Fundamental and foundational tai chi for the beginner/intermediate

You use the fundamentals to perform foundational exercises. You could say that we use foundational exercises (as I have incorporated those I know) to discover the fundamentals in our own particular beings while in tai chi movement.

Tai chi is logical and its practical progression from one move to the next requires knowing only a few fundamentals and foundational exercises. Understanding and applying them in motion is perhaps elusive at first, but tai chi is replete with much more difficult and sophisticated practices. You have to start somewhere. One thing is certain: you never outgrow the fundamentals, nor should ever abandon them.

You use the fundamentals to perform foundational exercises. You could say that we use foundational exercises (as I have incorporated those I know) to discover the fundamentals in our own particular beings while in tai chi movement. This teaching is directly from my teachers. My understanding is fairly accurate, but I’m working on execution.

Some fundamentals: 
Zhong ding: central equilibrium
Dan tian: field of elixir
Sink qi—sunk, weighted in gravity
Neigong—internal work

Some foundational exercises:
Circles
Figure 8s
Six directions: up/down, left/right, forward/backwards
Spirals
Power stretching, bone stretching (see description by Susan Matthews)

These things have to be brought to the attention of learners who are new to the language and practice of tai chi. Others might not call these foundational, but I see them as core movement practices for the practitioner. Moves are simple in the beginning. The actual directions, changes in direction and other features of transition, and shapes and patterns (circles/8s) are the basis of practice (thus foundational and fundamental). However, they may not be as important in the short- or long-term as understanding how to do a move by directing the energy with mind intention and then allowing the body to follow through, or go along (neigong). The attention will eventually be on internal work (neigong).

In essence, the end goal is ultimately the initial goal, the beginning. The beginning seems to always be at the end as well. Understanding this will get you further along. Don’t anticipate the result of the move. Don’t leap from part to part. The move should be a continuous, unbroken flow…like a rope, or wind blowing and water flowing, or electricity. If the beginner thinks about what this means and what it looks, you will eventually feel it in practice.

It takes concentration at first, and may take a long time to get a feel for it—not to mention how long it can take to learn to wield it proficiently. The good news is you could quickly feel benefits.

The fundamentals really form the basis for an art of movement, and art of contemplative movement, too. One task is to release long-held preconceptions, habits of thought that you have not noticed. They are feelings, assumptions, expectations, etc. seated in various parts of our bodies. They hinder your ability to shift and move freely. Once you recognize them you can let them go.

Energy and the mind’s interpretation might have emotional, even traumatic waves, which in turn, might make you reluctant to move your body very much. You hold on instead of letting go. Sometimes the energy is so intense you might opt to let go only a little. Where are you loose and free and where are you not letting go? Do you look for where you’re clenching, are tight, are tense? Can you release without having to recognize where you’re holding back?

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These posts were initially intended to supplement lessons that I provided to students. I still write for beginners and intermediates, although more advance practitioners have commented positively about them. I have taught little since the coronavirus pandemic, so these posts are missing a vital component of lessons: i.e., in-person training. If you benefit from them in your practice, please let me know by commenting.

Tai chi and resilience 

A tai chi practice might not prevent certain illness,
but it could make you more resilient if you do get sick.

On February 1, my younger brother suffered sudden cardiac arrest and passed away. It stunned everyone who knew him. No one was aware of any outward sign of the condition of his health.

Coincidently, my heart began to fail two years ago just this month. On March 6 a cardiologist inserted a stent in the left descending artery of my heart, which was 95% blocked with plaque. They call this large artery the “widowmaker” due to sudden deaths commonly associated with it. 

My brother died of what might have happened to me if I had not being practicing tai chi. I used to think that tai chi could, or would, prevent these kinds of afflictions if you practiced enough. I’ve learned differently, but I think my tai chi practice did make my body more sensitive to changes and more resilient, allowing me to rebound back to health more readily.

A tai chi practice might achieve certain quality of life goals, such as improved circulation, better balance, even better memory. The list is long. This in turn would help you prevent illness, presumably. Maybe I never really believed, in the back of mind, it could prevent cancer, stroke or heart attack. But so many promotions of tai chi seem to suggest that. Ironically, my teacher once said that if you do qigong enough you wouldn’t die of stroke. “Might die of cancer, but not stroke,” he said.

In my case, something had being going wrong for a few weeks. I was shoveling snow when a burning sensation in my chest forced me to stop shoveling. For two weeks I felt the pain off and on until I was able to take a stress test, which is to walk on a treadmill at an increasing pace for at least 10 minutes. I was unable to. I was shunted into surgery three days later for stent insertion, a procedure they call an angioplasty.

Cardiologists now tell me I have coronary artery disease, or CAD. Twenty years of fairly intensive tai chi practice didn’t prevent it. Even before the so-called “event,” I had seen tai chi masters die rather young. Long before I entered into the tai chi world I assumed that “Chinese masters” lived very long lives because they lived wisely and practiced diligently. But once I had been practicing and meeting the “masters,” I found that many live only as long as average people. One of my early teachers died before age 80 of what I heard was stomach cancer. Another died of a brain tumor. He was not much older than I.

Whatever skills and knowledge we acquire through diligent practice from exceptional teachers, we ultimately do not overcome the conditions of our environments. Polluted air and water, and whatever environmentally unsound features we live in.

Lifestyle probably made me vulnerable to heart failure. Like not brushing your teeth when you are young leads to bad teeth and gums later in life, failing to follow the guidelines of good eating and exercise earlier in life can easily lead to compromised health in older years.

Cardiologists tell me that my body produces cholesterol excessively, which contributes to CAD. It’s genetic, they say. Of course, a tai chi advocate would resist that conclusion. Anything is possible, right? Nevertheless, my body inherited an ability to over-produce bad cholesterol from my father. The evidence was when he suffered a heart attack at age 53 and died at age 67, the same age my heart started to fail. The same age my brother died suddenly.

Environment, lifestyle, genetics—my body became more resilient because I did tai chi. After the angioplasty, I went through the rehab program in a third of the time of most patients. Rehab has included medication, aerobic exercise (for me, hiking/walking/bicycling) and diet modifications. I continue tai chi and qigong practice, of course. It’s different now. I guess I will be in rehab for the rest of my life, which they tell me is shortened because of CAD. Maybe they are incorrect.

I credit my teachers with giving me information to help improve my health. One teacher focuses on martial training and the other more on health. They have lacked some insight into the deeper needs of my particular body, which is understandable. No one can know everything. Both, however, have exposed students to the internal energetic components of taijiquan, information vitally important to me in helping to build strength and resilience. I have focused heavily on internal energy awareness (life force) in the teaching I have done.

I learned enough from them and my own efforts to prevent a full heart attack. I was quite ill when I began my practice 23 years ago and I improved greatly. My skills grew and I began to feel stronger and more optimistic. Most importantly, I clearly built up a resiliency and a sensitivity that gave me the awareness to see that a problem was building. I was able to change course before it was too late. I credit that to taking action to learn tai chi.

I recently told a friend going through similar issues that anyone in the midst of rebounding from illness, such as heart failure, should resist inertia. Be flexible and changeable. It’s simple enough. The first thing is to move. Don’t just sit around. The second is to move in a different manner than you are accustomed to. Tai chi accomplishes this. Third, move from a different place. Go deeper. Move from your innermost being and from your deepest awareness. It will make you more resilient and possibly save your life.

Tai Chi and life force

Tai chi is the last chance exercise for those of us who didn’t get it right before. Perhaps tai chi is an end in itself, but sometimes a practice can teach you about others things in life that manifest in the motions of everyday living. Tai chi is not complete unless it is part of the daily practice of living. A tai chi life is not too fast, not too slow; not against and not run away; the parts are aware of the whole and the whole is aware of the parts. Bones conform with each other. Bones, joints, ligaments and tendons align with each other. You are relaxed and in the new place where everything feels just right. You are cultivating life force itself rather than just letting whatever come along and present itself and then react to it. Etched into our beings are channels for energy to flow. It pulses, buzzes, hums, beats in rhythmic cadence. Not static but alive.

The Art of Following in Tai Chi Learning

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Learning tai chi requires following the teacher, monkey-see, monkey-do, which takes effort to grow proficient, and learn more quickly and accurately. Improving how you follow is part of a well-rounded practice.

It is difficult for many at first, mostly because you are trying to do two things at the same time: watching what the teacher is doing and doing it yourself. Multi-tasking. You are using the sense of sight mostly, but also that of feeling with the mind and body.

Keeping up is harder if the teacher doesn’t move slowly, or if he embellishes moves with additional, subtle changes. What the teacher is doing on the outside may seem obvious, but what he is doing on the inside may not be visible at all.

Following is a test of memory, where you try to see the next move from any point in the sequence. It’s like navigating through a strange neighborhood, or city, or wild place unfamiliar to you. You are trying to remember which way you have come so you can find your way back. You have to utilize senses in ways not used regularly. Not knowing the moves is not the issue for the beginner, really. Not knowing how to remember is.

A little more instruction from Master Xu

“You must try different styles of tai chi in order to learn which you are best suited for,” Master George Xu once told us. Distinct styles match the five elements: wood, water, fire, air, metal. Metal is the most martial of all. Chen Style, for example is a fluid style, while Wu is like a snake—concentrated, connected. He didn’t say which is more metal in nature.

Also, you must go from one level to the next in your training. It is common that while you train at one level, you are preparing yourself for not only the next, but for all. The levels that Master Xu named are physical, energy and spiritual. There is no worthwhile physical without spiritual, he said. But you must train the physical to it highest level of attainment in order to reap the greatest benefit of the spiritual. (from 8/25/2002)