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.

Developing a complementary art to taijiquan

Tai chi masters, old and young, traditionally have had practices other than martial arts. They often apply their skills to other forms of art. Calligraphy is one, of course. It is very common for a tai chi practitioner to express his qi through writing the characters. There are others too: musicianship, painting, tea mixing, dance, and so on. Susan Matthews, my friend and teacher, practices ballroom dancing. George Xu practices calligraphy and antique collecting.

As taiji is practiced more by more people across the world are developing their other art. One difference is that new artforms are evolving in response to our changing times and the demands of living in the current era. The trend of less common and emerging arts complemented by tai chi reflects what I see as the rediscovery or rebirth of a modern taiji.

In my case, I have played my guitar with a taiji mind. And more recently, I have been studying nutrition in my search to find the best foods to put in my body. This is an emerging application of taiji knowledge, one that brings these two complementary practices into play with each other. I talk about how this focus came to be on my website. I even have begun a business to help others with nutrition and overall health. I call it A Well Balanced Dream.

On and on it goes. I always tell people that tai chi is a complementary exercise that will enhance whatever you already do. You might swim, run, bike, hike, garden, rock climb, ski, golf, or play competitive sports, such as tennis, baseball, football, and basketball. Tai chi can enhance all of these and more. What is your art?