I get the question all the time, or at least it's always implied, "When am I going to get it?" Or, "how do I know if I'm getting good at this?"
Now, let's unpack a little bit of what's behind this question and then I want to share some different ways that I think you can answer this question on your own, without even asking your teacher.
I'm on a training trip this weekend out in New Mexico with Robert Tangora. Robert is teaching to six of us, twice a day, for two hours each session and the only agenda is giving personal feedback.
Why did I travel across the country for this? Isn't there enough to work on in my regular weekly practice? What do I hope to get out of it (besides revisiting all my favorite restaurants in Santa Fe)?
The open-ended opportunity to get personal feedback was intriguing to me for two reasons: one was that I value Robert's input and have learned a ton whenever I've studied with him. I figured there would be lots more to take in if the week was tailored to my practice needs.
The second reason was the format. By having two shorter classes per day, we're going to have big chunks of practice time in the afternoon and evening. Being on the other side of the country, with fewer work responsibilities, I knew I could devote some solid practice time to integrating the small chunks of feedback I'd be getting in each session.
The goal of this training format is to set up a rapid feedback loop where new input is balanced with integrative practice, twice a day.
Normally, it's hard to feel the loop. You go to class once, maybe twice a week, and you can get swept up in whatever the teacher leads you through. In our busy lives, it's hard to find time to do additional practice, especially when carving out time to commit to class may have been a challenge in the first place.
A lot of you who read this site are in the reverse situation. You get occasional input from an instructor in person, or did years ago, but now you have to figure out how to upgrade your practice on your own.
In both cases, we're all often left wondering, "how do I know if I'm making progress?"
Process vs. Outcomes
Most people that I talk to come to Tai Chi and qigong for the way it makes them feel. Or I should say, keep coming back to it because of the way it feels. There's nothing competitive or achievement-oriented about having a daily renewal activity.
Compared to weight lifters, triathletes, or your friend who plays in a softball league, you might get left feeling like you've got nothing to show for your practice. The benchmarks and fruits of your practice are harder to discern because the endeavor is largely process-driven.
But I want to suggest that "process vs. outcome" is a distinction you don't need to make. Instead, do both: create outcomes to shoot for, then settle into the process and enjoy it.
I learn more when I set small, measurable goals in my practice and furthermore, I feel much more confident answering the question, "am I getting better?" when mini-goals are part of my training routine.
Quantity or Quality
So what should you measure? Do you hook yourself up to a balance machine? Measure the number of squats you can do in an hour (hint: fewer is better!)?
Applied to qigong and Tai Chi, quantifying starts to get ridiculous pretty quickly...and it's not the right way to go about it, if your only goal is to reach a certain number.
Tracking Quality Over Time
Recently, I wrote an article for Paul Cavel's Inner Quest Journal explaining a tracking process I went through for a hundred days of spinal bowing. I would practice this one technique for 5 minutes a day and then record my experience in a spreadsheet.
My rule was that I wasn't going to spend a lot of time writing about what happened and I wasn't going to spend a lot of time reading what I had written. I could only look back every once in a while to look for patterns. I didn't want the reflection time to outweigh the actual practice time!
Just the act of recording revealed something surprising: the next day when I started out, I was more aware of what I had done the previous day (since I had verbalized it) and could return to certain themes, more than I would have otherwise. This one little act helped me build more momentum around one practice principle than I had experienced ever before in this timeframe.
Setting an Outward Goal to Find an Inward State
Since the hundred-day spinal practice yielded such interesting results, I was on the lookout for a new way to bring structure to my practice. At Brookline Tai Chi, Don Miller was just beginning a Yiquan standing class and I caught the standing bug again.
In the first class we talked about "gates" or practice thresholds that Yiquan Masters said held new insights and rewards when you passed through them. For standing postures, this was a time marker, 20 minutes, one hour, two hours.
I had been down that road before with standing qigong, and knocked on the one-hour gate, but never really traveled through it. This time, though, something inside me clicked, and I found deep motivation to start up again. I say this because just standing by the clock can be awful, and not productive at all. Normally, I think you should spend lots of time just standing naturally, and seeing how long it is when you feel like it's time to quit. That will teach you a lot.
For whatever reason at this point in time, though, building up to longer standing periods just seemed like the thing I needed to do. I've gone through periods like this in the past, naturally slowing down until a 5-minute form would take me 30 minutes, for example. I've never been back to that and I don't know how it happened in the first place, but at the time, that's what my system needed.
For the standing experiment, the rule I set for myself was to find my natural threshold, then add one minute each day. So far, about 20 days in, this has felt like a good pace. For the first couple of weeks, I finished feeling like I wanted to do more. That's a good sign that I'm not hitting internal resistance yet.
If all goes well, I should be able to report back about the two-hour gate in the next couple of months.
When I told Don what I was doing, he said, "well that doesn't sound very Taoist." But here's the thing. Over the years I've learned if you only rely on your internal compass, the way the Taoist sages seem to advise, you get fooled into quitting too soon, thinking it's the natural way.
More and more I believe that you need to set up artificial structures, like my time experiment, to reveal your true limits and fluctuations. If I let my arms down the first time I get tired, I will never realize that adjusting the foot or opening the hip would send a surge of energy that would boost the arms, and I could go on for five more easy minutes.
Is there a limit on the other side where you unnaturally force it? Of course. But if you never run little experiments in your practice, you'll never know the difference.
Now, before you go off and set up an experiment for yourself, let me be clear, it's not just pushing through the number that's important. In fact, it's not really about pushing yourself at all. Instead, the structure of your practice creates a sort of backdrop for learning. When you return to the same scene each day, you pick up contrast and insight that you would miss otherwise. You set your natural internal fluctuations against the same practice conditions, so that you reveal new facets of the internal changes, not so that you beat the external number.
I'll try to give examples of different markers I discover along this current path as I go, and now that I've told you about it, I guess I better keep moving!