In April, we will host Energy Arts Senior Instructors Eric Peters and Craig Barnes for the Wu Style Tai Chi Immersion Week at Brookline Tai Chi. As Craig and Eric have been preparing for the event and planning their curriculum, I’ve been thinking about all the different ways you practice Tai Chi.
Sometimes, it depends on your stage of learning. Sometimes it comes down to the kind of day you’re having or your overall practice goals.
How much do you think about how you are going to practice when you practice Tai Chi? Or are you thinking more about what? And what is the why that underlies your practice in the first place?
Here are a few different ways to organize your personal practice.
Developmental Guidelines and Goals
At past instructor trainings, our teacher Bruce Frantzis has given us these three guidelines to follow over time:
- The primary focus of your practice should be on the mind. The body is secondary.
- Push Hands and fighting are testing methods along the way.
- The mind and the body should always be moving from tense to relaxed, then from relaxed to strong.
Try to follow these rules as you go through the different stages of practice outlined below.
Early Stages of Learning Tai Chi
When you are just starting out, you work on the external shape of the form. However, it’s not simply a matter of getting the hands and feet in the right place. Even when you learn the external shape, you have to wire them into your nervous system in a relaxed way.
In Tai Chi, the external shapes actually rely on subtle internal alignments. The early learning process is also about developing sensitivity to internal reference points to which you may have never paid attention. With overt physical tension, you miss the internal signals. Early on they are faint. Over time they become stronger and clearer. This is why you need the tense-to-relaxed-to-strong approach.
Progressing to Tai Chi Mechanics
The process of building the container can take years. You work through habitual contraction and strain patterns and ingrain the basic internal alignments of Tai Chi. When you’ve created a basic frame of external shapes and you’ve let go of several layers of accumulated tension in the body, you’re ready to work on more complex Tai Chi mechanics.
At this stage, you start to explore topics like internal lengthening through posture holding or by practicing the form with a strong Bend and Stretch cadence. The bending and stretching of tissues without tension leads to a sense of greater space in the body. The emphasis on greater internal space in the body actually allows you mind to release more fully. As you explore the space and release deep holding patterns in your nervous system, you shift the capacity of your mind to release as well.
Practicing Tai Chi Principles
At this point, you shouldn’t have to think about “what move comes next.” Instead, you are following different principles through the well-worn pathways of your form. “Following” here is key. In a sense, your mind is not really leading the movement.
For example, if you are working on tissue turning as a principle, you do some kind of warm-up exercise that primes the tissue turning. Then, as you start your Tai Chi form, you see if you can track the sensation of turning that is induced by the movements of the form. Your mind is observing the sensations of the body. You are tuning into physical and energetic sensations and seeing, initially, if you can bring the movement of the mind and the body and your energy into harmony. Synchronizing the movements leads to a stronger connection (remember: tense-to-relaxed-to-strong).
You develop a feedback loop at this stage where the more awareness you can bring to your body, the more the physical movements are amplified and at the same time, the smoother the body moves, the more the mind is calmed.
Building the feedback loop is at the heart of working with Tai Chi principles. Paul Cavel explains this process in depth for all neigong work, by laying out three different stages of practice.
Finding the Power of Tai Chi
The power of Tai Chi should be revealed from the very beginning of your practice. Following our paradigm of moving from tension to relaxation to true strength, you really are experiencing the power of the practice from the beginning.
As Bruce Frantzis writes in the Insider’s Guide to Tai Chi:
Most of us are not aware of this ever-present stressful buzz because it has become so normal. This buzz is a sure sign that your nervous system is either beginning to rev up (like a car going from 0–60 miles per hour in a few seconds), or even worse, has been locked habitually into a constant rev. This rev or buzz is how stress seeps through and hardens into your body. You now focus on ways to re-soften this nervous buzz inside you and progressively relax and release it from your nerves.
Tuning into this buzz is part of your Tai Chi practice from the outset. Over time, you peel more and more layers of tension away. But I hope you also look at the potential for daily renewal in your practice. Take the long view of cultivation over time, but also appreciate that on any given day, your practice is a tool for undoing the small accumulation of tension, stress, and noise that is layered onto us in the normal course of the day.
And as you work through this process again and again, the benefits multiply out into all different areas of your life. In “THE TAIJI BOXING OF MR. WU JIANQUAN – FOR SELF-STUDY, by Chen Zhenmin & Ma Yueliang” explain them in three stages:
What with Taiji Boxing having these kinds of features, a person who practices it can obtain these results:
When illness occurs, it has an effect on the spirit and an effect on the body, and the aim in Taiji is to aid you both physically and psychologically at the same time. Because the movement is slow, it has the capacity to make both the body limber and the circulation smooth, and so whether the problems are nervous disorders, anemia, indigestion, or ailments within organs, bones, vessels, or connective tissue, all can be dealt with by way of practice. Even in the case of incurable diseases, it can achieve a huge effect. However, with advanced stages of heart disease or tuberculosis, the practice should very gradually be increased and one must not rush into overdoing it, and it would be best under such circumstances to get a teacher to guide you.
2. CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION
When emptiness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a milder temperament and can eliminate arrogant behaviors. When calmness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a clearer mental state, increasing your ability to deal with problems. When naturalness becomes a habit and your body has a smooth coordination, it causes you to have a more robust build, which gives you a more leisurely attitude. When softness becomes a habit, it causes you to have a friendlier disposition, giving you more confidence.
3. INCREASED INSPIRATION
Because every part of the Taiji boxing art contains scientific principles [This seems an airy claim since there is no specific scientific analysis in this book, but becomes more reasonable when taken in the context of the larger body of Taiji literature: for example, Xu Zhiyi’s 1927 book contains three chapters exploring Taiji’s relation to psychology, physiology, and physics.], and also due to its alternations of emptiness and fullness, it is a method that is inexhaustible. When practicing the solo set, the whole body feels comfortable, and when practicing the pushing hands, the whole body feels enlivened. Therefore after practicing for a while, not only will one not feel tired, but one’s spirit will also feel awakened, a clear demonstration of one’s sense of interest being boosted. However, for beginners, because they have not yet become familiar with the map that will lead them to their destinations, they easily begin to get bored, and they must be patient for a period, after which they naturally will gradually come to find the more scenic vistas of sensation.
With a little reflection before you practice, I hope these guidelines can inspire you to sort between the how, what, and why of your practice and steer you towards a restorative, invigorating, and rewarding daily habit. Enjoy!