Master Ni once stated: “If no Ward Off, not Tai Chi, something different.” Ward Off energy is present at all times when doing Tai Chi Forms and Push Hands. What is the mysterious energy that is such an essential feature of Tai Chi?
As the name implies, Ward Off energy deflects attacks or problematic situations. In general, this type of energy is defensive, rather than offensive. It protects our internal essence rather attacking the external world. This omni-present Ward Off energy differentiates Tai Chi from Yoga, Dance, and Chi Gong, as defense is not a feature of these types of exercise.
To better understand the relationship between Tai Chi and Ward Off energy, let’s examine an instructive metaphor. The prehistoric inhabitants of China built earthen walls to protect their cities from attack. These protective earthen walls can be likened to Ward Off energy.
When practicing Tai Chi forms and Push Hands, the individual must maintain and protect his or her external boundary at all times. The extremities, i.e. the arms and legs, provide this boundary. Ideally, this body boundary protects vulnerable areas at all times, i.e. crotch, neck, face and body. When actively engaged in both sparring and forms, this protective boundary should never collapse. This defensive feature is inherent to Tai Chi and is generally deemed Ward Off energy.
Maintaining the body sphere is one way to generate Ward Off energy. Because it takes chi energy to sustain the body sphere, it is sometimes called a chi bubble. To generate this chi bubble, practitioners expand to the external limits of their body. Arms, legs and even the middle body are slightly arched or bowed to create the sphere. In describing one of the beginning postures in Tai Chi, Master Ni once said: “5 bows; 2 legs, 2 arms and body.” This body sphere provides the same function as the city’s earthen walls. It is the border with the useful emptiness in the middle.
Nomadic raiders would frequently attempt to entice the city dwellers to leave the safe confines of their city walls. If the residents pursued this strategy, the consequences were normally disastrous, as the nomads were generally superior fighters. To avoid similar consequences, Tai Chi practitioner should concentrate solely on protecting the body border, rather than extending past the limits. Extension past the borders throws the body off balance. Further, over-extension leaves the center unprotected and hence vulnerable to attack.
In general, this vulnerable imbalance occurs in Tai Chi when the knees, hands or any other body part extends past the sphere defined by the feet or more particularly the toes. There are internal boundaries as well. Ideally the elbows should not extend past the knees, nor should the chin extend past the head cylinder. The belly should not extend past the pelvis, nor should the butt extend past the hips.
Building a strong body foundation minimizes the possibility of extension past the boundaries. A strong foundation integrates the entire body into a single unit. When the body is integrated in such a fashion, elbows, hands, and knees tend to be contained within the sphere. If strong, the inner musculature naturally limits the extension of these extremities. Part of the strength is based in the complementary muscle groups inherent to the Ward Off energy of the body sphere. To maintain the chi bubble, muscles throughout the body move in opposite directions. This dynamic isometric tension is a significant feature of Ward Off energy. Due to the importance of body integration to Ward Off energy, the primary focus of some Tai Chi schools is upon rebuilding the foundation.
If a section of their city walls collapsed, the residents were impelled to rebuild or repair it, as the city would be vulnerable to attack at that point. In terms of the body, certain parts of our body sphere tend to collapse because of lack of proper maintenance. These holes or weaknesses in the chi bubble compromise our Ward Off energy.
These parts must be strengthened and rebuilt. Typically, we must build up our inner musculature that is responsible for integration and proper posture rather than the muscles of our limbs. Many people have strong legs and arms, but weak bodies. Tai Chi trains people to have strong bodies to maintain the proper foundation.
There are some areas of our body wall that tend to collapse. The lower spine tends to collapse forward, the middle spine backward, and the upper spine forward. This produces an ‘S’ configuration. Thus compromised, the body wall provides no strength. Furthermore extra stress is placed at the curves causing unnecessary back problems.
Proper Tai Chi training rebuilds the proper body muscles to turn the ‘S’ into a straighter line. Once straightened, the back, specifically the spine, provides a stronger defensive boundary, as well as being a source of power.
The elbows and knees also tend to collapse inwards. This imbalance puts extra pressure upon the knees and shoulders, which can lead to joint problems. This flaw also weakens the chi bubble and by extension our Ward Off energy.
To remedy this problem, the qua must remain open at all times when engaged in Tai Chi forms or Push Hands. The qua refer to open armpits and a rounded crotch. Ideally the armpits should be able to hold a tennis ball inside. This intent prevents the elbows from rising too high or collapsing inward. Similarly a rounded crotch prevents the knees from being too turned out or collapsing inward. Rounding also minimizes the possibility of injury to the knees. Opening the qua, this internal rounding out, is also an essential ingredient to Ward Off energy.
Standing in the Horse Stance is a great way to practice opening the qua. This stationary standing posture can be likened to and probably derived from the charioteer’s stance as he guided his horses – arms out to hold the reins and legs open to maximize balance. One of the purposes of the position is to practice holding all four qua open for an extended period of time.
Because the Horse Stance isolates the crotch rounding and open armpits, this body posture becomes natural is more easily integrated. Attempting to open the qua while doing the forms is inefficient because we must also attend to so many other things simultaneously, for instance relaxation, lightness and continuous movement. Because the Horse Stance enables us maintain open qua more continuously, it also augments our Ward Off energy.
Although fellow humans might test our defenses from time to time, gravity is our primary adversary. Gravity is an external force that continually attacks us, pulling us downwards to the ground. At every moment, this natural force tests our body boundaries. If there are any weaknesses in our inner walls, gravity exploits them. Although not necessarily immediate, the consequences are inevitable – everything from back problems to broken bones.
How are we to ward off gravity – defend our body from this natural force? Strengthen and repair the inner walls of our personal city. Minimize gravity’s target through body alignment. Simply speaking, we must stand up straight – torso over the hips, straighten the spine, hollow the chest, belly and chin in, and head over the shoulders.
If we don’t defend our body from gravity by strengthening our core, then back, knee, and hip problems ensue. On more serious levels when our body is out of alignment, gravity throws us off balance and we fall down, perhaps breaking our bones. Gravity is indeed our most formidable enemy. And it always wins in the end, pulling us down into a cold grave.
Let us return to the nomadic invaders. They frequently pretended to be weak or afraid to entice the city folk to attack them. If the citizens responded to these dangerous illusions and left the safety of their walls, it could easily lead to their demise. Instead of responding to these enticements, the inhabitants would be better off remaining inside and protecting their city walls. The happiness and safety of the residents ultimately lies within, rather than without, the city.
This is an apt metaphor especially for the Sparring Forms. There is no need to respond to our opponent unless our body sphere [the city wall] is attacked. In the desire to strike our opponent, we frequently compromise our balance by extending beyond our perimeter. Instead of over-extending, it is of utmost importance to maintain body structure and remain inside our sphere at all times. In this way, we are able to both keep our balance and protect our personal borders.
Although Master Ni sometimes forgot the Sparring movements, he never forgot his body structure or sphere. With arms and crotch rounded, his Ward Off energy always protected his core. With body in perfect alignment, i.e. spine upright and chin in, he continually warded off gravity by minimizing the target. Rather than teaching aggressive martial applications, Master Ni taught us how to nurture and protect our inner world, both our health and spirit.
The metaphor of the Chinese city walls also applies to our mental world. Our many information sources, including the Internet, media, and friends, regularly assault our consciousness with dangerous scenarios – global warming, ISIS beheadings, a potential stock market crash and/or a Republican president. This upsetting news can easily disturb our peace of mind, generating all sorts of anxiety.
While possibly based upon real data, this information frequently has no real immediate impact upon our lives, for instance our health and relationships. As such, this disturbing information is akin to the illusions generated by the nomadic tribes. Instead of losing our mental balance to these horrific scenarios, we are better off remaining inside our city walls and protecting our personal perimeter. In other words, cultivate our inner garden and defend our individual world by taking care of relevant business.
Evaluate if external threats are real. If not, employ Ward Off energy to deflect their negativity. Rather than becoming distracted by illusion, we remain firmly rooted in the center of our own world.
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