Many teachers teach form

Master George Xu distinguishes his approach by taking his theory of applying the movements of predatory animals to martial arts training. He says that most masters don’t explain how a style is effective. Either they don’t know it or they don’t want to share it. In contrast, Master Xu combines his theory with basic training techniques. In describing the art of the predator, he shows learners not just how an animal moves and how that can be applied it in martial arts. He encourages to put yourself in the place of the tiger or the lion, and become the essence of their art. To be wild like the wind. To raise the shen in an instant like a predator in the chase.

I studied with Master Xu for about 20 years until the pandemic hit. I still get considerable exposure through new video lessons on his patreon.com site (Students of Master George Xu hosted by Dr. Tim Dymond) and on YouTube.com (Golden Gate Lion Tiger).

Tai chi and choosing a path of change

“You want to change the world? Change yourself.” My Chinese martial arts teacher, George Xu, told me that once. Of course, I already knew that, but it’s always good to be reminded. You can’t get enough reminding, especially in the midst of living under the barrage that is this world in this time. Not that I think I can change the world, but I am interested in changing myself.

I’ve read also in a wellness course I’m taking that “all change is self-change.” For me, tai chi and qigong are tools for change. I began my practice for that reason, although it wasn’t foremost in my mind. I was taking a chance that it would help to solve a health problem. It was a desperate act of hope to alter an illness. It’s that way for many practitioners—deciding on tai chi to correct an affliction or to prevent problems in the future.

It’s not always clear how to change or what to change at first, however. We can know such new and unfamiliar modalities, that really are only hearsay at first, only by doing them. We might fear that they won’t work and we will have lost time and money, but we have to trust something, so we engage them, uncertain of the outcomes.

Isn’t that true all the time anyway? You can either trust others or yourself. Doctors, healers, priests, ministers, shamans come and go, and in the end you still have yourself. All these have value if placed correctly, but tai chi and qigong give you the wheel and allow you to do something about your health for yourself. We have in the end, and in the beginning as well, only our own best judgment to go on and act on the hope for fruitful outcomes and solved problems.

Reminder: Know where your central equilibrium is. Move around it, up and down its length. Forward and back. Straight, strong, alive. Flexible, always regenerating.

Taiji and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind

I do tai chi as a way to not do other things that disrupt and cause stress. Practice is a meditation through which I may understand the nature of this moving meditation. When I began taiji, I had not yet explored sitting meditation; nor even moving meditation. I viewed taiji as an exercise that I hoped would help me relax, divert my mind away from stressful things and allow my body to heal.

Now, if I want, I can shift the intention of my practice from exercise to meditation and back; that is from physical practice to energy awareness practice, and to some extent spiritual practice. It’s all meditative, however, and as time passes and my practice matures, I ponder on the nature of meditation itself.

For me, many passages in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pertain to taiji practice, as well as sitting meditation (zazen). I became interested in reading this classic treatise on Zen practice while at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center where we have had our annual five-day taijiquan camp for some years now. We meet in September with our teacher Xu Guo Ming (George Xu).

Suzuki Roshi speaks to why I do taiji. He describes what I aim to achieve in practice. One of those aims is to forget the self and merge with the movement and expand it to merge with a greater self that is not me.

For example, he writes “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself” (p47). The first paragraph of that page is so dense with meaning that I can reread it over and over and always find fresh insight.

“. . . . usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea.” This applies in taiji practice, where movement aids in achieving quiet mind.

In “Mistakes in Practice,” he writes that when you become discouraged with your practice “. . . . you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point in your practice” (p57). Similarly in taiji when we are aggravated by something in practice, it is a positive sign that you are becoming aware of your own nature, as well as gaining clarity on the direction practice can go.

Desiring to attain an ideal or goal creates more ideals and goals which in turn “sacrifices the meat of your practice” (p57). It is not possible to achieve rapid, extraordinary progress, he says. Learning is like walking in a fog compared to walking in a rain. You get wet little by little as you walk and practice is like this. But you must practice without seeking goals.

Suzuki Roshi writes: “When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. . . . let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. . . . it is only the waves of your mind . . . . gradually they will become calmer . . . . (p17). We use movement to achieve this in taiji practice.

In taiji, there is a twist to this topic. Many practitioners assume they are achieving their objective, but in reality they only think they are. I find that it helps to study in a group to test yourself to reveal if you are actually doing what you intend or just think you are. I feel this is also good for meditation. Sit or practice with a group or knowledgeable teacher to help cut through the delusion of thought.

“The cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea” (p60), Suzuki Roshi writes. This is so in world affairs and in one’s self. Taiji practice is a method of working this way of being out of the self. For me, the movement itself in a meditative mental state produces, or merges with, the intention of clearing the mind and body and energetic configuration for fixation.

These are just a few nuggets of wisdom corresponding to taiji practice found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If a taiji practitioner read this book, their practice would surely be imbued with greater awareness and beneficial results.

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.

Power stretching tip for older people beginning tai chi

ImageI consider power stretching an essential practice for supporting tai chi practice or any other movement. Professional dancers, runners, swimmers, hikers, skiers, etc. know this of course, along with master martial artists. One thing I have learned about how people power stretch is that they over do it and can injure themselves, especially in the beginning of practice. They stretch when they are not warmed up, for example. Or they overstretch when it would be better to gradually work their muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints into more extension. They rip and tear, rather than coax and nurture. The older you get the more liable you are to do this if you are not mindful.

Power stretching is an essential part of practice if you want deeper benefits; but until you understand through practice over time, I suggest not over doing it when you add power stretching.

Chinese martial arts power stretching is different from other systems for the most part, but you do find things similar in other systems. One difference is how you incorporate your attention in the postures, which is more internal and energetic in nature. Some teachers offer detailed methods of observation to help sharpen our attention and our sensitivity to subtle changes in our bodies. I know my teachers and I do, anyway.

For older people who are beginning tai chi or have been practicing for a short time, stretch only as much as it is comfortable at first, then progress to more challenging extension. Most of us can go out of our comfort zone without harm. But if you are following a seasoned practitioner, don’t push yourself to match their effort and extension. You won’t be able to. However, allow them to challenge you a little. My teacher, George Xu (Guo Ming) once told me, “Go slow in the beginning. The master goes his speed, you go yours.”

We seldom push ourselves beyond our limits, or what appears to be limits. Most of us will stay where we are if it’s working for us. That’s not a bad thing, because it allows us to save energy for when we need it. It’s sort of a survival trigger, but you also risk complacency. It’s also true that the more we stretch beyond perceived limits, the more energetic capacity we develop. This is the essential tai chi principle: know your limits, but practice to go beyond them. Learn what they are, but overcome them through regular, consistent practice … alone and as part of a group. It will do wonders for you.

I enjoy doing Shin Jin Ba Go stretch I learned from Grandmaster Shou Guan Shun in Shanghai, a free clip of which you can see on SusanAMatthews.com.