Thoughts on teaching tai chi

Everyone of us teachers encounters a time in his journey when he feels he doesn’t know how to teach. He knows he doesn’t and perhaps never did. This is not surprising. It may last only a hour or two, or maybe forever, but the time comes when you thought you knew what you were doing fizzles away under the light of a new level of understanding … that other moment that comes along in the journey of every teacher.

Tai Chi Tip: Stand on one leg

My friend and teacher, Wang Ming Bo gave me a scroll with the calligraphy characters hadwritting on by his aged father. It says, “Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg.” I’ve seen birds of different kinds standing on one leg many times. In taiji, you should be to test yourself by standing on one leg.

So … Stand on one foot. Can you do it without falling over after a minute or two? Do you have trouble getting stable even after a second or two? What do you do to improve your stability when you test yourself by standing on one leg? …. Simple…Do Tai Chi.

Are you really as straight as you think?

Tai Chi teacher says stand straight and we think we are. Then you have someone like Susan Matthews adjust your posture to be straighter and you feel kiltered to one side or another. We think we’re straight and we’re not. Becoming sensitive enough to recognize the difference between straight and not straight is a core objective of tai chi. The more precisely we’re aligned the more efficient we are in movement and the less wear and tear on the body, and more efficient our brains will function, because we have more energy available to us to do the real reason for living….enjoying life!

Goals of Basic Taiji Training

The goal of basic exercises and tai chi overall is actually simple. It’s natural movement. Easy, natural movement. That’s it. It’s just unbelievable that so few of us have this. If life were as simple as just achieving natural movement, easy flowing natural movement, there wouldn’t be wars. There would be hardly any kind of arguments so common these days. There would be difficulties, there would be challenges, but it would be a different world. People would be different. This world would be different because people would have changed.

Natural movement is rhythmic, synchronous movement. Even the most basic move—front/back, up/down, left/right—can be challenging to perform with precision. Think Dance.

Another goal: visualize and internalize the motion in the body.

At the beginner level, and even higher levels, you need to learn how to get out of muscle and reduce reliance on muscle. Become aware of which muscles are tensing up as you move.

Not to use muscle is part of finding the core of your being and letting the rest of it go and retraining it to cooperate with the center. So you send messages to the external of the body from the inside, from the deepest core you can perceive. It’s a matter of perception. When you let the muscles go you’re really investing in loss as Chen Man Qing said a long time ago. He was one of the first internal martial artists to come to the United States and introduce these concepts in the martial arts world.

There are different levels to move to once you have begun letting go of the muscles. One is called bone power. Sit on your bones. Let one bone sit on the other and let the connective tissue move. It takes a mental awareness to do that. This is associated with moving in gravity.

A key to reducing your reliance on muscle is to use your senses to detect tension. Different moves highlight different parts of the body giving you a chance to keep an eye out for misalignment of BOJOLTs (bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons), no alignment, or reliance on any single part more than any other.

As you gradually grow more aware of the alignment (“zhong ding”), you become more capable of discerning the flow of energy that results from aligning the body more precisely. BOJOLTs together in a single unit in which the parts communicate with each other in such a way that each is playing a natural role towards perfection, cooperation, harmony and coordination which creates a whole that the parts don’t achieve on their own.

Another goal is to get connected, which is actually a result of alignment. This means to know how to move the whole body, all of its parts, synchronously. If one part moves then the whole body should move harmoniously with it. If one part is not moving then the whole body should be still in oneness, not moving at all. This is the first thing you read in the Taijiquan Jing classic.

It’s easy to see that it takes time to reach a level at which all parts are unified in movement. That’s why regular practice over time is the best way to learn.

Did you forget where you put your tai chi?

I looked for my glasses. Only a moment before I had recalled that I was not wearing them. I often take them off to read and then forget where I tossed them last. I gazed at the clutter on the desktop. Papers, printer, power cords, headset, computer. No glasses. I got up and searched the kitchen, living room, bedroom. No glasses. Bathroom. No glasses. I couldn’t recall where I was when I put them down. I returned to the desk.

There they were tangled up in the headset wires. I had looked straight at them before I got up to find them. I was thinking that I was looking rather than actually perceiving what I was looking at. I’m not sure why that happens, but it happens often enough to draw attention to itself.

This similar thing happens in taiji. We think we’re doing something, say, like what the teacher is asking or showing. But we’re actually not. This quirk in our behavior has to do with how we use our powers of perception, how we see what we are doing, or how we focus our attention.

One thing happening, I believe, is we too often don’t really let go of concerns that are holding us back from performing to our fullest in any given activity. One of my favorite activities, taiji, is a method of gradually breaking those tethers our worries have on us. Our habits of thought, of feeling, of action.

It amazes me when people tell me they don’t have time for tai chi, especially when I know that it is the one thing they should make time for more than anything else. Tai chi is like the thing I am looking for when it is right in front of me and I don’t see it.

Reminder: whole body must move as single unit in taijiquan

I recently talked about focusing on one thing in your practice in order to develop your powers of observation, as well as perfecting the move. But I want to make clear that “whole body moves as a single movement” is the goal. That is the ultimate expression of any move. The whole body moves as the result of the parts moving in a coordinated way, in unison, and in harmony, each committing itself fully, extending fully, in all directions suffused with energy, like sunlight early in the morning. Soft yet bright, warm not hot. This is not news, but perhaps students should be reminded of it more often. It’s easy to forget. Read Taijiquan Jing. I like the version in Barbara Davis’ The Taijiquan Classics with Chen Weiming.