This article is an attempt at setting your expectations on what can be achieved from the first few years of Tai Chi study.
The areas discussed are as follows:
- The form
- Martial skills/self-defence
- Spiritual advancement
The article concludes with a brief section outlining some tips on how to speed your progress.
1. Health Benefits
Under a good teacher feeling a positive change in your mental or physical health can take as little as one lesson, although more normally three of four. So some results are achievable in a very short space of time.
Within a month you should have some practical ideas to begin countering the effects of stress and begin to see how the tai chi principles and concepts can make it easier to handle stressful and difficult situations the more you practice them (ideas like relaxing the shoulders, sinking the ‘chi’, hollowing the chest, raising the spirit, letting go, thinking of your centre, strong intention – positive thinking).
After a while you may start to experience emotional ups and downs. This is a normal part of the process of sinking your energy and letting go for some people and means nothing more or less than that. If it begins to happen, just recognise that people have been going through this process for thousands of years. To truly relax and regain control of your energy you may have to confront traumas from the past, make changes in your present situation or revise your concept of ‘how things should be’. If this is difficult it can speed progress if you find ‘someone to talk to’ – a friend or a professional counsellor/psychologist. Alternatively you may want to take your training easy for a while.
Then year on year as you look back you should be able to clearly see the growth in your confidence, sense of well-being, ability to cope with change and therefore resilience.
As many people don’t talk openly about their mental health, you will find there are many, many more stories about how Tai Chi has positively affected people’s physical health. Essentially as the energy sinks to your centre and you explore your range of movement through the form and through exercises with partners, you will find that your joints will open and your muscles, ligaments and tendons will stretch, strengthen and relax. In addition the Tai Chi movements pump most of the major areas of the lymphatic drainage system. This system is one of the body’s ways of filtering waste and is one of the many reasons why doing some Tai Chi can make you feel great!
All of this starts from the first lesson and continues on an on-going basis, although often the most dramatic physical changes happen in the first 2-3 years. With care Tai Chi can have a positive effect on most joint problems (e.g. back pain), problems with fatigue (including ME) and also some hormonal, breathing and digestive disorders.
In addition working with internal energy (chi) unblocks the energy pathways (meridians) in your body and this is amplified when you play with other people’s energy and they play with yours – any place that chi is sent in your body benefits. Slowly, with each practice, the energy blockages in your body (and mind) will be dissolved and your health and vitality improved.
Resistance to disease
Naturally, if you are continually releasing and relaxing so that misused energy can be taken back to your centre and you are simultaneously strengthening and growing that centre, you will find that the body has more reserves left to do what it ought to. For example when under stress (whether it be anxiety, fear or anger) the blood supplies to the major organs and the digestive system are reduced and the functioning of the immune system repressed – so that more blood and energy can be directed to the muscles (fight, flight or freeze reflex). After a while this can become an energetic pattern in the body, in other words an almost permanent situation. If this is corrected you can easily see how your resistance to disease can increase.
Obviously tai chi is not a panacea – a diagnosed mental or physical condition should continue to be treated conventionally until it becomes obvious that you no longer need the treatment – i.e. do not stop conventional treatments that are having an overall positive effect just because you are studying tai chi. Tai Chi does no more than bring out your full potential to heal yourself and maintain yourself (this can have seemingly miraculous effects – but this does not mean it gives miracle cures).
2. Learning the form
I have come across a lot of people who start Tai Chi because they are captivated by the movement. The fact that it is a martial art is irrelevant and not a reason for their study. They have a simple desire to be doing what they see being done.
As a rough guide learning a short form can take anywhere from 2-4 months, depending on the depth of detail covered (i.e. how much testing of postures, discussion of concepts and principles and/or demonstration of martial arts applications). How often you practice and your previous experience at learning movement will also be a factor. The traditional long form takes from 6 months to 1.5 years, although most people who first learn a short form find that it takes less time. However learning the sequence of movement is only the beginning. Once you gain confidence in the ‘rough shape of things’ it is time to turn your attention to the internal workings of the movements. So do not be surprised if the first thing that happens when you finish the form is to be asked to start again with corrections.
At this stage you should be less concerned with what the movement is and more concerned with how the energy flows through it and projects out when you are tested. Here you must employ all your understanding of the principles and concepts of Yi (intention), sinking, use of your ‘kuas’ (ask an instructor), relaxing and projecting. It is possible that you might also begin work on spiralling concepts.
The depth of material may seem bottomless and to an extent it is. This work is now on-going and you could easily study the form to deeper and deeper and more satisfying levels for life. Some schools will go on to teach the weapons straight after you have learnt the movement from the long form. The problem here is that all you are doing is learning more movement. If this is what you have done, please ask yourself the following question: when are your going to stop learning movement and start learning Tai Chi? Without serious study of the concepts and principles within each movement you are not making an honest study of energy in the body and all the much-touted benefits will be limited.
As an example in our school it is very hard to reach a level where working with the straight sword can be more than just movement in less than 3 years. One must not forget that the amount of material learnt is not as important as the depth of understanding you have. Chasing too much movement can encourage you to hold onto physical force and stop you from advancing your skill. Better to focus deeper with less in the initial stages. At the right time it becomes quite quick to add new items.
Forms with partners
There are lots of set forms that are for practice in conjunction with a partner. All of these are extremely important in helping you to understand the play of energy between people and are a good lead into the martial aspect of Tai Chi. As with other aspects these forms are increasingly difficult and demanding in terms of co-ordination, application of principle and body conditioning.
Again, if you want to do more than just be physical (external), you must have a basic understanding of internal principles before beginning your training with a partner, but it is certainly possible to get value from basic single push hands after learning the movements of a short form. Within a relatively short time period, you can progress to learning double push hands and in my opinion sensitivity training (freestyle push hands) is a good continual backdrop to the more structured play available.
3. Martial Skills / Self-defence
Even if you have a traditional martial art or self-defence background you will probably find the Tai Chi approach to combat very strange. To a certain extent it is best approached ‘crabwise’. Plenty of form work, chi kung, meditation, reflection and partner work must be undertaken alongside attempts at applying the concepts and principles in a self-defence scenario. If you start ‘sparring’ and trying to ‘use it’ from day one you cannot possibly be doing Tai Chi – you will be using physical, external force. This is the stark difference between external and internal martial arts. Tai Chi, in the end, is not technique based. It is concept and principle based and those concepts are to do with usage of internal energy. To remain relaxed and centred in combat is the work of many years. A good wine takes time to mature.
4. Spiritual – meditation
Tai Chi can aid your spiritual endeavours by giving a very true and fundamental knowledge of yourself. As you relax and calm the body and mind you can begin to see how your thoughts, actions and relationships (to others, to yourself, to the world around you) are working. From this viewpoint you can then see how you need to change in order to self-develop and get more from your spiritual beliefs.
How to speed up progress – tips on training
Fundamental to progress in Tai Chi is acceptance of change. Tai Chi is a multi-dimensional art and has the peculiar property of always working on your weakest point: whether in the region of mind, body or spirit. As such it is continually challenging who or what you are. In short Tai Chi is a powerful tool for self-development. Therefore if you are unwilling to look into yourself and see what you are, it will be hard to change the aspect which is slowing or stopping your progress in Tai Chi – an obstacle will become a brick wall. This is true no matter how long or how advanced you have become in Tai Chi.
Notwithstanding the above there are many tricks and tips that can help along the way. Here are a few to get you started….
1. Research, research, research.
- Your teacher can only tell you so much. For a broad understanding the internet is an excellent resource, from technical information to video clips of amazing skills. There is so much to learn in the chatrooms and among the many, many websites devoted to all the internal martial arts. The information out there could easily fill a hundred books. There are also several key classical texts and some informative books out there – start looking for them
- After a period of time it is worth re-reading information as you may find a completely different meaning now that your understanding has grown
2. Look at the manner
- When someone senior shows you something try to notice the way it was performed. Copy the way the movement was done, rather than just noting the beginning and end positions. This will tell you a lot.
3. Never stop doing Tai Chi
- Use Tai Chi to open doors, to walk down the road, to stand at the bus stop
- Try using intention on people in shops and restaurants – try to link to them energetically and see if there is a difference. Employ the principles of sinking and relaxing. The next time you are in a meeting at work try raising the spirit and relaxing the shoulders and expanding your energy outward. See the result
- In short, slowly let yourself become Tai Chi
4. Practice positive thinking and experiment
- Find other tai chi people that you can play with. Just muck around pushing each other, trying out ideas and concepts, discuss the theory etc. Throw ego out the door and you will progress faster
- View everything that happens to you in life as a positive training exercise
- Give time for daily reflection and how you might do something different the next time. Slowly life will change for the better
5. Give it time and enjoy
- Above all relax, relax, relax
- Don’t allow the practice itself to become a stress. It takes time to change and develop, so relax and enjoy the ride. Tai Chi above all should be fun. A serious outlook constricts your energy. Right now try frowning for 30 seconds whilst thinking of someone you love. Feel the effect. Now try the same thing whilst smiling. Need I say more….