“I bequeath the Constant Bear movement to the elderly, the sick, and the frail. It is a wonderful, traditional exercise which is both simple and easy. You can also use it for self-defense until you are years old. All this is easily obtained. Although my explanation is short and simple, if you understand its principles and practice with perseverance, after as few as one hundred days of moving your ch’i, you will notice a marked improvement in health and strength and no longer need to worry about illness. It is truly a ‘sacred raft’ to strengthen our bodies and bears no semblance to other well known yet inferior exercises” 1.
With these words Cheng Man Ching entrusted to posterity what he considered the most concentrated possible synthesis of the principles of Tai Chi Chuan: the Constant Bear exercise. Were his expectations too high?
More than 44 years have passed since the “master of the five excellences” left, but although his conception of the martial art has spread remarkably throughout the world, the exercise that was called to be the great disseminator of Tai chi among the most varied sectors of the population remains little known despite its extreme simplicity.
Contradictory, no doubt. But we must not forget that Cheng himself warned of the elusive character of the principle underlying the exercise: “Although a thousand ounces of gold is obtained easier than the correct method, even this is easily dropped when passing it on, washing your life out to sea” 2.
Such an elemental move leads very easily to underestimate its potential for infinite transformations like a golden thread that connects the most diverse actions and postures: “The Constant Bear combines both the Five Animals and tai chi into a single move, look for it and you will receive it, neglect it and you will lose it” 3.
So, we have a remarkably simple movement but one that contains a far-reaching principle, as easy to ignore as it is difficult to apprehend. Tai chi at its purest.
Tai Chi Chuan has no opinion. It has no intention. It is an idea without motive.
It is an act without desire. It is, properly, the natural response to an outside force, not being perceived as such.
For in nature, all are the same, everything is one. That which attacks is the same as that which responds, the same force —redirected and recycled.
When you initiate an ill-intentioned move, it comes back on you.
The principles of Tai Chi are the same principles behind the inner mechanism of the great engine of the universe 4.
For many of us who have practiced Tai Chi, the origin of this art and style of movement is a fascinating enigma. Today it is generally accepted, as a matter of mere common sense, that the forms elaborated with a sequence of movements, by which the different styles of this art are distinguished today, are the ultimate result of a long evolution; that is to say, they are an arrangement or synthesis of quite elementary postures, gestures and moves that in earlier times had to be practiced separately. Some of them, such as the commencing and closing form, the push forward, or the cloud hands, are among the most primary, and although they have undergone transformations of all sorts, still convey the whole flavor of this art.
And in this way, today’s best-known classical routines, whatever their style and whether they have 24, 37, 66 or 108 movements, entail a level of complexity that we could compare with that of symphonies, although no one doubts that before the symphonies there had to be songs, and before the songs, chords and tunes. It cannot be any other way.
The endless disputes between styles and lineages tend to be about issues of historical priority or about who has best captured the essence of what seems to be quite a timeless art by itself. The first may be settled by dated documents within chronologies, but always provisionally as well — because, just as the paleontological fossil record, the documents that fall into the hands of the scholars, even if they are authentic, are always a tiny part of the unknown documents that could still emerge to disprove the best founded assumption.
Thus, for example, the still more commonly accepted idea is that Tai Chi, as we understand it today, has its best documented origin in the lineage of the Chen family from the 17th century and specifically in General Chen Wangting (1597-1664); however now various scholars such as Christensen argue, based on some documentary evidence, that the first classic on the subject comes from Li Chunmao of the Li family from the Tang Village, Henan, and would date from 1590. Perhaps this does not introduce a great dissonance in the now admitted chronology, but it does in the lines of transmission, which in turn opens new questions, as that same Li family counts its ancestors up to an almost legendary Li Dao Zi, born almost a thousand years before 5.
Disputes over the essences are, as might be expected, much more difficult to demarcate, though not less important. In fact, for those who seek in Tai Chi a living, always renewed experience, they bear much more weight than dates and chronologies, closer to historians and scholars: they speak not from the paper and ink of old manuscripts, but from the very flesh and spirit of the practitioner.
Cheng Man Ching’s position on this the question of origins contains a hypothesis that looks rather speculative in the historical sense but appears quite irreducible when it comes down to the essential.
And in fact, in Cheng’s perspective, the (pre)historical view fits into the timeless without need of greater details. Since it is clear that he didn’t pretend that the physician Hua Tuo (c. 140-208) was at the origin of modern Tai Chi, but of the common ancestor of both Tai Chi and the Wuqinxi or Five Animals Frolics, which already included the Bear and that are effectively attributed to him.
In all this evolution what came first had generally less differentiated forms, and in addition, we have not received detailed instructions on how Hua Tuo’s Five Animals could have been. Since then there have been a large number of exercises imitating the gait and traits of the bear, so the original pattern is vague enough to admit a wide progeny —though not so much so that the lineage cannot be tracked. Here, too, we need some sense of proportion.
Cheng himself didn’t leave us a recorded demonstration of how he understood this incessant swaying of the bear, so we have no choice but to return to his words:
“There are three main points to concentrate on when practicing the Constant Bear. They are:
First, the Constant Bear features the constant swinging of the waist to and fro, right and left. It should be done about thirty minutes after your morning and evening meal. Those with weak bodies should start with two to three hundred swings. Always increase, never decrease, the numbers, strive for gradual progress. Increase the movements until the total time spent is between ten and fifteen minutes, and remain in a pleasant mood.
Second, when you practice the Constant Bear, don’t let your head hang down as real bear does, but combine the swing with the form called the Looking Owl, where you look straight ahead. Your head should not move independently, but moves aligned with the navel. In Tai Chi this is called ‘The light sensitive energy rising to the top of your head’ and ‘Keeping the weilu centered and straight so that the spirit rises to the top of your head’.
Third, as in Tai Chi, distinguish clearly between full and empty, as expressed in the statement ‘Heavy as a mountain, light as a feather’. When you turn left, your weight should be fully on your left leg, making it as heavy as a mountain. Do the same when you swing onto your right leg.
When you practice be sure to keep your mind and chi in the dantien, about 1,3 inches below the navel. Also take care that the soles of your feet are fully on the ground” 6.
Although what we have here is a single alternating motion of swing and turn, there are still many loose ends that allow for diverse executions both in appearance and spirit. Characteristically, we can distinguish between matters of principle, which are prescriptive, and matters of degree which are left to the discretion of the practitioner. For example, nothing is said here about how much one should bend the knees or the angle that may describe the axis of the body trunk in its swing; not to mention other aspects such as the rhythm, the height and motion of the hands or if the swing and the turn should be done altogether or separately.
In any case, the move, itself an incessant closed circuit using the existing momentum to shift the direction with minimal effort, literally embodies the popular saying attributed to Hua Tuo: “Door hinges that are used never rust”. So the attribution of this very exercise to the physician of the Han dynasty, although not demonstrable, is at least judicious and pertinent.
For there is little doubt that many centuries before the elaboration of specific martial routines with different choreographies there had to be movements that embodied the spirit of Tai Chi in many different ways. After all, any of its lineages claims to be heir to Yangsheng and Taoism, which we know are thousands of years older! Besides, it is just in the natural order of things that these arts must have evolved from vague attempts and moves to the most refined, diversified forms.
Then the Constant Bear would find its place at that crossroads, somewhat hard to conceive, between the “casual” primitive movements and the more conscious, deliberate and tailored recollection of a repertoire in an organized sequence. And it is here where the magic of the Origin as remembrance exerts all its ascendancy.
Let us understand a dilemma that it is not such. On the one hand, it seems obvious that the exercise proposed by Cheng Man Ching, after a lifetime dedicated to the study and synthesis of these arts, cannot be the same as a “primitive and spontaneous move” that, moreover, tries to imitate the already free frolic of an animal not compelled by external restrictions. On the other hand, we already see that this primitive movement as human art, but not a mere contrivance, can only be mimicry —that’s to say, a recreation of yet another synthesis, this time a spontaneous one, played by an animal that is freely bringing some harmony to a chaos of instincts pointing in different directions.
But the fact is that Cheng, in addition, attributes the paternity of the exercise to Hua Tuo, like him an extremely experienced and conscious physician, to cap it all the creator of a series of five exercises mimicking movements of as many animals, at the heart of which, as if it were the element earth, stand the Bear —the synthesis of a framework that it is already a summary.
Then we understand that Cheng’s argument works perfectly as an alibi: here the only way we can conceive the origin is reproducing it, the analysis will always leave us cold. And here at the crossroads of both Tai Chi’s prehistory and Tao Yin health qigong we are set to find another self-conscious physician creator of his own recollection and synthesis. The Constant Bear is both a discovery and a recreation.
What happens is that if there are many possible ways of doing the Bear, they should share certain irreducible traits, which are the same that Cheng highlights, and that also coincide point by point with the most basic principles of Tai Chi. That’s why he avoids carefully to give more specifications, which would unnecessarily restrict the scope of action. Convenient also on the other hand, as real animals frolics should be quite free of stifling rules.
So, here the irreducible is doomed to match some not less irreducible degree of uncertainty, and it must be said that here, too, the very guiding Principle of Tai Chi is in action. Liu Hsi-Heng recalled seeing Cheng practicing the exercise in his home in Taipei while editing one of his manuscripts, before saying: “This single move is Tai Chi —there is nothing more than this”. You don’t need anything else, when the practice is the proof:
“If you do these three things, your ‘Golden Rooster Stand On One Leg’ will be stable; your ‘Repulse Monkey’ will not be snatched away by the movement of Sensitive Ape; your ‘Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain’ will be as decisive as a tiger’s roar; your ‘Look Right, Glance Left’ and ‘Diagonal Flying Posture’ will be faster than the Deer” 8.
And if anyone has doubts, let them look for another move with its own entity, only one, capable of summarizing Tai Chi as briefly and completely as the Constant Bear. So, this is the genuine “pocket Tai Chi”, the only one that can take place comfortably in a single square meter. The Bear reveals its identity by the fact that it stands alone: it is the greatest shortcut meeting the necessary and sufficient condition. That is why, if I had to choose only one single exercise among the infinite variety that exist, this would be it.
If Hua Tuo actually conceived an exercise imitating the Bear to some extent, surely this one did not involve the sort of clear-cut formal principles that could give a refined and self-conscious Tai Chi master of the second half of the XX century, with his decanted knowledge of the history of Chinese qigong and martial arts. However, the awareness of form may be only the exteriorization of a previous knowledge in spirit that can stand by its own, because if form follows function, function follows intention as well. Let us look back again to the past.
It is a commonplace to allude to the more than plausible shamanic origins of Taoism. Among the solo shamanic dances, those inspired by the Bear have held a preeminent place. Ritual walks and dances like the Yubu and the Bugang, recalling the “footsteps” of the legendary Yu the Great, have always been related to the Polar Star, the sevenfold constellation of the Big Dipper (for the Chinese “the Northern Dipper”, whose fourth star is precisely called Tian Quan, “Celestial Balance”), that was seen as the Bear for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Although this steps developed with time more and more intricacies, the original idea behind is the static flight through the stars of the far North indicating the egress and re-entry into the cosmos, the high shamanic theme par excellence.
For, according to the old texts such as the Zhengyi xiuzhen lueyi, the purpose of these ritual steps, as a means of self-cultivation, was none other than to lead the practitioner, who was often a ruler, “from the existence to nothingness”, a motive as inconceivable as it is absurd for most modern people. So some brief musings may be here in place.
It should be no wonder if Cheng says Tai Chi has no intention or motive. What we call thought is only an intermittent and discontinuous flashing of intentions, basting and giving an appearance of continuity to hollow beads in a string. Approaching Tai Chi involves seeking a different kind of continuity beyond those flashes by suppressing the intention and partiality that colors our thoughts. As there is nothing in the world (of thoughts) not colored by intention, if I suspend mi intent, a passage opens through the gap that allows that nothingness to be perceived, the potential of the mind prior to any of its acts.
Ordinary thought, without realizing it, is continually doing the opposite: it comes out of nowhere, out of unnoticed blank spots, only to enter once and again into “the world”, in fact a jungle of thoughts among which we leap from branch to branch like a monkey. The Bear standing on its hind legs was for man a living hieroglyph of the Pole, and the Pole is Intention itself when it is not directed towards earthly thoughts and things —when it is not, so to speak, “on all fours”. The Pole is what remains of Intention when there is no intent; “trying not to try” clears the way of Taoism.
The unconditional idea of Manifest Destiny aroused among the westernmost peoples points to an earthly mission in which the spirit is necessarily exhausted. The conditional Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven points on the contrary towards a celestial guide that makes possible the renewal of things. In our times the virtuality of this notion has been almost completely lost. The Chinese expression Tianming speaks of a “will of Heaven”, but if Heaven leads us back to the unity of the Supreme Pole (Tai Chi, literally) it is precisely because it has no will, no intention or motive on its own. Heaven is the guide that unties the knots, frees us from each particular goal and opens a space with new degrees of freedom for everything. That is his prerogative and in that consists his incessant and unseen power to renew Time and the times.
As it has been noted, Taoism judges the progress of human self-cultivation according mostly to physical transformations, whether gross or subtle; Confucianism takes conduct as the criterion and Buddhism relies on the manifestations of the mind; but they are only three different perspectives of one single process.
Even in the most elementary physical aspects of Tai Chi, say an exercise such as the Constant Bear, the requirement to keep straight the vertical axis of the spine guiding it from the top of the head looks for the layperson as a rigidity and an unnecessary restriction, when in fact it is the basic condition for free and effortless motion. No doubt, there is a freedom to exhaust oneself as there is a freedom to renew oneself also, and both, even seeing the same thing, look in opposite directions.
In case anyone missed it, this movement of the Bear as we have described it traces in space a pattern entirely similar to the Taijitu itself, the very same symbol popularly known as the “Yin-Yang circle”, and not only in two but also in three dimensions and in time as well, which gives it an additional interest and one more vertical sense, beyond duality, to this kind of elusive, uncertain moving between being and not being.
Let us descend again to more earthly, tangible aspects. It’s well known that many Tai Chi teachers and practitioners have a prominent belly due to the abdominal breathing it promotes. This doesn’t need to be wrong, despite the idea now artificially extended that only a flat stomach is healthy. There are rare Tai Chi masters though, that against the general rule, advocate high-lung breathing, don’t exhibit this typical belly and use to be stronger and more corpulent than their counterpart. However, we’re not going into what is the best way to breathe now, as the most important thing is to do it as freely as possible.
In my case, Yang-style Tai Chi never gave me a bloated belly, but the Constant Bear did, and to such an extent that it forced me to question whether I was doing something wrong. Since this exercise is like a long form concentrate, one could think it tends to amplify any basic problem of performance. The distension used to decrease one or two days after stopping the exercise, and reappeared almost immediately when I resumed it, so the cause was clear enough. However, I could not identify which particular detail was behind the undesirable effect.
There are many kinds of exercise in qigong, and I had explored different styles and variants over several decades; a good number of them have contraindications or in any case are not recommended for untrained practitioners. On the other hand we have nearly risk-free medical or therapeutic qigong for people with an average or even weak physical condition. Undoubtedly, doing the Bear belongs to this last category and that is why Cheng Man Ching did not hesitate to recommend it as an ideal way of recovery for the people with frailer health. And despite this and the absurd simplicity of the exercise, I was unable to detect the origin of the problem.
The judgment on this bloating phenomenon is complicated by the fact that, to some extent, the practice of this routine leads quite naturally to develop power and build up pressure in that area; but if it feels uncomfortable surely there is something wrong with it. Internal pressure should circulate and distribute, rather than accumulate, though both processes are closely interrelated.
So I consulted instructors from Cheng’s lineage, but the two I met did not seem any better than me. One of them, an excellent professor who devoted about an hour a day to this exercise, had a belly as prominent as a watermelon, so I didn’t even want to raise the issue since it was obvious he had not solved the problem either. He was also performing a markedly low form with very bent knees, that at least for me was not the most convenient to distribute the overall pressure without tensions or obstacles. However, there was a very good point in the slowness and firmness of his posture. One cannot judge by the form only as the overall effect depends on the physical condition, the depth of relaxation and the present sensitivity of the performer.
Later on I asked Jacob Newell of the Old Oak School of Dao in Sonoma, California. He also admitted that there’s definitely a pressure that builds up in this practice, although the Ruyu style of Tai Chi developed by C. K. Chen wants to drop it all the way into the foot9. It took Jacob years to bring the pressure to the ground after first unblocking the hip joint and then the knee joint. To get to the bottom he used as a method standing on a wobbly rock.
Using a wobbling rock is an excellent way to take advantage of our innate sense of balance to loosen joints and unify body coordination. These are three related aspects that I had already developed to a good degree throughout a long practice of Zhan zhuang, that is, standing postures like the well known “embracing the tree”. So I was convinced that I was already letting the pressure drop and that the cause of the abdominal bloating had to be elsewhere.
Immediately after this advice I noticed that it is not usually specified how much one should turn sideways, and that I tended to overdo the turn looking for a greater workout, something between 150 and 180 degrees. This tweaks the middle part of the body, catching and strangling the pressure in that area. I tried with more moderate turns, about 120 degrees or less, and the problem disappeared almost completely. Just a few days latter I found an article from this same Old Oak School that specifies a total turn of only 90º, 45º to each side10. After this, I have found that there is no need to make extreme turns to increase the performance, as there is no need to lower the stance too much. More than the height of the posture, it is the perception of weight what needs to go down. In Tai Chi less is often more. But of course my experience is very limited, and it would be desirable to know a wide range of opinions11.
However, I was left with the idea of using a wobbling rock or board as an aid to develop quickly that unified sense of the body and its movements which is essential in Tai Chi. In the old days this kind of elemental aids were always welcome and even enshrined means in monasteries and schools. Although it also takes time, there’s no need for people to spend years on it with demanding practices such as zhan zhuang when we can acquire the skills in a shorter and more enjoyable way.
So we come to the idea that, if the Constant Bear is already an excellent way to popularize Tai Chi and make its essence available for a much larger number of people, putting it on the “wobbling rock” would be an ideal touchstone to deepen an exercise which too often is only approached at the most superficial level. Especially for those who do not practice long forms, since these are already a means of testing the depth of the foundation.
Like Tai Chi itself, the Bear has a wide margin of possible interpretations and performances; even its practice beyond the Tai Chi precepts, as a mere routine to loosen the body and the limbs, without taking care of the alignment of the trunk, yields remarkable health benefits.
The third and busiest battleground between the various Tai Chi schools revolves around efficiency. Traditionally the different parties have resorted to combat to see who has the last word. But while competition may change sides and opinions, it is far from being a supreme court in which more subtle issues such as the therapeutic efficacy and the effect on health of the different styles can be properly settled.
The diversity of styles in Tai Chi has arisen more as a matter of nuance and emphasis than from the principle itself; and these differences of emphasis just echo differences in the spirit, complexion and sensitivity of the interpreters. A corpulent complexion does not usually have the same sensitivity as a thin one, and sensitivity is crucial in this art, as it unveils the margin of action and the available degrees of freedom. Moreover, Tai Chi would not be an art without that uncertain margin and the need to interpret it. Naturally, as a need to adhere to one practice among others, we all are bound to believe that our school or style is the best and the others are inferior—at least for the time being and until we decide to change sides.
Many practitioners of other lower forms, not less than common sense thinking, will seriously doubt that you can practice such a straight, natural and relaxed form as the Ruyu without losing power and thrust, but if that possibility didn’t exist, Tai Chi would not have a special interest. Even admitting that it all depends on the degree of sensitivity, it seems to me that the more relaxed styles are in better disposition to delve into the degrees of freedom of the art, and to pay off right from the start.
We list in a separate note the points to be taken into account in order to really take advantage of the potential of the exercise —according to the Ruyu style. Rather than the waist or the spine, it is the heavy foot what should be feel as the real pivot in each turn. I also find it preferable to concentrate on the centre of the sole of the foot rather than the dantian below the navel; being both the mechanic and the energetic functions of the two areas completely different.
What we want is to realize the potential of the exercise as soon as possible. The biomechanical aspects due to a third-person view would make up the external component of this potential. In a first-person view we can not neglect the sensations we perceive, as they should be just the subtler aspect of this same physical reality. In modern materials science we speak of stress and strain, of tension-pressure and deformation —and this already implies forces both inside and outside the bodies. Here, first-person only means from the inside, and it has to be necessarily subjective. In the body we have soft and hard tissues and parts, that in the old taoist parlance would be yin and yang areas. Related to this, and the associated pressure-tension, or strain and stress, in our sensations as we perceive it, we can speak also of cold and hot energies, or the “water” and the “fire element”.
To simplify as much as possible, we can say that in the body we perceive fresh and warm energies, in a positive sense, just as we perceive overheated and cold or rigid zones, in a negative sense; which can be compared to the traditional distinction between “young yin and yang”, and “old yang and yin”. The lower dantien or “cinnabar field” is so called precisely because it is the natural place for the intimate mixture of cool and warm (as cinnabar is made of mercury and sulphur) sensations or “energies”. However, the main location where the freshness enters the body are the (soft) soles of the feet —especially after the residual energies already used have been brought to earth and released.
Working the exercise from the sole of the feet, is more equivalent to “breathing from the heels”, or “from the bones”, to use two older expressions. That is, from the deepest level and from the cooler extremes, while the centre of the body is the place where the extremes naturally merge. The difference may be great when this is put into effect: like the one between walking along an ordinary route and hiking in the mountains inspiring the freshness of the snowy peaks. However, probably the best method is not to concentrate on any particular point and just be attentive to the overall feeling.
The old neidan representations showing a whole landscape of mountains and waterfalls inside the human body respond to quite an elementary reality, provided one knows how to attend and interpret one’s own sensations.
Traditional Chinese medicine tries to direct “the fire” of the body downwards and “the water” upwards to compensate for the natural tendency of these elements to divorce and stop reacting. One can’t sum up more complex processes with fewer words. At the biomechanical level, what corresponds to fire and water are tension and pressure. We live between tension and pressure, all our life is a scenario of that interplay, with strain, the ability to deform, as an interface or contact surface between both. The other elements or activities that traditional medicines takes into account arise from the combinations and intricacies of this basic relationship.
In Tai Chi it is better to move smoothly everything, even if little, than to move a lot some parts only to neglect others. Quantitatively, it is no small thing to obtain 50 percent of the benefits of doing the Bear; but qualitatively, that 50 percent is just to stay halfway between that union of the extremes that bears the real fruit. If the great expectations that Cheng placed in this exercise have not been fulfilled, surely it is because we haven’t yet succeeded in closing the gap between the possible and the real.
As we said, the wobbling rock is just a touchstone to sharpen and distribute the inner sense of balance affecting the whole body. Anyone training balance on a board learns how to loosen the body and the limbs to optimize the capacity of coordinated response. Balance effectively involves the whole body, and in this art we should always start from the whole. Wholeness is both the foundation and the goal.
In the same way, doing the Bear we can feel that our performance is being excessive or insufficient, too empty or too full. But whether the excess is of one type or another, both leave us with the needed, but not always heard, feeling of failure. The exercise itself seems to complain: “It could be much better if you weren’t so dumb”. We get the message, that is that we are missing the point.
Full and empty are correlative terms; when the whole body feels homogeneously full, to the same extent the line separating the inside from the outside ceases to be perceived, and by the same token, the very line that separes the full and the empty vanish too. It is no small thing to harmonize them, and yet it is not something that can be “done,” but rather something that we can discover through action, as one discovers an unsuspected path into the mountains that can lead us to who knows what magnificent view. The changing margin, gap or clearance defines the width and turns of the path.
Since everyone has to find their optimum grade of performance, which varies not only with each individual but for the same individual over time, any general rule will be somewhat misleading. Again the words of Cheng Man Ching are worth remembering: “Hua To instructions for the Five Animals were lost except for the two words: ‘Until perspiration’. A little perspiration is fine when you practice on a hot summer day, but during autumn or winter you practice only until you feel a slight tingling sensation of sweat on your back and forehead, then rest, do not continue until you perspire” 12.
Anyway, my experience is that one can obtain lots of energy from this movement without the slightest need to sweat. In this respect we could also recall the extended Tai Chi rule of never exercising more than 70 per cent of one’s own capacity.
A good orientation on the degree of flexion in the posture could be this: the lower you go, the more you should look for lightness; and the more upright you are, the more you should concentrate on sinking the weight. In this way we explore our own range time and again, in search of the mean between doubly-weighted extremes. A similar “paradoxical scanning” between extremes can be done with other aspects as the optimal rhythm or speed. Firmness and sensitivity should go together if we want to progress.
The Constant Bear can bring all the benefits of Tai Chi with an abysmally simple move. Since the swing and return use the momentum of a movement to initiate the next, the effort is minimal and it seems that we could go on endlessly. If rightly has been said that Tai Chi is more enjoyable when more circular is, in no other instance could be enjoyed more than with this single alternate circular move, a kind of charging and discharging oneself —charging oneself with the inner natural pressure which is vitality, and discharging that tension which obstructs the free distribution of that pressure. Body and movement form a single field, they are not separate things. The point is to learn how to delve in the exercise finding the most satisfactory way for oneself.
Incidentally, the comparison with an electric generator or alternator is not entirely trivial, but here the interplay of “currents”, if the analogy is allowed, is richer and has added interest, since we are also dealing with a sort of eliminator, or if you will, a double or rather quadruple pumping system. It would be fantastic if we could apply these same principles to our environment and to the atmosphere, and taken with due proportion, maybe we can identify the corresponding natural processes at different levels.
Some claim that if we are looking for a method of maintaining health, there are qigong series such as the 18 hands of Lohan (Shaolin) or the famous 8 pieces of brocade (ba duan jin) that are as effective as Tai Chi and take much less time to learn. But if one can learn these series in a few sessions, you can learn the Constant Bear, or “Taijitu exercise”, as we might also call it, in five minutes without renouncing in the least to the whole mystery of Tai Chi. Who can beat that?
There are exercises such as zhan zhuang, the cultivation of standing postures, which can be equally powerful and deep. Some Tai Chi practitioners, especially from the Chen school, include them to give firmness and power to all their movements. But, in our hyperkinetic society, it is increasingly difficult to find people with the patience to stand still for appreciable periods of time —for most of us this is little less than torture, and at best, a forced “holding the posture” that by itself blocks the access to deeper levels of practice. This kind of cultivation has never been very widespread, and today it can only be explored in depth by a tiny minority, far less than 1 percent of the population.
Moreover, such static positions make supervision almost indispensable, because if you don’t apply properly the principles of body alignment or are not relaxed enough, you can reap as many physical problems as benefits.
As our environment makes us build up tensions, exercising with movement is much more attractive since motion is the most basic way to alleviate tensions and get them out. Although generally slow in its forms, Tai Chi does not fail to use the advantages of motion and dynamism. Some merely indicative statistics speak of around 5 per cent of Tai Chi practitioners in China and 1 per cent in the United States of America.
Even resorting to motion, for the majority of people, both in the West and in China, Tai Chi remains far too slow and complicated no matter the simplicity of its universal principle. However, the Constant Bear allows us to imbue ourselves completely with its spirit in such a basic way that it openly challenges our intelligence.
Of course, nobody is saying that the Bear should replace the long and developed forms; on the contrary, it is an insuperably simple introduction Tai Chi that cannot betray its essence in the least.
In addition to being far more accessible, the Bear’s routine has many advantages: It does not require a large space like traditional Tai Chi forms, being ideal for both indoor and outdoor practice; nor does it require changing clothes or waiting long after meals. Since you don’t have to memorize different moves and steps, the attention is not distracted with diversity and soon becomes focused in the most important, that remains always beyond the form.
Other major advantages are related to research in geriatrics, rehabilitation, and the medical effects of Tai Chi or qigong. Everything is greatly simplified when the sample population for a given study only has to learn and practice one elementary movement. In addition, most of this exercises to maintain or regain health require the practitioner to have at least an average physical condition, while a movement such as the Bear, which admits such a wide gradation of intensities, can be practiced by anyone of any age who has the strength to simply walk or stand on their own legs.
The importance of exercise of any kind for the maintenance of health cannot be underestimated, as it is something that even the best environmental or nutritional conditions cannot replace. We know too well, however, that the circumstances in which almost all of us live are far from being such, that our organism has to fight continuously against all kinds of aggressions —physical, chemical and psychological- and that we approach a looming global health crisis as the aging population grows in developed societies.
It is clear that the great triumphs of the contemporary biomedical model have been the fight against infectious diseases, due both to the improvement of hygiene and medical conditions, and the prodigious advances of surgery. But all this, and what remains to be done in the same direction, has very little to say about degenerative diseases, which are just the latter emergence of the way we have lived and our embodiment of the external environment. And although we will not stop trying new technologies to avert from our own flesh the natural unavoidable reaction, it will not be without great economic and moral costs.
Aging is like going bankrupt: first it occurs gradually, then all of a sudden. One cannot deceive nature, one cannot simply reverse a process which has taken many decades to develop before emerging. Whoever believes otherwise, believes in magic; but we all know that modern medicine is largely based on the idea that there is a “magic bullet” for everything. If we have been able to believe these things, it is because of the very short time elapsed between the great triumphs of biomedicine and the ongoing accumulation of the pernicious effects of modern life, which are just beginning to emerge. Moreover, our very success in extending the life span multiplies the incidence and impact of degenerative diseases. No doubt our perception of these serious issues will change within thirty years, not to mention longer periods.
At the other end of the spectrum, we find that the greatest problem now and in the future for the development of kids is hyperactivity and the inability to maintain concentration, clinically known as “attention deficit disorder”. Of course, there are all kinds of children, and individual impulses, along with the family environment, are a big part of the issue. But before making of them premature sick persons depending on medication from an early age, we should admit that the first imbalance factor is our rushed society constantly sending contradictory stimuli and producing all kinds of artificial excitement.
In this context of permanent mental excitement, I think it would be fine to invite children to “imitate the movement of the Bear” so that the energy of their bodies, rising continually to their head and limbs due to the extraordinary demand caused by over-stimulation, can descend again towards their natural centre of gravity and settle. One might think that an exercise like this is too slow for children’s impulsivity, but if we can skillfully combine the appealing elements of imitation and the paradoxical play between the extremes, like feeling fast when one moves slowly, and vice versa, or feeling light when going down in the posture and heavy when raising it —things that children love and for which they feel very willing- we can bring them back to serenity and help them create harmony in their own inner environment. There is a great spell for them in going between two oscillating points that calms the mind and the mood. This could be a great help for both a genuine physical education and the formation of character.
The five arts or excellences Cheng Man Ching talked about as various expressions of the same guiding principle were Chinese calligraphy, poetry, painting, martial arts and medicine. That Tai Chi and calligraphy share the same guiding idea is quite obvious: the brush must to be held upright and with a loose wrist, in the same way that in Tai Chi one moves with a straight spine and joints as free as possible.
As for poetry and painting, it is also clear that both aspire to the “suspension of ordinary reality,” actually only a very narrow slit; that is, they try to suspend the intention and the narrower utilitarian purpose in order to access a more comprehensive, higher view, that we associate with the so called “contemplative mood”. And what is Tai Chi but the inquiry and implementation of the Law of Levity, such a skillful use of movement to unlearn the usual sense of Time?
Even if one aims at closing the gap between these disciplines, they always coexisted without discord. The connection with traditional Chinese medicine, so open to gradations and nuances, was not very problematic either; the real trouble has arisen with biomedicine, and in general, with the framework of modern science. And yet it is not impossible that surprises await us here, the day we put in perspective some mutual misconceptions.
In Tai Chi motion is used to access a potential implying an indefinite background. Along with many other masters, Cheng Man Ching used to recall that “stillness in movement is true stillness”. In physics, the moving force has pre-eminence and everything is deduced from it: mass and motion, kinetic and potential energy are well defined… by definition, and in fields also by choice. However, the systems where in practice these components are not well defined are legion: from the very biomechanics of the human body to the climate or the economy. Actually, everything that has a margin of internal uncertainty can be interpreted as something more than indeterminacy.
In other words, physics deals with the reaction of systems subject to external forces, while Tai Chi, as Cheng puts it in his poem, explores “the natural response to an external force when it is not perceived as such”. It seems an insoluble riddle, and yet it somehow sums up both the differences and the possible forms of contact between the two perspectives.
A charged particle feels the potential
even when the electric and magnetic fields are zero
the physicists said it was incomprehensible
and that that is the way things work in quantum mechanics
but today some admit it’s a very common occurrence
wringing a towel
screwing a light bulb
or parking in parallel
they call geometric phase to this shift
global change without local change
It waves in the snake advance
or in the turn of the falling cat
that so much amazed Maxwell, good old friend
“Useless and treacherous potentials”
said Mr Heaviside,
who only wanted to get rid of them
but they are no stranger than you and me
when we are doing nothing
without disappearing for that
The Bear perceives it
even when it seems he is playing dumb
half-swaying from side to side
half-falling back and forth
but still standing, however
learning how to walk before the first step
Uplifting and sinking
shrinking and expanding
hollowing in and releasing
alternatively but simultaneously
describes the spherical vortex of the world
without lifting the plants from the ground,
stalks the unwobbling pivot
of the Constant Mean
and clears the path of its ascent and descent
between Heaven and Earth
the slow gate to the sublime
We all immediately associate rigidity with death, our instinct knows it too well without need of more explanation. The dilemma of Taoism was how to harmonize intelligence and instinct, since we cannot survive without both, neither as individuals nor as a species. A rigid body cannot create balances on a wobbling board, it falls or does not fall; but a flexible body with internal margins does both things at the same time, because it also knows how to “fall inwards” to continue standing. There is still a lot to learn from these simple motives —or not, depending on how we understand the word “learn”.
The best thing about being an aspirant is that it demands inspiration, because only the sage or the dead does not require it. The sage, on the other hand, probably does not observe stillness because it is necessary, but to honor the potential: and although this one is present in everything, it can hardly be made evident in that which moves, except by the very fact that it moves. From this point of view, movement is the most trivial part of reality, even if nothing is trivial. When a potential is exploited, it recedes; when it is observed and appreciated, it enriches. Between both extremes there would be a certain margin of responsible use that should not be exceeded. Where there is uncertainty, there is always the possibility of putting in our sense of balance to learn where the limits are, but as long as our study of nature is limited only to her exploitation and prediction, there is little room to learn how to do it.
Tai Chi has been one of the best ambassadors of Chinese culture in the rest of the world, and Cheng Man Ching played his good part in this “journey to the West”. Yet an important part of his legacy still awaits to come to fruition. However, there is the well; whether we draw water from it or not, it is not his problem, as nobody is claiming property rights here.
No doubt there are different countries and climates in the world, but for the Tai Chi Nation, aimed at the Pole, all regions converge.
A white bear and a black bear,
trying to catch two mice
finally stirred up the honey
I can see people gathering around a board, a stone or an unstable slab discussing the best way to do the Bear and talking about how they have regained agility and security walking, that wonderful lightness and carelessness they had when they were young. And in truth, if you persevere in practice and don’t give up, you get to walk like you never did before, because the body-movement has find an entirely new capacity and added degrees of freedom. And although patience always pays off, with time enough per session the effects begin to be felt from day one.
Naturally, trying to embody the Taijitu and get in phase with it is more than a physical exercise. It is an aid and a creative means for self-cultivation, which allows us to establish a direct and infinitely nuanced relationship between the highest and lowest in us, between instinct and intelligence, between force and sensitivity. There is no need to expand any further on this as only the practice allows us to understand it.
- Cheng Man Ching, Master of Five Excellences, p. 113-117; translation by Mark Hennessy. Frog Books, 1995.
- Cheng Man Ching, Taichi, https://taiji-forum.comhttps://taiji-forum.com, Author Nils Klug.
- Lars Bo Christensen, Tai Chi -The True History and Principles, 2016, ISBN 978-1539789314. See also Fighting Words by Douglas Wile, 2016: http://www.wooddragon.org.uk/fighting_words.pdf
- Cheng Man Ching, Master of Five Excellences, p. 113-117.
- According to the words of the Old Oak School of Dao, the form developed by Cheng Man Ching is a more upright and relaxed Yang style, and the Ruyu style developed by the master Chen Qu Kuan (known as C. K. Chen) modified Cheng’s form to make it even more upright and relaxed.
- Sam Edwards & Frank Broadhead, C.K. Chen’s Vertical Axis Taijiquan
- Jacob Newell gave me in a personal communication these guidelines for the exercise according to the Ruyu style: 1) keeping the weight properly balanced in the bubbling well – in Ruyu-Taiji we call the middle of the arch (not Kidney 1) the bubbling well; 2) keeping the knee bent but not too bent; 3) “song-kua” meaning relax and tuck the hip; 4) drop the lower back, but not forcibly; 5) float the head top (drop the chin but keep the throat open); 6) shoulders relax, elbows sink, armpits breathe; 7) completely separate the weight shift from the turn – this is specific to Ruyu Tai Chi, and not all Cheng Man Ching’s styles do this.
- Cheng Man Ching, Master of Five Excellences, p. 113-117.