Make Your Tai Chi Practice Consistent Without Will Power or Discipline

Make Your Tai Chi Practice Consistent Without Will Power or Discipline

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No one would argue with the fact that adding physical activity or meditation like tai chi practice to your life would improve it. The problem comes with the execution. You can have the greatest intentions in the world but if you can’t follow through with something long enough for it to become a habit, chances are you won’t reap the benefits. This goes for investing, eating well, exercising, learning a foreign language…

But, we have all been there before! You’re excited when something is new, you start to lose steam so you invoke the all-mighty powers of discipline but that too runs out. Is there something that tai chi has to teach us about making permanent change? I think there is. Tai chi practice is a way to transform our will power and discipline into consistency.

People practice tai chi to improve their life, become more connected, and remain happier. These successes are not intended to be only experienced during the tai chi class. After learning what the form teaches, it can be applied to work, health, interactions, or personal goals.

Here are four easy steps taken from research and positive-change gurus to establish habits that consistently become our daily routine. I know you are excited to get going so let’s roll through these four suggestions and then spend the second half of the essay showing how to maintain your tai chi practice consistently.

4 Easy Steps to Establish a Consistent Tai Chi Practice

I recently received this feedback below from a long time practitioner about the content of this website.

“…knowing everything about T’ai Chi is a lot different than making Tai Chi practice a part of our life… This is something I rarely see in any of the educational media.  It is just assumed that the student will develop a practice but the reality is most students do most of their T’ai Chi in class.

The most important thing is to do it, to make it your own.  An elementary practice will affect our lives profoundly.  Erudition will leave us looking for more.”

Well said. I love the idea of what he is hinting at with “elementary practice.” To me this means that the real change comes from small, consistent changes. Not only that, it’s small consistent changes that dramatically influences how long it takes to learn tai chi. Here are for ways to adjust your day to accommodate tai chi practice.

1. Don’t Add, Replace

no calculator

Do you have time to add something new to your schedule? Who does? But you have to be interested in change or improvement or you wouldn’t be reading this post. Get twice the bang for your buck by reducing a less-than-positive activity with tai chi practice. For example, are you heading the couch for your favorite show? Still go there but first step outside for few minutes to do the form and grab a cup of water before you settle in. Darren Hardy says it best in his book: The Compound Effect: Jumpstart Your Income, Your Life, Your Success

“The sum total of all the actions that you take each day lead to greater success.”  

Darren Hardy

Life is a big calculator and at the end of the day your sum total of actions either moves you in the direction you want to go, you stay neutral, or you move backwards.

Hardy has a beautiful Habit Assessment that helps us quantify how much time we are actually putting towards activities like accessing news, watching TV, or shooting the bull. It is a good wake-up call and way to see where 15 minutes can be culled away from.

2.  Wake up 15 Minutes Earlier

You have heard this one before but I am going to put some eastern knowledge behind it. The Taoists divide the day into tal. Each tal is 20 minutes so each hour has three tal.  They then assign an animal to each two-hour segment and describe which activity is most suited for each segment. The Rabbit time falls roughly between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and is considered sacred due to your clarity of thought, acuteness, and relaxed state. They talk in terms of “protecting” this time and not wasting it.

Too fluffy you say? Yes, I know! Tai chi suffers from a hippy-ish reputation but let’s hit the science. The brain produces 5 wave frequencies (Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta, and Gamma) that are measured in cycles per seconds (Hz). Alpha waves are present during deep relaxation and allows your mind to be successful at heightened concentration. They are present during light sleep but can be accessed through meditation (see Silva Method). Guess when it is easiest to access and experience an Alpha state? You got it! When you wake and are transitioning between deep sleep (delta) and waking hours (beta).

3.  Make the change small enough to do for a long time

New research suggests that if you can do something for 66 days (higher number of days needed for motor tasks) then you are more likely to sustain it for a longer period. That seems like a long time but also explains why the tried-and-true 21 day challenges fail to produce long term results. The trick is building your consistency muscle.

In her research dispelling some of the modern day myths about habit formation, lead researcher Phillippa Lally showed that the 66 day average is what got results. In order to get there, it has to be a commitment that is “so small you would be embarrassed to tell someone you didn’t follow through.” Consistency is the goal, not the desired outcome. We get into more of this below.

4.  Get a buddy

tai chi practice is more consistent with a buddy

We have all started something new with a friend or spouse and found tremendous excitement or commitment at the onset. Accountability is motivating. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who is also interested in tai chi, practice with them and agree to meet regularly. What if you are attending class alone? Something else I have seen to be successful is to make a friend at class and commit to showing up 15 minutes early to review the tai chi form or material. You want to show up with a clear conscious so you are more willing to practice.  And what if you didn’t practice?  Who cares?  That 15 minutes will make your absorption of that class’s material even easier.

It all adds up – Gains from Tai chi Practice are Cumulative

You just need a little structure in place to get you practicing so you can benefit from your efforts. Then the novel, pleasant experiences begin. No amount of words (or essays!) can explain the hair-raising sense that overcomes you when chi starts to independently move through your body. No amount of surprise can describe the first time you don’t react with anger or irritation when a child or coworker frustrates you.  A reaction that would have been typical before. The word gratitude is too small of a word to describe the first time you are thankful for rush hour because otherwise you would have missed that song, news story, or sunset.

How Do I Keep My Tai Chi Practice Consistent?

In a recent poll of this community I asked what information would help improve their tai chi the most.  Many of the responses you could guess:

  • How do I improve my balance?
  • How do I improve my stance?
  • How should I breathe during the form?
  • How do I find a good teacher?

But this one question surprised me and it came in many similar forms:

  • How do I practice tai chi consistently?
  • I know tai chi is good for me, but I keep stopping my practice. How do I keep practicing?
  • I feel better when I am doing tai chi regularly, but I don’t always make it to class.  What gives?
  • Why is it so hard for me to be consistent?

Here’s the thing. This is my 20th year practicing. I am consistent. I’ve benefited greatly, not because I am skilled, but because I am learning from the repetitiousness. And, I want this for you too. To get you there we have to:

  1. Start with the more obvious suggestions about consistency
  2. Fully understand the distinction between will power, discipline, and habits
  3. Unearth the deeper reason you may not be consistent in the first place

In Part 1 I will start with the oh-so-flavorful explanations about how to improve your consistency. They are truthful and apply to anything you want to be consistent about. If your consistency is non-existent, start here.

But tai chi practice takes a special type of consistency because we attend fun classes with real humans (the easy part) but we also have to get our fannies out of bed on cold mornings and hit it, when no one is watching, when it really counts. Standing meditation, sitting, forms, qi gong… If you have an independent pursuit, a “practice,” then you need to see a clear distinction between 1) willpower, 2) discipline, and 3) habit formation. That’s Part 2.

And then you, dear reader, you who are attracted to tai chi for its deeper meaning, I have something special for you: The Reason Why You are Not Consistent. This is Part 3 and I will share a really provocative idea developed by Thich Nhat Hanh.

How can I have consistent tai chi practice?

Part 1: How Can I Have a Consistent Tai Chi Practice?

We are not going to spend a lot of time here because a hundred other web pages will walk you through the simplicity of consistency. I think the irony is lost that if it were simple then the web pages wouldn’t be needed:

  • Anticipate a slump after your excitement wears off
  • Uninspired? Do it anyway.  A.k.a.: the Suck It Up! method
  • Go back to basics
  • Find an accountability partner
  • Forgive yourself and move on
  • Find joy in the activity
  • Do it early in the morning
  • Calendar it
  • Place reminders around your home and place of work
  • Reward yourself

As snarky as I want to be, there are some really good nuggets in these suggestions. By default though I think a tai chi class covers many of these bases. You have partners, it’s fun, on the calendar, full of basics so you feel like you are accomplishing something, and some classes have rank/privilege as rewards.

how can I be more consistent

Part 2: How can I be MORE consistent?

I believe that I am uncharacteristically consistent in many areas of my life because I see a distinct difference between three words we normally treat as synonyms: Willpower, Discipline, and Habit Formation.

Willpower and Consistency

Willpower is the ability to sustain. Once we begin something that is difficult and goes longer than expected, it helps us finish. When we are tempted to break some rule or promise, it helps us stay the course. It is a very powerful, but short energy. It’s something we keep “on reserve” for when things don’t go as planned.

Let’s say you are perfectly following a new diet but then get caught in traffic on the way home and you are starving. Willpower can get you home. Willpower will not make you consistent though.


Discipline is the ability to undertake repeated action. When we say someone is disciplined, we are actually describing their current state, not their action. A disciplined person might be orderly or in good shape. Their continual action seems effortless. Discipline is a methodical energy that helps us determine when and where we do our action. However, discipline will not make you consistent though.

Why? If something breaks your pattern, you are completely hosed! Maybe you have a twisted ankle for three days and stop working out completely. Or maybe you have one piece of cake at your birthday party and blow your diet. We have all been there. In those cases we are relying on discipline in order to be consistent.

Habit Formation

Habit Formation is the ability to break an action into tiny repetitive activities that your subconscious takes over and you no longer think about. I think this is what is happening when we say someone is disciplined. They actually are stressing less than you. They just eat that way or sit down to write daily as mindlessly as you drive from your work to home.

 “Success is built by taking small consistent steps over time. While these steps in the moment don’t feel significant, the results over time are massive.” 

Darren Hardy

Let’s use the goal of “consistent tai chi practice” and look at how these three paradigms would be applied to it:

Willpower: It’s Tuesday! Practice Damn it! You said you would practice after work. I don’t care if you are tired.

But what happens if you are exhausted/sick/late/asked to go to happy hour?

Discipline: I am going to practice every day at 5PM for 21 days.

But what happens on day 22? Do you make it and then binge? Oops, I mean celebrate?

Habit Formation: My doctor said to exercise for one hour, four days a week. I know I would never miss if I walk for 15 minutes at lunch on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. When that’s established, I will be in better shape and see if I want to increase it.

Here is the process that I use to add new habits to my life:

  • Make it first – get out of bed 15 minutes early, even 10 minutes.  Whatever sounds doable.
  • Make it tiny – what amount of time seems embarrassingly small. Can you practice for 7 minutes? 6? How many moves of the form?  Just 5?
  • Go for every day but set a goal for X/66 –  Hey, life is going to happen. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing it every day. Choose an amount that sounds silly-small but is more than what you are currently doing. You will be better off for it.  22/66 days sounds weak right?  But that is every 3 days.  How much are you practicing now? See this article for more on habits: How Long Do You Need to Practice Before It Becomes a New Habit?
  • Get a running start – Let’s say your goal is to practice for 15 minutes for 22/66 days.  Practice for 30 minutes right now and put two checks on your chart.
  • Habit stack – If you can attach a new habit to a subconscious routine that is already in place this is a quick win.  Let’s say you always go outside to get the newspaper without even thinking about it.  Stack doing the tai chi form onto going outside and make it part of that habit.

The Big Secret to Becoming More Consistent

Your goal IS consistency.

Not what you want to accomplish.

Hopefully in the example above you see that yes, you will practice more but what you are really learning is consistency.  Your goal is to move the activity into your subconscious, past all of your fear filters (it takes too long), and emotional filters (I don’t feel like it!) so that it just happens.

Why Your tai chi practice is not Consistent

Part 3: If your tai chi practice is not consistent, here’s why.

Are you ready?

You are focusing on the outcome and not the process.

If you think about things you continue to do time and time-again, you enjoy the process. If you think about times in your life where you were consistent, chances are there was some amazing relationship or maybe a positive feeling that came directly from the event that you want to get back to.

Tai Chi is a double teacher in this sense.

If we stay present during the form and pay attention to the subtleties, we will enjoy it more and become more consistent.

So not only are we becoming more consistent in or tai chi practice, tai chi is teaching us how to be more consistent. We use the tai chi form practice to learn how to stay present, enjoy, and continue a repetitive process. When we have that down, we move it outside of the class and we apply our knowledge about “how to be consistent” to other areas of our life.

How to Focus on the Outcome and Not Just the Process

If you think about or hope for being in shape – playing the flute perfectly – doing the whole tai chi form perfectly, more than you think about and enjoy the practice – YOU WON’T CONTINUE.

Something that is not present in all of the common suggestions about consistency is that a truly consistent person finds joy in what they are doing.

Not always of course.  I go through periods of boredom with my practice and I may practice less at times.  But then something great happens or I meet someone else who practices and I get reinvigorated.  Overall, over longer periods of time, collectively, I am consistent.

And joy is only possible in the present moment. Not in the past. If you have fond memories, you are experiencing them right now. Not in a future you are hoping for. Let’s end with an extremely provocative idea that Thich Nhat Hanh shared in his talks recorded in The Art of Mindful Living. Here is what he said:

Hope is an Obstacle

Hope is not as positive of an emotion as we think it is because:

If you invest in this future, you have to spend a lot of energy hoping.   There is not much energy left for you to take care of the present.  And without enough energy left, you can’t have a breakthrough.

The present moment is the substance [the decisions and actions] with which the future is made.  [And therefore,] the way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.

What else can you do?

If you take good care of the present moment, there is no reason that you will have to worry about the future because now that the future will be made by the present moment.

And that is why hope is sometimes an obstacle.

People tend to hope because they feel helpless in the present moment. They find that the present moment is so heavy, so unbearable, so difficult to endure.  That is why they invest in a future with hope.

I hope tomorrow will be better.

I hope after tomorrow the pain will be better.

In the light of these practices, this is why hope can be an obstacle…Bring all sorts of your energy back to the present moment and get a breakthrough.  This is the practice.

Scott Prath

Scott has been practicing and teaching tai chi and qigong since 2000. He is a lead instructor for the Austin Chen Tai Chi Association. His interest in the internal martial arts began after traveling in India and Nepal, and he has since traveled to China to train. Scott has published over 100 articles on tai chi with a focus on research showing the benefits of practicing.

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