How to Improve Your Level of Tai Chi?

By: Dr Paul Lam

All rights reserved. Dr Paul Lam 11/03/00, this article was originally published in the International Tai Chi magazine on April 2000.

The author: Dr Paul Lam, a family physician in Australia for 25 years, is a respected Tai Chi teacher. He has created several Tai Chi programs that have helped to improve people's health and lifestyle. His team has produced many Tai Chi videos for students of varying levels from beginners to advance.

The journey to a higher level of Tai Chi can be confusing given that there are many styles and numerous variations within each style. I will try to give some simple guidelines to make it easier to improve your level of Tai Chi.

People often tell me that when they engage a new teacher, they are often told that what they have learnt previously was wrong and probably a waste of time. It could be difficult to tell what is the correct way to practice Tai Chi. I believe that there are many "right"ways. If we look back in history, there are many famous masters who were skilful in different styles and variations of the same style. For instance, Yang Cheng-fu was said to practice the large frame Yang Style while his uncle was famous for small frame high powered Yang Style. It was interesting that Yang changed his forms three times at different phases of his life.

There are so many achievers who have practised different variations of Tai Chi and the only conclusion I can draw is that there are many correct ways to practice Tai Chi like "Many roads that lead to Rome". I also believe that some methods are more useful for certain types of people so if you choose a method that is suited you should be able to progress faster.

Cheng Man-Ching said that there are three most important factors to be proficient in Tai Chi; a good teacher with the correct method, practice and talent. I am in agreement with these three factors but with regard to the teaching method, I think it is not just black and white, there are certainly many shades of grey in between. I think most teachers have something useful to offer and it is good for a student to learn to focus on the instruction that is particularly suitable for them.

To many experts, Wang Zong Yue's classic Tai Chi theory written in classical Chinese is a bible to practitioners. Classical Chinese is an artistic language and not as precise as modern Chinese. Not many people understand classical Chinese text nowadays. No wonder there are many different interpretations of this half a page work. In fact, some people dispute how much Wang knew about Tai Chi or was he talking more about philosophy. This illustrates Tai Chi theory is not always clear cut.

This is why it is useful to have some simple guidelines to work on.

1 - Use Your Mind
Tai Chi is known as an internal art. The meaning of internal is to use your mind and mind power to control your movements. It also means use your thinking ability, so you should always apply your thinking ability to what you are doing, think about each movement, does it make sense martial arts wise, Qigong wise and logic wise? For example, is the movement effective in blocking and generating power? The fundamental martial art principle of Tai Chi is not force against force, briefly it's on absorbing, redirecting the incoming force, then add your own force to produce maximum effect with minimum force. So if you find a movement that is just blow for blow then you need to question the logic behind this movement.

We all know in Tai Chi you use your mind and not brutal strength but if you do not have any strength in your movements, you will be easily overpowered. Without a peng force you will not be able to feel the direction of your opponent's force. Here I would like to explain the word "relaxation" in Chinese really has two meanings, to relax and also to loosen or to stretch out.

Using your mind also means to allow your mind to be open. If you are fixed with one idea and not even listening to other possibilities it is like a container that is full, it can not accept any more material. You are closed and unable to progress.

2 - Integrating Internal and External
It is not as hard as it seems to integrate the internal and external, start with simple concepts first. For example, to keep the body upright you can check with a mirror, camera or video. Sometimes people think they are being upright especially when their knees are bent in a horse stance but they might not.

On the point of being upright, it is impossible to stay absolutely upright at all times. Checking any videos of proficient Tai Chi practitioners, you will find no one is perfect. Kam Sun style tai chiNo one ever achieved perfection in the art of Tai Chi, the enjoyment and benefits of Tai Chi comes from getting there.

Picture 1 Master Kam Lau Fung
I think it is good to be just very slightly forward some time especially when delivering force forward, probably about 5 degree forward will enable you to generate more power, yet still in control of your balance. Picture one shows Master Kam Lau Fung, punching forward, you can see the barely perceivable forward of 5 degrees. Try this yourself to see the difference it makes with minor changes.

The other important point is the transference of weight. To check this watch your knees that will tell you how much percentage of weight you are actually transferring. A common mistake is that while your body weight already fully transferred to one leg, yet the rest of the body is still moving.

Integration at a higher level involves the mind, body and spirit. The mind is the conscious control, the body is the movement and strength and the spirit is the unconscious part of your mind. When you have these three integrated, you can feel your movements flow smoothly, your Qi strong, you feel right about what you are doing and powerful within yourself. This also happen in other sports, for example, in tennis when an unseeded player performance exceed his or her normal standard and beats a highly seeded player. They often say that everything "flow" well, or they feel the "flow", nothing can go wrong that day! I believe this is the day they got their body, mind and spirit together.

2_tai chi form- repulse monkey3 - A Few Practical Methods

Self Guided Imagery
The unconscious mind is by definition something we are not aware of, therefore difficult to train. Modern sports medicine has utilised Self-Guided Imagery to train the unconscious mind with great success.

The unconscious mind has great control in our performance, for example, a nervous competitor will perform badly whereas when they are feeling positive they will perform much well. We often hear of people exerting unbelievable strength in order to save their loved ones under dangerous situation. Why could they exert this strength at will? It is because the unconscious mind power is very strong. You can use imagery as an effective way to train your unconsciousness because it can not differentiate between reality and imagery. 
A simple way to do this is to watch a video of a famous master performing a set of forms the way you like it. Think of this performance several times until you remember it well. Then you imagine you were the famous master performing the same form. To do well you will need to imagine it as real as possible and as often as possible. This technique will help to achieve higher level of proficiency quicker.4

Example of a Movement - Repulse Monkey
Let us take a movement, try to apply mental imagery to see if it helps you to improve.

Picture 2 - You are getting ready to perform Repulse Monkey.

Picture 3 - Bring the right hand back near the right hip and turn the left palm upwards.

Picture 4 - Bring the right hand up towards near your right ear then push it forward and bring the left hand and left foot back.

Picture 5 - Step your left foot back, bring the left hand close to the left hip and push your right hand forward.

Imagine an opponent step forward to punch you, at Picture 3, turn your left palm up and grab hold of the incoming fist.

Picture 6 - Dr.Lam

5In Picture 4 you bring your left hand backward following the direction of the incoming force. Picture 5 as you step back, you pull your opponent towards you and then strike the opponent with the right hand to the neck. As your opponent was stepping forward and punching forward, your pulling will combined his forward force to make it stronger. As you strike the opponent with your right hand, since he is coming towards you, his forward momentum enhances your stroking force.

If you go over in your mind these series of actions pretending there is an opponent in front of you when you are practising, it will help you to execute the movements more correctly.

Generating the Peng force

Peng force is also known as Ward off force which is central to the inner strength of Tai Chi. There are different types of peng force, unidirectional ones are more limiting and easier than circular one. To cultivate the peng force, one should loosen and stretching all joints. This will strengthen the ligaments and muscles and allow the qi to flow better.

To cultivate circular peng force, for example when you are practising Yang style stroking bird's tail like picture 6, the arm is forming a semicircle in front of your chest. Think of stretching your right fingers diagonally slightly upward, your right elbow downward, fingers and elbow are pulling gently against each other toward opposite directions. All joints, the shoulders, elbows, wrists and fingers joints are stretching and opening up.

For the trunk, stretch and loosen upwards from the acupuncture point, Bai Hui (at the centre of the scalp), the trunk, chest, back, the waist and the hips are loosened and pulling gently downwards. All the joints in the lower limbs (the hip, knee and ankle joints) to be stretched out and loosened, making both lower limbs not too soft and too stiff and you will be stable, flexible and mobile.

Experience the Peng Force

Picture 7 - Take a Bow Stance with one or two hands forward and get your friend to do the same opposite you. So your hands are on your opponent's shoulder and you can feel each other's force. One person should push while the other person feels the force. The receiving person does the feng force. To experience unidirectional peng force, gently stretch your elbow, wrist and shoulder joints at the direction against your friend's incoming push. To feel the rooting force, imagine your feet have grown roots into the ground and you let the incoming force direct towards the ground. This rooting technique will allow you to withstand incoming force. However the unidirectional force is limiting because your opponent could direct his or her force upward to uproot you.

With the more sophisticated circular peng Force, instead of directing your force to the ground, loosen all your joints forming a round force field within yourself and then when your opponent push you, he will be feeling a different force, like pushing a elastic bubble, more resilient and harder to counter.

To integrate the body, mind and spirit together, check with a mirror that your body is executing these movements correctly, imagine your joints are loosened and you have a round force within you. See if your friend can see the difference in the force when you are focused and well integrated. Then try to eliminate one factor each time and feel the difference.

It is important to make sense of what you practicing. To me it is better to know a few simple concepts than to remember many complicated ones without understanding them.

When learning something new, firstly learn to execute the external movements correctly, then seek to understand the inner meaning and then try out the force it generates. Try to work out the intrinsic meaning of Tai Chi movements using the essential principles. Use you thinking power and work with other to gain better understanding.