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.


A note on “change” in tai chi

The following text published Nov. 2015 is the most-shared post of more than 2400 posts that readers shared. I thought I would republish it today.


In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

Two Practices for a Micro-Training Idea

The microcosmic orbit (小周天), or small circuit, is a rather simple and easy breathing exercise for meditation and concentration to cultivate the flow of qi along particular energy paths in the body.

By Paul T Richard

Doing a single basic “quan” on northern California beach.

I used to lead a simplified version of the microcosmic orbit meditation for circulating and filling qi. Also called the small heavenly circulation (小周天, xiao zhou tian), it seemed to help beginners cultivate a calmer physical and more-focused mental state.

The practice entailed guiding the breath and attention up the back (Du Mai-Governing vessel), then down the front side (Ren Mai-Conception vessel). Touching the tongue to the top palate behind the teeth connected the two paths. This direction up the back and down the front is called the “Fire Path.”

We would focus attention on moving from one to the next of eight vessels, or reservoirs, located along the Du and Ren, and fill each with breath and intention before moving to the next. The reservoirs are: dantian (navel area), perineum, sacrum/tailbone, between shoulder blades, back of neck, crown of head, between the eyebrows, solar plexus.

This in-class practice was rather simplified I suppose, but it seemed easier for beginners essentially seeking relief from daily strains. More-detailed discussions can be found in Yang, Jwing-Ming’s in-depth The Root of Chinese Qigong and Ken Cohen’s Way of Qigong, which is less intricate.

My aim in class was to reveal beneficial ways of thinking about how to perform the practice and the resulting feeling.

To this end, for good results, we wanted the sequence for moving up and down the channels to be fluid and free, without care for external concerns. This entails letting go or releasing attained by focusing on the task at hand, listening more closely to your natural self, and letting the activity have its results.

I say this because we might unconsciously hinder circulation of breath and blood, maybe even stop the energy from flowing. Sensations of crumpling, collapsing, or binding up point to resistance, or reluctance, to let go.

These physical results may stem from a mental position, or habitual frame of mind of which we are not cognizant. Often, qi itself may reveal that you’re holding on, or perhaps closing too much; both mentally and physically. An exercise like the microcosmic circuit helps to identify these tendencies, and allow us to replace the weak or immobile qi, and (re)connect body and mind in a reciprocal and balanced relation.

In application, since energetic force (qi) can flow linearly, you can adjust body position to affect its action. For example, as you sit and perform the microcosmic circuit, shift the hips slightly from whatever position you find them in, maybe tilt the pelvis down and forward, maybe up and back, then allow the resulting energetic pulse to rise up the spine as the vertebrae open and flex.

Qi can also fill expansively. For example, when the breath enters the sacrum you can direct that energy to fill, similarly to how the lungs fill with air, causing the sacrum to expand energetically. You may even feel aliveness in the smallest confines of the membrane.

These are subtle, unforced changes initiated in the mind’s eye that have physical results. Any subtle shift in position (postural alignment) could elicit qi to freely go through and you would feel it.

You can arrive at some clarity about the tendency to hold or clench out of unrecognized habit by trying these techniques. I know a few students became increasingly successful with their results by working consistently over time. Practice culminated in a clearer concentration that even spilled over into other activities of life.

Perform microcosmic circulation in sitting position.

I know that some in class came to recognize resistance in their selves from practicing the microcosmic circulation. Fighting against one’s own self is tiring physically and mentally. Sooner or later, you can’t ignore it anymore. But, consciously focusing on breathing in an exercise like the microcosmic circulation not only can reveal resistance, but also reveal the answer to it. Practice can improve the ability to intend useful shifts.

Sometimes our attention oscillates in and out of focus during the meditation. This reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while performing some mundane task, such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, reading, or talking to another person.

Then, like waking from a dream, you suddenly realize you had been lost in reverie while your physical body was involved in some activity you barely noticed you were doing. “I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it.”

This kind of waxing and waning of attention initially happens in meditative exercises such as the microcosmic orbit. It is like losing continuity in the flow. Attention breaks, like cutting a taut string, and wavers in and out of levels of awareness. This relates to the concepts of being connected and whole body moves as single unit.

You might discover in your efforts that qi and breath are blocked at the diaphragm. Instructors tell us to breathe “abdominally” during the microcosmic circuit, but the breathe abdominally instruction may be a little misleading.

From my observations, people think that it means to move only the abdomen/stomach. While it is a beginning, the motion should fill all of the lungs (without lifting the shoulders). The diaphragm can harden from constraining the breath to the abdomen, thus blocking air/qi from passing fully into the lungs.

I have just as often heard from high-level teachers to breathe naturally, which for me means to at least breathe freely and fluidly. This is more aligned with diaphragmatic breathing, in contrast to abdominally. The combination of breath with diaphragmatic movement (and abdomen) and breathing can soften the whole structure. Over time with correct practice you incorporate the eight reservoirs in whole-body movement with all the benefits of letting go.

“Single Basic Moves”

We also practiced “single basic moves”—rhythmic, repetitive motions that help to loosen tight spots and strengthen coordination and balance. We found them useful in class to support relaxation and which complemented the microcosmic circulation.

The microcosmic circulation is essentially an action of opening the areas from the inside out. In contrast, single basics affect the stuck areas from the outside in by moving the whole body; not as directly as with breathing and filling the eight reservoirs.

The microcosmic meditation and single basics combine to form an effective, complementary micro-practice through which you can wake up and feel the energy. This then feeds further practice and growth. Plus, these practices carry over into relief from mental and physical positions that are not essential to our well-being.

So, as least for a little while, the intentional act of letting something go (a thought or a physical feeling) is emancipating. The body responds accordingly conscious movement, and becomes more contented and rested. The mind becomes sharper and more satisfied in its ability to function more clearly.


Dear reader, I give thanks for your continued interest and for those who left us so much knowledge and skill, inspiring me to write this blog. If this information is useful for you, please share your thoughts. For further reading about other basic exercises, see Practicing Tai Chi: Way to Enrich Learning for Beginning and Intermediate Practitioners, 2018, that I wrote for Durango Tai Chi students.

Beginning tai chi when younger may help avoid problems of aging

Doing taijiquan and its complement, qigong, can add great benefits to the lifestyles of younger practitioners, as well as reducing the effects of growing older. Why younger people don’t get into tai chi is asked often and many reasons have been discussed. One is that “tai chi is for old people,” as discussed in this video clip.

For me, there are many more reasons for younger people to do tai chi than not to do it. For one, I’m convinced that as preventative practices, tai chi and qigong both can help reduce healthcare costs related to aging (which comes sooner these days than we think!). We just don’t expect problems while we’re young and our bodies are still new and healthy. Instead of waiting until we’re sick or breaking down we could do something about it.

But often, you could have greater effectiveness by accepting that you’re going to have those problems sooner or later.

Tai chi and qigong are also complementary activities to many exercises you choose to do for staying shape, which often is a lifestyle choice. We look good when we feel good. These can be enhanced by practicing even just a few principles of tai chi. You don’t even have to do it as a martial art, either.

As a tai chi and qigong teacher, I find more people in their twenties, even teens, interested in trying tai chi. As a multi-level exercise for mind, energy, and body practice, no other exercise does all that tai chi can. It helps to heal injuries, maintain healthy systems functions, such as nervous and lymph systems and blood circulation. It helps to detoxify and cleanse.

It trains memorization skills, too; like a crossword puzzle for the whole body, not just the brain. Whether you’re in school, on a job, or whatever, that’s a good thing.

Even if you’re in the grips of aging, you might find that a steady, long-term tai chi practice will have positive effects on the flexibility of your brain function.

Neuroscientists talk about “neuroplasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to disrupt our tendency towards inertia and be more easily changeable. As Catherine Kerr, a Harvard Medical School instructor, says, “For anyone who practices tai chi regularly brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice.” Kerr is investigating brain dynamics related to tai chi and mindfulness meditation at Harvard Medical School.

In addition to tapping into the brain’s capacity, it’s a bio-mechanical stretching method that can maintain and improve elasticity of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles so we may live longer and better.

All of these reasons to start tai chi sooner than later apply to every stage of life, but if you start sooner, you might just be happy you did. Starting tai chi is only a matter of joining a class and making a habit of practicing regularly over time. This is a relatively simple key to success.

If mental states influence physical conditions, where does tai chi play a role?

If mental states affect physical conditions, and researchers don’t know how it happens, then how can the cause/effect relationship be proven? As Stephen Locke, MD, states in The Healer Within (1986), “‘Knowing’ that one’s state of mind influences one’s body does not prove that it does.” In his book he talks about the trend in research to discover how the mental states affect the central nervous and immune systems, thus our health.

The book covers amazing things, but I haven’t got to the part where he talks about tai chi and qigong. I’m not finished reading it, but I doubt it’s there. For me, practices, such as tai chi, qigong, and yoga, are addressing at least some questions that researchers are asking, or perhaps, not asking. Massage is another possible methodology of tapping into the central nervous or immune system’s influence over a person’s physical health. Other modalities, or practices, such as reiki, fall into the category of mind-body treatment.

By current scientific measures, these practices don’t prove the influence of mental states over physical conditions. But researchers continue to explore the causes and effects of the influence of mental states on physical health. In the meantime, tai chi practitioners are engaged in our own explorations. We know something is happening when we do our practice, even though Locke says “Common sense is not science.” Go figure.

Knowing is not proof, they say, yet millions of people who practice tai chi know that they experience both mental and physical changes from regular practice over time. They must, because who would keep making the effort and expending the energy to do something without seeing (feeling) beneficial results at some point? People are rewarded for doing tai chi, but that’s not proof of cause and effect, because science hasn’t figured out a way to prove it. Go figure.

The point I want to make is that practices such as tai chi and qigong actively seek the connection without having to explain it. They presume it, or maybe they don’t, but they trust the process and intend beneficial results. They activate the mind-body connection by virtue of engaging one’s whole being in doing their particular practice. The rest takes care of itself. They make it work somehow without having to prove it.

What I am attracted to in the case of tai chi, qigong and yoga is that they are practices individuals do on their own. We may have a teacher to lead us through the practice, but the work is done ourselves for ourselves. Massage, reiki, and other practices are done to, or on, us by a professional. They may be effective at times and at other times less so. Same with the practices you do yourself.

But to do the practice yourself on your own holds a special allure for me. But like Locke says, even though I “know” it works, I can’t prove the cause/effect relationship. However, I can talk about results that happen when I do enough tai chi and qigong, and I can talk about results when I don’t do enough of either. And that is enough for me. The immediate relaxation responses are enough. The longer-term sense of well-being that develops from practice and that I carry with me between practices is real enough.