You could call what I’m attempting to navigate in this blog a philosophical trek into the fascinating world of tai chi. Through personal insights into my particular experience learning, doing, questioning the art of tai chi and qigong movement. It’s about an exercise in language, as well as an exercise in practice. I exercise with the body and exercise the mind to try and articulate what is going on in both upon the playing field of tai chi and try to figure out where it’s all heading.
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.
Editorial Specialist, Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies, teaches and blogs about fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as he understands them. He also produces and edits instructional videos of master practitioners.
Normally when we move through life, our attention is divided. We seldom give full attention to anything that we happen to be doing in any given moment. We are multi-tasking to the ultimate, rushing around, moving here and there. Our minds are elsewhere, thinking about things beyond what our bodies are doing. This wearies many of us and stress builds. We have difficulty managing emotions, we react to the world in desperation and despair; and over time, our health even wanes.
Take driving an automobile for example. While driving we are doing many things at once. We are steering, operating accelerator and brakes, reading road signs, watching out for other drivers, making sure we stay in our lane, the rearview mirror thing is happening. At the same time, we’re also thinking about what’s for dinner, or what a friend or relative is doing, or what was said earlier, or about work problems … on and on it goes. If this ever wears you down, then welcome to the club.
For respite we turn to diversions, such as movies or television sports, or participate in sports. These help take our minds off our worries. These activities give us a break from the more stressful stuff … until we’re off again multitasking states of being. Often, we end up doing even more stuff to try and relax from the other stuff we are doing that wears us down. It’s a vicious cycle of endless return.
In contrast, the mindful movement practice of tai chi gives us a chance to move with the fullest attention of our whole being to the very act of movement itself. And when we do this, we feel different, refreshed, whole again. Relaxation is letting go, unburdening ourselves of energetic stagnation and energetic weights that are not us.
Tai chi differs from watching a movie of course, since tai chi is movement you do yourself. You are consciously choosing to give your fullest attention to the movement.
For many practitioners tai chi is the ultimate meditative movement, because it involves all levels of our total being. It’s not just physical, which most western-based exercises or therapies are limited by. Tai chi is mental, energetic, even spiritual alignment in the sense of connecting the very same energies in our beings with those that make up the whole universe. You immerse your whole being completely in the moment, and in return it feeds back regenerative power.
If you discover the wonders of tai chi, you probably will consider yourself extremely lucky and your gratitude will be reflected in your practice. How much should you practice? Even the smallest amount of effort can produce big benefits in terms of how you feel.
Be in wu chi (wuqi) in stillness and in motion. It is the center around which everything moves. It is the beginning and the end of movement where taiji becomes yin and yang. It is that part of us that is aware of everything even while our surface minds have forgotten its existence. It is replicated in the body and the mind, the whole being. It is now and never at once. It extends in all directions, yet is forever shrinking into itself. It is both unconscious and conscious simultaneously. It is timeless, placeless, yet here anyway. It is here, yet not here. It is the Tao and not Tao. It carries you in motion and in stillness. Focus attention on it to not forget it and it will have a life that you give it.
I know a man with a heart condition who practices tai chi to help with his health. For years, he has occasionally attended a weekly group class, sometimes regularly. Tai chi helps him, he says. I applaud and respect him for this, but I think he doesn’t practice enough. Considering his circumstances, regular consistent daily practice offers more.
Even a few minutes a day are helpful. People have a hard time getting themselves to do even minimal practice daily. It’s a scheduling thing for many. I don’t want to waste time trying to answer the question of why. All I know is that you experience magic when you practice in earnest regularly over time.
(I need to define “earnest practice” later.)
My point is that, for some, practice is as necessary as drinking water and eating. It is life-generating at a deep level of our being. We all understand this in our own ways. For some it’s a religious experience; for some a scientific approach is more effective for learning. Many stumble in blind faith that we have chosen the best path for ourselves, trusting the teacher or whatever, . . . . then you realize in your practice one day, suddenly, in a passing moment, that you were right and its riches are vaster than you imagined.
The possibilities have always been there…
You didn’t see them. Priorities are no good if they’re in the wrong order. You come to a point in practice when you see possibilities that were not obvious. Reaching this point is a matter of trust at first. You have to go on what you have seen of tai chi masters performing acts that challenge your assumptions and imagination. Or even just watching people doing form in a park. Graceful and beautiful only begins to describe it. Iceberg. Tip.
I wonder why we don’t see the obvious sooner. Not knowing why, I remind myself to focus on how to perceive more clearly what I know I must be missing. As a student and teacher of Tai Chi, or Chinese Internal Martial Arts, I must ask these questions and seek answers. Everyone of us should. This is the art and study of internal energy.
One clear possibility for daily practice, in my friend’s case, is that he will live much longer and enjoy reasonably good daily health in the time that remains. Maybe he sees that and 90 minutes of tai chi a week is gratifying enough. He does say it’s hard to schedule more practice because he is so busy. I hate to think of tai chi in competition with life’s other activities. Activities are in competition with life! Life is a competitive sport. Go figure.
Tai chi is not a scheduling thing, so stop constraining it to a schedule. Schedule death if you want. Life is now.
My friend’s life is clearly at stake, whether he accepts it or not; but the rest of us are in similar circumstances. Life is shorter than we think. Ironically, we seek life-generating activities; thus, we travel abroad to visit family and friends and exotic places. Yet, something escapes our attention and we neglect to fully honor the gift of life. This is universal and something to wonder about.
Tai chi is life-generating. My body speaks to me of its gifts however often I practice. If we neglect to honor these gifts, it’s not because we don’t recognize them, rather something holds us back from fully accepting this truth and actively incorporating it into daily life.
That “something” …what is it?
Stand in wuchi: sincere and patient, but not neglectful. Stable and rooted, yet agile and poised. Stand in wuchi, the sky comes down to you, the earth rises up within you. Stand in wuchi in movement, the stillness is yin, the conscious center. Zhan Zhuang, or post standing, or Yiquan are similar. Even when you are moving in the form, be in wuchi. Even when moving you are still and within that stillness, there is motion. There is no movement without stillness and no stillness without movement. This stimulating perspective ignites my imagination.
Tai chi is about changing the way you are accustomed to moving. People often work against themselves in tai chi. They provide their own resistance to their attempts to change how they move. You can describe how this is manifested in the physical movements. Though it sounds trite and cliché, we yin when we should yang, and yang when yin is a more efficient use of energy. For example, in horizontal circles or the taiji tu when shifting weight to the back leg, we often can catch ourselves pushing against the direction of the flow with the receiving leg. The yin-yang balance would be to yang out and down the front leg into the Earth and yin inward up into the back leg. A pumping motion moves each leg like a piston pumping up then down while the other receives the energy. The mind directs it and observes changes as they occur, the energy flows and the body follows. If you’re in the Durango area come by and say hello. This summer I will be leading free classes in Schneider Park on the river near 9th Street Bridge on Saturday’s at 11 am. It’s a great way to relax and meet new friends while learning a truly artful movement system. If you decide to come please let me know before you do.