Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tai Chi – Stages of Development (Part 3 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.

In Stage Three, you begin to learn to use your intent to direct the flow of qi through your body. Mental focus is essential to this step.

Circulating Your Qi
The next phase of understanding open and close (see Stage 2 for more information) is to start moving your qi as you open and close. When you open (inhale), move your qi from your dan tien, through your perineum, and up your yang meridian (along your spine) toward the bai hui point at the crown of your head. When you close (exhale), move your qi down your yin meridian (the front center of your body) to the lower dan tien.

Keep your mouth gently closed with your tongue touching your upper palate. It may take a long time (years) to become comfortable with this. It is important that you do not force your breathing here. If you are not sure where to be inhaling and exhaling or you get tired, just allow your body to breathe naturally.

There is a statement in the tai chi classics that says something like, “The mind (intent) moves the internal energy and the internal energy moves the body.” This is an important principle, but it is difficult to learn. It is important to practice your way through the three stages of development before you can really understand intent.

Whenever the "use of intent" is mentioned with regard to the practice of Taijiquan, most Taijiquan practitioners think "the mind is the primary controller and the body is the follower. This is illustrated in Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essential Principles of Taijiquan as “use intent, not muscular strength.”

There are usually three meanings of intent when discussed in Taijiquan. The first meaning is "to pay attention to one's internal strength.” The second meaning of intent is the same as the term "internal energy" or qi. For example, "the movement of the intent" or "the intention (qi) must change with vigor while remaining circular and smooth.” The third meaning of intent is "expectations" or "thoughts.”

The emphasis on intent is important in tai chi because the use of strength is very different than other martial arts. Tai chi uses slow, soft force to deflect or divert an opponent’s energy instead of meeting force with force. This allows time for your mind to contemplate the movement and imagine the movement in your mind before your muscles actually move.

When you are practicing tai chi, move slowly and continuously and use intent to move beyond the physical part of the form. This helps to develop a strong mind-body connection. Qi gets stronger as it continues to flow, just like the force of water gets stronger as it flows downhill. If you stop moving during the forms, your qi also stops moving.

Intent also involves the use of your eyes. In the tai chi classics, it says something like, “The eyes and the hands must follow each other.” However, this does not mean that your eyes must exactly follow the movement of your hands. It means that your eyes and hands must arrive at the same point at the same time.

Don’t forget that tai chi is an internal art. This means that the movements begin in your mind. Your intention leads the movements of your energy. And from that energy, you create an internal force. As you move, think about applying a soft gentle force to your movements. Use that to lead your movements. Eventually, you will begin to feel the internal energy move within you. The key is to practice regularly.

Dr. Paul Lam, the developer of the Tai Chi for Arthritis form, uses a slightly different description. He divides the stages of development as follows:

1. Make the movements slow and continuous, developing control of your muscles.
2. Move as though there is a gentle resistance, as if you have to move through water. This helps cultivate internal force.

3. Be aware of weight transfers. Control your balance, alignment, and posture.
4. Be aware of body alignment, keeping your body in an upright posture.

5. Song – loosen the joints. Stretch and loosen the joints. Be aware of this as you practice.
6. Mental focus – try to keep your mind from wandering. This helps to integrate the internal and external.

NOTE: Of course there is much more to it than this. You need a good teacher and lots of practice to find it though.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

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