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: Habit Killer

The old cliche of “breaking a (bad) habit” has outworn it usefulness. Instead, focus on creating a new habit. A habit has been described as a “psychological loop,” which is like a self-perpetuating pattern. Create—learn new patterns, new habits, of movement doing tai chi. This creates potential to overcome obstacles to progress along the path of learning and change, and yes, maturing beyond entrenched, unwanted habits.

Knowing what you want to do in tai chi practice and doing it

Knowing what you want to do and having enough control of body and mind to actually do it is one ability to seek

One key to reaping the greatest benefits from tai chi is to develop a solo practice and do it regularly. This offers opportunities to refine and discover new things in a state of concentration free of distractions often common in classes.

Solo practice is useful to concentrate on releasing tension and not to clench or tighten joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as muscle, when moving. This may sound like a good rule, but not easy to apply all at once. It would be great if you could.

Maybe you just need to let tension go when you recognize you have it. That alone will probably take most of your concentration. You may eventually gain some control to do what you want when you want, which elicits greater clarity of what’s going on in your mind and body.

Conversely, more clarity may come from being able not only to relax when you want, but also tighten when you want. You can’t escape tension and release in a martial art.

This sort of control on demand is not so easy, mainly because we’re not clear on what we’re doing. It’s a lot of guess work for beginners. One way to approach it is to try to move a part of your body in isolation from the rest. Once you can do that, then you can intend the rest of the body to follow. You should feel, sooner or later, the energy flowing through your whole being.

As an example of what I mean, tighten the hamstrings. This is a way of guiding the attention to move something specific on purpose. I like the word condense energy, where your power coils up and quickly “springs” open when you’re ready (fa jin).

I also bring out a similar subject when doing qigong and single-basic repetitions. The idea, in this case, is to extend the arms and legs to a point then quickly release and continue on. Don’t hold the tension. This is the idea in Eights Pieces of Brocade, with poses, such as push up sky, and bow and arrow.

Moving a muscle or combination of joints, bones, ligaments and tendons, or fascia, begins with holding attention on a point in the body and initiating a movement from it. Once that’s accomplished, you can hold your attention there while also placing it on a secondary activity, such as another point, or the feeling of movement itself. The feeling of movement refers to speed, quality, shape, size, distance, and so on. To reiterate—learn to do what you want to when you want to.

Working to relax and release tension can eventually result from cultivating a deeper awareness of the feeling of your intended movement. You need to feel the move, not just think it. Thinking is a small part of tai chi practice, if any at all. Words may help to describe, but they don’t often adequately explain, nor can they elicit real understanding on their own. You must feel it. Think of the body as a conscious being.

How do you reach that coveted state of understanding? First, you must practice at your level of understanding and observe your actions. Understanding is discovered through practice.

Beware of trying to understand before doing the practice, or you’ll risk complacently thinking you’re skilled when in truth you may not be.

We can practice and get feedback by sharing our experiences and doing group and two-person training. These are great benefits to learning. But in the end, it’s you who comes into understanding through solo practice.

The irony in seeking silence in tai chi practice

Tai chi is getting in touch with your own silence. Your inner place of peace. “Quiet mind,” as the teacher says. Quiet, not inactive, or complacent.

The irony is that the ultimate goal of tai chi is to see beyond one’s self. Not just to look inward and find silence, but to go outside of one’s self from a place of silence within.

You could argue that you must first find silence within in order to hear what’s out there. If so, then maybe the best avenue to silence in the whole being is to look at what nature offers. We could evolve our practice, thus ourselves, as a result of observing nature.

More irony: When we do try to observe nature, we often seem to hold on even more to our habitual self-talk that we are trying to quieten in the first place. Then what do you do?

Practice. Focus your attention on the dantian, for example, and move from there. Gradually extend the movement outward from deep within yourself, utilizing all of your senses, eventually.

We have expectations, not in the sense of demands. We just expect things are such that they fit with our ideas about them.

It’s like taking things for granted without realizing we are. Transparent and invisible. We become vulnerable to outside influences primarily by virtue of not being aware (apparently) that we’re taking something for granted.

I see people do tai chi with this habit, thinking that tai chi is what we think it is. Even though we’ve never done it before. We’re the same way with everything we do, especially involving movement.

To illustrate this difficult-to-grasp idea, you can look at the two aspects of training in tai chi: physical and energetic.

I notice it most when teaching other learners. They take to the physical rapidly, although it’s a little alien at first, because it requires unpracticed effort and memorization. They learn the moves and sequences, which are difficult enough and take time to get familiar and comfortable doing.

But we more readily balk at grasping the energetic basis of movement, which requires us to employ a different skill than we are accustomed to. Energy doesn’t stand still. It fluctuates, pulses with life, and is much more elusive and difficult to put a finger on or hold it back. You have to learn to work with it on its own terms. If you do, you’re rewarded with practically magical results.

One doorway into this skill is to change awareness from rote memorization to the sensation of movement itself. We shift perception and observe how, or of what, we are aware.

With beginning practitioners, I focus on a point in the body at first, such as the dantian—a point of departure, so to speak. We sustain the focus on this point while executing a move.

The first stage is developing energy awareness in tai chi is to simply become aware of qi. This is followed by being aware of it moving, or “flowing,” then realizing that it can be directed with mind intention.

We all use these skills, but it has not been a focus of our attention for most of our lives. We’ve taken it for granted to the point of it losing its effectiveness. With tai chi we realize that it can be redeveloped and we can get more out of it than we had imagined.

Assumptions obscure obvious opportunities. If only we would look more closely. …in tai chi and in the world itself.




We live by the clock. You might say we’re slaves to it. A lot of our discordant feelings are due to our yearning to be free from the clock. That’s one reason why we do tai chi—to get away from THE CLOCK.

I see people looking at the clock in tai chi class. That means that they’re not concentrating enough on why they’re there in the first place. That’s OK though, because it’s not easy. But it’s easier than we think. Just showing up to practice is a masterful act of at least trying to break the chains of THE CLOCK. There’s a lot to be said for that.