The Three Legs of a Stool

Why do we learn and practice Tai Chi? Everyone has a different motivation,  but essentially Tai Chi spans three big areas: physical health, mental well-being and martial arts.

Physical health

Chinese people have known and enjoyed the health benefits of Tai Chi for centuries. Recently western medicine picked up on it as well and by now there are countless studies that show the long-term health benefits of Tai Chi.

While Tai Chi can not replace medical treatment for illnesses, it can certainly help with recovery or ease the pains of various diseases and ailments. Tai Chi also helps us to age more gracefully and healthy.

Tai Chi is a holistic and gentle exercise system. Where western medicine focused on isolated sub-systems for a long time, eastern health practitioners always looked at the whole human being holistically. Tai Chi reflects that approach.

By practicing Tai Chi, we slowly extend the capabilities of our bodies and over time build up resilience, strength and flexibility.

Mental well-being

Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’. We pay close attention to our movements, our gaze and our breathing. We are aware of every little detail as well as how they connect together to the bigger whole.

That focus and awareness helps us calm our minds and tame the random thoughts that usually chase us through the day. We take a break from the hectic of the day and reconnect with our inner selves.

With that, Tai Chi is an excellence counterbalance to stress and helps us to step back and take a broader perspective. Our minds calm down and many things that had upset us before class appear in a different light afterwards and seem less daunting than they did before.

We also learn that everything come in waves. Everything is Yin and Yang. The same is true in life. There is stress and there is relaxation (if we are willing to allow us to find it), there is frustration and there is joy.

Tai Chi is a great metaphor for the flooding and ebbing of life and by examining and understanding Tai Chi we can develop a greater understanding of life itself.

Martial arts

Tai Chi originated from a martial art. Today different schools put different emphasis on Tai Chi as a martial art versus Tai Chi for health. In our school we focus on the health aspect, but we also personally have our roots in the martial arts and have always been fond of exploring possible applications. We just don’t believe that the martial aspect is the most valuable thing we can get out of Tai Chi practice.

With that I mean, that as you progress you should try to understand possible applications to more deeply understand the form and Tai Chi itself. However, I don’t think that the ultimate goal is to be unbeatable in push-hands. If pure self-defense is your goal, go and buy some pepper spray or a gun, it’s a way easier and faster path.

Unlike what some folks on the Internet will tell you, Tai Chi is not a secret martial art that gives you magic powers to control others without even touching them. You will not be unbeatable since real combat is way different from what you experience in the training hall, with friends pretending to attack you. Real street thugs are vicious and unless you train for that scenario specifically, you will not be prepared. It’s more dangerous to fool yourself into a wrong sense of control, than to be aware of your gaps and conscious of your surroundings.


However, Tai Chi has originated from, and still is, an internal martial art, and if you study it for a LONG time, the movements will become natural and turn into reflexes. You will be more aware of your surroundings and might be able to use some reflexive moves for initial self-defense. After creating that short opening,  you run and dial 911!

Likewise, if you are practicing another external martial art, Tai Chi will for sure improve your grasp of that art and make it more effective. The slow movements and principled approach of Tai Chi will allow you to grasp underlying principles of body mechanics as well as martial applications. Tai Chi will greatly enhance your understanding of your original art, like it did for our own Karate understanding. Eventually it will all blend together to the system that works for your specific body and background.

Whatever reason brings you to Tai Chi, make sure you also experience the other aspects. Don’t become an one-legged stool, they are rather useless.

“Learn Tai Chi Ch’uan, and you will become agile like a child, strong like a wood-cutter and calm like a wise man.”
Chinese proverb

Learn and Forget


Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.
Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, once said “Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.” It’s one of the key principles I followed in my studies and well as in my life. Partly because I have poor memory for details, partly because it makes a lot of sense.

Why we want to forget

Learn and forget. How does that make sense and what do we mean by that?

The idea is not, to not pay attention at all or to be a lazy student. Rather the opposite. The idea is to practice a technique, a movement or a form until you can repeat it correctly. By that time you understand the representation and interpretation that was shown to you by your teacher.

At that point, you are either stuck or you can move on to the next level. In order to move on, you need to free yourself from the representation and interpretation you were shown and you have to recognize and understand the essence of what you’re doing. You then have to rediscover its representation within your own framework of experiences, philosophies and physical abilities.

You ‘forget’ what you were taught and you rediscover the underlying essence within your own framework. You make the technique ‘yours’.

Repeat a hundred times to make it stick

Before we can forget and rediscover in our own framework, we first have to sufficiently understand (and remember) what we’re doing, so that we have a basis to understand the core and evolve our understanding from there.

That is where we have to repeat a hundred times to make it stick. We need to take notes after class, to reflect on principles and new learnings and make the sit. We need to embrace active learning, asking questions and repeating what we learned within 48 hours to commit it to longterm memory. Ideally we teach what we learned to another person to test and solidify our understanding.

Learn and forget – rediscover the teachings for yourself, with your own abilities and constraints.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Tai Chi is an ancient martial art and all movements are rooted in original fighting application. Many schools still teach Tai Chi as a fighting system, using energy and strong rooting to imbalance an opponent, much like the japanese Aikido.

Our main purpose in Tai Chi is health improvement

Personally I put more focus on the health aspects of Tai Chi. I studied Karate for a long time and am pretty sure I would go back to those techniques if I ever needed to defend myself. I studied Tai Chi over the same duration so it’s not about new versus old habits. Plus if you want to be able to defend yourself effectively with a short learning ramp you should buy pepper spray anyways.

Most people who come to our classes follow the same goals (I know, it’s selection bias). They want to learn Tai Chi for health, for balance, as an antidote for stressful jobs and to improve their mindfulness. They know the movements originate in martial arts and we often show potential applications to more fully explain the movement.

However, one wonders if Tai Chi would actually create the right reflexes that are needed to defend oneself if ever needed. Especially if a student focuses on the form, precision in movement, flow and the typical slow, deliberate execution. We practice Yang style, so we don’t have the explosive techniques in-between that the Chen style teaches.

Muscle memory – polish, polish, polish

I think Tai Chi, even when practicing the form, builds up those reflexes over time. You won’t become a hand to hand combat strategist or skilled offensive attacker, but your muscles will learn self-defense movements and those will turn into muscle memory and eventually reflexes.

Don’t focus on the application, your body will react through reflexes anyway. Focus on the proper execution of a movement and the other pieces will fall into place.

“Wax on, wax off.”
Mr. Myagi in Karate Kid

Of course it will take years but then again, that’s not why we are doing Tai Chi to begin with and we hope to never use those skills anyway. If you are looking for a quick solution, buy pepper spray.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

In my personal opinion, I also don’t think one must try to execute movements fast. One should try to execute them correctly, with minimal waste through unnecessary movements, keeping all muscles relaxed and as smoothly as possible, flowing from one movement into the other without interruption.

As you build up energy flow and smooth out blockers, you will build up speed and force. Water breaks the rock. Remember the old saying:

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

If your movement is fluid it will be fast when it needs to.

Take Notes

Our ultimate goal in class is to give students the foundation, structure and principles to set them on a path where they can advance their own learning and discovery (Shu Ha Ri – How We Learn). In order to do that, a student needs to get to the state where she doesn’t need to see and copy the teacher to perform a form or to remind her of a principle.

So there is a lot of stuff that you eventually need to remember as a student.

In my experience the most effective way to do that is through active learning. Personally I cannot remember a new form from doing it two or three times in class once a week. So I take notes after each class. I often only remember one new sequence, but I will write down how I get into that sequence, how the transitions work and anything that seemed counter intuitive to me at first (i.e. I won’t remember it at home). Over a few weeks those sequences will add up to the whole form.

That active learning also helps me to process and with that solidify the lesson that I have learned. I make it ‘my own’ and reinvent the technique or principle in my own mind rather than just letting the teacher entertain me.

Learning requires active engagement with the content. It is hard work (Why Aren’t More People Practicing Tai Chi?), but making the content your own is so much more fun and rewarding.

“Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your own before you move on.”
Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

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’?  😉