Five Levels of Training in Taijiquan
By Christopher Pei
As a student of Taijiquan, you are probably familiar
with the Ten Essences,
or guiding principles, of this martial art. You may
be less familiar with Taijiquan's five levels of attainment,
or skill levels. You cannot successfully practice
the Ten Essences without knowledge of the five skill
levels, or without understanding the level that you
Knowing what the skill levels are helps to guide your
training. Below, I describe the five levels with the
hope that you will better understand where you are
in your taijiquan journey. After reading this article,
I want you to ask yourself: Where do I want to go
from here? Has my original goal for practicing Taijiquan
changed? For many, the original purpose in taking
up this particular martial art was to reduce stress
and to relax. I would think that for many of you that
goal has already been reached. So, where do you want
to go from here? What do you want to achieve, and
how far do you wish to go?
In training, the five skill levels each represent
a different stage of growth. Every person going through
these levels will experience them in a time frame
different than anyone else's. There is, of course,
no schedule to keep, no rendezvous by a certain time.
The rate of progress is totally dependant on the understanding
of the individual.
Before discussing the first level, there is basic
premise of Taijiquan that needs to be understood:
It is the study of an energy called Qi. Every physical
expression is the result of intent. Intent, determined
by your mind, directs the Qi, and the Qi moves the
body. It is always this way. For every external movement,
something internal has preceded it.
The first level of Taijiquan training deals with the
physical-the body's movements. You learn the path
the body takes as it moves through a Taijiquan form
and as it changes from one form to another. It is
important at this level to learn how to position the
body correctly. This is best done with the help of
a qualified teacher. If you do not position the body
correctly, the second skill level will be difficult
During the first level of Taijiquan, you are learning
to make the body frames correctly and studying the
body's path, for example, where your hands are positioned;
where your feet are planted; how you transition from
one frame to another; and how all body parts move
from one frame to the next.
As you invest more time in your practice, you become
more comfortable with the movements; the mind is less
concerned with trying to remember the next move. Your
awareness changes, and you begin to establish within
your body and your mind a sort of looseness, a relaxed
feeling as you practice. When you have reached this
stage, you will have moved on to the second level
of skill training: making your Qi flow.
Several elements are required to generate the flow
of Qi. The body needs to be positioned correctly and
the mind needs to be focused. Most importantly, your
hands and feet need to feel alive. This means that
the energy gates in your hands and feet are open and
the Qi channels throughout your body are open.
At the second skill level, because your movements
are correct, and you no longer have to think about
them, your thoughts and awareness turn to how Qi is
flowing in your body. At this level, you are beginning
to move from a physical frame to one that is more
mental. You begin to coordinate movements with your
breathing. However, to train properly at this level,
it is important to be shown when during the form to
inhale and when to exhale; otherwise, you could be
stuck at this level for a very long time. You need
to know which part of the form is an Yin energy and
which is Yang. This phase of your training is a very
difficult and complex one, requiring you to understand
the movements more deeply and the Yin and Yang energies
within each movement. Yin movements are loose and
store energy and Yang movements release the energy.
In the beginning, if you can coordinate the Yang energy
with your exhale, and still breathe naturally (not
forced), it will help you to better understand the
flow of Qi. The experience of Qi flowing will become
more intense as you continue to train, and your energy
level will rise higher. At this stage, you begin to
move into the next level: the study of Qi. You see,
not until you are generating Qi and it is flowing
continuously will you be able to study what type of
Qi energy it is.
Basically speaking, there are eight energies in Taijiquan:
ward off, roll back, squeeze, press, shoulder, elbow,
split, and grab. These energies are tools to use to
effect an action. You need to understand each energy
and its path through the body; how the energy is created;
and how your body movements set the path of the energy.
At this level, you begin to make distinctions among
the eight energies and start to understand why, when
you do a form, a particular energy exists. This is
also understanding yourself, understanding the tools
is the same as when you want to make a complex graphic
design on the computer. There is a learning curve
associated with use of the software, and there are
many designing tools available to you. You need to
know which tool will give you the effect you want.
Similarly, in carpentry or gardening, there are many
tools, but for their effective use, you need to know
the function of each. When comparing the tools in
software, gardening, or carpentry, the difference
among them is physical, something tangible and substantial.
But Qi energy is something you create, something that
comes out of nothing, something that is changing from
insubstantial to substantial. The essence of the third
skill level is to recognize what the energies are
and explore their use.
you can distinguish the eight energies in the form as
you practice, you are starting to move to level four,
where you begin to learn how to use those energies.
You are entering the stage of moving energies from one
frame to another.
In level four, you no longer move just the physical
body. Your study now centers on how you change from
one energy to another, and in between changes, how you
maintain the feel of the energy. This is a very mental
and spiritual level. Here, the physical technique hardly
exists; it is not really important.
The fifth level is only revealed as a result of going
through a long period of training and practice that
leads to a great depth of understanding and the ability
to distinguish the energies and how to use them. It
is here, at the highest level, where one begins to
understand the changes between the energies and begins
to use them as willed. At this level, there is no
form, no shape, the energy just flows. When the energy
is used on an another person, he will not even realize
that the Taijiquan practitioner has used it. The person
will be unaware that the practitioner is a master
of his art. To the person reaching this level, everything
seems very ordinary, very simple.
Together, the five skill levels are cyclic, taking
one from the physical (the body) to the mental and,
then, to the spiritual, and once reaching the spiritual,
the physical is also changed, supporting the mental
and the spiritual.
Ten Essences are the rules, the guidelines. They are
what you carry with you through the five skill levels
that are the path of your Taijiquan journey. It is
my hope that all who make this trek will reach the
level that brings them an understanding of what the
eight energies are and how to use them in their forms,
but not only this-I hope that all will use this energy
to help others. Whatever our thought, our physical
body has a reaction. My wish for all is that they
have only good thoughts toward others around them.