The personal learning journey of tai chi

(This post was first published June 2017 and has been revised and republished)

A journey of learning entails the step-wise progression of putting pieces of information together and building a body of knowledge. It’s a body of simple, personal observations filed away for later use—not assumptions, or guesses, based on conventionalized thought. It is not one thing or another to be argued, right or wrong. Learning is based on your own discoveries. It is experience and the memories of experience.

People ask about getting tai chi right. “What’s the right way?” they ask. Or “What am I doing wrong?” they wander.  If you ask me, I think they are a little hard on themselves thinking they are not doing good enough. I tell them not to think of it as either right or wrong, just that you’re refining from where you are in your efforts to learn tai chi. Today’s practice builds on the practice before. It’s cumulative. This thinking helps to dispel the idea that you have to do it according to a predetermined rule before you can claim you are doing tai chi at all. The only way to know tai chi is to do it at the level you are at. Only the individual practitioner sees the way. It’s personal. No one else can see it for you.

The simplest activity can be a practice of tai chi—even a single basic repetition. Even sitting for 60 seconds and breathing mindfully is doing qigong. Anyone can do that anytime and, every time you do, you’re building upon the practice before. You will see results if you do it regularly.


Tai chi challenge: practice

Learning the simplest things in tai chi can be a challenge, not because they are difficult; but, because we’re unfamiliar with them at first. It requires practice. Tai chi is like that. Life is like that. For example, sometimes new learners grasp the details of simple cloud hands only with considerable effort. It seems so easy on one hand, but there is so much more. You feel something missing. Or remembering to maintain a proper stance while moving the upper body takes reminding ourselves over and over. With practice though, we gradually build familiarity with the moves, then we become more comfortable, then we can refine what we’ve learned. Every successive practice is a refinement of the previous one. Over time we improve at the learning process itself. We become better learners. We are able to sustain concentration longer and with more depth. We look forward to new information so that we can practice learning skills that the moves themselves teach us.

Old into new

In tai chi, there may be a better way to do a move or technique that is not necessarily right or wrong. There are many methods to achieve similar outcomes. What is more important to me as an instructor is that a learner do something different than what they normally default to in their movements. If anything is the correct step, that is. Whether the teacher says do this or do that is important particularly inasmuch as it helps the student change old patterns of movement into new. Beginners should think about this.

Going solo

Tai chi is one of the best exercises. Experiences as a student and teacher have taught me that practicing in a group setting twice a week (at a minimum), along with some degree of practice at home is best for learning and improving memory, as well as for building lasting health benefits.

Tai chi is simple in some ways. In a group practice, you learn a form, or a set of movements that everyone performs in unison. Follow the leader, monkey-see-monkey-do. It gets interesting when there is no group leader to follow.

The goal of learning tai chi is also to develop a home practice or a solo routine, which does not have a “one size fits all” approach. It can be customized to the individual, too. Every person is different: different body, different circumstances, and different interests, needs and desires.

The challenge for many newer learners is where to begin. I suggest simply choosing a few appealing moves from among the many learned in class, then remember them at home. It can be as simple as breathing and opening the body with a simple stretch for a minute. Or it can be memorizing the whole form. Either way, you have at chance to make a difference in your conditioning if you try a more-customized practice, tuned to your unique situation.

Solo training is the seedbed of the master. Ultimately, the movement teaches you. You grow more aware of what it is telling you as you evolve. Then at some point you surpass the limits you had grown accustomed to expecting in yourself.

I read in a treatise

I read in a treatise on the Tao Te Ching that states to be fully human is to develop a power of attention that “allows the harmonious relationship of the forces of Yin and Yang to take place within one’s own psychophysical organism.” How’s that for a statement on the mind-body connection?