When I came upon the writings of tai chi master Yang, Cheng-fu (1883–1936), I was once again reminded of why tai chi is less about being strictly an exercise program and more about being a way of life—in the same way that having horses is not only about riding but a way of life. Like many others, I’ve always lost interest in any exercise program long before any benefits could be felt. What made practicing tai chi immediately different for me was the mental connection I was able to see between tai chi and riding. Having that positive mental connection, I could patiently wait for the physical results to come, which was surprisingly soon.
As you read Yang Cheng-fu’s fundamentals of tai chi below, think of the equestrians whose riding position you admire and seek to emulate. You will discover that their position in the saddle is nearly identical to the tai chi posture. Although a good riding position comes naturally to some equestrians, a good seat can be acquired or improved through exercise routines such as tai chi and qi gong. In Riding with Chi David Ritchie says,“If you have a skill in a particular activity, tai chi will cross over to that activity and help you improve, because it has a mind aspect and a body aspect, all combined with breathing and motion.”
Horses naturally perceive the energies of humans (and other animals). For the equestrian, the slowness of tai chi and qi gong movement is a bonus because the horse’s natural rhythm is a lot slower than ours. Adjusting to the horse’s rhythm enhances a rider’s ability to communicate with his/her horse. It is this positive connection between horse/human energies that allows horse and rider to unite and move as one.
Think about your riding as you read the fundamentals of tai chi, extracted from the writings of Master Yang Cheng-fu.
The Head Should Be Upright…as if suspended by a string. Relax the neck and tuck the chin in slightly. This allows the chi (energy) to flow and relax the spine.
Sink the Chest and Pluck Up the Back. This allows the chi to sink to the dantien (center of the belly) and discharge through the spine.
Sung (Relax) the Waist. The waist is the commander, allowing the body below the waist to be firm and stable.
Differentiate (Between) Insubstantial and Substantial. This allows you to move lightly without utilizing undue strength, while maintaining finesse in the gradual transfer of weight.
Sink the Shoulders and Elbows. This centers you into your (pelvic) core (if the shoulders are tense, the chi will not flow and you will lack sufficient inner strength to balance.)
Use the Mind, Not Force. Relax totally and use the mind to direct the chi to move the body. By focusing on your movement you will be light and nimble and move exactly as your mind directs.
Upper and Lower (Body) Mutual Flow. The whole body should move as an integrated unit.
Inside and Outside Coordination. Your inner thoughts and body become flowing (external) movement.
(Movement) Is Mutually Joined and Unbroken. Your movement is thoughtful, smooth, continuous, and unbroken, with no beginning or end.
Seek Stillness in Movement. While you are active externally you stay calm internally, your movement is slow and even and your breath is long and deep.
Although written years ago, these thoughts remain uncannily relevant to the modern equestrian.
The development of tai chi through Yang, Chen-fu
A legendary version of Tai Chi’s creation dates to the 14th century when Chang San Feng, a dowist priest from the Woodon Mountains, of China, is said to have observed a snake fighting a crane-like bird, called a magpie. After a year of meditating this battle, he developed a martial art based upon the movement, control and logic of the snake.
Over time, various adaptations of Tai Chi have been practiced, until Yang Lu Chan created the Yang style of Tai Chi in the 1800’s. After 30 years of industrious study of the ancient techniques, Lu Chan deleted many of the more difficult movements in order to bring the benefits of Tai Chi to a broader population. Lu Chan’s grandson, Yang, Chen-fu, finalized the Yang Tai Chi long form that remains recognized today.