Four Powers of Practice


Figure 1.1: The Four Powers of Yin and Yang

The basis of almost all Daoist theory can be found within the teachings of the Yi Jing (Classic of Change) as well as within the interactions of Yin and Yang.  The diagram shown in figure 1.1 is derived from this source and shows the basis of how internal systems such as Nei Gong and Qi Gong were developed. Ultimately, at their core, the basis of all internal systems within the Chinese traditions was to attempt to understand and harmonise Yin and Yang; further elevation of the practice then involved combining these two powers so that a person could be led to a state of spiritual union.

The study of Yin and Yang is very deep indeed, perhaps it is at a depth that is even unfathomable? At the deeper levels of practice Yin and Yang theory concern how your mind conceptualises and constructs an awareness of self and the external world. We don’t begin here though, at this level, as this would be very complex. We begin at the level of the tangible and then progress through our training to the more abstract stages of working with consciousness.

When you read many Qi Gong or Chinese medicine books and they tell you that Yin and Yang are the shady side of the hill and the sunny side of the hill then this is only just scratching the surface. At the simplest level, yes, the side of the hill hidden form the sun would be classed as Yin and the side receiving the suns light would be Yang but this is ultimately a very dualistic way of approaching the concept. The fact of the matter is that both the shady side of the hill and the sunny side are both in flux, both have to exist in relation to one another and ultimately, they are only aspects of one thing – the hill. In this way, Yin and Yang give us depth, location and change with regards to a physical object or state but they are still only transitory states that exist around and as a part of a singular entity. It is the unification of the shifting qualities of Yin and Yang that we should strive to understand through our training.

With regards to Qi Gong practice, Yin and Yang primarily refer to stillness and movement on the wider, conceptual scale. On top of this, there are many different meanings to Yin and Yang which come later including even somatic experiences and substances within the body but for now we will begin with the harmonization of stillness and movement.

Figure 1.2: The Symbol of Wuji

The symbol shown in figure 1.2 is known as Wuji.  Wuji is the unified state prior to Yin and Yang and the origin of all movement; of life, the physical realm and the plane of intellect.  It is stated time and time again that the two opposite poles of stillness and movement develop out of this singular point known as Wuji.  Wuji is generally translated as meaning ‘without limits’, but that is not quite accurate. Wu is without, and Ji can be translated as meaning a projection of something into a singular point. In this way, Wuji means to exist without a singular point of projection or definition. More accurately, what they mean is there is no definition, no construction, no anything, so it is essentially like a blank space.  It is the hill without either a sunny side or a shady side; in fact, without these two points to show us the hills being, it is as if the hill is no longer projected into the realm of manifestation. Confusing? Possibly! This is a part of the nature of Eastern teachings; they can sometimes be complex or even defy logic as they then cause you to begin to analyse and consider the nature of your perceptions.

Within Daoist writings, the ideas of Yin and Yang are often diagrammatically represented as shown in figure 1.3. In way, the broken line represents Yin whilst the solid line is Yang.

Figure 1.3: Yin and Yang Depicted

When shown in this manner, Yin almost always represents a tendency towards stillness whilst Yang is showing movement and activity.

Figure 1.4 then shows how these lines are combined to form four possible symbols known as the four key states of Yin and Yang.

Figure 1.4: Four Key States of Yin and Yang

These four symbols demonstrate how any internal processes should take place and be harmonized with each other. They also show exactly how any traditional Nei Gong system is formulated with a balance of Yin and Yang practices. When reading any symbol from the Yi Jing, we always read from the bottom up. So, to keep it simple, in the case of this particular chart, with regards to Nei Gong practice, the bottom represents the inside of the body whilst the top line shows a progression to what the outside of the body is doing. For now, no complex definitions of these two terms – internal and external, let’s just keep it as the insides of the body and the outsides. Later we will break down these two terms in greater detail but for now it is not needed.

Tai Yang

Tai Yang or ‘Greatest Yang’ is represented by two solid lines. Yang on the inside and Yang on the outside. This combination of two Yang lines is manifest through Dao Yin or ‘leading and guiding’ exercises. This is movement within and movement without. Essentially it means that the physical body (the outside) is moving and the Qi (the inside) is moving as well. These are not subtle exercises, we use the physical structure, the breath and mind to lead Qi in a fairly assertive manner when we practice Dao Yin.

Shao Yang

Shao Yang or ‘Lesser Yang’ is represented by a solid Yang line on the outside, at the upper position, with a broken Yin line on the inside, at the lower position. In this case, the outside is moving whilst the insides are still. This is a manifestation of the classical Qi Gong maxim – ‘stillness in movement’. This principle is manifest through moving or dynamic Qi Gong exercises. Many students of the internal arts can find this confusing because they think that the Qi should be moving a great deal when they practice their Qi Gong exercises but this is actually a common misunderstanding. During moving Qi Gong exercises, the body is actually moving but the Qi is not moving a great deal. It is moving ‘with’ the limbs but does not really animate under its own power until the body is at rest between moving exercises.

During the movements, your mind should also be as still as possible.  It is like your mind is trying to enter into a meditative state while you are doing the exercises.  The Qi may move with your body, but it does not move inside to any great degree. This is the nature of Shao Yang.

Shao Yin

Shao Yin or ‘Lesser Yin’ is represented with a broken Yin line on the outside with a solid Yang line on the inside or lower position. In this case, the outside of your body is still whilst the inside is moving, often a great deal. So, in this case, your physical body is not doing anything; you are simply standing.

A great deal of the Nei Gong process is carried out within this Shao Yin state. The exercises at the Tai Yang and Shao Yang phases of our practice establish a series of qualities within the body and then, when we enter into Shao Yin or ‘static Qi Gong’, the insides of the body begin to come to life. This is in accordance with the Qi Gong maxim of ‘movement in stillness’.

Moving Qi Gong exercises and static Qi Gong postures work together, so we switch between moving our body and then keeping our body still.  The majority of the actual energetic movements take place when you are doing the static aspects of the training. This is why almost all classical teachers of the internal arts heavily emphasized the importance of standing postures in their teachings.

Tai Yin

Tai Yin or ‘Greater Yin’ is shown with a broken Yin line on the outside or upper position with a second broken Yin line on the inside or lower position. In this case, nothing is moving within the external, physical body and nothing is moving on the inside of the body either; not the Qi nor the mind. This is essentially meditative work which can be carried out either sitting or standing though most people would associate meditation with being seated cross-legged on the floor.

It is a sad fact that many Qi Gong practitioners neglect meditation training and do not include it alongside their Qi Gong. Instead, they may have a seated form of Qi Gong such as circulating Qi around the channels of the body whilst they are sat; though seated, this is not really meditation as it does not fall under the description of Tai Yin.


The idea is that a complete system of internal practice would traditionally, according to Daoism, include all four of the above components. On top of this, each of the four components would work together in roughly equal amounts. An exception to this may be that a real beginner has a great more of the Tai Yang and Shao Yang components whilst a true master who has studied for their entire lifetime would place all of their focus into the Tai Yin element of what they do. Despite the clear emphasis on different ends of the spectrum at the beginnings and ‘end’ of the process, the vast majority of the time spent in the ‘middle’ of a practitioners development would be focused on harmonising the four aspects of practice with regards to time invested.

I should add a note here that I don’t view ‘complete’ as good and ‘incomplete’ as bad with regards to practice though. The term ‘complete’ is only used in the context of moving through a system that incorporates all of the training and development inherent within the Daoist internal arts. Some systems are deliberately ‘incomplete’ in that their goals are focused only on one need or aspect of the practice. For example, systems that aim to medically move the body so that joints are looked after and a person is relaxed may focus solely on the moving Qi Gong exercises of the Shao Yang phase. This is fine, though it is unlikely that a person will move very deep into what they do, it is more than enough for them to practice in this way if they wish to look after their body and regulate their stress levels.

In the early stages of practice, it can be difficult to differentiate these four aspects of practice from one another; this is because, at the beginning, they will seem to cross over to a large degree.  This is normal and because your skill needs to develop further. So, for example, if you are practicing Dao Yin exercises and you are moving your external body a great deal but nothing is happening inside then you need to have patience and keep going. If you are standing in a static posture and the inside of the body is also static, then this is not really how they are supposed to work. If you try to sit in meditation and the insides of your body start to move around a great deal then this is obviously not quite what we are seeking in the Tai Yin phase of practice. All of this is okay. It is normal so don’t worry. There is a phase of ‘sorting out’ the different components of internal from external that the body has to go through in order for the correct qualities to arise within you.

It is as if Yin and Yang are crossed over in beginners and at first, we need to divide them out into separate parts so your body can differentiate.  There is movement and stillness in the body and then life within the Qi, and stillness within your mind.  Once you have successfully differentiated between these four aspects of practice, you study them for a long time.  Then they actually start to come back together; they start to re-merge.  It is always the same.  First, we have to take something to bits, then we need to understand it, and then we put it back together to understand how the system works. It is at this stage that we have full control over differentiation of the four qualities or we can apply them all together in an attempt to seek union of body and mind.