The How, What, and Why of Tai Chi Practice

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.


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.


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!

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  1. The why (purpose) and the how (flavour of one’s method, of the day as well as long-term) is a good focus, and I try and remember to reflect on how the practice(s) fit into “all the rest” of my life. -I see on YouTube you note this was recorded in summer 2011, vs Winter 2013 (barefoot outside in MA would seem it would be cold, or a really warm day 🙂 …. One thought I had watching this (thx forthis video of another demo of movement)- I’d seen Eric P moving years back and he had a much more connected-twisting and “overt” rooting look, while this video seems much less so- perhaps even a dis-integrated appearance; which makes me wonder what else he might be focusing upon and working… I’d be curious to hear his comments on re-interp of movement (via new perspective-learnings, etc.) if you happened to have him (&/or others) QR interview.
    IE “if I knew then what I knew now” kind of thing, and “before I thought a primary focus was (XYZ) while Now I’ve re-shifted my focus” (above and beyond developmental-stages, having built up, ABC… but more- newly recog important elements. Just a thought


  2. Eric Peters says:

    Hey Gary,

    Thanks for the comments. Long time no see. Hope you are well.

    I have rarely filmed myself and this was, I suppose, motivated by the Short Form training in Brighton, England and conversations I had with several friends during it as to what was going on there.

    I had no agenda or something I wanted to emphasize when I filmed this. I think that I was focused on how the form was taught to us in California at our Short Form training in 1999, the way the moves were done, and the openings/closings and bend/stretch that was taught, including what Bruce then referred to somewhat imprecisely as the “boinks,” or how each move finished or expressed itself before moving on to the next one, sort of like a small fa jing inherent in that portion of each move. Bruce did make changes to a number of moves in the Brighton training that are now in the Mastery Program. I am showing the vintage 1999 version here. As I watch it today, there are a few moves here I might do a little differently or change the timing, if I were to film it again.

    Your observation/memory of what my form used to look like when you saw it years ago I take as a compliment and thank you. I will say that there is a way to practice tai chi and many of the chi gung sets Bruce teaches, or even bagua, that is heavily hydraulic, overtly (to use your word) pumping, viscous, thick, and more snake like than the lighter crane aspects of tai chi. This does tend to be rather physical and twisting is often made more obvious.

    On the other hand, once this sort of practice has penetrated the body deeply, you can lighten up or get softer. Some things (like twisting) become less obvious or get smaller or more internal. Over the last few years in my practice I have tried to lighten up. This sometimes means allowing things to happen in the body, rather than intending them to happen. Another way this is experienced is to set the form in motion and watch what happens from movement to movement.

    Living near the ocean has been a big influence in my practice in terms of having a reference to flow, to open and close, rise and fall and so forth. In the video, you can hear the surf in the background and it is just behind the horizon. But where I filmed it (some extended family property) is also full of light and air and I tend to let myself disperse when I practice in the fields (rather than the beach). Perhaps that is what you are seeing as “dis-integrated,” because I do think I am rather integrated in my movement. But, while centered in my body in doing the form, my mind was also spread out over the property.

    The environment you practice in has an influence on how you move. It is useful to pay attention to that.

    Cheers, Eric

  3. Hello Mr. Peters- I Hope you are well, and thx for your comments 🙂

    I haven’t been able to attend events in a long while, although I’ve been practicing and trying to continue to be a Bruce-TaoArts student (I’m honored you recall me for so long ago). The thought in my post was attempting to express (I’m not sure I expressed myself too clearly) a question about how to see better, and insights you may have developed, and your response comment really did that 🙂

    I really like your note about “the boinks” as well as:
    <> that along with the context-remarks about the environment (not only practicing in, but as a “model” inspiring-energizing a boost) is valuable insight that I’ll be pondering and practicing with.

    As far as the comment about “almost dis-integrated” looking, I’m not sure I recall what I was thinking when I wrote that, but the idea was that if something like that was seen I interpreted I was missing… as well as a bit “exaggerated” to attempt to re-present the viewpt of one that sensed something in movement and yet not sure what…

    the compare-contrast of Bagua-vs-TaiChi as opposed to Before-vs-“After) (once this sort of practice has penetrated the body deeply), intrigues me as to how you might contrast the recent-more developed “Bagua” (would it have changed like the TaiChi, or still be more phy)— In short, as you mention you not often being on Video, thx for having been on this Video (and Dan for Posting to be viewed) and your ellucidation. -perhaps this will inform and inspire others reading this. cheers

  4. ** I see as I posted this that in my 2nd paragraph part of the text was lost.. below:

    I really like your note about “the boinks” as well as:
    ” allowing things to happen in the body, rather than intending them to happen. Another way this is experienced is to set the form in motion and watch what happens from movement to movement.”
    that along with …
    Also how you end commenting that: “while centered in my body in doing the form, my mind was also spread out over the property.” that presence of mind aspect I sense may have been what I was sensing but I didn’t identify explicitly (hard to see how mind-moves via another movement, but a challenge).. that is a part of TaiChi I’ve been intrigued about (vs that same expansion of awareness via a NeiGung Set ~G.Playing or E Gates, as opposed to Bagua Circling… the unique flavors of each practice).

    —– Having made my second comment- gives me a moment for it to settle and I sense more in your below sentence: -enviro as place, also the sense of space, also the place one “practices – from”

    “The environment you practice in has an influence on how you move. It is useful to pay attention to that.” -(from E P’s post above)