I have practiced taiji since 1996 and I have been involved in martial arts since 1984. When I look back, several factors appear to be consistent elements in my improvement or lack of improvement at various stages of my training. These factors also seem to to be consistent when I look at others I have trained. Everyone’s goals and motivations for training are different, and it doesn’t matter if you are the best at what you do or not, providing that you enjoy what you are doing and are satisfied with what you take from it. That being said, there are several inter-related factors that I feel would benefit everyone and improve their taiji training.
Often, many people start taiji training for reasons relating to health and fitness. Their starting training is often an acknowledgment that they wish to lead a better, healthier lifestyle. To that end, I have often seen benefits from taiji offset by careless lifestyle choices. If you wish to maximize what you get from your taiji, fundamentals such as working to maintain a basic level of physical fitness; healthy diet; healthy weight; and good sleep patterns should become part of your lifestyle. They will certainly go a long way to maximizing what you get from your taiji. If you are making the effort to practice taiji regularly, expanding the effort to include diet, sleep, and fitness should not be too demanding. Whatever you find works well for you, go for it!
An old adage says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Such is certainly the case with taiji. To be maintained and improved taiji must be practiced regularly. The attitude of “I’ll get out tomorrow” just doesn’t work in the long run. Over the years, I have seen many people who have been very naturally talented quit, give up, or stagnate for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons that most people lose their initial attraction to taiji are because they become discouraged by a slowdown in their progress, or feel they have gone far enough following the completion of a given form or step. I have seen many quit within the first year, after the initial fascination had worn off, and others who quit after two to three years, once they realized that taiji is indeed hard work and must be practiced regularly for basic maintenance, let alone improvement. The best advice I can offer is to do several things; the first of which is to make taiji practice a regular part of your lifestyle, something that is budgeted into your schedule in the same way as work, eating or sleeping; it should not be something that is squeezed in when you have time. The second is to find ways to enjoy it. Change your practice locations and methods, learn new styles of taiji, and do things that continue to make it fresh and interesting for you so you look forward to, and enjoy your taiji practice. Done correctly, it can become a welcome oasis in a busy day. Remember, the journey is endless; there is always something new to learn.
You Don’t Know
If there is one constant that I have seen with the great martial arts teachers it has been their ability to keep an open mind in order to analyze, and accept or reject new ideas in the hopes of expanding their knowledge. Yet, I have seen so many students whose training basically stagnates as a result of their thinking that they have it all figured out after only a few short years of study. Taiji is a continual process, one that lasts a lifetime if one wishes it to. I have found that the more I know, the more I realize how much I still have to learn, and the challenge of that keeps me motivated.
Another pitfall I have often seen is that of “My style is best.” While this assessment might be true, I feel it is still important to respect and observe other styles for several reasons. The first of which is respect for the time and effort that practitioners have put in. Even if their way of doing things may not appeal to you, often these individuals have spent years training, and that fact alone deserves respect. Another reason is that by keeping an open mind you may see things that appeal to you that you can incorporate into your own taiji; likewise, seeing things you dislike reinforces your own beliefs and methods. It is a continual process of observing and accepting or rejecting, that leads to improvements that cannot take place unless you are open to them.
There is Always Room for Improvement
In order to improve, it is important not to become complacent, but to always analyze and look at ways you can improve. Is my body position 100% correct? Were the transitions between movements correct? Was I able to stay completely mentally and emotionally still and focused on my dan tian? There is always room for improvement and any practice method that can help to expose flaws is a good one.
Quality of Practice
In order to improve, I believe you must strive to increase the quality of your taiji through increasing the quality of your taiji training. This can be achieved by paying attention to several key factors.
– Do not train when ill.
– Do not train when over-tired.
– Do not train when rushed or pressed for time.
– Do not train while emotionally or mentally distraught/distracted.
– Train in an area that is free of distractions.
Clear yourself of all thoughts and emotions as far as you are able and maintain this state throughout the duration of your forms training. Maintain proper focus and awareness on Dan tian/Ming men and movement of Qi.
Many of these would appear to be common sense, but often it is not possible to do all of the above all the time. If you strive to train under these conditions as far as possible, it will go a long way to allowing you to maximize the effectiveness of the time you spend practicing taiji. This is, for lack of a better term, maintaining the “purity” of your taiji. While it is possible to practice every day, it is very easy to become slack, complacent, rushed or distracted. Practicing sloppily every day can lead to bad habits. It would be more beneficial to practice less often, but ensure that every practice session is of the highest quality. The goal is to maximize both frequency and quality to achieve the best results.
It is an Art
A statement that I have heard many times over the years has been “But I don’t do it exactly like Sifu.” Short answer: you won’t, and that’s just fine. Everyone has a unique physiology with different bone lengths, proportions, etc…. in addition, we are all individuals from different backgrounds with distinct personalities so it is inevitable that we will all perform taiji differently. Just as no two musicians will perform the same piece of music in exactly the same manner, no two taiji practitioners will perform taiji exactly the same. We will all impart something of ourselves to our taiji and express ourselves through our taiji. It is very important to understand this artistic aspect of taiji; it leads to a road where taiji becomes a wonderful tool for self-expression and self-discovery, and becomes far more than just a set of exercises.