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

Why Push Hands?

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

At different points during our study and training various apprentices and students have posed the question of why we practice push hands. There are as many answers to that question as there are benefits to the study of Tai Chi itself. We learn to accept ourselves, without sadness or judgement through conscious awareness of our body. We ground our emotions, especially anger, and learn to accept real connection with everyone. We cleanse ourselves of fear. We learn and share balance.

These are the ultimate benefits available from complete immersion in this study. Still, it doesn’t answer in detail why we spend time learning to recognize and interpret energy in others across this scenario of potential conflict. At least, not until we realize that what we perceive in our partners is really just a reflection of ourselves. When we approach this process as one of acceptance we discover that the understanding we touch is how to be grounded, open and connected and to share that with everyone we contact.

The ultimate reason for developing the skill of interpreting energy goes far beyond the ability to knock someone over. Instead it gives us the ability to help people discover their balance. As you perceive an imbalance with your PH partner it will appear as an excess or a deficiency. Your choice in that moment is to demonstrate this imbalance with your awake presence.

The biggest pitfall we encounter is to either give away our space or to over-defend it. A dichotomous over-reaction. Finding the middle ground and our body’s natural ’roundness’ grows from an internal awareness of root and a free mobility of our body as a whole, moving from its center. To establish that quality, in my experience, requires an easy-going attitude and an unapologetic ownership of our space and our connection to our partner. To find this we get to reclaim our space. It is ok for us to be. Here. Now. To be in control of the space around us. This happens in the spirit of helpfulness. Teaching.

Understanding that we are developing the push-hands skill set in order to be helpful is key. Armed with this sense of purpose we set a clear context for accepting ourselves and being in service to others as we go.

The mechanics of establishing a mobile root are the steps we go through to train our bodies and instincts to be in a state of readiness for connection.

  • The first key principle is to develop an internal awareness of our body’s physical/energetic center, the dantian.
    • What starts as a concept becomes a feeling.
    • We learn to allow our awareness to radiate from the center and encompass our entire body.
  • Then we learn to move from that center, letting our torso and limbs remain in a state of relaxation.
    • We rest in a state of lively emptiness.
    • We allow free movement in our hips and work with an alignment of the body which minimizes the distractions of gravity.
    • We feel our connection with the Earth.
  • We then learn to let our limbs respond to the direction of the center rather than to forcefully coordinate their actions with the whole.
    • This goes with a clear intention in our movements (potential application) and a continuous awareness of the state of our body (dantian awareness).
  • Once this becomes established in our solo practice we share this study with a partner, learning from each other across an open bond of physical connection.
    • We open our hearts across a sense of caring for each other with love.
    • We are grounded and then free to make light contact without imposing our imbalance on each other.
    • We learn to follow each other without losing contact.
    • We allow any pressure to pass through us into our root without collapse, while being free moving enough to roll and deflect or return any force directed at us.
  • Resting in that awake conscious state, being responsible for our own balance, we are free from competition and able to serve with Love.
    • We are free of the sadness of judgement.
    • Free of the anger of disconnection.
    • Free of the fear of loss.
  • We respond and move in complete harmony with our partner.
  • Our balanced awake presence provides feedback on our partner’s forcefulness or lack of balance without us needing to impose our own.
    • We don’t push with force. We move with our whole selves while in contact. This becomes gentle feedback, demonstrating where balance is missing. Our presence of contact does the job.
    • There is no striking, because we are already in contact.
    • We are not fighting each other. We work together to grow.
    • Without competition and animosity we discover balance and harmony.

This is why our school has always tied our advanced push hands study with the process of teaching. To establish within ourselves the clear intention of sharing this knowledge for the benefit of all, free of the dialectic of competition. This is the meaning of ‘investment in loss’. We don’t lose when we all learn. Grounding ourselves in our essential unity is the key to success and clears the way to full embodiment of the teaching of Tai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate, inside this art. The chuan is the vehicle for understanding the possibilities of harmony. The true function of the Tai Chi Warrior is to bring peace.

Greg Woodson

September 2014


June 2015 Interview on Push Hands

The following text is an interview with Greg Woodson with questions from Kate Mansfield, also a T’ai Chi Foundation teacher.

Kate:  The way you’re teaching Push Hands (PH) lately seems to be very different to what we’ve had in the school in the past. Where has this come from and why do you feel this shift is important in the progression of our school?
Greg:  The simple answer is that we know more now. Having a deeper embodiment of the principles involved inspires a change in presentation. The teachings have been consistent, but our (my) understanding of them has shifted to a state where I can demonstrate them instead of just talk about them. Importantly, this also includes when I stumble or revert to fearful or forceful reactions, because those moments become a part of my demonstration that others can relate to as well. Accepting myself as a teacher allows me to feel comfortable showing what I know rather than just delivering a curriculum. I want this for all of us!
Kate:  The significant theme seems to be dantien awareness. I love the article by Margaret Olmsted on the T’ai Chi Foundation Teaching Forum where she asked senior teachers about their experience of being in the dantien. If I’m honest, I’m most in my dantien when I’m teaching. In my practice I dip in and out of being there and being in my head. But lately I’ve come to realize that everything must be ‘felt’ from the tan tien. Not just allowing the movement to come from there but allowing the awareness of everything from my feet to my fingertips to be felt from my centre. Can you say a bit about this in the context of PH?
Greg:  Interestingly, I have experienced that my embodiment is enhanced by being in the function of teaching. It is giving. I’ve come to realize lately that I can also give that to myself in my practice and daily life. This is huge! For a more “technical” answer: when my dantian awareness incorporates where I am in space relative to my root, then every point of contact with my partners has a direct relationship to that root. The awareness is key. Then the root comes from letting my weight pour through me to the ground. My response then depends upon my ability to remain in a state of ease, allowing free movement in my hips.
Kate:  Do you have any tips for practicing dantien awareness (in form practice, everyday life, etc.)?
Greg:  Just do it. Or better said, let it happen.
Kate:  It seems to me that when I truly practice my form with dantien awareness it has a much more dynamic quality to it, I become one. Before that I was disconnected, therefore in PH I was disconnected. This came from striving to get the postures ‘right’ even if there was a little twisting, reaching, straining. With relaxation and openness (particularly in the hips) I achieve more with less. How can we teach this to our students whilst maintaining the ‘clarity’ of the form postures?
Greg:  Our ability to demonstrate that dynamic quality is what delivers the message – that it is possible for anyone. The state of being is the essential component. The directions within the form often serve to remind us of how open we can become. It serves our teaching better to demonstrate a quality of oneness, openness that we manifest in that moment while pointing out the possibilities for growth. Contorting ourselves to demonstrate the “correct” position delivers a very different message. We all are challenged to avoid the pitfall of promoting the dialectic of right v. wrong.
Kate:  Listening to and moving with my PH partner requires a quality of contact which often eludes me. I’m either too hard (allowing tension to build up whilst I’m ‘working out what to do’) or too soft (collapsing and not ‘owning my space’). What is needed for good listening contact?
Greg:  Listening contact in this context is a function of open hearted compassion. That is constantly challenged by our ego reactions. Establishing awareness, root and easy mobility sets up the security many of us need to open our hearts. The example in your question clearly points to two of the big three types of ego responses we all experience in our PH practice and life.
Kate:  How can I overcome barriers such as ‘I’m not doing it right’, ‘I can’t do it’, ‘he’s pushing me’ and other ego stuff that comes up?
Greg:  Remembering that you have an alternative to (over)reaction is key. Returning to the state of dantian awareness is the practice. We can allow our thinking mind to remind us of our non-thinking mind. This is a positive use for thought, rather than self-judgement.
Kate:  Sometimes I find that I just want to ‘give up’ and be pushed or revert to the security of the ‘routine’. I’m also conscious that despite not wanting to push, the trying to make something happen manifests as force. Help?
Greg:  It is essential to remember that as human beings we have all that is needed to embody Tai Chi (the universal principle). Being present allows us to physically respond to our partner’s action without making something happen ourselves. You’ve captured it when you notice that “trying to make something happen manifests as force.” An almost identical motion, even if ‘successful’, has a different effect. An ego action/reaction feels different than a response from principle. Beware of falling into routine in PH as it often becomes sleep. The sequence of moves in the ZMQ PH we practice is there to practice possibilities, not take the place of an actual alive response in the moment to what is actually happening. Dancing is fun. Do it elsewhere.
Kate:  How can I shift my approach to PH so its not about winning and losing?
Greg:  The real win is when both partners deepen their appreciation of their ability to work in principle by helping each other. When practicing with this spirit, the result is clear feedback based in shared intention to relax.
Kate:  I recognize that my issues with PH reflect back at me my ‘tendencies’ in life. How can I use PH to work through these issues and how can other work on these areas help my PH?
Greg:  You’ve nailed it here. When you become aware of your reactionary tendencies in PH you start to see the same mechanisms operate in other types of interactions in daily life. Your ability to relax and respond is your guide. Meditative work brings perspective on the relative (un)importance of our ego reactions. This is a hugely useful quality to invite into our lives. In depth meditative-based work on recognizing ego mechanisms as offered by the Arica School® has been a key part of my growth in this.
Kate:  In our school we learn ‘techniques’ at different stages of the PH curriculum. How important are these?
Greg:  All of the ‘techniques’ that we use are meant as demonstrations of how principle works. They point to something deeper, without having great importance themselves.
Kate:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Perhaps to those who feel ‘uncomfortable’ with PH or feel stuck?
Greg:  Be good to yourself. Find where you can relax and work from there. Ego reduction is the grand challenge of life. Embracing PH practice in this light transforms the angst of ego reaction into an enlightening shared process that brings happiness. When we listen to the little negative voices it sucks all the fun right out of it. We get to choose.

My understanding of tai chi comes from the shining example of Zheng Manqing via the transmission of his students with whom I’ve worked. The deeper sense of understanding tai chi’s usefulness as a tool for ego reduction and transmission of Love I attribute to my studies with the Arica School®, founded by Oscar Ichazo.

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