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.