How should we practice?
"Have you ever done a document on what daily self-practice could be for beginners and intermediate students? You do show us things, like river walking, Qi-gong, standing practice, but then we are on our own…. Every book I read says that without dedicated daily practice, students never achieve much. If you do work with advanced students on that, what would you say to beginners? "
This is such a great question – obvious and important – and yet the answer is actually quite subtle! Aleks’ question also intersects with that of one of our newest members and with a discussion I’ve been having with a veteran associate. In essence, How should we practice?
At https://www.coldmountaininternalarts.com/single-post/2016/11/05/The-Four-Intangibles is a discussion of four factors that are at the centre of this issue. The Four Intangibles are:
An inner sense of serenity and peace,
strengthened willpower, and
mobility – a capacity for free movement and spontaneity.
In The Taijiquan Classics these are explained as the harmonization of Shen to Yi, Yi to Qi, and Qi to Jin.
In the article these are presented as prerequisites for self-defence. But they are also the outcomes of correct practice. Any practice that does not lead to these ends is by definition incorrect. Correct practice must contribute to our spiritual and psychological health, awareness, willpower, and ability to move freely and spontaneously.
Suppose you are a beginner, or perhaps someone who has difficulty with sequencing – something that becomes more difficult for most of us as we age. I would suggest that your practice should focus on:
Learning to stand. The preparatory stance – wujibu as at right and also modeled by the Terracotta Warrior above – teaches us to rest into our structure so that we can cope with stress. It can be a purely physical exercise, or one that enhances meditative awareness. We stand like a mountain, relaxed into the ground, and we listen as if someone were about to silently approach and whisper a precious secret in our ear. Our breathing becomes quiet. Our mind and awareness expand. We become stronger and we change.
Learning to walk. River Walking consists of putting wujibu in motion. It is done differently in different styles, but all involve perfecting our balance, strengthening our muscles and bones, and refining our concentration and awareness. Movement becomes an embodiment of inner quiet as we concentrate on what we are doing. We learn to go slow!
Developing coordination. For this I recommend building upon River Walking with upper body involvement. This uses the Six Harmonies: hand to foot, elbow to knee and shoulder to hip.
Eg. – Yang-style Brush Knee:
Start standing on R leg with R arm extended to shoulder-level. Chamber the R palm to the R ear and simultaneously step out to L.
Shift the weight L into L bow stance and push with the R palm to the front (at R and below R).
Bend the elbow and fold the R arm palm-down to front with a simultaneous L twist-step.
Extend the L arm and simultaneously shift the weight 100% to the L foot drawing up the R.
(Chamber the L palm to the L ear and step out with the R foot, etc.)
What this linking of arm and leg movement actually involves is a little bit of sequence training. It is taking one series of repetitive movements and articulating them by putting them under a microscope to see how they can connect upper and lower body. And along the way one realizes all the benefits of River Walking: balance, power, etc. (We shall hopefully have a video about this shortly.) It also can constitute a deep meditation connecting body to mind. One has to really concentrate on what one is doing. And so, not only does hand connect with foot, but mind connects with body.
Engaging in this kind of practice is something that intermediate students tend to neglect. But it is a necessity for beginners and a deep meditative pleasure for those more advanced. It ideally should be engaged in on a daily basis. Also, it is the commitment to daily practice that perfects our willpower and gives us inner strength.
Everything discussed to this point is imbedded in the Tai Chi form. The practice of the form introduces additional elements such as greater relaxation, flow etc. These issues are addressed at: www.coldmountaininternalarts.com/single-post/2016/07/29/Five-Necessities-for-Beginners which is based on a taxonomy by Richard Rooke.
2. Regularity of Practice
The various qigongs associated with Tai Chi differ from one style to another. But the ultimate qigong is the form itself! Its practice should be a daily concern.
If the sequencing of the form is difficult due to factors such as age, illness or injury, these training elements in themselves can change one’s life for the better; so a practice can be based upon:
Coordinated repetitive movement
…even when the individual may not have the ability to master the form’s sequence.
In common with other kinds of meditation some general guidelines are:
To practice every day to the extent of one’s ability. First of all, practice is cumulative. Three hours of practice per week is more than one. It does more for your body. But in addition to this, the commitment is essential. Practice must be a real priority; it must be something you do not let other things get in the way of. If you do not give your practice a high priority, then this indicates that you are not really committed to getting the results that regular practice offers. If that is so, you had better look to your motivations. In the absence of real motivation, are your expectations reasonable?
To practice at a regular time. For most people, mornings or evenings are best. These are times when the Ying is ascendant or moving. I myself find that afternoon practice, when Yang is ascendant, feels heavy and uninspired. But the issue of practicing at roughly the same time is also intended to make committed practice easier and to achieve the results you are after. If you do something every day for a month, that thing becomes a habit. Ideally, practice should be a habit.
To develop a practice routine. Start off by arranging or clearing your practice space. You might want to make a little ritual of this, maybe with a candle or incense. Make it something to look forward to, something that focuses and clarifies your mind.
To handle interruptions correctly. Try to minimize the possibility of being interrupted. Take the phone off the hook or mute your cellphone. If despite everything you still are interrupted, when you have done whatever had to be done, return to your practice, re-centre your mind, and finish it. You never want to end up feeling hurried or jangled.
To attend classes on a regular basis. Regular class attendance keeps you honest. It reinforces your practice by not only exposing it to a teacher’s regard and suggestions, but by providing it with a social context. The development of friendships greatly strengthens our Tai Chi. In addition we must recognize that if we are unable to put aside an hour or two per week for an activity we love and benefit from, then there may be something wrong with how we are living. If we cannot attend class regularly, there may be something wrong with how we are treating ourselves.
3. Taking Ownership
Sam Masich has suggested that the stages of one’s Tai Chi career can be divided into a number of steps. The first three of these are:
Beginner: Learning the basic skills and starting in on sequence.
Novice: The sequence has been learned, but the student is class-dependent for purposes of getting through it.
Enthusiast: The practitioner is secure in the form and is developing a personal practice, including daily practice at home.
Clearly the transition from Novice to Enthusiast is crucial. Making this jump consists of ‘taking ownership” of the form. Foundation and Regularity are intended to bring you to this point. Class attendance and the relationship you develop with your teacher and other practitioners simply stabilizes the process.
These three stages will tend to overlap, particularly when one is learning / practicing more than one style of Tai Chi. In time one comes to recognize and be comfortable with them. As this happens, the process of forms-acquisition becomes easier and easier.
Please note that everything here is focused on form. There are many other aspects to Tai Chi practice: qigong, pushing-hands, etc. However forms-practice is the usual and traditional doorway to skills-acquisition. Forms-practice may involve stance-training and qigong, but these are contained within.
The issue is that form provides the foundation for what we are building. Form embodies the structure of skill and practice that in time we will carry within ourselves!