Beginning Tai Chi. 

The transcript of a talk I gave at the 2002 January workshop

Iíve been asked to talk this morning mainly to the many people here just beginning tai chi. I know that means Iíll be preaching to the converted as far as everyone else is concerned, and to you, most of what I say will be very familiar.

One of the most common questions Iím asked whenever I talk about tai chi, or if someone spots me practising, and this actually happened again just a few days ago, is "just what IS tai chi"? Do you know that even now, after all the time Iíve been doing it, and all the things Iíve read about tai chi, I can still struggle to give a simple answer to that question. Iím constantly reminded just how complex this art really is. It is an interesting question - what exactly is tai chi? Itís fascinating that so many people do it, yet they can disagree over just what it is theyíre doing.

I can say categorically that Tai chi IS a martial art. I know that may surprise a lot of you. It began as a fighting art, based on the idea of being soft and yielding, and the slow movements that most of us concentrate on these days are really just the beginning of a long and difficult process of learning the applications and the self-defense techniques.

Over the 400 years or so since it's beginning, tai chi has changed considerably. A number of different styles have developed and theyíre all different in the way the movements are done. The five major styles today, (there are others by the way), are Chen, which is the original style, Yang, the 2 Wu styles, and the youngest of them all, the Sun style.

But personally I think the most dramatic change in tai chi has been the shift in emphasis from the martial to the health aspect. These days most people do the tai chi forms simply for the exercise benefits and the relaxation to be gained from what can become, with a little bit of practise, a moving meditation. Millions of people have found itís not necessary to be a martial artist to reap the benefits to be had, and the simple pleasure to be gained, from just doing the forms. In saying that however, I do believe that understanding the reason for the moves helps us to better appreciate and remember their correct shape. If you know, for example, a particular move is a push, then the hands are more likely to actually look like theyíre pushing. It's not difficult to understand why this change has happened. When you watch someone that does it well, it looks so relaxing and gentle. It almost commands attention. I can still remember the very first time I saw tai chi. It was in a movie I watched a long time ago, and there was a couple doing tai chi together against a wild and stormy ocean background in Hawaii. They were both dressed in black silks and their timing and synchronisation were perfect. I remember I was mesmerised by the contrast between the place they were practising and the place their practise was taking them mentally. They were totally absorbed in the movement.

I guess what tai chi is to you, depends very much on your own personal perspective and why you choose to do it. I took it up because an acupuncturist recommended that I take up meditation and tai chi to help my migraines. That background meant I came to tai chi believing it was simply a healthy, but more particularly a calming, exercise.

In fact many medical studies have shown Tai Chi to be an effective gentle exercise for numerous aspects of health. Itís wonderful for flexibility, it increases muscle strength, particularly in the legs, and it improves your fitness by helping to increase lung capacity and improving your cardiac function. It has additional health benefits for relaxation, balance, posture, and immunity. The stress-relieving factor alone can better your lifestyle and your quality of life. From the viewpoint of Traditional Chinese Medical Theory, chi is the vital life energy that circulates throughout the body, performing many functions to maintain good health. The stronger, and the more in balance your chi is, the healthier you are. Tai Chi can improve your health because it is designed to cultivate better and stronger chi. I guess you could say this is another argument for understanding the applications of tai chi moves, because doing the forms the way they were intended will actually help to give you the maximum health benefit by properly stimulating the chi.

In our school, ("Better Health Tai Chi Chuan"), one of the philosophies we promote is that of the 3P's, practise, patience and perseverance.

I think patience and perseverance are both pretty well self-explanatory. At first we can feel very uncomfortable and awkward doing these unusual movements. It can be quite frustrating and tempting sometimes to just give it all up. Remember that at first everyone feels the same way and don't be too hard on yourself. Learning something new can be very discouraging sometimes. Tai chi is slow, and graceful, and it looks so easy to do. Yet when you first start you find you're being asked to move in ways you're not used to and that it calls upon muscles, balance and control that simply arenít there. Give yourself time to get over the awkwardness, (because it does get easier), learn to put a few moves together, and then you'll eventually begin to get this feeling of relaxation you keep hearing about.

Patience and perseverance might be fairly obvious, but practice is really the key to it all. You need to do the forms often just to be able to remember them, in fact it's amazing how quickly you can forget the movements if you don't keep doing them. Also it's important while you're learning something new to keep up with the rest of the class. That's obviously even more relevant here at the workshop. All the classes have a lot to learn during one short week, and if you donít practise and then fall behind, it will be extremely hard to catch up. But the main reason for practising is simply this. There are some great benefits to be had from doing tai chi, but like most things that are good for you, all those benefits can only be had from the doing. You're not going to feel better just from reading about tai chi, and you can only do a moving meditation if you're actually moving!

Thereís something else I want to mention (about HOW to practise) that's often ignored but can make a lot of difference to your tai chi. Try to spend some time working on applying the ideas rather than just doing the movements. You need to just do the forms of course, so you can remember them and their sequence. But to help improve the quality of your tai chi itís important to consciously practice applying all the principles we talk about, things like stances, weight shifts, keeping the height, and not leaning. I know this sounds vague and difficult but really itís not. A simple exercise by way of example is the tai chi walk. In a very short amount of space and time, you can work on applying most of the principles Iíve mentioned. But you donít have to know a particular exercise (like the walking) to do this either. Itís just as easily and in fact probably better done while youíre practising the forms. In other words, instead of just moving, slow down and think about how you move. Training in tai chi is a slow process, and many of the obstacles we experience come from within ourselves. Performing in a relaxed and natural manner can be very difficult, and most beginners usually find that the harder they try to relax, the more tense they become. But with patience, perseverance, and of course a little bit of practice, the movements become much easier. They do, believe me.

Sometimes, when youíve actually been doing tai chi for a little while, itís difficult to keep up the enthusiasm about getting out there every day and actually doing it. I think everyone suffers this lack of motivation at one time or another. I honestly donít know what the answer is. I do know itís really easy to say I haven't got enough time. "I wish there were more hours in the day"Ö..Iíve said it myself, often. Really there are no excuses. If you want to do it, you have to make the time, it really is as simple as that. And remember youíll only get out of tai chi what you put into it. The benefits only come from actually doing it. You have to accept it will take a while to feel comfortable and understand it will also take a little while to get the feeling. Expect your progress to be slow, but in the meantime enjoy the movements and the simple exercise. You will begin to feel better quickly, and the feeling of peace and well being that will eventually come are well worth the effort and the wait.

Workshops like this are excellent places to learn. You're concentrating on one thing for a whole week and the rate of learning is accelerated considerably. When you've spent a week living and working with people that share the same passion, it's really difficult to come back to reality. But, all good things do come to an end, and when you all leave at the end of the week, you must remember to take away what you learn here and continue to work on it because if you don't keep up the practise you will forget it quickly. Another advantage a workshop like this is, that it's an excellent opportunity to see a lot of other things happening. It sometimes takes a while to realise that not everyone doing tai chi is doing the same thing and the amazing diversity can be a real revelation. Many people will tell you that itís preferable to stick with one form and concentrate on learning the depth. I didnít do that and I even found that some of my teachers were unable or unwilling to share that depth with me anyway. When I began, all I wanted to do was learn as many different forms as I could, and I guess it could be argued that all the time I spent on learning movements I canít remember any more was wasted. Personally I think it gave me an appreciation and an understanding that I wouldnít have had otherwise. I think that provided you never lose sight of the important principles behind tai chi, trying different forms and styles just adds to both the richness of your experience and eventually to the understanding and the performance of your tai chi.

I think the final thought I want to leave you with is this. Thereís an old but very true Chinese saying that's often quoted and Iím sure youíve all heard it, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step". Never lose sight of the fact that this particularly long journey is also a lot of funÖ relax, be serious but donít take it all too seriously, and most importantly, let yourself enjoy the trip!

John Mills


Home Page   Articles