A Struggle for Neutrality in Writing

Peter Capell
When I first considered writing this article, I had the desire to express my appreciation for
Taijiquan to an audience wider than those of us Taijiquan fanatics. I felt challenged by the
obstacle that often crops up in discussions of any martial art: “My martial art is better than
yours.” It seems almost no matter what, when you enter into a dialogue with another type of
martial artist, there is always a sense that you’re bragging about your art over there’s. And so,
I have been struggling for months to figure out the exact right way to express my thoughts on
Taijiquan and also to be inclusive of others outside of the family of Taiji practitioners such that
they too might understand that Taijiquan isn’t just “another martial art.” Some might call it
“writers block” but since I have never had that problem, I would tend to call it “six months
waiting for the right idea.” Only after this length of time did I realize that the neutrality I was
seeking is a fiction and that all I wanted to say was that Taijiquan is great, better even than I
had imagined – from my experience now spanning forty-five years ago, when I first heard of it
and began exploring until my great fortune to have met my Sifu and the great lineage of Yin
Cheng Gong Fa.

     The shortened version of that history is that my nerdy high-school buddy, Donny, had
done a lot of reading about Taijiquan and shared his reading with me. It wasn’t until many
years later that I finally found my way to authentic and original Taijiquan via Sifu. My particular
interest in Taijiquan has always been its utility in combat. My interest was appropriate as it is
well established in the Classics of Taijiquan, “if nothing else, Taijiquan is a martial art” –
enlightenment and good health being good side effects of correct practice. I have studied a lot
of external martial arts and the three internal ones, Xingiquan, Baguaquan, and Taijiquan. Of
all this practice, I must bow to the originators of Taijiquan as it is now my view, that they
created the best-documented and most efficient internal martial art on this planet. Besides
that, I believe that the knowledge within Taijiquan is the essence that every other martial art
pursues. Taijiquan is the distillation of any and all martial practice. If one had the talent to be a
great master, and where one might wish to achieve mastery as quickly as possible, Taijiquan
would be that path. All of the skills required to win in a fight are taught in Taijiquan – in their
most concentrated and essential form. Of course, between Taijiquan and other martial arts
there are clear key differences. Taijiquan demands an understanding of one’s perceptions –
via the skin – more than any other. Great masters of other systems may learn this epidermal
proprioceptive skill or perhaps simply be gifted enough to understand it, but these are cases
of isolated, individual understanding. By contrast, Taijiquan teaches this understanding of
sensation as part of the core of its curriculum. Taijiquan also teaches against force-on-force
conflict – one of the meanings of “double weighting,” which in the Canon of Taijiquan is
frequently referred to as “the sickness of double weighting.” This particular bit of Taijiquan
principal goes against at least several external martial art because those martial arts want
more than anything to go “bone on bone” in order to damage an opponent by that means. I
will not be arguing here all the similarities and differences of Taijiquan versus others. Before I
go on, however, I want to dispel a certain sentiment that pops up often in these times of the
Internet: The idea that if you practice martial art xyz, you will always be able to beat
practitioners from any other system. That is not what I am saying here. In fact, I find it odd that
this perspective ever comes up, but Taijiquan often becomes the butt of such sentiments
because of the separation of the practice from its origins. Blogs and various Internet forums
are rife with the thought. My guess about this being that so few people actually experience
any realistic fighting, in combination with sitting in a basement having the world at their
fingertips find it all too easy to simply pontificate.  Boxing, for example, is a fantastic martial
art, but if a boxer gets beaten by a grappler, generally people do not then say, “boxing doesn’
t work.” The boxer lost because his or her skills weren’t sufficient to win. Taijiquan is no
different in that regard. So, as I have said, the “my martial art is better than your martial art” -
type comparisons are not my purpose. Instead, my purpose is simply to share my personal joy
in the confidence that Taijiquan will give you the best leverage against all of your own
personal disabilities in performance, and you will emerge from your practice better than you
began. I also make a further pronouncement that no matter what martial art you love,
Taijiquan will make your understanding and effectiveness within your system better.
Good Old COVID-19

     It is Daoist belief, as illustrated in the Taiji symbol, that there is no “pure good” nor “pure
evil” and therefore all good contains some bad, and all bad contains some good – thus
COVID – as a “bad thing” has given me an unprecedented opportunity to examine my
Taijiquan practice more closely. As you might have guessed by now, a major focus of this re-
examination is stepping. Since the emergence of COVID, I have had more time to reflect on
my own practice, and I now understand why much of the lore of Taijiquan speaks of
“enlightenment” or of “health” or of being able to do every day tasks or other skills in a better
way. Here is why: Because if you practice properly, you are becoming acquainted, to the
deepest degree, with your skeleton and sinew, as your mind creates for you the miracle of
balance as you stand and perform. Taijiquan strikes at the most essential relationship we will
ever know in this life – our relationship to gravity itself and our mother Earth. This article is
about a single aspect in the practice of Taijiquan: Stepping with one-hundred percent weight
shifting, or, if you like, “How to make your practice of Taijiquan more joyful and meaningful!”
Before we go on, I must mention that the idea of “one-hundred percent weight shifting” comes
from our Great Master Wang Peisheng who brought this meaning forward to our times from a
different time and the terminology that is used in the Classics, that term being: “complete.”
The term “complete” appears in every Taiji manuscript on correct practice in discussion of
Taijiquan’s “Nine Points.” Master Wang modernized this terminology using “one-hundred
percent” as an equivalent meaning, but a term having more meaning in these times, to those
of us lacking the operational meaning of the term “complete.” It turns out that this term is
essential to progress in the practice of Taijiquan.

The Shifting Poles of Taijiquan

     Within the scope of this writing, the term “stepping” does not refer to the practice of
isolating stepping separated from form practice, but rather to include all stepping within and
related to the form. It was a long time ago that my teacher, Zhang Yun, told me (and every
other student in our group) about one-hundred-percent weight shifting in the Wu Style Form. I
am sorry that I did not really hear this pronouncement until about ten years after I had begun
my training. I would feel even worse if everyone else had run ahead of me, but it is a sad
observation that I see nearly everyone failing on this parameter of practice. You can see it
yourself observing any group of practitioners: a, sort of unconscientious “waddle” from one
leg to the other. Yes, it’s a bit subtle, but anyone can see it. Compared to the standard of
“one-hundred percent” this waddling movement cheats the full benefit of complete stepping
and denies the practitioner the underlying benefit of the practice. Effectively it removes the
meaning from the practice, reducing Taiji to the more common “new age” slow calisthenic
performed by dabblers in the art.

     To elaborate: In shifting one’s weight in the form and anytime one practices stepping as
an aid to form practice, the entirety of the body’s weight moves to a point where the body is
fully aligned – considering all of the nine points – so that the practitioner is standing full weight
on one leg with other leg one-hundred percent empty. That is, when the weight has been
sufficiently shifted, the non-weight-bearing leg can move freely. This of course leads many to
think, “ok, see, I’m doing it!” And in a sense, this is correct. Ice skaters with one leg in the air
are bearing one-hundred percent of their weight on one leg, true. And, when we walk, for a
brief second, yes, your weight is perched on one side or the other, and you could say that
was “one-hundred percent.” This is not what is meant in Wu Style Taijiquan, however, when
we practice one-hundred percent, or complete, weight shifting. The process is subtler and
more nuanced and I will therefore share with you some of the subtleties and nuances.

     With stepping in the Wu Style, time is of the essence, but not speed; rather slowness. In
order to capture its benefits, the step must be slowed down.  I had not fully appreciated the
extent of its importance until I began to practice with completeness as a singular focus. Why is
slowness of such importance? This is because you are instructing, or re-teaching your whole
body about balance and what it is to move from one state of aligned balance to the other
state of aligned balance. When your step goes in a direction, any direction, the unweighted
leg should feel as though it has the sensitivity and intelligence of a probing elephant’s trunk,
or the feelers on an insect’s head. This cannot be overemphasized. I was instructed that when
one takes any step in the form, the moving leg should be reaching forwards and settling into
position like someone who is “testing whether the ice in the pond is thick enough.” Don’t get
me wrong: This visualization does not mean that you need to imitate the probing of an
elephant’s trunk, nor pretend to be an insect feeling its environment – indeed, your foot
merely traverses the distance to its “drop point” but inside you must seek the sensation that
you are very gently and carefully setting the foot on its next destination – as if you were
setting a very full glass of water down on a precious wood table and you don’t want to spill a
drop! This process begins with the very first gesture in the form and proceeds with every step
in the form thereafter. Although in stepping, there should be an absolutely smooth transition,
one balance point to the next, for our purposes here, I am breaking the parts of the steps into
segments, that will eventually be smoothed out in your own practice.

     Once the empty (yang) leg is gently and carefully set on its target point corresponding to
any of the three measures of step distance used in the Wu form – standard, wide, or horse –
the fun begins. When Sifu described to me the general form of the movement in Wu style as
being an “L” shape, I took the example too mean a smooth “L” with a curve at the bottom, but
truth be told, the “L” Sifu was describing is much more like the “L” shown in this paragraph.
Meaning: Before transitioning the step to the new target, the upper torso, drops straight down
into its weight center. It should feel quite clear, that one’s bodily focus is directly into the path
of the line of balance that is holding your skeletal frame in an upright position. By focusing this
way, you will become increasingly aware of the miracle of your relationship to gravity and your
balance. If you conceive of the body’s movement through space, this practice will show you
that your balance can be honed. By such a clear and conscientious focus, you will realize
that: One, there is a correct alignment to the ground that can be sensed in the body and
corrected according to the dictates of the nine points, and two, that your body is re-learning
the act of walking as a careful transition of one “balance pole” to the other. When you feel the
downward motion of the step, we are talking not so much about physically lowering the
skeleton, but of the sensation of “relaxing into” the central core of balance. With practice, this
sensation becomes clearer and clearer. After a point, you may even feel that you are “talking
to gravity.” Indeed, there is nothing quite so firm and sturdy as this connection to your mother
earth. The point of this re-learning of such a basic thing is reconnection to that great power
with which you have been bestowed – balance. As you feel this dropping into the balance
center, you begin sensing, just as all of us have been told repeatedly, like sand or like water,
a sense of pouring the heaviness of the balance into or onto the target for “next balance.”
The “pouring” process must be slow and even, as if you do not want to “spill” a drop. This
means that your pelvis should be level and the spine should be positioned with respect to the
pelvis in the same way a plant should be positioned within a pot sitting on a window ledge.
The plant needs to be centered and level in the pot. I mention this point because it is a
common error to allow the pelvis to tip due to the natural curve of the spine. In Taijiquan, we
“unnaturally” apply “liutun” (six integrations) keeping the pelvis level, which effectively
removes the “natural” curve of the spine. You should feel then, as though an invisible hand is
gently pushing the lower back and pelvis forward, slowly, as slowly as you can bear, onto the
unweighted leg – the new balance. When the transition is complete, the formerly “empty” leg
is full, and the opposite leg is completely empty and able to move freely without any small
shifts or rebalancing. You should feel completely stable and ready on the weighted leg, as if
mobility requires you to hop on one leg instead of to step.
Some Milestones

Evidence that your practice is headed in the right direction is found in several places:

     - Hands and fingers will feel heavier and heavier as your practice deepens
     - The sensation of heaviness manifesting in your hands will begin to travel into you arms
until your entire body feels as though it is loaded with fishing weights dangling all along your
     - Your awareness of the totality of your body will become ever present – when your weight
drops you will feel that different parts of your body may not feel “prepared” – there will be
points of jerkiness in your execution of the shifting – these are to be smoothed out and in
conformance with the nine points

Notes: Things to Be Aware of as You Practice

     1. The heavy sensation that tends to become enhanced with practice is not to be
regarded as an end unto itself. Indeed, when your leg is as loaded as fully as possible, at that
time you must cultivate a sense that energy is actually rushing upwards, as if you could leap
up off the loaded leg.

     2. With practice, you will find that “gravity is teaching you” – feeling its full effect in the
body, gravity itself is a great teacher, allowing you to feel your inconsistencies, or lack of
alignment.  Do not be discouraged then if suddenly by practicing this way you feel unstable as
if you’re walking on the top of a high wall. At first, you should feel this way, as if you’re
balancing… oh wait… that’s right, you are balancing. One leg at a time, slowly. This is what
practice is about. In this way, your body is learning (among many other things) about what it
really means to interact with your earth. And from this interaction, I have learned why Taiji is,
or should be, the centerpiece of Daoist practice. By relearning balance between our body and
our planet, we also get lessons on how to interact with virtually every other thing on the
planet. Coordination and control will emanate through you in a different way which more and
more will envelope how you do other things. Even picking up a light object like a pencil
becomes a matter of engaging the entire body – if you’re serious about this practice. In the
end, one should acquire the same level of relaxed posture that you have lying flat on the
ground, only standing up.

     3. Another pronouncement from the nine points is the base of the spine – that it should be
aligned to the heel. I was in denial about this point for years because of the seeming
impossibility of this demand (for me at least). With complete weight shifting, sometimes you
may feel that you could draw images on the ground with the tip of your spine if only it were
long enough and had a brush on the end. What I mean is that with practice, the entire lower
back becomes “conscious” and you can feel quite easily where it is positioned relative to the
feet. I had never before understood that when we shift, depending on the position, the spine –
or more precisely, the coccyx – starts to feel almost like a stylus. You become aware of where
the coccyx is pointing and how it aligns to the entire body and “whoa,” you’ll often find it
pointing right down to the heel.

A Word in Parting

     Personally, I have a love of words. I have this reverence for words because while they may
seem “fancy” or as my mom would say, “fifty-cent words” – actually these “fancy” terms carry
paragraphs of meaning without having to speak or to write – the paragraph – assuming your
audience understands. My words here are a reflection to a time about thirty-five years ago,
when I wrote an article mentioning that the theory underlying human physiological
development follows the precept that our bodies develop from the brainstem down and from
the spinal column outward - cephalocaudal-proximodistal. When I wrote that article I had
nowhere near the understanding of Taijiquan in its traditional form as now in these twilight
years of life. I am pleased that I wasn't wrong. Although traditional instruction does not speak
in this manner about the body, this developmental concept is nonetheless true. This term –
cephalocaudal-proximodistal – is anatomical lingo from the field of medicine which explains
among other things, why a paraplegic person can learn to type with the toes. The point is,
anyone can learn to type with the toes, but in most of us, there is no motivation to cause us to
train our lower extremities to such a high level of refinement. Ballet dancers, skaters, circus
performers and some professional athletes train the lower extremities for different purposes -
and in some cases, the body responds to show us their physical genius in prowess
demonstrated on the field of play.  In this regard, Taiji is no different, but the effects of our
effort are mostly invisible to the eye, or more accurately, visible only to the trained eye. Not
long ago, I heard someone praising a local Taiji teacher - that his movements were like
“poetry in motion.” I did not reveal my unkind thoughts: "Sure you thought it was beautiful:
partly because you never understood Taiji in the first place, and you don’t have an ‘informed
eye.’" The kind of beauty this person was talking about is the same as complimenting
someone for their skill in playing "air guitar." Why do young kids love to play "air guitar?"
Because they are imitating “cool” movements of whose substance they have no knowledge.
They are imitating those facile superficial vestiges of real performance. Playing the guitar itself
is a good deal more challenging than "epic" postures seen on a stage. Taijiquan is no
different, except that the qualities that make it exceptional as a martial are completely hidden
from view and therefore why we refer to the art as neijia – internal, unseen.

     Allow me then to give a last note on complete stepping: Without this practice, Taijiquan is
impossible to understand as a martial art. Virtually none of its benefits can shine through your
practice unless you take this challenge and pursue it in every single movement of the form all
the time. You can think of each weight shift as a new test. Any time you don’t follow through
you are cheating yourself and wasting your time. Each movement is a new challenge. Don’t
think about how beautiful your form is. Think instead about how clunky and unsmooth it is. If
you practice with complete stepping, you may find that you can’t even balance at certain
times. Don’t worry! This is what the true practice – deep practice – is all about. It is about
finding that clear alignment of the body, in many different and complex positions, going slowly
as a method of discipline. For the rigor of your practice, you will wake up one day and find
yourself with an entirely new way of understanding your body. In my view, it’s all worth it no
matter how hard the struggle.
Yin Cheng Gong Fa Association North American Headquarters
Copyright © 2000 YCGF_NAH. All rights reserved.