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.

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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.

A Tai Chi Visit on a Tai Chi Journey

Martial arts is a pleasurable obsession for many who choose fighting arts for a lifelong pursuit. It’s easy to see how they would. Every choice to practice is potentially life-altering. You can study and practice for lifetimes and reap unending rewards for your effort. Even if you seek moderate forms of relaxation and exercise, such as tai chi, it’s still easy to become fascinated by the subject.

Since taijiquan came to this continent nearly a century ago, dedicated disciples of a few Chinese expatriates (E.g., Cheng Man Ching, William C.C. Chen and T.T. Liang) have published a rather vast literature of knowledge gleaned from their teachers.

Many of these disciple-students are known by their works and still write and teach, having evolved experiences into their own unique expressions of their arts. Many have died (Robert W. Smith comes to mind), but luckily for us they all leave behind priceless information.

Many more accomplished practitioners don’t write at all, don’t put themselves “out there” that way. They are not well-known, or not known at all. Perhaps a few people train with them, maybe none.

These practitioners immerse themselves in thought, study, and practice of tai chi and other internal fighting arts. They read the literature incessantly. Home library shelves sag with the weight of books on techniques, methods and histories. Many neither need nor seek fighting skills. They are simply fascinated.

In my own quest to answer questions about the direction my own practice should go, I recently visited one of these multi-talented martial artists.

Although I have fairly intensively studied and practiced tai chi and other Chinese internal martial art forms for almost 20 years, I know I have only scratched the surface. I have climbed a mountain, and after finally reaching the top through years of struggle, only now do I see how far there is to go. I also see potential ways to get there.

I figured that my kung fu friend, William Johnson, a life-long student of martial arts, could help delineate potential routes. I was right. He spoke for hours, deftly demonstrating his knowledge about all kinds of martial arts. In fact, Bill is a walking, talking encyclopedia. He has the obsession. He was very open to sharing information, too. I think that he was happy to see someone take time to talk.

I went to visit him in Grand Junction, Colorado with Shifu Susan A. Matthews, who has the obsession, too. We stayed over night, not even 24 hours, and Bill talked excitedly about various martial styles and their effectiveness, and people he studied under and their approach to teaching. We conversed about techniques and applications, methods and results, about books and videos and weapons, and about qigong, a major topic of conversation, probably because he is currently studying the Fire Dragon Meridian Qigong.

Shifu Bill began Tae Kwon Do at the age of 13 and for his dedication was awarded national championship 30 years ago. His dedication to continued learning and perfecting his knowledge and skills impresses me. In his sixties, even though he teaches workshops and has private students, he is immersed in some learning project daily.

Tai chi is an art that needs regular if not constant attention in order to reap the fullest benefits. I’m not talking about working harder, rather about enjoying learning. I’m talking about bridging the gap between novice and erudite. Even if you are a novice, if you’re not at least thinking about your chosen art everyday, you’re not learning as much. This is useful to know. Many beginning students of tai chi, for example, will attend a weekly class, but do little solo practice between classes.

Shifu Bill possesses golden nuggets of knowledge that even novice practitioners can glean. He talked about his Grandmaster T. T. Liang and Waysun Liao, and many others. It was fun hearing stories of the historical martial arts figures. He brims over with information; he can’t get it out fast enough, pouring out whatever he could given time and language constraints . . . Speaking rapidly and constantly, as if needing to hear it himself, to instill into his experiences more corporeality and substantiate them in his own mind.

Most of us don’t have the time to digest so much information, but it’s good to know we still have such erudite practitioners as Bill among us still. I’m sure many others live among us, open to sharing their deep knowledge and experience, and who enjoy a good visit. . . . who deserve acknowledgement for their accomplishments.

I left Grand Junction with a renewed sense of fascination with martial arts in general and of martial artists themselves and what motivates them to be who they are and pursue their art. In fact, my visit stimulated me to write about it. The journey continues.

What is Qi?

CHI

For so long we have referred to “qi,” without actually describing what qi is so that we all know what were are talking about. Lifeforce, energy and so on are words. Through experience we interpret them, but if you have no experience, defining qi becomes more elusive.

Qi is change. Not like “spare change” as in money, but shifts that occur in the position of the body, for example. In order to shift you probably need a shift in the mind. Perspective has to change. You need to discern more subtle positions of the body and the feeling of flow. Qi flows. One way to identify qi is to seek out places in the body that have nothing flowing through them. This understanding is achievable by everyone who tries, I believe.

A View of Zhang Zhuang Standing

img of people doing post standing with masters Yun Yin Sen and George Xu

standing

The secret to standing in zhang zhuang or yi quan is not in how still you can be, rather how you adapt and adjust subtle energies in the body so that you will be relaxed yet strong, calm yet alert. Trying not to move can create tension and defeat the purpose of standing. Start with the muscles and look for where energy is not flowing freely. If not, then you are holding on to something that hinders flow.

Another secret is to understand the concept of “two bodies”; one energy and the other physical. Separate them as yin and yang separate, but remain as one.

You can incorporate standing principles when you pause in a posture in the form; then maintain the sense, or sensation cultivated in standing, as you move through transitions from one posture to another.  That alignment, central equilibrium, zhong ding, qi going through and circulating through everything is the essence of taiji. Susan A. Matthews refers to this as “stillness in movement.” Wuchi never goes away even thogh you ar moving. Very yin-yang.

Don’t know what standing, or Zhang Zhuan, refers to? You can learn more by reading The Way of Energy by Lam Kam Chuen. I downloaded recently it as a pdf here.