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People study T'aiji Q'uan for numerous reasons. One of the many challenges in studying is discovering T'aiji focuses on process rather then a goal. That is an important principle and one of the more useful benefits. The understanding, and allowing, of this process enriches every aspect of our lives. From a relaxed, centered form, to focused driving, to enjoying a child's laughter. On the other hand, if a student is constantly grasping for something, that goal will not only be out of reach but will also limit their abilities in other areas of T'aiji. All one has to do is practice the principles, have faith, and allow the benefits of practicing T'aiji to manifest themselves.
Understand Process Through Learning How to Learn.
First, understand as much as you can about the principles of T'aiji. "First in the hsin (mind), then in the body." - Wu, Yu-hsiang from "The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan." Read, buy books/videos written by teachers in your lineage, ask questions, seek out older brothers and sisters and most importantly, practice at home. Cherish this confused, challenging beginning. This is your introduction to the process of learning T'aiji. You begin to accept that it's all right for you to stand still for a while. You may notice a quiet, centered, part of you that has been masked by everyday movement begins to reveal itself. Listen to your body. Your feet are flat to the ground and your weight is evenly distributed over the bottoms, which allows your weight to center and drop; straighten your legs but don't lock them; relax and align your hips; keep your back upright and your stomach soft; let your arms hang naturally to your side with the palms facing behind you and some space between your naturally curved fingers; gently lift the top of your head. With this alignment you may feel your breathing relax, and your breath becomes deeper, slower and full. You are learning that doing less can give you more, internally, mentally and spiritually. Next, you may realize a movement you repeated felt different, more natural, has more authority, begins to feel familiar. Something is different though. There is a stillness centered in your physical core. A seed of relaxed movement that grows from the inside through following T'aiji's process of learning and practicing the principles.
Second, learn the physical patterns and the sequence of movements. "Did my whole body follow the previous principles or not?" - Li. I-yu, from "The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan." You notice immediately that T'aiji challenges you kinesthetically. You are asked to begin moving different parts of your body simultaneously and have those parts in different places and stop moving at the same time. This means you may be moving your arms and hands at different speeds while you are stepping, turning your waist, etc. You should focus on all these areas of the body and control their movement simultaneously. The process of feeling your movement is what is important at this stage. Only use mirrors if you must. What you sense/feel is more important. That and being open to corrections from your teacher. Rely on his/her correction more then what you "think" is physically correct. We have stuck spots that we are not aware of in the beginning. A good teacher will recognize them and ask you to correct, or release an area of your body. Somewhere at this level you will begin to feel comfortable with some of the beginning movements and discover you are not thinking through the separate parts of the body as much. You begin to feel the total body movement happening more then doing the transition into a posture. Process is changing because now you are becoming more aware of your body and movement during the transitions. This is a natural and challenging part of the process. You become aware of your current limitations. I believe Professor Cheng referred to this stage as drinking the cup of bitters. Some of those limitations will be eliminated and others stretched as your T'aiji body begins to soften and the corners you have begin to round. At this point in your studies you may notice you are more relaxed while holding postures and standing meditations. Allowing yourself to be where you are 100% is a excellent improvement. You should begin to enjoy muscle memory moving you through the transitions and postures. Your improvement may slow down, but will continue.
Third, get the mind out of the way and let the movements happen. "Do T'aiji as though you are the best in the world." says Mr. Robert W. Smith. That statement alone should relax your shoulders a little more. This level takes time and patience. You may feel stuck on a plateau for months. After focusing on how you do the form long enough your approach to process will change. It becomes less about working at the form and more acknowledgment of the principles seeming to happen on their own. You should find your natural alignment and centering have given you an ease of movement that allows your mind to settle and sink to the tan tien. At this point your process may become the realization that you have finished the form rather then concentrating on how to do it. Don't judge your form as good or bad. Following the principles completely is what is important. Form correction is an important element of our growth regardless of how long we have been studying. The longer we study, the more we hear from our teachers. They always teach on various levels simultaneously. It is only when our bodies and minds are ready that we not only hear, but begin to physicalize their teachings on a higher level. In the early eighties I asked Mr. Lo a question about one of the classics. His response was, "Ask me again in twenty years?" Twenty years later there was no need to ask, I had begun to understand.
Someone once said that everything is taught in the first lesson. I think of Mr. Lo's first lesson at each of his camps and workshops. Relax, separate the yin & yang (weight), back upright, turn the waist (don't twist the shoulders) and fair maidens wrist. Twenty five years later I am still working on that first lesson. That, my friends, is process.
Every Thursday at 7:30 AM, for the past four years, I have met with a private student, Mary Anne Ottero. Our normal view of trees, dogs playing with their loved ones, and other Chinese stylists exercising has recently been altered by construction machinery and mounds of dirt. I commented that we were here before the construction began and we will be here after the project is finished. Mary Anne and I accept that part of our Tao is constant change. Change is part of our T'aiji process as well. What is important is practicing every day and allowing your form to grow by accepting where you are on any given day. Some days are easier then others. Accept that and do what you can with what personal physical gifts you are blessed with.
T'aiji Q'uan asks us to follow a unique Tao (Way) of learning and studying. If you have found a reputable teacher, followed the principles, practiced diligently, invested as much of yourself as possible, and have faith in what you are studying then your rewards are "limitless." Depending on how long you study, you will at least begin to enjoy a moving meditation that is a rejuvenating acknowledgment of your humanity. Eventually, those qualities can enhance every second of your daily life.
We can never be Cheng, Man-ch'ing, but like him, we can can see where our process in T'aiji Q'uan will take us. What makes the journey unique is our minds and bodies. Cheng, Man-ch'ing and his students are testimony to the benefits of the process of T'aiji Q'uan. We too, can live fuller, healthier lives by living our process and recognizing the importance of the journey. Whether in T'aiji or other daily activities, relax and allow your process to unfold.
Tai Chi Taowest Academy
Los Angeles, CA
"Be still as a mountain, move like a great river." -- T'ai Chi Chu'an Classics
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