Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings – those little black birds that gather by the hundreds in flocks that swirl, expand, contract, and flow like a living cloud? Scientists who have studied this beautiful and strange dance have come up with various theories to explain it. Some say it is a defensive technique to avoid and confuse predators, but they do this dance when no predators are present. Others focus on how they manage such a level of synchronicity, saying that the seven nearest birds follow the signals of an eighth, but there is no distinguishable leader. The simultaneity with which they move seems to defy explanation. It is as though they share the same mind, the same intention, each bird playing its role in the larger symphony. While I can’t say how they do it, to me, why they do it is simple. They’re doing Tai Chi.
In my tai chi teaching, I tend to stay away from traditional terms like qi. It isn’t that such terms don’t serve, but I feel they generate a sense of mystique that borders on the mystical. Progressing in internal disciplines (such as tai chi) already require more than enough playing of the “hot and cold game” as it is, so I prefer to make the learning process as grounded as possible for my students. In that spirit, I often begin with more concrete and accessible postural elements, such as skeletal alignment and top to bottom relaxation, with anatomical references they can visualize. These foundational elements are accessible through standing post postures (zhan zhuang), repetitive movement exercises (ji ben gong), solo forms (such as laojia yilu), and partner practices (such as push hands – tui shou).
Using those practices as vehicles, I keep the students focused on their bodily sensations, seeking areas of tension to release and structural weaknesses to shore up. This path of training provides the physical experiences students require as a frame of reference for progressing to increasingly more subtle and internal practices. I find this approach advances students nicely toward an integrated “tai chi body,” but it has its limitations. Even when bearing its best fruits, it can paint a mechanical picture of the body as a collection of coordinated parts that leads students to over-produce their movements, rather than discovering something deeper and more organic. This is better than an uncoordinated body, but not so good as a unified, indivisible whole which is an extension of the mind rather than directed by it like a remote control machine. That perspective must be avoided if possible and overcome if necessary. This task can be difficult, but if approached with earnestness and patience, a transcendent practice may be reached.
Most students begin training with a conception of their bodies as a known quantity. Certain parts are experienced as able to move in certain ways to limited degrees and are subconsciously relegated to those supposed ranges of motion. These self-imposed limitations may be further compounded by an idealized notion of how tai chi movements are meant to be performed. Such ideas are often based on a visual understanding garnered from watching their teacher or another practitioner, and it is a two-dimensional understanding at that. We are only able to see things in two dimensions at a time, and use shape and size to infer depth – which can be fooled. Additionally, an observer – particularly a novice one – can not feel what another practitioner is feeling in their body, nor the intention they are expressing, hence students often mistake the true nature of tai chi movements when observing them. This combination of belief in how the body is able to move (or not) and how it is meant to move during practice (such as in tai chi forms) creates a powerful obstacle to the transformative potential tai chi practice can have. As a whole, I call this obstacle shape holding.
Shape holding is seldom the result of actual anatomical limitations (such as tight muscles and tendons), though certain limitations due to injury, compensatory movement habits, surgeries, etc., can and do exist. More often, the tension we have in our bodies is a result of mentally generated images that must be challenged with an open and seeking awareness. This awareness must be informed by the concepts and principles of alignment and relaxation I mentioned earlier. With those ideas as references (as fingers pointing to the moon of authentically experiencing tai chi in your mind and body), a helpful tool is to ask one’s self certain questions during practice. Questions such as: Am I actually maintaining spinal alignment while doing this movement? Could I let go of more tension and sink my weight more purely through the bubbling well? Could I move less from the arms and upper body and more from the legs, pelvis, and spine? Am I dictating the way I move based on mental images and muscularly micromanaging my actions, or am I allowing Intention to move through a relaxed, unresisting body, and discovering how my body naturally expresses my intention? (As a side note: the forms are patterns of intentions – sets of directions of motion – meant to be expressed through your body, not sequences of movements to be performed according to proscribed shapes.) Asking questions like those can begin to direct your practice toward increasingly more internal qualities of action and experience.
There are some camps that focus solely on notions of moving energy through the body. They tend to see any focus on bodily structure as a mistake. Other camps focus solely on body-mechanics, and tend to see any focus on notions of energy as fantasy. In my experience, these two sides are actually mutually supportive and fulfilling – just like yin and yang, just like mind and body. There is no getting around the necessity of observing and imitating movements, of performing them in sequence until they are memorized. That is a door all students must walk through, but once through it, we must endeavor to understand how the intentions behind those movements may be uniquely expressed through our unique bodies and minds. That is why I say: focus on motion over movements.