How to practise tai chi
The tai chi form requires that your posture be balanced and stable and your movements harmonious. You will observe that you have not over-exerted yourself and that your breathing is steady. With practice you should feel exhilarated and energenic.
The tai chi form should be fluid and continuous, even durig position changes, giving the appearance of a slow, flowing river. Keep all of your movements round and smooth. This will give ease and strength to your posture, and your energy will be able to flow unimpeded. (There should be no dead steps throughout the exercise.)
Both the arms and legs should be co-ordinated. The movements should originate from the body and synchronise with the arms and legs.
Allow the breathing to be natural - do not try to control it.
Rules for practice
Use the conscious mind to guide the movements - 'The mind should lead the body'. This will develop deep concentration.
When practising the form, feel yourself making the movement slightly before you perform it. In this way you will be engaging the mind as well as the body. Without this 'leading' of the movements, you will not be practising tai chi correctly.
Do not allow your thoughts to scatter. Keep your thinking on the exercise at hand. Exclude all extraneous interference.
Check your posture:
Perform the tai chi solo exercise in a quiet and tranquil place. Noise will not allow the mind to be still and uninterrupted.
Concentrate only on the tai chi movements. Each technique should be performed as perfectly as possible, linking one with another, not allowing one technique to be any more important than those following or preceding.
Eventually the body will respond to the mind, performing the exercise more smoothly and accurately.
When your thinking is disturbed by anxiety or agitated in some way, do not practise. Allow your thinking to return to normal before exercising with tai chi.
When you are told to relax, this does not mean that your body should be limp: the spine should be straight and the head upright.
Generally, your posture should be 'correct' - not leaning to the left or right, forwards or backwards. Use only enough energy to perform the movement correctly, i.e. with the bare minimum of effort.
As you move through the exercises, feel as if your arms are floating.
Mind and body co-ordination
As the mind forms the idea of making the movement before the actual physical action, the tai chi student will be led into a whole body discipline. Having to mould these actions into the form, the mind and body will become united, opening up untold possibilities, spiritually and physically. If one part of the body moves, all parts move; no part is separated from the whole. This is the characteristic of Yang tai chi.
At the beginning, learn one step at a time. Memorise each posture, mentally and physically, before you move on to the next. When you have done this, join the movements together as a flowing whole.
Weight distribution and body movement
The shifting of the body weight and solidity of stances is very important when moving from one technique to another. The foot which bas the weight upon it is said to be 'full', and the one which carrics the least weight is said to be 'empty'. The tai chi form is in constant flux between empty and full steps. The transition from one to the other is very important in that if it is carried out correctly, it will create smoothness and continuity.
With this evenness of movement, your steps should be as light as a cat's. Be sure your stance is stable before turning left or right. Place your empty foot lightly, as if you are testing the ground. Slowly, move the weight on to the empty foot until it becomes full (i.e. most of the weight is on it). Thus your steps will be agile and your movements nimble.
Breathe and move from the tan tien
The centre of all movement and breathing in tai chi is the tan ti'en - a point two inches below the navel on the inside of the body. This is not only the centre of balance in human beings, but also in Oriental thinking the centre of chi (vital energy activity). There should be gentle concentration on this point while you are performing tai chi.
Breathing should be natural and calming. Do not try to slow it down - allow the breathing to do as it wishes - as you practise the form. The body will naturally gain a rhythm and depth from the tai chi movements.
A strong posture is of the upmost importance. The upright position allows the chi to circulate freely. If the posture is bent, twisted or in some way restricted, the energy will be blocked. It is helpful to imagine a hose-pipe that has a kink: the water will be either stopped completely or will come in spurts; when the kink is removed the water moves freely and with power.
We will begin at the top, with the head. If the head is held upright the body can be maintained in a stable upright position and the balance stabilised.
Hold the head as if it were suspended from above. This mental imagery will allow the head to be supported with the least amount of muscular tension, because the body will react naturally to the mental image rather than trying to impose a rigid discipline if you 'try' to hold it upright.
Move your head in unison with the body. The head should not be allowed to move separately from the body.
Pull the chin in slightly and allow the jaw to relax. The facial muscles should be soft, without expression. Rest the tongue on the hard palate in the roof of the mouth.
Look in the direction in which your techniques are being directed. Be aware of your surroundings, but not overly so.
The shoulders and upper back
Allow your shoulders to hang in a relaxed fashion, but without bending your upper spine. This will facilitate breathing as well as relaxing the upper body.
The chest and abdomen
The chest and abdomen should be relaxed, which will cause the breathing to sink to the tan tien. With practice this will result in a pleasant warmth in the area; this warmth is the stirring of the chi.
It is vital that the spine is held erect because it is the central pillar of the body. Whatever the physical action - sitting or twisting - the spine plays a vital pivotal role.
For the body and the limbs to move in unison, it is essential that you have a straight spine. Again, the spine is as relaxed as possible, but you 'feel' it straight. Remember, what the mind thinks the body will do.
The lower back should also be straightened out. This is achieved by gently tucking the bottom under, which has the effect of taking the hollow out of the back. Do this gently! At first it will feel odd, but you will become accustomed to it. An added advantage of straightening out this area of the spine is that it strengthens that area, which will leave you less prone to injury.
Looking at the spine in its normal 'S' shape, most of the weigbt is taken in the lumbar region. It is in this area that most back trouble occurs. Flattening out this section results in a straightening of the spine; the pressure of the body's weight can be distributed equally among all of the vertebrae.
If you cannot stand you cannot walk, states an old martial arts saying. Pay special attention to the feet in the tai chi form - this is the root of bodily motion.
The chi is rooted in the feet,
Springs from the legs,
Guided by the waist,
Expressed in the hands.
(Tai chi poem)
Stabilise the feet and legs. Do not allow the knees to bend inwards. The only movement at the knees should be as nature intended - forwards and backwards, not side to side. When moving forwards the heel should touch first; when moving backwards the toes should land first. Neglecting your footwork will ruin the flow of the form totally.
Let the elbows hang down, states a tai chi maxim. By doing so, the shoulders will relax and sink down. With your shoulders down, the elbows will relax naturally in turn.
Leave a gap of one fist width at the armpits (approximately three inches). Test this by placing the fist under the armpit and allow the arm to rest against the fist. Closing this point, so that the arm is allowed to touch the body, would prevent the chi from circulating freely.
Never straighten the elbows completely when pushing out - leave a small bend in them.
Hold the wrists naturally - do not allow them to drop.
Your shoulder joints should be relaxed - allow the body to do the work.
Practise every day, either in the morning or evening. Try not to miss out days because this will hamper your progress. Tai chi is meant to be used, not simply learned. The longer you practise tai chi correctly, the more perfect it will become, and the greater the benefits.
Attend a good tai chi class if possible: the benefit of good first-hand tuition can be significant.
If you have friends you can practise with, so much the better. Company during training can see you through the 'bad' days. Once the form is mastered and the benefits become apparent, you will need no outside encouragement. Tai chi will become an essential part of your day, just like washing or cleaning your teeth.
Select a quiet, clean place to exercise, preferably in the open air. The best places are under trees, where the air is pure. Do not train in the wind or in the damp.
Practising inside is quite acceptable, especially during bad weather. Make certain that the room is well ventilated and warm. Protect yourself from drafts.
We are using the classical Yang tai chi slow form. When practising, move as if you were walking through water or watching a slow motion replay. 'Slow', 'smooth' and 'constant' should be your watchwords. Do not alter the tempo when you are changing position.
The Yang style long form takes 12 to 15 minutes to complete, although 14 minutes is the optimum time.
Movement in the form
Always keep the knees bent and move smoothly forwards or backwards. Do not look down, just straight ahead. Keep the same height while practising - straightening the knees will make you bob up and down, which will break the flow and make your form appear clumsy.
Source: Yang Tai Chi Chuan, by John Hine.