What Good is Tai Chi for Anyway?

Many of the folks who I have taught Tai Chi to in my career have moved over from external martial arts. They have seen the exhibitions of great strength and Olympic quality gymnastics from the Masters, and they  trained diligently to see how far they could advance in the arts. These martial artists come to Tai Chi usually when they are a little older and still want to participate in the arts but have lost a little range of motion, gained a pound or two and realize they will probably not need to pummel four thugs at the same time.

However, most of the people who walk through my doors have no martial arts background and just want to improve their quality of life and they have heard that Tai Chi can help them. One hurdle is that the media including me, promulgate the stories of Tai Chi masters pushing people through walls, breaking bricks without touching them and actually changing the weather just to name a few! Now, how is this going to motivate “Mr. Greene” to join my class who is rehabilitating from back surgery. Well, it won’t. This brings me to a recent TV commercial about some drug where an elderly couple are standing in a sand trap of a golf course, the husband states that he plays golf badly and he wants to continue to do so and this drug will help him. Being a golfer myself I totally understand. I was fortunate enough in my younger days to have a job photographing pro golfers in tournaments. What they could do with a golf ball and club was almost magical. We can compare this almost directly with Tai Chi. The benefits of Tai Chi for most of us our enjoyment, better balance, coordination and inner peace. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Don’t Take The Bruce Lee Pill

Jack London’s credo was:

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
    in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
    of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

This is a great quote. However, it doesn’t work too well for tai chi. In tai chi we want to be a sleepy and permanent planet. Many students have come into tai chi expecting to be the master in six months or less. Hey, there are some martial arts schools that promise that, why not tai chi? Well, I call that, “taking the Bruce Lee pill”. People start and they want to know how they can change every aspect of their lives to improve to learn and to experience this mysterious art. They want to change their clothes, change their diet, change their gods, these are the “meteors” of the tai chi world. I do my best with some success in slowing them down. I tell them what they need to do is to go to a local nursery and buy a little tree. Then I tell them to put that tree where they’re going to be doing most of the training. They are still very excited at this point. Then I tell them their tai chi will grow as fast as that tree. This is when I usually get some resistance. Tai chi develops over a period of years. You can’t rush it. If you try speed up the growth of that tree by pulling on it you will only uproot it and it will die. That’s the same as our tai chi evolution. It is a journey. I was once asked by my first mentor, you’ve heard the expression “the ends justifies the means, and the means justifies the ends”. He continued, “but I urge you to live by this phrase, the means is the end”. This idea that each day we practice is our goal. What comes tomorrow is based on today. So, let’s focus on the now. Put 100% of yourself into your project right now. I challenge you to be a uni-tasker. Multitasking is not what it’s cracked up to be.

Am I Doing it Wrong?

While practicing tai chi you may find yourself thinking, and my doing it wrong. This is natural. You just need to refocus on your tai chi and try to be in the now. I am reminded of the times my Buddhist friend would come by my home at four in the morning and tap on my window to wake me up for our session of meditation. At the time I was teaching at three schools and working a full-time job at a restaurant. My mind was very full. He told me it was natural for my mind to be full of doubt as I meditated. When that happened I was to refocus on meditation, that was it. He encouraged me that I would be able to focus longer the more I practiced “no mindedness” during our meditation. As soon as I stopped worrying that I was meditating wrong it became easier and I was able to focus. It is natural to feel that your movements are different than your instructors while practicing alone in your backyard. The most important thing is that you are practicing. Even if you are practicing your movement differently than the instructor showed you, it is a lot easier for them to correct you versus teach you the movement again. Because most likely they will be learning a new movement during your next class and having to learn the old movement again plus the new movement you could feel overwhelmed and the urge to quit will enter your mind. So, in summary practice, practice, practice. Right movement or wrong movement both are right.

Turn off your Internal Radio

I am often perplexed by those individuals who need noise around them the entire time they are awake. The subtle awareness needed to experience the vastness of how tai chi can benefit us comes through a sense of peace and quiet. I say this not to preach but because I need to practice it myself. I have plenty of my own demons. I need to practice tai chi. Some of the scariest times I have experienced have been looking into myself. I have tried to learn from them. But I can only get to that point when my mind quiet. My mind is like a mud puddle. When I can’t see clearly through the mud the only way to attain clarity is through peace, quiet and time. The particles settle to the bottom of the puddle. Then clarity is achieved. Take the time the quiet. Avoid distraction. You might be surprised at what you find.

Don’t Go Toward the Light

Sorry, I was distracted by a shiny thing

This may seem counter intuitive, but this website could be doing more damage than good for your tai chi training. The most important thing about tai chi is practice. It is much easier to sit at your computer and listen to books, watch videos, and read articles about other people who have trained very diligently in the art. However, you will need to go outside and practice in order to achieve any level of expertise in tai chi. I have taught tai chi for several decades and I can divide just about all students into two categories, those who practice and those who don’t. When those who didn’t practice the lesson from the week before showed up for class there would be excuses that sometimes can be very inventive. But they still didn’t know the material. There was always some “shiny thing” that kept them from practicing. Try to stay away from the shiny things. I fell into that trap. Then I made a deal with myself. I could only research things on the computer after I spent 30 minutes outside practicing. I was always glad after practice because I felt I had earned my “playtime”.