Chen Tai Chi Levels and Curriculum

Levels in Pen & Sword’s Traditional Chen Style Tai Chi

The levels in our system are predicated upon achieving a perfect balance of yin and yang in the body, which is to say harmony between relaxation and tension, between hardness and softness, between speed and form, between movement and stillness. In the modern, Western world, most people begin with 1 level of yin and 9 levels of yang. Our training helps us integrate more yin in our lives.

Once we have 2 yin and 8 yang, it means we can turn the waist, but without connecting it to the rest of the body. Once we have 3 yin and 7 yang, we can relax and sink with correct body mechanics, but we are still stiff. Once we have achieved 4 yin, we are good tai chi players. Once we have achieved 5 yin, we are in perfect balance. All our levels are a reflection of this analysis.

Level testing is a helpful measure of what you know and what you don’t, and serve as a great motivator to focus and train hard for the next month and beyond. Level requirements are listed below.

Level One - Internal Work Commences

Degree 1:
a. the concept of wuji
b. warm-up rolling exercises for the joints

Degree 2:
a. internal version of stepping movements
b. stances, including Bow, Horse, Empty, Half Horse, Cross, and one-legged

Degree 3:
a. solo exercises
b. single push hands (focus on following and keeping weight centered on bubbling well points
c. sinking qi exercise

Degree 4:
a. form must be relaxed, motions large and clear, body straight
b. link between Daodeqing and tai chi ch’uan must be clearly understood
c. Lao Da Jia form practiced 1000 times or as many times as necessary to feel qi in hands and prepare for next level

Level Two – Advanced Practice Begins

There are three degrees. The focus of this level is opening the four major joints. There are many specific exercises aimed at the hips and shoulders. We learn the straight sword (jian) form, basic qinna, and qinna countering in this level. At the completion of this level, one must be able to handle a simple lock or grab applied inexpertly. Hips and shoulders will be significantly loosened at the completion of this level.

Level Three – Expert Work

There are three degrees. The major focus of this level is on pure relaxation. This is a very difficult level to complete, as it requires repeated and precise correction. Chen family tradition holds that few people reach this level in a lifetime of study. The Tai chi Broadsword (Dan dao) and push hands (sensitivity and combat training) become very practical at this level.
Upon completion of this level, the student should be able to contend with a straight-line force (in the major direction of any stance) equivalent to 150% of the student’s body weight. The idea is to not meet force with force (double weighting in tai chi parlance) but to conduct the force to the ground without effort.

Level Four – Professional Level

This level focuses on mastering dantian rotation (tai chi-specific moving of the hips and body core). One must achieve pure relaxation before this will work, otherwise rotation is merely mechanical. At this level, the student usually learns the Spring and Autumn Broadsword (Guan dao) and spear (qiang) as well as the Cannon Fist form (pao cui). If you come from a Wu style background, this is the level at which you would learn the fast form. If you come from a Yang style background, this is the level at which you would learn fajing exercises. At this level, most qinna practitioners cannot lock you, because your body will find an instinctive counter without thinking. Completing level 3 means you can handle another’s strong force. Completing level 4 means they cannot handle yours.

Level Five – Master

The main focus of this level is to strengthen the dantian. At this level, long staff training is done, and a great deal of emphasis is put on meditation and other specialized internal work.

Levels Six Through Ten – Esoteric Teachings

These are the levels during which mental, philosophical, and spiritual study rises to the fore. There are very few practitioners at these levels in China anymore, and even fewer in the United States.

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