Following, adapting, mirroring – Do you really know how to practice this?


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When you have read this post about mirroring and adapting in Tai Chi, I can recommend to also read the posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.

In Tai Chi, we try to learn how to adapt to the opponents movements, following him like the reflection in a mirror. But there are two things I see in how people commonly practice Tai Chi that I don’t agree with. Both of them have to do with focusing on techniques before principle. Both may lead to bad habits and a false sense of timing.

First, people practice from stationary postures. Your opponent need to move. You can’t start from your opponent standing with a stretched arm. There must be a movement to follow. Almost all applications you see in vids on the tubes start from either a push hands setting or stationary postures. How can you learn how to mirroring your opponent if you don’t have anything to follow? In this sense, much push hands practice serve better to build tai chi skills than most applications practice you can see that people show up on the youtube etc.

Second, people are too concerned with the limbs. They practice how to defend themselves from hands, arms, legs and feet. But what you should learn to follow and adapt to is the opponent’s center, his balance and to his “yi”, or intent. The traditional Chinese philosophy is to get rid of problems while they are small. If you know that you don’t want a tree to grow, get rid of it as soon you see it comes out from the earth. Don’t wait until it has grown strong. The same can be said for Tai Chi philosophy of self defence. Don’t wait for a punch or any attack to become strong and connected. Then it’s too late. So if you can, get rid of it by it’s root, before there is any power in the attack. To do this you must follow and adapt to the movements of the center. Use timing, get in as soon as you can get in to the right distance and get rid of the problem.

But you need to practice on this. You won’t get any practice you can use in real life self defence or combat if you start practicing techniques with your opponent holding out a stretched arm and fist. This will only build bad habits and won’t help you to develop your timing.

Li Yaxuan (Disciple of Yang Chengfu) on this issue of timing and adapting to the opponent’s movements:

Even before physical contact, with a single glance you join contact with the opponent or partner, establishing a firm connection with him. Adherence can begin even at this stage, prior to physical contact. This is important because when you are working in a more intensive competitive or combative mode, if you depend on physical contact to start your adherence, that’s too late and you’re going to be too slow to exploit any advantage of timing or positioning.

(Translated by Scott Meredith: Link to the complete text, PDF)

  • Practice to watch your oppponent, to feel what’s the appropriate distance to enter or attack.
  • Practice to follow his every slight movement done by his centre, feet, hips or shoulder tips.
  • Try to lock the distance from your center to his center.
  • Watch his eyes: When does he look and can you see his gaze changing just before he goes to an attack?

Follow, follow and follow. Try to act as his mirror, adjusting to every slight movement, even if he moves some part of his body even one tenth of an inch. And then when you have contact with your opponent, let your tingjin (sensitivity skill) decide when, where and how to respond and attack.’

Recommended posts: how to practice Tai Chi applications and Five important points of Push Hands practice.

A suitable amount of dedication and practice in daily life


Obviously different people have different kind of relationships to their Tai Chi practice. Some people are very dedicated and others practice just as little as possible or if they do, they do it in a mechanical sort of way. Some people just go to a class once or twice a weak, practice whatever is on the schedule and when they go home, they hardly even think about their practice until the next class. Others practice Tai Chi daily, but even if they do the movements of their form, they spend very little thinking about their art or do anything to practice or develop their art outside of those 15, 20 or 40 minutes they spend everyday. Yet others live with and inside their art 24/7. They often try to find ways to practice their art, regardless what they do and spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Whenever you want, wherever you are, there are a lot of opportunities to practice Tai Chi without practice a certain form, drill or posture. You can relax, check tension in your body. You can stand upright and feel your balance. When you open a locker, how do you use your body? Are you balanced? Do you feel tensions in your body when you make a certain movement? When you lift or push something, you can practice whole body movement and how to coordinate hand with feet or with the Dantian. When you walk fast is a terrific opportunity to check your breath. You can always take a breath deep and relax the chest and release tensions in the jaws.

When I was a kid, just after I had started practicing Tai Chi, when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I often stood close to my mother for a reason. I would put my foot so I could just shift my weight, leaning slightly against her and see how she reacted. I would try to do minimal movement to affect her balance. She was very, very irritated that I would sneak up to her or do this while she was cooking or cleaning. I was fascinated by how easy it was to manipulate someone’s balance. So I learned how to find opportunities to practice in daily life from a very young age. (Watching Kung Fu movies as Drunken Master and Dreadnaught certainly helped as well.)

Dedication is one thing, but obsession can also become a not so fruitful kind of dedication. If it goes far, you can suffer a kind of burnout or fatigue. Your practice might become an obstacle in your daily life and I know a person who completely stopped all of his practice after more than 40 years of dedication.

You don’t need to practice all of the time, anywhere, everywhere. Development in Tai Chi needs to grow, take it’s own time. There are no shortcuts in this art and too much practice might become a negative issue that affects your daily life. If you are dedicated, let it take time. There’s no need to pressure yourself or rush it. And you also need to grow as well and your Tai Chi needs the chance to grow together with you.

On Integrity


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I was told that before everything you do or while anything you do, you must always consider  your integrity first and always. Actually, the teacher I studied briefly for about twenty years ago didn’t phrase it exactly like this. I can’t remember his exact words. I think it was just more or less: “You must always keep your integrity”. Does it make sense? Or maybe not?

This teacher who I am not going to mention by name often summed up things in short, brief sentences that I have a feeling of that very few of his students took notice of. However he really phrased it, I liked the sentence very much, especially considering that it was a comment to push hands and applications practice.  And it made sense for what I was dealing with right then. You can not compromise your integrity, not even the slightest.

So what does it mean? Keeping integrity, keeping it intact. In general, the word “integrity”  is mostly associated with a moral standard, keeping a high moral standard and being consistent in accordance with this standard. There are also other disciplines that use the term in their own way, like in action philosophy and technical engineering. So how can we use this term in Tai Chi to benefit our understanding of our own place in this art?

Integrity in Tai Chi can mean:

  • Structural integrity,
  • Integrity of balance,
  • Integrity of mind,
  • and Moral integrity


But Tai Chi is a practical art. We learn by doing. Our knowledge is not greater than how we understand to take something and use it in action. Thus, Integrity, to sum up these points means to always keep the standard of integrity, in a most practical sense, regardless what happens.

In a practical sense, this means that you can not compromise your balance or structure even less than by an inch. And you can not compromise your calmness or focus, even less than a tenth of a second. You can not entertain thoughts that makes you worry and you can not get angry. You can not tense up, become stiff or become affected in any way that disturbs your integrity.

You can practice your sense of integrity whenever you practice your Tai Chi, when you practice form or when you play Push Hands or practice applications with a friend. What it means is that you must always stand firm in your “shenfa” (body method) – You should develop your shenfa, i.e. your “Tai Chi body” to such an extent that you always know when you are “inside” of it or not. Slightly being off balance, physically or mentally, might compromise the integrity of your shenfa.

If someone pushes you or lunge a fist at you, your timing must be great, so you can keep your balance and structure intact. If someone does a movement very fast, you must be so focused, calm and relaxed that no sudden movement can take you out of your focus, calmness and mental balance.

There are many more examples one could address. But the essence is the same, the point is to try to always keep your integrity intact. Then how do you know for sure if you keep your integrity intact? You’ll know it by any slight little thing that brings you out of balance one way or the other. You will easily learn to feel when you are inside the right “zone” or not if you practice with awareness. “Integrity” can be like a feeling that everything is on the right place where it should be. The more you practice to become aware of this feeling, the more you will learn to not compromise anything that can affect your integrity.





Learning what and how – Do you evaluate what you really learn from your Tai Chi practice?


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If you study tai chi, you learn tai chi, right? Is it that simple? Really? Sometimes it’s necessary to make things more complicated than necessary. This can make you think and help you to re-evaluate your own motifs for practicing, or make you better aware about them.

There are a whole lot of different variations of T’ai Chi out there and people have different reasons for starting to practice the art. You really must have a very strong idea about what you want to achieve and why. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to practice the art without really studying, without really learning.

First, let us return to some basic statements so we can agree about what Tai Chi is before going on with the discussion on what we actually practice when we study tai chi. First, tai chi as an art has the potential of three main fields.
These are: Studying the art
1) as a martial art/ for self defense
2) for health
3) as meditation

These are the three pillars of tai chi. I would rather say that these are not three different potential. Tai chi is the same and is one art that has the potential for three different main fields of studying. It’s one art and we don’t need to study the art very differently to study any of these areas.

Also, tai chi is an art of movement and stillness. It’s an art of the body. It’s about movement, but also about stillness. We practice slow movements, fast movements. We practice different ways of standing in postures. Some schools also believe that you should practice sitting meditation, but there are only a few schools that incorporated this way of practicing. Sitting mediation is not a prerequisite for the meditation of tai chi practice. For health practice, you don’t need to add anything outside as qigong sets. And for self defense and combat, tai chi is a complex and complete art. There’s no need to add any methods from other styles or combine tai chi with anything else.

So Tai Chi is a complete art. Yet, how we practice and what we achieve varies. Many practitioners and teachers believe that practicing the movements of the form is enough. We all practice tai chi form slowly, focused. Still there’s a difference between doing the movements and really doing them. Many practitioners just do the movements over and over again, regarding the physical movement and performance of them to be the way of development. Doing the same thing, over and over again, day out day in is this the way to develop? From health perspective, physically and mentally, together with the meditative aspects will still be good practice. But the question is, don’t you want something more? Don’t you want to explore what Tai Chi can give you? And how do you know if you are good at what you do if you don’t evaluate what you do? So many people let their teacher do the thinking for them, or don’t let anyone think at all because they practice themselves what they have learned and think that the movements of a form is all that is needed to practice. This assumption is true in some ways if you only are concerned with keeping your health as you grow older.

But as you get older, not only as you get old, but for every year, you will continue to learn and grow as a human. You will re-evaluate a lot of things in your life, get better, learn more. Don’t you want your Tai Chi to grow and develop together with you?

And above all of those three pillars, health, meditation and self-defense/martial art, there is actually something else. There is self-discovery. Without self-discovery, there is no Tai Chi and none of the three pillars. By learning more about yourself, you discover more about your Tai Chi. The more you learn about about your tai Chi, the more you learn more about yourself. But your Tai Chi is always only as good as you know yourself.

How often should I practice my Tai Chi and for how long? (And some other stuff like a few points about “warming up the system”)


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So how much should a Tai Chi practitioner practice Tai Chi and for how long? Sometimes I read books from people as Yang Jwing-Ming who has very special demands on very slow speed of form practice as well as tons of jibengong exercises, (basic practice) advice on sitting meditation (about two hours a day recommended by the mentioned teacher) and has a whole lot of different Qigong sets with different demands. So I wonder if he and similar teachers practice about 36 hours every day. At least, they can’t get any food, because they never eat one or two hours after training. But then I think about that they still have time to write a whole lot of books and make videos. So their demands can’t be so serious after all.

Others says that 20 minutes a day is quite enough. They speak about form practice of course, as there was nothing else in Tai Chi worth practicing. Sun Lutang, the creator of the Sun Family Internal Arts, proposed 20 minutes of standing meditation in wuji stance before practicing form. So there goes the twenty minutes that the common “Yang short form” teachers speak about, just on preparation. Jibengong, other stance practice, stretching and  similar is not included.

So how much should you practice your Tai Chi and for how long? First, I must ask you: Why the heck do you ask me? I am not your teacher. And besides that, everyone has different goals with their practice. What do you want to accomplish and why do you practice Tai Chi? If you can’t answer those questions, how could you know how much you should practice? If you know the answers to these questions, just practice enough so you can see that you develop in the speed that you want to develop. Easy answer, huh?

But then, are there no general rules or any minimum amount of amount of time for practice? No, of course there are not. Again, it depends on what style you practice, what exercises you are working on for the moment, your own level and it depends on what you want to accomplish, i.e. your personal goals. You need to come to your own understanding about what is enough, what is too much or what is too little.

But I can tell you something about practice, like this: When I practice form, I need at least 20 minutes to “get into the flow”. After twenty minutes, and often it takes the double amount of that time for my system to warm up properly, I get my “motor” running. AND first after that time, the real practice and the real progress begin. I will move, breath and focus in a completely different way after that time of warming up. This is my own personal experience. But of course, sometimes I might focus on drills and jibengong, and stance training instead of form practice. Then it’s another way to deal with the whole thinng, another way to warm up the system, a shorter or a longer time. And also there’s another way of dealing with my own body after this time of warming up the system. “You need to pump up the qi”(ch’i) as a Qi non-believer so wisely said.

This might be the very reason for practicing long forms instead of short forms or drills. And I agree with this. Drills has it’s own place, but there is really something very special about longer forms that other kind of martial arts practice can not give you. So from my own experience, I have become a real fan of long forms practice. It can be both very demanding and very rewarding.

Then after “getting warm”, how much do I practice? Hopefully one or two hours, at least. But mostly, I won’t have the time to practice as much as I would like to. I am a busy man. But there’s another component to the deal than the time you do practical exercises. You are not actually limited to the time you do physical practice. If you practice regularly, practice is a way to tune and refine your system. It’s a way to develop your nervous system and muscle memory. Practicing Tai Chi, if you do it regularly, 20 minuets a day or 2 hours a day, a progress of development that goes on 24/7. If you are very passionate about the art, and do a lot of thinking and reading about the art, the overall development will go faster and reach deeper. This is my conviction anyway. I haven’t read things like this in other places, but  I know something about learning. And I speak from my own experience.

No, I have never heard anyone speaking about practicing time the way that I do in this article, or have read anything similar. You can throw everything I said into your mental bin if you like, but still, I hope that you will think more about thus subjekt in terms about how you develop yourself into your tai chi, or how you personalize your practice to suite your own goals and your own personality. This is actually a more “Chinese thinking” than giving general advice about time and amount of practice. A Chinese doctor creates an individualized cure for every patient. The way to handle a decease, how to cure it, is different for every situation. I look at Tai Chi as a “good decease”. You must be like a good doctor and treat yourself according to your own prerequisites. Don’t listen to other “doctors” as different teachers. The only way to develop in Tai Chi is to find the right road by yourself. Maybe easier said than done, but the art of Tai Chi really demands responsibility from the person practicing it. You can’t really hide away from your own responsibilities if you want to develop and progress for real.