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.

What is “whole body moves as a single unit” and how to do it

“Whole body moves as  single unit” is one of the goals you want to achieve and refine in the practice of tai chi. One way to approach understanding what it is, is to become aware of parts that are not moving and more aware of parts that you are moving already. Usually, we rely on individual parts as substitutes for moving the total body. We reach with only an arm, or bend relying only on the thin muscles of the lower back, instead of positioning the body to take advantage of all the bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. This would reduce the pressure placed on any single part.

How would you know you’re moving the whole body as a single unit unless you feel the parts moving first? Most people don’t feel many, if not most, parts moving. Cultivating this awareness is the function of tai chi movement. In the beginning the focus of your attention would be on choosing a place to begin.

Normally, we start with the Dantian. This corresponds to a point in the body, as well as an area, below the belly button and inward a couple of inches. But the Dantian is also a concept that you can formulate anywhere. It’s not just a place, but also a mental picture. Practicing tai chi can be placing this picture anywhere. You move with this idea in mind.

Another concept called “Central Equilibrium,” or Zhong ding, corresponds to the spine in terms of location; but it too is a concept. While on one hand, it is alignment, which is linear, it’s also equilibrium in relation to one’s surroundings, as well as to the parts that make up the whole. This is a similar relationship as the Dantian—how the parts relate to the whole. How they function in unison to form a whole.

The Dantian and Zhong ding work in unison to produce whole body movement. In the beginning, you focus on moving from a specific point and aim to coordinate movement of parts in terms of speed and timing. For example, moving the arms in harmony with breath. Inhale (or exhale) and raise the arms to shoulder height in front of you, as in the first move of the form. Time the move so that the breath initiates the move and completes at the same time the movement completes. Exhale and drop arms to the side with same coordinated timing. Pretty simple, huh?

This practice is good for novices because of its simplicity. It is limited, however, because it’s focusing only a section of the body, not the body as a whole. You can go beyond and tap into coordinating the movement of energy (Qi) itself with movement of the body as a whole. This can be attained by a similar method as that described above. The difference is by focusing on a specific activity initiated from a specific locus, the rest of the body settles into harmony—the motion of the parts become the sum of the whole in motion. Kind of interesting, plus it feels pretty good when you recognize it’s happening.



Two taiji concepts for a lifetime of practice

Talk to any master practitioners of tai chi and they will tell you that zhong ding and dantian are the two most important concepts in tai chi and Chinese internal martial arts. They are also the most basic. They are the two things you will work on for as long as you do tai chi. Hopefully, that will be a lifetime. It doesn’t take long to understand the concepts, just a lifetime to develop them and enjoy the benefits almost immediately.

On Healing and the Mind, Bill Moyer’s show, Volume 1, The Mystery of Chi, the teacher of my lineage (Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang) told him that it took him 10 years to understand what Chi is and the rest of his life to learn what to do with it. He was in his eighties at the time. This is how it is with everyone who delves into the vast universe of the supreme ultimate art of movement.