Fundamental and foundational tai chi for the beginner/intermediate

You use the fundamentals to perform foundational exercises. You could say that we use foundational exercises (as I have incorporated those I know) to discover the fundamentals in our own particular beings while in tai chi movement.

Tai chi is logical and its practical progression from one move to the next requires knowing only a few fundamentals and foundational exercises. Understanding and applying them in motion is perhaps elusive at first, but tai chi is replete with much more difficult and sophisticated practices. You have to start somewhere. One thing is certain: you never outgrow the fundamentals, nor should ever abandon them.

You use the fundamentals to perform foundational exercises. You could say that we use foundational exercises (as I have incorporated those I know) to discover the fundamentals in our own particular beings while in tai chi movement. This teaching is directly from my teachers. My understanding is fairly accurate, but I’m working on execution.

Some fundamentals: 
Zhong ding: central equilibrium
Dan tian: field of elixir
Sink qi—sunk, weighted in gravity
Neigong—internal work

Some foundational exercises:
Figure 8s
Six directions: up/down, left/right, forward/backwards
Power stretching, bone stretching (see description by Susan Matthews)

These things have to be brought to the attention of learners who are new to the language and practice of tai chi. Others might not call these foundational, but I see them as core movement practices for the practitioner. Moves are simple in the beginning. The actual directions, changes in direction and other features of transition, and shapes and patterns (circles/8s) are the basis of practice (thus foundational and fundamental). However, they may not be as important in the short- or long-term as understanding how to do a move by directing the energy with mind intention and then allowing the body to follow through, or go along (neigong). The attention will eventually be on internal work (neigong).

In essence, the end goal is ultimately the initial goal, the beginning. The beginning seems to always be at the end as well. Understanding this will get you further along. Don’t anticipate the result of the move. Don’t leap from part to part. The move should be a continuous, unbroken flow…like a rope, or wind blowing and water flowing, or electricity. If the beginner thinks about what this means and what it looks, you will eventually feel it in practice.

It takes concentration at first, and may take a long time to get a feel for it—not to mention how long it can take to learn to wield it proficiently. The good news is you could quickly feel benefits.

The fundamentals really form the basis for an art of movement, and art of contemplative movement, too. One task is to release long-held preconceptions, habits of thought that you have not noticed. They are feelings, assumptions, expectations, etc. seated in various parts of our bodies. They hinder your ability to shift and move freely. Once you recognize them you can let them go.

Energy and the mind’s interpretation might have emotional, even traumatic waves, which in turn, might make you reluctant to move your body very much. You hold on instead of letting go. Sometimes the energy is so intense you might opt to let go only a little. Where are you loose and free and where are you not letting go? Do you look for where you’re clenching, are tight, are tense? Can you release without having to recognize where you’re holding back?


These posts were initially intended to supplement lessons that I provided to students. I still write for beginners and intermediates, although more advance practitioners have commented positively about them. I have taught little since the coronavirus pandemic, so these posts are missing a vital component of lessons: i.e., in-person training. If you benefit from them in your practice, please let me know by commenting.

Notes from a lesson with George Xu

I dug up a few notes from early trainings with Master Xu that remind me of a few basic practice principles. They might sound rather advanced, however. I had begun practice about two years before. I thought it would be fun to share. See if it resonates for you.

You must try different styles of tai chi in order to learn which you are best suited for, Master George Xu once told us. Distinct styles match the five elements: wood, water, fire, air, metal. Metal is the most martial of all. Chen Style, for example is a fluid style, while Wu is like a snake—concentrated, connected. 

Also, you must go from one level to the next in your training, but it is common that while you train at one level, you are preparing yourself for not only the next, but for all. The levels that Master Xu named are physical, energy and spiritual. There is no worthwhile physical without spiritual, he said. But you must train the physical to it highest level of attainment in order to reap the greatest benefit of the spiritual.

Some time later, he compiled some more advanced instructions that (sort of) add to these earlier points.

Body qualities

The body must be “xu” (empty.) The body power is hidden like a cat so the enemy cannot detect your power sources. This means “nobody knows me, I know you.” 

The body must be “kong”(self-conscious.) Wu wei‚ do without doing. This is the way to get maximum gravity, maximum freedom and maximum speed. You have only energy structure, like the one of a predator. 

Ling (agile and alive.)You have two bodies: internal and external bodies are separate. You can move internal body separately from external body. It makes you change in a smart way.

Tong (energy Yin-Yang go through inside of body.) No place in the body has “ice.” You have four levels in progression: ice, lava, water, steam. You have to keep these qualities anytime and in every position.

Energy qualities

The feeling of all kinds of changing inside your body is called “Qi”. The Qi has four qualities:

Qi Go Through—Yin-Yang energy changing through the body acting and reacting force together. The feeling of these two forces creates the “qi go through.” The qi has to be balanced in all directions, especially some qi goes inside and some outside. 

Qi Alive—Not physical body alive, but the internal body alive, with harmony to the mind.

Qi melt—Until your qi totally melts, you cannot be “pure internal.” The internal energy is bigger than the physical body otherwise you are internal-external physical body (point-line and not volume).

Qi Spiritual—The qi is in harmony with the spiritual, the spiritual can attach from every position like a mosquito, surprising the enemy in his empty areas.

After having the body and energy qualities, first of all you must have the maximum unit force, all body harmony to one. In each point of my body you touch, you touch the entire body.

Secondly, you must have maximum gravity and understand how to use this maximum gravity in an intelligent way and how any effort and tension reduce the gravity force.

Thirdly, if you are in a kong situation, you can have maximum freedom.

Fourthly, you have maximum speed.

Fifthly, you have minimum effort to achieve you action.

Sixthly, you must keep the “not-understandable.”

Seventhly, unpredictable.

Eighthly, unbreakable structure.

Ninthly, unresistable force.

When you fight you must keep the round circle motions (no beginning, no ending) and 3D shrinking-expanding snowball motion.

Finally, the whole body becomes a spiritual fist. Everything becomes yin and yang at the same time, so the spirit is yang, very light, but your spirit has to be very heavy like a mountain when you fight. The physical body is Yin (very heavy) but when you fight you have to feel it light as a feather. The speed is a mind speed, there is a mind-change technique, your power is a mind power. 

Awareness and not-awareness exist at the same time, light and heavy at the same time, soft and hard at the same time, empty and full, large and small at the same time. You have only one feeling changeable all the time. You have not a Yang feeling changing to Yin feeling, but a Yin and Yang feeling at the same time in a situation that you know, but you don’t know.

Have fun applying this in your practice.

Many teachers teach form

Master George Xu distinguishes his approach by taking his theory of applying the movements of predatory animals to martial arts training. He says that most masters don’t explain how a style is effective. Either they don’t know it or they don’t want to share it. In contrast, Master Xu combines his theory with basic training techniques. In describing the art of the predator, he shows learners not just how an animal moves and how that can be applied it in martial arts. He encourages to put yourself in the place of the tiger or the lion, and become the essence of their art. To be wild like the wind. To raise the shen in an instant like a predator in the chase.

I studied with Master Xu for about 20 years until the pandemic hit. I still get considerable exposure through new video lessons on his site (Students of Master George Xu hosted by Dr. Tim Dymond) and on (Golden Gate Lion Tiger).

The Zen of tai chi

Zen master DT Suzuki, in the introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, writes that archery is not “… for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but … meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

Sounds like tai chi, too. Training the body is equally key to balancing the dynamics of yin and yang in motion, of course, but it is a core notion that technique and application train the mind above all else.

“If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough,” he continues. “One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.”

“The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, …”

“As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes,”Master Suzuki writes.

Seek silence in your thoughts. Balance thought with non-thought.

Excerpts from: Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel, 1953).

A martial art lesson learned

I went to China in the autumn of 2007 to learn, to meet people and to see places and things. I had in mind to train in martial arts and add to the skill level I had reached after nine years of practicing taijiquan. I had been to China once before on a similar quest and I expected I would be exposed to my weak points once again. I also hoped to gain insight into my potential. As it turned out, I glimpsed what I actually already knew, what I had heard or read somewhere along the way. This time I was renewed with a feeling that I could actually put insights into practice. 

In tai chi there is a learning method we use. You progress from visualization to internalization, from initial exposure of an idea to eventual incorporation into everyday practice. The specifics vary, but I think the lesson I sought had something to do with this: What I already knew, but had yet to place into practice (internalize). 

One event represents the lesson. It’s simple and mundane; but isn’t that where so many of our lessons are—hidden in the everyday? It was the last night of a training trip that my teacher, Master George Xu, had organized. We were all going to be together as a group for the final night before returning to our respective countries and homes. There must have been 60 or more individuals in our training group. We arrived late to our hotel after an unexpected all-day bus ride from our training location. Friday rush hour in Shanghai delayed us by hours. The traffic jams challenged even the most patient person. Once we finally filed off the buses the hotel registration process was chaos. There were not enough rooms even though they knew we would be arriving. 

Many of us ended up at another hotel 10 minutes walk away. We paid extra for a luxury suite, but I never figured out what luxury meant because our room looked just like the standard double that we had stayed in all along on our journey. It seemed that names of things were sometimes more important than substance. 

I took two hours to get a room and finally move our baggage up to the 14th floor. I waited with the bags while my companion checked us in. The lobby was cluttered with luggage and people standing and milling around, lined up for room check in. There was barely enough of an aisle for individuals to negotiate among the mounds of luggage.

Across the narrow expressway where I waited stood Eldrid, an amiable woman from Norway, with whom I chatted while we waited for our partners to procure housing for the night.

After a long day some people were frustrated and short-tempered. Some were ill from intestinal disorders (I do not recommend eating the cold duck). Some, like me, contracted upper respiratory inflammation from the heavily polluted air. I felt particularly bad for two women suffering from diarrhea and who still had to wait for a room like the rest of us. They were too ill to be angry.

Right in the middle of all this, Eldrid said in broken English with a happy, smiling face, “I don’t know why anyone should be angry, they are martial artists. Isn’t this just the sort of situation that we train for?”

I stepped over to her side of the aisle to clarify what she said because of her broken English and because I could not hear well over the din. I knew what she meant, because it rang a bell in my mind and reminded me of something I had read in a book by Carlos Castaneda in which he had asked his teacher, a mysterious shaman known as Don Juan Matus, what he meant by the term “discipline.” 

Don Juan’s answer was “Discipline is simply the ability to face the unexpected with serenity within yourself.” To find a serene heart and clear mind where things don’t go as expected.

Eldrid was correct. This is exactly the kind of thing that martial artists prepare for. It was an astute observation on her part. It was also just what I had been subconsciously practicing. She woke me up to the lesson that I had been seeking. Sometimes you are practicing the principles without realizing you are. You have internalized them.

Looking back on that three-week journey I found a number of similar situations in which my patience was challenged. Some in which I reacted with patience and forbearance, other times with frustration and a fretting mind.