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Tai Chi Beginners

Students practicing Chi Kung (Qigong)

Tai Chi is difficult to de-mystify, so when you begin Tai Chi it is better to leave it somewhat unknown. It is precisely the suspension of trying to figure things out that will allow a deeper experience of Tai Chi anyway. If you decide what Tai Chi is, you limit it. So when beginning, expect a certain amount of confusion. As Tai Chi is known to be an endless journey, you can always improve and go deeper into the art, evolving and refining. Consequently one's ideas about the Art will always be changing. If you practice the same way year after year, something has gone wrong...there is no progression. So be in a class where people are positively changing and deepening from the practice and something good will definitely happen.

Over the years I have lost count of the number of people who will not practice between classes through uncertainty over whether they are doing something right. Well let me tell you: you cannot get anything right, there is no such thing. If it were to be the case, the art would again be limited, your journey would be over, your practice would be dead. You would be 'right'. So accept being wrong. In the same vein as being wrong, students are often surprised that it is easier to correct someone who has practiced movements and ideas totally wrong in between classes than someone who has done nothing at all. The reason is that the practitioner’s heart is in the right place. If you consider that even after 20 years of practice, I still look forward to visiting my Sifu, Master Ding, to receive corrections and ideas, how can it be the case that anything we do can be right? Therefore, be confident and adventurous. Just do what you think. The teacher can then work with what you have done. You will change and move forwards faster this way. There is only one exception to this and it is to do with one's ego. If your ego steps in to defend your position you have trouble - you will not allow positive change to take place. Undoubtedly to become a better student, Tai Chi will do things to your ego. If this is unacceptable to you, you will not take well to Tai Chi. For in its little Yin-Yang heart ,Tai Chi is all about change. My Sifu often says "you change, I change". This is the basis for staying harmonised with the opponent. Change is done by softening, relaxing and feeling. So if you want to progress in Tai Chi, get good at change. After all "a change is as good as a rest".

So far I have advocated for confusion over what Tai Chi is, allowing yourself to be wrong but practicing anyway and allowing changes to occur. In other words, stop trying to control your experience. I would also say it is beneficial to be clear about your training objectives and motives, bearing in mind that you should allow confusion, error and change. Be clear, but also be open to evolution of your ideas. A student who comes to perform some peaceful movements seems to be there for very different reasons when compared to a martial artist. But be open to changing your objectives. Success in either of these endeavours, martial skills or health, requires an inward journey. If you don't want to meet yourself, stay away from true Tai Chi.

Sometimes beginners have previous experience of Tai Chi, Yoga, another similar discipline or other martial arts. Perhaps they are trying a new approach to training because it seems to be a step forward. Be on guard! Previous experience comes with its own set of issues. The normal reaction is to tell someone with fixed ideas to 'empty your cup'. This is a traditional Chinese saying. You cannot have fresh tea if your cup is already full. Yet the ego is far more slippery and devious than that. So, if you find It is hard to put a 'white belt' on again - don't! Instead treat everything you are beginning to learn from your new teacher as if it is a new Form and set of ideas in your existing system. In this way, simply learn the new Form with its new ideas and approaches and get it working. Then you can compare it with what you used to do. Try not to mix the new ideas with the old. This is a highly creative approach that can help you to navigate past your strong, confident personality that is standing in the way of your higher objectives. In other words just present a new empty cup, it's fine if your other cup is full. Later you can decide what you want to do with your old cup. Leave it alone and it often gradually fades away.

Another issue shared by many, many new students is that of not knowing how to repeat things. You can never accurately predict who will have this difficulty, but the most successful students repeat things. The most successful students repeat things. The most successful students repeat things. I kid you not. Yet it is suprising how difficult people can find it to carry on training once the teacher leaves them to get on with something. At instructor level in Master Ding Academy it is not unusual to be with a practice partner for between 20-40 minutes looking at one single little idea. This is not a punishment, but a blessing. Working on one thing for that long is something you should learn to desire. Yet in beginners’ classes on trying an idea with a practice partner once or twice you can see people.... just...stop. Even when asked to repeat some Form movements, whether independently or in a group, many...just...stop.

The reason for this may relate back to not accepting confusion, doing things wrong or perhaps to avoid a sense of failure. Or just not believing that repetition does anything. In the end, if you realise you are stopping training when asked to do iterations, please find your way of overcoming this tendency. There are centuries old stories of teachers who's best students were those willing to do very boring repetitious work whilst the rest of the students did lots of exciting things. These students often became leading lights. Do yourself a favour, do the work.

So far we have looked at some of the mental attitudes that could help or hinder one’s beginning in this fascinating art of immense depth and profundity. Now I want to move on to some of the physical attitudes that need resolving for additional lift on a journey that has the potential to soar high into the clouds and beyond. Of course, many of these will resolve through repeated practice anyway. However, there are still some attitudes that are often missed and do make a difference. The first is the courage to feel pain, challenging your perceived boundaries. Growth can be painful, therefore you must habituate your system towards tolerating certain sensations to engage meaningfully with Tai Chi. For example, in Chi Kung, where static standing positions are used to build internal power and meditation skill, we normally instruct students to bend their knees as much as feels safe. The general guidance is that if you feel discomfort in your muscles it is normally ok, but if you feel the pain spreading to the joints, be careful and only work within what you know is safe. On hearing this a significant proportion of new students take it as permission to be comfortable forever more. Please don’t do this. If you do your mobility will fade at a younger age because you will not have the necessary mind set to stop your boundaries closing in. So, what is really meant is to use the first few sessions to assess where your boundaries are. If bending the knees a few degrees puts you at your boundary, dwell at that point. You must rest into your boundary, let your boundary become a place of strength and endurance. As you get used to resting into your boundaries, they will stretch. Your sense of what is possible will increase. Your beliefs about yourself will be successfully challenged and overturned. I have seen people who have never exercised begin to switch on muscle systems that have only operated minimally and unconsciously. What we are learning is how to bring areas of our system into conscious awareness and then how to grow and strengthen them. In terms of our leg muscles, I remember Master Ding saying to me, “in Chi Kung if your thighs begin to feel like they’re burning, bathe in the lovely fire”. He has never shown a sadistic streak to me, so it must be part of what Master Ding endured to achieve his sublime skill, it must be part of the alchemy that has set him apart and maintained such power that he has up to the age he has currently attained. Similarly, based on Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak having had similar power it is safe to assume that this is the Way and the Way is safe. So, I advocate doing some feeling into what your legs can really do before the joints are compromised. Let the thigh muscles get to the point of burning and keep using them like that, but do ratchet back if there is too much distress in your tendons, ligaments or joints. Learning to use your legs more deeply if you haven’t for some time (or ever) will increase your sense of adventure many fold. You will gain strength you may not have felt for a long time within six months. How can your boundaries not extend? The requirement for strengthening legs is to increase the power and flexibility of the hips and waist, improve the stamina and tone of the quadriceps and hamstrings and learn to relax the knees and ankles. All directions should be controlled by hip muscles, your height by the knee and accommodation of uneven surfaces and different strides by the looseness of the ankles. Traditional Tai Chi Chuan training achieves all this and more. Open to lifelong strength and vitality – feel the burn.

As a beginner the Art can seem bewildering. You know you have to learn the movements, but there is so much more to it. You also experienced calming, relaxing, energising, inspiring, strengthening, challenging and realised it was something you want to succeed at. I suppose this article is something about how a small list of attitudes could end up making a big difference to your success. So to sum up they are:

  • Accept confusion, not knowing and not understanding

  • Accept you are doing it wrong and practice at home and in class anyway

  • Give up ego control and allow yourself to change

  • Be clear of your training objectives, yet also open to allowing them to change. Learn how to always present an empty cup

  • Learn how to repeat things over and over, whether in solo practice or with practice partners

  • Learn about safe pain: the pain that means growth. Use that to rest into your physical boundaries and be sure to grow your leg strength.

Best wishes and hope all your training goes well.