The student’s progress in Taijiquan generally progresses through three distinct levels, or “gates”. Mastering each level is a necessary prerequisite of progress to the next, and the focus of training for each level is different. And because it is necessary to move through the curriculum in the proper order, a skillful teacher will not let a student train at a level for which he is not ready.
All progress in Taijiquan occurs from the outside (the external) to the inside (the internal). This means that conditions are first experienced externally, in the body, and only then are manifested internally. Hence the first stage of learning is called zhaoshou. Zhao means “technique”, and shou means “ripe”, and the implication is that of taking the necessary time to master something until you can do the movements very well. At this level you will need to practice each technique over and over again until the movements feel very natural to your body. To begin thinking about, or looking for qi (ch”i) at this stage is completely premature, and may actually impede progress.
Because the structural components of the body (fascia, tendons, muscles) are not fixed in stone, but are rather plastic they can be changed. But changes to the body’s structure is hardly instantaneous, and is a process in time. Because the student’s current method of moving is based on a different idea of natural movement, learning and developing a “new” natural way to move will take some time. How much time depends on a student’s aptitude, desire to learn, and how much time they wish to devote to training. Traditionally, when practice often lasted several hours each day, much could be predicted. If one only practices Taijiquan for an hour or two each week – even assuming it is practiced correctly, things will take somewhat longer. (John Bloefeld, an early English writer on Buddhism was wont to say that while he was on the correct path to enlightenment, progress often felt like traveling to the stars on an ox-drawn spacecraft.)
The first level, that of learning the form correctly is challenging enough – not so much because the form is strenuous, but because to do the form properly, one needs to learn a new way of moving. All movements need to be done in an integrated fashion such that each part of the body works together with every other part, and in proper sequence – what Taijiquan calls “whole body integration”. For many years all of us have relied, to a various extent , on using our physical force. (li). And although this is natural and habitual for us, it will still take time to “unlearn” that way of doing things. And some, those who are very athletic, or who are very strong might find themselves quite frustrated. In any case, one will need to spend some time at the first level, and there are no shortcuts to be had.
But by no means is the time spend at the zhaoshou stage wasted. Regardless of how weak you are, you will get stronger. Regardless of how strong you are you will get more relaxed. You will learn how to pay attention to, and correct your posture, improve your balance, and experience a new spaciousness in your body.
Even though at the zaoshou level much of the emphasis is on relaxation (song), and developing good balance and posture, you are still basically practicing an external art, and have not yet entered the door of the internal. Hence it is said that you are learning the “empty form”. This is a completely natural and necessary part of the process, and will itself bring much of the benefits that motivate people to first seek out Taijiquan. But it is still, just the first level.
With practice you will begin to acquire some feelings related to the Taiji principle. These feelings will help you understand how to permit your body to learn in the correct way. But this means doing things according to Taiji principles. Even if you can make a technique work, if you do not use correct methods, this is not Taiji, and pursuing this way will greatly hinder your practice. This is understandably difficult, because most people just want to keep their immediately useful skills that they can do well, and they worry about losing their ability. And for some, it is impossible to give up their long-established skills. But the truth is, if you cannot accept losing in your practice in the beginning, you have no chance of understanding Taijiquan or attaining real Taijiquan skill.
Eventually, if you persevere, your tendency to use li (untrained, or muscular force) will diminish and you will understand how to use jin (trained force.) Dong means to “understand” and hence the second level is called Dongjin or “understanding trained force”. Because Taiji is about yin and yang (substantial/insubstantial) jin is often discussed in terms of yin and yang also. And once the level of dongjin has been reached, the practitioner should know how to explain their techniques in terms of the Taiji principle.
The final level Shenming is somewhat above our pay grade. Shen here means “spirit”, and ming means clear or illuminated, and in this context refers to achieving the highest levels of skill made possible through a deep understanding of the Taiji principle. As to what it is like to reach this stage – I’ll get back to you.
As indicated in the title, the above is a perspective of what the student can expect based on their efforts. However, the truth is, that while taijiquan is probably the most popular martial art in the world, and is practiced by millions of people, the vast majority never progress beyond the zhaoshou stage. There is nothing wrong in this. If the practice is correct, then the result will be beneficial and healthy for the individual. It is just that it is important to be clear about at what level one is practicing.
All progress in Taijiquan is dependent on three variables: Correct information, a skillful teacher, and a diligent student. As the modern encroaches everywhere, teachers who learned and trained in the traditional methods are increasingly difficult to find. Many great Masters were killed during the Chinese Revolution, and many who survived were too conservative to pass on what they knew.
Moreover, many who claim to be Taijiquan “teachers” are themselves students who were either never given adequate information, or failed to digest what they were given. But although finding an authentic tradition is difficult – by definition, what is difficult is not impossible. Perseverance brings results to those who put in the effort.
— The above content was adapted from The Taijiquan Classics, by Zhang Yun.