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Martial Arts: Chinese Martial Arts

Reviving the Lost Art of Taiji Ball Qigong within Chinese Martial Arts

By Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming

Taiji (tai chi) ball qigong was at one time common knowledge in both Chinese martial arts and laymen societies. However, its popularity has been limited due to the secrecy of the training techniques and it has almost completely faded in recent decades. Each martial art style kept its own ball training techniques secret and passed them down only to trusted students. In martial society, special taiji ball qigong training was considered crucial in bringing martial artists to a much higher level, in both physical condition and in manifesting energy (qi) in battle. This training also teaches skills of adhering, neutralizing, and sensing an opponent's intention for hand to hand combat.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming and David Grantham practicing taiji ball qigong

Many training methods, especially those that were able to enhance the healthy condition of body, have spread from the martial arts society to laymen society. Nowadays, most people are only familiar with the popular medical taiji ball qigong training of rotating two ping pong-sized balls in the palm, which is recognized as one of the most effective ways of improving the qi (energy) circulation, especially for the lungs and heart. In addition, through this kind of training, the condition of hand arthritis can be remedied effectively. Its is time now to bring back this traditional training, and incorporate it into all martial styles.

Size of Taiji Balls

Taiji balls used in the martial arts society come in different sizes and are made from a variety of materials. The size can range from as large as a three- to four-foot diameter wooden ball, to, as mentioned earlier, a ping-pong sized ball. The largest wooden balls are hung from the ceiling. The most common sizes for training are from ten inches to one foot in diameter.  The rock taiji balls may be cheap, but are usually quite heavy. This kind of ball training is more commonly practiced in Chinese external martial arts that emphasize physical conditioning more than qi circulation, such as Shaolin Kung Fu.

For the internal martial art styles, such as Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Liuhebafa, Fo Zhang (Buddha palms or Buddha hands), and Hu Die Zhang (Butterfly Palm), the balls made from wood are preferred. In these internal styles, the quantity of qi built up and also the quality of qi’s manifestation are considered the most important aspects of the training. With wooden balls, the qi between the palms can be felt and led more easily than with balls made of stone. Beginners should start with empty hands or a light plastic ball while they first learn the patterns and strengthen the torso.

Yin-Yang Taji Ball Qigong

The original name of taiji ball qigong training is “yin-yang taiji ball qigong” (yin-yang taiji qiu qigong). Although the training methods are different from one style to another, the main training theory and general purposes are the same. The general training purposes of taiji ball qigong training are to:

  • Strengthen the physical torso, especially the spine and lower back.

  • Condition the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments required for combat.

  • Use the mind to lead the qi, improving qi circulation and manifestation. This is the crucial key to enhancing the martial power (jin, ?) required in a battle. (read "The Role of Qi in Generating Power" )

  • Gradually develop a higher quantity of qi.

No one knows when and how taiji ball qigong originated. However, logically it can be assumed that when martial artists realized that roundness was the crucial key of neutralizing incoming stiff and square power, they began to search for ways of training this roundness. They looked for an object to help them develop and attain this feeling of roundness. The round objects were adopted. The internal martial styles, compared to external arts, most likely contributed more to the development of taiji ball training, due to the significant emphasis it places on roundness and adhering.

First, let us trace back the origin of internal styles’ development in Chinese martial arts history. Available documentation for the time before a.d. 500, reveal that no distinction was made between internal arts and external arts. However, only a short period of time later, the internal arts were developed.

According to the historical record, it is understood that techniques and forms with the same principles as taijiquan were in existence during the Ling dynasty (a.d. 502–557), and were taught by Han, Gong-yue, Cheng, Ling-xi, and Cheng. Later, in the Tang dynasty (a.d. 713–905), it was found that Xu, Xuan-ping, Li, Dao-zi, and Yin, Li-heng were teaching similar martial techniques. They were called the thirty-seven postures (san shi qi shi), post-heaven techniques (hou tian fa), or small nine heaven (xiao jiu tian).

Bodhidarma's (Da Mo) Influence

If we take a closer look, there is one major event that clearly influenced the change in the training concept of the entire Chinese martial arts society. The shift is attributed to the qigong practice passed down to the Shaolin Temple by an Indian Buddhist priest, Bodhidarma. According to the books The Recording of the Shaolin Temple (Shao Lin Si Zhi) and The Complete Art of Shaolin Wushu (Shao Lin Wushu Da Quan), Bodhidarma was invited to China, from India, in a.d. 527, during the time of emperor Liang Wu (a.d. 502-557) and emperor Wei Xiao Ming (a.d. 516–528).

Before Da Mo passed away in a.d. 536 at the Shaolin Temple, he passed down two important qigong training classics, Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic (Yi Jin Jing) and Marrow/Brain Washing Classic (Xi Sui Jing). The Yi Jin Jing taught Shaolin monks how to change, or condition, their physical bodies from weak to strong, while the Xi Sui Jing taught the monks how to nourish the brain with qi for enlightenment. The entire concept is based on the simple theory of using the mind to lead the qi to the physical body for strength manifestation or to the brain for spiritual enlightenment. From Da Mo’s theory and muscle/tendon change practice, Shaolin monks were able to manifest their martial power to a significantly higher level. This enhancement of power was crucial in battle.

Opposite Paths; Same goal

Some martial artists believed that since the mind is the foundation of power, they should train the mind’s concentration and focus (internal). When this mind is strongly focused, the qi can be abundantly led for power manifestation with the techniques. This was the beginning of internal styles. While at the same time, many martial artists believed that in order to reach a high level of concentration and focus, it would take many years of meditation practice. In order to survive in a violent society, they should first learn techniques and then gradually enter into the internal side through meditation practice. That is why there is a saying in Chinese martial society, “Internal is from internal to external, and external is from external to internal. Though the paths are opposite, the final goal is the same.”

All styles were searching for ways to increase endurance, a crucial key to survival. After generations of practice, they began to realize that in order to conserve energy and physical strength; one must be round and soft. We personally believe that taiji ball qigong or similar training, existed in almost all the martial styles before the Chinese Song dynasty (a.d. 960–1280), and was kept secret.

Internal and External Approaches

Today, taiji ball qigong also has two approaches. One is from internal to external, while the other is from external to internal. The Shaolin Temple in Song Mountain focuses on external training; their taiji balls are made of either rock or wood. Taijiquan in Wudang Mountain has become the leading style of internal training, using balls made of wood.

As mentioned earlier, the size of the ball can differ from one style to another. The small balls, which are commonly used for health, were actually the balls used to strengthen the finder’s grabbing power. They were also used to improve one’s qi and blood circulation right after iron sand palm (tie sha zhang) training, and were also commonly used as a throwing dart weapon (an qi).

The history of taiji ball training is scarce. One very valuable document is the Great Dictionary of Chinese Wushu. According to the writings of Tang Hao (a.d. 1897–1959), taiji ball qigong training, in taijiquan, was passed down by Liu, De-kuan (a.d. 1826–1911), and Liu learned it from an unknown, non-taijiquan, martial artist. According to Tang Hao, the biggest ball that could be used was a huge ball made of brass, which was hung from the ceiling. The practice included solo and matching practices.

Ball practice also offers strength training and stress-relief. Since taiji ball qigong is a combination of internal elixir (nei dan) and external elixir (wai dan) qigong practice, the health benefits of taiji ball qigong can be divided into two parts, the internal and external side.

Internal Benefits

1. Train the mind to its higher level of concentration and focus.

Taiji ball qigong is a soft-moving meditation. Through this meditative training, you will be able to concentrate and focus your mind at a higher level. When this happens, your mental sensitivity will be increased significantly. This will result in a higher level of alertness and awareness. This is a crucial key in improving your mind and body’s communication. With this smooth communication, you will be able to see your body’s health condition, enabling you to learn how to lead yourself down the right path of a healthier life.

2. Improving the body’s metabolism and building up an abundant level of qi.

Through the correct breathing techniques in taiji ball qigong practice, you will not only be able to improve the capacity of your oxygen and carbon dioxide’s exchange, but you will also be able to build up an abundant level of qi at the lower dan tian (xia dan tian). Smooth metabolism is the crucial key in slowing down the aging process. With an abundant level of qi circulating in the body, your immune system will be strong and your life force will be powerful. Without this abundant qi supply, you will unhealthily age.

3. Learning how to use the mind to lead the qi for its circulation to a smoother level.

In order to have your body function healthily, you must also circulate the qi in the body smoothly. In taiji ball qigong, you learn how to use your mind to lead the qi, so that it can circulate smoothly in the body.

4. Enhancing the grand circulation so that the feeling of sensitivity can be significantly increased.

One of the taiji ball qigong practices is grand qi circulation. In this practice, you learn how to lead the qi out of the body so that it can be transferable with surrounding objects or live beings. Feeling is a language of the body and mind’s communication. Through correct taiji ball qigong training, the qi can be extended beyond the body. This is the crucial key in feeling your opponent in martial arts and also communicating with nature. When this sensitivity is increased, the self-alertness and awareness will be higher.

5. Heightening the spirit of vitality.

The final goal of any qigong practice is spiritual cultivation. When the spirit is high, refined, and regulated, the qi’s circulation will be abundant, the mental mind will be strong and firmed, and life can be focused and meaningful. To Buddhist and Daoist qigong practice, the goal has gone even further, aiming for spiritual enlightenment. Taiji ball qigong practice trains the mind to focus. Through this focused mind, the qi can be led efficiently. With the high level of spiritual development, the qi can be led to the brain to nourish the brain cells. This is the crucial key of spiritual enlightenment.

External Benefits

1. Strengthening the physical body (bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.)

Because of the weight of taiji balls, the movements in taiji ball training strengthen the physical body. The parts of the body in which taiji ball qigong conditions effectively are the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. However, the most known benefit that taiji ball qigong training brings you is the conditioning of your torso, chest, spine, and especially, the lower back.

2. Establishing a firm root, balance, and centering ability, and to strengthen the three major joints of the legs.

Another known benefit of taiji ball qigong training is the strengthening of the three joints, the hips, knees, and ankles. With a heavy ball and correct walking, these three joints can be conditioned effectively. This will result in a firm root, good balance, and a feeling of being centered.

3. Loosening and exercising the joints.

When you practice taiji ball qigong, even if there is a heavy ball held in your hands, due to the emphasis of the joints’ movements, the joints will be exercised and opened. Heavier balls not only condition the ligaments and tendons, but also enhance the qi’s circulation within the joint areas. This can therefore prevent, or even heal, some levels of arthritis. In addition, from this joint exercise, the bone marrow will receive adequate amounts of qi for nourishment so that blood cells can be produced healthily. This is a crucial key to longevity.

4. Enhancing qi circulation in the internal organs.

Through the semi-relaxed arm and leg movements, the qi’s circulation in the twelve primary qi channels (i.e., meridians) is enhanced. This will result in the gradual conditioning of the internal organs. In addition, according to Chinese qigong theory, due to the required chest movements’ taiji ball qigong training may not only prevent the development of breast cancer for women, but may also possibly be used to heal it altogether. In addition, due to the hip-joint and leg exercises, taiji ball qigong training can be used in preventing and healing prostate cancer.

5. Enhancing the coordination of  the mind, feeling, and body.

The most amazing benefit that taiji ball qigong can bring you is coordination and harmonization both internally and externally. The mind, feeling, and body are able to harmonize and coordinate with each other from the inside to outside, mental to physical. This is a crucial key to good health and longevity.

Using the taiji ball as a tool for martial arts can be very beneficial. From the physical movements, concentration of the mind, and sensitivity of feeling training, taiji ball qigong enhances your fighting skills. Keep in mind that this type of training was required by many different styles of Chinese martial arts as part of their daily regimen.

Seven Results of Taiji Ball Qigong

1. Strengthening and conditioning the physical body.

We know that the body’s functions depend on the strength of the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. If any part of the body is weak, the body’s coordination and function will be less efficient. Therefore, an effective exercise that allows you to condition from the surface to the deeper areas of the body is crucial. That means you must have an exercise that allows you to condition the shallow places such as the muscles and tendons, while also enabling you to reach deeper to the ligaments and bones. In order to accomplish this, you must be soft, round, and flexible. This allows the tendons and ligaments, located at the joints, to be exercised. Not only that, the exercise must also be able to condition the muscles and bones simultaneously. Taiji ball qigong is able to provide such conditioning.

Let’s think about the body’s structure. The strength for power manifestation originates from the torso, especially the area of the lower back. Taiji ball qigong specializes in conditioning the torso (spine) and lower back.

2. Improving the quality of the physical body’s structure.

Having a strong body structure will provide you with a firm root, center, and balance. In addition to having a strong physical structure, you must also learn to coordinate different parts of the body needed to perform various actions. Without meeting these criteria, the power manifested will be weak and ineffective.

3. Increasing the potential of endurance both physically and mentally.

In ancient times, a real battle could last for a few hours, not just a few minutes. You needed endurance, especially since you would, often as not, be wearing heavy armor. If you did not have endurance, it would not be long until you were killed. It is well known in the Chinese martial community that surviving a long battle did not solely depend on one’s power or techniques, but relied more heavily on one’s endurance level.

Two keys to improving endurance are—breathing correctly and conserving muscle usage. Knowing how to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide efficiently will allow for an abundant supply needed for the body’s biochemical reactions or metabolism. In addition, knowing how to cut down muscle usage, you can conserve oxygen in the muscles and reduce acid build up. Without knowing how to breathe correctly, upon manifesting power for either neutralizing or attacking, your power and technique will be weak.

It is important to have a strong and firm spirit when practicing. In Chinese martial arts, the "spirit" relates to your morale. This is a crucial key to surviving a battle. Losing the morale of fighting, losing your alertness and awareness, will naturally lead you to being killed. Therefore, the self-confidence and will to survive must be strong. This mental discipline can be received from frequent taiji ball conditioning practice. Today, this high morale relates to your health, and results in a more positive demeanor in general, and can lead to a more vigorous immune response.

4. Coordinating actions with correct breathing.

In Chinese qigong practice, the body is compared to a battlefield, the breathing is considered as a strategy, the mind is the general, and qi is soldiers, and finally the spirit is the morale of the entire army. From this analogy, you can see that if the breathing is carried out correctly, the qi can be led efficiently.We cannot deny that when oxygen is abundant, the body’s metabolism is smoothly executed. This is crucial when manifesting power. As mentioned before, your metabolism rate plays a huge role in having lasting endurance.

5. Building quantity of qi.

In order to manifest power on a higher plateau, you must first possess an abundant amount of qi. Without a high quantity of qi, your physical body will not be able to perform to its maximum efficiency. One of the training methods in taiji ball qigong teaches you how to coordinate breathing with the buildup of qi in the lower dan tian (xia dan tian).

6. The mind leads the qi efficiently and smoothly

This will provide you a quality manifestation of qi. Leading qi efficiently to a specific area of the body is achieved by concentrating and focusing the mind to a higher level. If done correctly, you will be able to use the minimum amount of qi needed to manifest power to its maximum. Conserving the usage of qi is a crucial key to a lasting endurance.

In taiji ball qigong, you learn how to use your mind to lead qi to the four major qi gates of the body, two laogong located at the centers of the palms, and two yongquan cavities, located at the bottoms of the feet. This will provide you with a strong root and the balance of energy needed for power manifestation.

7. Mastering the skills required in soft martial styles.

In soft martial skills, the capability of listening (ting), adhering (nian), following (sui,), connecting (lian), coiling (chan), rotating (zhuan), and spiraling (chan jin and luo xuan) are extremely important. To many internal styles, these skills are the core essences of the arts.

Through taiji ball qigong practice, you will be able to learn and master these skills, especially when practicing with a partner.

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About The Author:

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming started his Gongfu (Kung Fu) training at the age of fifteen under the Shaolin White Crane (Bai He) Master Cheng, Gin Gsao. In thirteen years of study (1961-1974) under Master Cheng, Dr. Yang became an expert in the White Crane style of Chinese martial arts, which includes both the use of bare hands and of various weapons such as saber, staff, spear, trident, two short rods, and many others. With the same master he also studied White Crane Chin Na, Tui Na and Dian Xue massages, and herbal treatment.

At the age of sixteen, Dr. Yang began the study of Taijiquan (Yang Style) under Master Kao, Tao. After learning from Master Gao, Dr. Yang continued his study and research of Taijiquan with several masters and senior practitioners such as Master Li, Mao-Ching and Mr. Wilson Chen in Taipei. Master Li learned his Taijiquan from the well-known Master Han, Ching-Tang, and Mr. Chen learned his Taijiquan from Master Chang, Xiang-San. Dr. Yang has mastered the Taiji barehand sequence, pushing hands, the two-man fighting sequence, Taiji sword, Taiji saber, and Taiji Qigong.

At 18, he entered Tamkang College in Taipei Xian to study Physics and also began the study of traditional Shaolin Long Fist (Changquan) with Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang College Guoshu Club (1964-1968). He eventually became an assistant instructor under Master Li. In 1971 he completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University and then served in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. In the service, Dr. Yang taught Physics at the Junior Academy of the Chinese Air Force while also teaching Wushu. After being honorably discharged in 1972, he returned to Tamkang College to teach Physics and resumed study under Master Li, Mao-Ching. From Master Li, Dr. Yang learned Northern style Gongfu, which includes both barehand techniques, especially kicking, and numerous weapons.

In 1974, Dr. Yang came to the United States to study Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University. At the request of a few students, Dr. Yang began to teach, which resulted in the foundation of the Purdue University Chinese Kung Fu Research Club in the spring of 1975. While at Purdue, Dr. Yang also taught college-credited courses in Taijiquan. In May, 1978 he was awarded a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering by Purdue.

Yang's Martial Arts Association was established in Boston, MA in 1982. Currently, YMAA is an international organization, including 56 schools in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Holland, Hungary, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1984, Dr. Yang retired from his engineering career, to focus his energy on teaching and researching the Chinese arts, and introducing them to the West through many books, videos and DVDs. Visit http://www.ymaa.com for current information.

Dr. Yang has nearly 40 years of instructional experience: seven years in Taiwan, five years at Purdue University, two years in Houston, TX, and 25 years in Boston, MA. On November 29, 2005, Dr. Yang conferred the title of Taiji Master to one of his senior students, which by definition bestows the honorable title of Grandmaster upon Dr. Yang.

Dr. Yang is also the founder of the YMAA Retreat Center in Humbolt County, CA, where he is training a select group of students for ten years, starting in August 2008. http://www.ymaa-retreatcenter.org

David Grantham has been training in martial arts for twenty-one years. He currently holds Certificates as Coach Instructor and Chin Na Instructor and teaches at the Hunterdon Wellness Center in Clinton, New Jersey. He offers privates, classes and seminars on Tai Chi Ball and Chin Na. David Grantham resides in Hunterdon County, New Jersey with his wife,and two children.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Chinese Martial Arts, taiji qigong,taoiji ball training tai chi, yin-yang taiji ball qigong, taijiquan, Bodhidharma, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, Liuhebafa, Fo Zhang


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