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.

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.

Five years of blogging about taijiquan

This week marks the fifth year of venturing into blogging about taijiquan and its internal mysteries. My first post on December 5, 2011 is entitled “What is Tai Chi?”. I’m sure I will be trying to answer that question for the rest of my life. I may have wanted to quit at times, but I haven’t yet. Those peculiar dark slumps into the soul pit of delusion don’t last, and I emerge with renewed hope and insight. Now the sixth year of blogging begins.

I’ve struggled, as other bloggers must have, with whether I should blog. I’ve never been quite sure why I do. Some urge to write just happens. Why ask, then? One thing does come through the mind clutter—writing, just as taiji is, is an effort to extend awareness beyond self. Writing about it is a way of claiming the knowledge that I have amassed. Not that I am very knowledgeable, just happy to have overcome enough barriers to claim a semblance of victory over attachment to self. To savor my growth in some little way.

I’ve learned from practicing taiji that one must seek to eschew cliché and conventional thought if one wishes to exceed one’s limitations. That goes for practice, as well as for writing about practice.

I still struggle to craft words, sentences and paragraphs that help clarify my view and help others discover and organize their own views of the mystery of movement arts. In my case, it’s been taijiquan and qigong; but it could also be other forms, such as yoga, dance, and athletics, like running, skiing, swimming, bicycling, and so on.

When you’re at your best, you’re in nearly perfect yin and yang balance, the essential dynamic of taijiquan. Without perceiving these two points of taiji, you’re wouldn’t quite be doing taiji—the supreme ultimate expression of anything. In my mind, the greatest yogi is doing taiji—expressing taiji, manifesting it, giving it form and substance. As is the most masterful practitioner of internal martial arts that originated in China so long ago.

Thank you reader for your gift of attention. I hope to have been useful in your journey. To risk a little cliché— despite the distances, knowing you makes the world a little less lonely.

As I go forward, probably with the usual oscillation of forward-backwards-forwards again, I jot down an informal invocation for inspiration.

In your practice,
you have to be ready
to see something you’ve never seen before,
to do something you’ve never done before,
and to feel something you’ve never felt before.
And not get too surprised or overwhelmed
because of whatever might throw you off course,
and lose the concentration that got you this far.
You have to be ready for what you want.
That’s what you do this for.

A tai chi tip: Doing tai chi anywhere, anytime

Tai chi doesn’t have to be something you schedule to do. With a little knowledge you can practice a simple technique anywhere, anytime. Here’s one idea.

Standing in Wuji . . . . or Being Like a Mountain

One way to begin tai chi is simply by standing. For example, Wuji is the first posture in a tai chi form. You return to Wuji when you finish form. It basically means to stand quietly but alive and agile. It’s sometimes called “standing like a mountain”; silent, expansive and powerful. “Empty” is another term used to describe the state of being in Wuji. Quiet, without thought, without tension, even without mind.

The Classics say that Taiji was born out of Wuji and from Taiji came Yin-Yang, or the separation and movement of things in the world. So when you stand in Wuji then move, you are expressing a universal principle of Taiji, the supreme ultimate expression of movement.

Here is a little pointer on beginning form by standing in Wuji. Stand facing forward, arms at sides, feet parallel and shoulder width, a straight line from ear lobes to ankles, chin downward, not up. Abdomen loose, shoulders relaxed and “sitting on the hips.”

Breath should be natural, even and full, but not strained. Place your attention on your feet. Feel the surface of whatever you are standing on with the soles of your feet. Feel the muscles. Feel the weight. Feel warmth or coolness. Shift your weight slightly to one side then the other. Feel how your body as a whole responds and adjusts to the shifting.

Visualize something like water or a breeze flowing into the ground through the point behind the ball of the foot. See how far you can project the flow into the earth. Now, visualize the flow rising from the earth through that point all the way to the top of your head and back down. Feel how the rising force causes your body to rise with it.

That’s it, that’s all you have to do. Just standing in Wuji and visualizing a flow is good practice any time you like.