Developing Your Tai Chi
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Once you have learnt the movements of your form you have the option to develop it. Undeveloped tai chi is just a physical exercise, more like slow dancing and you will get similar health benefits from it. To get the real benefits from your tai chi practice you will need to make your form internal, it is here that the real benefits come from and also where it gets endlessly interesting.
Your form going internal will not happen automatically instead you need to practice intentionally to develop it in that direction. If you don’t it is possible for you to train all your life, develop a beautiful form on the outside but that is all it will ever be. For the form to develop internally, for you to really get to understand first hand what the classics are pointing towards; you need to move from the physical to the internal, by engaging your mind. It is at this point that your tai chi will enter the realm of meditation.
The most efficient way to do this is by focussing step by step on the cause of your internal develop, the causes of the form to develop internally as well as externally. There are seven steps that I use to do this and if you follow and develop them in this order you will meet with success. Take care not to rush ahead but instead make solid each step to make sure you create strong foundations.
Step 1: Combining
Once we have learnt the physical movements of our slow form the next step is to learn how to combine these movements. This means making all parts of our body move as one, when one part moves everything moves. Improper movement means that any part of the body is moving separately from the others, an example of this is whilst performing Grasping Birds Tail, are your arms moving separately from your body or is it all combined?
The proper way of practicing this is that our waist and legs should move our arms throughout the whole of the posture; it is an illusion that the arms are moving. This is true throughout the tai chi form; we need to be aware of where the movement comes from and where the energy is going.
Proper movement means that when one part of the body moves all parts move, no part of the body moves independent of the rest. All aspects of the body are in a relationship with each other and to move one part independent is to break this relationship causing imbalance. Understanding and being aware of our body mechanics will help develop this.
Observe your forms, feel them, and check if any movement is separate and not combined. All movements must be combined, moving as one, from the beginning of the form to the end, combined for all 108 movements. Filming yourself and studying the video footage can help with this if you do not have someone to correct you.
In the Key to the Thirteen Kinetic Movements it says: “Be attentive at all time. Deeply remember that one single movement suffices to effect the whole body movement, and there is no isolated stillness without enveloping the whole being.”
In the Treatise of Tai chi chuan it says: “At the start of any movement all parts of the body are called upon to move and act agilely. They should be functionally and sequentially linked throughout the body”
In the Song of the Strike Hands it says: “With all parts of the body coordinated”
Step 2: Finishing
Every time we shift weight, every time we finish a posture there are many yin / yang change, we need to develop awareness of these changes. Whilst sinking down, don’t only sink down physically but internally also. When moving into a yang position such as the end of the Brush Knee posture we need to make sure that we bring the movement right to the end until we feel the expanding force moving through our body and right to the tip of the fingers.
A common mistake with finishing in a posture like Brush Knee, for example, is that the yin part of the posture is glided over. If you see someone doing this you will notice that they move from one yang posture to the next, not giving proper respect to the yin part of the posture; not sinking down during the transition step.
Another common mistake is improper finishing at the end of the yang movement, either leaving the hand limp or pushing so that the wrist bends at a ninety degree angle creating a straight, flat palm. The limp wrist will not encourage the chi to come to the end of the movement and straight palm causes a blockage at the wrist. A forty five degree angle in-between these two, so that slight stretching starts to appear on the palm is the middle way, this encourages the chi to travel to the end of the movement whilst being relaxed enough to let it flow.
Be careful not to overextend your arm and lock your elbow, also the same can be said for not extending the arm enough, we are looking for the middle balance here. Pay attention to the finishing within in all postures, the transitions of yin and yang, study them and come to understand. Be aware of what it feels like for your posture to be finished and what it feels like when it is not.
The Treatise of Tai chi chuan says: “There should be no deficiency nor pitfalls; no concavity nor convexity: no disconnection nor extension.” Also “The changing of void and solid must be distinct. There is solid and void in any movement, and any movement consists of void and solid.”
Step 3: Opposite force
For every force there must be an opposite force otherwise the function of our body will be out of balance. For example: one hand pushing forward on one side of the body, if it is not balanced out by opposite force on the other side, will cause an imbalance. With the slightest touch our body will start to spin, this is because the energy we are creating is pulling us forward and causing it to happen. Try it out now, lift up your right arm and push it forward without doing anything with your left, notice that the more your arm pushes forward the more your body starts to turn.
Now let’s balance this out, push your right arm forward and at the same time put your left hand in front near the right elbow. Without touching your right arm push the front edge of your left hand forward (thumb at the back) and also have the feeling of pulling your left elbow back at the same time. Now you can push your right arm forward all you want because you have opposite force, the forces are balanced.
When we learn to combine both our arms with our waist it will cause both sides of our hip to push forward, this in turn stops us from spinning because each hip counteracts the other. Opposite force is like this, there are opposite force relationships throughout our body, interacting with each other all the time. These relationships aren’t just between our arms but body and legs also, there are many cross references and with self study we become aware of them.
A simple relationship is to look at the legs and arms, study the relationship between your wrist and ankle, elbow and knee, shoulder and hip. Each posture in the tai chi slow form has been designed with the perfect balance of opposite force between all aspects of the body; that is if the postures are finished right.
The Treatise of Tai chi chuan says: “If there is something on the top, there must be something below; if there is something in the front, there must be something behind; if there is something in the left, there must be something in the right.”
Step 4: Following eyes
Our eyes are a doorway to our mind, when our eyes go to a sight our mind goes also, where our mind goes our chi also goes, to keep our chi inside we need to control our eyes. In the form it is important to control our eyes, to anchor our mind. This is the first stage that we start to enter into the meditation aspect of tai chi. Our mind when untrained is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, one thought, emotion, sense object to another. To experience the stillness in tai chi we need to tame the monkey, train the mind.
To do this we initially need to fix our mind / attention on one object, the first object provided in slow form is our hands. If we observe our form we will notice that as we change postures our hands are constantly passing each other. This is because the dominant / yang hand in the form is constantly changing. This is part of the spinning of the yin / yang, the change that we study in our forms to acquire wisdom and understanding.
Our task whilst performing the form is to anchor our eyes on the dominant / yang hand, when the yang hand changes so does the focus of our eyes. You will find that every time there is a yin / yang change coming the hands will pass each other; that is your que to swap objects. There are a few postures where the hands do no change clearly, like in Watch Low Hands. Just remember that it is the dominant / yang hand that we should be following with our eyes and everything will work out. Notice how when you do sustain this following your form will become lighter, your concentration and awareness will grow.
Step 5: Breathing
During slow form use reverse breathing, reverse breathing pumps up the energy / chi and aids in the last factor “expansion and contraction”. Reverse breathing is opposite to the way that we normally breathe. During normal breathing when we breathe in our diaphragm drops and abdomen expands, when we breathe out our diaphragm lifts and abdomen contracts.
During reverse breathing whilst breathing in we contract our abdomen, whilst breathing out expand it. This is opposite to normal breathing and has the function of oxygenating the body and pumping up energy. It also has the function of a pump in increasing chi flow throughout the body and also to aid in sinking and expansion.
Breathing is done in a controlled way, in breath and out breath is deep and even in length. We can then use this as the first internal focus, as an object of concentration, as an aid to settle and retrain the mind.
Once initial concentration has been built on the breathing and reverse breathing becomes natural we can allow the breath to find its own pace. Breathing is a reflection of our mind, when we are agitated so is our breathing, it becomes short and choppy. When we are relaxed our breathing appears relaxed, long deep and smooth. Allowing the breath to find its own balance at this time allows the mind to settle and concentration to increase.
Do not try to change the breathing to match the speed of your form, this will stop the mind from settling, instead allow the breathing to dictate the speed of your form, in this way as the mind settles the breathing will become longer and deeper and the movements following the breath will also slow down. In this way your whole form can combine as one, as you practice and become more relaxed so will the speed of your form, there is no need to control it, control is opposite to meditation.
In this way you might notice that your slow form may appear to be different speeds throughout the day, and this is true because how settled your mind is will also change throughout the day. Regardless if you allow your breath to dictate the speed of your form the end result will be the same, the mind will settle, form become light, and you will experience peace.
Step 6: Mind
Chi follows mind, where mind sits chi flows. We need to learn to control our mind, following the hands with the eyes and then following the breathing with our mind is the first two steps. To take it further we need to intentionally place our mind where we want the chi to flow.
When shifting into a yin posture and sinking down we need to think down into the feet and ground. When shifting into a yang posture we need to bring the mind up to the place in our body where the force is being sent out, for example our hands.
Do this in a controlled way, do not allow the mind to go here and there, bring it from the feet, through the dan tian and up to the hands. When sinking do the same but in reverse. Your mind will want to wander, to thoughts, dreams and plans. When you notice this bring it gently, back to its task, do not get upset but be aware. Really feel where your mind sits, be aware of the feeling in the part of the body it is sitting in, and be aware of the flow of chi that rushes to this point.
The Key to the Thirteen Kinetic Movements says: “Where mind controls the operation of chi, calmness and steadiness are of decisive importance. Only when this is so can chi be capable of being permeated into the bones. When chi directs the movements of the body, the body must be In compliance with the chi, only when this is so, everything can be done according to the dictates of the mind.”
Step 7: Expansion and Contraction
When shifting into a yin posture, such as standing on one leg, we must place our mind below our supporting leg and deep into the ground. When we think deep down into the ground it is like driving in strong post with a big hammer, our chi will sink deep down also, increasing our balance. This sinking down is supported by our in breath; we are breathing down into the feet and thinking down like a tree throwing out roots into the ground. When contracting all our chi must be sunk down.
When shifting into a yang posture we should think in terms of expansion; breathing out bring the chi up through the dan tian and expand it out in all directions. This can be understood by thinking of a balloon, when a balloon lets air out it spurts out in one direction, this is like sinking down. When a balloon is filled with air it expands evenly in all directions, it has no preferences for this way or that; this is the feeling of expansion.
Expansion and contraction are supported by movement, breathing and mind all combined, this in turn pumps and directs the chi, causing it to fill every cell in your body.
The Key to the Thirteen Kinetic Movements says: “The mobilizing of chi is like passing through a zig zag hole of a pearl, reaching any part of the body.”
If you practice patiently in this order a path will open to you and you will experience natural internal development. The key throughout is patient investigation, always looking, questioning, asking what is the best and most efficient way of doing this or that. With a questioning mind, deep investigation and repeated practice the internal form will open up and present itself to you.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you