Tai Chi Skiing:
the Dance of the Cosmos
by Ichin Shen

Photo, Hun-Tun

Tai Chi Skiing is to apply Tai Chi principles to alpine skiing. Easily said, but how do they connect? Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese mentality with a mystic worldview of Yin and Yang, pursuing a supple and meditative realm, and alpine skiing is a modern western sport, seeking speeds and thrills, do they really have anything in common? The answer is not surprisingly, yes, as they reveal both parts of the Yin and Yang, the mystic worldview of Tai Chi. Read on, we are now embarked on a mystical trip to the inner world of Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is an idea uniquely Chinese, and Chinese culture is based on the worldview of Yin and Yang. So, in pursuing Tai Chi it helps to understand how the ancient Chinese see the world/universe hence the meanings of the words.

To account for their existence, sages of ancient Chinese devised a theory known as "Yin-Yang." According to the ancient classic "Huang Di Nei Jing," (Yellow Emperor's medicine classic, which lays the foundation of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM), a Yin-Yang, or Yin and Yang, "have name but no form," that's to say that Yin-Yang is not a real mass but a set of "characteristics" that depicts how all things that come to being perpetuate and/or wither. Literally, Yin and Yang are only referred as a sense of direction: the direction facing the Sun is called Yang, symbolizing "visible"; facing away from the Sun is called Yin, symbolizing "invisible"; nevertheless, they have been developed to become the metaphor for the two opposing forces of an existence. However, it's not because they are a pair of opposing forces that they can be called Yin and Yang. The forever-entangled web of Yin and Yang depicts some interesting properties.

A pair of Yin and Yang has four characteristics: 1.) Dui Li Tong Yi: They are the only two "opposite" forces that form the "whole." 2.) Xiang Ke Xiang Sheng: They "suppress" and "nourish" the opposite at the same time. 3.) Wu Ji Bi Fan: They revert to the opposite side when they push beyond their limit. Last but not least 4.) Ji Jing Ping Heng: They maintain a dynamic balance, which is called "harmonized Yin and Yang," where ten-thousand things all flourish, be that the world/universe or Tai Chi.

Photo, ht skiing So, the realm of Tai Chi can be attained by harmonizing the Yin and Yang. Still, what may be the Yin and Yang exactly in this physical world? Breathing: inhale is Yin, and exhale is yang. Body and mind, where body is Yin, and mind is Yang. The harmonized body and mind is also known as Unism (Yi-Yuan) where mind perceives and the body responses spontaneously. In such spontaneity, the distinction of body and mind vanishes, and merges into the "grand terminus," a state of what is body is mind and what is mind is body. And of course, the all-almighty gravity, the strongest and the weakest force in the universe, which science can define it, but never can tell "what" it is. Nevertheless, Tai Chi Skiing provides a way to "direct" experience it, where the universe manifests from within. And that's the world of Yin and Yang.

With such fluid, changeable characteristics it's easy to see that the world/reality based on Yin and Yang is not fixed. Such fluidity poses a difficult challenge to the westerners, who in general have a dualistic worldview such as a physical world-body-and non-physical world-mind--are two separated entities. However, the worldview of Yin and Yang presents a different reality.

Based on Yin and Yang, the ancient Chinese view life not as a "fixed" entity but the flow of Yin and Yang two Qi (energy). Life begins as the world/universe forms. According to the Yellow Emperor's Classic, before the beginning, the world is neither thing nor non-thing called Hun-Tun, "chaos." Out of chaos, an order emerges, against stillness something is moving, a motion comes to exist. The primal motion is called Yuan-Qi (the primal energy). As Yuan-Qi splits and breeds Yin and Yang, life begins to taking shape. As life force breeds "Nian" (thought), and thought forms mind, and mind in turn acknowledges the existence of life, life comes to being. As life perpetuates, Yin and Yang continue to evolve, where Yang floats to form the sky and Yin sinks to form the earth. As the harmonized sky and earth nourishes the ten-thousand things, the universe forms, and we human-Ren-prospers among them.

It is interesting to know, such worldview is also depicted in that all too familiar black and white Tai Chi symbol. Graphic, logo The symbol, which is formed with roughly equal black and white two parts with a white dot in the black and a black dot in the white in a circle, is the graphic representation of observed universe (turn it sideway), sky and earth; one can see it clearly when drives through a great plain. The black part represents the earth, the white part represents the sky, the white dot represents the "Sky Qi" (vapor) rooted in the earth, and the black dot represents the "Earth Qi" (precipitation) floated in the sky. The curved line represents how the Yin and Yang interact. All the Yin and Yang characteristics in a neat little package, a nice symbol.

As the ancient Chinese content that the harmonized "Sky Qi"-Yang-and "Earth Qi"-Yin-bring forth the ten-thousand things and we human exists in between sky and earth, our bodies are not viewed as we see it today but found as Yin and Yang.

In Tai Chi, our bodies are viewed as: The Tai Chi body is One, left and right make Two (Er-Yi); up and down make Four (Si-Xiang), that's our four limbs; elbows and knees make Eight (Ba-Gua); plus hands and feet that total fifty-six sections make a total sixty-four sections (64 Gua) of the body. As the body is formed, so is the mind, as it acknowledges the sixty-four sections of the body. So, if mind ever wants to move the body to go where it wants to and balances against external force at the same time, it must coordinate all those sixty-four sections into one harmonious unit, and that's quite a complicated balancing act. Various tai Chi Chuans or internal exercises were developed to explore and to achieve that end.

Home-grown, handed-down, Tai Chi Chuan practice has a long history in China; we may never know how it originated, nevertheless, history credits Zhang San-Feng as the founder of Tai Chi Chuan. Originally, Tai Chi Chuan has only thirteen steps, meaning thirteen principles and ways to move Qi. The various styles of Tai Chi Chuan are the different interpretations of these principles.

To reach the state of Tai Chi, the body must be allowed to reach the maximum performance. It's when the maximum performance reaches the ultimate state, Tai Chi transcends the physical body into Unism, the total harmonious state of mind and body where what is mind is body and what is body is mind.

Photo,  ht skiing The transcendental path begins with Tai Chi Chuan thirteen steps; known as "Eight Jings and Five Directions." "Eight Jings and Five Directions" happen naturally, some does without even knowing them. However, knowing them makes the method even more certain.

Jings are mental power which utilize Qi to maintain the body postures. "Eight Jings" are Peng, Lu, Ji, An, Cai, Lie, Zhou, and Kao, which are eight principles and techniques to use Qi to move and to reshape the body on a static footing.

Peng is to pressurize the body and to project the Qi to the outside edge of the body (like a toad expands itself before a fight). The foundation of Peng is the Bow and Arrow stance. The Bow and Arrow stance is front leg "Bow" (bent) and back leg "Arrow" (straight). As the back leg pushes straight, we are neutrally forward. Some practices Peng with a bent rare knee to maintain the flexibility. However, such "improvement" does not concord with the nature of Peng-to Peng like "the way air fills the void."

Yielding and resisting at the same time, Lu is to reduce the Qi from the outer edge of the body without losing contact of the outside forces. The key to Lu is to shift the weight back to back leg and maintain the balance with it.

Ji is to squeeze; Ji is robust, covering space-time without "a hair spread of separation."

An is to push; expanding the Qi like a running stream, subtle but last, the way of An is to push intensively but steadily.

Cai is to pick, formless but delicately balanced.

Lie, splits or spins. Lie is to spin by rotating the hips.

Zhou, elbows, means using elbow for shorter distance.

Finally, Kao; Kao is to strike like "falling mountain," unstoppable yet no bouncing. Kao illustrates the idea of "being there at the right time and the right place."

While Eight Jings are used through out the forms, however, they can be easily found at the beginning of the popular Yang style long form. As it begins, "Zuo (left) Peng" then "You (right) Peng," we expand our space. Once we expanded, only way to move without changing the footing is to retreat, Lu is to shift the weight from the front leg to the back leg. To balance the yielding, we resist by "Soothing the Phoenix Tail," which in essence is Lu. To regain the space lost during the retreat, we squeeze in; Ji by pushing the forward knee and shifting the weight forward to occupy the space. Then Lie to split the Qi in "Open," and An to push in "Close." Cai to balance the changes in the beginning of "Single Whip," and finish the "Single Whip" by a symbolic Kao by pushing the left palm and the left knee forward into positions. Kao, lost since Yang style, is better illustrated in Chen style's "King Kong Nails Fist."

Photo, ht skiing As Eight Jings display Qi statically, "Five Directions" are used to carry the motion. "Five Directions" do not just mean some static directions, but also imply the orientation of the self, the front, the back, the left, the right, and above all the center. The emphasis of the orientation may seem trivial, but, is the front what the eyes facing, or what the body facing? To step forward heel first, are we moving forward or backward? Orientation cannot be done by just to discern the directions, it must also be felt. In feeling, we traverse the No-mind land, where No-mind is a state of mind where mind is no longer there.

In the No-mind environment, the front can be referenced by proper alignment of these three lines: the eyes line which forms the vision, the shoulder line, and the waist (hips) line. In a natural standing position, these three lines are generally parallel to each other; the body is then said to be "straight." The vision is the front, Yang; the invisible part is the back, Yin. Come with the front, there are sides, left and right.

Turning means when all three lines change direction to maintain a "straight" alignment. When these three lines are not parallel, the body is said to be "twisted." As the body "twists," Yin and Yang change. The orientation is lied on the sense of this balance of Yin and Yang of "straight and twist."

By moving forward, moving backward, turning left, and turning right, combining with twisting, spinning, Five Directions describe a dynamic environment where we remain centered.

Photo, ht skiing Doing Tai Chi Chuan, by the ancient Tai Chi Chuan classics, is actually "feet stepping Five Directions and hands wielding Eight Jings" to deliver the Qi to go where we want it to go. In Tai Chi Chuan, power, as Qi, is "issued from the feet (heels)," "controlled on the waist," and "displayed in the hands." To achieve the maximum effect of Qi, Qi must be expanded along the least resistant path. As the Qi issued from the heels travels upward through knees, hips, back, to shoulders, elbows, to wrists, and displayed in hands, Eight Jings are used to open, close, move, and twist the joints to provide a proper channel (body posture) for the Qi to flow through.

As Eight Jings synchronize the body movement with the Qi, the least resistant path is reached when the body movement matches the Qi it delivered. As they do, Eight Jings transcend the whole body into interwoven of Qi, that is shaped by expanding, contracting, twisting of the joints along the lines from heels to the fingertips.

In Tai Chi Chuan practice, hands are held as "Yin-Yang Hands." The palm represents Yin, the back of a hands represents Yang. "Yin-Yang Hands" is referring to a two hands' relation that is one hand is Yin (the palm), the other hand must be Yang (the back). Yin-Yang Hands are maintained through out the forms; that is, when one hand moves, both hands will move in a synchronized fashion; one hand turns to Yin, then the other hand will turn to Yang at the same time; one hand moves up, the other hand moves down to balance the change. By our nature, the movement of Yin-Yang Hands describe a "ball" where the palms are moved along the surface of it.

Photo, is skiing When we play the ball by moving the wrists, we are playing a small ball. Normally, we control the ball by moving the shoulders, which will give us a ball about the size of our chests. And even bigger ball can be wielded if we control it from the heels. As Five Directions expand the ball by moving the heels to where Eight Jings are most efficient, with Eight Jings and Five Directions pushing the body to the maximum performance, the movement of Yin-Yang Hands describes the elusive "Tai Chi Ball."

As the balance of Yin and Yang shows a way to Tai Chi, Tai Chi Chuan is to learn the balance of Yin-Yang Hands to learn the harmony of Yin and Yang. As Yin-Yang Hands form a Tai Chi ball, practicing Tai Chi Chuan is actually learning how to roll the Tai Chi ball. " Tai Chi Ball" is the "perfect" ball. When you find the "Tai Chi Ball," you'll know what Tai Chi Chuan is. As Tai Chi Ball transcends the forms, the next step is to transcend the mind.

"[Practicing] Tai Chi [Chuan] is the gateway to Tao," proclaimed by the founder Zhang San-Feng, lays the intention of the practice, Tai Chi Chuan is a moving meditation. While "sitting meditation," Zuo-Chan, as Chan Buddhism calls it, may provide a simpler path to enlightenment, however, "sitting" along does not provide much of real experience of the whole dynamic of the existence. Tai Chi Chuan traverses the universe by "moving" through it.

Tai Chi Chuan begins with Wu-Chi. Wu-Chi symbolizes the state of non-existence. Tai Chi begins as we breathing in. As the breathing continues, two things happen: the sensation of the breathing and the sensation of the weight. As we feel the sensations, there is mind. Come with mind, there is the body. Initially, the mind and body are not separated, just like a new born baby's mentality--it thinks as it moves. It is the later learning that separates the mind and body. Thus, to unify the mind and body, we have to un-do the learning.

For no way to anchor a mind, we use breathing to hold our mind. The strategy is as Qi drives the body, mind also rides along. So, eventually they meet. Qi is spawned out of Dan-Tian. Dan-Tian is a point in the body where breathing is initiated. Located close to the center of gravity, Dan-Tian is also known as the "weight." To move, we have to move the weight first, it is the "control at the waist." Supported by our feet, the weight is rest on either or both feet. The foot that holds the most weight of the body is the anchor point, which depicts a sense of direction: it is inward when we move toward the anchored foot, and it is outward when we move away from the anchored foot. As in term of Yin and Yang, inward is Yin, outward is Yang. Thus, breathing in is inward, and breathing out is outward. Then, to flow with breathing, we move our bodies in when we breathe in and out when breathe out. As the practice continues, our bodies develop a rhythm that is synchronized with breathing.

Photo, pair skiing With mind concentrates on breathing, and breathing drives the body along, we are in the position to make the transformation that unifies the mind and body. Notice how thought disappears when the thought touches its true reality? When the idea of body (mind) and the body are in perfect harmony, thought disappears. Mind reflects only the pure senses of the body, and the body flows with breathing on its own. Finally, as mind and body merging with breathing, mind forgets self and the body loses its form. In a mess where a unified mind and body prevails, we find that we are no longer performing but being performed, as without mind, we are only the media. The perfection that we experienced is not ours but the making of nature, the ultimate reality, Tai Chi.

As Tai Chi Chuan practice moves through the initial stage of forms to the state of ever-perpetuating Tai Chi Ball to the nature state of mind and body, nature trues. As the body moves according to its nature, mind un-learns itself and re-learns the true essence of nature, thus, becomes a No-mind. With No-mind, the body moves with its natural agility and grace. As mind and body merge into a unified mind and body, where mind "sees," and the body "does" spontaneously. In Tai Chi Ball, Qi is "here" and "there" all at the same time. (Oops, there is no "time" in Tai Chi Ball.) Tai Chi Chuan transcends the universe into Unism. As body moves naturally coordinated, mind merges into nature; mind forgets self, and body loses its form. When we reach the stage of "no body and no mind," all is left is nature itself, we will have entered the realm of Tai Chi.

In balancing the Yin and Yang, one technique developed in Tai Chi Kung-Fu is "Yi Rou Ke Gang," or softness overcomes hardness. "Softness overcomes hardness" is really a misleading phrase, however, it is used here for lacking of a better translation. "Yi Rou Ke Gang" is a technique that neutralizes your opponent with a soft touch. The idea is subtle because it is contrary to our ordinary experiences that almost always the hardness breaks the softness. How can Rou work?

The terms "Gang" and "Rou" have no English equivalence; they are characteristics to both sides of a force. The way of "Gang" is to be ever stronger, so it will break everything in its path. In contrast, the way of "Rou" is to be ever lesser; by yielding, it gains space and time. By their nature, "Gang" needs energy to support, "Rou" needs only the vast of space-time to vanish into; thus, Rou overcomes Gang by "embracing" the opposite force and "dissolving" it.

In essence, the technique of Rou is composed of three techniques: "deflect," "check," and "follow." "Deflect" to engage its opponent, "check" to seek an equilibrium, and "follow" to embrace its force, Rou utilizes its opponent's energy to overcome its opponent. Ultimately, when these three techniques merge into one swift movement-a technique called "Nian" (sticky)-the technique of Rou is matured.

The technique of Rou has an interesting paradoxical property that is yielding and resisting at the same time, and such property gives an interesting application-Tai Chi Skiing.

Photo, pair skiing Alpine skiing is a sport of gravity. In nature, there is nothing stronger than gravity, and there is nothing weaker than gravity. Anything that moves can overcome gravity; however, after the dust settled, it is gravity wins in the end. In duel with gravity, we meet our ultimate challenge.

Gravity, the powerhouse of the universe, cannot be beaten (thus, Gang); Tai Chi Skiing carves itself a niche into existence by flowing with gravity (thus, Rou). Tai Chi Skiing in essence is to "Tui-Shou" (push hands) with gravity.

Externally, armed with a pair of skis on the feet, Tai Chi Skiing applies the technique of Rou, checks gravity on the contour lines, seeks equilibrium of gravity, and then rides the line out. By using Nian (sticky) to maintain a constant pressure that is equilibrium to the selected strength of gravity, Tai Chi Skiing dances with gravity.

Internally, mind makes perception into reality. To ride out with gravity we must see it first. However, gravity cannot be seen, what can be seen is only its traces. Thus, we have to learn it by feeling (the sensation of gravity). As the feeling developing, Tai Chi Skiing starts to turn internal. As we seek gravity internally, Tai Chi Skiing becomes more philosophical than physical.

Photos, Tai-Chi pair skiing As mind illuminates gravity, and breathing brings mind and body into unison, Tai Chi Skiing brings the manifestation and gravity together. When mind "sees" the trace of gravity and body "falls" with paired gravity without hesitation, Tai Chi Skiing brings us into the realm of oneness-Unism. In Unism, gravity and we are "one." As the equilibrium provides a window to see into gravity, we will have reached the ultimate secret of the universe. "There" is where the internal Qi and the external gravity meet. Through "there," the universe metamorphoses. As we experiencing gravity "directly," we will have reached the state of "one with the universe."

From sport to Kung-Fu, from Kung-Fu to meditation, Tai Chi Skiing has transformed the alpine skiing to a discipline that is capable of bringing us to reach the heart of gravity where the universe shines. As Tai Chi Skiing transposes, the universe manifests from within. Tai Chi Skiing is the dance of the cosmos.

Main   Tai-Chi Skiing Main   Videos