When I began Tai Chi I was taught by a very strict teacher, not that he beat me every time I made an error, but in the way of establishing a solid foundation. The straightforward beginnings of stances, walking patterns, co-ordination, outer-balance and inner-balance, were taught by instilling the idea of foot holding. This may conjure up thoughts of using tension or force, but I do mean to sink and to relax (tensing the toes and feet can cause instability), keeping the mind constantly aware of your hold on the ground while shifting weight from one leg to another. Even when your weight is forward, to still be aware for your foot hold on the back and vice versa.
This should not contradict the rule of solid and empty, meaning the foothold in empty is held more with the mind not with force.
While the most obvious example of outer-balance may be standing on one leg, the result of foot holding as mentioned before should lead the student to another level, inner-balance. Having built a firm foundation in this way will enable the student to focus on such areas as co-ordination, which has more to do with the mind and its awareness of what is going on internally and externally at the same time.
You may be doing something incorrect without knowing e.g. holding the breath through a movement or locking up a particular joint or tightening a muscle, or even just drifting away on a passing cloud! Inner-balance can help you become aware of more difficult areas such as using the waist correctly and most importantly, your chi flow.
The way my teacher instilled all this so strictly was to take many movements from the form and put them into separate sequences, so we could practise them over and over before doing the Tai Chi form. When I warm up and practise this way my form is usually better as a result.
There seems to be no end to learning Tai Chi. I have seen people simply give up because it just seems too much. Possibly a good foundation would produce a more stable student? I believe this is true.
Recently I ran a Back to Basics program regardless of style or level. The course was run over six weeks. The results were very positive. The first four weeks were completely made up of warm ups, stationary postures, walking patterns, stances, co-ordination exercises and some kicking. Chi Gong and meditation was taught to establish awareness of Chi development.
On the fifth and sixth week, the first sequence of the Yang style form was introduced to actually see if the program made a difference to beginners dealing with the many problems faced when learning the Tai Chi form.
I was amazed to see students who had never learnt Tai Chi before picking it up as if they had been learning it for quite some time. The fact that they were already familiar to stepping, turning left to right and shifting weight correctly made all the difference to their focus on what was actually being shown.
It is my hope that this article will help beginners become less frustrated in the early stages and to realise that much time should be spent on the basics to develop a strong base on which to build. For myself it was a great learning experience for a teacher, to see such good results. So, for the novice and the experienced, lets all take a visit back to the BASICS.
Lane-Jon Habib. Instructor of Kung Fu & Tai Chi. Adelaide S.A.