On a break during a tai chi workshop, longtime practitioners and teachers expressed their envy to a newbie for being “so new” and for having the foresight to attend a workshop early on in his development. The new student was confused by this and said “What do you mean, I don’t know how to do tai chi! I am new!” The teachers responded nearly in unison “exactly.”
This led to a spirited conversation of “I wish I would have known…” or “This sounds silly but I would have made so much progress if I…” Almost everything that was mentioned by these veterans sounded pretty simple. But no matter how far along in your development you are, there are always fundamental principles that lay at the foundation of every tai chi move and form.
Learning how to do tai chi correctly is dependent on moving the body in unison, relaxing throughout every move, concentrating on the breath, reducing your speed, and cleanly shifting weight. Generally practitioners progress faster based on the level of instruction they get and if they have access to a community.
These concepts are pretty easy to wrap your mind around. Where the difficulty lies is combining all of them in every move. I compiled everyone’s ideas here and provide some links for you to deep dive on the subjects that are the most exciting for you.
6 Ways to More Quickly Learn How to Do Tai Chi Correctly
1. Move your body parts in unison
Every (every!) movement in tai chi involves the entire body. This is difficult at first because as you are watching someone else do tai chi and are trying to learn the moves, you only concentrate on one hand or one foot at a time. Know that the entire body is moving together. Even what appears to be a single hand movement is initiated from the feet or the core and requires the entire body to be in motion.
Do not forget about the arm or leg that is not striking or not stepping. For example, where is your left hand when your right hand is punching? Or where is your weight when you are about to step? If you want to learn how to do tai chi as beautifully as what you see in competitions, you have to move the body as an integrated whole.
2. Identify how much weight should be on each leg
When we stand normally, we 1) do not pay attention to where our weight is and 2) typically have the weight evenly on both legs. In tai chi there is always a weight difference in the posters that is described by a percentage. (90/10, 60/40, etc.). This concept is most often talked about as Substantial-Unsubstantial meaning that there is weight on one leg which allows the other to be light and take a step. This is important because without this knowledge, a practitioner has the tendency to land with his weight when taking a step rather than taking an empty step and transferring the weight onto it.
3. Breathe naturally
Relaxed, natural breathing is crucial for learning how to do tai chi correctly. The breath coordinates your movements and the deep breathing is also what gives you the relaxation and health benefits from down-regulating your nervous system. Often new learners change their breath to match their movements when it should be done the other way around. Learn to relax and lengthen your breath and move your body to match. Here is a whole article with instruction on tai chi breathing.
4. Reduce tension
Show me a student who has been told to relax and I’ll show you someone who is frustrated. This one drives many of us nuts (Relax please. I am relaxed d#@n it!). Try this to feel complete relaxation: Assume a posture, drop your shoulders, squeeze the whole body and then relax each body part in succession. Now you are relaxed and can move.
The concept of relaxation in tai chi is called song and it is something pretty significantly different than what we consider to be “relaxation” in the western world. While we think of relaxation as doing something, in tai chi relaxation is the art of undoing what you should not have been doing in the first place. A bit out-there philosophically but check out this essay on relaxation (Song) to get the full picture.
5. Avoid rushing
Yes, you want to learn the form but work hard to enjoy the process. Learning how to do tai chi is also a bit about learning how to enjoy anything you are doing in life. This is partially your teacher’s responsibility because if he or she is teaching you how to do tai chi correctly then you should be consistently making progress.
Tai chi should be about the slowest thing you do in your life and possibly the most repetitious. Actually, I can’t think of anything slower where I am concentrating as much. The slow process is really enjoyable. There is so much in our lives that we can’t control or that feels like is out of our control. Most of us are rushing out the door or from one meeting to the next. Take the opportunity to really slow down and enjoy yourself for the few minutes that it take to do the tai chi form. Then, try to do any other activity in your life the same way. Or at least, try to stay present and enjoy it as much.
6. Welcome precision
Sink into each stance instead of flowing between movements. Push up with the top of the head as you pull down with the tailbone. Make sure all of your fingers are together. Why is the precise nature of each posture and each movement so important?
- Each posture develops specific skills. There are balance components, breathing components, postural changes, and variations in speed that are being taught across the movements. Without concentrating on how precise you are, many of the nuances go right over your head.
- The postures are designed to improve your health. The order and precision of the movements carry positive health implications. As an example, keeping space in your armpits allows for proper blood flow to the arms and hands. Many newcomers practice with their armpits closed. Additionally the opening and closing movements of the arms and legs act like billows. Think of it as using your body like a pump to exchange stale for fresh oxygen. Or stagnant for clean blood.
- The postures hide martial applications and fighting techniques. All of the movements contain fighting applications. These rarely work if your balance or posture are not good. Precise movements such as rotating the wrists can be ways to lock an opponent or free yourself from someone’s grasp.
There you have it. Simple right? Yes it is simple but we all wish that we would have had this collection of pointers years ago. Learning how to do tai chi correctly is part of the lifelong pursuit but the early you can internalize some of the foundational concepts, that faster your form will progress. Don’t let it overwhelm you though because it is an enjoyable process that doesn’t necessarily require will power and discipline.
A Great Example of How to Do Tai Chi
What happens when you put it all together? It looks like this. Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming continues to be a modern, stellar example of how to do tai chi correctly. You can watch him for several minutes and there never seems to be a break to his concentration or form.
If you are wondering where you are in your tai chi development and what the next phase looks like, check out The Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi.
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