I am into the third week of my first experience in taiji/tai chi and qigong. I was first attracted to study this a few years ago, but have been waiting for an open window of time in my schedule to coincide with a class and instructor that seemed to have the approach I was advised to find. I have a few friends and students who are deep practitioners and have strongly urged me to try it and see the connection for myself. I’ve been eager to explore this movement/martial art and its viewpoint on how to move the body and move energy through the body, looking for connections to what I practice in swimming and running.

And, oh my! Now I know what my new swim students must feel like! Though I am probably the youngest person in the class, that doesn’t necessarily make me the fastest at learning this. By the time we’ve gone through 60 minutes of studying a few new movements, my head is filled up. I am sure I must have that foggy look in my eyes that I see in my students when they’ve had enough! 

Apparently, the old transliterated name we are familiar with is ‘tai chi’ and the newer spelling is ‘taiji’ is what is being promoted now. Qigong is a branch of taiji related to breathing and posture, though I am not entirely sure yet what all it encompasses. Over the 6 week course we are learning  a couple standard taiji forms and some qigong breathing exercises.

 

So Many Details!

There are so many body parts to train! Each movement in the form starts with a distinct position and finishes in a distinct position, with a precise movement choreography between. Then there are transitions between each movement. We might start with forming a position, then practice going back and forth between the starting and finishing position, and then we need to practice transitioning from one movement to the next. We might start with the first movement, and work on it for a little bit, then add the second movement and work on it for a bit, then add the third movement. I find it hardest to remember the transitions between the movements and remembering which one comes next after the one I am on, since I am so focused on what I am doing in that moment, not thinking quickly enough about what comes the next. But, after just these first three lessons, some movement memory is forming in my body. 

And, I find it is wonderfully absorbing for the attention – another excellent form of movement meditation. It is a pleasure to have a new movement puzzle to work on, with a beginners’ mind.

To ease my own learning, and organize what was being taught on the way that works well for me, I immediately divided up the body into prioritized sections and I’ve started building a list of focal points for each section, for each movement. As a whole class together, we might be taught how to position the whole body or move the whole body at one time through a single movement. However, soon I have to withdraw for a moment, design my own drill for some portion of the movement and just practice one or two focal points at a time. Then I will recompose the whole movement more slowly, layer by layer, asking for help when I get stuck. 

My list of sections to study for each movement: 

  • Foot placement
  • Posture
  • Weight shift
  • Torso rotation
  • Arm movements – single, and together
  • Hand positions
  • Breathing rhythm
  • Muscle tone

Fortunately, other folks are faster with their phones than I am, and have captured video of our instructor doing the whole sequence, and have shared those, so later on we can study the parts we are still confused by. 

 

Where Is The Feedback?

In one way this might be more challenging than learning to swim freestyle. In the water, there is a very clear sense of where the body should be positioned (just under the surface, parallel to it), and a very clear objective (moving forward more easily), and the tangible thickness and flow of water provides very helpful feedback about those. But on land, though these movements are, at their core, fighting movements, in our practice there is no opponent, no substance, no external reference point other than gravity, the floor and the walls, to tell me if I am moving the right way. I have found myself closing my eyes and trying to sense how force should be flowing through my body, to feel some sense of purpose to each movement, yet the teacher is reluctant to add that complexity to our instruction so soon. For now I have to aim for the appearance of correct form and trust the teacher’s external feedback and his manner of dispensing the details.

It is challenging cognitively as well because the names for the various positions and transitions and analogies used to describe the movements and their purpose are from an eastern style. It takes some explanation and some imagination to see the common ground between how the eastern cultures have formed their understanding of how the body works and how the western cultures have formed theirs, which is my native viewpoint. But our teacher is doing a good job of trying make that bridge of understanding for us. 

 

Slow Down

Not only is it quite challenging to learn the movements, surprisingly, it is hard for me to really slow down the movements to the pace at which these are suppose to be done. Truly there is neural challenge to be found working on the edge of uncomfortably-slow as much as on the edge of uncomfortably-fast. Going really slow gives me a much better opportunity to notice what’s happening with various parts, and hold them to a higher standard of timing and precision. And, as the movements become more consistently precise, they become smoother, and by this they become faster in the correct way. 

I know I am barely scratching the surface on what there is to understand, yet already I can see this is a great complement to our practice in running and swimming.

And, it is something that I can do conveniently at home, morning or night, as a warm up or cool down to more strenuous exercise, or even when recovering from illness and need to take things easy on the body. But it is not ‘easy’ and when done well, it requires strength. Though it is taught in a way that allows those with more frailty and limitations to enter into the movements, we’re shown that each movement can be done to the extents of those with greater mobility and done with more martial intent. The opportunity for refinement is endless. This is truly excellent brain and body rejuvenation practice. 

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