A tai chi learning progression

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. Tai chi is like that. Life is like that. For example, sometimes new learners grasp the details of simple cloud hands with great effort. 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 move is a refinement of the last one. Over time, with practice and continued focus, we improve at the learning process itself. 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.

Taiji and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind

I do tai chi as a way to not do other things that disrupt and cause stress. Practice is a meditation through which I may understand the nature of this moving meditation. When I began taiji, I had not yet explored sitting meditation; nor even moving meditation. I viewed taiji as an exercise that I hoped would help me relax, divert my mind away from stressful things and allow my body to heal.

Now, if I want, I can shift the intention of my practice from exercise to meditation and back; that is from physical practice to energy awareness practice, and to some extent spiritual practice. It’s all meditative, however, and as time passes and my practice matures, I ponder on the nature of meditation itself.

For me, many passages in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pertain to taiji practice, as well as sitting meditation (zazen). I became interested in reading this classic treatise on Zen practice while at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center where we have had our annual five-day taijiquan camp for some years now. We meet in September with our teacher Xu Guo Ming (George Xu).

Suzuki Roshi speaks to why I do taiji. He describes what I aim to achieve in practice. One of those aims is to forget the self and merge with the movement and expand it to merge with a greater self that is not me.

For example, he writes “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself” (p47). The first paragraph of that page is so dense with meaning that I can reread it over and over and always find fresh insight.

“. . . . usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea.” This applies in taiji practice, where movement aids in achieving quiet mind.

In “Mistakes in Practice,” he writes that when you become discouraged with your practice “. . . . you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point in your practice” (p57). Similarly in taiji when we are aggravated by something in practice, it is a positive sign that you are becoming aware of your own nature, as well as gaining clarity on the direction practice can go.

Desiring to attain an ideal or goal creates more ideals and goals which in turn “sacrifices the meat of your practice” (p57). It is not possible to achieve rapid, extraordinary progress, he says. Learning is like walking in a fog compared to walking in a rain. You get wet little by little as you walk and practice is like this. But you must practice without seeking goals.

Suzuki Roshi writes: “When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. . . . let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. . . . it is only the waves of your mind . . . . gradually they will become calmer . . . . (p17). We use movement to achieve this in taiji practice.

In taiji, there is a twist to this topic. Many practitioners assume they are achieving their objective, but in reality they only think they are. I find that it helps to study in a group to test yourself to reveal if you are actually doing what you intend or just think you are. I feel this is also good for meditation. Sit or practice with a group or knowledgeable teacher to help cut through the delusion of thought.

“The cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea” (p60), Suzuki Roshi writes. This is so in world affairs and in one’s self. Taiji practice is a method of working this way of being out of the self. For me, the movement itself in a meditative mental state produces, or merges with, the intention of clearing the mind and body and energetic configuration for fixation.

These are just a few nuggets of wisdom corresponding to taiji practice found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If a taiji practitioner read this book, their practice would surely be imbued with greater awareness and beneficial results.

A tai chi tip: Doing tai chi anywhere, anytime

Tai chi doesn’t have to be something you schedule to do. With a little knowledge you can practice a simple technique anywhere, anytime. Here’s one idea.

Standing in Wuji . . . . or Being Like a Mountain

One way to begin tai chi is simply by standing. For example, Wuji is the first posture in a tai chi form. You return to Wuji when you finish form. It basically means to stand quietly but alive and agile. It’s sometimes called “standing like a mountain”; silent, expansive and powerful. “Empty” is another term used to describe the state of being in Wuji. Quiet, without thought, without tension, even without mind.

The Classics say that Taiji was born out of Wuji and from Taiji came Yin-Yang, or the separation and movement of things in the world. So when you stand in Wuji then move, you are expressing a universal principle of Taiji, the supreme ultimate expression of movement.

Here is a little pointer on beginning form by standing in Wuji. Stand facing forward, arms at sides, feet parallel and shoulder width, a straight line from ear lobes to ankles, chin downward, not up. Abdomen loose, shoulders relaxed and “sitting on the hips.”

Breath should be natural, even and full, but not strained. Place your attention on your feet. Feel the surface of whatever you are standing on with the soles of your feet. Feel the muscles. Feel the weight. Feel warmth or coolness. Shift your weight slightly to one side then the other. Feel how your body as a whole responds and adjusts to the shifting.

Visualize something like water or a breeze flowing into the ground through the point behind the ball of the foot. See how far you can project the flow into the earth. Now, visualize the flow rising from the earth through that point all the way to the top of your head and back down. Feel how the rising force causes your body to rise with it.

That’s it, that’s all you have to do. Just standing in Wuji and visualizing a flow is good practice any time you like.

12 Key Exercises for Brain Health

How to use movement to activate the brain. Once you activate the brain “it
likes it!” there are five ways to activate the brain. Shifu Matthews talks about this and more in this brief video clip from her youtbue channel.

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.