Independent Practice: what you need to know
"I think this is a great quote to start with. “Class is good for getting pointers and practicing with others but home practice is the key to improvement.” I found that as I continued on my Tai Chi journey, questions about how to practice at home and continue to improve arose. I believe that many have similar questions and thoughts.-------- It was Steve's suggestion to discuss this topic with the senior club-mates that motivated me to write this article. What follows are tips from senior members of the club." Joanna Szulc
Enjoy the practice
This is a key point that everyone agreed on. Practice needs to be something that you enjoy and look forward to. Therefore, practice the forms and qi gongs you enjoy and as much as you enjoy. Also vary your practice by changing things up to keep it interesting. Better yet, find something in the tai chi practice that enhances your life, whether it is stress relief, health, mindfulness or self-defence. Connect with that as that will help you remain motivated.
Relax and soften
We have all heard : “There is always something more to relax.” The key here is the softening of the joints. One of the things that can be done is the “Warming the Joints” exercise. We often do it at the beginning of each class. I have also been reminded of the 70% principle in tai chi. This means that we should only extend 70% and avoid full extension of the joints. Some stretches with the focus on relaxation are also a good thing to do. These can be done at a desk, while driving or anywhere else. Do what feels good that day. These stretches will improve flexibility and enhance your form in the long run.
Connect with what brought you to Tai Chi in the first place
This will make your practice and your entire tai chi journey meaningful as well as motivated. Try to remember why you started tai chi to begin with. Was it health, stress, mindfulness or self-defence? Make it a part of your intention, motivation and part of the practice. The Tai Chi journey is a very personal one. Make it meaningful to you. After some time, Tai Chi principles will seep into life simply by osmosis. And therein lies the magic.
Give yourself time and be patient with yourself
Go at your own pace. Don't compare yourself to others. Remember that everyone learns differently and at their own pace. Be patient with yourself and, most importantly, be forgiving. There are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. On a bit of a personal note: It may be a little frustrating at the beginning, when one finds oneself unable to apply the principles or just do the movements exactly as described. However, practice is about a gradual progression. I find myself not only being able to implement the principles in a better way but even noticing and understanding things I have heard Steve talk about few years ago.
When we first start our Tai Chi journey, we often think that we don't know enough or we need to know the entire form in order to practice at home. That is not true. We can start practising practically after the first class. For instance, we can practice the wujibu stance, river walking or commencement or any other individual movement. The sooner and more we practice at home the more and faster we will improve.
How much and how long to practice: consistency is more important than quantity
I have asked the senior members about how much they practice. Their answers varied from 10-15 min a day (busy schedule) to over an hour a day. The most common was about 30-40 min a day. However, the most important part of practice is consistency. It is better to practice 5 or 10 minutes every day than 1 hour once a week or month. Start with a short practice routine doing something that feels good to you and build on it. The consistency will keep the fire going and your skills will improve.
There is too much emphasis on form, so also practice qi gong and individual movements
Too often beginners focus exclusively on the form, wanting to learn it.
Remember to practice qi gong, river walking and individual movements as they will improve your form in the long run and at any stage. Another thing mentioned by Steve was that once we learn a few forms we will begin seeing them as parallel with many commonalities
Take one principle in the form and practice it for a few weeks or months
During class we often review and practice one or more principles. Choose one principle we study in class and practice it while doing qi gong or the form or part of a form. Reviewing the 10 principles of Yang Chengfu was suggested to me. You can also begin by familiarizing yourself with Yang Chengfu's 10 Essential Principles. You can choose a part of the form to practice one of the principles. You can also use qi gong to practice the 10 points. The 10 principles are widely available in many books on Tai Chi.. It is good to choose one of principles and a part of the form or qi gong to practice.
Review what you learned in class
Please review what you learn in class. Try reviewing the new moves right after coming home. When learning new moves, I have to repeat them by myself directly after coming home. I found that it helped me remember the moves even when I got them wrong or missed part of the sequence. I was able to correct the mistakes during the next class and remembered sequence
In order to learn a form, you must take possession of it
One of the interviewees shared the advice of the ancients that : “When you want to learn a form, do only the form for 100 days.” Someone else, on the other hand, stressed the importance of taking possession of the form. This means make the form your own by learning it section by section. When you want to learn the form, it is also good to set realistic and achievable goals. Most importantly, practice what you have learned in class. Practice the new moves after coming home.
A few people also talked about this idea of experimentation. Once you have reached a certain point of proficiency (after a few years of practice) you can start experimenting with the form. This can be done by taking a few separate movements and linking them together.
Tip for organizing practice
Start with a warm up followed up by individual movements, qi gong and finally the form.
Qigong, form and Practice
I would like to emphasize an analogy that was shared with me:
qi gong – engine
form – outer shell, and
practice is putting gas in the car.
Not just what you practice but how you practice
Steve emphasized the importance of mindfulness and paying attention during practice. Pay attention to the body and each movement. Doing it as slowly as possible helps in paying attention.
Conclusion and acknowledgements
I hope you will find these tips and do’s just as helpful, inspirational and motivational as I did. It was truly a pleasure and an honour to interview everyone. Much thanks to Steve Higgins and our veteran members: Tanya Korovkin, Patricia Beretta, Bob Wiljer, Peter Reist, and Lisbeth Haddad.