Cultivating Ch'i

Sometime after we start learning Tai Chi, we are introduced to the idea of ch’i () and cultivating ch’i. For some people, especially people from western cultures, the idea of ch’i can be rather a mystery. So, what does “cultivating ch’i” mean?

In the context of living creatures ch’i is often translated as breath or ‘breath energy’, but I especially like this from the definition of ch’i in the glossary of The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition: “Any metabolic or psycho-spiritual transformation of energy may be characterized as ch’i.” Put simply (though perhaps a bit of an over-simplification), we can think of ch’i as our metabolic processes, the ‘act of living’. Being aware of ch’i is being aware of what is happening internally. When we first start practicing Tai Chi, we may not have much previous experience with internal awareness beyond the sensations of a stomach ache, sore muscles, or other intense internal experience. One key benefit of Tai Chi practice is to increase and refine our awareness of what is going on internally, to become more aware of our ch’i and through Tai Chi improve, or ‘cultivate’, our ch’i.

To begin cultivating ch’i we need to be aware of the tan t’ien. The tan t’ien is described in the glossary: “The physical center of the body. It is located approximately two inches below the navel. In T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is the center for both movement and meditation.” The tan t’ien is important in many ways, but especially in relation to mindfulness and cultivating ch’i.

Cheng Man-ch’ing describes how to get started cultivating ch’i in Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan: “When the beginner starts to learn T’ai Chi Ch’uan, he should secure his mind and ch’i in the tan t’ien. Do not forget this, but also do not coerce it.” But how do we ‘secure’ the heart-mind (hsin/xīn) and the ch’i in the tan t’ien, especially if we aren’t yet sensing ch’i? And if we are sensing it, how do we avoid ‘coercing’ it? The Tai Chi Classics describe a key relationship between the heart-mind and ch’i that gives us an answer: “The hsin (mind) mobilizes the ch’i (breath).” This is sometimes described with the phrase “where the mind goes, the ch’i goes.” Because of this, we don’t have to be aware of ch’i to start the process, and the process remains the same as our awareness of ch’i grows.

We center our heart-mind, our non-verbal awareness, in the tan t’ien. That is, we seek to be aware of all of ourselves while keeping our awareness centered in the tan t’ien, as opposed to thinking of ourselves as centered behind our eyeballs. Centering our awareness in the tan t’ien leads the ch’i there, a process often referred to as “sinking the ch’i”. Cheng also explains the importance of relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing in achieving this: “The requisite principle of sinking the ch’i is that the breathing must be fine, long, quiet, and slow. Gradually inhale into the tan t’ien.” We relax internally throughout the body and especially the torso, so that our breathing is relaxed and driven by the diaphragm. Not holding our breath and maintaining the qualities he describes while doing Tai Chi help us maintain the relaxation principle (sung/sōng), a crucial principle in Tai Chi.

Centering our heart-mind in the tan t’ien guides the ch’i to the tan t’ien. Maintaining centered awareness keeps the ch’i there. Adopting this as a consistent practice (even when not doing Tai Chi) cultivates ch’i, or as Cheng writes: “The ch’i stays with the mind, and, day after day and month after month, it accumulates.” This practice of centering our awareness and being present the entire time we do Tai Chi is a deep mindfulness practice and is a key reason Tai Chi is a form of moving meditation.

† If you have questions about Chinese terms used, you may find About Chinese Terms helpful.

This is part of Thoughts on Tai Chi, a collection of writings exploring various aspects of Tai Chi. If you know someone who would enjoy reading it, please forward it to them.

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