The personal learning journey of tai chi

(This post was first published June 2017 and has been revised and republished)

A journey of learning entails the step-wise progression of putting pieces of information together and building a body of knowledge. It’s a body of simple, personal observations filed away for later use—not assumptions, or guesses, based on conventionalized thought. It is not one thing or another to be argued, right or wrong. Learning is based on your own discoveries. It is experience and the memories of experience.

People ask about getting tai chi right. “What’s the right way?” they ask. Or “What am I doing wrong?” they wander.  If you ask me, I think they are a little hard on themselves thinking they are not doing good enough. I tell them not to think of it as either right or wrong, just that you’re refining from where you are in your efforts to learn tai chi. Today’s practice builds on the practice before. It’s cumulative. This thinking helps to dispel the idea that you have to do it according to a predetermined rule before you can claim you are doing tai chi at all. The only way to know tai chi is to do it at the level you are at. Only the individual practitioner sees the way. It’s personal. No one else can see it for you.

The simplest activity can be a practice of tai chi—even a single basic repetition. Even sitting for 60 seconds and breathing mindfully is doing qigong. Anyone can do that anytime and, every time you do, you’re building upon the practice before. You will see results if you do it regularly.


Tai Chi: the most popular exercise

(Updated, revised and republished from a 2015 post)

I’ve read that globally more people do tai chi than any other exercise. More than yoga even. You can go to parks in any town or city and find groups of people doing both tai chi and qigong. My experience has been somewhat different. When I started showing others how to do what I had learned from studying tai chi I learned that tai chi just doesn’t automatically resonate. Competition with other activities, such as sports and outdoor recreation, is big. Yoga is huge. Aerobic exercises with new names (Taebo) that combine dance and martial art moves are popular; as are hard martial arts, such as karate and tae kwon do.

Tai chi might be too slow and boring for many, but they may also discover that it’s not as easy as it may seem. The moves seem easy, but the practice is more involved. Many actually give up trying. Conversely, many take a practice as a challenge and become hooked on it, so to speak. They become strong advocates for tai chi. This in part is because real taijiquan is a very sophisticated movement art. Every cell of your body and mind is engaged in constant effort to evolve out of an old self into a new, more-vibrant, capable being. In more ways than you can count, it is a deeply mindful movement, especially when practiced enough. Achieving mindfulness in the moment is what the practice is all about. You immerse in the mystery of moving, seeking new awareness about your body and even about awareness itself. 

Taijiquan and other Chinese martial arts have thrived for centuries, not just as fighting arts, but because they are comprised of something that attracts us to movement itself. It’s really a “whole being” stimulation of mind and body—not just mind, not just body. Physically, tai chi can be quite a workout. It requires endurance and dedication. You sweat on warm days, your muscles get toned, your heart rate can even increase beneficially. It’s so powerful with others in a group, as well. A group of people can generate a lot of energy working together. The magic of tai chi is that it can apply to any kind of movement you may do: dance, swim, ski, run, hike, walk, skate, think even, and even sit in meditation. It’s fundamental to movement in general. All this makes me think that tai chi could be the most popular exercise in the world if it’s not already.

Paul Tim Richard

One opportunity from tai chi

Tai chi offers an opportunity to look beyond the surface. To see not only what a practitioner is doing on the outside but deeper on the inside. Not usually an immediately obvious for a beginner. You have to develop skill to look within the other and yourself. It takes practice to see the depth of a practice. From where does movement originate? What is the underlying intention? What is nature and quality of the Qi (energy)? 

The body is a connected unit

Intricate in design and function, mind, heart and body are one. The energy body within is the other singular unit. The tai chi practitioner works to recognize this yin-yang connection. That feeling is the energy body becoming aware. It awakens when allowed to finally take its rightful place. The whole human is capable of so much more than we have been aware. 

The masters say fang song

Be soft, loose. Almost everyone says that. Newer teachers say it even though they have yet to feel it fully in their own practices. They believe it is correct instruction, though. This is understandable, but the lesson is not always easy to get. It takes time to form understanding. Perhaps you learn it only in stages. I do not know how common the following approach is, or if it is not at all common. If you have it figured out, let the rest of us know.

As a teaching point in a lesson plan, the instruction to be soft is a meaningful hint, a guide pointing out a desirable state. You are always at some point along the learning path; and each person will be unique in how their bodies express soft and loose. Plus, soft can have different meanings to different people depending on where they are in learning. Each person’s experience of it will differ at some stage of development. It can evolve over time and practice, and can apply to other concepts, such as gravity and sink.

However simple or complex the instruction, the learner will practice what they think is soft. Over time they begin to feel more. They become more sensitive to subtle changes in the body’s response to movement, thus allowing relaxation and softness.

So what do the masters mean when they say to be soft and loose?  No tensing in muscle for one. No clenching. No working too hard. Not to be too loose to the point of flaccid, nor so loose that you overstretch and strain a joint or tendon/muscle. 

It could further mean to move just at the right time when the Qi flows through thus inspiring the body to move in response. “Qi go through” is a concept that can play a role in soft and loose. The idea is to feel something moving separately of the physical body. Master Xu calls it two bodies.

What exercises can you do to help grasp fang song? Basics are good for beginners and probably all levels. Circles of different sorts help me—vertical, horizontal, diagonal and so on. 

To keep in mind: Tension redirects Qi and pulls it into hard spots, thus restraining its flow and depriving you of its healing power. However, some parts of the body, such as legs and related muscles, must harden as least momentarily in order to deliver power, to form a foundation for loose and soft—to allow arms and trunk to be loose and free and soft. 

The arms are loose because they are not bearing the weight or “carrying it,” as George Xu has said to us. The energy is redistributed to the Zhong Ding and Dantian. The arms are light and the core is leveraging the weight and moderating the Qi. Distribute the weight and balance it with power. There is no over burdening of one part and under utilizing another. Balance and alignment, both in standing and in motion. Zero point, no waste.

—Nov. 28. 2021