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.


What tai chi teaches us

Most if us do not need nor even want to learn a martial art, which is what tai chi is. We just need to move more beneficially in ways that enhance overall health in general, and more specifically strengthen and balance, increase endurance, improve circulation and concentration, and many other functions. If you practice tai chi—form, basics et. al—while being observant, you will see that the body becomes aware of the most beneficial way to move. As though it has mind. This is really basic tai chi, but bears repeating.

A note on “change” in tai chi

The following text published Nov. 2015 is the most-shared post of more than 2400 posts that readers shared. I thought I would republish it today.


In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

Purpose in tai chi

To remember is a purpose. To learn is a purpose. To become aware of what is there to learn is purpose. And to remember. To do it, to be it, to be there in evermore circumstances. Begin with the simplest. Build familiarity. Return more quickly than the time before. Align a string of memories and returns. Then you will find the more complex moves play out as though you have been doing them for a long time. You have in truth because the task is to learn, practice, remember, and then learn more, practice more, and remember more.

Relieve pain with subtle shifts in tai chi movement

If you experience recurring pain while practicing, a slight shift in your tai chi practice method may be all you need to affect a big change. For example, a closer alignment to the center may be all you need to relieve, or dissolve, pain.

Many have knee pain, which is often a sign of incorrect posture or incorrect usage. Chronic or acute, it doesn’t matter. Either we seem unable to track the hurt back to its origin (chronic), or it is (relatively) recent injury (acute).

Sometimes it is caused by practice itself. We don’t realize we are kinking the knee too far out (bow-legged), or too far in (knock-kneed). The arches may be too flat or too stretched up, as well; which suggests uneven foot pressure toward one side or another. These positions cause alignment to go out and often result in pain during and after practice.

Sometimes we just work too hard. In aerobic or resistance training, people often push themselves. While this has its value, doing tai chi that way may aggravate chronic issues that you want to alleviate.

Master Ching Manching
standing in Wuji

The issue might be merely postural in origin, whether it be in muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint. If your structure is off just a little, you could over work and over strain that area.

Working to improve skills at detecting subtle postural changes while in motion—something more difficult to do in fast movements—could really help to discover new training possibilities. Sometimes you need to go easy on yourself to give yourself a chance to detect subtle changes. You may have to move more slowly and pay closer attention to finer degrees of movement.

Moving while being mindful of central equilibrium, or zhong ding, can highlight where your structure is out of balance. The solution could simply be a mere shifting one way or another. While practicing, you can ask yourself where you tend to pivot from—perhaps, feet, knee, thigh, hip—and see what subtle changes you can affect.

Picture a fulcrum at the core of your balance and movement. Dr. Susan Matthews has referred to this as a teeter-totter, or see-saw, idea; whereby a part of the body lies at the center point of a motion. You essentially move from or through that point, and return to it. Then to get a sense of alignment, or equilibrium, picture a line of such points moving in relation to each other.

This kind of attention to alignment may be just what you need to help find and fix those little spots that catch and hurt.

You can find lots of info on alignment in general on the Web from other disciplines and authors. I would just add the idea that many practitioners are unaware of how a greater depth of awareness and a simple, subtle shift in alignment can lead to relief from common hindrances in training like pain.

For other aspects of this subject, see the following posts.

—“Zhong Ding
—“Standing in Wu Ji
—“Zhong Ding: A Fundamental Part of Tai Chi Practice

Also, view a video demonstration by Wu Tai Ji Grandmaster Wang Hao Da. His zhong ding training is superb.

For more in-depth training, you might be interested in visiting Susan Matthews’ Spiral Anatomy™ Training Course (Module #2).