Feng Zhiqiang on: How to Train and Nurture Your Life, Part 1
Feng Zhiqiang on: How to Train and Nurture Your Life, Part 1
By Marvin Smallheiser, Translators were Yang Yang and Chun Man Sit
Published in T’ai Chi – The International Magazine of T’ai Chi Ch’uan Vol 25, No 5
Inevitably, a teacher reveals himself by his insights, skills, respect for others and his sense of humour. In his first major trip to the U.S. this past July, Feng Zhiqiang, one of China’s most highly regarded T’ai Chi Ch’uan (TCC) practitioners, offered exceptional insights about himself and into how to train and nurture oneself.
At the same time, he showed extraordinary skills based not on ordinary strength but on great internal energy that he was able to use with relaxed flexibility. Feng’s main teaching was that in order to be successful in practicing TCC you have to learn how to train correctly and, at the same time, learn how to nurture yourself.
He spoke on a number of issues ranging from health and push hands to 12 essential principles for practice in San Francisco, Seattle and Champaign, IL, where he was hosted by three of his disciples: Zhang Xuexin in San Francisco, Gao Fu in Seattle, and Yang Yang in Champaign. He was interviewed by T’AI CHI magazine in Champaign.
Whether practicing TCC for health, self- defence, or personal development, Feng said you need to continually adjust your training to correct mistakes and to reach higher levels. You need to nurture yourself so you can go beyond the cleverness of technique, the need to punish your opponent, and to ensure that your skills and practice are long lasting.
Training for TCC whether for health or self -defence, Feng said, is essentially developing internal energy to cultivate and nurture the body and mind. Unless you can continually adjust your training to improve it and to nurture your energy, and understanding, your skills are likely to be limited, he said.
Feng, who is noted for his push hands skills, regards TCC as along form of martial art that is like the body of a dragon. To acquire that “body of the dragon,” which Feng himself exhibited, he said the most important training is the training of qigong ad neigong for at least 45 minutes to an hour each day. This can be qigong methods, standing meditation, hunyuan silk reeling exercises and T’ai Chi form. The order of importance, he said, is qigong training, forms practice and weapons training.
“You have to do it for a long time. Your skill comes from the accumulation of your gongs (skills at various training techniques),” he said, “when you train, you must learn how to nurture your energy. If you accumulate energy without nurturing the energy, it will soon be gone.”
Part of this training, he said also includes character development. “you want to learn how to not lose your temper because this wastes your energy. You should also have a good lifestyle so that you are not wasting the energy that you are working so hard to accumulate”
In training for push hands, Feng said that in addition to energy training, there must be the ability to relax before going onto another person. Then, he said, the student must practice the basic techniques of peng, lu ji an, tsai, lieh, zhou and kao. If the person is tense in his training and uses force, he should focus on learning to relax and get used to the touch of others. ”After he has become relaxed, then he can train in techniques.”
In spite of his high reputation, Feng was modest about his skills, “My push hands skill is not the highest level. For every high level person, there is bound to be another person who is even higher level. When there is a tall mountain, there will always be a taller mountain. So I cannot say I am the highest.” He also went on to discuss the high level of his two main teachers, Chen Fa-ke and Hu Yaozhen. Skill is developed, he said, first through practice of the form and various gongs, or skills. “Through these you can accumulate strong internal energy. Then when you approach another person or they approach you, you can use your energy to neutralise another person in such a way that their energy cannot be released.”
Feng is about 5 foot 7 inches and weighs about 165 pounds, but his body appears to very dense from his energy cultivation. He gave the example of pushing hands with a big, husky person who looks strong but has internal resistance from an internal energy perspective.” That kind of person’s energy is broken in terms of electronic, magnetic and qi energy. So we can cover this person’s energy so his energy cannot come out. You can not only block the release of his energy, but you can borrow another person’s energy by using the hunyuan way to make a circle and come back to this person. “To take the other person’s force inside your body and return it to him is called hunyuan, round circle method. You use internal energy to defeat the opposing energy that is internal or external.” “Someone who is strong cannot always release his strength because when he tries to use it, you can use reverse energy. So even though he is powerful, he cannot release his force.” Feng said he would use his own energy to hinder such a person’s energy so it cannot come out. He could then turn the energy that he finds back on the person. “First you cover and then block and then the other person’s energy cannot be released,” he said.
Muscle strength, he said, is external strength. A person with such strength should focus on cultivating internal strength so their energy can reach to their root, “You have to have a good root. This is the method of real strength. If you are physically strong but can also work on internal strength, then that is the real strength.” Asked about the force used in push hands competitions, Feng said, “I would disqualify those people because they don’t know how to do push hands. They don’t have basic knowledge.” In dealing with someone using strength, he said, the general rule is to go to the opponent’s weak part and stay away from his strong part. Then use your technique on the opponent’s weak area.
Huajin, or neutralisation, he said is basically using softness to overcome hardness, “Most people use hard force. And this hard force is always partial. It never uses the whole body. T’ai Chi skill uses softness and the methods of stick and follow to let the opponent’s hard strength slide away. When he slides away, then you can use your own force. The harder a person’s external strength is, the more partial it is. “We use the soft to empty the other person and then follow the energy and bring it back to the person. Then on top of that we apply our own energy. There is a famous term for this. In some books it says, “Let the opponent fall into emptiness.”
Speaking of his teachers, Chen Fa-ke and Hu Yaozhen, he said they both had very high- level push hands skills. Chen Fa-ke was able to use silk reeling energy in a very special way, Feng said, “ No matter how big or powerful the opponent was, he just used spiral energy and neutralised them so that they just fell down. I saw Chen Fa-ke fight huge people and whenever they touched him they became like small kids who didn’t know how to walk. They would lose their balance like children once they touched him. “one time in Beijing, martial arts experts got together and sent him a banner that read: ‘Tai Chi No. 1.’ But Chen Fa-ke said, ‘You shouldn’t say I am No. 1. There are so many good teachers.’ He was very humble. And he chose students based on high moral and martial arts standards. Both he and Hu Yaozhen had very high moral standards. They lived very simply and modestly.”
Regarding Hu Yaozhen, Feng said that you could not see his hunyuan qi, or spiral energy. “But the energy of his qi was just huge. It was mixture of three energies: electronic, magnetic and qi. If one person hit him, he could not hurt him. His dantian was so powerful, when you hit him, he could absorb you and bounce you out. One time a person tried to attack him while he was practicing standing meditation. The man hit him in the dantian and he bounced out about one meter high and then fell down.” Feng said that one time he was going to strike Hu Yaozhen and when his hand almost reached his body he had an experience of electricity or magnetic force and his power disappeared. He said his punch no longer had any force. He had a loss of energy. “This is what the Chinese refer to when they say someone has good gongfu.” “Gong.” He said, “is an accumulation of energy as a result of your practice, it is energy you have from nature and other things. Generally, when we talk about gong or gongfu, it basically is a variable you can use to measure how high the energy accumulation is from certain practices.”
Feng calls his T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan) Hunyuan T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Hunyuan is composed of the words Hun, meaning mixed, and Yuan, meaning circle, so that together they encompass everything in the universe. “Everything, human beings, even locomotives, has hunyuan and follows the Tao of Hunyuan, including T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan).” Feng said that from a teacher’s perspective, he thinks of students as being good in terms of their moral standards and talent and how hard they are willing to work. At first he will start them with qigong, T’ai Chi forms and weapons training and then neigong training, which encompasses a variety of internal practices. At a high level, he said, the students need to know the principles of different gongs and basic training routines of different gongs. They also have to practice neigong, which involves internal energy throughout the body. In the development process, he said, a practitioner should develop the crystal of qi. This crystal is located just behind the belly button, about 1.5 inches. It is behind the acupuncture point Shenque. When the crystal has a minimum amount of energy it keeps people healthy. At a high level it helps you to live longer and healthier. At a high level someone may have some extraordinary powers.
He said that when doing dantian breathing, while exhaling, energy starts from that point and goes out to the whole body. When inhaling, energy returns to that point. “All the skill and the energy on a higher level starts from this point.” The crystal itself, he said, is like a hollow ball, accumulating a mixture of dense energy. The core is empty, but inside it has congealed energy. While the lower dantian is centred in the area behind the naval, he said basically the whole stomach is called the dantian. It includes points such as qi hai, guan yuan and others. But the centre is at shenque, at the belly button. This is the area where the energy comes from. “This helps the baby in the womb to function and be alive before it is born.”
Before learning moving qigong or T’ai Chi form, he said, students should practice stillness gong to help nurture energy, the brain, heart and the nervous system. The stillness gong training, he said, helps to accumulate energy to balance the consumption that can occur with some movement gong. Another part of this training, he said, is to collect energy from nature, the ocean and trees to enhance the accumulation of internal energy. Another aspect that he said is important is developing Zhong ding, central equilibrium. In the T’ai Chi sense, it is the vertical line through the torso from the top of the head, the baihui acupuncture point, to the huiyin point at the perineum down to the ground between the feet, This is trained, he said, to develop the central qi, or Zhong qi, which is related to spiritual training and practical qigong training.
Part of internal training of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan) and meditation is the small, or micro, circulation of qi and the grand, or macro, circulation of qi. This is the circulation of energy up the spine and down the front of the torso to the perineum at the bottom of the torso for the small circulation. The grand circulation roughly starts at the bubbling well point on the bottom of the feet and circles up through the back and down through the front of the torso, back to the feet. Feng said that zhong qi is difficult to feel and understand. “When people have enough energy, the micro and macro cosmic circles will occur. If they do not have enough energy accumulated in the centre, you will not be able to do the cosmic circles. It is difficult to understand Zhong qi. The only thing to do is to accumulate enough qi. Then you will have the circle. Accumulating the energy will activate the circulation by itself when you reach the proper threshold”.
Feng said the first priority in T’ai Chi training is health. And while you are working on your health, you accumulate gongfu. That also gives you essential skills for your self- defence. In China too, he acknowledged, there is a division of T’ai Chi as practiced for health and self- defence. “Most training at the beginning level has to be for health and longevity. Martial arts are based on the same foundation. But if a person just does T’ai Chi for health, then they are not going to have a high level of gongfu. If the person does it for martial art and gongfu, he must first do the basic, which is for health, and then build on that. This is the priority of things to work on. “The most valuable thing for human beings is health. You have to be healthy. Then you can do other things. Otherwise, in your life there is no meaning.” But he also said, “It is not right to criticise people who just practice T’ai Chi for health as not really doing T’ai Chi.”
When doing the from, the main thing to pay attention to, he said, is nurturing your energy. Then, he said, practitioners should focus on understanding peng and the other basic T’ai Chi energies. But, he said, it is not a good idea to constantly think applications while doing the form. “If you think about fighting when doing the form, your qi inside will not be smooth.” He also said the classics say that one should never have the idea to hurt or attack other people. “If you have this kind of idea in mind while you are practicing, you will never reach a high level. Because when you have this kind of idea of hurting other people or attacking other people, your qi is blocked and you won’t have harmony in your organs. This impedes your progress.”
“T’ai Chi is a rich art.” Feng said “Why? It is because it is about Yin and Yang and the balance of Yin and Yang. Everything in the universe has Yin and Yang in it. Through the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan), we can approach the balance of Yin and Yang. This will lead us to lead healthy lives and also achieve healthy mental and emotional states.” He told the story of a businessman in Shandong province who had terminal liver cancer, according to a Chinese doctor, he took lessons from Feng in T'ai Chi and qigong and the illness disappeared. “Because this person is the owner of a big business and since he got benefit from T’ai Chi and qigong, he now requires his several thousand employees to practice T’ai Chi and qigong in the first hour of work.”
“I am very happy to see the growth of T’ai Chi throughout the world,” Feng said “You (T’ai Chi magazine) have been doing a wonderful job to make this happen. Thanks you for doing a wonderful job. It is a significant effort because it helps all human beings’ health.” “Before I retired, I had serious health problems,” Feng said “But after I retired and concentrated on T’ai Chi and qigong, all of the problems were gone within one year. I feel I am getting better and stronger.” Born in 1926 in Xulu county, Hebei province, Feng is 75 years old. He started to learn martial arts when he was eight years old. His grandfather and great- grandfather were well- accomplished martial artists. At first, he learned Shaolin martial arts and when he moved to Beijing, he learned Tongbiquan, Iron Palm and Red Sand Palm. In 1948 in Beijing he studied Xinyi and qigong from Hu Yaozhen who was from Shanxi province. Hu introduced him to Chen Fa- ke in 1951. Hu and Chen, who were good friends, remained his primary teachers. Hu suggested that Feng learn the Chen style, too, but Feng said he wasn’t interested because it was very slow. Hu gave him a letter of introduction to Chen Fa- ke anyway and told him to go watch a class. When Feng visited the class he said the equivalent of, “Wow, I want learn that,” Chen looked at the letter and accepted him as a student.
Feng was a serious student and close to both Hu and Chen. In the early and late morning he would study with Hu Yaozhen. Then in the afternoon and evening he would study with Chen. He said both teachers really liked him and he was one of their youngest students.
Traditionally, in China, he said, there are different ways to study. Some people go to class every day. Some go once a week or once a month. Because he loved it so much he went there every day and also helped the teachers with chores at their homes.
At the very beginning, Feng said, he thought T’ai Chi was just a martial art. But then he realised later that the art is so rich and has the Big Tao of Heaven and Earth, so it’s very rich and deep.
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