Tai Chi Checks

One of the best things in tai chi – or in any pursuit, really – is reading something that we not only agree with, but that also challenges us, inspires us and broadens our outlook in ways we may not have recognized.  That’s how I felt when I read the following, which a friend and student shared on a Facebook group for tai chi in our area.  As the post was meant to be public, I take the liberty of presenting it in toto et verbatim.  It’s one of the best things I’ve read so far this year, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to share it with you:

Tai Chi Checks

Because practicing tai chi is such a long-term affair, it is often difficult to know whether one is on the right path or has somewhere taken a wrong turn, or whether one is just staying in the same place. Let’s have a look at some important aspects or indicators that may help to evaluate our practice.

1. One of the main signs of a productive and successful practice session is silence. One’s state of mind should be significantly different after practice than before. The usual noise, thoughts, and dialogue in one’s head become silent, and in their place come the awareness of one’s breathing and the rich variety of sounds from the surroundings. If you feel no different after practice, if it did not alter your state of mind or involve you emotionally at some level, then you’ve probably not done it right.

2. Also an important indicator of good practice is the quality and depth of physical sensations. Some of these are a tingling sensation at the crown of the head, the sensation of tension melting and flowing down the chest and back, the sensation of the legs and feet easing into a solid, comfortable and stable position without straining. Actively guiding sensations to various parts of the body is also good practice (意到氣到勁力到). After practice one may feel as if one had a long hot bath and rigorous workout at the same time. Long term sensations would also be noticeable, such as less tension and more awareness in the body, quicker reactions, and a general sense of wellbeing.

3. It is essential that each practice should be slightly different than the previous one. If one always did the form exactly the same as the time before one would not make any progress. Focusing and working on some aspect should always be part of practice.

4. I would strongly recommend that tai chi practice be done in conjunction with push hands. Sparring is a way to check the quality of your form, to make you aware of the applications, and to increase sensitivity and connectedness between the feet and the hands. It will test your root, and it will also test your mindset. For some, pushing hands is a win/lose exercise, and if they can’t win using internal power, they would resort to brute force. This not only shows a lack of refinement, but also prevents them from making progress. But to oneself it shouldn’t matter. One has to learn to neutralize and utilize the force of an opponent. My teacher used to say that one must thank the opponent for using force – it gives you something to work with. Also, invest in loss – that is, apply the principles of tai chi even if it means losing the bout. That is the way forward.

5. In addition to the points above, there are also some things one should guard against, to avoid halting or hindering one’s progress. The first of these is overemphasizing any aspect of your practice at the cost of others. Some see tai chi exclusively as a martial art, while others as a meditative or therapeutic practice. Tai chi is all these. Excluding any aspect only impoverishes the art.

6. Avoid outward flair or “showiness”. Over-elaborate movements and flourishes of the hands serve no purpose and will only lead you down the wrong path.

7. It may sound strange, but take care not to be too serious while practicing. A heavy mind makes for a heavy body and a heavy spirit. In this regard it helps to pay attention to one’s gaze (on the horizon instead of on the ground) and one’s facial muscles. Relax the brow and try to lighten your expression.

8. Often we unconsciously approach practice as a means to an end – we practice to improve. But in tai chi, practice IS the goal. Our daily practice is what gives us everything we want from tai chi. Of course, the more we improve, the more we get from it, but there is no destination. This practice we are busy with right now is the reason we do tai chi!