Notes from a lesson with George Xu

I dug up a few notes from early trainings with Master Xu that remind me of a few basic practice principles. They might sound rather advanced, however. I had begun practice about two years before. I thought it would be fun to share. See if it resonates for you.

You must try different styles of tai chi in order to learn which you are best suited for, Master George Xu once told us. Distinct styles match the five elements: wood, water, fire, air, metal. Metal is the most martial of all. Chen Style, for example is a fluid style, while Wu is like a snake—concentrated, connected. 

Also, you must go from one level to the next in your training, but it is common that while you train at one level, you are preparing yourself for not only the next, but for all. The levels that Master Xu named are physical, energy and spiritual. There is no worthwhile physical without spiritual, he said. But you must train the physical to it highest level of attainment in order to reap the greatest benefit of the spiritual.

Some time later, he compiled some more advanced instructions that (sort of) add to these earlier points.

Body qualities

The body must be “xu” (empty.) The body power is hidden like a cat so the enemy cannot detect your power sources. This means “nobody knows me, I know you.” 

The body must be “kong”(self-conscious.) Wu wei‚ do without doing. This is the way to get maximum gravity, maximum freedom and maximum speed. You have only energy structure, like the one of a predator. 

Ling (agile and alive.)You have two bodies: internal and external bodies are separate. You can move internal body separately from external body. It makes you change in a smart way.

Tong (energy Yin-Yang go through inside of body.) No place in the body has “ice.” You have four levels in progression: ice, lava, water, steam. You have to keep these qualities anytime and in every position.

Energy qualities

The feeling of all kinds of changing inside your body is called “Qi”. The Qi has four qualities:

Qi Go Through—Yin-Yang energy changing through the body acting and reacting force together. The feeling of these two forces creates the “qi go through.” The qi has to be balanced in all directions, especially some qi goes inside and some outside. 

Qi Alive—Not physical body alive, but the internal body alive, with harmony to the mind.

Qi melt—Until your qi totally melts, you cannot be “pure internal.” The internal energy is bigger than the physical body otherwise you are internal-external physical body (point-line and not volume).

Qi Spiritual—The qi is in harmony with the spiritual, the spiritual can attach from every position like a mosquito, surprising the enemy in his empty areas.

After having the body and energy qualities, first of all you must have the maximum unit force, all body harmony to one. In each point of my body you touch, you touch the entire body.

Secondly, you must have maximum gravity and understand how to use this maximum gravity in an intelligent way and how any effort and tension reduce the gravity force.

Thirdly, if you are in a kong situation, you can have maximum freedom.

Fourthly, you have maximum speed.

Fifthly, you have minimum effort to achieve you action.

Sixthly, you must keep the “not-understandable.”

Seventhly, unpredictable.

Eighthly, unbreakable structure.

Ninthly, unresistable force.

When you fight you must keep the round circle motions (no beginning, no ending) and 3D shrinking-expanding snowball motion.

Finally, the whole body becomes a spiritual fist. Everything becomes yin and yang at the same time, so the spirit is yang, very light, but your spirit has to be very heavy like a mountain when you fight. The physical body is Yin (very heavy) but when you fight you have to feel it light as a feather. The speed is a mind speed, there is a mind-change technique, your power is a mind power. 

Awareness and not-awareness exist at the same time, light and heavy at the same time, soft and hard at the same time, empty and full, large and small at the same time. You have only one feeling changeable all the time. You have not a Yang feeling changing to Yin feeling, but a Yin and Yang feeling at the same time in a situation that you know, but you don’t know.

Have fun applying this in your practice.


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 site (Students of Master George Xu hosted by Dr. Tim Dymond) and on (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.