The Practice of Tai Chi

(This article was originally published in the T’ai Chi Foundation’s Teaching Forum)

Tai Chi is great practical knowledge of human mind-body balance needed in the current day. When studying taijiquan one moves through many stages, all of them engrossingly fun and challenging. There are many takeaways from this study, each of great value. One of the most important is that we learn that we can relax. Life gets better with relaxation. Our health improves, our balance, both physical and emotional improves and our spirit is nourished.

Teaching methods for this practice vary. Too much thought fools us into trying to think our way through it. What we actually need is to feel it in our bodies. Nonetheless, having a comprehensive understanding or roadmap is also truly valuable. It allows one to avoid the pitfalls of imaginative wishful thinking that can delay our actual embodiment of the basically simple (and tremendously challenging) principles involved. Taijiquan is a martial art, but the true value of the study goes far beyond any aspect of fighting. The principles that make it successful are the same that can help us move through life with harmony.

The basics are simple. We learn to find our footing on the earth and develop actual awareness of our feet on the ground. As we do, while relaxing the legs and the entire body, we then learn how to move without disturbing our ground. Gradually we develop a new awareness of our true strength. This is not the strength of muscle resistance, but one that comes from the ground. A simple analogy is that of the tenuous balance of a christmas tree, even one with a wide and stable base, compared to the stability of a live tree rooted in the earth. Our phases of learning can almost follow this analogy in that when we start we might have a small base. This increases. Then we start to develop root. Gradually it deepens the more we relax. Ultimately it brings nourishment up from the ground while the tree attracts the energy of the heavens. This leads to a fullness of emptiness, light and energy that only appears when we let go of tension and external strength of muscle resistance. We experience the alive energy of Qi in our body.

To take the internal strength-without-resistance (strength through softness) into the world, in movement, we must open the full functionality of our hip joints (referred to as the kua). We learn to turn and step utilizing the potentially free movement in these joints. This allows the alignment of the body to maintain the openness of a channel between the heavens and the earth. Alignment here, is another key principle often initially misunderstood as forceful straightening of the body, or holding a ‘correct’ position. Over time we learn that as we relax with the intention of hanging loose from the top, as if from a string from above, we open the channel to filling from below. This gives us a quality and presence that becomes a force for peace and harmonious interaction.

Now, there is another key piece that brings us back to the all important hip joints. In our form practice we develop our knowledge of the available territory under our feet. How to move smoothly from one foot to the other, when and how we can turn without compromising our balance or being stuck, all with the aware emptiness to interpret the needs of the moment.

The goal is to relax and observe these principles within ourselves – within our bodies. We become clear that this is not a thought process, but an awareness available to us via the dantian. Our root deepens, our energy increases and “the tree” becomes more bushy and full of life. Now there are lessons that we learn in interaction with others. In the challenge of working with a pushing partner, we discover that to maintain relaxed contact we must move the whole “tree” (from the center – the dantian) even while we avail ourselves of the subtlety of our articulated limbs. Quite often we can confuse softness, a concept which can seem foreign and elusive, with collapse and limpness. This is only natural, since our main paradigm for relaxation is collapsing on a couch. Practice of taijiquan leads us to a much more dynamic form of relaxation, one that we can take with us as we move through the world.

The martial teaching of taijiquan is one of non-opposition often described as getting out of the way of force. But truly it is more subtle than simple dodging. Instead, with relaxation we develop the ability to make and maintain contact with our partner with an open-hearted touch that neither offers resistant pressure, nor shrinks away in fear. The key factor involved in this (physical) contact is that we modulate it not so much with the articulation (and activity) of the arms, but with shifts in the center mass of the body and articulation in the legs. Just enough movement to still maintain contact without resistance. This happens in the context of a full awareness (dantian rather than thinking mind) of the terrain in which we can move. We must know where we are, where our feet are and maintain the sensation of rootedness with awareness of the space we inhabit physically.

To do this, we must establish a clear separation between our thinking mind and our physical kinesthetic awareness. Although the thinking mind is capable of understanding this process, its desire to analyze is far too slow to provide the appropriate answer in a moment of need for clear physical response. The emotions too play a part here. For if we react emotionally without the clarity of a relaxed response, we will always over-react. So, the emotions must be calmed as we relax and breathe. We utilize the mind to remember and direct our attention to the dantian awareness. The dantian awareness provides us a harmonious response as we maintain contact and preserve our own balance.

Six steps involved in successful sensing hands:

  • Mastery of the terrain (dantian awareness)
  • Development of root (sung)
  • Opening alignment – life all the way to the fingertips (peng)
  • Articulation of the key joints to allow continued relaxation (open responsive kua)
  • Calm, open-hearted connection and adherence (Love)
  • Harmonious softness of centered movement, response and following (empathy and compassion)

The psychological challenge of pushing hands is an opportunity to move towards transcendence of the existential angst of sadness, anger & fear. These manifest in our practice as judgement (freezing), fight and flight, the three ‘Fs’. The ground within which we practice is dantian awareness, the intention of promoting balance and pacification of conflict in service of the ultimate goal of a unified humanity. Our school, The School of T’ai Chi Chuan & T’ai Chi Foundation grows from and is dedicated to these principles. Each aspect of our practice reflects this and supports our core mission to provide a toolset for promoting health, harmony and peace in the world.

Our core activity has been and will continue to be working towards and bringing those interested into the full embodiment of Tai Chi, the supreme principle, as manifested across an embodiment of the practice of taijiquan. I dream also of the day when TCF’s major activity will be the outreach to a much larger segment of humanity (beyond taiji enthusiasts) to give access to the practical knowledge contained in this pursuit to all people in need.

Greg Woodson

What is it about Tai Chi?

Tai chi has become much more popular in the West since I began my study over 40 years ago. Still, it seems mysterious and seemingly difficult to fathom for many. My aim is to provide the curious, the interested and the devoted alike, a clear way to experience the highly practical and accessible principles available to us through the practice of this art.

Mel and Kate 1 -  2MB
The fundamentals are essentially simple. We learn to relax and focus. We discover a grounding – available through relaxed alignment. Then, we learn to move while maintaining our balance. Opening ourselves to this type of mindful awareness in action provides a catalyst for a shift in perspective and in approach to life. The physical relaxation, alignment and openness also provide multiple health and wellness benefits as we learn to let go of stress and feel our life energy circulate freely within our body. The grounded relaxation and enhanced awareness reveal for us the innate courage we have to open our hearts and connect with all.

The tools I use are tai chi form, qigong and partner exercises from the lineage of Cheng Man-Ch’ing (Zheng Manqing) and related work from The Arica School®.


© 2015 Blue Tiger Way.
Arica School® is a registered trademark of Oscar Ichazo. Used with permission.

Top Ten Reasons to Practice Tai Chi

This article was originally written for Ideal Magazine. The link to their posting is:   The formatting here looks a bit different.

  1. Do something nice for yourself
    – Practicing Tai Chi makes you feel better 
  • Although Tai Chi is a subtle and lifelong practice, the benefits and pleasure of it begin to accrue immediately. You will discover that you can allow your thinking mind to drop into the background as you explore your inner body awareness.
  • Over time you will naturally establish a more positive sense of self.
  1. Discover mindfulness
    – Get to know the here and now
  • Gradually learn to establish single-pointed focus through your practice.
  • Tai Chi is moving meditation, which helps you feel calmer and more centred in everyday life.
  1. Improve your posture
    – Reduce strain on supporting muscles and ligaments
  • Relaxation of the legs allows the pelvis to hang more freely and for the spine to elongate as if the body were suspended from above.
  • Cultivating this awareness allows for opening in the joints with a more relaxed easy upright posture.
  1. Release stress
    – Learn how to stay relaxed and conserve energy
  • We often hold tension in our bodies unnecessarily, particularly when we are under stress.
  • Most of us are unaware that we are using far more energy than is needed, which can leave us feeling exhausted. Tai Chi principles help us to relax the body and use less muscular effort.
  1. Strengthen your balance
    – Inside & out!
  • Relax your legs and discover a rooted strength from feeling your feet relax in contact with the earth. This leads to a sense of balance and security.
  • Physical balance inevitably finds its way into your emotional and intellectual life.
  1. Be the calm at the centre of the storm
    – Discover how to move smoothly through life even when under pressure
  • Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that recognizes the benefit of presence of mind, timing, balance and Wu Wei (the action of non-action) over conflict, force and aggression. Learn to get out of the way without giving up your balance during interaction.
  • Recognise that you can avoid conflict without fear, anger or judgement.
  1. Feel better about yourself
    – On your own and in a group
  • Find a positive self-image and the confidence of balance.
  • Experience the pleasure and satisfaction of participating in such a smooth and flowing group practice.
  1. Tai Chi principles improve relationships
    – Develop better rapport based on understanding and respect
  • Discover how you can apply the wisdom of tai chi, yin/yang, giving & receiving to improve your relationships.
  • Tai Chi is about sensing, listening and responding to your partner.
  1. Enhance your sensual perception
    – Awaken your entire body
  • Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that highlights connection, smoothness and harmony of movement.
  • It can have a very positive effect on your love life, heightening your sensitivity and improving your stamina.
  1. Best of all, discover your inner energy
    – Qi (pronounced chee) is your life energy
  • Qigong, translated loosely as ‘energy work’, is a great part of practicing Tai Chi. It brings the biggest health benefits: longevity, increased strength and improved vitality.
  • Tai Chi movements gently massage the internal organs while circulating vital qi energy throughout the body, helping us to stay healthy and free from illness.

By Greg Woodson & Kate Mansfield, July 2013.