I live in a narrow valley isolated from neighbors and traffic. Its steep slopes on either side block my view of sunrises and sunsets, but also protect me from unsolicited intrusions. Drought has become common for several years. This land would flourish if it received twice the rain it has had over recent years. But El Nino apparently has brought more precipitation for some months now. Not too much and somewhat regularly. This spring’s rainfall shows it would take little to green the place up with more verdant growth. The rain dances must have worked. I know I’ve been calling the rain in my own way. Tai chi. It’s like a dance. Your partner is nature. Your senses are your instruments. They touch feel hear taste smell and see the wind and light. Shadows and the sun’s glare. The far and the close. Big and small. Hard and soft. Very powerful stuff. I hardly know what to do with all the extra energy. It often arrives in bursts, making it even trickier to steer. My response lately has been to keep moving. Go to the moves for guidance along with an intention of sharpening the senses to discern new insights in practice.
Tai chi is many things and one way to answer the question of what tai chi is to see it as a quest to understand two things. One—that Qi (life force, energy of life) moves. It moves all by itself. “Qi flows through,” the master says. It flows through everything, everywhere. It is life force. If it is not flowing, it’s because something is stopping it. Often it’s an injury, but more often, it’s simple tension in our bodies. Often, we don’t recognize that it’s not flowing; that it’s stuck. It could be from an injury, an acute condition. Or it could be a chronic condition that refuses to go away on its own. If you understand this, you have greater capability to change it for the better. Tai Chi practice is an effort to recognize this. Once you recognize tension you can do something about it.
Two—Qi, once it is freed up and moving, can be directed. You can visualize or intend it to go where you want; for example, to a part of your body that needs healing. As a beginner, this may be better understood by releasing tension in such a way that it flows freely. It will flow on its own without your help. With this you may direct it to wherever you want. So practice is an effort to recognize tension and using your mind intention to release it.
“What is qi?” you may ask. It’s a feeling that changes. That change is yin-yang. It’s separation and movement. What makes the wind blow are changes in air temperature. Hot and cold air masses collide either slowly or quickly and air is compelled to move. Hot rises, cold descends, like the yin-yang symbol (taiji tu). Cold air rushes in and hot makes way. You can do something similarly with your powers of intention and visualization. Put it into practice.
In tai chi practice, we look to the external to show signs of what the internal is doing. The external is an outward expression of the internal. Don’t let that distract you and think that the external is all there is. It is only a tell-tale sign of the source of its movement. If the root of the movement is shallow, then the external expression will be weak and without depth. It will be awkward and hesitant. If the root is deep, then the outward expression will have breadth and depth, grace and eloquence. It will be powerful because of these things, as well, and the whole body—the sum of its parts—will be active and energized
Coordinating inhale and exhale with various arm movements: up-down, front-back, left-right can be a meditation. Maybe you can do it in a qigong or taiji class, but can you be aware of breath and motion while doing everyday things?
Tai chi is simply a way of paying attention to how you move while moving. Developing a daily practice is central to learning, but we usually struggle to remember every time we start to move not to jump ahead and forget the body.
Gardening in SW Colorado is a big activity now, because it’s springtime. How do you maintain awareness of breath while hoeing, shoveling, weeding, raking and watering? What is the priority?
I gardened and practiced taiji much of the morning yesterday. The weather has been nice for three days now—a big shift from April’s unsettled waves of clouds, some rain and snow and few periods of full sun. While working around the garden, I concentrated on paying attention to moving from the center of my body. I moved up-down, forward-backward, and left-right—initiating each move from that center point. Try it. See how long you can go without forgetting to hold the view of moving from the center.
Tai chi is often thought of as a moving meditation performed standing and walking, but you can do it sitting, too. By meditation, I mean focusing attention on a specific point and/or activity with single-minded concentration. You’ll be “active” in either case as a result of your brain’s “mental activity”. This is a form of mindfulness practice.
A practitioner can easily sit quietly and “practice” tai chi form by visualizing moving through the postures and transitions. Well, maybe it’s not easy for a beginning practitioner, but it is kind of fun. Plus, it’s good for the brain and probably helps to improve memory, or the activate areas of the brain that affect our ability to remember things during the learning process (cerebral cortex and sub-cortical parts, such as basal ganglia).
As far as the brain is concerned, the results would be much the same as if you were standing and doing the moves. For a long time, studies have continually recorded evidence that the brain registers the mental imagery same as it does the action itself (sample article).
Tai chi and qigong movement are known to improve many physical and mental functions. For example, your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons benefit from their regenerative movement and relaxation. Balance and injurious falls in the elderly have been the most commonly researched topics full of positive findings, although that’s changing fast. Research is spanning out into brain, cardiac, body mechanics, and several other fields of study.
Another common benefit is improved blood circulation which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. Just by breathing deliberately in specific ways, such as abdominal breathing, whole-body breathing or reverse breathing, you can activate energizing results. This is much like mindfulness breathing encountered in Buddhist meditation practice. In the case of tai chi, you’re standing and moving.
Could you produce these effects merely by sitting and visualizing them? Why can’t I produce better circulation if I can imagine it? I’m not a researcher in the formal sense, but I’ve gained insights from direct experience. My body and mental attitude have changed after years of consistent, regular practice of employing conscious use of “mind intention” to move—intending a movement before actually performing it. This is a key to advanced tai chi practice. It’s calms me down, too, in response to hectic living and its resulting stress levels in the body. Anyone and everyone already practices mind intention at some, subconscious level, since it’s a very human ability; but how many of actually deliberately practice it?
Simply visualizing doing tai chi form in your mind’s eye as if you were literally moving through the postures and transitions with your whole body is a practice of mind intention.
The more you do it the more powerful results it can produce. A couple come to mind. Improved memorization of movement and better overall memory function in the brain. Tai chi beginners have to memorize the sequence of postures and transitions of form, mostly from rote practice. But most are not going to stop what they’re doing and practice form, or find a specific time and place to practice during the day.
So, I recommend to learners to “practice” tai chi visualization, wherever they may be (office, driving, cashier line, waiting for movie to start, bored, lying down to sleep). Take a few moments to run through each move of the form in their mind’s eye. So when they do stand up and move through the sequence they’ll guess less, hesitate less, and their movement will be more connected and graceful—not to mention the health benefits they’ll be cultivating.
Another pretty obvious benefit is this kind of mental practice can enhance the brain’s memory functions. Your ability to remember anything is enhanced, which is great for overall mental well-being and overall brain function. I’ve even found it useful to visualize the parts of the brain in order to intend better function, such as memory. Check out the work of Richard Davidson (investigatinghealthyminds.org) and Clifford Saron’s research on the science of contemplation (http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/).
Maybe, just maybe, we can improve memory function by tapping into some unknown potential hidden somewhere in our bodies and brains. And maybe the practice of tai chi and mind intention can help to shake loose that potential from its moorings and bring it to where we can harness its power for better well-being overall.
Paul Tim Richard studies, teaches and writes about tai chi. His school’s mission is to make tai chi and qigong accessible and affordable to more people everywhere.
I strongly believe that finding the best place to do tai chi for yourself is crucial to learning success. If you search for it you’ll find a place for which you have an affinity. Your body and your personality fits better with that spot in your home or that place in the world. If you are more experienced, then it’s much easier to practice anywhere, wherever you may find yourself. But it remains true that some places hold more of an affinity than others due to your psyche and how a place resonates. Seek those places out and enjoy.
You could call what I’m attempting to navigate in this blog a philosophical trek into the fascinating world of tai chi. Through personal insights into my particular experience learning, doing, questioning the art of tai chi and qigong movement. It’s about an exercise in language, as well as an exercise in practice. I exercise with the body and exercise the mind to try and articulate what is going on in both upon the playing field of tai chi and try to figure out where it’s all heading.