One of the most neglected areas of Internal Martial Arts today is Meditation. Widely acknowledged as an integral & essential aspect of training, it receives little to no attention in written material, with the exception of a passing remark about its importance. This needs to change, as meditation is key to developing both internal awareness & building up one’s Qi. After all, it isn’t “Internal Kung Fu” without actual INTERNAL work, is it?
Xingyiquan is popularly known for its foundational exercise of standing in San Ti Shi. Most will pay lip service to the Zhan Zhuang/Standing Stake Meditation character of this exercise, though it rarely goes beyond that. Actual deep examination of the Martial Meditation aspects of San Ti Shi are few & far between in English language material.
Initially, San Ti Shi trains the strength of the legs, back, & shoulders in the same manner as the basic Stance Training of other styles. Once sufficient strength is attained, the focus shifts to perfecting the sublimation of proper alignment between the various parts of the body. Both of these are widely acknowledged concepts, though the latter receives much less attention than the former, for a variety of reasons. Once these two areas have been perfected the Xingyi practitioner is free to move on to the true purpose of San Ti Shi: Internal Training. As implied in my piece about the Eight Essentials as Neigong, San Ti Shi is where the bulk of Internal development is accomplished. The core method of that development, specifically, is 貫息/Guan Xi – Thread Breathing.
Thread Breathing is a Qi based Meditation Method that leads Qi within the body, keeping the flow that’s been generated continuously circulating, just like the blood. This is in contrast to the basic version of those more commonly seen Methods, such as “Three Hearts Face the Center”, where the Qi is actively mingled with the natural environment in order to allow balance & exchange the relative charge of the body. Specifically, Thread Breathing is intended to connect the body in its entirety. Upper & Lower, Left & Right, Front & Back, & most importantly, Inside & Outside. This connection, this Threading Into One, is the core of Xingyi’s physical ideal for both movement & development.
The Mind, through the mediation of the Qi, comes to permeate the entire body, threading Qi from the Dan Tien throughout the torso, into the limbs, & back to the Dan Tien. Since “the Mind Leads the Qi” through concentration, the Mind is able to reach & perceive any place where the Qi penetrates. As my teacher said, “Where the Mind goes, the Qi goes; where the Qi can reach, the Mind can reach.” The end goal of Thread Breathing is to train the Mind’s sensitivity to & control of the Qi, allowing for much more finely controlled circulation within the body. Essentially, Xingyiquan only practices Thread Breathing Meditation. All of the Methods & Exercises involved in the Neigong program outlined by the Eight Essentials are related to Thread Breathing, either as a required foundational skill, or as a deeper elaboration.
This progression from disordered & disparate to connected & integrated is facilitated by the breathing, within a framework of physical alignment & relaxation. In Xingyi’s Theory this is referred to as “Sinking the Turbid & Raising the Clear”, a direct reference to the qualitative state of the Qi within the body. Turbid Qi is murky, stagnant, excessive in some places & absent in others, prone to moving about in unruly or possible harmful ways within the body. It is, generally not responsive to the control exerted by the Mind. Think of water clouded by stirred up sediment. Clear Qi is the opposite of that, being evenly distributed in the body, placid, calm, neither excessive or deficient in any particular place. In our water image, it would be clean, clear water resting calmly but without stagnation.
Because of the Martial nature of Xingyi’s Neigong, the delicate balance point between tension & relaxation, between Internal Observation & Situational Awareness, is even more difficult to find than it normally would be for a Meditation Method of this level. But that Martial nature also works in the practitioner’s favor by placing the focus on practical results. You are forced to quiet the Mind, eliminate extraneous thoughts, ignore distractions, & actively engage both mentally & physically. The usual obstacles that beginning meditators face, distraction, boredom, endless questions, are made impossible by the nature of the training. Unlike Meditation for health maintenance or spiritual cultivation, the practitioners starts in a standing position, & a relatively challenging one in San Ti Shi. Only after some familiarity or comfort with the Method has been built up is the practitioner allowed to use a seated position for Thread Breathing.
At more advanced levels, the basic idea of Thread Breathing is expanded with the Four Tips, used to expand the fineness of control & sensitivity, & the Five Fists, actively leading the Qi while performing the basic moving Patterns, deepening the experience. Thread Breathing is an extremely beneficial practice for both health maintenance & Martial Arts practice. The challenge offered is higher than Small Circulation Meditation, since it requires an attentive & disciplined Mind before one can even begin to learn the Method. But, in exchange, the reward for perseverance is that much greater.