Saturday, March 31, 2012

Four Tips for Learning Tai Chi

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you start to learn tai chi.

1. It starts with you. You can't control what the teacher does. You can't control the venue. You can't control other external events. You can only control yourself. Your teacher can guide you, but it's your efforts that determine your success. Have fun playing tai chi.

2. Respect your teacher. Your teacher has spent years learning a difficult skill. Your teacher probably earns only a pittance and is teaching because he/she wants to help you improve your life.

3. Do what your teacher says. Assume that your teacher knows best. If your teacher says to step a certain way, do your best to step that way. If your teacher says to practice every day, do your best to practice every day.

4. Don't do what your teacher doesn't tell you to do. You pay your teacher for the expertise in tai chi and teaching. Don't add your own interpretations. Chances are pretty good that you don't know more than your teacher. If you do, why are you in class?

There is one other thing to keep in mind, though. Use common sense. If your teacher wants you to do something dangerous or is acting unethically, just leave. If you have knee problems, you shouldn't be asked to stomp on the floor. There is no reputable tai chi studio in the world that asks you to have sex with your teacher. Don't argue or debate, just leave. Be safe out there, folks.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comparing Your Tai Chi to Others

We often want to compare our tai chi practice to that of others. How do my forms look (compared to hers)? How is my flow developing (compared to his)? What is she talking about when she mentions feeling her energy? What does he mean by being rooted?

When I first started studying tai chi seriously, I worried about other people all the time. I considered my tai chi to be pretty average, at best. Everyone else was doing so well. I remember my first hour at a week-long workshop. Everyone looked so smooth and graceful. I worried.

What I really needed was someone to say, "Stop it!". Don't compare yourself to others. Pay attention to your goals, not someone else. The only sensible comparison is with yourself. Are you doing better than you were before? Have your movements smoothed out? Are you starting to understand what your instructor is talking about?

This taught me a lesson. I am what I am. My skills are what they are. I try to avoid comparing my practice with others. I watch others and work with them to improve my skills, not to see who is better. If I can, I try to help others. Work hard, have fun, and don't worry about others.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hidden Depths of Tai Chi

Tai chi looks simple, but it has hidden depths that can only be discovered through practice, study, and more practice. Everyone, from a beginner to a Master, continues to learn new things as they practice tai chi. On one of his Tai Chi for Arthritis teaching videos, Dr. Paul Lam said,

"One of the most fascinating things about tai chi is that it looks like we are repeating the same thing. But each time we do that, there is something else that is deep and meaningful to it. So, I invite you, when you do your practice, to approach it with a fresh feeling each time and look at the movement from different aspects and to see if you feel that you have learned something fresh and gained some extra depth in the movements."

In order to find these hidden depths of tai chi, we need to learn about the basic principles of tai chi. When we know what these principles are, we can look for them in our tai chi practice. These principles have been written about and taught for generations. There are many variations that have been published over the years, but I think Dr. Lam's are the simplest to understand.

He describes the principles like this:
1. Make the movements slow and continuous, developing control of your muscles. Read more here
2. Move as though there is a gentle resistance, as if you have to move through water. This helps cultivate internal force (intention). Read more here.

3. Be aware of weight transfers. Control your balance, alignment, and posture. Read more here.
4. Be aware of body alignment. Keeping your body in an upright posture. Read more here.

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

One way to discover these hidden depths is to study one form at a time. Learn what one of these principles means for that form. Practice it dozens of times. Then move on to another form. Continue on and work with each form. Put them together into the entire set. Then return to the principles and start over with another principle. 

After you have worked through all the principles, go back to the beginning again and start over. You will be amazed at the new things you continue to learn after you think you understand what you are doing.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

© 2012 Eric Borreson
PS: you can read about Yang Chen Fu's 10 principles here and here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Four Stages of Mastering Tai Chi

A number of years ago, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense for President Bush, he talked about knowledge and unknowns. He was ridiculed by the partisan, politicized press, but I decided to write about what he said and put in terms of learning tai chi.

1. Unconscious lack of knowledge
At this stage of learning tai chi, you don't know anything and don't know you don't know anything. This is usually because you have never heard of tai chi or have only passing knowledge. You have never actually attempted to learn it.

2. Conscious lack of knowledge
At this stage of learning tai chi, you have taken a few classes or a few months of classes. You are starting to see that there is a lot you don't know. At this stage, you need to decide that you want to take the path of mastery and spend some time and effort to learn more.

3. Conscious knowledge
At this stage of learning tai chi, you have spent some time practicing and reading. You are starting to know what you know and what you don't know. However, be aware that you probably don't know as much as you think you do. I have had students tell me that they know all about a certain topic because of something they read or heard. It's generally not a good idea to tell that to your teacher.

4. Unconscious knowledge
At this stage of learning tai chi, you have been practicing and studying (and thinking) for a long time. You are starting to think that there is always more to learn about this art than you can learn in a lifetime. However, other people observe you and see that you flow effortlessly through your forms. You have achieved a high level of mastery, yet you think mostly about what you don't know. You forget about what you have already learned so well.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ten Reasons You Are Not Making Progress

I usually write about tai chi. This article certainly applies to tai chi practice, but it is much more general. We all take on creative projects or work of one kind or another. These projects may be our work, the things we do to earn a living. These projects may be our hobbies, the things we do because we enjoy them. These projects may be for our self-improvement, the things we do to make ourselves better people.

Sometimes it seems like everything works just great and we make immediate progress. Sometimes it seems like our enthusiasm fades away and we don't make any progress at all. Here are some thoughts on why that disconnect happens.

1. You are working on something that just doesn't excite you.
Sometimes we take on things out of a sense of obligation, or for money, or because we want to help someone else. None of those reasons lead to long-term success. The only truly sustainable activities we take on are those that we have a passion for. Are you doing your life's work? You should be. If you are not, you should be doing something else with your time.

2. You don't know why you are doing the project.
What is your vision for what you are doing? Why are you working so hard at this? If you don't know where you are going, any path gets you there. There is probably an easier path that the one you are on. Write down your purpose in two sentences or less describing why you are doing this project and what you expect for an outcome. Be specific.

3. You are working on something for personal gain instead of doing something useful for others.
Many studies have shown that the jobs that people enjoy the most are those that allow us to help other people. We need to earn a living, but how you do it matters. What are you doing to help other people? Are you creating marketing strategies for products that hurt people? The satisfaction of a paycheck disappears pretty quickly. How can you combine your employment or self-improvement activities with helping others? Perhaps you can't change your job right now, but you can change how you spend the rest of your hours.

4. You are working alone.
We are more likely to continue an activity when we are personally accountable to someone you care about. Who are you accountable to? Identify someone that you can work with. Practicing tai chi? Practice daily with a friend. Walking for exercise? Get a walking buddy. Writing a novel? Get someone to review your work. Don't be a loner.

5. You can't seem to find the time to get anything done.
Do you prefer watching TV or browsing the internet to working on your project? Your time is limited. It is your only resource, don't waste it. Of course, take a break now and then. But recognize that if you want to get things done, you have to work on them.

6. You listen to your critics.
Everyone has critics. Sometimes it is people close to you. Sometimes it is people you hardly know. Sometimes it is that little voice in your head. Sometimes critics are well meaning and trying to protect you from failure. It doesn't matter who you are, we all have critics. Have a discussion with yourself. Only you can decide that your work is worth doing. Only you can decide to continue on a certain path.

7. You are trying to do too many things.
We have limited time and resources. Every time you try to multitask, you delay things. You have to refresh and start over whenever you put something aside so you can work on something else. Ask yourself why you are working on so many things. Can you drop something to work on your passion? Can you delay something until a better time? You need to understand what's really going in your head.

8. You want to drop a project, but you feel you have too much invested in it to stop now.
We don't make progress if we don't work at it. However, we all need to change things up now and then. If it truly is time to change, then it doesn't matter what you have invested in a project. It's gone. Move on. However, be careful here. This is an awful lot like procrastination. Pause, think, and reflect on your reasons for wanting change.

9. You aren't organized enough keep track of the details.
Things keep slipping away from you. You keep starting over on your work because you can't find something. You get distracted and forget something important. You need to figure out better ways to do your work. You can find lots of advice, but only you can do this. For me, it really helps to start at the beginning of the week and draw up a rough plan for what I plan to do. At the beginning of each day, I draw up a detailed plan on what I want to get done that day. I work on multiple projects at a time, so I have to shift back and forth. I found that I need to keep detailed notes on what is happening with each project so I can keep track. If it's not working for you, you need to try something else. Don't procrastinate on this one.

10. You tell me.
I deliberately stopped at number 9. I have more I could put here, but I want to know what you think. What are your reasons for not getting things done? Leave a comment.

Here's a final thought:
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice.
"That depends a good deal on where you want to go", said the Cat.
"I don't much care where I go," said Alice.
"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"-- so long as I get somewhere," Alice explained.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

© 2012 Eric Borreson