Taoist Internal Alchemy

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 26th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

At the start of our form, we give the following instructions:

Set your feet shoulder width apart, and in your own time, lower your centre of gravity. Tension below the belly button, relaxed above the belly button. Eyes looking forward, and the tongue up to the roof of the mouth. Attention on tan tien. Deep breathing in and out, contraction and expansion of your belly.

In the beginner’s class on Thursday, I was asked about the purpose of the tan tien. I normally give the following explanations:

  1. It is a little bit below the belly button, and a little bit inside.
  2. According to Western science, it is the centre of gravity for the human body.
  3. According to Eastern philosophy, it is an important part of taoist internal alchemy.

But what exactly is taoist internal alchemy? That was an excellent follow-up question 🙂

I don’t practice taoist internal alchemy myself, as it’s something that isn’t part of the system handed down to me by my teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher didn’t believe in chi and its cultivation per se, it was simply the case that my teacher rightly believed that we have no place teaching things we cannot demonstrate and put to the test. As a result, my knowledge on the subject is simply theoretical, and I have no formal teaching in it myself.

Taoism is one of the oldest surviving philosophies in the world, best known through the great work the Tao te Ching attributed to Lao-tzu. At the core is the concept of The Way (the do in Japanese martial arts such as akido, iaido, judo and kendo) and how we can all find our own harmony with The Way. Practitioners of taoism are known as taoists. As a way of living, it has a lot to offer us Westerners, and it is said to be the underlying philosophy that Tai Chi is based on. (More on that in a later article!)

Man everywhere is obsessed with his own immortality, and taoists it turns out are not immune to this desire 🙂 The difference I guess is that some taoists believe that real immortality is not only possible, has actually been achieved in the past (by such as Cheng San-feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi). Just as western alchemists attempted to turn base metals such as lead into pure gold, so taoist internal alchemy is concerned with practices to turn the base energy into a refined spirit.

One of the practices of taoist internal alchemy is to turn ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy), and then to turn the chi into shen (spiritual energy). The area we call tan tien in our class is actually the lowest placed of three separate tan tiens (the second is at the solar plexus, and the third between the eyebrows). The lower tan tien is used to refine ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy); very appropriate from a western point of view given its location at our centre of gravity, at the place in Tai Chi where all our movement is controlled from.

This is a gross and decidedly ill-informed over-simplification of the subject, I must stress! Anyone interested in learning more should seek out a qualified instructor on the matter, or failing that start with reading Eva Wong’s translation of Cultivating Stillness.

I freely admit that I’m not all that comfortable talking about my own experiences with the mystical side of Tai Chi. Part of it comes from my teacher’s own understandable feelings on the subject, and part of it comes from my own training as a scientist and qualification as an engineer. There’s also the important matter that, if we tell our students what feelings to expect, the mind has a funny way of manifesting those feelings whether or not the work has been done to make them real! And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure that there are some in our community who exploit students’ interest in and (dare I say) desire for such experiences. I do not want to become one of them, even unwittingly.

But what it comes down to is this. At the end of the day, how can you share your experiences with someone else? You can’t, not without a common frame of reference (a teaching tool I need to write a lot more about!) As teachers, it must be our role to direct our students through a programme of learning that will result in our students having these experiences for themselves. How to achieve that is perhaps the ultimate question of teaching, and it was the last question my teacher and I discussed before he left us.

And, as I experienced on Tuesday night watching my Improvers’ students explore the principle of Relax the Waist, on those rare occasions when we pull it off, there are few pleasures in life more satisfying 🙂

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The Role Of Books

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 15th, 2008 in Teaching.

In last week’s Beginners’ class, we enjoyed a great discussion about the books I recommend on this website, and which books are of any use to someone just starting learning the art.

My own experience with books over the years is three-fold:

  1. As a beginner, I simply had no common frame of reference to understand the great advice available in the great Tai Chi books. Looking back in recent years, I can now see that many of the answers I’ve sought were there under my nose the entire time, but I simply didn’t understand enough to see that.
  2. There are a great many Tai Chi books that (imho) are utter rubbish. I don’t mean that they are written badly, but that the advice they contain is demonstrably wrong. Much to my wife’s disgust, I collect these almost as avidly as I do the better books, and my students can look forward to the day when I share these books with them, and ask them to pick out the many flaws they contain 😀
  3. The books that could be called authentic are a great source of advice. I was taught to take nothing on faith, to always seek out and verify everything I was taught by Robert. New information can promote a path of experience to new understanding, and in the light of new information things must change.

You can’t learn from a book. Knowledge comes from a book, but understanding only comes from experience. Books can’t replace a good teacher, but they can certainly validate good teaching. And they can expose bad teaching too.

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How Do You Organise Your Notes?

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 5th, 2008 in Teaching.

With the brand new Tai Chi for Improvers course having just kicked off, my evenings and weekends are once again taken up with turning my notes from each class into teaching aids for the course.

I’d appreciate the advice of my fellow Tai Chi teachers on what teaching aids work best for you. Have you found written notes work best, and if so how have you organised them? Videos make boost income, but what style of video best helps students learn? Have you tried any audio CDs at all?

Let me know in the comments below.

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2008-9 Classes Underway

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 5th, 2008 in Classes, News.

I have been walking around with a big smile on my face for the last two weeks. All eight students who completed last year’s Tai Chi for Beginners course have returned for the Tai Chi for Improvers course. I’ve really benefited from their help and support whilst working out the structure, content and pacing of the Beginners class, and I’m really looking forward to exploring the ten principles of our Tai Chi form together this academic year.

And if that wasn’t enough to smile about, the next Tai Chi for Beginners course has just kicked off too. Running on a Thursday evening down at the Barry Island Community Centre, I’ve been lucky see a great group of students enrol for this year’s course, and by the New Year we’ll be able to see who has decided that Tai Chi is for them. (Tai Chi classes in Adult Continuing Education understandably suffer quite the drop-out rate).

Now that the classes are back, I’ll be back regularly blogging about Tai Chi and my experiences teaching it. I hope someone finds it useful; I see so little written about teaching Tai Chi.