There are many reasons why people don’t make it very far in their Tai Chi. Some people seem to never really develop or stay as a perpetual beginner for always. Some people don’t have a very deep interest and consider it mostly a physical exercise and practice it just like any other exercise. Others might listen too much their teacher and thereby do all too little thinking by themselves. And some others might just lack the interest to take their art further to higher levels.
Whatever their reasons, I don’t believe that you can truly understand Tai Chi if you are not a good friend to your own body. You really need to learn how to live in your own House. Your body is the place where you grow and develop as a person, and your personal growth is, by my own and others experience, the very key to development and understanding of the Art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
T’ai Chi is all about self-knowledge. I remember that when I was much younger, about 17 to 20 years old, I sometimes played with a senior and top student of our teacher. When we played push hands and my hand was on top of his, he said: “Now look, when you touch my hand I don’t feel your hand. I feel my own hand. Tai Chi is about self-knowledge. The better I know myself, the more I have that I can translate into knowledge about my opponent.”
I immediately understood what he meant and his words responded deep inside of me. It was more than twenty years ago, but I remember exactly what he said and how. Back then, I had had some visits to a physical therapist for some trouble with my own body. There was no big trouble, but I have always had a quite high degree of muscular tone, so my reasons to visit her was mostly about stiffness resulting in problems with knees and neck. I lived for a couple of years in a quite small town where I got into touch with this therapist. The interesting thing about this physical therapist was that she had studied for Jacques Dropsy, someone who taught Tai Chi amongst other things and had developed a system for teaching body awareness. He believed that most of the problems we have with our physical body are on at least some level about self-knowledge and lack of body awareness. We don’t know how to live in our own house.
I remember the rather odd exercises this physical therapist had for me. She did exercises with a big medical ball that I would sit on as she pressed me down on it using my shoulders. She also had a smaller ball that she would press against the sides of my body as I lied down on a mattress facing down. This and other things she offered was about learning how to feel my own body better. All of this therapy resulted in a more relaxed body and that all of the problems I’ve had eventually were gone. I had already studied Tai Chi for about six or seven years, but it was not enough for me to deal with the problems I had.
There are not many, but still quite a few books, about body knowledge and how to develop it through similar exercises that I went through. Jacques Dropsy have published a couple of books, but they seem to be not available in English, though his method, B-BAT is practiced and well known in many places. The Feldenkrais Method might be the most well known for English speaking countries, though I haven’t read much of this work or practiced it. Another fascinating book that I have read is a classic from 1977, The body Has It’s Reasons. (If you have other suggestions on literature, please write them in the comments).
I won’t preach much about the benefits about exercises and training concerning body awareness. You will better understand the needs of your own body which can mean a better health. But there are general benefits to it, like being a happier person that have more control over one’s own life. The point of developing a better self-knowledge is always about how to become a better friend with yourself and to your own body.
The theory that is shared by many practitioners and teachers of similar schools is that things like bad memories and pain is stored inside of the body, maybe as a part of the muscle memory, and can cause different problems for the individual. Therefore, for some people a deeper therapy is necessary, especially for learning how to forgive yourself and those responsible for shaping who you are. And ultimately, after dealing with the issues that is stuck inside of your body, you can learn how to better live together with yourself inside your own house, i.e. become a better friend to your own body. You really need this kind of friendship in order to progress far in any bodily, physical art. Otherwise, your body won’t learn what you want or need to learn. And then you can not use your own body efficiently to reflect your own knowledge about your Art. Because it all, whatever you learn and is taught, starts and end as a knowledge within your own body.
For this cause, T’ai Chi Ch’uan is obviously one important tool of many available, and for myself Tai Chi is the very best and most important tool you can have, one that you can use to learn how to understand yourself better, to develop self-knowledge and body awareness. But sometimes it’s also good to learn other methods that can reflect what the nature of Tai Chi really is, but from other perspectives. Even if you don’t stick with any other of the alternative methods, anything you can learn as Yoga or dance, will deepen your own understanding of your own house and thus deepen your own understanding of everything about yourself, and in the end, also about your T’ai Chi Ch’uan.