Why is Tai Chi Repetitious? Benefitting from Monotony


I have been doing the tai chi form alone lately.

A lot.

In my current circumstances I can’t attend a class. I miss the community and look forward to getting back to it soon.  However, this time away has made me realize how much I had been relying on the social and communal aspects to continue to practice. Since I have been away, it’s like I have been going through Kubler Ross’ Stages of Grief:

Denial:  You’ll get back to practice soon.  And, you probably needed a break to freshen things up again.

Anger: Get out there you idiot and practice!  At least one time through!!

Bargaining: You only need to get out there once a week to hone your skills, right?  Come on, practice today and earn a week off.

Depression: You’re not practicing and you probably already forgot everything.

And finally, thank the gods: Acceptance: Your posture is getting poor again from sitting too much. You are inside too much. You get tired in the afternoons. You already had to review the video for the broadsword form because you forgot it.  The cure is out in the driveway.  Just 22 minutes of effort and you will be a new man.

Why is tai chi so repetitious?

I have to admit that I was blaming tai chi for being monotonous and boring for the reason I wasn’t practicing. But when I started to question my boredom, and question why tai chi was so repetitious, I became excited and was flooded with questions:

Why is the tai chi form so monotonous, ehem, I mean repetitious?

Why do all styles share some movements?

Why are there different tai chi styles at all?  Shouldn’t there just be one best way?

We have to do the form the same way every time. That is repetitious enough.  But some moves from within the form are repeated multiple times. Does that make them more important?

Is there some greater philosophical meaning behind the repetitiousness other than just to learn the form?

This line of thinking has gotten me excited about practice again.  Namely, that repetition, the reason I was bored, is a great teacher and is having a positive impact on my life outside of practice.

Stylistic Differences

Many of us have been privy to the “which tai chi style is best?” or “why are they different?” conversations that continue to plague the internet and workshops.  What most westerners don’t know is that this thinking drives many masters nuts.

In Talking Chen Taijiquan, David Gaffney shares an experience where a practitioner at a workshop asked Chen Ziqiang why some teachers tell their students to more forward than others.  His response was:

“Why do they have to ask questions like this?  Your teacher has told you what to do, now do it.”

Chen Ziqiang went on to explain that in the past, martial arts were referred to as “wulin” or “the martial forest.” Distinctions weren’t even made about internal or external let alone which style.  If was understood that everyone started from a different place but in the end was working towards the same place.


Check out what happens from 00:44-01:20. Tell me this is only internal or external.

The real misfortune from this line of thinking is that we waste a lot of precious time concentrating on the wrong thing:  What is different versus what is the same.

Why is Tai Chi Repetitious?

We need to set aside stylist differences to get to the heart of the matter. I want to share one more anecdote with you that I believe is also from Chen Ziqiang because it brought this point home for me.  I am paraphrasing here:

“We all grow up in almost precisely the same education system.  At the very least, you and at least 20 other kids had the same teacher and were taught to write in exactly the same way.  You all looked at the exact same Aa, Bb, and Cc and did your best to reproduce them.  In the end, you write in your language and others can interpret it as your language.  Yet, no one is criticizing your Bb as not being the correct Bb.  No one is asking why your Bb leans forward.”

You learned English or whatever you speak from a master and ultimately your version is a slight interpretation on what was originally presented to you.  Now you are a master. What is going to happen when you share your mastery with your child?

The importance is in the similarities, not the difference.

What is Similar About the Styles of Tai Chi?

Leaving stylistic differences behind, let’s focus in on what matters.  Roughly, all styles:

  • Have a warm up, opening, crescendo, and closing
  • Contain long slow repetitious movements
  • Focus on breathing, footwork, posture, and mental focus
  • Have goals around precise timing, relaxation, and openness
  • Expect you to memorize a long sequence of up to 75-108 movements
  • Work to produce an exact replica that you commit to improving eternally

What do tai chi styles share?

Monotony and repetition for lllllloonnnggg intervals. If you are bored with your tai chi it is easy to understand why, right?

However, by recognizing repetitiousness as being part of the original design, as being intentional, as being consistent to all “styles” and thereby important, it brings us back to the original question:

Why is Tai Chi Repetitious?

I believe that there is inherent purpose in the repetitive nature of tai chi and if we understand this we can benefit immensely.

Argument/Assumption #1

The repetitive nature of the tai chi form is purposeful, planned and intended.

Argument/Assumption #2

The benefits of tai chi are intended to transcend practice and physical improvement and to have an external, greater impact on my life.

Therefore, Argument 1 and 2 are true then if:

The repetitious nature of tai chi is intentional and designed to positively impacts our life.

How?

Here are my thoughts.

I am beginning to see that we are programmed to take note of the differences between things and discount what is common.  I am also not sure we have subconscious control over this.  We spend our entire days comparing and contrasting why things are different.

We look at menus of food and note the minute differences in ingredients forgetting that they are all pizzas.

Our intention is drawn to the art on the wall that is tilted and miss the relationship between the color schemes and theme.

I wish all the examples I could give are just funny, but they are not.

We all know people who feel true hatred for a different political party despite both parties having very similar agenda. Secondly, both parties have candidates who have dedicated 10-20-30 years to serving the same country. The one you love too.  That’s commitment and hardly worthy of hatred despite policy differences.

We categorize by gender and skin color and leave all shared aspects of humanity behind.  Did you know, that when polled, all people, ALL, value their health, safety, and happiness above all else?

We look in the mirror and see an inch on our waistline or an inch of our hairline as monstrously different than those around us. We forget that most people our age and gender are suffering the same ill-affects of age and vanity.

Tai Chi – The Great Differentiator

Most people are oblivious to how they instinctively look through a lens of difference rather than similarity. I say most because this does not include you, or at least doesn’t have to, because you study tai chi.

I see the repetitious nature of tai chi as having two huge purposes and lessons.

Sameness

Tai chi is a daily practice of bathing in similarities for a period of time. Hard, intense focus on what is the same.  Continual work to reproduce and remove or stamp out difference.  This gives us two options when interpreting an emotionally charged situation where the average person only has one.

The average person has a reaction while we have a choice.  A choice that we have practiced for and earned.  We possess tools to step out of situations that are emotional or cloaked with our own experience and observe them objectively.  Because we are programming ourselves with the repetition of the tai chi form to consider all the ways things are similar or different.

We are not special, we have just put our time in.  Just as daily intense learning of Spanish gives you the option to respond to a situation in two languages, you can respond with two points of view.

Perceiving the similarities in two situations is powerful because you can accurately assess a threat.  You can be empathetic. You can see the point of view of others. And you don’t react.

Individual Differences

I don’t believe that noticing differences is a bad thing. I am sure that it tied subconsciously to our survival instinct because being on the lookout for differences, changes, and things out of the ordinary ensures our wellbeing.

We react quickly to odd traffic patterns and avoid a crash. We don’t eat food that smells “off.”

But in this modern day, how does it serve us?

When I do the tai chi form consistently, I am setting a certain number of expectations.  I typically feel a certain way, move a certain way, and think a certain way.

If everything is fine with me, I don’t notice anything.  I just do the form.  But here are some of the differences that I have noticed and how I compensated for it.

  • My neck is tight – Are you leaning into the computer?  Wear your glasses.
  • You are dragging butt today – Get to bed on time and get some vitamin C and D.
  • You can’t balance on one leg for $h*t! – Drink more water today.
  • You can’t remember the next move if I paid you $100 – You are overwhelmed or took on too much at work.
  • Your knee hurts – Your posture is way to forward. Stop hunching over the computer.
  • Your mind is raising and/or are checked out mentally –  Still working on this one. 😉

What is the result?

No injuries or real sickness for years. I also enjoy pretty good thinking at work.  Looking back on my tai chi practice, I am now questioning whether this is the result of micro-adjustments that I make on the days I do the form or qi gong because the form “told me” what was off, wrong, or inconsistent.

What I am comparing in this instance is years of re-experiencing a single activity with how I am doing or feeling in the present moment.

Summary:

I do not have solid proof that some greater thinker intentionally designed this repetitious nature into tai chi. I haven’t heard any masters speaking on it, nor have I read it anywhere.  But what I do know is that it is unique to tai chi (maybe also yoga) when compared to other sports and physical movements.  The fact is that as a group we are asked to precisely train and improve a specific set and number of movements.  Not do more. Not do less. Just do better.

This gives us two things:

A way to see the world as more similar than it is different.

A way to sense and adjust small inconveniences, before they become a problem.

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.

3 thoughts on “Why is Tai Chi Repetitious? Benefitting from Monotony

  1. Hello, Scott. I don’t know how, but I found myself on this page. I usually don’t comment on opinions expressed online, but when I read this page, I detected a note of sadness in your words, and was moved to reply. From that date shown above, I see that you posted this a few weeks ago–so we are all living in the world of the C-19 pandemic. Sadness about this isolation is understandable (I’m not saying “justifiable”, your feelings are your own). I don’t understand questioning your own practice of tai-chi. You mention “years” without sickness, so you have been practicing tai chi for years, at least. A couple of rhetorical questions: 1) Why did you decide to learn tai chi in the first place? 2) is that reason still valid? You stayed through your learning enough to complete at least one form ( I presume); and you’ve continued practicing. Something is still there to motivate you.
    From the article; I think you see both too much-and not enough-in the exercise. Also, ANY exercise is hard to continue if you don’t enjoy it. Regardless of how good an exercise routine might be for a person–they will not continue doing it if there is no enjoyment in it.
    I sought out a school that would teach tai chi because I wanted to learn a martial art that I could enjoy doing outside–on grass and near trees. I’d had some years’ experience with external martial arts (tae kwon do mostly), and I liked learning control over muscles, nerves and bone–the challenge of learning. But that was not what I wanted. Practicing such forms outside was ugly…and didn’t fit there. There’s no sensitivity. It’s like making clubs of one’s hands and feet–and using them like clubs. I found a school that taught Chinese martial arts. After a few years, I was able to start learning tai chi there. I was at the school for 10 years. NO, I did not become a great master. I trained a lot, but also realized that I have *millions* of “wushu brothers and sisters” who also learned. So trying to be *best* at any of that wasn’t necessary. I was learning for *me*. I took in what I was taught, and practiced for *hours* every day. I was taught many things. We did external (long fist) and internal styles (tai chi, pa kua). I left the school over 20 years ago. And have practiced since then. I still practice what I can. I don’t practice every day, but do practice *most* days. I still practice a number of different routines. And they are still the *same* routines–nothing changes about them after all, and I do them as I remember them. I’m not as young as I was when I learned ( I was already 29 when I’d started). I’ve had various joint replacements (heredity, and accidental injuries). Each time, the exercise has been there for me to strengthen from surgery, and test what still works.
    I *can’t* be angry while I start doing a form. How is that even possible? I’m in a space (outside–haven’t been inside a school in over 20 years) that I enjoy–and once I start to move, I enjoy the movement. The forms I do are *mine*. I don’t care if I do them the way *you* were taught, or even the way “I” was taught exactly (some movements are no longer possible (mechanical joints haven’t same range of motion)). I don’t care. *I* am doing what feels right for me. I can perform movements a bit faster…or a bit slower. Yes, it’s the same repetitive set of movements–but the movements are old dear friends. How could I be bored? Even now (or especially now) I can find space outside that is always distant from other people (regardless of microbe spread) so that’s never been an issue.
    You practice your tai chi as you want to–and use it as you wish. At some point I hope that you’ll realize it is *yours* and from that time, you can use that gift to your best advantage. At some point, “refining” tai chi isn’t the object–but enjoying it can be. Here’s an example: We eat food because we have to. But how much more fun it is to eat that food prepared in our favorite manner. Either way, it’s still food. Eating can be viewed as chore to endure , or an entertainment to be looked forward to. If you try to put too much thought into your tai chi, you might lose your enjoyment of it–and then have to force yourself to do it. Sometimes, it’s just best to let it happen naturally. You’ve already learned the movements. Have you ever seen that social phenomenon where someone asks someone else “why do you laugh like that?”; and then watch that person’s reaction? Something as simple as laughter suddenly becomes less enjoyable as the person laughing starts paying attention to it. At least briefly, it doesn’t feel natural.
    That’s it. I wish you well during these times. I hope you regain some joy, and can enjoy your tai chi. I’ll be enjoying mine. Good luck. Stay safe.

    1. Hi Richard,
      I write each month to promote dialogue and thinking around topics related to tai chi so your comments are surely welcomed. I comment sparingly around the internet also which is ironic a bit considering I write on the internet, but am glad you took the time to share your thoughts.
      Let me try to reply in kind.

      Yes, this marks my 20th year practicing. The reason why I practice now is probably really different from when I began and has zigged and zagged throughout. My reasons initially leaned more towards the fun, social, exotic aspects of the art. At different points I found myself interested in the forms, weapons forms, history, language, lineage, internal aspects, applications. The variety of ways one can explore probably keep me practicing this long more than any one thing.

      So to your point. Yes I have benefited greatly from tai chi and something has always continued to motivate me. However, there are times I am frustrated or tired of it. I never hear any long-time practitioners admitting this. So I guess I wanted to write in an honest way for those practitioners that cycle through their motivation and interest.

      (Your part two)
      You make two important points if I can read into your history. Enjoyment and possibly the community were higher priorities for you which drove you to seek out a certain type of experience: therefore you stuck with it.
      Because you stuck with it long enough, you benefitted from it, to such a degree that you are continuing to practice independently 2 decades later. That is awesome. Secondly, you recognize tai chi as a tool/way to heal yourself and improve your life outside of practice. Kudos again.
      This would be the magic formula right? If you could magically give someone a taste of what is in store for them years down the road and then put them back in their body and mind present day, I think everyone would practice tai chi.

      (Your part three – “I can’t…)
      This is an interesting point and something I will have to think on more. I am thinking here about the ability for the art to change or improve emotional states. You saying “I can’t be angry” is interesting. Either you have reached a place where there is always a higher value in doing the form and you are past any repetitiousness or, you have associated a doo state with the movements and simply by taking on the form, you take on the emotional state you have practiced into it.

      Overall, you’re probably right that too much of something or too closely scrutinizing can wring the joy out of something. Lack of enjoyment might be a sign that we are pushing too hard in the wrong direction, either over-analysis or under-appreciation. Nine practices out of ten I am pretty happy and 10/10 I am in a better place after I finish compared to when I started.
      So thank you for your conversation on this and hopefully others will find benefit from the perspectives.

      I wish you well too!
      Scott

  2. My beginner’s understanding of the repetition is such that some of the movements are beneficial, but once the benefit is gone the movement must be repeated. The body is a living machine, with a digestive cycle among other processes. The one positive repetition I think of is a movement I can’t name at the moment, but it pushes negative energy from the chin area downward into the body’s energy center. You have to do it again from time to time, not for fighting, but just to help clear negativity which crops up so often. Blended with Qi Gong, I guess this is, and less about fighting, more about meditating, I know.

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