Suggestions for Practicing T’ai-Chi
Exerpted from Robert Chuckrow, The Tai Chi Book, YMAA Publication Center, Boston, MA, 1998, pp. 119–120 (formerly self-published as T’ai-Chi Ch’uan: Embracing the Pearl).
©2020 Robert Chuckrow
Now is a great time for practicing T’ai Chi and/or Ch’i Kung to enhance your immune system, to subdue anxiety and other negative emotions, and for seeing things more objectively. The following are some suggestions for all skill levels that are in my first book The Tai Chi Book.
1. Periodically refer to the principles to answer any questions about the correct way to practice. The main principles are being in the moment, continuity, release of muscular tension (sung), non-action, and naturalness.
2. Don’t miss a day, and practice on your own.
3. Whereas class and group practice have many benefits, there are certain important benefits of individual practice that cannot be obtained from group practice:
• When you practice independently, you can stop and repeat a movement or sequence of movements. Moreover, you can attain the optimal speed (discussed later under “Ways of Practicing”).
• Practicing independently develops self-reliance and self-discipline. When you cannot copy others’ movements or ask them questions, you must work things out alone. When there is not a practice time set by others, more self-motivation is required.
• Individual practice requires memorization of the entire sequence of movements. Once memory obstacles subside, your mind is then much more able to encompass the nuances of the movements. Surmounting this hurdle leads to greater progress.
In the words of Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, “T’ai Chi has no vacations.” There are a number of reasons never to miss a day of T’ai Chi practice. One reason is that there is a certain continuity necessary for progress. If a day is missed, there is a strong possibility that the mind will irrevocably lose the thread of both that learned in class and that being worked on. When an insight or breakthrough is ready to occur, it is important that the vehicle for its actualization be available. In T’ai Chi there is no “final result.” Rather, there is a gradual accumulation of benefits that compound like savings in a high-interest account. Therefore, a small set-back at the beginning substantially reduces future accumulations.
When I was working on my doctoral dissertation in experimental physics, a co-worker said, “Every day’s work you miss is one day later that you will get your Ph.D.” However, I became aware that missing a day had an even greater negative effect. Missing a day made the next day harder and less efficient. When I was active, a certain momentum began to build. When I was inactive, a corresponding inertia prevailed and became increasingly difficult to overcome.
Another reason not to miss a day’s practice is that if one day is missed, another can just as easily be missed, and so on. I make it a rule never to retire without having practiced that day. Cheng Man-ch’ing used to say, “Ten minutes of T’ai Chi Ch’uan is better than ten minutes more sleep.” At the end of a day when I think that I am too tired to do the form, I remember Cheng’s words. After ten minutes of practice, I am frequently so energized that I end up practicing much more than ten minutes. When I finally go to bed, my sleep is much deeper and better than if I had not practiced. The next day I experience an increased efficiency. Moreover, daily practice over a period of time results in a lowering of the need for sleep by much more than the time spent practicing.
Still another reason for not missing practice is that a certain rate of progress is expected by the teacher. If insufficient progress is evident, the teacher tends to expend less energy in teaching that student. It is somewhat disappointing for a teacher to correct a student and next class see no evidence that the correction has been worked on. (The absence of any verbal reference on the teacher’s part to the student’s progress does not mean that the teacher does not observe that progress or its lack.)
The student who fails to practice this difficult art regularly will have a dual sense of failure (1) from a lack of self-discipline and (2) from a lack of progress. The student will unconsciously say, “I am not good at T’ai Chi” and will feel that T’ai Chi is not as good as it is claimed to be. This notion will give both the student and T’ai Chi a bad name in the student’s own mind.
Important benefits of individual practice that cannot be obtained from class or group practice:
(1) When you practice independently, you can stop and repeat a movement or sequence of movements. Moreover, you can attain the optimal speed (discussed later in this chapter under “Ways of Practicing”).
(2) Practicing independently develops self-reliance and self-discipline. When you cannot copy others’ movements or ask them questions, you must work things out alone. When there is not a practice time set by others, more self-motivation is required.
(3) Individual practice requires memorization of the entire sequence of movements. Once memory obstacles subside, your mind is then much more able to encompass the nuances of the movements. Surmounting this hurdle leads to greater progress.
As a beginner, my enthusiasm was so intense that I frequently practiced past the point of diminishing returns. Presently, my enthusiasm is at least as intense, but it has mellowed with an awareness that excesses are contrary to the ideas of balance and proportion embodied in T’ai Chi. Once diminishing returns occur, I go on to other things. I know that there is a natural rate of progress that cannot be forced.
An important advantage of outdoor practice is the presence of fresh air, natural light, and the sounds, sights, and smells of nature. However, not everyone is able to find such a practice site. Many practitioners live in a region where, outdoors, they are exposed to polluted air, harsh and incessant sounds of barking dogs, booming box radios, traffic, and jet planes, overbearing onlookers, uneven ground, extremes of temperatures, and annoying insects. Everything should be taken into account when deciding where to practice.
One of my students practiced outdoors every day, regardless of the weather. He said that at first it was very difficult during cold weather, but he was gradually able to feel comfortable. The ability of the body to adapt to external extremes is a valuable asset.
Traditionally, T’ai Chi is practiced at sunrise and at sunset. At these times, the ch’i emanated by the earth, trees, and heaven is considered to be the strongest. However, it is good to practice at any time except just after a meal (see “Eating Before or After Practice,” later in this chapter) or, for male practitioners, immediately after sexual intercourse involving an ejaculation. The time of day to practice is totally up to the student, who should experiment with finding a personal “best time.” A commitment to practice at that time every day reduces lost days and intensifies the focus during practice.
One good time to practice is during a creative endeavor, when a prolonged impasse is encountered. Often, at that time, we feel that we must struggle on. However, one round of T’ai Chi restores energy and objectivity. When the endeavor is resumed, the time invested is usually saved many times over.
There is a thin line between forcing and coddling oneself. On one hand, we would like things to happen naturally and spontaneously. However, most of us find that even that to which we are committed can go by the wayside without some resolve. I can remember standing on the edge of the swimming pool in my bathing suit for quite some time because I dreaded the initial chill of the water. There are times when we must give ourselves an initial push. Usually, that is all that is needed.
Fear of Mistakes
In many cases, mistakes can have serious consequences. We know this danger and fear mistakes. When we do make a mistake, we feel guilty and remorseful, and some of us even punish ourselves in one way or another. However, mistakes during the learning process are natural and do not have bad consequences. In fact, they are valuable (if not essential) opportunities for learning. Because the fear of making mistakes has been so ingrained in us by schooling, etc., many of us avoid making mistakes to an extent that severely stunts the learning process.
In the practice of T’ai Chi there are very few mistakes that are so serious that repeating them for one week will become any sort of problem. Cheng Man-ch’ing said, “Repeating a fundamental error for more than three years makes it very hard to reverse.” However, most students will fail to practice for fear of making an inconsequential mistake for only one week. I frequently hear beginning students say, “I didn’t want to do it wrong, so I didn’t practice.” My answer is, “Do the best you can. There will be more that is correct than incorrect. You will be getting the benefits of what you are doing correctly. You will be relaxing, strengthening your legs, releasing your mind from mechanical thinking, and connecting your mind and body. Moreover, when you familiarize yourself with a move, during the next class, you will be much more likely to see what you are doing wrong and correct it. If you don’t practice, you will keep making the same mistakes in class, and progress will be stunted. The real mistake is not practicing for fear of making a mistake.
Students will unhappily say, “My mind wanders during practice,” or, “I can’t seem to do a whole form without losing concentration.” T’ai Chi has been called a “moving meditation,” which implies that the mental state achieved is the same as or very similar to that during a sitting meditation. Many take this idea seriously enough to imbue their practice with a carry-over of the same mental focus that they associate with sitting meditation. Some who do sitting meditation believe that the mental repetition of a phrase or an idea will produce the desired effect. Others steadfastly fix their mind on one idea. While these techniques are important for building concentration and while concentration is a vital aspect of T’ai Chi, these techniques, if carried far enough, result in stagnant fixation-the very opposite of the basic principles of both sitting meditation and T’ai Chi.
In certain types of sitting meditation, the goal is for the mind to transcend the body. Here, the body is safe and quiet, and the main bodily activities that now occur are breathing, circulation of blood, functioning of the organs, etc, which are autonomic processes that do not require the mind. However, in practicing T’ai Chi, the mind is actively engaged in overseeing voluntary physical activities that involve judgment, coordination, balance, stepping, timing, and sensing gravity, air, the movements of others, spatial relationships of one’s self to physical objects in the room, and the flow of ch’i. Therefore, it is inappropriate for the mind to leave the body under these conditions. The type of concentration required for purely mental activities during sitting meditation is different from the concentration required for the combined physical and mental activities of T’ai Chi.
The T’ai Chi movements themselves, plus their associated foci of awareness, provide a built-in mechanism that ensures that benefits will be achieved without Herculean attempts to fix the mind on a particular idea or concept. Of course, it is valuable to achieve a continuing awareness of a particular theme or concept during a round of practice. For example, you can concentrate to advantage on sinking, rooting, breathing, stepping, relaxation, separation of yin and yang, or continuity. However, you need not always avoid a round on “automatic pilot,” wherein your mind goes wherever it wants or merely savors the many principles brought to life through the movements.
The practice of T’ai Chi can be likened to cleaning a house. For example, one should not go for more than a day without washing the dishes or putting dirty clothes in the hamper, etc. By the same token one should avoid letting more than one day go by without practice. However, one should not constantly worry about straightening things up. Every now and then focused attention must be paid, for instance, to cleaning out the attic or basement of a house. This focus corresponds to doing the form with special attention to one principle or theme. In this manner the depth of experience of doing the form increases with time. The result is a fulfillment that stems both from doing the form and a sense of being instrumental in a process of growth.
The following are a number of suggested themes for practice. Lest this list seem overwhelming, it should be noted that not more than one of these themes need be incorporated in any one practice session or series of sessions.
Emphasizing a principle or idea. Do an entire form, a section of a form, or one movement emphasizing one of the following concepts:
• Stepping like a cat
• Circulation of ch’i
• Relaxation of shoulders, elbows, abdomen, face, neck, trunk, feet, and legs
• Continuity of movement
• Yin and Yang (empty and full)
• Alignment of arches, ankles, knees, pelvis, head, wrist, etc. (knees not buckling in, “beauteous” wrist)
• Coordination of circular movements with the shifting of the weight
• Filling each move
• Centering of the joints, and optimizing the space between fingers and between arms and body
• Not turning the head erratically
• Keeping an even level (sinking during transitions)
• Not twisting the body
• Letting the eyes liquefy-softening them and taking in the full 180-degree panorama without “looking”
• Cultivating a feeling of well-being, inner peace, love of nature, and gratitude for being healthy and having the life force permeate your being
At Different Speeds. The question, “How fast should the form be practiced?” has no simple answer. On the one hand, for each practitioner, there is an optimal speed for cultivating the flow of ch’i and harmonizing the breath with the movements. On the other hand, there are different benefits corresponding to different speeds.While a very slow speed may not conduce to the flow of ch’i or to an ideal coordination of breathing with the movements, it provides the opportunity for the mind to encompass more. A slow speed is good for checking alignment, relaxation, synchronization, balance, separation of yin and yang, and the fidelity of postures and transitions. For this reason, beginners are especially encouraged to do the movements as slowly as possible. In doing the movements slowly, inaccuracies become more evident and are best remedied. One way of doing the form is what I call quasi-static. Quasi means almost, and static means still. Therefore, to do the form quasi statically means doing the form so slowly that there is almost no perceptible movement. After the continuity and shape of the movements have become encompassed by the mind, the next step is to become aware of the circulation of the ch’i and the coordination of the breath with the movements. (See the discussion of “Breathing” in Chapter 4.) After ch’i is experienced, the movements should be practiced at such a speed and in such a manner that optimize the circulation of ch’i. At first, it is a major accomplishment to do the moves in such a way as to circulate the ch’i. Later, when circulation of ch’i becomes second nature, it is a good idea to gradually increase the speed without losing the integrity and continuity of the movements and the flow of ch’i. Eventually the movements can be done quickly, with the ch’i being the propelling agent. Moving very quickly increases the risk that the principles will be violated. For that reason, a high speed brings out inaccuracies and fuzziness. The maximum speed that should be practiced is one that reveals errors but does not lead to a degradation of quality. All of the principles must be adhered to at a high speed. Increasing the speed in this manner will lead to a quicker focusing of the ch’i. The instantaneous focus of ch’i is required in an actual self-defense situation.
At home, you should experiment with all speeds. Of course, during a given round, the speed should not change except for the ebb and flow of each move. In class, the speed must be that of the group (“sticking”). By practicing at different speeds at home, you will be comfortable with whatever speed the leader selects even if that speed is not the optimal one for the circulation of your ch’i.
In summary, each speed of doing the form corresponds to a different idea and to a unique benefit. Therefore, it is good to vary the speed from round to round. However, during a given round, a consistent speed should be maintained.
Blindfolded or in the dark. Our sense of balance is determined by three mechanisms. (1) We attain physical balance mainly through the motion and pressure of fluid in the semicircular canals, which are part of the organs of hearing. (2) Visually noting the apparent movement of different objects in the background provides an extremely sensitive indicator of movement away from equilibrium. (3) The feeling of the ground against our feet tells us when we are losing our balance.
By eliminating the visual aspect, we must rely on the other two mechanisms, which then become more effectively trained (see “Balance” in Chapter 3).
Compressed. When doing T’ai Chi alone, it is useful to know how to modify the moves so that they fit into a limited available space. Or, when doing the form in a group in close proximity to others, it frequently occurs that those whose stepping or whose concept of the moves is different from your own may start to close in on your space. Here, it is desirable to be able to modify the movements of the form to prevent interference with others. Any modification must be done without losing continuity of movement.
Form compression is accomplished through the following modification of the process of stepping as taught to me by William C. C. Chen:
When a space problem is anticipated, merely place the stepping foot wherever you like. Then shift 100% of the weight to that foot, and reposition the other foot in its proper relationship to the first foot. Next distribute the weight as it should be for that posture. (The final stance must not be affected.)
For example, imagine that, in doing “Brush Knee Left,” there is an obstacle forward and to the left. Thus, there is insufficient space for the left foot to step as usual into a 70-30 posture. Instead of the left foot stepping forward and a shoulder width to the left, that foot can be judiciously placed short of its usual placement (or anywhere else, for that matter). Next, as the posture is being completed, the right foot must be relocated to compensate for the short step. Relocation is done by momentarily shifting 100% of the weight onto the left foot and lifting and repositioning the right foot to give the final “Brush Knee” posture the correct length and width.
Or, for example, in “Repulse Monkey,” if there is no room to take steps backward, step the forward foot only as far back as the rear foot, and then move the rear foot forward to its usual position in that posture.
With some practice, it is possible to do the complete form in a space four feet by four feet, automatically adjusting as the need arises.
Compressing the form not only helps to solve the practical problem of lack of space but also develops judgment, visualization, and a sense of spatial and temporal relations. For example, when doing T’ai Chi in a group, it becomes necessary to observe the need in others to compress their movements and thereby anticipate the need to correspondingly compress your own movements inconspicuously, without interrupting the flow.
A few years ago my students and I successfully did the complete short form, each of us on the top of a circular table four feet in diameter. And, because of our concern that stepping too close to the edge might tip over the table, we actually stayed well within the four-foot-by-four-foot boundary.
A good way to practice compressing the form is to lay out a square on the floor with string or masking tape.
Expanded. There is an optimal length for each 70-30 stance, as described in Chapter 7. However, in a self-defense situation it is not always possible to step in such a manner that the weight is not committed. Therefore, it is of value to practice taking a larger-than-normal step. Because such stepping makes the final stance unnaturally long, the rear foot is allowed to slide a corresponding amount. This type of stepping is illustrated by many of the movements of the Two-Person (San Shou) Form.
Extra low. Every now and then it is good to do a round of the form, sinking the weight totally. Most teachers of T’ai Chi place a major emphasis on sinking. The more the upper body relaxes, the greater the stress on the legs. Thus, the strength of the legs is a limiting factor in the degree of relaxation of the upper body. By strengthening the legs to withstand stress, the upper body becomes increasingly able to relax. Of course, strong legs are also very important for stability (rooting) and for the circulation of the blood.
The student will find that by doing the form very low, benefits will be achieved that are similar to those of doing calisthenics such as push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, etc. However, because, during T’ai Chi practice, the leg muscles are stressed at their full elongation, they will become strong without the loss of flexibility and without the abnormal development caused by calisthenics. Not only that, but, the stress on the bones will strengthen them and increase their density.
On different surfaces. The elastic and frictional properties of wood make a level, polished, wooden floor the ideal surface on which to practice. Concrete floors do not flex and are hard on the feet. With certain footwear, such as rope-soled “kung fu” slippers, rugs provide a disagreeably large amount of friction, making pivoting hard. Rugs with foam underneath make balance more difficult. Uneven surfaces such as grass, sand, or earth challenge you to adapt to constantly changing conditions. It is good to get used to practicing on all manner of surfaces.
In different directions or places. Beginners often find a change of starting direction to be quite disorienting. Once students get home after a class, they tend to forget the movements they just learned. This disorientation is partly because the visual cues are now different. The movements learned were associated with visual memories of surroundings rather than their having been independently conceptualized. For this reason it is very important to practice as soon as possible after a class. The student should occasionally attempt to do the form in an unfamiliar direction or in varied surroundings.
It is important for the teacher to give the student an opportunity during class for individual practice. To some extent, this simulates conditions outside class, where there will not be others from whom to copy. If the teacher does not formally give the students an opportunity to practice on their own, the teacher will usually not object to the student occasionally practicing individually, off to one side.
Alternatively, one can practice mentally, as described next.
In your mind. Going through the movements mentally while you are standing, sitting, or lying down is especially useful. If nothing else, it challenges and thereby improves concentration. It is much harder to sustain concentration while lying down or sitting than when actually doing the movements.
For beginning students, visualization is a highly recommended tool for practice-not only for remembering the sequence of moves but also for eliminating errors and discovering states of tension. The state of general relaxation normally achieved when sitting or lying down leads to an awareness of tensions that can go unnoticed during ordinary practice.
Visualization is an important way of practicing when you are sick and lack the strength to do the form all the way through. A number of years ago I was so sick (104 °F fever for one week) that I was barely able to get out of bed. Of course, I attempted to practice the form every day. I was only able to do the first section before I was completely exhausted and had to lie down on the floor to rest. However, this practice plus visualizing myself doing the entire form was very valuable-if only because I felt that I was able to do something constructive for myself in my highly weakened condition.
I do not know whether it was this practice, the fact that I fasted, or the stepped-up elimination of toxins as a result of my fever, but, when my fever went down I felt better than I had for a number of years. Naturally, it took a few months for my full energy to return.
Robert Smith tells about a bedridden, nearly paralyzed person who was not expected to survive. “A [T’ai Chi] teacher came and did the exercise as the invalid looked on.” The patient recovered, and “In three months he returned to work.” This story illustrates the powerful non-physical healing aspect of T’ai Chi.
Stopping and repeating a move or part of a move. While it is of great value to do an entire form without interruption, sometimes it is better to stop at a point where a violation of the principles is discovered. Then, that defect can be isolated, worked on, and eliminated.
Each of the individual movements of the form or small sections of the form can be isolated and repeatedly practiced as an exercise. Such repetition highlights features of a movement and allows the frequent examination and refinement of those features. At the same time, the practitioner still receives most of the usual benefits of doing the entire form.
During practice, musicians frequently isolate and repeatedly play a small passage of a musical composition. They do not need to start each time at the beginning but choose any appropriate place. T’ai Chi practitioners should follow this approach. When practicing a given movement, it is best to start by assuming the final position of the previous posture, first checking the integrity of that posture.
An individual move such as “Beginning” can easily be repeated any number of times in succession since it starts and ends in exactly the same position. Moves such as “Rollback and Press,” “Withdraw and Push,” “Punch,” “Descending Single Whip,” and “Bend the Bow to Shoot the Tiger” do not start and end in exactly the same position. However, each of these moves can be individually repeated by simply adding a small variation that bridges the discrepancy between the beginning and end.
“Pivot on Heel and Kick with Heel” can be repeated in each of the eight directions: N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, and NW (although not in that order). If the kick is normally done in the easterly direction, one round involves kicking sequentially in each of the eight directions E, NW, S, NE, W, SE, N, and SW. This sequence stems from the fact that each pivot rotates the body leftward by 135°. After a round is completed, you automatically face the starting direction again. This exercise builds balance, spatial relations, and strength of legs. It will be discovered that smoothly completing one round without hesitating or losing your balance is quite demanding.
Two sequential moves such as “Hands Playing the P’i P’a” and “Brush Knee” can be repeated as a pair. Other sequential pairs that are useful to repeat include “Raise Hands” and “Shoulder Strike,” “Fair Lady Left” and “Fair Lady Right,” “Step Back to Ride The Tiger” and “Turn to Sweep the Lotus,” and “Separate Right Foot“ and “Separate Left Foot.”A larger sequence of moves or even an entire section of the form may be repeated. Rather than pausing between repetitions, it is better to employ smooth transitions. A number of moves in the form occur in succession on both the right and left side. Examples of this are “Ward off,” “Repulse Monkey,” “Four Corners,” and “Brush Knee.” Such moves may be repeated many more times than the standard number. Also, if you decide to do the mirror image of other moves that are normally done on one side only, a possible way of practicing is to take such a move and create an alternating right-left sequence. For this sequence to work, the movement should be one that starts with the weight on one foot and ends with the weight on the opposite foot. A good example of such a move is “Single Whip,” which starts with 70% of the weight on the right foot and ends with 70% of the weight on the left foot. Other movements that lend themselves to repeated mirrored alternation are “Shoulder Strike,” “Diagonal Flying,” “Hands Playing the P’i P’a,” and “Turn to Sweep the Lotus.” It should be noted that while “Cloud Hands” has a right and left version, these are not true mirror images of each other since, in each version, the stepping is in the same direction. The names of the postures should be committed to memory to facilitate later reference to a given position. A list of the names of the postures of Cheng Man-ch’ing’s short form can be found at Posture Names (pdf).
Movements other than those in the form can be practiced to remedy a weakness, study alignment, or heal an injury. Here is an exercise, taught by Professor Cheng, that is excellent for strengthening the legs, developing balance and root, and bringing a lot of blood and healing energy to the knees: Stand on one leg with the weighted foot at an angle of 45° to 90° with the forward direction. Then move the heel of the empty foot forward in a vertical circle by lifting it, extending it outward, and then moving it downward, keeping it extended. After a round of thirty-six repetitions and a brief rest, switch sides. It will be found that doing a full round is quite demanding. Many practitioners will need to work up to thirty-six repetitions over a period of time. Elderly or weak people can do this exercise holding on to a piece of furniture until sufficient strength and balance are developed. The correct alignment of the leg and foot is achieved when the center line of the 100%-weighted foot is in the same plane as that formed by the ankle, knee, and thigh joint of that leg (see “Alignment,” Chapter 5).
One exercise that is commonly practiced is to stand on one leg for increasingly extended periods of time. This exercise can be done while standing in line or waiting for a bus or a train. While standing on one leg, the other leg is allowed to touch the floor but with no pressure (empty). You should practice sinking the weight into the rooted leg. Special attention must be paid to the looseness and alignment of both the upper body and the legs. With practice, you will be gradually able to increase the maximum time spent on each leg. After rooting on one side, the thigh muscles of the fatigued leg should be encouraged to relax by lightly kicking the heel downward in the air a few times.
Another similar exercise is to stand for increasingly long periods of time in the 70-30 stance (see Chapter 7). Again, sinking the weight, and attention to correct alignment are of great importance here.
Just doing the T’ai Chi form according to the principles will automatically improve your balance; namely, stepping must be done without committing the weight (separation of yin and yang), and the weight of the body must be allowed to sink into the legs (being rooted). However, the following are some exercises that can greatly accelerate the rate of progress:
(1) Select a small section of the form such as the two successive moves, “White Crane Spreads Wings” and “Brush Knee.” Do these as 100%-weighted moves as follows: Assume the “White Crane“ posture, with the right foot at 90° to the forward direction. Instead of touching the ball of the empty left foot to the ground, lift the left knee, as in “Golden Cock Stands on Right Leg.” Instead of stepping into “Brush Knee,” continue to suspend the left knee, and repeat the sequence. At first, only one repetition will be very tiring. Later, the number of repetitions can be increased. After a sufficient number of repetitions of the sequence, place the left foot at 90° to the forward direction and do the same sequence of repetitions on the other side.
(2) First do the entire form in the dark or with eyes closed. As balance improves, isolate a series of moves such as the ones just described, and then do them on one leg. Because the visual aspect of balance tends to dominate, doing movements without using the eyes (in the dark or with eyes closed) increases the challenge to the remaining senses.
(3) An important facet of balance is the correct alignment of the feet, ankles, knees, pelvis, spine, and head.
Another important factor is the distribution of pressure of the foot on the floor and the awareness of this distribution. When the weight is properly distributed, the foot will feel like a tripod. The heel is one point of the tripod, while the first and last metatarsals are the other two points (the metatarsals are the padded joints on the ball of the foot). When the foot is relaxed, as of course it should be, most of the pressure will be on the heel because the ankle joint is more toward the rear of the foot than the front. The rest of the weight should be distributed over the metatarsals and outside edge of the foot. In no event should the arch cave in, which, among other things, would result in an inordinate pressure on the metatarsal of the big toe. As a greater proportion of the weight is shifted into a foot and as that leg becomes more bent, the weight distribution shifts more toward the front of the foot.
(4) One of the most important aspects of balance is the principle of “sung.” When the upper body becomes relaxed, and the weight is allowed to sink into the legs, it is as though the center of mass of the body were below the floor (see the section on “Balance” in Chapter 3 for a discussion of center of mass). Of course, while it is physically impossible for the center of mass of an inanimate object to be below its lowest material point, for a living structure, it is possible to create a dynamic condition in which the center of mass appears to be below the ground. That is, when an opponent tries to uproot you with a push, by achieving a state of sung and correctly neutralizing, you can give the pushing person the distinct feeling that your center of mass is below the ground. It is said that the goal is to achieve a center of mass six feet below the ground!
Watching yourself in a mirror while doing the T’ai Chi form has value but should not be done consistently. It is occasionally important to notice certain objective details such as leaning, committing of the weight, incorrect alignment, and integrity of the postures. However, the correct execution of all these details should eventually stem from an inner rather than external awareness. If a mirror is not available, a single, lamp will produce a well-defined shadow on the wall.
Some practitioners of T’ai Chi use music in different ways. One concept is that, in a self-defense situation, you must move to the timing of the opponent. Therefore it is considered to be of value to practice the form to a beat. This beat can be provided by music or the regular click of a metronome.
One of my students, whose prior teacher used a metronome, had difficulty in doing the form to her own inner flow. It took her about a year of practicing without the metronome to get its sound out of her mind’s ear. Because there are enough foci of timing provided by the already existing internal and external dynamics of the form, imposing an arbitrary beat is unnecessary if not substantially limiting.
Doing the form with music in the background (rather than to its beat) is certainly enjoyable and can add a dimension to one’s practice. However, such practice should be balanced by at least an equal period of practice without any music.
As a physics teacher, I have encountered many students who claimed that they could concentrate on their homework while listening to music. I find that when I try to do two things simultaneously, each detracts from the other. When I listen to music, I want to give it my full attention, and when I do physics, the less extraneous sensory input to my brain, the better it functions. With regard to T’ai Chi, each practitioner will have to decide this issue individually.
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