Body awareness – The real key to success in Tai Chi Chuan.

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If I were going to mention only one thing, or the most important thing, that I believe that anyone who practice Tai Chi Chuan should focus on more than anything else, and would ultimately lead to success in the art, well, that would be body awareness.

What we do in Tai Chi and why practicing slow, focused with awareness is for developing control, fine and refined motor skills. The kind of fine motor skills a Tai Chi artist wants is the kind of skills dealing with small details of painting, or operating with a laser. There’s an absolute precision we are looking for. When we can control our movements in an absolute manner and with awareness, spontaneity and freedom of movement will be the result.

Therefor, when we practice form slowly, we should try to be aware of every slight tension that might occur in our body. Sometimes, or often, it’s good to move really slow so we have time to feel what is going on throughout the body, from toe to fingertip, from the bottom of the feet and up to the crown of the head. Try to feel what ever slight change do to your body. When does tension occur and where are weaknesses in movement? Move in an absolute even pace. Pay attention to your movement at every inch of your movement. When the movement is straight, it’s perfectly straight. When it’s round, the round form is perfectly even. Perform your movements as you were operating with a scalpel or a laser.

This is in my opinion “correct” form practice. Drills and push hands can be practiced with the same kind of focus. This kind of practice demands extreme focus and concentration. Yet demanding, but it’s actually not hard to achieve. Just know how to practice and continue to practice. A kind of awareness should be developed throughout the whole body. Also calmness of mind and a certain natural beauty of body movement could be the result. If you look at professional dancers, they often move with a certain authority or beauty that looks perfectly natural. If you look at “masters” of different martial arts there is often something similar. Sometimes when they enter a room, there might be the impression like they take up the whole room. I believe that this is an expression of moving with awareness, a type of body awareness that is achieved through many, many years of practicing with awareness.

How to practice Tai Chi applications

There are some general advice regarding Tai Chi application practice that I would like to share, some things that have been important for my own development in the art. These are general advice for all styles. But of course there can be different kind of exemptions for different styles, depending on what kind of application you practice. I would say that there are some things different schools do that I personally don’t agree with. Often applications practice become more or less like any another martial art’s practice like Jujutsu or Shaolin qinna. But this kind of practice without the study of Tai  Chi principles is not true Tai Chi practice.

Let’s say that we practice a simple thing like parrying a straight fist, in the same matter you go in to a “holding a ball posture”, like the very start of “Ye ma fen zong” (parting the wild horses by their mane). Sounds easy, right? But in the beginning, you need to think of many different details. After time, all of these details will become second nature. Everything that is hard in the beginning will eventually become a part of your “shenfa”, or body method.

what you need to think about when you parry/deflect that incoming punch:

Adjusting distance and angle.

Through the whole movement, be aware about the distance between his and your body. If you need to move your body, attach your distance to him. Don’t let him dictate the distance or angle. Lead the game by not giving any gaps or let him closer than what you have decided the distance to be.

Maintain a firm stance.

Stand comfortable, bend the knees slightly and relax so you sink the strength down to the feet. This will be better understood as you develop rooting.

Maintain the integrity of zhongding.

Your centerline is a most essential point. Stand firm and straight. Turn around the centerline with weight transitions and the waist like a wheel. This means that when the punch comes, you cannot flinch, you cannot bend spine backwards. You can try to have a slightly forward lean, or at least the feeling (intent) of going forward. Maintain this feeling for the whole defensive action.

Don’t go against his force.

Don’t resist by using force, try to keep as light pressure as possible, follow and direct his movement by following his own his own force. Move in the exact same speed as he does. Use your limbs to feel the speed. Don’t think, feel.

Stick – tie.

Sticking, or “tie”, is important in Tai Chi. Slightly twisting the arm/wrist at the contact point will do the trick. Twist as you move together with his force. Twist in the same speed and move slightly against his arm. If you are very relax and follow his speed and movement, your arm can stick to his with very little pressure. You can follow his change by changing or adding twisting movements.

And yet there is more…

Indeed, there are many other details we could get into. But I think the ones above are a good start. You must try to feel the posture, your own body, at every part of the movement. Try to feel your posture, your feet, the legs, movements of the waist, the centerline, the upright turning movements of the zhongding. Get everything of this and the above correct and together at every single second of practicing the movement. All together, all at once.

At the beginning, practice slowly to get everything together. Later, add speed and power to the punches and continue to get everything together.

Developing Roots in Tai Chi

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Rooting in Tai Chi is not something developed fast. There are some stages you need to go through. Then, even if you think that you have passed the first stages and that your progress have come to an end, rooting can always be further developed, deepened, stronger, better controlled, better used in movement etc. Rooting is not only static, it can be dynamic, moving. Rooting is sinking the strength down to the foot. It’s also about storing strength in the legs, like pressing a steel spring together. In a year or two, the roots should be good. In five years or so, the understanding and use of rooting should be much better. But maybe it’s only after ten or more years of practice, rooting will be fully understood.

In the beginning of our Tai Chi Journey, maybe after a few month of practice, a half year or a year, many of us experience our legs uncomfortable, hard to be stable, like wobbling or even shaking. It can be discomforting, the self confidence might slag. But this is a very normal part of our progress. It means that we are developing more awareness in our legs and using the muscles in them in a different way than earlier. This is the stage many of us goes through in order to develop roots.

Some people try to force their stances, compensate the feeling of instability by using lower, stronger stances. This is okay, but it’s important to let progress take it’s time. More important than feeling stable through artificial help, is to sink. Sink by relaxing from the face, relax through and drop the shoulders, empty the chest, soften the lower back and relax through the legs right down to the toes. Roots and balance will grow stronger after time. Don’t force yourself.

If you study a form with higher stances, like yang short forms or Sun and Hao styles, instead of practicing lower stances than your teacher suggests, you can add stance training to your schedule. Some teachers teach this, some don’t. Practicing Mabu, Xingyi Santishi, as well as ding shi, can speed up your progress, build stronger roots in a shorter amount of time. The key here is also to relax, relaxing the legs through the pain and breath deep. But you need the instructions of a good teacher for deep stance practice. If you think this is necessary for your progress in Tai Chi, find it from your own teacher or seek further. It’s hard to understand the precision of angles, and feel them by yourself, as well as it is hard to feel what is good pain and what is not.

Good, effortless rooting is paramount to good Tai Chi. A strong stance, perfect understanding of zhong ding, and the strength sunken deep into the soles of the feet. Without true understanding through your own personal experience, everything else in your Tai Chi will lack. Everything in Tai Chi starts and ends in your foot.

Understand more about Tai Chi through the Wing Chun Master Chu Shong Tin

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There are several high level instructing clips from the fascinating Wing Chun Master Chu Shong tin. The interesting thing is that Master Chu’s Wing Chun is very soft and just like Tai Chi, it relies on Yi (mind/intent) and not Li (strength). Here’s an introduction to his teaching, one of the best vids on Tai Chi out there, despite it’s another art. But after watching it search along on the tube. There is much more interesting to discover.

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