A conversation between teacher and learner

Here is a brief exchange over email between a DTC member and myself that reveals our thinking about a subject central to learning tai chi. I welcome questions and comments because it stimulates concrete conversation which serves as a knowledge-building activity.

Background: I returned after 10 days training retreat and exposed practice partners to using different muscles to feel more connectivity. I had usually been focusing on using mind to move, but also on changing the body in subtle ways of movement. Afterwards, B wrote:

“I have to say I am a little sore from the workout yesterday. … How in the world do you do it for 6 hours a day?”

Me: “You got me to thinking, or remembering, that we were using muscles that we don’t normally use. If you used them more you wouldn’t get sore. It’s just like the muscles you use everyday, say for walking, don’t get sore when you use them for longer periods of time. Same principle applies to using martial art/tai chi muscles. Make sense?”

B: “Yes. Makes sense. However if we are not supposed to use muscle what do we need tai chi muscles for? …

Me: Good question. Helps me to clarify. We rely on muscle tension to move out of sheer habit, practically unaware of other possibilities of movement and for focusing our attention. As we age we reduce usage of everything: muscle, tendon, ligament, bone and joint. In effect, we run out of energy to move, so we simply reduce the range of motion to accommodate our needs. Human beings are very efficient creatures. We do the least possible work to meet our needs. This is not bad, because it saves energy; but we cultivate a habit of not using our bodies and minds to their fullest potential and we begin rather early in life to atrophy or decline in ability.

Not to “use” muscle is not really the instruction. More like, free muscle up of its dominance and release tension (qi) that we have been carrying for a long time without realizing we have been. It also is to focus attention on moving different muscles as an exercise in changing the focus. It’s not just an exercise in muscle-moving activity. It’s one of reducing the dominance of muscle over the rest of the body and making more energy available to us that is stuck in muscle. We “wear” our tension in muscle for the most part, I think. Of course, it can be produced anywhere in the body. Changing the way we become aware of tension in the body and learn to release it is really the point. I just decided to focus on muscle. Has it made a difference in your connectivity and how you move?

The other point I would make is that at the beginning stages of practice the novice needs to have something somewhat concrete to focus on in order to “get connected”. Even while we focus on the more esoteric, elusive “energy” connection. This is what I’ve learned from my teacher, Xu Guo Ming (George), during the past couple of years. He was realizing that people were not getting the more esoteric lessons and decided to bring it back to the body, to the basics. That’s what the recently published Chan Shi Jing video is about, really.

Tai Chi can help address pain and “clenching.” But how? Here’s one thought for practice.

I sometimes see pain as a sign of the body or brain talking to you, trying to get your attention, telling you to listen. If you have a painful joint or muscle, it might hurt because it’s doing more than its share of the body’s workload. It’s doing the work of other joints or muscles. One or more of these other parts might be holding back, either reacting to tension or stress, or creating tension and stress.

I trace some of this back to the influence of emotion or knowledge. Often it’s low-level, under the radar sort of fear. Sometimes its a lack of clarity on how to respond to some force that you don’t quite understand enough about in order to act on.

I’ve heard of one reaction called “clenching,” a subconscious attempt to control, which has the opposite effect: no control, or perhaps more accurately, causing undue control of other parts of the body by hindering their movement, and reducing their contribution to the movement of the whole.

In other words, trying to hold back the inevitable: movement. If and when you discover yourself doing this kind of thing, tell yourself to listen in a different way than you’re accustomed to:

“Change View. Shift. Release.”

Flow with the compelling force of the mind and body and spirit that is always present whatever we may, or may not, be doing consciously or unconsciously. Move and adapt with the ever-fluctuating force of life.

What I like about single basic moves in tai chi practice

Tai chi basics, including “single basic moves” are employed to train for specific objectives, such as loosening, relaxing and strengthening joints, ligaments and tendons, all of which are exclusive offerings of the tai chi exercise system.

What I like about single basic moves is they give you something to do on your own. A good solo practice can be developed with single basics. I wrote before about the two kinds of memory you come across in practice: the learning a sequence of moves kind and remembering a deeper feeling of the movement. The first helps to develop the external appearance of movement and the latter develops the internal.

Doing a single move repeatedly is simpler than remembering long sequences of postures and transitions. But more than that, it allows you to narrow your focus to the internal which takes more concentration. Not that it needs that much, just that we don’t typically ever focus on that. We’re out of touch and out of practice with this learning path.

Do single basics and relax

Repeating a single move simplifies the process of moving. You have less to remember. You can relax and pay more attention to the feeling of the movement and not worry so much about what comes next, which you tend to do in remembering form sequences. Of course, sequence learning is part of the overall learning. Often that’s all that is taught to beginners. Many of us remain beginners for years, in that case, because there is practically an infinite number of postures and transitions to learn. And knowing lots of sequences doesn’t necessarily lead to a well-rounded knowledge base. We often lack knowledge of internal practices.

A meaning of internal

Different people will define internal in different ways according to their experience. Internal can be described in many ways depending on the context and the particular movements you’re engaging. In the context of this post’s topic, I describe it as narrowing focus down to the more intricate, or deeper, levels of movement. This practice always leads to the most minute motion deep in your whole being, not just your body. The body is where you point your attention to in the beginning of your practice. But you also have your mind, your “spirit” or “shen,’ and your “Qi,” or energy.

At some point a regular, sincere practice of focusing attention to deeper levels triggers changes in the quality of your movements. Your move may become bigger or more power may come with it. It’s exponential, as in what I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say often “minimum effort, maximum results.”

This idea defies what average people usually think. If your long-held thinking has grown static, shallow and relies on unexamined assumptions you’ll have difficulty picking up on the more intrinsic details of taijiquan. Understanding this boils down to being free in your movement so that you will adjust to the constant flux of the energy of being alive. Let the qi move your body. Let the mind picture the move before you move at all. This might sound deep or even meaningless, but it fits with what I mean.

I’m simply referring to the “life force,” referred to in tai chi circles, which is what practitioners are trying to connect with. You’re not just learning moves and sets of moves. You’re learning how to be alive in the present moment. You’re learning how to feel the energy in any given moment.

Single basic moves can help bring you to that place in your practice. You become aware of something that you were not aware of before, or haven’t been for a long time. New feeling appears even when you’re not actually practicing anything at all—just going through daily life.

Qualities of Moving, or the “Flow”

You can focus on moving from a single point, but also on moving along a line—from feet to head and back, for example. It’s like traveling along a conduit of energy. This is a more intricate view of the “flow” you hear people talk about to describe the feeling of energy moving.

For many the movement is rather broad—still more wai dan (external field), then nei dan (internal field). Both views are accurate but they have different outcomes, and different motivations. Wai dan describes a less-informed and less-formed view, which happens to be broad in perspective. Most people begin with this mindset.

Nei dan is deeper, revealing much more of the total scope of practice that is possible. It is deeper, less superficial. Wherever you are in your learning process, progress happens by keeping it simple and seeking deeper awareness of what constitutes any move.

I think single basics is a great way to immerse yourself into this area of learning. You should be able to take greater advantage of the overall benefits of taiji that is being talked about so much these days, from research findings to testimonials from practitioners.

Repeat and refine

Although single basics are repetitive, they are not repetitious, so to speak. You repeat a pattern, intent on refining, not on repeating it exactly the same way as before. Change is the key. “Changeability” as Master Xu puts it.

How do you refine? Pick out a particular locus and focus your attention on how you move there. Focus on the move itself and how you might alter it—make it smoother, rounder, less hesitant.

I would enjoy hearing about your results. Leave a comment!!

Are you doing tai chi? No?

People ask about getting tai chi right. What’s the right way, what’s the wrong? 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. This practice builds on the last practice. It’s cumulative. I believe that this thinking helps to dispel the idea that you have to do it right before you do it at all.

The only way to know tai chi is to do it. If you put off doing anything at all related to tai chi, you may never learn anything. You’re dealing yourself a bad hand by making judgments over whether you’re good enough to do it. A teacher can tell you the way he came and you can apply it to your choices, or not. It won’t matter either way if you don’t practice. Only the individual practitioner sees the way. No one else can see it for you.

So how to overcome judgment of yourself, or of tai chi itself? One view is that the simplest activity can be a practice of tai chi. Even doing a single basic repetition is doing tai chi. Even sitting for 60 seconds and breathing mindfully is doing qigong. Anyone can do that anytime and, every time you do, you’re building on the last time you did that.

The catch is that you have to do it regularly enough to reap the benefits. You won’t see results unless you do something and you do it regularly enough.

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 based on conventionalized thought. It is not one thing or another to be argued right or wrong. It is based on your own discoveries. It is experience and the memories of experience.

Fit tai chi into your day, simply

You’re so busy to take in the wonder, not even enough time to take a moment to mourn the loss of the precious time burning away. What do you do? Here are a few ideas.

Tip #1—Where you do tai chi.
Get away from where you do your business in order to do tai chi without interruptions.

Tip #2—When to begin tai chi
When you wake, even before you get out of bed, give a thought to tai chi. When you rise, at least, inhale three times deeply, fully and think about one thing, one move, from tai chi that you did the last time you practiced.

Tip #3—Be kind to yourself
Pay your respects to yourself and every little effort you make to break the routine that has driven you to the point of wanting to learn something from outside of that routine, for example, TAI CHI!

Tip #4—It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
I believe that taking an hour out once a week to learn it in the class is not enough. However, I don’t expect anyone to at first spend hours doing tai chi at home. But I think that you can do a minute or two now and again. Simply standing in wuji is doing tai chi. Taking three full complete breaths is not nothing. Gathering your arms above your head and feel them drop slowly down in front of you like a stream of water pouring down a gentle slope is something. Try it. It just might make you feel good.

Refining Your Tai Chi Practice: Bringing Life into Your Body

You’re not just moving the body, you’re bringing life into it. By circling the eyes, for example, you’re freeing them up from stagnation and decay (atrophy), and allowing them to serve as “gates” (men) through which energy may enter the body. Think of tai chi this way.

Article: “The Millennial Obsession With Self-Care”

from NPR.com by Christianna Silva

The content of this report resonates with the growth of millennials who do tai chi. I think, however, that they are not finding tai chi as easily as I wish they would. The article stresses the role of the internet in promoting self-care among millennials, though self-care has been around forever. Tai chi is ultimately self-care that contrast with the consumer approach to self-care mentioned in the report. Many people buy products (self-care kits) or subscribe to a twitter bot to remind them to take care of themselves. Just do tai chi, I say.


In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, more millennials reported making personal improvement commitments than any generation before them.

“Maybe in the past, you thought someone was crazy or lazy, but now we’ve learned more,” Im said. “It’s a continuum. A lot of those things [like increased Internet access] allow you to become more sensitive to others.”


Link to article here.

Question about changing directions in Wu Style Tai Chi Form

Sometimes, I get questions from learners that merit sharing. This question is about whether we should pivot on the heels or the balls of the feet when changing directions in the Wu form.
QUESTION: When you turn doing Tai Chi, is it always on your heels?
ANSWER: This is a good question. By “always,” do you mean outside of class or inside? I learned in Wu style training, of which two lineages exist, to turn on the heels … except when the teacher does something else, such as turning on the bubbling well.
The point I try to convey in class is to cultivate enough control to do what you intend to do, such as pivoting on the heel, which is a hallmark method of changing directions in Wu style, either lineage, as well as Yang. This entails developing concentration and sustaining it long enough to see your skill evolve.
To me, this is the deeper training. To learn move sequences is one level, learning how to do them is a deeper level and learning to control mind intention and sustain concentration are even deeper.
My point has always been to learn a technique, become familiar with it, then through practice become more at ease with it. The ultimate practice is one in which you continually refine what you have been exposed to. So if turning on the heel is what you’re asked to do, then do that all the time in and out of class as a way of refining your skill.
I think it’s fun to keep it in mind and do when you are reminded of it.
Figuring out stances and foot work in the form is one challenge beginners face because coordinating upper and lower body simultaneously can get confusing. I think it helps to focus on one activity at a time until you familiarize yourself with the move.
The position of the feet and how you move them merits special attention until you’ve become more familiar and comfortable with the method used in whichever form you’re doing.
Different teachers follow different methods, probably because that’s how they learned it from their teachers; but also, according to its effectiveness in a martial application. I learned from my teachers to pivot on the heels when changing directions. This is common enough and you can get pretty technical when it comes to how you’re weighted in gravity and where your zhong ding is at each stage of a movement. These are things I try to cover when practicing this activity.


I learned my particular way of doing the Wu style slow form from six, either in person or through video. My first teacher, was Wang Hao Da (Wu Jian Quan lineage), but he passed away soon after I began. Then I learned more from Susan Matthews, who worked with Master Wang for about four years in a number of training camps.

Then I went to China in 2004 and trained with Xu Guo Chang (Wu Yu Xiang lineage). More recently, I studied videos of Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang, his wife Wu Ying Hua, Wen Zee. They’ve all passed away now. I’ve found perhaps one video of Grandmaster Ma doing slow form, since he preferred the fast form.

Over a couple of weekends in spring 2016, I met Yan Yuan Hua (Wu Jian Quan lineage)  in Tucson, AZ and Temple City, CA and practiced with him and several of his students in both cities. He gave me a video of his forms to watch and learn. His approach differs from others I have been exposed to.

I try to incorporate what I’ve learned in such a way to simplify the process of learning of students and make their progress a steady one. Sooner or later in training we all are exposed to different ways of doing things.

I highly value the ability of a practitioner to be fluid and open to change as they encounter new information. It keeps things lively by challenging our assumptions and the tendency to develop just another habitual way of moving without questioning. Good the the brain, good for the body.