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.

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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!!

Thoughts on Developing Your Home Tai Chi Practice Routine

I was recently asked about developing a routine for home practice. Most of us are probably used to being given a set of movements to do—one set for everyone. I take a different approach, suggesting that you choose a few moves from among the many that we do in class that appeal to you and remember them at home.

While we share a lot in common, every person is different: different bodies, different circumstances, and different interests, needs and desires. So the routine you develop should be customized to you and not have to be a “one size fits all” approach.

Still, you need a place to begin when you’re new to the system. That’s why I share a system made up of loosening exercises, stretching, single-basic moves, qigong, some standing (called Zhan Zhuang), and tai chi form. This is the context out of which a home practice develops.

I also say that that tai chi is founded upon moving in six directions and in three patterns, or shapes, of movement: up/down, left/right, front/back, and circles, figure 8s, and spirals. This is the foundation of your practice.

To add to that, you begin to cultivate an awareness of the energetic piece of the practice, which brings up the questions of “how” to move in the directions and patterns. What you’re doing with your mind, more specifically.

I begin with the question of, “How do you initiate the move and from which point in the body?” You can begin with the dantian point below the navel and inward about three inches (xia dantian), or the zhong ding (central equilibrium/spine). Remember that the focus of your attention is what you’re working on in any particular moment. With experience you can hold your attention on more than a single thing at a time. The key is to develop a concentration and sustain that concentration. This correlates with the meditative function of tai chi and qigong.

With these ideas you have a foundation to begin your home practice. It takes a little time to get familiar with these concepts, but with some effort it comes together. And with a little help from teacher and fellow practitioners you can build a stronger understanding through group practice and testing.

So pick out a few single moves and practice them at home. You can do a few minutes every day whenever your feel the urge, or remember that you have the chance to make a difference in your condition if you try.

This way you’re doing a more customize practice rather than having to do what the teacher forces on you regardless of your unique situation.

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.

BACKGROUND

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.

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

One key to reaping the greatest benefits from tai chi is to develop a home practice. Practice is something you do regularly, which offers opportunities to refine and discover new things as you learn.

I recently suggested working on releasing tension and not to clench or tighten joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as muscle, when moving. This may sound like a rule to apply to all of your efforts, but it’s actually not likely you can do it all the time. It would be great if you could whenever you needed.

For the sake of your practice now, just remember to let tension go when you recognize you have it. Try to change that condition into some other state. That probably will take all of your concentration.

Beyond this, you may eventually find the importance of having the control to do what you want when you want. This is a sign of being more aware of what’s going on in your mind and body. For example, more clarity comes from being able not only to relax when you want, but also tighten when you want.

Knowing what you want to do and having enough control of your body and mind to actually do it is one ability you’re searching for in practice.

This is often not so easy, mainly because we’re not clear on what we’re doing. It’s too much guess work for us. 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, I told you once to tighten the hamstrings. This is a way of guiding your focus 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.

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 as well, begins with holding our 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 feel 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.

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 you 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.

If you like this sort of info, please let me know by writing a comment. I want to provide you with useful knowledge that you can use and apply in your practice. It would be helpful to hear from you in this regard.

Tai chi as a practice to train the mind

Renown Zen master DT Suzuki writes in the introduction to the little book entitled Zen in the Art of Archery that describes something that I’ve discovered about tai chi. He writes that a significant feature of the practice of archery is not “… for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but … meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

This is la raison d’etre for tai chi for me—to train the mind. Training the body is equally key to balancing the dynamics of yin and yang in motion, of course, but Master Suzuki touches on a very core notion of tai chi practice that takes a little extra effort to grasp. Technique and application are subsumed by training the mind.

“If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough,” he continues. “One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.”

He intrigues the reader with this rather abstract statement, but his next statement, for me, speaks directly to what I try to arrive at in my understanding of taijiquan, qigong, and Chinese internal martial arts, in general.

“The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, …”

This may still appear rather abstract to most tai chi practitioners, but it does speak to what you experience after practicing long enough. That is, when you seek and find silence in your thoughts, the act becomes one of balancing thought with non-thought, or the “unconscious.”

Master Suzuki writes, “As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.”

If you experience this in tai chi practice, then please share your thoughts with me and others. I recommend reading Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel, 1953) if only to read the introduction by Master Suzuki. I found a copy at White Rabbit Books on the River Trail in Durango.

Beginning tai chi and trusting

When I started tai chi I didn’t know what to expect, but I was rather desperate. I had been ill for a long time and I was willing to try anything. It just so happened that a colleague at work invited me to join him in his tai chi class. So I did, and that was the beginning of my journey into discovering what tai chi is and what it would mean to me.

Essentially, tai chi is a journey of discovery for whoever endeavors to learn what tai chi can do for them. It’s a journey of accomplishment. The “excitement of discovery and satisfaction of achievement” is my fancy, wordy way of describing it.

One thing that I’ve always been pretty good at is doing things without questioning why I’m doing them, or questioning what teachers, preachers, parents, doctors, dentists, and friends tell me to do. I trust things that way. It hasn’t always served me well, but it has worked in the case of tai chi. I think most children are naturally that way–to trust without knowing where it’s going.

And that’s how I felt about tai chi when I began 17 years ago. I’m still practicing, and it is a major part of my activities. In the beginning, I took to it slowly—one 90-minute class a week. I had difficulty lasting the whole class, and several times I walked out before class ended. But at some point I was feeling better. I got really excited about how I felt, so I started training more intensively.

After a while, as most long-term practitioners are probably aware, I met a “wall of resistance.” By this, I mean that at some point in a practice you become challenged to go beyond yourself, and to seriously shift to a new level of skill.

You’re not sure how to, though. You’ve never been there before. I think many people who consider learning tai chi begin with this wall of resistance and they never begin. They give in to inertia.

In order to rise above the block, you have to make clear choices about wanting to continue. One thing I’ve learned after practicing and teaching for this long is that every beginner that comes along has to do the same thing. However long you practice, for a month or many years, you have to make a conscious choice practically every day to practice. Even just a little.

The truth is you’re always at a starting point at which you’re at a new learning edge. It’s a chance to learn something you didn’t know before. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But if there’s anything that we human beings are good at, it’s overcoming the obstacle of not knowing something and learning anyway. You just have to trust.

A goal in tai chi

There is a progression to tai chi. First is to relax places where we’re tight (often painful, too). Often it can be described as “clenching.” For most of us that is true. The next step in the progression is to move. Move around and through the tight places with a mindful intention to dissolve the tension. The moves are designed to help you to relax. Moving changes the body.

We use different methods to get that change to happen: loosening, stretching, and single basic exercise. Repetitive, rhythmic, single moves, in which we employ awareness of and intention to the six directions, and then in shapes and patterns. The six directions are up down front back left right and the shapes are circles, figure 8s and spirals.

Begin with circles and visualize with your mind intending to circle inside your abdomen. This location is particularly important in the beginning, but you can move in circles anywhere in your body with the intention.

Moving the abdomen and the hips are key to relaxing and loosening the tightness in the lower back and spine.