Monday Morning Tai Chi Training Tip # 250
Training Track to Tai Chi Mastery
I have been a full time Tai Chi instructor for 47 years. Sharing this art is my passion, as I know first hand how valuable our practice is or can be. It is my intention to outline the steps I have found to lead to a deep understanding of Tai Chi. Your own voyage might be shorter or longer. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to master this art. You don’t have to be a master to enjoy one or more aspects of Tai Chi. Here is my way.
When I first encountered Tai Chi in 1968, there was no internet, no books on Tai Chi, only personal instruction from a teacher. I got interested in study when I saw Master Choy Kam-man and several of his students demonstrate the form. I was mesmerized and knew right off the bat this was something I had to explore.
Your first exposure was probably one of the following: You saw someone demonstrate in person or on a video. You read about it in a book or magazine. You have a friend who started studying and recommended it. This leads to the first step.
1. Find out what Tai Chi really is by reading. There is an unlimited amount of information on Tai Chi out there. Gain an understanding of the history and philosophy of Tai Chi. Most Westerners are surprised when they find out Tai Chi Chuan is first and foremost a martial art, part of a broad subject matter called “Martial Qigong”. Most instructors in the West are not interested in martial aspects, and might focus just on one of the following: flowing dance like movements, meditation, relaxation, or healing the body.
Read the I Ching (Confucianism) and Dao-te Ching (Daoism) for an understanding of ancient Chinese philosophy and how Tai Chi incorporates these concepts.
2. Now that you are aware of the many aspects of Tai Chi, find an instructor, if you can, who shares an interest in what you are interested in. Ask to sit in on a class, and talk to the students for their feed-back. Don’t despair if you can’t find an instructor in your area. There are hundreds of videos available. But beware! Most videos are just reference videos of an instructor going through the form with no real instruction. There are a few teachers who really attempt to teach Tai Chi in all its aspects. Mine are among these. See if you can preview these videos before purchase. Most have a presence on YouTube.
3. Take your time to focus on developing a solid foundation. That starts with the leg work. Study stances (wu chi, bow and sit, empty step on heel and toe, forward and backward walking, stepping up and back, side stepping). This is the most important practice to get started.
4. Focus on learning the movements. Do not be in a rush. I recommend starting with a short form, as it is easier to learn the form and feel you have accomplished learning a complete sequence. It is more difficult to practice part of a longer form than a complete shorter form.
5. In the beginning, put the most energy into the proper use of the feet and legs. They are your foundation and especially strength of legs, relaxation and calmness. Learn the major energy centers. The three dan tiens – lower belly, middle chest, between the eyebrows, as well as the major points for interacting energeticly with the environment (lao kung in palm, yung chuan on bottom of foot, pei hui on crown of head). Locate the Kua (hip area) and study how it functions. If interested, study meridians and how they channel energy. Also study anatomy and physiology. It comes in handy to understand how and why the body does what it does.
6. At the same time you should start your practice of Qigong (Chi Kung). There is much to be gained. It is a vast study, as qigong offers improvement in concentration, meditation, strength, focus, balance, self-healing, and lots more. As I said, Tai Chi is a form of qigong – martial qigong. There are general tonic exercises or very specific exercises that target internal organs, etc. Find one or two exercises that appeal to you and keep up practice. Benefits grow through consistent practice. You will be learning how to concentrate on internal energy.
7. As you learn the movements, study the intention of each part of each movement. If possible, have a training partner. It is important to gain awareness of how to focus energy into the appropriate place of your body. For instance, here is a simple exercise. Touch the back of your left hand with your right palm. Where do you feel it? Do it now.
Some people will say the right hand, some the left. Actually you feel it in the brain. But, in Tai Chi, where you feel it depends upon the intention. In the above example, if you imagine someone is touching the back of your left hand, the left hand is where your intention would be and where you would feel it. Or you can imagine that you are touching the back of someone else’s hand so you would feel it in your right palm. Where you put your focus is where the sensation will appear.
The point is that in Tai Chi movements, energy moves to different places in the body depending upon where your mind/focus is. It takes quite a bit of study, especially if you don’t have an instructor, to figure out what you are doing at all times in the form. It is important to realize when you are in defense (gather) and when you are in offense (release). Defense is usually done with the outside of the body and the offense with the fist, palm or foot.
8. After you have a good grasp of the form and its intentions, you may now look at other people’s interpretation of the form. You don’t want to do this too early as it will only confuse you. Don’t study two or more forms at the same time. Learn one, then study another, like a weapon form, but refrain from learning different forms at the same time.
9. It is now time for advanced practices. You have learned a complete form and are able to understand the intention on a martial and energetic level. The advanced practices are : weapons forms (sword, saber, spear, cane), push hands (tui shou), partner form (san shou), sticky hands, sensing hands. If you have time and want to challenge yourself, do the forms to the other side.
10. Finally, if you have an instructor, start to assist in classes. Keep the instructor appraised of how you are feeling about your skills and talents. When you and your instructor feel you are ready, you will teach a class of your own. If you don’t have an instructor, you will have to trust your own judgement of when you are ready. The real learning takes place as students ask you questions and you have to answer them, and you place your years of experience into understanding what the student is doing right and wrong and being able to articulate this. The journey to mastery is a well worn path. Trust those who have gone before to have blazed a trail you can follow. Now practice, then go out and spread the word.