We’ve been posting some rather long and, in some cases, technical articles. I thought here we would strive for brevity while still attempting to convey the essence of taiji (tai chi) practice. What better format, then, than the ‘ole tried and true “top 10 list?” (Okay, perhaps poetry, but how much creative expression is expected in a blog?)
I started by pondering how to describe taiji in three words but could not distill it that much. I then wanted to make it a “top 10 list” but could not decide which of the two below to cut – so I ended with 12. The list is not solely of principles or how to practice, but also includes descriptions of the exercise and the benefits and feelings of practicing.
Numbers 1-3 are what I would list if I could only do three. Numbers 4-11 are in no particular order, though number 12 is intended to end with perspective.
Here then is the list I came up with one rainy morning.
1. Awareness. This is the key, the center point, the goal and the path. More about this in a follow-up post.
2. Balance. This is the meaning of the word taiji – balance of yin and yang. Balance, of the mental and physical, is essential to health and quality of life and is trained in every aspect of taiji.
3. Tranquility/Vitality. Okay, I’m cheating by slipping two words in here, but this yin/yang pair is needed to describe the purpose/benefits, the feeling of practicing taiji. After class, how do you feel? I have long noticed the paradoxical feeling of tranquility/calmness/peacefulness, yet at the same time feeling more energy and vitality. It is a wonderful feeling, and nothing else I have ever done reproduces it. I will attempt to explain this from a physiological perspective in a future post.
4. Community. I always said that the greatest benefit in following Dr. Yang around the country for 25 years was the wonderful people that I met. Social experience in local classes is also an important benefit, and component, of taiji practice. The group energy is palpable but indescribable – the feeling one gets at class is different than when practicing alone, and I believe is a very important component of one’s taiji journey. A good local group is invaluable. The feeling of group energy at class is one of those things that money cannot buy, and I would suggest to those that only take private instruction that missing this experience of group energy is indeed a significant omission in one’s practice. Every person in the class contributes to the overall energy. One of the instructor’s principal jobs is to sow the seed of, and to nurture, that energy.
5. Strength. This includes mental and physical strength and is related to number 6 below. We have written elsewhere about the mechanics of the physical power trained in taiji – check the blog listings for those articles if you have not seen them. I have trained extensively in other combat sports and weightlifting. Nothing comes close to the improvements in functional strength realized in taiji practice.
6. Confidence. This is not simply the confidence gained through physical improvements and experience in push-hands, but rather a larger feeling of reduced fear in all aspects of life – the feeling that all is well, regardless of outcome. When I started teaching around 2006, one older lady in class asked me “what is the single greatest benefit you have gotten from your practice?” My answer then was “reduced fear.” Whatever happens is OK. And, as Anthony de Mello and many other spiritual writers tell us, fear is the opposite of love. In accordance with yin/yang theory, the way to increase one is to decrease the other.
7. Nurturing. Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang said, “you will be successful if you know how to practice and how to nurture yourself.” Taiji practice can be modified to suit persons of any age or physical ability, but an overriding principle is to always emphasize nurturing in your practice. As Dr. Yang says, “No pain, more gain.” (Or, as the New Yorker cartoon caption reads, “No pain . . . no pain.”) 🙂
8. Experiential. Taiji has evolved through centuries of trial and error, and our understanding continues to evolve today through the perspective of western science. As information today travels at the speed of light through the internet (well, a little slower depending on your ISP), our ability to study and ponder the art is unlimited. The taiji attitude is not “believe this,” but rather “try it, see if it works for you.” All the words in the world will not convey the essence and purpose of taiji training. One may hear or see or read something and say “yes, I understand,” or “no, that woo woo makes no sense,” but intellectual understanding is at best nothing but a tool to help one practice, and at worst self-limiting. Only by doing, by practicing and pondering seriously, by experience, can one begin to understand taiji. To quote Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
9. Multi. Multi-dimensional, meaning that the different components of a complete curriculum encompass training along the entire spirit/mind/body continuum – from the deep quiescence and stillness of sitting meditation to the intensity of demanding physical exercise. And multi-modal, meaning that there are different types of exercise in a complete curriculum. No single form of exercise, of course, can deeply train the entire spirit/mind/body continuum. From sitting/lying meditation to standing meditation to static qigong to form to push-hands to footwork/agility drills, taiji training incorporates all of the benefits of meditation and flexibility, strength, coordination, and cardiovascular exercise. Taiji is way more than a brand of choreographed movement.
10. Deep. This one is self-explanatory. The more one learns, the deeper the water gets. Who has touched bottom? Who would want to – the journey, as they say, being its own reward? Everyone continues to learn – achievement is relative. Humility and a desire to continue improving oneself mentally, physically, and spiritually are requisites for improvement, and, respectful forms of address aside, I am suspicious of anyone claiming to have mastered anything. I do believe that taiji and qigong are harmed in the public eye by the proliferation of self-appointed masters, whether their belief in their own mastery is genuine or motivated by self-promotion.
11. Silk-Reeling. In terms of describing the physical movements of form, the end-product of coordinated movement in accordance with taiji principles is silk-reeling. As Chen Xin wrote, “taiji is the art of silk-reeling.” Grandmaster Feng included “silk-reeling must be present from beginning to end” in his 12 principles of practice. We’ll look at silk-reeling in-depth in a future post – if sharing this list with a non-taiji person I would substitute the term “coordination.”
12. Little Dao. Let’s keep things in perspective. All rivers lead to the ocean. Taiji is a little dao from which one can glimpse the Big Dao. Qigong is mind/body/spirit integrative practice. Taiji is one kind of qigong (and other qigong exercises are fundamental to taiji training). Any action can be qigong, if done in awareness.
What would your list be?