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!!

Getting Original Qi Back

When I talk about my teachers having so much energy from taiji, it has to do a lot with the fact that they save energy more than actually producing it out of nowhere, which seems impossible to the average person. This is one thing every practitioner who practices long enough learns about taijiquan. It’s true, you get only so much Qi (energy) when you’re born and as life progresses you lose it, or at least, lose access to it. But you can get it back, and one stepping stone to do that is by learning to conserve it, not waste it, use the energy you have wisely, and consciously bringing stuck qi back into availability. By doing taiji movement, you clear out superfluous energy, which in turn attracts your original qi and rebuilds it. It’s fantastic to reunite with what is essentially a part of ourselves.

Tai Chi movement, qi and yin-yang equilibrium

The word Qi (pronounced “chee”) in Chinese refers to vital energy and is found everywhere in nature. The Chinese refer to Heaven Qi, Earth Qi, and Human Qi. In learning tai chi, when we talk about Qi, we often talk about Yin and Yang— two opposing, but complementary, forces that are seen in endless variations. Taijiquan and Qigong are activities that you could think of as exercises, or methods, for working towards a balance of yin and yang in the relationship between our minds, qi, and bodies. I lead tai chi practice with these relationships in mind.

According to Chinese thought some of us are too yang, some too yin, generally speaking. The movements introduced in practice can help balance out your Qi whether you are too yin or too yang.

You can be both at the same time, as well. Too yang in some aspects and too yin in others. For example, you may be too yang in your Qi and too yin in your physical body. As Yang, Jwing-Ming writes in The Root of Chinese Qigong, “A person who seems to be externally strong and healthy may be weak internally” (p4).

Either case can result in the whole being being weakened. Most of what I teach focuses on both external and internal exercise with mental concentration, or mind practice. You’ve probably heard of mind-body connection. I try to bridge the mind and body with what is often the missing link in rebalancing one’s being—vital energy. I truly believe that the motivation to learn and practice tai chi comes from feeling the need to rebalance your energetic configuration. It’s marvelous that tai chi movement performed with mind intention can result in profound shifts in mental, energetic, and physical equilibrium.

A Basic Tip

The mind, energy and body interact in a sequence of movement. Your attention travels from mind, to energy, to physical in that order. It works this way: You focus attention on a specific point in the body, which invites the energy to go there. You actually feel it. Then the body is invited to move in the way that you intend. So you allow it to move. Over time, you refine this progression to build inner strength and skill.

How this happens is a kind of mystery to me, but it happens. You may not detect the sequence at first as a beginning practitioner, especially the feeling of energy flowing to a place where you direct your attention. You will with practice, but I think everyone is familiar with it very quickly.

Energy and the role of the body in tai chi

My teacher, George Xu, says to “think” energy moving through the body. Part of my understanding of this matches his instructions, but I go beyond the literal meaning of his words. For example, I “feel” the energy moving as though that were thinking. I “think-feel” or “feel-think”. From my training with my teachers and readings from other traditions, I’ve come to apply the term “perception” to refer to this. I perceive a sucking up and sinking down, qi flowing and energy moving. This term is more encompassing, and I believe, a more accurate description of the phenomena.

A Buddhist might call this “bare attention,” but that may not be entirely accurate for all I know, which is very little.

The role of the physical body in this dynamic may be a sticking point. On one hand, the body must get out of the way for the energy to move it. The mind must intend it. You have to consciously instigate letting go. It can take years of practice to achieve incremental progress, but when it happens it can happen suddenly, effortlessly. Kind of surprising.

It doesn’t have to take long before you experience this letting go. You may be just starting out in your practice, but it can happen. The speed at which the internal arts are developing in the West makes the possibility of real individual progress greater, in my view. It will remain a life-long practice for most, but we can achieve greater, deeper understanding much sooner than in past decades when this information was new and rather foreign to our minds.

Master George says to “suck” energy up through the legs, which triggers a complementary (“reactionary”) sinking of, or yin, of energy from the top downward. This is what takes the opponent’s force to Earth. He also would say that the muscles of the calves change as a result of this “thinking.” At the end of a five-day training this past autumn he began giving us pointers for the physical body and how to use it to achieve his internal and “spiritual” work, which had been the full focus of his teaching for the previous four or so days. For him the internal, or (Qi/Chi) and spiritual (Shen) practices are the true offerings of Chinese martial arts and where power comes from.

The question of how Qi moves, and moves through, the body captures the attention of many as being key to the ultimate evolution of understanding. To resolve this issue would move any practitioner much further along in his or her learning journey.

Just what I thought, everything is energy

One of the things you’re going to hear and hopefully see for yourself by practicing taiji and qigong is that consistent efforts bridge the body’s physical structure with our energetic essence. I found a very interesting and well-written article about that from the perspective of quantum physics. Science confirms much of what the old Chinese practitioners discovered and acknowledged millennia ago (yogis and Tibetans, too, of course).

Nothing is solid, everything is energy

The “I know you, you don’t know me” saying in martial arts

GeoXu_w
Xu Guo Ming (George)

George Xu says, “I know you, you don’t know me,” to describe a key characteristic of his approach to martial awareness. Whether you’re practicing tai chi or qigong, or taking a walk in a park, his refrain applies to how you listen to yourself and to others, even to things. I don’t grasp this fully in practice, but I can tackle some of what he means. Obviously, for one thing, if you don’t know yourself, you are vulnerable if someone else knows your weaknesses. This is true in martial arts and in life.

Master Xu is referring to how you are configured energetically and what is the status of your “qi.”

What is the shape of your energy? Where are you empty, full, concave, convex? In taijiquan, with enough exposure, you hear about peng, liu, qi, an and the other “13 Postures” which refer to these concepts. However, Master Xu is not so formal and traditional, because it can make learners complacent and stiff. So, where are you stuck and stagnant? Where are you too light when you should be weighted and vice versa? What is meant by weighted in gravity? Are you double weighted? Are you clear on the difference between being connected and being stiff, or agile and locked? Are all the parts of your body contributing to the whole? Where are you stiff and sluggish when you should be quick and agile? On and on it goes…

How do you know these things? By listening to the energy, Master Xu would say. Chinese martial artists refer to “ting jing,” listening energy. It is more of feeling performed with the whole being, not just the ears. Perhaps “sensing” is more accurate.

Actually, I like to think that it’s really learning to learn, which is the foundation of taiji training and, I suspect, for training in any mind-energy-body work. You’re taking in information and interpreting it in ways that are tangible, applicable within the context. You’re making sense out of what you feel as a result of engaging all of your senses and maybe one or two you’re not sure you possess, or even exist. Ting jing is a special skill that can be developed through the practice of taijiquan.

For 16 years, I’ve had the fortune to train with Master Xu who has allowed me to videotape many of his lessons, which I’ve compiled in a series of videos for DVD and online streaming. What stands out for me about them as a group is the many ways Master Xu constantly offers learners to imagine the essence of what he is referring to, through, for the most part, metaphors and analogies. If you can relate the concept to something that you are familiar with then a bridge can be built from learning to knowing.

Often his descriptive metaphors have a dramatic quality to them, like “I know you, you don’t know me.”  He often refers to predatory animals, such as a tiger, or even a house cat, who “moves inside his skin as he stalks,” and who covers you with its energy body, which you feel powerfully, before the physical body strikes you down.

Master Xu’s many images from the natural world effectively trigger my imagination and makes learning a little more fun. Not easier, of course, because his terms are often mysterious and esoteric. His martial results are very real and effective, however, so there must a whole lot more to his specialized language than meets the ear at first. So I keep listening.

 

Six common mistakes tai chi practitioners make

Image of susan matthews and george xu
Susan Matthews and George Xu testing internal principles.

One…they don’t learn to connect single basics to form. Teachers say that before you do form you should learn and practice the basic moves. This is key for internalizing the principles of taiji. I practice standing and walking drills which are repetitive and rhythmic. This is better for many, because many try to memorize the form sequences of moves without learning the internal understanding.

Two…they use muscle. They must become conscious of the possibility of moving differently. Go deeper and focus attention on moving from bones, ligaments, tendons, for example. Or go directly to moving with energy; i.e., qi. This refers not only to a new way of moving, but aslo to a different way fo perceiving.

Three…they don’t incorporate mind intention; i.e., yi. Speaking of a new way of perceiving, taiji is a mental practice as much or more than a physical. Develop intent to achieve a specific goal and maintain it. I practice visualization which can help to build a strong connection between mind, energy, and body.

Four…they give up. They think they need to do so much all at once. They should see learning in small pieces and as an incremental stepwise process. This is where learning single basics comes in. Learn to do one thing well before moving on to the next and you won’t have to worry about doing 100 things poorly. As the Taoist proverb says: “The journey is the destination.”

Five…they move on to next move before the current one is completely executed. This is a slightly different perspective of number four, but it merits repeating, because it is so important. Don’t rush. Beginners could coordinate breath with the moves if that works, but it is not necessary. Pace and rhythm are key. Make sure the move is extended completed before changing. The mind initiates then observes and guides.

Six…they are in their heads when they think they are not. They think they are doing the move when they are not. This is a huge obstacle to overcoming our presumptions about movement. But the fact that you are practicing, trying, is admirable. The mind’s focus should be from where the move is initiated: dantian, zhong ding, wherever, just not the head. You should seek a feeling and not a thought. Listen to your body. The mind should be quiet, observant. The qi should flow through.

These statements might be unclear for many readers, but for others they will ring true. The list doesn’t stop at six either. I could go on. Many of these subjects are commonly heard in tai chi practice, such as “no muscle.” Others are more esoteric, but seasoned practitioners will understand them. Ultimately, practice brings you around to them all, plus many more.