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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.
In Stage Two, study each form in detail and understand the details. Most of my experience in is Yang style, so this explanation will follow that experience.
Even the simplest forms have several (many) parts to learn and master. It is a big oversimplification, but we can say that the six things to focus on at this point are 1) what your feet are doing, 2) what your hands are doing, 3) what your waist (body) is doing, 4) what your eyes are doing, 5) opening, and 6) closing.
According to the classics of tai chi, “Internal force is rooted in the feet, developed by the legs, governed by the waist, and expressed in the hands.” This internal force is a spiral force generated at the feet that causes the waist to rotate, which leads the hands in the various tai chi forms. Spiral force is beyond the scope of this article, but the comments about the feet, waist, and hands are important at this point in your learning.
1) What is your stance? What are your feet doing? There are many stationary stances, from horse stance with equal weighting on each foot (wu ji); to bow stance, with the 70/30 weight ratio (brush knee); to empty stance, where essentially all your weight is on one leg (playing lute); and T stance during transitions (fair lady works shuttles). In addition, you should become familiar with dropping stance (snake creeps down) and independent stance (golden rooster stands on one leg). Other forms have stances that I am not familiar with, such as sitting stance, pan knee stance, and cross stance. The stance is important in delivering force (power) during each form.
2) Your hands should be in certain places during the movements of the form. Your hands deliver force during each form. Understand this and be aware of it during each form. There are many specific hand positions and shapes for different forms. I’ll write about that someday.
3) The waist is the part of the body above the hip bones and below the diaphragm. The waist can be moved independently of the hips in some forms. In general, most forms have turning movements. The waist should lead the movement of the arms and the rest of the body. This increases/improves the delivery of force.
4) During most forms, your eyes should follow your hand(s) during movement. When your hands are moving separately, your eyes should follow the dominant hand. The dominant hand is the one that is delivering force. This is usually the higher hand or the one that is the most forward. For example, during brush knee, the hand that pushes forward is dominant and should be followed with your eyes. The hand that brushes the knee is not dominant. However, this statement is a little misleading. Your eyes really should be looking “through” your hand at a point beyond the hands to where you want your force to be delivered.
5) Every form has an open. This is the part of the form where power is developed and stored. Think of it as a bow and arrow. Pulling on the bowstring is opening and storing energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes back while the other one is placed somewhere near your elbow. This is the opening where you are storing energy.
In general, you should inhale sometime during opening movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style tai chi master, wrote that when you are opening, you are solid outside and soft inside. You can feel your body soften as you inhale and expand your abdomen.
6) Every form has a close. This is the part of the form where power is delivered. Again, think of it as a bow and arrow. Releasing the bow string is closing and delivering energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes forward while the other one brushes past your knee. This is the closing where you are delivering energy.
In general, you should exhale sometime during closing movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style tai chi master, wrote that when you are closing, you are soft outside and solid inside. You can feel your inside harden, or become more solid, when you are delivering force as you contract your abdomen.
Continue to learn the essential principles of tai chi. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. They should be starting to make more sense now. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.
© 2010 Eric Borreson