George Xu told a story a few times about visiting his aging teacher in hopes of obtaining “secrets” from him. But his teacher never told him anything. Master Xu visited him often hoping for some insight, but his teacher passed away before he ever did. After he died he asked his teacher’s wife what he did when no one was around and she said that he didn’t do anything.
“What do you mean?” Master Xu asked, surprised and distraught. “He didn’t do anything?”
“Just sit there and drink tea all day,” she said.
Although he must have learned a lot from his teacher, Master Xu worried that his teacher would pass away without divulging more of his knowledge . . . . which is what happened. Many old masters have taken much knowledge of Chinese internal martial arts to their final resting places.
Master Xu then told us that he eventually learned that the old master was actually visualizing the moves of the form and other applications in his mind. He wasn’t just sitting and drinking tea all day. He was actively going through his practice in his mind’s eye.
Master Xu tells his story hoping it’s the revelation for us as it was for him and we would see the lesson for our own practice.
Master Xu actually used the word “imagined” instead of visualized, which I see in the context of “imagery.” Susan A. Matthews refers to this as “mental practice.” She instructs the learner to see a move before your body does it. Don’t jump to doing it and sacrifice concentration.
Imagery helps to maintain continuity, which in turn cultivates powerful results. Indeed, research into sports has confirmed the power of imagery in cultivating competitive success. You become more precise in your coordination, your timing is more accurate, you’re stronger, quicker, and you develop power. Memory improves as does your skill at remembering. You can read many articles about this subject by googling, “sport imagery” or “sports visualization.”
Master Xu’s story resonates with me to the degree that I even instruct beginners on the importance of visualization as a powerful tool for learning and remembering things. But I think that few actually understand at first, probably because visualization lacks context with their own experience. Yet, perhaps we are all familiar with visualization, which is so ingrained in habitual mental processes that we no longer give it the attention it deserves when learning new information.
It’s certainly not easy for most of us to do at first. It’s like trying to swim without having learned. Or like trying to drive a truck with a stick shift after seeing it done only once or twice. It’s meditative and takes a little more effort than we are accustomed to. Learning new things keeps us on our toes and stimulates the inherent faculties we have to learn; abilities that, if we don’t use them, will shrivel and be lost.
Every beginner to tai chi is challenged with the very idea of learning itself in order to cultivate a familiarity with the information. Imagery and visualization are tools for learning. Growing adept at them will undoubtedly lead to greater knowledge and ability. Then when you are old and have mastered a great skill, and students come to visit in hopes of learning secrets, you can tell them they already know what it is.
What to wear when you do tai chi is a common question for (and from) beginners. Loose, comfortable clothing is typical. Shoes are perhaps more important for tai chi and martial art attire. Flat, low volume shoes are the best.
I prefer something I can wear in practice and on the street, but it’s not easy to find a good compromise. A good and light indoor practice shoe will fall apart pretty quickly out of doors. I found a pretty good middle ground with the Bushido (http://www.shopbushido.com/bushido-shoe/) that I have gotten at Valley Martial Arts in Glendale, California. The soles in the front are flat, smooth rubber and the rear has a herringbone type of tread. “Shaolin” is stamped on the sole in the case of my pair. The drawback for these is that they have a mesh construction over the top, so dust and sand can get inside. I actually don’t have much trouble with that and I still like them for their durability and lightness.
Of course, the ol’ standby from Shanghai, Feiyue (“flying forward”), is probably one of those shoes that every martial artist owns at some point. Bushido makes a Feiyue type shoe with their name on it that sells for $20. I find them to be hot in summer and cold in winter, but I still have a pair and where them around the house all the time to practice. Easy to get at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Claw-Feiyue-Martial-Shoes/dp/B00MH2QMWO).
I’ve had Tiger Claw shoes, too, which lasted a long time (tigerclaw.com). They sport a cool Chinese tiger character on the top. The have only one model and two colors: black and white)
The Onitsuka Tiger by Asics shoe is very close to the same thing as the Bushido. There are many models to choose from, including suede and leather, which presumably would last longer on the street. Check it out and let me know what you think.
Adidas makes a martial art shoe that I wore when I first began studying tai chi. I like them because they lasted so long and they have a slightly higher top than other martial arts shoes. However, they are not lace up. The have an elastic, slip-on feature that’s cool, but I prefer lace up because I can tie them as tight or loose as I like. Still, the Adidas shoe is pretty good. Unfortunately, they are sold out a the Martial Arts Mart where they were recently on sale (http://www.martialartsmart.com/a90-sk.html).
Skechers (http://www.skechers.com) makes some shoes I’ve seen others wearing and I think they look really good, but I’ve never tried them out and I think they are overpriced.
You’ve probably gathered that there are a lot of options for martial arts shoes out there. Choosing can be a bore, so my rule of thumb is go with inexpensive as possible and see what works best for you.
George Xu says, “I know you, you don’t know me,” to describe a key characteristic of his approach to martial awareness. Whether you’re practicing tai chi or qigong, or taking a walk in a park, his refrain applies to how you listen to yourself and to others, even to things. I don’t grasp this fully in practice, but I can tackle some of what he means. Obviously, for one thing, if you don’t know yourself, you are vulnerable if someone else knows your weaknesses. This is true in martial arts and in life.
Master Xu is referring to how you are configured energetically and what is the status of your “qi.”
What is the shape of your energy? Where are you empty, full, concave, convex? In taijiquan, with enough exposure, you hear about peng, liu, qi, an and the other “13 Postures” which refer to these concepts. However, Master Xu is not so formal and traditional, because it can make learners complacent and stiff. So, where are you stuck and stagnant? Where are you too light when you should be weighted and vice versa? What is meant by weighted in gravity? Are you double weighted? Are you clear on the difference between being connected and being stiff, or agile and locked? Are all the parts of your body contributing to the whole? Where are you stiff and sluggish when you should be quick and agile? On and on it goes…
How do you know these things? By listening to the energy, Master Xu would say. Chinese martial artists refer to “ting jing,” listening energy. It is more of feeling performed with the whole being, not just the ears. Perhaps “sensing” is more accurate.
Actually, I like to think that it’s really learning to learn, which is the foundation of taiji training and, I suspect, for training in any mind-energy-body work. You’re taking in information and interpreting it in ways that are tangible, applicable within the context. You’re making sense out of what you feel as a result of engaging all of your senses and maybe one or two you’re not sure you possess, or even exist. Ting jing is a special skill that can be developed through the practice of taijiquan.
For 16 years, I’ve had the fortune to train with Master Xu who has allowed me to videotape many of his lessons, which I’ve compiled in a series of videos for DVD and online streaming. What stands out for me about them as a group is the many ways Master Xu constantly offers learners to imagine the essence of what he is referring to, through, for the most part, metaphors and analogies. If you can relate the concept to something that you are familiar with then a bridge can be built from learning to knowing.
Often his descriptive metaphors have a dramatic quality to them, like “I know you, you don’t know me.” He often refers to predatory animals, such as a tiger, or even a house cat, who “moves inside his skin as he stalks,” and who covers you with its energy body, which you feel powerfully, before the physical body strikes you down.
Master Xu’s many images from the natural world effectively trigger my imagination and makes learning a little more fun. Not easier, of course, because his terms are often mysterious and esoteric. His martial results are very real and effective, however, so there must a whole lot more to his specialized language than meets the ear at first. So I keep listening.
From my tai chi perspective, young people are just as bad off as older folks in many ways. The reason why is because we all learn to move incorrectly from the very beginning. We learn to walk wrong. We learn to use our bodies in ways that expedite decrepitude.
Young bodies in the teens and twenties are still relatively new so they don’t show the wear and tear of, say, fifties and sixties. Their bodies are strong and they heal more quickly. Of course, we take all that for granted when we’re young. But the young are doing the same things that old folks were doing during those years of life … misusing, abusing, overusing, underusing, and so on.
One sign of this, for example, that I’ve noticed is in the position of the ankles in many young people. So many kids at very young ages have crooked ankle joint positions. Their ankles are caved inward, sometimes outward to a gross degree. Even very young kids have flat feet, weak arches. This throws off their postures and eventually leads to various chronic pain issues, poor balance and who knows what.
Shoes we wear as infants are one source of this problem. They force the feet to conform to the hard unyielding structure and materials with which they are constructed. Also, we simply don’t learn to walk properly from the very beginning when we learn to balance ourselves upright on two legs and start propelling ourselves forward in space. It’s such a wonderful feeling that we can’t help but run around, joyous in our newly found freedom of movement. It’s especially great after being bound by wretched immobility for the first several months of life.
Basically, what happens is we learn techniques for movement that place uneven pressure on bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. After a lifetime of moving with incorrect posture, your body wears out and you feel pain and discomfort. If you’re an athlete, injuries will occur probably due simply to overexertion; extending beyond the limit of your body’s ability to withstand the strain. But it could just as easily be from simple misalignment that was learned through incorrect usage. If you’re an average person of average active daily living you are merely extending the timing, but you inevitably wear out by old age from usage or injury.
I don’t believe this should be an accepted reality of aging. That’s not a way to live nor a way to die.
Could it be that many of our bodily issues stem from how we learn to walk in the first years of youth? A sign that this may be true is the fact so many people have trouble with their balance as they age. It had to start somewhere in life. It doesn’t just happen because you’re older. Many are turning to tai chi because it is known to help improve balance and reduce or even overcome chronic joint and muscle pain. Tai chi definitely can help. This is known and accepted by more and more people across the world.
What if you could avoid these age issues by starting tai chi earlier in life? You would learn that these problems are not as inevitable as commonly assumed. If more people recognize the promise of tai chi later in life, why not while young? Why wait until you have time to do it once you’re retired? That’s only putting off the inevitable when you are closer to desperation and in great need of a cure for old age, like so many of us experience.
Believe it or not, tai chi is a remedy for old age … and young age.