The cohesiveness, smoothness and optimal running of prototype and racing cars is a direct result of the level of detail paid to each and every one of the component pieces. Therefore, these fine-tuned machines are repeatedly taken apart and put back together not only to fix that which breaks down, but also to upgrade components and maximise overall performance. Your Tao movement arts practice and your body for that matter operate in much the same way as these superior vehicles.
However, when training qi gong, tai chi and bagua, the majority of students rarely, if ever, break down complete exercise sets or forms into their component pieces and rebuild them. If a racing team adopted this strategy, they wouldn’t win for long because it creates a glass ceiling and prevents the potential of the car from be realised. The same principle applies to training Tao movement arts.
The Tao Principle of Separate and Combine is an ancient guideline for deep training, which states that once a basic movement, set or form has been learned, the individual components that comprise it must be teased out, desconstructed and trained for independent of all others until embodied in its own right. Only then should that component or thread be recombined and practised with all others. Applied for millennia, the ancient Chinese found that this is the most effective and efficient method for learning any new skill and stabilising it in the body and mind.
Translating High-performance to Remain Healthy in Body + Mind
Even if you are not interested in generating a high-performance body, most people would like a pain- and disease-free existence. Of course, greater flexibility, a robust immune system, balanced emotions and a mind that can relax and let go are also immensely life-affirming throughout the aging process. These benefits can be achieved through qi gong, tai chi and bagua training by applying the age-old Principle of Separate and Combine. Tomorrow’s health is created today because, unlike a car, you can’t just buy a new body part off the shelf when something gives out or optimum functioning diminishes, nor can you ask your doctor replace it for you—not yet anyway.
Body + Nei Gong: Two Streams of Integration
The efficiency of your qi gong practice depends upon two streams of integration. The first stream has to do with all your body parts, such as your arms, legs, spine, torso, internal organs, neck and head. The second stream has to do with the 16 nei gong components, such as alignments, breathing, lengthening, twisting, pulsing and energetic flows. Any Tao arts movement, set or form includes multiple body parts and a specific weave of internal nei gong content.
Accordingly, must begin your Tao movement arts practice by understanding how each body part moves. Then you progress to training the ways in which each nei gong component within the weave functions individually; next you practice threads in pairs, then in small groups and, finally, everything is recombined into one, seamless whole. The complexity of multi-layered qi gong, tai chi and bagua exercises requires this deconstruction and reconstruction process to offer the depth and range of potential health benefits. When each piece is integrated with all others, each component is multiplied by the others 2x2x2x2 and down the chain. However, when all aspects are not well-integrated, the maximum effect is addition, 2+2+2+2. You don’t have to do the math to know that the end result is vastly different!
Many students, even those who train daily over some years, find their growth stunted even though they are dedicated to their practice by all accounts. In nearly two decades of teaching, I have found that the lack of appreciation for the Principle of Separate and Combine is at the heart of the issue. Generally, students focus on their favourite aspect of practice or the general flow without necessarily developing their ability to focus on the many layers and components within any Tao art form. If you have not adequately learned and practised each individual layer of your form (at least to the level you are training), you will not be able to achieve fine control and integration. And, you don’t have to know everything that is contained within a given component to explore it to some depth and cultivate a healthy body and mind.
Traditional Taoist training dictates that you learn each new technique, piece by piece, building it up, looking at the whole, then deconstructing it and once again rebuilding it. And, no matter how long you train a qi gong set, tai chi style or bagua form, this process prevails. Each time you experience a good sense of flow in your art, you once again take it apart and explore the ever-finer layers that give rise to that flow with the intent of improving that which is present and adding more depth and complexity to solidify your foundation for the next deconstruction process.
Three Stages of Implementing the Principle of Separate and Combine
Stage 1: Broken Practice
Start with a body part, for example an arm, and maintain your awareness of that arm as you perform your form. Next, focus on the other arm, then both together. Then add your body’s torso motion to your awareness and finally include your legs. You could also start with a nei gong thread, such as lengthening, and focus on developing your skill in an arm, next both arms, then adding the torso and arms, and finally in the legs, torso and arm. Once this process is complete, integrate lengthening into your entire form.
Stage 2: Continuous Practice
After you have worked with a specific body part or developed your skill with a single nei gong component for a period of time, you move on to the next stage, where you practice the repetitive movements of qi gong continuously. You want to keep most of the form or internal content on autopilot, so the mind can focus on the one aspect you are developing. Once you feel you have achieved a satisfactory level of embodiment, that is the skill is stabilised deeply within your flesh, only then would you move on to the next component and train the two until youyou can remain connected.
If you don’t stay with stage two for long enough, your foundation will not be strong enough to hold any new nei gong content and your entire form becomes diluted. This diminishes the degree of benefits you can reap from your practice. So oscillate between stage one and two—back and forth and back again—refining and deepening your practice as you go along. Each time you repeat stage two, make a mental note of what doesn’t flow or integrate very well. The next time you practice, start with that component (using stage one) and finish with the continuous practice of stage two.
Stage 3: Awareness
With enough practice you will eventually reach the third stage. There’s no need to rush it. Up until now everything has been directed by the intent, which focuses on a particular component or process. Your intent is capable of focusing on between one and nine data points at any moment in time. Since you will conceivably be focusing on many more components than nine, your awareness must become activated because of the sheer quantity of the material for which your attention is required.
The object here is that the awareness of the mind scans everything at the same time in a similar way to a security guard scanning many screens in a secured building. If the system suddenly detects that any component is offline or not operating at its optimum capacity, then the awareness sends its intent to fix that piece. Once the component is fixed and integrated your intent hands back the job to the awareness.
Another metaphor can be found in your vision. When you stand in a room and stare hard at a particular object, everything else goes out of focus—almost as if it disappears. When you subsequently relax your eyes and don’t focus on any particular object, everything in the room suddenly comes into soft focus. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.
Achieving Your Goals with Tao Movement Arts Training
Working with the three stages of Separate and Combine will help you improve your qi gong, tai chi and bagua practice at a steady pace. You know you’re on the right track when you feel your body start to come alive. This is a sign that your qi is starting to flow more powerfully, which can only grow in time. The benefits you get from each practice session increase dramatically and you enter into a deeper space within yourself. This naturally elongates your practice and eliminates effort and strain. At this moment, you become intimately aware of the health benefits you receive from your practice—not because you read about them in a book or someone tells you about them, but because you feel positive change flowing through and growing within your body and mind.
These kind of experiences create a strong drive to continue practising and maintain the cycle of separate-combine-separate-combine. The most experienced practitioners do not worry about how long it takes because they know the secret of the high-performance results they achieve can be attributed to this process. Once you come to this realisation for yourself, you will see that there is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, no trophy to obtain. You can simply relax and be in the moment—be at one with your practice.
Acceptance and being content naturally emerges as everything inside you becomes more balanced and harmonised with all other parts. This is the path on which a Taoist walks, the road he/she travels—not to any particular destination, but to a deeper and more profound knowledge and understanding of himself/herself, the world in which he/she lives and the universe through direct experience.