“Frying with an empty pan” means practicing your gongfu without sufficient internal energy.
Is it harmful? Not at all. Part of the magic of taijiquan is that you can do your forms for decades as a gentle calisthenic and reap tremendous health benefits. Most people do just that and are more than satisfied with that deal. But you won’t cash in on the promised: “Wisdom of a a sage, strength of a lumberjack, and pliability of a child.” To taste the whole enchilada you’re gonna need the sauce.
I didn’t ‘feel the qi’ for my first decade or so of training. It wasn’t part of the culture back then. None of my senior classmates talked of it. Some of them considered it irrelevant. Others imagined that it would develop on its own after twenty or thirty years of dedicated gongfu. And many considered it a fairytale. So I did my research quietly, reading the few books available on the subject and doing the qigong and meditation practices I found there.
I remember the first time I really felt something I could identify as an intense qi flow. I ran a small construction company in the 1980s and would amuse myself by doing breathing meditations while stuck in NYC traffic. One day I was inching my way across the Verrazano Bridge when I started to feel this warm tingling in my hands and arms, which then began to fill my whole body. My feet got really hot. And it stayed with me for hours.
Once I knew what I was looking for, I wanted more. I expanded my research to include my students, mostly “salt of the earth” types who were quite skeptical. I knew they wouldn’t let me get away with BS.
They gave me feedback as I developed exercises to cultivate qi. I took workshops from various teachers in traditional methods. A program took form that took the whole class to a highly energized state quickly and dependably. New students would feel the group field being generated and go into resonance with it. Now I usually make sure a new student can ‘feel the qi’ in the first half hour of the first class by focusing on Central Equilibrium and Energetic Coherence.
In the following video we see a few preparatory steps you can add to any form to ensure you are not “frying with an empty pan.” Here I use it before starting Master Chen’s 60 Movements. Begin with Central Equilibrium, then point your index fingers to access Energetic Coherence, lift the fingers to amplify the field, then rotate the forearms to amplify further. Short and sweet. (How does it work? That’s a subject for another day.)
Don’t start your trip without gassing up first.