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 challenge: practice

Learning the simplest things in tai chi can be a challenge, not because they are difficult; but, because we’re unfamiliar with them at first. It requires practice. Tai chi is like that. Life is like that. For example, sometimes new learners grasp the details of simple cloud hands only with considerable effort. It seems so easy on one hand, but there is so much more. You feel something missing. Or remembering to maintain a proper stance while moving the upper body takes reminding ourselves over and over. With practice though, we gradually build familiarity with the moves, then we become more comfortable, then we can refine what we’ve learned. Every successive practice is a refinement of the previous one. Over time we improve at the learning process itself. We become better learners. We are able to sustain concentration longer and with more depth. We look forward to new information so that we can practice learning skills that the moves themselves teach us.

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