T’ai Chi is beautiful. There’s nothing quite like watching the grace and power of a talented T’ai Chi practitioners as they effortlessly float from one posture to the next. The strength, flexibility, and dexterity demonstrated can be awe inspiring.
Unfortunately, for most of us, our form doesn’t quite live up to the aesthetics found in a gifted performance. Try as we might, our bodies just don’t seem to be able to bend or hold the positions the way we’d like them to. It can be terribly discouraging, especially after you’ve spent years studying the art only to see someone much younger, and more limber, easily execute a move that you still have difficulty performing.
But, is a pretty, aesthetically pleasing form really what we should be striving for? Isn’t T’ai Chi designed as a martial art? -As a method for moving vital energy through our body to improve health?
How can we make the T’ai Chi form our own, even when we fail to perform the movements the way we imagine they ought to be done.
Owning your T’ai Chi Form means owning your own art. It means taking responsibility for your training and holding yourself accountable for your progress
The first thing we have to do to take real ownership of our form is the hardest… stop comparing yourself to others.
It’s normal for us to want to compare ourselves to others during our training. We want to know if we’re doing the form ‘right’. We want to know how our forms stack up against others so we can gauge the quality of our performance.
But, here’s the thing; ‘A duck will never be able to outrun a fox… and it doesn’t need to, it can fly!’
Too often, we spend our mental energy comparing ourselves to others and only focusing on the negatives, the things we’re missing in our lives. In the comparison, we almost always forget to remember the positives, the things we have that others might be missing.
In my years of training, I’ve seen many martial artists who are blessed with fantastic flexibility or extraordinary strength, but still lack a basic understanding of what they’re actually doing.
Being a bigger guy, I’ve even fallen into this trap myself, when I try to ‘muscle a technique’ instead of using the T’ai Chi principles that use ‘whole body movement’ instead.
Remember, when you’re comparing yourself to others, you’re ‘in your own head’. You’re thinking about how you look rather than what you’re doing. -That’s not a very resourceful state for doing this art.
The next time you find your mind comparing yourself to someone else, stop worrying about what you ‘don’t have’ or what you ‘can’t do’ and bring your attention to the skills you do have and what you can accomplish. Then forget the whole mess and get back to work! At its heart, T’ai Chi is about Doing, not Thinking.
How vs. Why
There’s a big difference between Eastern and Western culture when it comes to teaching and learning. In the East, it’s usually considered the instructor’s responsibility to teach students in minute detail, how a technique should be performed. Lots of emphasis is placed on proper foot position, the body mechanics, hand placement, and weight distribution. The student will be taught exactly ‘How’ to do the movement, but may not be told ‘Why’.
Often, the application, or meaning, of the movement is left out in favor of teaching proper body alignment. The great advantage of this type of learning is that it forces the student to experience proper movement before they try to ‘Label’ exactly what it is. This type of teaching focuses on being mindful. It’s about teaching exactly how the body itself should move, without being concerned or worried about the way the movement ought to be interpreted.
While this attention to detail is great to ensure correct performance, it does little to enhance the practical aspects of the art.
What good does it do you to perform a perfect ‘Grasp Sparrow’s Tail’ posture if you don’t know how to use the movement to defend yourself or can’t understand why this is a good posture for building Chi energy in your Heart Meridian.
In order to make the form your own, you have to ask ‘Why’ you’re doing the movement. By having a clear, logical applications for the various postures, you can take true ownership of your actions.
Although you may be able to mimic your instructor, and maybe even display perfect form, your movement’s will lack meaning if you don’t have a strong understanding of the principles behind those movements.
Westerners are often accused of being only concerned with the ‘Why’ of T’ai Chi practice. We want to be shown the practical purpose for the movements and are often too quick to ignore the minute details that actually make the technique work. It’s a fair accusation.
However, in order to make the form authentically your own, in order to make it more than just a copy of someone else’s performance, you must have a solid understanding of the T’ai Chi principles and know how they relate to your form.
You gain ownership of your form when you not only know exactly how to do a movement, but also understand why the movement is important.
So, why do you practice T’ai Chi? What attracted you to this art in the first place?
Are you interested in learning self defense, in health benefits, longevity, or in exploring meditation? Asking these questions is the first step toward taking ownership of your art.
You must know what you want to learn or experience in order to bring meaningful purpose to your art.
But taking ownership of your art isn’t without certain responsibilities. Just like owning a home, a car, or even a puppy, brings great rewards but also serious obligations, your art will also require real commitment. Failure to maintain your home or car will result in costly damage and unsafe conditions. Failing to properly care for a puppy will bring a multitude of problems, as well as smelly messes left on your floor.
In order for T’ai Chi to become a meaningful part of your life, you’ll have to take responsibility for your own training. It’s not your instructor’s job to make sure you integrate T’ai Chi principles into your daily life or practice regularly. That’s up to you.
Your instructor can only show you how the movements are performed and explain the ways the principles interact within the form to make the art effective. If you’re lucky, he or she might even be a good example of how to live the T’ai Chi way.
But, it will be up to you, and only you to bring the spirit of T’ai Chi into your own life.
Owning your T’ai Chi Form means owning your art. It means taking responsibility for your training and holding yourself accountable for your progress.
-It’s not easy, but the rewards are well worth the effort!
Cover Image: Flickr.com Creative Commons