The reason I emphasize the 5 Elements paradigm so much is because I feel that it is a road map to achieve mastery of Taijiquan as a complete system of internal martial arts. So in that sense the paradigm is quite theoretical because many practitioners will not be able to reach such a diversified level of practice. However, I believe the framework is still very useful even to beginners because it defines some goals which they should be shooting for at their level. The very first level in the paradigm (and my curriculum) is the Earth level which corresponds to the skill of connecting ones alignment to the ground, also known as root.
The important contribution of the Zheng Manqing style to taijiquan was that his style softened up the large-frame postures of his teacher’s style by taking away the emphasis on stretching out the empty leg and pushing out the palms. The forgoing of structure allowed the arms and legs to be closer to the body, so that it became easier to relax more of the body’s weight onto the single standing leg. For this reason, Zheng’s style had a clear advantage in the building of root compared to its parent Yang style.
My teacher and Zheng’s student, Liu Xiheng, further streamlined the process of achieving root by practicing a weight shifting routine separate from the form while incorporating hand movements similar to those used in the from. We called these the “bitter exercises” because the repetitive drilling into the ground with the legs was quite taxing. Mr. Liu however, understood that the skills learned in his basic exercises were not representative of the complete set of skills that embody taijiquan. He therefore modified his basic routine to incorporate elements of Yang style’s longer structural moves paired with more spiral moves normally associated with the Chen style. Practicing this way helped Mr. Liu’s more advanced students to appreciate the benefits of different ways of movement in other styles of taijiquan.
Having taught Mr. Liu’s routine for few years now, I now see it as somewhat problematic for beginners. As soon as one starts adding complexity one loses the focus on the original intent of the exercises which was to build a root. Let me be clear about what I mean by a beginner: A beginning taijiquan student is someone who has not comprehended root i.e. they are still double weighted or pushing against the ground with their legs such their movements are off balance. Root pertains to the Earth element which I definitely believe should come before the other four elements when practicing taijiquan. Yet the complexity of Mr. Liu’s routine adds other elements into the mix: the Wood element or extended structure of the Yang style and the Water element or curving nature of the Chen style. Adding these other skills before the first one is mastered is not a good idea. One thing I’ve noticed about many practitioners of the Yang and Chen styles is that their body’s connection to ground was not as firm as their Zheng style counterparts.
In order to help people achieve root in the most streamlined fashion, I’ve taken a hatchet to Mr. Liu’s routine. Rather than trying to master the hand movements of Brush Knee and Push or Bend Bow Shoot Tiger, now I have students keep their arms down with their hands guiding the waist or reaching down to the knees. In order to touch the knee while keeping the body upright you really have to get in a low posture by bending both knees. Sinking down in that way while shifting from one leg to the other is a more focused (and bitter?) way to achieve a root. The emphasis is NOT on trying to get the power of the legs to support the motion of the hands (which it eventually should be) but rather on the conditioning of the legs and establishing that all-important connection to the ground in the first place.