Tai Chi is much more than just a physical exercise; it is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and history, in Chinese Medicine, Taoist philosophy, and Taoist alchemy, contexts that provide a rich and complex tapestry for understanding the practice. One concept that is particularly important in Tai Chi is that of Yuan Shen (元神), or the original spirit. In this blog post, we will explore what Yuan Shen is, how it relates to Tai Chi, and how it can be cultivated through practice.
What is Yuan Shen?
Yuan Shen is a concept that is found in Chinese Medicine, Taoist philosophy, and Taoist alchemy. It refers to the original spirit or essence that exists within each person. In Chinese Medicine, Yuan Shen is seen as the root of all the other aspects of the mind and spirit, such as the Hun (魂), or ethereal soul, the Po (魄), or corporeal soul, the Yi (意), or intention, and the Zhi (志), or will. Yuan Shen is said to be the most refined and pure aspect of the mind and spirit, and it is associated with the heart.
In Taoist philosophy and Taoist alchemy, Yuan Shen is seen as the ultimate goal of spiritual cultivation. The goal of Taoist alchemy is to refine the Qi (氣), or vital energy, of the body, and transform it into Shen (神), or spirit. The highest form of Shen is Yuan Shen, which is said to be the divine essence of the universe. By cultivating Yuan Shen, a person can achieve spiritual enlightenment, and become one with the Tao, or the ultimate reality.
Yuan Shen and I Ching
Yuan Shen is a Tai Chi concept that relates to Taoism’s idea of returning to the source. This source is where all life begins and ends, according to Taoist philosophy. It is represented in the I Ching as Hexagram 48, also called “The Well” or “The Source”.
The concept of Yuan Shen is the primordial original spirit that you are born with, and it is the foundational core personality unaffected by the experiences of life. It is the essence of our being and the source of our vitality, which is deeply related to the concept of returning to the source. By returning to the source, we can tap into the essence of our being and rediscover our original nature, which is unspoiled by the distractions of life.
In Chinese Medicine texts, the concept of Yuan Shen is closely related to the concept of Jing, Qi, and Shen. According to traditional Chinese Medicine, Jing is the essence of the body, Qi is the energy that flows through the body, and Shen is the spirit that animates the body. In this context, Yuan Shen can be seen as the original spirit or essence that underlies the other two aspects of the body.
In “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine,” (Huangdi Neijing) one of the oldest and most authoritative texts on Chinese Medicine, the concept of Jing, Qi, and Shen is discussed in detail. Chapter 8 of the Lingshu, titled “All diseases are rooted in spirit” discusses how the three treasures of Jing, Qi, and Shen are interrelated and form the basis of human health and vitality. Yuan Shen is often considered to be the original spirit that underlies the other two treasures.
In Taoist philosophy, the concept of returning to the source is central to the teachings of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi.
Laozi, in the Tao Te Ching, states that “The Tao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two, Two gives birth to Three, Three gives birth to all things.” This passage suggests that everything in the universe is born from the Tao, which is the ultimate source of all things.
Laozi often refers to the Tao as the ultimate source of all things. In chapter 25, for example, he writes,
This passage suggests that the Tao is the ultimate source of all things, and that by returning to the Tao, we can tap into our essential nature.
Zhuangzi expands on this concept, stating that “Heaven and earth are one qi, all things are one body, and all people are one family.” This passage suggests that everything in the universe is interconnected, and that we are all part of a larger whole. By returning to the source, we can tap into this interconnectedness and rediscover our essential nature.
In the Zhuangzi, the concept of returning to the source is often discussed through the metaphor of the “uncarved block.” In chapter 6, for example, Zhuangzi writes:
Liezi tells us that “All things arise from the Tao, and the Tao arises from nothing.” This passage suggests that the Tao is the ultimate source of all things, and that by returning to the Tao, we can rediscover our true nature.
Returning to the source is often discussed through the metaphor of the “Great Void.” In chapter 1, for example, Liezi writes,
This passage suggests that the Great Void, or the ultimate source, is the origin of all things, and that by returning to it, we can rediscover our essential nature.
How does Yuan Shen relate to Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is deeply rooted in Chinese Medicine, Taoist philosophy, and Taoist alchemy, and so it is closely related to the concept of Yuan Shen. In Tai Chi, the practice is not just about physical movements; it is also about cultivating the mind and spirit. The movements of Tai Chi are designed to be gentle and flowing, and they are meant to help the practitioner connect with their body and their breath. By doing so, the practitioner can become more aware of their internal state, and cultivate a sense of calm and relaxation.
As the practitioner becomes more skilled in the practice, they may start to feel a sense of energy or Qi flowing through their body. This is because Tai Chi is designed to cultivate and refine the Qi of the body, and to promote the free flow of Qi throughout the body. As the Qi becomes more refined and purified, it can be transformed into Shen, and ultimately into Yuan Shen.
In addition to the physical movements of Tai Chi, there are also mental and spiritual aspects to the practice. The practitioner is encouraged to focus their mind and intention on the movements and to cultivate a sense of calm and relaxation. By doing so, the practitioner can become more aware of their internal state, and cultivate a sense of mindfulness and presence.
How can Yuan Shen be cultivated through Tai Chi practice?
Cultivating Yuan Shen through Tai Chi practice requires a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual practice. Here are some tips for how to cultivate Yuan Shen through Tai Chi practice:
- Start with the basics: If you are new to Tai Chi, it is important to start with the basics. This means learning the proper form and technique for each movement, and practicing them slowly and carefully. Once you have mastered the physical aspects of form work you will notice your awareness starts to put pieces of the puzzle together and you will start to become aware of other things. As you become more skilled in the practice, you can start to focus more on the internal aspects of the practice, such as your breath and your intention.
- Focus on your breath: The breath is an important aspect of Tai Chi practice, as it helps to cultivate a sense of relaxation and concentration. As you practice, focus on your breath, and try to synchronize your movements with your breath. Breathing is something continuous, and unconscious, we even breathe in the womb, although in a different way. Breathing draws vital energy into the body and purifies internal energy. Purification is an important principle in returning to the source, it involves shedding extraneous material and holding onto refined pure essences. Breathe deeply and slowly, and try to maintain a sense of calm and relaxation throughout your practice.
- Cultivate a sense of intention: Tai Chi is not just about physical movements; it is also about cultivating a sense of intention and purpose. The Tao is a path, it’s not just about wandering around at random. As you practice, try to focus your mind on the movements, and cultivate a sense of intention and purpose. This can help you to become more aware of your internal state, and to cultivate a sense of presence and mindfulness.
- Practice regularly: Cultivating Yuan Shen through Tai Chi practice requires regular practice. Think about cultivating a garden, it needs regular attention if the weeds are not to take over and choke the plants. Or building a fire, it needs tended and fuel added if it is to maintain its brightness and heat, or it will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Make it a habit to practice every day, even if it is just for a few minutes. As you become more skilled in the practice, you can increase the amount of time you spend practicing.
- Seek guidance from a teacher: Tai Chi is a complex and nuanced practice, and it can be helpful to seek guidance from a teacher. A good teacher has been further down the path and has guided others. A qualified Tai Chi teacher can help you to learn the proper form and technique and can provide guidance on how to cultivate a sense of mindfulness and presence in your practice.
- Cultivate acceptance: Cultivating Yuan Shen is not just about physical practice; it is also about cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation for life. As you practice Tai Chi, cultivate a sense of gratitude for your body, your breath, and your life, more than that, for all life. This can help to cultivate a sense of presence and acceptance and can help you to connect with the divine essence of the universe.
In conclusion, the concept of Yuan Shen is an important aspect of Tai Chi practice. Cultivating Yuan Shen requires a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual practice, and it is closely related to the principles of Chinese Medicine, Taoist philosophy, and Taoist alchemy. By practicing Tai Chi regularly, we can cultivate a sense of calm, relaxation, and focus, and ultimately cultivate the divine essence of the universe within ourselves.