Ti Yu

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Taoist physical culture

Ever since time immemorial the Chinese have always participated in physical movement, for personal enjoyment, for the outward expression of feeling and thought, to convey meaning without words, to keep fit and supple, to control every movement no matter how complicated a particular technique might be, to strengthen the mind, to stabilize the balance of the body, and to learn to harmonize and synchronize every unit into one beautiful and yet dynamic movement. Sometimes exercises were carried on in strictly controlled groups and accompanied by music or the beating of a drum, but more often they were practised completely alone with only nature and the universe for company. It was not uncommon for troupes of entertainers to travel the country giving displays of the complete range of their physical skills.

Not only was physical exercise used as a means of self-expression, and keeping fit, but for thousands of years, the Taoists used many aspects of it as a foundation for physiotherapy. In those early days, however, the postures, which were based on the stances, mannerisms, habits and movements of animals and birds, were rather static, and in addition the actual exercises were apt to be rather rigid, tense, hard and strenuous. So they were practised mainly by very dedicated men who had the tenacity to stick at these very vigorous work-outs.

Then, in about 1100 BC, in the Chou Dynasty, radical changes started to take place, not only in the field of physical endeavour but also in trends of thought and attitudes, and these changes were to have a dramatic effect on the future life of the Chinese nation. For all physical exercises, application and outlook took on a completely new approach, and the arts started to become softer and more pliable, and this influence reacted on the human body, which in turn began to feel the benefits.

So that the principles of this new approach should be retained by all, the Taoists formulated them according to the principles of the Five Elements (Wu Hsing):

  1. Internal.
  2. External.
  3. Front.
  4. Back.
  5. Central (Tan T'ien).

These governed the human body and the development and flow of internal energy (Neichung Ch'i), or vitality power (Sheng Ch'i) and external energy (Ching Sheng Li), its direction of flow through the human body via the front and the back, and its source of activation, storage and generation (the Tan T'ien) (see The Way of Occlusion).

Then a further five definitions were formulated to cover the use of the human body in relation to the physical movements that were to be used:

  1. Head.
  2. Body.
  3. Arms and hands.
  4. Legs and feet.
  5. Balance.

Then these were again split into five, for the directions of movement had to be related to the movement or exercise, and the different types of movement needed to be specified:

  1. Up and down.
  2. Forward and back.
  3. Sideways left and right.
  4. Centrifugal.
  5. Centripetal.

The Taoists were so meticulous that even these were each broken down into a further five categories, to ensure that even the smallest part was well and truly covered, and no aspect was forgotten or neglected.

So it came to be that physical exercises and movement, which at first were used primarily for self-defence and military purposes, came to be used by the general public more and more, and women and children began to participate seriously. It was then that Chinese physiotherapy began to develop hand in hand with the expansion of physical culture that now swept throughout the whole expanse of China.

The Chou Dunasty left an impressive mark in the history of Chinese internal and external development in all the creative arts, as well as in medicine and physiotherapy. It was also the era when most of the famous philosophers of China lived, such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and their teachings live on to this day, for they are deeply ingrained in the lives of the Chinese, and in their upbringing and outlook.

So the Taoists according to their principles of Wu Hsing, concentrated their endeavours on the Yin and Yang balance between the internal and the external, and from this came the two arts of ultimate relationship, T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Supreme Ultimate) and K'ai Men (Open Door), which both observed the extreme law of the physical side of human life, which is Movement with stillness (Yun Tung Pu Yun Tung).

However, there was one restriction which lasted over 400 years, from 206 BC until AD 220, which was during the Han Dynasty, which clamped down on all physical activities, and imposed upon the nation laws that made everyone attend educational classes, so that the standards of literature were raised. Eventually they brought in compulsory examinations which were to be sat every three years, and even when this dynasty faded out due to the many feudalistic wars which broke out in all parts of China, the civil service still retained these examinations. So whilst physical activity was harshly looked down upon during this period, it did not die out entirely, for the principles had been well and truly planted, and they proved that they were perennial, for after the Han dynasty they bloomed again, and have been in flower ever since.

So not only were the 'exterior' or 'external' arts practised with the same enthusiasm as before, but there was a greater emphasis on the practice of the softer or 'internal' arts. There came about the far deeper study of the use of internal energy as an outward force, and the utilization of the external force as an internal energy. But to attain this it meant that the physical aspects of the body had to become more pliable, more flexible and softer. So it was that T'ai Chi Ch'uan (The Supreme Ultimate), K'ai Men (Open Door), Tao Yin (Respiration Therapy) and Lien K'ang (Exercises of Peace), really came into being, and although their foundations had been laid down many thousands of years before, it was only in this era that they really became well known to the general public and their truth fully explored.

Further advancement was made through the doctrine and work of Hua Tor (AD 136-208), who is considered by many to be the father of physical culture in China, and it was he that formulated the 'five animal' method, which was based on the movements of the bear, deer, crane, tiger and monkey. This method brought out the very best of physical attainment, and at the same time he utilized the Taoist breathing exercises (Tao Yin), both of which were intended to help everyone attain the normal age of a hundred years.

The principles of his teaching were those that had been laid down by the Taoists thousands of years before, and they were based on:

  1. Shen — spirit.
  2. Ching — essence.
  3. Chieh P'ou Shu — anatomy.
  4. Chi — internal energy.
  5. Li — external energy.

So in developing their understanding of the Supreme Spirit (Yuang Tati) who created the Tao (Way), the Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements (Wu Hsing), they achieved their full appreciation of the universe, and all that is within it. So the Taoists began their studies at the true beginning of life, by firstly exploring the spiritual world, then secondly, the understanding of the essence of everything. Thirdly, they completed the cycle by looking at themselves. This naturally included the whole physical make-up of their bodies, including the organs and the meridians, their health, and the energies and vitalities that make up life itself — and all Chinese Taoist health arts are based on these same fundamental principles.

T'i Yu, when used as physical therapy, should be executed without any strain or stress. It should be light and gentle at all times, comprising circular movements of the head, body, hands and arms, feet and legs. There should be no 'stopping' or 'holding' of stances or techniques, and Yang movement must be followed by Yin stillness, and then reversed. No physical strength should be used at all, for there should be complete reliance and concentration on the development and use of Ch'i initially, and eventually the harnessing, expansion and control of Li.

The upper half of the body, including arms and hands, must be followed by the lower half of the body with legs and feet, and vice versa. Motion should be slow and continuous; it should not be interrupted or halted. The mind must be at peace and in a state of tranquillity, and no thought should invade its precincts. Balance has to be maintained at all times, no matter what kind of posture or movement is executed, and the equilibrium of the Yin and Yang has to be constant. The specialized Taoist breathing exercises (Tao Yin) must be peaceful, long and deep. Sedation and stimulation have their proper place in the arts, and one should ensure that they are used at the proper times during the day or night. Of course, whenever possible, practice should take place in the open air, and the best times are one hour after sunrise, and one hour before sunset. Remember, from a health point of view, meals should be eaten about one hour after each session, and clothing should be loose, light and comfortable.


Taoist Ways of Healing - The Chinese Art of Pa Chin Hsien

by Chee Soo

Copyright ©Seahorse Books 2012 reproduced with permission