the first character tactic “Heart is calm”. Especially in the context of push hands, it is particularly true that calmness is a prerequisite. Calmness allows one to be sensitive and be able to listen well. When you can listen well, then you can follow well. To follow well, you need to be agile which starts with a calm heart and practiced body awareness.
BODY AWARENESS – The Second Characteristic
The essence of the second characteristic of Body Awareness prepares the body to be agile. Achieving an agile body requires firstly that we become able to maintain a Five Bows framework. This framework enables an efficiency of movement and prevents any part of our body from becoming locked. When we have an awareness of our body’s framework and we can maintain it while moving then we can begin to effectively use our internal force to guide the body.
In the upcoming blog, we will delve into this third characteristic of Internal Force Converged.