A few single basics to practice principles

This clip is available for a limited time only.

My tai chi training trip

Four become exercise-4Four become exercise-5

After being in snow-bound retreat most of the winter, I left for a tai chi training trip Feb. 24. By the time I return to Durango around April 6, I will have visited four cities and practiced with several practitioners in six weeks. Many Wu style artists (see Wu style video here). I had a particularly good time with Master Yan Yuan Hua in Los Angeles and Master Xu Guo Ming (George Xu), my second-oldest teacher, with whom I stayed in San Francisco, and explored his theories with him.

Dead arm exercises-4Dead arm exercises-3

I had a fun and productive time with other practitioners with during my six weeks of travel. Much of my experience, particularly the testing we did, affirmed for me that my practice path is going in the right direction.

Yan Yuan Hua in foreground

Of course, I had to explore beaches and deserts along the way. Not home yet, still a week in SF and then Pahrump, NV near Las Vegas.




Here is a minute-long clip of some single basic training moves Master George uses to help learners build awareness of the taiji principles he teaches (unlisted clip available for limited time only).

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Tai Chi Central Equilibrium Training Notes

Get connected. Practice central equilibrium.
Get connected. Practice central equilibrium.

… third leg and zhong ding practice.

Zhong ding, or central equilibrium, is a pivotal aspect of tai chi practice. A few years ago, George Xu incorporated the concept of “third leg” to describe zhong ding in motion. The concept of third leg helps to refine the movement by focusing on a point from which to move and how to move. Biomechanically, the motion pivots at a leverage point inside the hip assembly at the base of the spine. The femur and sacrum are connected in motion if not physically. This is from where you pivot and turn. Everywhere else is “loose, open” as Master Xu says.

Weighted in gravity is another concept to help incorporate the third leg in movement. You let the body’s gravity rest on the leverage point while moving. You feel your body’s weight sit there like a rock would on the ground.

Susan A. Matthews’ “Backwards Bicycle” motion (learn more) that she describes is another good application of zhong ding biomechanics. While it may sound simple, incorporating it in practice is a little awkward at first try, especially for unpracticed individuals.

Mind intention is necessary to refine the zhong ding movement, utilizing third leg and backwards bicycle. The mind directs the flow of energy in circle motions, figure eights, or spirals. The body wants to move in these configurations and the mind’s job is to allow it, intending the result, then enjoy the ride while directing it in those shapes and patterns.

No hard corners. Continual focus on movement or the sensation of motion, or flow. Spiraling motion results. Matthews described it once as two cones whose tips are touching and the circling is moving in a figure eight around the outer edge of the cone. You have two points: one fulcrum and the outer circling or waving action. They are always connected, no letting up, no pushing down; just weighted in gravity and in motion. This works well, but when you add the third leg to it, you have an added power-generating activity. More stable and refined. While learning and practicing, I find it fun to focus on incorporating these techniques into the form or basics.

Six common mistakes tai chi practitioners make

Image of susan matthews and george xu
Susan Matthews and George Xu testing internal principles.

One…they don’t learn to connect single basics to form. Teachers say that before you do form you should learn and practice the basic moves. This is key for internalizing the principles of taiji. I practice standing and walking drills which are repetitive and rhythmic. This is better for many, because many try to memorize the form sequences of moves without learning the internal understanding.

Two…they use muscle. They must become conscious of the possibility of moving differently. Go deeper and focus attention on moving from bones, ligaments, tendons, for example. Or go directly to moving with energy; i.e., qi. This refers not only to a new way of moving, but aslo to a different way fo perceiving.

Three…they don’t incorporate mind intention; i.e., yi. Speaking of a new way of perceiving, taiji is a mental practice as much or more than a physical. Develop intent to achieve a specific goal and maintain it. I practice visualization which can help to build a strong connection between mind, energy, and body.

Four…they give up. They think they need to do so much all at once. They should see learning in small pieces and as an incremental stepwise process. This is where learning single basics comes in. Learn to do one thing well before moving on to the next and you won’t have to worry about doing 100 things poorly. As the Taoist proverb says: “The journey is the destination.”

Five…they move on to next move before the current one is completely executed. This is a slightly different perspective of number four, but it merits repeating, because it is so important. Don’t rush. Beginners could coordinate breath with the moves if that works, but it is not necessary. Pace and rhythm are key. Make sure the move is extended completed before changing. The mind initiates then observes and guides.

Six…they are in their heads when they think they are not. They think they are doing the move when they are not. This is a huge obstacle to overcoming our presumptions about movement. But the fact that you are practicing, trying, is admirable. The mind’s focus should be from where the move is initiated: dantian, zhong ding, wherever, just not the head. You should seek a feeling and not a thought. Listen to your body. The mind should be quiet, observant. The qi should flow through.

These statements might be unclear for many readers, but for others they will ring true. The list doesn’t stop at six either. I could go on. Many of these subjects are commonly heard in tai chi practice, such as “no muscle.” Others are more esoteric, but seasoned practitioners will understand them. Ultimately, practice brings you around to them all, plus many more.

Resistance in Tai Chi

Tai chi is about changing the way you are accustomed to moving. People often work against themselves in tai chi. They provide their own resistance to their attempts to change how they move. You can describe how this is manifested in the physical movements. Though it sounds trite and cliché, we yin when we should yang, and yang when yin is a more efficient use of energy. For example, in horizontal circles or the taiji tu when shifting weight to the back leg, we often can catch ourselves pushing against the direction of the flow with the receiving leg. The yin-yang balance would be to yang out and down the front leg into the Earth and yin inward up into the back leg. A pumping motion moves each leg like a piston pumping up then down while the other receives the energy. The mind directs it and observes changes as they occur, the energy flows and the body follows. If you’re in the Durango area come by and say hello. This summer I will be leading free classes in Schneider Park on the river near 9th Street Bridge on Saturday’s at 11 am. It’s a great way to relax and meet new friends while learning a truly artful movement system. If you decide to come please let me know before you do.


Get in touch with your own sense of self with taiji

Susan Matthews, Rose Oliver, Wang Ming Bo
Susan Matthews Rose Oliver, Wang Ming Bo in August 2012 in Durango, Colorado

Physical qi reacts to psychic or mental energy. If we resonate with what we are doing we are energized by it. We may suffer from fatigue, but we don’t know where it comes from. We sleep relatively well, we eat well, or so it seems, yet we are tired early in the day. We are sluggish, depleted. We are not doing what we truly love to do. Taiji is a useful tool to many who want to reconnect with their energetic selves. It is like an aid to reestablish that old familiar feeling of happiness and a good feeling of energy to spare, especially while we are making efforts to get back to what we love. Taiji gets in touch with your own internal pulse. It unifies your energies, connects deeply with your own sense of self and helps you to be comfortable in your own skin. Relax into yourself, do what you do, naturally.