Making Progress in Tai Chi Chuan
By Fu Neng Bin
How can Tai Chi beginners, who have no foundation in its practice, learn quickly? What is the fastest way for the average Tai Chi practitioner to improve? These are matters of concern to both Tai Chi enthusiasts and teachers equally.
Nowadays many people have integrated Tai Chi into their daily lives, with research showing that there are over one hundred million practitioners worldwide. Over the years Tai Chi teaching and practice have not followed any one specific methodology, with each person following their own path. There is still no standardised way of teaching. In the old times there were sayings like: “10 days to learn a move” or “three years, one small change”. This, however, doesn’t suit the fast-paced rhythm of modern life, and may seem discouraging to many beginners. I believe it is important for Tai Chi to follow an efficient and flexible structure methodology, which is both comprehensive and scientifically based. My personal experience is based on years of training and teaching, studying and exchanging ideas with other Tai Chi practitioners. Below is a summary of a few insights I would like to share.
1.The combination of theory and practice.
Firstly, we should be familiar with the theory underpinning Tai Chi Chuan. We need to understand its origins and basic requirements, the styles and characteristics, its essential principles, technical aspects and the nature of its movements. There are some common principles to all the styles but also clear differences. It is essential to know the requirements and rules of footwork, postures and movement. The teacher’s introduction to this is of great importance. For example, in Chen style when opening the stance forward or to the side, the inside of the heel touches the ground first. This is not the case in other styles. Only if we understand the basic principles we will be able to learn the forms correctly. But after theory comes practice and experience. Some learners feel frustrated because they cannot remember what they have been taught. Although Tai Chi may look easy, achieving a good level of skill is not. One must train frequently, carefully imitate a teacher, and also study the theory in order to master the movements. Training in this art over time, the practitioner will become more confident, not only in Tai Chi but also in life in general.
2. The basic skills: open hand forms and push hands must be learned simultaneously.
Basic skills for training include stances, footwork, routines for solitary and partner practice, and exercises for joints and ligaments. Practising basic skills on a daily basis for some time is extremely helpful for the overall improvement of Tai Chi Chuan. Since ancient times, it has been said: “If you don’t incorporate all the components, your training will be empty”.
In addition to repetition of basic movements (silk reeling), it is also important to practice the open hand forms. This should start with short introductory routines to practice and master over time then longer traditional ones. Learning open hand forms and practising push hands at the same time produces even better results. Some believe that by learning the open hand forms, one can learn push hands but there is no proof of this. In fact, while practising on your own will develop self-awareness and personal skill, practising with a partner will allow you to get to know your opponent and to respond to their actions accordingly. Open hand and push hands practice are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
3. From square to round, from high to low, from simple to complex.
It’s inevitable that we start off with rigid and fragmented movements. Beginners tend to remember partial sequences and find it difficult to perform smooth and full circular movements. With time and correct guidance, the practitioner will learn to relax slowly and achieve a more integrated and round quality to the movement.
The routines may be practised with high or low stances, but this depends on age, physical condition, experience and level of martial arts, etc. All practitioners should be treated individually. Beginners and those not in good health conditions should practice with a high stance to correct and get used to the right posture and movement, improve their flexibility and strengthen their legs. Gradually they will find it easier to drop lower into the stances as their flexibility improves, but it’s important this progresses naturally, at the practitioner’s own rate. The stance’s height depends on the length of the step: lower stances require longer strides. It is a common mistake to combine a short step with a low stance – even some experienced practitioners tend to forget to take longer steps when adopting low stances. The quality of the stance directly affects the intensity of the practice.
Each learner has their pace of improvement, regardless of the practice. The complexity of the steps, hand positions, direction, location of all the parts of the body, and the overall performance of the routine can also be explained progressively. For example, in the first movement of the open hand form – the opening of the stance, the path and alignment of the hands, the direction of the palms, their position in relation to the shoulder's width and height – can all be taught in a simplified or a more detailed way. Gradually, the hand and footwork can be improved – the turning of the waist, the gaze, the breathing, rhythm, spirit, and other aspects of the practice – may be taught and understood step by step. However, practitioners who want to account for everything from the outset, and who question and over-think every movement, will only end up in confusion.
4. First the parts, then the whole; First the external, then the internal.
In the practice of Tai Chi Chuan, coordination and full body awareness can be quite challenging, so it can be much easier to initially separate the body into different segments. These typically are: the head, upper extremities, torso and lower extremities. After control over each part is mastered, two or three parts can then be combined. Finally, the practitioner will be able to work with the whole body as one unit.
In addition, a set of movements can be categorised as offensive or defensive. Qualities like the use of power, breathing, gaze, and so on, can be progressively integrated into the practice, following a structure.
Tai Chi has a clear distinction between the internal and the external. The external deals with how the movements look and other specific aspects of the performance. The internal, on the other hand, focuses on changes of consciousness, intention and movements of inner strength and energy. Both aspects are of equal importance. For beginners, the appearance is the key. Some practitioners from the very beginning become obsessed with the quest for inner strength and focus on achieving some special inner feeling, which is not useful at that stage. As the saying goes, "the slightest difference, lost thousands of miles". Without the correct external form, it will be difficult to understand the correct internal movements of Tai Chi. When practicing each movement or posture, the entire body has to be coordinated in order to achieve the correct internal flow. Once the form is performed proficiently, we can address the internal aspect of Tai Chi. Without its internal qualities, Tai Chi will be tedious and empty, so it has to be understood, experienced and perfected from within. In order to experience internal strength, the initial stage of training is to develop a feeling of Qi. At first, rather than focusing on the whole body, it’s better to concentrate on a specific part or point. Start by focusing on the Qi at the Dantian and at the hand. As the upper and lower bodies learn to relax and the Qi sinks into the Dantian, more internal strength will be accumulated. This power expands and contracts from the Dantian, and is emitted and recollected by it. So step-by-step, as the forms improve by in-depth study and practice, both internal and external, the internal strength will begin to develop and grow.
5. Diligent Mouth, Diligent Ear, Diligent Eye, Diligent Body, Diligent Brain.
Knowing the road helps people to avoid going astray. Practice creates a multiplier effect. I hope these personal opinions and experience can help Tai Chi enthusiasts.
Andrew Howard is a Chen-style Tai Chi Instructor teaching in West Dorset, UK.