A tale of a taiji student seeking secrets

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.


Tai Chi is a practice to understand two things

Tai chi is many things and one way to answer the question of what tai chi is to see it as a quest to understand two things. One—that Qi (life force, energy of life) moves. It moves all by itself. “Qi flows through,” the master says. It flows through everything, everywhere. It is life force. If it is not flowing, it’s because something is stopping it. Often it’s an injury, but more often, it’s simple tension in our bodies. Often, we don’t recognize that it’s not flowing; that it’s stuck. It could be from an injury, an acute condition. Or it could be a chronic condition that refuses to go away on its own. If you understand this, you have greater capability to change it for the better. Tai Chi practice is an effort to recognize this. Once you recognize tension you can do something about it.

Two—Qi, once it is freed up and moving, can be directed. You can visualize or intend it to go where you want; for example, to a part of your body that needs healing. As a beginner, this may be better understood by releasing tension in such a way that it flows freely. It will flow on its own without your help. With this you may direct it to wherever you want. So practice is an effort to recognize tension and using your mind intention to release it.

“What is qi?” you may ask. It’s a feeling that changes. That change is yin-yang. It’s separation and movement. What makes the wind blow are changes in air temperature. Hot and cold air masses collide either slowly or quickly and air is compelled to move. Hot rises, cold descends, like the yin-yang symbol (taiji tu). Cold air rushes in and hot makes way. You can do something similarly with your powers of intention and visualization. Put it into practice.

A Point About Mindful Breathing and Moving

Coordinating inhale and exhale with various arm movements: up-down, front-back, left-right can be a meditation. Maybe you can do it in a qigong or taiji class, but can you be aware of breath and motion while doing everyday things?

Tai chi is simply a way of paying attention to how you move while moving. Developing a daily practice is central to learning, but we usually struggle to remember every time we start to move not to jump ahead and forget the body.

Gardening in SW Colorado is a big activity now, because it’s springtime. How do you maintain awareness of breath while hoeing, shoveling, weeding, raking and watering? What is the priority?

I gardened and practiced taiji much of the morning yesterday. The weather has been nice for three days now—a big shift from April’s unsettled waves of clouds, some rain and snow and few periods of full sun. While working around the garden, I concentrated on paying attention to moving from the center of my body. I moved up-down, forward-backward, and left-right—initiating each move from that center point. Try it. See how long you can go without forgetting to hold the view of moving from the center.

What is Your Opponent?

Tai chi has always been a “martial art,” but we’re learning that it’s much more. Most practitioners in the US routinely do tai chi as an exercise. Many probably don’t realize that you can apply martial intention in the exercise of tai chi. When practicing tai chi as a martial art you focus on the notion of having an opponent. Even if you don’t actually spar with someone, you visualize you are. You place your attention out into the field around you as though there were an opponent there. And you move with the intention of moving an opponent.

Most don’t fight usually, or even spar, but that idea can still apply in tai chi as exercise.

The question is not who, but what, is your opponent? Chronic pain? Poor balance? Difficulty healing from an injury? Depression? Heart Disease? Fear and anxiety? Fatigue? The list in really long. Make these your opponents and practice tai chi to defeat them all with intention, energy awareness, and physical movement.

Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He also blogs about the philosophy (sort of) of Chinese internal martial arts, including taijiquan and qigong. He has produced instructional videos of master practitioners. He lives in Durango, Colorado and is available for workshops and other taijiquan-related events.

Just what I thought, everything is energy

One of the things you’re going to hear and hopefully see for yourself by practicing taiji and qigong is that consistent efforts bridge the body’s physical structure with our energetic essence. I found a very interesting and well-written article about that from the perspective of quantum physics. Science confirms much of what the old Chinese practitioners discovered and acknowledged millennia ago (yogis and Tibetans, too, of course).

Nothing is solid, everything is energy