People attend my classes to learn tai chi but they are also learning to improve memory. My job is to help them remember. Tai chi is both easy and complex at the same time. Most moves are easy to do, but remembering form sequences, or even single basic moves, is often more difficult. Most learners take months to learn form sections.
Remembering the moves requires a form of memory recall that we are no longer accustomed to utilizing. Why this different way of recall eludes us is a curious thing. On one hand, something seems to block us from remembering, and on the other, we don’t seem to be aware that we can overcome the obstacle of not remembering. I think that often in life we rely on someone else to remember for us what we need to get done everyday and we are merely reminded to do it and our memory facilities are weakened as a result.
Tai chi teaches us to remember for ourselves and offers techniques to help overcome the challenge of remembering what we learn.
Here is a simple technique to help to remember your tai chi lesson. As soon as you get home from practice, try to recall what you just did. Don’t go right back to the same old routines that, ironically, we are trying to disrupt by practicing tai chi. Stand in wuqi and let your body recall anything at all that you did, then take a few minutes to practice that move. How to do it may be written in books or blogs, but only by practice does it manifest.
Taiji offers us a way to cultivate attentiveness to the role of memory in learning and to recall our tai chi lessons, and incorporate them into daily living. The initial effort seems monumental at first, and that’s why I see my instructor’s role as one of showing not just how to do moves and what to remember, but also how to remember.
“A mind once expanded with knowledge
cannot return to its former way of thinking.”
I forget where this quote originated. Maybe Albert Einstein. But it applies to taiji. Expanding one’s perception is the core of taiji practice.
It’s not about “thinking” however, which is chatter to one’s self. If anything, taiji is about visualizing new possibilities in movement. This entails perceiving beyond habit and even though taiji is repetitive, its most creative progress comes from dissolving complacency and discovering something new with every repetition.
We are changing our minds and assumptions about an invisible future. Taiji teaches you to be in the present moment, to watch closely the changes in the most recondite corners of your being and to have control over what you do with your whole being: your physical, mental, energetic, spiritual.
You can never go back once you have truly entered new internal landscapes. You look forward to new discoveries with anticipation and joy.
Many tai chi practitioners lack central equilibrium, or “zhong ding” in their posture while they move. Many people, even teachers, don’t even know about it. But it’s important for so many things. For example, improving your zhong ding will improve your balance. Also, to advance your tai chi practice and experience the ultimate benefits of tai chi, zhong ding training is pivotal.
I’ve found that visualization helps to incorporate it into practice. My teachers introduced me to two useful concepts to think about: “third leg” from George Xu and “backwards bicycle” from Susan A. Matthews.
The Backwards Bicycle
Sifu Matthews uses bio-mechanics descriptions that effectively help transfer many concepts into experience. Fairly early on in students’ learning she introduces her trademark “Backwards Bicycle™” motion to get the hips to move and stimulate awareness of the importance of the spine in tai chi training. The idea is simple, but familiarizing yourself with moving that way takes some of us a little extra effort at first. Backwards bicycle results in more-effective, full-body movement with more-precise alignment of the spine and skeleton.
The Third Leg George Xu introduced the term “third leg” during a workshop a few years ago. Like backwards bicycle, the concept of third leg helps to refine the movement of your zhong ding by giving you a visualization to focus on. There is a leverage point in the hip assembly at the base of the spine at or near the sacrum where you can pivot and turn. It’s as though you are sitting on the top of a pole that is planted in the ground. Master George often says “sit on the chair” and it’s like you’re moving the chair with your sacrum while keeping a steady pressure on it to maintain your connection with the ground. I call this “weighted-in-gravity.”
Eventually, with practice, mind-energy-physical integration, or “harmony,” is a key outcome of these two visualizations to help develop zhong ding awareness in movement. To accomplish this, use mind intention to focus on directing of the flow of energy. Move in circles and figure eights. No hard corners and continual focus on movement. Look for the sensation of motion or flow. Enjoy the feeling.
Placing yourself in a position of learning is a main goal of tai chi training, and learning about third leg and backwards bicycle can make it rather fun. To learn more about incorporating them in your practice, visit the MastersFromChina video store. Sifu Matthews’ talks about zhong ding in Volume 1 of her Brain Workshop™ series, and Master Xu describes it in his Complete Practice video. Of course, attending one of their workshops is a nice way to experience learning in person.
Even though tai chi is an “internal” martial art many people don’t yet grasp the “internal.” The only way to truly know it is to experience it firsthand through practice. It’s a mind-body-energy synthesis that energizes you everywhere. Something to get excited about.
You can witness internal energy moving in someone even though you don’t do it yourself yet. I remember once being moved by energy from a distance when I first saw Yun Yen Sin perform his Liu He Ba Fa form in Shanghai during George Xu’s 2004 China Camp demonstration day. Many people performed that day and we all saw some impressive demonstrations of various styles and skills from several accomplished martial artists. But Master Yun did something that the others didn’t.
The many people who had crowded into the room for the performances were very chatty during the demos. Often, in China people talk loudly during various kinds of performances. Once I heard a Chinese opera singer drowned out by people in the audience. But when Master Yun did his form the room fell silent and all eyes were upon him. His internal quiet filled the air from floor to ceiling as he expanded his chi and yi intention outward to all corners. It was really impressive and memorable.
I was videotaping and both Susan Matthews and I have filmed him in workshops. You can see a clips of him on Sifu Matthews’ site. Happily, I believe our videos have helped Master Yun to become known around the world. Students from Europe and the US visit him in Shanghai to train with him for extended periods. He has come to the US twice that I know of, sponsored by Master Xu.
I saw true internal energy that day and have many times since. And I feel it in myself now as well. Although mysterious, the internal part of internal martial arts that attracts so many of us to practice is not so elusive as it may seem at first, because it is a natural part of us. Learning to recognize it and its flowing movement within us, and beyond, is definitely achievable rather quickly with focus and a good teacher, but directing it with purpose is where regular practice is necessary.