Why Aren’t More People Practicing Tai Chi?

A student asked a great question in class yesterday: “Tai Chi provides so many benefits for health and memory. It’s so important and helpful as we age. Why don’t more people do it?”

The short answer is, it’s hard work. You can’t just attend class, you have to really be in it with your full mind and concentration. Remembering the movements takes effort, and that’s just where it begins. Understanding and applying the principles takes your studies and effort to a whole new level. For good reason, the original meaning of Kung Fu (功夫) is ‘hard work’. And Tai Chi is, as an internal martial art, part of that family.

Tai Chi introduces powerful changes in your body, mind and life. But it’s not a simple quick fix. It takes time and dedication. As for all things in life that are truly important and truly matter, you have to work for it and you have to be willing to invest the time.

Tai Chi requires more than dropping a pill or showing up for class, going through the motions. You need to learn the individual movements, you need to memorize the form, you need to strengthen and stretch your body, you need to control your breathing, you need to train your mind to be in the moment, while not sticking to a single thing. It’s a LOT of stuff that’s going on and needs to be mastered.

However, as many studies have shown, the benefits are plentiful, improving strength, flexibility, balance, memory and general health of internal systems. It’s tremendously awarding when you start to feel how your balance and your control over your body is improving. It’s eye-opening when you experience how applying the principles correctly leads to a whole new level of efficiency and a new perspective of how you experience performing your form. And last not least, Tai Chi has so many layers, that you can practice a life long, discovering new insights every day. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s absolutely worth it! Keep practicing!


Work against Resistance

Imagine you’re practicing in a pool

One of the big challenges for beginners is to let their center of gravity lead the movements, instead of focusing on arms and hands. Like a strong tree, you want to start from the roots, not from the branches and leaves.

Visualizing standing in a pool, with water up to your mid chest, helps to draw a student’s mind to the center of her body. If you want to move in a pool, you have to move against the resistance of water. You have to push your waist first, before doing anything fancy with your arms.

Focus on your Qi Hai (氣海) point when pushing and moving forward, focus on your Ming Men (命門) point when pulling and moving back.

Let the waves help with your motion

Once your body has started moving in the pool, you will create motion, momentum and flow in the water. Now visualize how that momentum and flow picks up your arms and your hands and moves them along.

Rather than initiating movements on their own, your arms and hands are propelled by the motion and momentum that’s initiated by your center of gravity. They get pulled in by the momentum you create and merely follow the flow of energy.

Change from Yin to Yang

If you keep visualizing the movement in the water, you will also feel how you have to overcome and reverse the momentum in the water as you shift from forward to backward movement.

When you move forward, you create forward motion in the water. Before you can move backwards, you have to overcome and reverse that motion. You have to take in the wave and gently turn it backwards. And then you reverse the process again as you shift back to moving forward.

We’re stirring the water, or the flow of energy, without interruption, shifting between fluid states.

Visualization is a powerful technique to develop a ‘feeling’ for the moves. Use it!


Remember the Feeling, not the Explanation

In our last class we focused on pushing from the Qi Hai (氣海) and Ming Men (命門) points. It was an exercise to draw students attention to their lower bodies and to initiating all movement from there, instead of overthinking the arms.

After class, when I asked everyone how the exercise worked for them, one of my students said “that felt different”. I wanted to hug her at that moment. Instead I went on explaining that this is exactly what we want to achieve.

Very often we get too busy trying to remember and follow the explanations. We need to memorize all the details in our conscious mind and then try to recreate the mechanics and choreography every single time. It’s a daunting task and extremely hard to do for our logical brain.

Remember the feeling

There’s actually another part of our brain that’s much better suited for such tasks: the subconscious brain.

2017-06-04 Tai Chi in the Park 002

Instead of trying to memorize the choreography of complex movements, rather remember how it ‘felt’. Let you body experiment with the movements and when it feels right (or different), remember that feeling. In subsequent repetitions, try to rediscover that feeling, not the prescribed details of the movement.

Move the complexity to coordinate your limbs to the subconscious brain and the body. That’s what both have been perfected for through thousands of years. The logical brain is a much newer invention and should rather focus on awareness (zanshin, 残心) and mindfulness to what we’re doing. Let your mind observe and follow what you body and subconscious brain have learned to do instead of trying to micromanage them.

Focus on the feeling, not the explanation! Try to rediscover the feeling instead of trying to execute against a complex set of mechanical directions.

Every heard of the term ‘muscle memory’?  😉


Pay Attention to Your Eyes

Alfons 2

Mindfulness is an important aspect and benefit of practicing Tai Chi. We practice mindfulness through our focus on the details of the movement and our awareness of our breathing.

What is often overlooked in teaching is what we should do with our eyes or our gaze. It’s easy to be so fixated on the moves and techniques that we miss what our students are doing with their eyes.

Peripheral awareness

The general rule in Tai Chi is to not focus your gaze, especially not to stare or get tunnel vision. There are some exceptions from this, for example when we are ‘spreading the wings’, but those changes in focus are deliberate and consciously controlled.

As we practice, we want to relax our eyes. We avoid staring at any given point, especially we avoid watching ourselves in the mirror all the time. Our gaze should be unfocused, reaching out to the horizon and by that engage and train our peripheral awareness.

As to where that unfocused gaze is oriented, a good rule of thumb is that we should point our head and gaze roughly in the space between your hands. Our eyes are looking into infinity and we should be able to see both hands in our peripheral vision at all times.

Be mindful, be deliberate

For certain movements we transition to focusing our eyes. Make this a conscious and deliberate change.

Think of it as your mind discovering something in your peripheral vision that it finds interesting. As it notices that interesting movement, it hones in and focuses. Once examined in detail, you let go and gently go back to an unfocused gaze with peripheral awareness. This trains both mindfulness as well as the essence of martial arts (zanshin 残心).

Good examples of the above are how we are following our hand when we ‘spread the wings’ or how we are following our fingers and then let go again in the Qi Gong exercise of ‘shooting an arrow’.

Keep your gaze unfocused, in the moment and able to ‘see’ everything through peripheral awareness. Keep your mind open for unexpected observations. Every now and then something interesting will get into your view and grab your attention. Watch and examine it with a child’s curiosity. And then let go again.

Feel your movements

One last but extremely important thing: learn to ‘feel’ your movements so you don’t have to constantly look in the mirror or at your hands and feet to control what you’re doing. Your body needs to learn to give you that feedback, not your eyes.

Don’t get into the habit of looking at yourself to control your movements. You can do it every now and then to ‘check in’, but be very conscious of it and make sure to let go of it again. Looking at our own movements is especially tempting when we have a mirror in the room.

You want to develop a feeling for your movements and you want your body to learn what’s right or wrong without having to control with your eyes and your logical brain. Turn off the lights every now and then or simply close your eyes and see what you discover.

Don’t think. Feel. (Bruce Lee)

On this topic I also found this post interesting: http://slantedflying.com/peripheral-visual-awareness-in-taijiquan/.