What are the great secrets of life? Perhaps there are a few of them. Probably none is more important than the knowledge of how to circulate and balance the Intrinsic Energy, the Vital Force of the body, known as Chi in Chinese. The rewards in good health, wisdom, serenity, and longevity are great for the one who learns the ancient principles and applies them in a modern way. So little of such arts is known in the West, but now, stimulated by the growth of meditation practice and the intense interest in acupuncture, people have begun to turn to ancient Chinese T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Hatha Yoga, and other forms for self-culture.

Ease of Learning T’ai Chi Chih

As a former T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructor, I am very enthusiastic about having taught this discipline, and I always seemed to have a waiting list for new classes. And yet, I realize that it takes many months of hard work to learn the 108 movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Once learned, it takes at least 12 feet of space in which to practice. Older people have some difficulty executing the movements, as well as a problem in memorizing the long sequence. And, finally, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, wonderful as it is, cannot be learned from a book — a personal instructor is absolutely necessary.

In contrast, T’ai Chi Chih can easily be learned from this book or my instructional videos. Any six of the movements, practiced 36 times on the left side and 36 times on the right side, should afford great benefits. Very little space is needed; one can stand at one’s desk whenever feeling drowsy and, reaching out only to arm’s length, re-stimulate one’s energy by leisurely doing a few of the movements. They are so gentle, and take so little coordination, that people of any age can easily do them. All that is needed is to practice the movements regularly — for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning and 10 or 15 minutes in the late afternoon or early evening. Properly done, the result should be a flow of energy and a feeling of well-being somewhat like the aftermath of an internal bath. The first manifestation is usually a tingling in the fingers and a feeling of fullness and energy-flow in the hands. If the mental concentration is kept in the soles of the feet (the so-called “Bubbling Spring”) or two inches below the navel (the tan t’ien, pronounced dantienne), the flow will eventually surge through the body and a feeling of heat may suddenly appear in the arms, at the base of the skull, or elsewhere. A vibration may begin in the soles of the feet, or at the solar plexus, and there may be a feeling that the hairs at the top of the neck are standing up. A strong twitching may be felt in the forehead just above and between the eyes, a spot usually referred to in occult circles as “the Third Eye.” Each person will feel the surge of Vital Force in his or her own way, and it is a pleasant feeling. This heat current is also said to be very healing in nature, and I can attest to such effects in my own particular case as regards a chronic ailment, probably resulting from injury. Above all, we tend to “wake up,” to feel good and more alive. In this respect, T’ai Chi Chih is like a valuable meditation.

What is Chi?

What is this Vital Force that we become aware of, the flow of Intrinsic Energy seeming to arise within us? The Chinese, those people of great vitality, call it Chi. It is known as Ki in Japan, where it is the basis for higher Aikido and other martial arts. The wise men of India have referred to it variously as Shakti, Kundalini, and Prana. In Indian Tantric practices, this energy as Sakti (the active force of the reality, Shiva) is actually worshiped. Taking this energy up along the spine, opening the psychic centers, is the way for humans to become gods in the Kundalini practice of Hindu Tantra, but this must be done under close supervision of a Perfect Master (Guru), so its possibilities are limited to only a few.

It is interesting that the Chinese use the word Chi as a translation for the Indian Sanskrit word Prana, all the force of the universe, the power that breathes us and makes us live. (This same force is expressed, unfortunately, in the atom bomb.) This Chi is also used as translation for the Sanskrit word Prajna, which means wisdom in the greater sense. So the Vital Force, this Intrinsic Energy, is also the wisdom that is the deep-rooted source of intuition. A long-time practicer of T’ai Chi Chih will know well what the ancients meant when they said, “To unite the Divine Energy within me with the Universal Energy: that is the Goal!”

Power of Chi Circulation

Hakuin Ekaku, the 18th century Japanese Zen Master (and perhaps the most influential in Japan’s long history of Buddhism), tells a curious story in his little-known work, The Yasenkanna. Tired and in extremely bad health from his arduous meditations and long search for truth, Hakuin heard about a sennin, a mountain Master, living in seclusion near Shirakawa (White River Junction) in the mountains of Japan. He promptly made a pilgrimage there and, after difficulty in finding the Master (who was living in a cave in the remote recesses of the mountains), finally came face-to-face with him in his small retreat.

Hakuin was surprised to see no food at all in the cave, and he knew, from the villagers, that Hakuyu, the Master, had not left there for some time. Moreover, the older man (some said he had been the teacher of another great Master over 100 years before) was wearing only a thin covering, curled with cold (I can attest to the freezing winter weather in those mountains), and yet did not seem to notice the chill at all.

He was kneeling in meditation when Hakuin entered the cave, practicing the Naikan discipline (explained as Nei Kung, the Chinese pronunciation, in my book Meditation for Healing) that is part of the Qigong series of practices, just as T’ai Chi Chih is. These practices are designed to activate, circulate, and balance the Divine Energy (Chi) lying dormant in each one of us.

Hakuyu taught this circulation of the Chi to Hakuin, both to help his rapidly-degenerating health and to enable him to make a break- through in his contemplations, which was necessary for him to reach full Enlightenment. Hakuin writes that, while using this method of circulating and balancing the Chi, he succeeded in both endeavors and went on to become one of the greatest Zen Masters the East has known. Since Hakuin was one of the most notable Buddhist figures in Japanese history, and since he was of a people well-known for their understatement, can we doubt his word when he attests to the efficacy of the flowing Chi?

Balancing Yin and Yang

When we speak of balancing this Intrinsic Energy (which Chinese Zennists sometimes obscurely referred to as “your original face”), we mean bringing the yin and yang elements into balance. In Chinese cosmology, we have the ineffable Tao (also known as T’ai Chi), the Supreme Ultimate about which nothing can be predicated. From this matrix come the yin and the yang, which can be called the negative and the positive, the receptive and the creative, the cold and the hot, the insubstantial and the substantial, the feminine and the masculine, etc. — the forces of the two polarities. Then, from the yin and yang we get heaven above, earth below, and humankind in the center. (This is why Japanese flower arrangements are generally three-pointed.) From these derive the 10,000 things, the world of diversified phenomena perceived by the senses.

The ancient teaching is that the yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) elements separate when in motion, and they come together again in quiessence. So, when we begin the motions of T’ai Chi Chih, we are dividing the two forces; then we balance them as we practice. Finally, when we are still again, they reunite.

Often we see the great teaching represented by the ball that appears like this:

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This is the Tao, or T’ai Chi. Notice that in the dark (the feminine or negative) there is a faint spot of light, and, conversely, in the light (the masculine or positive), there is a faint spot of dark. Thus there is always some feminine in the masculine and vice versa. It is this which makes possible the balancing of the Chi.

The Chinese say that when one force is carried to extremes (i.e., grows too strong), it turns into its opposite. This is possible because yin and yang attract each other. So, too much yang (positive) eventually becomes yin (negative). We can easily identify this in our own world, where it is said, “Pleasure indefinitely prolonged becomes pain.” One ice cream soda tastes good, but ten ice cream sodas make us sick. And so it is said that, “The wise person goes to his or her triumph like a funeral,” knowing the greatest high eventually turns into a low. The Sage has said, “If you want to lift anything, first push down on it to break the attachment.” The yang (creative) is the father of all things, but the yin (receptive) is the great mother. Each eventually turns into its opposite, and both are always present to some degree.

Water, and most fluids, is strongly yin, and when we have an excess of fluid in our systems, we are too yin and tend toward illness. The flow of the Chi in T’ai Chi Chih helps dry this excess fluid, so we tend to lose weight if we are overweight and have better health as this extra yin is removed. We are usually thirsty after practicing T’ai Chi Chih because of this drying effect. It is best not to drink something cold immediately after finishing, as we have been exercising the internal organs and producing a subtle heat in them.

Effective Use of Balanced Energy

When we first start the movements of T’ai Chi Chih, we are beginning to circulate the Chi. As we emphasize right or left in the hands, to balance the substantial or insubstantial position of the legs (through the knees), we are balancing this Vital Force as it flows. Then, when we come to rest, the yin and yang elements reunite and are stored in the bones, according to the old Chinese teaching. It is this stored Chi energy that enables a Master of Karate, Aikido, or the other martial art disciplines, to smash a hand through a concrete block, a stunt witnesssed many times. (Not too long ago a building was destroyed in Japan in this manner, using only the hands of a few adepts who volunteered their services.) It is not muscular force the adept uses; you will note the person usually lets out a sharp cry as he or she musters the stored Chi and then smashes the hand through the obstacle. Concentrating on the tan t’ien (two inches below the navel) will cause a good deal of Chi to be stored there, the seat of heaven. There are Aikido clubs in Japan whose members go swimming on the coldest winter days, keeping intensive concentration on the heat-making Chi stored in the spot below the navel (tanden in Japanese).

Shall I relate one more story to show the wondrous properties of the Chi? It is a fairly common story told in circles of this discipline. Two black belt Judo adepts heard that an older Master was coming to a city close to theirs. They made a hurried trip there to pay their respects, and they were somewhat disappointed to find a tiny, older man, perhaps weighing less than 100 pounds. The first Judo man, over six feet tall and quite muscular, said to the Master, “All my life I have been hearing about the power of this Chi. Would you be kind enough to demonstrate the power to us?”

The Master thought for a moment. “I’ll tell you what,” he began, “You two come at me from different directions and throw me down!”

The two big men, much younger than the little fellow, were astonished. “We’ll kill you!” exclaimed one of them.

“And do me the honor of not taking it easy with me!” continued the Master.

The two Judo men huddled to discuss the turn of events. “You flip him and I’ll catch him before he hits the mat,” suggested one, and the other nodded. “We don’t want to hurt the little fellow.”

The two separated, turned, and began to advance on the Master, watching his breathing and waiting for the right time to spring. When they did move, it was quickly — and then, I am told, the spectators saw a strange sight. One man was immediately seen lying on the ground ten feet away, his glasses knocked off, “looking for the freight train,” as he put it. The other had staggered back against the wall, and a small fleck of blood appeared at his nostrils. What is most surprising is that none of the assembled spectators had seen the little man move at all!

This, of course, is an extreme example of the effective use of the Vital Force. And yet, it is latent in all of us. The storing of this force below the navel is what enables holy men in Tibet or northern India to walk through the snow and ice on the coldest days and remain comfortable wearing nothing but a loincloth. It is known as the Dumo heat in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. And it is the force used by healers, who may impart it as a healing energy (felt as heat) by a technique of laying-on-of-hands, or something similar (as in the very effective Johrei of the Japanese Healing Church, Sekai Kyusei Kyo).

This same energy that seems to heal is the basis of all sexual vigor, which is said to be greatly enhanced by the practice of T’ai Chi Chih.

So, circulation and balance of the Chi energy is one of the great secrets of life, open to any of us who will make the effort. Most do not have the time (or inclination) to practice extreme disciplines, such as Tantric Kundalini Yoga or advanced Hatha Yoga. Nevertheless, we can balance and circulate this Intrinsic Life Force (which the great Indian philosopher, Shankara, called “The Real”) through the simple practice of T’ai Chi Chih. If the student practices faithfully, the results can be great. Without making much effort, we cannot hope to achieve much. Repetition is important. Regular practice is needed to yield results—and it is well worth the effort! So, in this way, we can utilize one of the great secrets of life.

This article is published in Joy Thru Movement.