What About You?

tcebk1Well, I am starting a new book. It’s on Tai Chi and it will be Plum’s first eBook. Keeping to our style of doing things with a bit of a twist;  we are creating not be so much a book of instruction as a series of essays and insights mainly to convince the newer Tai Chi players that the whole process is worth the effort, that there is something here a little beyond the tv quick cut of slo-mo aerobics and that each of them should use extra concentration to do Tai Chi well, with authority and presence, thereby securing greater benefits.

However, it is all too easy when practicing Tai Chi, to  end up stuck at one of those well-known holes in the road. You can help us to address these beginner’s level concerns using your own past experience. Send us a paragraph or two about something that was difficult for you to grasp or overcome when you were first learning. And if we are able to incorporate your idea into the book we’ll give you credit in the book and, of course, a free autographed copy (one of the rare hard copy ones) when it comes out.

You can help us to address the beginner’s level from your past experience. This will encourage those who might be stuck at one of those the well-known holes in the road.

So send us a paragraph or two about something that was difficult for you to grasp or over come when you were first learning. And if we are able to incorporate your idea into the book we’ll give you credit in the book and, of course, a free autographed copy (one of the rare hard copy ones) when it comes out.



5 Responses to “What About You?”

  1. Steve W says:

    The biggest regret I had at the beginning of my practice was the failure of my teachers to emphasize important foundational practices (for me those were standing practices and silk reeling), and to invest serious practice time into them daily.
    After nearly 20 years I still invest one and one half hours into those practices daily, look forward to it, and, in my opinion, continue to benefit.

    FEELING body alignment, the FEELING of whole body integration, the FEELING of central equilibrium, and the FEELING of moving from stillness are critical. I believe that without those aspects what we would be doing is slow movement, i.e., pseudo taiji.

    Thanks for asking.
    Steve W

  2. Andrew Shinn says:

    I don’t know if you wanted this sent here or by email, but since these comments are moderated anyway, I guess here is ok – you don’t have to let it go live!

    While there are possibly many more people who come to Tai Chi with no other background (or previous interest) in the martial arts, a lot of us come to Tai Chi after varying amounts of training in other styles. Every time you try a different art, you have to bracket your previous training in order to learn what the new art has to teach you. But I think this is particularly true with Tai Chi. For me, one of the biggest hurdles I had to jump when I first started Tai Chi was learning how to put my years of praying mantis and long fist into perspective.

    I think that this is largely (though definitely not exclusively) due to the concept of fan song in Tai Chi. Learning to have a strong structure with the body held in a relaxed and open position is somewhat different (at least at first) than the typical “Shaolin” strategies. From a beginner’s perspective, look at the requirements of a typical northern long fist horse stance as opposed to the higher, narrower standing post position. Or how do you reconcile the outwards forms of a Tan Tui Yoke Punch with a Tai Chi Hidden Hand Punch? For me it led to a period in which I doubted the wisdom and efficacy of my previous training. I spent a period of time where I didn’t even train my previous arts (or at least not with as much intensity). I think this was a beneficial thing, but when I returned to those arts I found that I had some retraining to do.

    The issue of doubt, confidence and perspective in coming to a new art for a martial artist hits very much to the core for a lot of people. I’ve heard people say that they felt they should turn in their black belts. So perhaps a chapter of guidelines or experiences related to students who come to Tai Chi from one of the arts not generally classified as “internal” might be a useful contribution to the work.

  3. Gary Liu says:

    Hi Ted. On reflection, my main challenges were:

    – Working out the right balance between relaxation and extension in the form and push hands.

    – Getting the alignment of the hips right. Always sticking out slightly every which way.

    – Knees kept collapsing. Resulting in a knee injury which took a long time to fix.

  4. Robert Nakashima says:

    There is an old saying that has been passed around in the internal/healing arts scene for a long time: ‘All of the important things are taught in the very first lesson.’ Your first Tai Chi lesson generally includes the following:
    1) How to stand
    2) How to shift your weight
    3) How to move from your center
    4) How to expand your awareness of minute physical sensation and spatial relationship
    5) How to breathe.
    6) How to relax.

    There you go. I think most teachers would agree that the old saying turns out to be true. It is kind of wonderful at that, but here’s the problem:
    Almost no one is ready for the first lesson.
    And that certainly included me, too.

    I think that any person of average intelligence can grasp these concepts quite readily at an intellectual level, even to the point where they may roll their eyes in impatience when you’re trying to explain it to them. ‘Yes, of course I know I need to relax … but then what?’
    The problem is, to actually experience any of these things requires a rather profound shift in consciousness. And I believe that for the majority of folks engaged in Tai Chi practice, that ‘moment of awakening’ may never come.

    We know, at a deep, instinctive level, that Tai Chi comprises part (or maybe even All) of the Answer to Life’s Mysteries. It is beautiful, enigmatic, it seems bubble-wrapped in a gauzy caul of flute music and oriental wisdom. It has to mean something, doesn’t it?

    Well, I thought so, too.
    But as T.S. Elliot pointed out, ‘Between the Idea and the Reality, falls the Shadow.

    One well-known kung fu teacher I know once said, ‘Of all the traditional martial arts, there has never been one that has promised so much and delivered so little, as modern Tai Chi.’
    That’s a bold statement, but the simple truth of it does seem irrefutable, no?

    We learn a ritualized dance to which has been accorded, in the popular imagination, all sorts of benefits, often bordering on the semi-mystical-quasi-spiritual. Yet, when we attempt to extricate ourselves from the misty tangle of half truths and magical thinking, we are left with . . . what exactly?
    We find that—surprise—practitioners are unable to execute the simplest techniques with any authority—the single hand push, for example. The basic mechanism of compression-release is hardly present, let alone effective in any —one is tempted to say, ‘combative sense’ but we don’t even need to go that far. The push won’t even work against a hanging duffle bag stuffed with dirty laundry. Never mind in a fight. But wait just a minute, here. Was that the point of learning Tai Chi? To be able to …fight? The very idea seems absurd at best. If that was the purpose—plain old self-defense, why not learn something simple and effective, like Wing Chun or boxing? Why all this spiritual mumbo-jumbo?
    Yet, the eyewitness accounts of the Old Masters of the Previous Generation tease us and compel us to investigate further, whispering to us of extraordinary abilities beyond our ken.
    Clearly, somebody must be getting something out of it.

    The form is an uber-metaphor for life activity in all its facets—a heightened and ritualized version of daily life. The taiji form uses stylized combat situations as the master surrogate for picking up a child, doing laundry, washing dishes, painting, writing, hammering nails, walking, running, having sex, sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee. The taiji form is a library, study hall and laboratory for exploring the phenomenon of oneness, wholeness, being connected to a deeper source of being. It is supposed to function as a safe place to experiment with ways to drop the small ‘I’—the ego in all its elaborate dysfunction—and to surrender to a pervasive, inner-directed wholeness.
    So, having said all that, why did it take so long for me to feel any functional competence at doing the form?
    I had failed to appreciate the vast gulf that separates knowing ‘about’ something, or intellectually understanding the words and concepts involved, from actually experiencing it as the way things really are. In other words, it took an embarrassingly long time to separate theory— or my opinionated beliefs about tai chi was supposed to be— from the ‘facts’ of tai chi. The hard thing is to perceive the core of truth that pre-exists style politics, kung fu films, silk uniforms and little cotton slippers. What was Tai Chi before it had a name?
    The difficult thing to grasp about tai chi is that it runs counter to everything we have ever learned in our lives prior to encountering tai chi.

  5. Stuart Swartz says:

    Hi Ted & Debbie,

    Further to your recent post, I do look forward to your new book on Tai Chi when it comes out.

    Your post got me thinking of some of the things I went through in the beginning and even over the years as I grew with my progress. Not sure if this will help but below are a few of the many challenges I discovered and had to overcome over my years of study. Perhaps you will find it of interest and want to address it so as to save many others lots of time and frustration as they too progress in their development.

    Of a General Nature

    1. How does one go about finding the right teacher, school or style to study?
    · I started long ago and there were not many schools or teachers or styles available and you had to seek it out or take what you stumble across. Today with the many options available I suggest that people do more investigating firstly some honest introspection into their own goals then to see what school/teacher can help meet their objectives. Some considerations, do you want to do this for just health, martial arts, working with (or without) the concept of qi, eventually to teach, how hard to you really want to work and how much effort are your prepared to put in. Then lots to consider about the teacher and school as hopefully if one is serious they will stay for a long time so as to learn (yet not waste their time).
    o Wish I knew about goal setting, what to look for and where to go, etc. when I first started my journey… but again, I didn’t have all the options available today when I started. Notwithstanding, I am still always setting new goals and milestones (short, mid and long range). It helps to keep me focused, challenged and seeking to improve. There is more than enough to keep me challenged.

    2. What is the difference between practicing tai chi for health and for martial arts? Is there a difference when you truly study the art?
    · I came from a martial arts background before I started to study tai chi and heard of tai chi as this great martial art that can change your body and would assist in the other art I was studying (that was 30 years ago, today they might call that cross training or MMA). After many years of meeting different ‘instructors’, only few that I played with really understood the martial theory and less so how to apply it. At the health side, even while that may have been the focus of some, few could explain what was happening by way of TCM principles; it was more like “this is a good stretch” and “by up and down you are pumping your lymphatic system.” Can health and martial arts be separated (I believe yes, but then you have very different focus to your practice). It took me a long time to learn this. It may help others to consider this when they start their journey.

    3. Making it your own…. Can one improvise or change things around with the form (e.g. practice a move on the “other side”). Taiji is generally lopsided when you learn the traditional form (regardless of style, but I saw it in the Yang form when I first studied it). At first some students were such purists that they were shocked anyone changing what they are taught. For example, some don’t understand how I ‘play with the form’; for example, at my doing the mirror image of the form or doing single movements repeated on many sides and angles or changing the order to play or test it out. Should one play with the form, at what stage is it acceptable and are there any parameters? As I learn more, I come to see that is what most people that stick with it do… it’s what keeps it interesting and shows the cleverness of the moves.

    4. I studied martial arts before, why is tai chi so different in the way it is taught if it is a martial art? Why does it take soooo long to get to the martial arts of tai chi. Why is progress so slow? Most people that studied other martial arts studied hard or external styles. Tai Chi relies on being sung (firm but not tense). The slow movements (unlike other external kung fu styles or katas from other arts) are a different form of ‘testing’ the movement or force. Took me a while to figure out why the slow movements were done that way and why in week 4 I am still not doing throws, punches or wrist locks. I have still never met a school that teaches the martial arts side of tai chi within year 1 unlike any other martial arts school (maybe that is my limitation based on exposure). I understand why but wonder if that could be challenged or changed.

    5. What is the role of chi/qi in tai chi? Can one progress without knowing about and tracking their chi? Is tai chi a qigong? I have studied the theory of this, meridian patterns and points. These are things I am still not sure about because I really haven’t put as much time studying it as I have other aspects. This is still something that I am lacking knowledge in and perhaps because I have not spent as much time studying Traditional Chinese Medicine as I have body mechanics and anatomy. Not sure if my progress has been stunted by not pursuing this route but maybe this can be something you can assist with if you have a view and wish to share it.

    6. Can one practice tai chi, which is a soft style and practice a hard style of martial art at the same time? That one is tough to sort out. Especially for beginners because it is hard to be sung when you are used to using brute strength. As my teacher said, go slow and soft and the power will come. It really does when you learn to move with your whole body. That is more powerful in the end.

    7. Does it help to keep a journal? It can seem frustrating as progress in tai chi is very slow (especially if comparing it to other martial arts). The health benefits and martial arts knowledge are not readily apparent to the beginner student. I started a journal years ago and I look back at some things from great teachers or seminars and there are real gems in it that help reinvigorate my tai chi (or other studies). My current sifu (in his 70s now, but you might think he was in his 50s) encouraged me to keep a journal and write things down. He lived with his sifu in China after being taken on for years with him and my sifu recorded what he taught to him (my sifu’s teacher was a big name in CMA and books about him were written, including some sold by Plum). My sifu always said how it helped him in his daily practice and years later when reflecting back after his sifu’s passing. It is like a legacy of people now longer here and trying to retain what they had to pass on. Those people I was told were holistic in their approach as martial artists and health experts. I do keep a journal and do enjoy looking back and refreshing what I do. I am sure it will continue to be a source of aid and inspiration for me as I continue to progress.

    Of a Technical Nature

    8. Sitting into the hip (kua) – what does this mean, how does it work, what does it do if done correctly, how is it done (and done so one does not go into misalignment and hurt themselves. Where is the kua and how to sit properly took me a long time to figure out. How does it play into stepping, breathing, etc. Lots on this that I can write a blog on it. But took me lots of work to get the flexibility and feeling right then lots of time testing it.

    9. What is the role of intention (or yi) in doing the form. Where should it be placed during the form? I learnt this during my studies and it had a profound impact when I did the set. I could do the set 3 times in a row (that’s about one hour) and each time with different intention and it was amazing. Even people who watch could see it was the same form but was different.

    10. How does one practice the form being relaxed and sung when first starting out? What does it mean to be sung? How does one get to be sung? Why is it important in Taiji? How does it change your form and how does it impact one from a health and martial arts perspective? I had to learn some exercises to get me more sung. Sometimes I find I need to do some exercises to get me more sung before I start the set or I would be wasting my time (too much monkey mind that I would not place the right intent and emphasis as needed to do the set). I still find being sung to be a work in progress, even after many years. I understand it as firm structure but without tension. I don’t like to say relaxed or people take it like limp. Also going with this is the transitioning from hard to soft, etc.; it is difficult to develop muscle memory when one is supposed to be sung and transitioning from hard to soft during the form and especially when starting at the next level like at pushing hands or san shou? Tips are always welcome as this is still a challenge for me and many long-time practitioners.

    11. What does it mean to find your central equilibrium (zhongding) in the movement? What is the center? What and where is this “dantien”? Why is zhongding important and how can it help when you figure it out. Doing the form alone won’t get one to understand it. We need someone to help gently at first to figure it out (e.g. soft pushing or leaning on a person, etc.). Once done, it is amazing how much more stable one can become in the form and in functional skills and other sports/activities. Besides, it helps from a health perspective for the body to be in this state; it seems natural for the body in my opinion and my body feels naturally aligned. As I got more attuned to it I used this skill in various places (when standing on a moving bus or subway, etc.). In fact, I met a judoka who was a brown belt working on his black belt and was told to try tai chi as it would help with his balance and once he got into tai chi he did get his black belt then left judo and has been doing tai chi exclusively for over 25 years. He claims that the wresting and shuai jiao aspects are just as good as (and more practical than) judo and the defences to throws from tai chi principles are also superior. It is all based on understanding zhongding.

    12. How should one breathe or focus the breath when doing the form or movements? When should it be part of the focus or training and how should it be introduced and worked in? When I asked that question early on my first teacher said “Ah, yes Stu, you should always breath, don’t ever stop; in and out… in and out, yes always breath.”. Later I learned the importance of breath and how it can be effective depending on the intention and what is being done. At what point should one start to consider breath in the form (I cannot remember when or at what stage it first clicked for me, but it just did).

    13. What should students know or consider when they start about form and alignment from the start so that your knees, hips and other joints are not injured during practice? It was only after a major car accident did I appreciate how hard Tai Chi is on the knees and potentially the hips. I could not walk for about 6 months after my accident but the doctors said that I not been doing taiji all these years I may been worse off. When I returned to taiji, I saw taiji from a new perspective and how hard it could be on the joints. It took an injury for me to realize how I wasn’t not always properly aligned and over time I would have cause damage to my knees in particular. That is something not always focused by teachers to new students (or working with their more senior students, both in age and experience). Fortunately it took my horrible injury from my accident to realize this for me and when I work with other students to be more focused on their body alignment. Now I am more conscious and emphasize alignment of knees over toes, hips parallel to floor as well as combining the alignment concepts from the six harmonies as a guide or checklist to track body alignment. Wish I had this awareness and knowledge of proper body alignment when I started and wish I saw more emphasis on this in classes. I can also say that after my accident I slowly got back into tai chi as soon as I was physically able. My sifu even showed me exercises while seated to help before I could start walking again. Playing tai chi was part of my physiotherapy and my PT said it she saw the improvement and credited part to my tai chi. Tai chi helped me before my injuries, during my recovery and still does stay with me as I have moved past all of that. Just as my body has changed over time so has my taiji. Fortunately focusing on the right alignment will allow me to continue for many more years.

    14. Is there value to studying the tai chi classics when learning tai chi? When I first got into tai chi there was not much out there. I had to rely on my teacher and the stories from his sifus from China and Hong Kong. Now you can find a plethora of books with translations of the ‘classics’. While you cannot learn to fight or be successful by reading them before you learn after spending time practicing forms and push hands these poems take on a new meaning. There are cleaver messages on body mechanics and fighting tactics. In fact, compared to tai chi literature as found in the older tai chi classics (good ones you can find at Plumpub) there is definitely not the same quantity and quality from other arts (be it Chinese or from other regions). The breadth of the materials cover body mechanics, fighting strategy, martial arts applications, health concepts, etc. It is broad and profound but will really only have meaning after putting in sweat and time into your practice. Having said that, one can learn and benefit from texts writing by other martial artists as well. For example, like reading Jigoro Kano’s books on Judo, or books on Aikido theory/practice, etc. you can translate that back to your tai chi. This is one of the many ways to add new flavour to your practice after years of study when you think things are getting dry.

    There is so much I am sure I could write about on the topic “If I only knew then ….”. The information above is from a few days of reflecting on the challenges I have faced over the years. Sorry, I meant to write 2 things but as fingers hit the keyboard it got away from me. If you want to know more about any of these items, just let me know and I’d be happy to expand.

    Hopefully something above will resonate and be helpful to others in their journey. Feel free to borrow from the above. I very much look forward to seeing the book when it comes out.


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