Yang Yang, in his book Taijiquan: The Art of Nurture, The Science of Power says that the most important component of Taiji is nurturing, or acquiring gong. My first Qi Gong teacher, Master Yong Zhou, taught something very similar. Master Zhou’s English is limited so he never went into much detail. But what he did say was something to the extent that gathering Qi, read Qi Gong exercises, was good. Depleting Qi, through running or hard martial arts for example, was bad. Accordingly, I have read other writers and teachers in the internal arts claiming that the soft, nurturing exercises of Taiji form or Qi Gong were enough in themselves. Hence, the flabby shape often found in many Taiji practitioners. Further, it has been my experience that many Taiji teachers emphasize little to none of the martial side of the art. I am myself first and foremost concerned with nurturing, but I still believe the martial side of the art should be emphasized and developed and that some degree of physical conditioning is necessary, commensurate with the individual’s physical abilities and limitations. Thinking on this has led me to develop my own prioritized list.
My list is in terms of importance or priority, but I should say there is little room between the rankings and even the lowest is important to me and not to ever be disregarded.
2) Qi Gong (including Taiji form)
3) Physical Conditioning
4) Advanced form and interactive (two person) work
5) Martial ability
Meditation: I attended a workshop with the Zen priest, Vietnam Veteran, and Peace Activist Claude Anshin Thomas a couple of years back. In discussing Zanzen, or meditation, he said “Why wouldn’t you? What is more important than waking up?” What indeed? My definition of meditation includes the Wuji Zhuang (standing meditation) and Da Zuo (sitting meditation) associated with Chen Style Taiji, along with Buddhist mindfulness practices and Christian contemplative prayer. In this regard I believe all roads lead to home, but the road is infinite. This is the most important practice, but it should always be practiced. Even enlightenment, once gained, has to be maintained.
Qi Gong: The practice of Qi Gong, including the Taiji form, constitutes the best part of what Yang refers to as nurturing. Meditation is of course part of this as well. In fact, Wuji meditation is considered to be sitting or standing static Qi Gong. While meditation is crucial for mental and spiritual health, Qi Gong encompasses the total being, mental/spiritual/physical. Qi Gong is the cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine and is my personal prescription for health preventive maintenance. For me, Qi Gong precedes any other physical engagement, and time always can be and should be made for Qi Gong practice, just as it is made for bathing, brushing our teeth, or any other maintenance activities.
Physical Conditioning: While I think Qi Gong precedes physical conditioning, it does not supersede or replace it. As noted above, ones level of conditioning is determined by health and physical limitations. There are those who simply can’t do cardio-vascular exercise; for those who can it should be an important part of our routines. It is not necessary that one be able to compete in triathlons, but our strength and endurance levels should exceed our daily, normal activity requirements. In this, as in all things, moderation is key. Each person should have an idea as to how much external muscular strength and endurance they wish to build. But for me, physical conditioning is a key component of my health practice.
Advanced Form and Interactive Work: This is a broad category. I consider advanced form to be the more physically challenging forms, such as the Chen Second Routine Pao Chui, XingYi, or Karate Katas, as well as two person forms such as the Yang Style San Shou, Aikido, and I Liq Chuan. The last three also qualify as interactive work, as well as push hands, sticky hands, spinning hands, and Aikido interactive Ki exercises. The Pao Chui, and the forms of XingYi and I Liq Chuan are not as nurturing as the slower meditative Taiji forms. But they are crucially important to individual growth and the practice of the arts. Push Hands, Aikido, Yang San Shou, Sticky Hands, and Spinning Hands offer us the opportunity to help nurture our partners, develop interpersonal skills and compassion. This is a crucial component of the internal arts, and something that separates these practices from sparring, and true martial application. As noted above, the lines dividing these categories are weak and ambiguous, as I see these as advanced but very important aspects of the practice of internal martial arts.
Martial Ability: What I mean by martial ability is quite simply the ability to fight, or better, the ability to defend oneself, to handle an attacker in such a way to neutralize or stop the attack—preferably without causing harm to the attacker. We don’t live in the kind of world where the people who invented many of the ancient martial arts lived. Ours is a more peaceful world by a long shot. Most of us can and will go through the best part, if not possibly all, of our lives without a significant physical conflict. But that is not a 100% guarantee. The world is still a relatively dangerous place, or it can be. It is in everyone’s best interest to know how defend themselves. Note that I am talking about defense here. A true martial artist will avoid conflict if at all possible. My choice in following the internal martial arts means that the learning curve for martial ability is steep. The technique is true and efficient, but it takes many years to learn. I am comfortable with that. I have supplemented my training with techniques from other arts. I feel confident in my ability to defend myself, and in the possibility that I likely won’t ever have to. This component is for me like all the others, a way to personal growth and improvement. That is the utmost reason for any of it.