Best Places to do Tai Chi: Water, Stone, Earth, Metal, Wood

shanghai stream
A garden stream in Shanghai, China. A best place for tai chi.

Last autumn I wrote in the Dragon Journal blog about doing tai chi on beaches. Recently pondering the question of the best places to do tai chi, I recalled the feeling of my bare feet in the beach sand as I practiced and the important role the surface I’m standing on plays in my tai chi experience. The interface of feet and surface is integral in tai chi. In fact, the bubbling well (yongquan) behind the balls of the feet is a major focus. It is a gate through which qi flows and where you establish an important connection with Earth.

Wood stone water earth metal…Soft hard wet cold warm hot.

I find that different surfaces produce different effects at different times. Stone water earth metal wood, soft hard wet cold warm. Each emits particular sensations depending on its unique qualities. Bare feet on warm stone on a cool evening, or cool stone on a hot day.  Bare feet in wet or dry sand, solid or soft, cool or warm. The way each accepts your body’s weight and how you sink into it.

So many different kinds of earth stone wood water present infinite characteristics, compositions and qualities. Stone may be stronger than Earth; it gives a sense of stability, feeds back hard, unyielding, but somehow responsive. Earth is softer perhaps, but can be burning hot or cold like stone. I once walked a labyrinth in Estes Park, Colorado one summer afternoon, the sun high above, barefooted. That was dumb. The soil had tiny crumbs of stone mixed in with it’s own dust. My bare skin had blistered by the time I got back to my shoes at the entrance.

The type of shoes you wear makes a difference in your experience of the surface upon which you do tai chi, of course. Martial artists around the world fiddle with getting the best shoe, which as far as most are concerned is a low volume, light shoe; the next best thing to barefooted while providing support for long periods of training and don’t slow you down.

Water is perhaps more alien, since we can’t stand on it, only in it. But I’ve stood in hot mineral waters and moved with healing sensation and since I am big wood, water is particularly healthful.

Wood surfaces are nurturing and I feel a familiarity with them. I remember discovering training pylons in a meadow outside an abandoned temple in rural China where monks trained kungfu. I stood atop that maze of wooden posts projecting a couple of feet out of the ground and hopped from one to the other, practicing horse stance and doing single basics. I imagined how those now silent posts might have felt under the feet of the countless kungfu artists who sparred and exercised on them.

Most practitioners probably take for granted the surface upon which we practice but still and have certain expectations. Flat, level ground is better for most of us; but uneven, slanted surfaces present a challenge to adapt to and change. Somewhere in the back of their minds they are cognizant of the interaction they have with the surface upon  which they practice.

My experience with each of the various surfaces I’ve practiced on changes, too. I adjust my weight according to each and over time that relationship changes. The way in which I spiral bones on each type of surface differs and evolves over any practice session. My whole body becomes infused with the quality of that particular matter upon which I am moving.

If I had to choose one over another, I couldn’t because each has such variation and I discover so much more than before each time. But summed up, any of the best places to do tai chi is going to include a special relationship with the surface you’re training on.

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