Refining Tai Chi: Bring in Life

When you practice, you’re not just moving the body, you’re bringing life into it. By circling the eyes, for example, you’re freeing them up from stagnation and decay (atrophy), and allowing them to serve as “gates” (men) through which energy may enter the body. Think of tai chi this way.

Article: The positive lexicography project

This is about emotion words for which no English equivalent exists.

I like this quote from Dr. Lomas who has been researching these cool words and has built a “dictionary” of 1,000 words from all around the world and from diverse cultures. …especcially the final sentence, which reminds me of tai chi learning.

“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170126-the-untranslatable-emotions-you-never-knew-you-had

Dr. Lomas’s website
https://www.drtimlomas.com/lexicography

Filling gaps in learning tai chi

tai-chi-shoulder-roll

I’ve noticed that, while I received basics in beginning tai chi, much was skipped over. I entered mise-en-scene. I jumped into the middle of the stream. There was no actual “beginning.” As a result, I’ve felt a gap in my learning progress. I think it was partly from a lack of organization in the presentation of information. The learning continuity had holes that I would have to fill in years later.I would have to practice regularly for long enough to discover and fill them. I did it by evolving my perspectives on the basics.

Now, I try to help new learners avoid some of this if I can by showing them little practices that they can easily work on in the beginning of their learning journey.

I’m not faulting my teachers, because tai chi in the U.S. has been in a process of evolving since it started becoming better known a few decades ago. We’re working simply to figure out what works for us in terms of pedagogy and content. It’s really a life-long effort, but we’re trying to start up on a fast track. That can cause us to skip ahead a little bit.

Speaking of “skipping ahead,” we also skip ahead in doing individual movements. For example, I might say connect the qi to the back and move incrementally from tailbone to top of the head while performing a qigong move. You then jump from the tailbone to the top of the head, skipping over the rest of the spine. We anticipate where it’s going and in the process jump ahead, missing out on some real therapeutic results.

This is a case of our concentration faltering as the focus on a specific point oscillates. It’s like forgetting something and not realizing we have until a moment comes after time has passed. We then wake up to the fact that we weren’t paying attention, or that we had forgotten to concentrate on the task at hand. This is very common in training for internal movement.

Movement awareness is an effort to begin at points in the body that we typically don’t pay much attention to. I like to direct my attention to a point in the body and move from, around, or through that spot as an exercise in concentration. I want to incorporate a number of principles one at a time, then simultaneously. Being connected, weighted in gravity, whole body moves a single unit, spiraling, agile and changeable are a few. This is the basis for calling tai chi a “moving meditation” or simply “meditative.” This is my particular view.

What we skip is to focus on rather subtle movements and learning how to do them. With beginners, I often start asking them to focus on the soles of the feet—just about where the apex of the arch is located. Many know that this is called the “bubbling well” or “spring.” The idea is to stand and simply be attentive to the feeling of the soles. Sense the ground and your weight, for example. The toes, heels, arch, inner edge and outer edge, and the bubbling well.

This basic, preliminary movement practice is fairly simple to try at home. It’s probably easier to doing with a group so you can get and give feedback as you work with others learning the same stuff.

Practice Suggestion: Focus on bubbling well…

Feel the weight of the body funneling through and down the soles of the feet into Earth. Draw attention to your calves. How do they feel? Strained, relaxed? Try to focus on the skeletal structure and loosen the muscles. Tai chi requires a lot of visualization, which in turn requires concentration.

Stand with one foot forward—a forward stance. Place more weight on the front foot. Hold the weighted feeling as you shift you position in a small circle pattern around the bubbling well. Feel the muscles of the soles of the feet shift as you circle around the bubbling well.

If you get proficient at this, the force of the downward action will reverse and travel up the leg in a spiral pattern and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments will spiral around the bones. This takes a while to see. At first, just focusing steadily on shifting weight in a circle takes most of your concentration. See if you can do this at home.

Starting tai chi with trust

When I started tai chi I didn’t know what to expect, but I was rather desperate. I had been ill for a long time and I was willing to try anything. It just so happened that a colleague at work invited me to join him in his tai chi class. So I did, and that was the beginning of my journey into discovering what tai chi is and what it would mean to me.

Essentially, tai chi is a journey of discovery for whoever endeavors to learn what tai chi can do for them. It’s a journey of accomplishment. The “excitement of discovery and satisfaction of achievement” is my fancy, wordy way of describing it.

One thing that I’ve always been pretty good at is doing things without questioning why I’m doing them, or questioning what teachers, preachers, parents, doctors, dentists, and friends tell me to do. I trust things that way. It hasn’t always served me well, but it has worked in the case of tai chi. I think most children are naturally that way–to trust without knowing where it’s going.

And that’s how I felt about tai chi when I began 17 years ago. I’m still practicing, and it is a major part of my activities. In the beginning, I took to it slowly—one 90-minute class a week. I had difficulty lasting the whole class, and several times I walked out before class ended. But at some point I was feeling better. I got really excited about how it, so I started training more intensively.

After a while, as most long-term practitioners are aware, I met a “wall of resistance.” By this, I mean that at some point in a practice you become challenged to go beyond yourself, and to seriously shift to a new level of skill. You’re not sure how to, though. You’ve never been there before.

In order to rise above the block, you have to make clear choices about wanting to continue. One thing I’ve learned after practicing and teaching for this long is that every beginner that comes along has to do the same thing. However long you practice, for a month or many years, you have to make a conscious choice every day practically to practice.

The truth is you’re always at a starting point at which you’re at a new learning edge. It’s a chance to learn something you didn’t know before. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But if there’s anything that we human beings are good at, it’s overcoming the obstacle of not knowing something and learning anyway. You just have to trust.

Memory vs observation and your tai chi practice

We rely on memory to get by, but as we age our memory gets a little slack. This is normal, they say. But the suggestions people make to help you manage forgetfulness as we grow older seem ineffective. My thinking is you have to figure something else out. Luckily, there is something.

We can train ourselves to be more observant. My reasoning for this refers back to a behavioral commonality among us. We do things without thinking. We don’t think ahead, nor do we look ahead. For example, I might have forgotten where I placed my reading glasses and often I can’t find them when I look for them. Since I don’t remember where I put them, I have to search around for where I think they might be. Then after an hour or so and a few attacks of frustration, I finally find them where I had already looked—right where I had left them. Often, they are right in the first place I looked, but I somehow didn’t see them. Why is that? Impatience? Sluggish mental prowess?

Probably. But my powers of observation were lacking, too. If I had looked more closely, I would have found them much more quickly. If I had taken the time and broken the tendency to rush the outcome could very well have been different.

We do this sort of thing all day long. I need to blow my nose because I just ate some spicy Cajun food. I get up to grab a tissue but I can’t find the box of tissues, because I moved them from my desk to the coffee table in the living room or to the bedroom nightstand. I walked right by them on the way to my desk. If I had been more observant, I could have saved myself a trip.

That’s what I mean by being more observant. We live our lives thinking our memory will serve us always. We expect to find what we believe we’ll find. That just doesn’t happen as much as we think. We go for a walk and spot something that looks like a broken piece of glass, but it turns out to be a fallen leaf lying in the dirt. We assume it’s a piece of glass before we actually know what it really is. We walk out the house expecting to find our car, our lawn chair, our lawn. Or a view of the ocean, or the mountains and forests, of the skyline of our city. But we seldom really look at them. We just expect them to be there and once we verify they are, we’re done. Move on.

Tai chi and qigong help me to cultivate my powers of observation. I still catch myself reverting back to old habits, but gradually, I’m changing. Some might say they already have a handle on it. That’s fine. They’ll find out if they can hold on to it as they age.

I return to this issue every time I stand in wuji and begin a practice session of tai chi and qigong. Because they are expressly an exercise in being observant. They help to cultivate awareness, concentration, and sensitivity to changes in the self and the environment. It’s good for memory and it’s good for aging.

Tai chi and “quiet mind”

People perceive quiet for being still, but this is not the only way to understand “quiet.” Trying to hold still creates “quiet-but-not-moving,” which is only one kind of quiet. It can lead to tension and clenching, pain, poor balance, especially in beginners. That kind of tension can’t be held long.

“Quiet-in-movement” offers an alternative worth exploring. This kind of quiet results from the mind letting the body move according to the depth of your “listening.” Not just quiet mind, but quiet body. No anticipation, no judgment, no projecting, no hesitating, no forcing.

The mind provides the intention and the body provides the results. Quiet mind means suspending habitual thinking, or “internal dialogue.” Observe moves quietly, like scanning the distant landscape for wildlife, or the ocean for whales.

Quiet-body-in-motion means getting out of the way of the qi so it can flow through. Something must “let go.” Allow yourself to feel it. It’s as though you are seeing with a part of you that is not your eyes. Your mind’s eye perhaps. The heart perhaps.


Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of master practitioners. He also teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He lives in Durango, Colorado and likes to travel for study and teaching.

Tai chi and digital living: a yin-yang recipe

Asian girls practicing tai chi in the outdoor park

“As attention spans shrink,” says the digital design and marketing text I just read. It’s referring to the amount of time a mobile-device user spends on a site, which depends upon design, content, authenticity, simplicity, speed, and value. I suppose attention and time have always been entwined, but it seems that in these “times,” time lords over attention more than ever.

“…success comes from giving your audience what they want, and the experience of consuming your content is a huge part of that. We found, for example, when content is too long or load times are slow, consumers look elsewhere,…”

What does this have to do with tai chi? Well, if I gave today’s “audience” what it wants, they may never learn tai chi. Brief attention spans make tai chi more difficult to learn. Both tai chi and qigong are all about attention, and if you don’t give them proper attention you probably won’t incorporate the benefits very well into your life. Giving tai chi attention means giving it time, but not just that.

It may be that we lose sight of the fact that our perception of time constrains attention, which stresses us out. We also don’t catch this happening before it produces negative health effects. Ironically, tai chi is exactly what digital lives need to offset the pressure that we put ourselves under to live in these digital times. Nothing can be more yin-yang than the relationship between technology in our lives and tai chi/qigong.

I believe this relationship is what many of us seek to know and learn about, particularly in response to stress. It’s like we feel something is missing in our human form and it nags us until we look into what it may be.

I also believe that an equal and opposite response to living at the speed of digital time and its demands comes in the form of a natural human desire for quietude and tranquility.  Slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment is natural. Just the thing you can get from doing tai chi.

The numbers of millennials seeking authentic mind-body experiences in a virtual world are growing. For example, one of the most consistently read posts on this blog is the one entitled, “What Do Young People Think of Tai Chi?”

It’s “well documented”, according to report from the American Psychology Association’s 2012  Stress In America Study, that millennials currently are living: “more stressed, anxious and depressed than any other living generation.” Since I began training in 1999 I’ve seen the age at which people become interested in tai chi drop. It used to be mid-40s when the body has been undeniably showing evidence of breaking down for a few years. Increasingly, millennials are contacting me about learning.

Young people, as well as people of all ages, indeed are discovering the appeal of tai chi and qigong. Tai chi is more prevalent in society, more is being written about it, more classes are offered all over, and young people are searching for activities that define their lifestyles.

Our health is another huge issue that influences the kind of lives we’re able to live. Many “noncommunicable” diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, are traced back to how we treat our bodies in our younger years. In my experience, it seems we’re getting symptoms of old age while we’re rather young. Posture is where this is evident, but that’s another discussion.

“Because many adult and older-age health problems were rooted in early life experiences and living conditions, ensuring good child health can yield benefits for older people,” according to a National Institute on Aging article.

I can attest to the fact that you’re never too young to start learning tai chi and qigong. I began practice at age 46. However, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t wait too long. With the cost of healthcare rising outrageously (in the U.S. anyway), it makes so much sense to seek out preventive, health promoting activities—even looking into old fogy stuff like tai chi.

Want to learn more about millennial stress

From APA 2015 report summary: “Younger adults continue to report higher stress, with money and work as the top stressors. On average, Millennials and Gen Xers report higher levels of stress than Boomers and Matures (6.0, 5.8, 4.3 and 3.5 on a 10-point scale, respectively) and have done so since 2012.”

Google “stress in America” to see what you get. I got 1, 360, 000 hits.

The article, “Millennial Mindset: The Worried Well” summarizes a key findings on how important health is to millennials and boomers. Interesting, but brief for the time and attention-challenged among us.


Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of master practitioners. As instructor at Durango Tai Chi, he teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He lives in Durango, Colorado and likes to travel to study and teach.