Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tai Chi – Stages of Development (Part 1 of 3)

This article has been extensively updated. Click here to see the updated version.

In general terms, there are three stages of development of your tai chi practice.

Stage One – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
Stage Two – practice how force is stored and delivered in each form.
Stage Three – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering force.

Over the next few weeks, I will write an article about each of these stages. Let’s start with Stage One.

It is important to practice your form at this stage until the movements and postures are automatic. This is the easiest stage to learn, but it can be very frustrating for beginners. Everyone else, teachers, videos, etc., seem so fluid and graceful. It takes time to get past the negative self image and learn to enjoy the movement.

Most teachers and videos do a pretty good job of explaining the movements of a tai chi form or set. However, there are many subtleties that can only be learned from a teacher. If you have access to a good teacher, great. Enjoy it and learn lots.

If you do not, do the best you can with videos, books, and other resources. Choose a common form so that you can find an occasional workshop. I recommend either the Yang 24 (Beijing) forms or the Tai Chi for Arthritis from Dr. Paul Lam Tai Chi for Health Community. There are many good weekend workshops available.

There are a few simple things that you should know as you begin your practice.

Take your time and learn methodically. Learning faster is not necessarily better. Work through learning the forms at a steady pace and take your time in understanding the details. It's better to learn a few forms or sets well than lots of them carelessly. Plan on learning only 1 or 2 new forms each week.

Remember the 70% rule. Estimate your greatest ability to perform an exercise. Practice at only 70% of that level. This is not a competition. If it hurts, stop immediately. Apply this rule to everything in tai chi, from how far you stretch, to how many repetitions, and to how long you practice. As you become more familiar with the forms and with your own body, you can gradually increase this.

Control Your Movements. A good first principle at this stage is to learn control of your movements so they are slow, smooth, and continuous. You should move as though there is a gentle resistance. Think of your qi flow as a river. As it flows downhill, it gathers strength. Keep your movements slow, smooth, and continuous to smooth the progress of the qi flow.

Body Alignment. Another way to think about controlling your movements is to work on body alignment. Being upright is very important, but it is not as simple as it seems. A way to approach it is to think of your spine as a string. Imagine gently stretching the string from both ends. Being upright provides the internal organs with more space. An upright body also strengthens the internal deep stabilizer muscles. Try to keep your body upright and supple throughout all the movements. Be especially aware of this when you start bending your knees because your alignment can change. When you bend your knees, imagine that you are sitting down in a straight chair (not the Lazy Boy!) and keep your back fairly straight. Use a mirror or video camera to check yourself while practicing.

Practice a little each day. Ten minutes of practice each day will bring you better results than practicing for an hour at a time once a week. You will find that tai chi is more challenging than it looks. If you need a break, take one. Frequently, take time to review what you have learned.
Start to learn the essential principles of tai chi. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. Most of them won’t make much sense yet, but that’s OK. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.

© 2010 Eric Borreson