The First Class
For every beginner the first class is always different and will include a lot of repetition, perhaps on the most basic of levels: learning how to transfer weight by moving from foot to foot or repeating one or two simple movements from the beginning of the form. Instruction will be given in how to move and the basics principles that lie beneath the external form, but still for many this repetition can be dull and arduous in class, let alone practicing at home. This is the first challenge to the ego. Many beginners often want to start off doing the interesting stuff, the complex movements they have perhaps seen on a video on the internet or in a movie. Often though, the more complex the movement looks the more inefficient it can be on a number of levels. Optimal movement is something I wish to talk about in future articles, though.
Refining the Foundations
As with any art, as a beginner, one has to learn the foundations first. Without a foundation there is no support. The refinement of these foundations is the heart of the practice whatever level one is at, no matter how many years one has under one’s belt. Honing the core of the art has a knock-on effect, strengthening all aspects of practice from the base upward. I was always taught that mastery is an understanding of the basics, and that is what I instruct too.
In the first class you learn the basics of how to move. This is far more important than attempting to perform any fancy postures that may look nice on the outside yet, due to lack of experience, have no foundation internally and can be damaging to the body and its systems. We build our practice through layers, one after the other, starting with that foundation and building for a lifetime. That is what we aim for: a system that can strengthen the body and can continue to be performed in the latter part of our life.
One interesting observation of students and my own practice, is how, when the mind focuses on a particular element, one often forgets other elements entirely. For instance if I’m focusing on my footwork, I may forget about what my arms and hands are doing and they may return to a habitual way of moving or something altogether clumsy. This is all fine and part of practice for any student on any level, but for beginners can be frustrating and off-putting. This is another challenge to the ego and often a point where beginners may wish to give up. But this is why we practice: to refine the way we move. We realise that even the most simple of movements is complex, like looking deeply into a form of nature such as a pine-cone, seeing beyond its initial impression and realising the intricacies of each little scale that makes up the whole, how each one protects a paper-thin seed stored within. The refinement of movement never stops. Practice never stops. Everything is moving and dynamic in the world and our practice is part of this subtly changing movement of all phenomenon.
Two Methods of Practice
Once one looses the sense of frustration of the body not doing what one’s ego wants it to do, and overcomes a sense of giving up, practice can continue in one of two ways
The first method of practice has a back and forth manner to it. One concentrates a specific element and, as one does, other elements that you are not paying such keen attention to slip back into habit. Again the example of focusing on the footwork and the hands and arms doing what they want becomes useful here. Later, one may go back and work on the hands and arms and find that the footwork returns back to habit, but perhaps with a slight improvement that has come about through the previous focus paid on honing this element. Take note that in this example, and especially for those beginning to practice Tai Chi, that it is integral to refine the footwork first, as it is through the lower limbs that weight is transferred. The alignment of the joints of the lower limb are integral to a sustainable and healthy practice. The motion of the hands and arms can be tuned-up when one has a greater understanding of how the footwork is affecting the rest of the body.
The second method of practice is a holistic approach. One simply just ‘gets on’ with things and runs through what is known of the form. If something uncomfortable, confusing or of interest arises it is investigated, perhaps adjustments are made, and then the continuous flow of Tai Chi continues. This is a slightly more advanced approach as it does require a certain awareness of the body as a whole, which will arise in time. This holistic method can feel very fruitful as, over a period, one can begin to understand the relationships between the systems of the body as well becoming more aware of the climate of the mind. Further down the road, as the arising and vanishing of thoughts is observed, a settled mind can be achieved leading to a greater sense of presence and equanimity. This is a goal to aim for in time, developing over a number of years.
Benefits of Tai Chi - Improved Coordination
Many people often ask of the benefits of Tai Chi and Nei Jia, and I have hopefully given some in this article already. Using the example of focusing on the footwork and loosing focus on the arms and hands has brought one specific benefit to mind: improved coordination. Utilising the two methods of practice I have mentioned, the arms and hands can become better coordinated with each other and the legs and feet with each other too. Later, the upper limbs can become better coordinated with the lower limbs as the body begins to move as a whole. And that is another goal: to coordinate the whole body as one working unit - not just foot with hand. This subject is something to discuss later, as it is part of a developed practice.
As I mentioned in the section above, these benefits I have spoken about are useful motivation for beginning students. Someone may start their practice knowing that Tai Chi brings such benefits, but, on failing to achieve or discover them straight away, may be put off. Yet again, another challenge to the ego. There is no wrong in wishing to gain benefits from practice, but craving for them can only lead to disappointment. I have found from personal experience that the changes and benefits gained from sustained practice arise subtly rather than occur in large explosive realisations. Sometimes the change may not even settle in until an exploration in practice leads to an observation that some change has occurred. These observations are not only restricted to practice, but can also come about in daily life. One may find that something has changed physically as one goes about some physical task, as simple as washing-up or ironing. Perhaps one realises a greater ease of movement or even, on a mind/body scale, a greater awareness of one’s movements and improved focus and concentration on the task at hand.
I hope you have enjoyed this, my first blog. I am writing it to complement those who have begun practice, though, hopefully, it will be of use to those who are interested in starting Tai Chi classes, those who are interested in the other arts of Nei Jia, and others who are interested in exploring the relationships between body and mind.
Edd started practicing Tai Chi in 2005 and has been practicing Chinese Internal Martial Arts since. For many years, he has been fascinated by the way the human body moves and functions and the connection between body and mind.
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