Tai Chi: the most popular exercise

(Updated, revised and republished from a 2015 post)

I’ve read that globally more people do tai chi than any other exercise. More than yoga even. You can go to parks in any town or city and find groups of people doing both tai chi and qigong. My experience has been somewhat different. When I started showing others how to do what I had learned from studying tai chi I learned that tai chi just doesn’t automatically resonate. Competition with other activities, such as sports and outdoor recreation, is big. Yoga is huge. Aerobic exercises with new names (Taebo) that combine dance and martial art moves are popular; as are hard martial arts, such as karate and tae kwon do.

Tai chi might be too slow and boring for many, but they may also discover that it’s not as easy as it may seem. The moves seem easy, but the practice is more involved. Many actually give up trying. Conversely, many take a practice as a challenge and become hooked on it, so to speak. They become strong advocates for tai chi. This in part is because real taijiquan is a very sophisticated movement art. Every cell of your body and mind is engaged in constant effort to evolve out of an old self into a new, more-vibrant, capable being. In more ways than you can count, it is a deeply mindful movement, especially when practiced enough. Achieving mindfulness in the moment is what the practice is all about. You immerse in the mystery of moving, seeking new awareness about your body and even about awareness itself. 

Taijiquan and other Chinese martial arts have thrived for centuries, not just as fighting arts, but because they are comprised of something that attracts us to movement itself. It’s really a “whole being” stimulation of mind and body—not just mind, not just body. Physically, tai chi can be quite a workout. It requires endurance and dedication. You sweat on warm days, your muscles get toned, your heart rate can even increase beneficially. It’s so powerful with others in a group, as well. A group of people can generate a lot of energy working together. The magic of tai chi is that it can apply to any kind of movement you may do: dance, swim, ski, run, hike, walk, skate, think even, and even sit in meditation. It’s fundamental to movement in general. All this makes me think that tai chi could be the most popular exercise in the world if it’s not already.

Paul Tim Richard


Notes from a lesson with George Xu

I dug up a few notes from early trainings with Master Xu that remind me of a few basic practice principles. They might sound rather advanced, however. I had begun practice about two years before. I thought it would be fun to share. See if it resonates for you.

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. 

Also, you must go from one level to the next in your training, but 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.

Some time later, he compiled some more advanced instructions that (sort of) add to these earlier points.

Body qualities

The body must be “xu” (empty.) The body power is hidden like a cat so the enemy cannot detect your power sources. This means “nobody knows me, I know you.” 

The body must be “kong”(self-conscious.) Wu wei‚ do without doing. This is the way to get maximum gravity, maximum freedom and maximum speed. You have only energy structure, like the one of a predator. 

Ling (agile and alive.)You have two bodies: internal and external bodies are separate. You can move internal body separately from external body. It makes you change in a smart way.

Tong (energy Yin-Yang go through inside of body.) No place in the body has “ice.” You have four levels in progression: ice, lava, water, steam. You have to keep these qualities anytime and in every position.

Energy qualities

The feeling of all kinds of changing inside your body is called “Qi”. The Qi has four qualities:

Qi Go Through—Yin-Yang energy changing through the body acting and reacting force together. The feeling of these two forces creates the “qi go through.” The qi has to be balanced in all directions, especially some qi goes inside and some outside. 

Qi Alive—Not physical body alive, but the internal body alive, with harmony to the mind.

Qi melt—Until your qi totally melts, you cannot be “pure internal.” The internal energy is bigger than the physical body otherwise you are internal-external physical body (point-line and not volume).

Qi Spiritual—The qi is in harmony with the spiritual, the spiritual can attach from every position like a mosquito, surprising the enemy in his empty areas.

After having the body and energy qualities, first of all you must have the maximum unit force, all body harmony to one. In each point of my body you touch, you touch the entire body.

Secondly, you must have maximum gravity and understand how to use this maximum gravity in an intelligent way and how any effort and tension reduce the gravity force.

Thirdly, if you are in a kong situation, you can have maximum freedom.

Fourthly, you have maximum speed.

Fifthly, you have minimum effort to achieve you action.

Sixthly, you must keep the “not-understandable.”

Seventhly, unpredictable.

Eighthly, unbreakable structure.

Ninthly, unresistable force.

When you fight you must keep the round circle motions (no beginning, no ending) and 3D shrinking-expanding snowball motion.

Finally, the whole body becomes a spiritual fist. Everything becomes yin and yang at the same time, so the spirit is yang, very light, but your spirit has to be very heavy like a mountain when you fight. The physical body is Yin (very heavy) but when you fight you have to feel it light as a feather. The speed is a mind speed, there is a mind-change technique, your power is a mind power. 

Awareness and not-awareness exist at the same time, light and heavy at the same time, soft and hard at the same time, empty and full, large and small at the same time. You have only one feeling changeable all the time. You have not a Yang feeling changing to Yin feeling, but a Yin and Yang feeling at the same time in a situation that you know, but you don’t know.

Have fun applying this in your practice.

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.

Article: Tai chi not just for “old”

“Tai chi is not just for old people,” says columnist Viki Mather. I know what she’s talking about. People hate anything that resembles “exercise.” Not my problem. They are so WRONG.

“There is a stigma about tai chi that it is for old people. And it is true that doing tai chi can help regain mobility, balance, prevent falls and all the other things that seniors need to stay independent and active. It does this for younger people, too. It can help you play better golf. It can improve posture, which is important for skiing, skating, horseback riding, and having dinner at Grandma’s house. And it reduces stress.”


Knowing what you want to do in tai chi practice and doing it

Knowing what you want to do and having enough control of body and mind to actually do it is one ability to seek

One key to reaping the greatest benefits from tai chi is to develop a solo practice and do it regularly. This offers opportunities to refine and discover new things in a state of concentration free of distractions often common in classes.

Solo practice is useful to concentrate on releasing tension and not to clench or tighten joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as muscle, when moving. This may sound like a good rule, but not easy to apply all at once. It would be great if you could.

Maybe you just need to let tension go when you recognize you have it. That alone will probably take most of your concentration. You may eventually gain some control to do what you want when you want, which elicits greater clarity of what’s going on in your mind and body.

Conversely, more clarity may come from being able not only to relax when you want, but also tighten when you want. You can’t escape tension and release in a martial art.

This sort of control on demand is not so easy, mainly because we’re not clear on what we’re doing. It’s a lot of guess work for beginners. One way to approach it is to try to move a part of your body in isolation from the rest. Once you can do that, then you can intend the rest of the body to follow. You should feel, sooner or later, the energy flowing through your whole being.

As an example of what I mean, tighten the hamstrings. This is a way of guiding the attention to move something specific on purpose. I like the word condense energy, where your power coils up and quickly “springs” open when you’re ready (fa jin).

I also bring out a similar subject when doing qigong and single-basic repetitions. The idea, in this case, is to extend the arms and legs to a point then quickly release and continue on. Don’t hold the tension. This is the idea in Eights Pieces of Brocade, with poses, such as push up sky, and bow and arrow.

Moving a muscle or combination of joints, bones, ligaments and tendons, or fascia, begins with holding attention on a point in the body and initiating a movement from it. Once that’s accomplished, you can hold your attention there while also placing it on a secondary activity, such as another point, or the feeling of movement itself. The feeling of movement refers to speed, quality, shape, size, distance, and so on. To reiterate—learn to do what you want to when you want to.

Working to relax and release tension can eventually result from cultivating a deeper awareness of the feeling of your intended movement. You need to feel the move, not just think it. Thinking is a small part of tai chi practice, if any at all. Words may help to describe, but they don’t often adequately explain, nor can they elicit real understanding on their own. You must feel it. Think of the body as a conscious being.

How do you reach that coveted state of understanding? First, you must practice at your level of understanding and observe your actions. Understanding is discovered through practice.

Beware of trying to understand before doing the practice, or you’ll risk complacently thinking you’re skilled when in truth you may not be.

We can practice and get feedback by sharing our experiences and doing group and two-person training. These are great benefits to learning. But in the end, it’s you who comes into understanding through solo practice.