At our Brookhouse Tai Chi classes, we have been working hard for the last 3 years on our Short form and Tai Chi 37 forms. As we are learning the last few postures of the Tai Chi 37 form, things are really starting to come together, and I can see how the classes’ understanding is getting deeper and deeper with every week.
It’s quite exciting to see how each individual begins to develop their own way of expressing themselves through Tai Chi, and confidence and individuality is beginning to show itself even with a standardised form like our Yang Style short form, which is practised in a very similar way the world over.
There’s a clear pattern of learning in something like Tai Chi. Initially you simply have to learn the basic mechanics – the individual postures and the methods of movement. Many people are only taught Tai Chi in this way, and for them that is enough. It can still “look very nice”, and give lots of pleasure to those doing it, but I always feel it is a pity to stop there – just when you perhaps glimpse that there could be something more to it than performing a strange silent dance.
If you are at all curious by this time, you will have already noticed some feelings of “Chi”, and how certain Tai Chi movements have started rubbing off on the things you do in your daily life. Opening doors suddenly becomes a playful exercise of trying to use less and less effort, and washing the car becomes a work-out for the legs instead of punishment for the shoulders. For a while, this can be quite addictive, and this is the ideal time to put some of this enthusiasm into more than just the physical and mechanical aspects of the art. At this point the student has to start paying more attention to how they move, how they feel, and how each individual exercise has a particular focus and effect that their teacher is trying to elicit. Phrases like “Moving from the waist”, “Keeping grounded”, and “Pushing up from the feet” turn from being poetic notions into challenges to be understood and incorporated into every movement.
This is where the breadth and variety of Tai Chi comes into its own. Perhaps unlike any other exercise system, the very simple principles of Tai Chi have been worked with in almost infinite ways over centuries by millions of teachers and students. Techniques that work and stay true to the principles have been kept, and the variations and tangents have spread out into other disciplines and in many cases produced new styles of “Tai Chi” that are only barely recognisable.
Within our classes, Chi Kung, visualisations, partner work, and energy exercises help to make sense of all this information, helping us to feel and recognise these things as parts of ourselves and integrate them the into our own practice.
At this stage with the short form “under our belt”, with some favourite exercises that we enjoy, and with quite a few that are still a real challenge, we can begin to focus on some of the more technical aspects of Tai Chi. I have been lucky in the last few years to have students that share my interest in the healing and health aspects of Tai Chi. So we talk about how particular stretches activate and open certain channels, and allow us to feel the different flavours of Chi. On some days, the focus of the class will be just the right thing at the right time for us and we will feel the benefits instantly. We are all different though, and of course there is always the chance that a particular exercise is just what we don’t need right now. I use my own energy sensitivity to try and make sure that the exercises will be appropriate for us all, and no one leaves the class feeling tired and dispirited. In a way then each class then turns into a group “treatment”, and when I get it right I can see by the smiling faces and eagerness to learn, that the class has been productive.
So collectively we try our hand at developing different qualities of touch, sensitivity, and turning this into the internal forces of Tai Chi. The basic techniques of balance, stretching and awareness start to come into their own as we explore yielding to force, returning someone else’s force, and being flexible not just in our body, but also in our mind!
So after three years of classes, this is where we are. Better understanding leading to better postures, better movement and better health. Of course, it would be very hard to keep all of this up without some motivation and recognition of improvement. Well, after 25 years of practice, I am still improving, and still look forward to every opportunity to do a little bit more. We always have fun, we always feel much better after a class than before it, and although there may be a few groans when we tackle some of the trickier stretches, we all feel privileged to be able to spend our time learning such a worthwhile art.
As a teacher of mine used to say “If you do a little bit of Chi Kung every day for 100 years, you will live to be very old!”