I have been doing the tai chi form alone lately.
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.
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.
The repetitive nature of the tai chi form is purposeful, planned and intended.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.