Refining and Single-Basic Exercises

Although single basics are repetitive, they are not repetitious, so to speak. You repeat a pattern, intent on refining, not on repeating it exactly the same way as before. Change is the key. “Changeability” as Master Xu puts it.

How do you refine? Pick out a particular locus and focus your attention on how you move there. Focus on the move itself and how you might alter it—make it smoother, rounder, less hesitant.

Notes from practicing “peng” and a stimulating conversation

I used to assume that we westerners prefer explanations as we learn tai chi. In contrast, in China, teachers might not explain anything at all. However, explanations, or descriptions, are not as defined culturally as an individual preference, I think. We learn by listening to explanations and by doing.

We had a productive practice Saturday outdoors that, for me, revealed many things about this idea of learning and doing tai chi. To learn more deeply by doing tai chi, I believe. However, some explanation can be useful at the right time and place.

At one point in practice, a comment from me triggered a robust conversation (descriptions) and some good practice (doing). We were doing some two-person testing of brush knee.

I said that women are fun to work with because they are not trying to prove something to anyone, except themselves, maybe. They’re there to learn, experience, see what the potential is. More like curiosity.

Men learners, on the other had, more often must prove something to someone else. They are less inclined to prove it for themselves alone. For example, in two-person practice if I “peng” the other person, the hoped-for response is to yield (yin) at the point of contact, then yang from another quarter. Often, men tighten up and resist yang with yang, which hinders your freedom to move…to say the least. Push hands turns into who’s the strongest.

It’s also a sign that you are not able, nor, perhaps, willing, to let go of your preconceptions about two-person interaction. Whether for fun in tai chi class or in real life struggles the goal is to learn “yin-yang”: when to yin, when to yang, and when not to.

One person jokingly said, “You mean, you’re saying we need to get in touch with our feminine side?”

I don’t recall my reply in that moment, but I would have agreed with the idea that we should connect our yin side with our yang side in such a way that one doesn’t overpower the other and they work together harmoniously. Also, work with another person’s yin and yang energy in a similar manner.

I tried to articulate that tai chi is an exercise of shifting perspective to see perceptual bias underlying your actions. What is motivating you to do a move? The underlying attitude? What is the self-image and the intent behind the posture, or technique, or pattern of movement?

We were talking about “peng” or “full”, which is to fill with energy. I likened it to filling with qi at the center and expand it to the extremities, filling feet and hands. You could also view peng as projecting the view outwardly, encasing the body in a energy sphere.

We then did a couple of single-basic moves and explored relaxing the shoulder without collapsing and not tensing it as much as we were able, then tried to fill the whole body with energy and expand outward in peng.

We found two dilemmas: one was we couldn’t fill enough and expand and we sort of petered out. A more effective way would be to expand a sphere of energy beyond the body so physical movement would take place within that ball of energy. This is one way to view peng in an energetic sense.

The other is we would go immediately to “jing,” meaning we tighten muscles and lock up the body and try to overpower the other person physically, or at least stop them from attacking. We break through any energy sphere we might have developed in this case.

These responses signal that we don’t know what we’re doing. So I say that the goal is to know what you want to do in your practice and how to do it. This concept lies at the core. Don’t do just anything because you feel pressure to do something.

I also suggested that you have to do the moves repetitively and rhythmically in order to train the mind to shift more freely when in solo practice or two-person. This practice helps to develop power, too.

For now, we could just focus on filling a part of the body and allowing qi to flow through to other areas. You can breathe into the dantian, or lower back, or jade pillow, for example, and try to feel for it growing beyond into adjacent areas and ultimately everywhere, to toes and fingers.

Audio, The Goal of Tai Chi

Here is an audio clip of me describing the goal of tai chi from my perspective. Comments are welcome on the usefulness of audio clips on this blog. Thanks for listening.

The Tai Chi There and the Now

Tai chi learning is an incremental process that can’t be rushed. Of course, it helps to practice consistently with mindful attempts to recall what you were exposed to in class. Even though promoters often say tai chi is simple and easy, most beginners don’t practice at home between classes. If I could offer you a daily practice, I would in order to help you build a routine to incorporate in daily living.

In class, I talk about places to get to in tai chi practice—milestones in developing skill, such as whole body moves as a single unit, being “connected,” being “weighted in gravity,” feeling the qi, freeing the muscle.

You might think, “Wow, these things sound cool, but how am I going to get there?” I describe these milestones so you’ll know what we’re working towards. You might feel overwhelmed, but don’t expect yourself to be there now. What you can work on now are exercises learned in class, such as single-basic moves and qigong, visualizations and form. Just keep doing the moves. Try to remember something. Even if you work on only one thing, work on it.

I am available to help you as you develop a home practice. This is key to getting going. Set up a time and place to practice, even if it’s for five minutes. There are certain things in life that we have to take time out to do. You know what they are. Make tai chi practice one of them.

Tai chi and hope

We may not notice that we change as we mature and age. We may wake one morning to discover that our bodies are not functioning as they once did. Tired and sluggish, aching and stiff, we push on against the natural inclination to just stop to rest. Really rest. But that could be the death of us, so we push on and try not think about it.

Tai chi helps to develop listening skills so that we don’t fall so far behind so much. That is the hope.

Your tai chi goal

My goal in teaching tai chi is to show you the process. A secondary goal is to help you to realize that you can do it.

The question of what is tai chi lies at the core of all learning in tai chi. You’re in the process of discovering what tai chi is for you every time you stand up and start moving. No one can do that other than you. Isn’t that a remarkable thing to realize? …that you are the only one on the planet who knows what tai chi is, and can be, for you?

A simple trick for learning tai chi


As with many things in life there is a trick to doing tai chi. Knowing this makes learning easier, quicker, and more fulfilling. This trick, which really isn’t a trick as much as a rather useful technique, is to remember something. Something remembered is something learned.

You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we’re exposed to in class. That feeling may cause you to lose interest in learning. Which, of course, could harm why you chose to practice in the first place.

Here is a suggestion for solving the problem of remembering. Remember just one thing that you have learned in class and practice it until you have mastered it, or at least feel reasonably comfortable with it.

This trick is analogous to taking the first step in a journey. Each new move, or method of moving, is a single step in your learning journey.

What do you recall from class that you can practice right now?