It is important not to be greedy, for greediness will prevent you from penetrating deeply. You should be content with small portions and not feel that just one or two movements are too little… practicing a small amount allows you to penetrate more deeply…”
“Deepening our practice means having a genuine practice, practicing not in form only. When your practice is genuine, it will bring joy, peace, and stability to yourself and to the people around you.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
I’ve been thinking lately about how important it is to recognize which of the principles of tai chi or qigong work best for us, and then to practice them deeply until we feel their internal benefits in our lives now, instead of hoping that we will finally “get it” years from now. We can grasp certain principles now, but in smaller doses than what we think is necessary, perhaps.
When I was a beginning tai chi student, I was so hard on myself. While learning the form, I harshly criticized myself when I was doing the steps wrong, shifting my weight wrong, tilting my hips (still working on that), moving my hands wrong, not to mention forgetting the steps altogether. When I finally remembered the steps well enough so that I didn’t have to always follow someone in front of me—don’t ask how long that took—I exaggerated most all of the movements based on my ballet and modern dance background, confident I had finally learned how to do tai chi correctly. Oy vey!
“The Feel Good Space” was the name of a one-room massage school in an old brick building overlooking Greenlake in Seattle in the mid 70’s, where I took my first massage class. (Stay with me.) The name of that little school has stuck with me as I do my tai chi and qigong. My goal is to enter “the feel good space” every time I practice. I want that for my students, too. Otherwise, why are w“…e practicing?
Pre-Covid, my beginning, mostly retired, community center students and I sometimes talked before and after class, while taking on and off our shoes, about: how empty stepping helps us during our daily dog walks; how keeping our eyes in a soft focus on the horizon helps us stay alert to our surroundings and not bend our heads forward, hurting our neck and upper back; how keeping our knees slightly bent helps with our balance during unexpected situations; and how slowly shifting our weight from one foot to the other while waiting in line at the grocery store helps us relax while standing.
A surprising number of the students told me they regularly practiced their principles in between our weekly classes. Many shared how practicing the principles eased some of their aches and pains and calmed their minds. Their diligence amazed me! They found a way for tai chi to benefit them now, not later.
More recently, I have discovered that learning how to soften my thoughts during my practice is just as important as learning how to soften my body.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist meditations have helped my thoughts stop bouncing around like ping pong balls inside my skull. Our dantian practice has also helped calm and settle my thoughts as well as my body. Yet in Buddhist sitting meditations, sometimes I can separate from my thoughts and enjoy watching them, like watching a fascinating movie.
I wanted to have that experience in tai chi, so I started watching my thoughts during tai chi practice, and I noticed they were often harsh and critical. So now if I become aware of my thoughts sneering, “You lost your balance on your Golden Rooster YET AGAIN, Annette,” I soften the tone of that same thought to, “Oops, a little wobble on your injured knee, are you okay?” in the same way I would gently talk to my daughter.
Turns out changing the tone of voice of my thoughts from harsh and critical to gentle and supportive makes my practice much more enjoyable, and it seems to pretty effortlessly be spilling into how I think throughout the day, and into many of my interactions with others, to boot.
The various beautiful images we are invited to embody is one of my favorite parts of tai chi and qigong classes. However, I used to berate myself for not being able to embody certain images, no matter how much I practiced them. I mistakenly assumed I just wasn’t skilled enough to feel whatever principle we were working with, and hoped some vague time in the future I would finally be able to reach that higher level of embodiment.
At some point, I just started creating different images that work better for me. I’ve decided to give our hardworking senior teachers a break by recognizing that if an image being offered, no matter how beautiful, just isn’t cutting it for me that day for whatever reason, I am free to privately personalize my own imagery to better suit my needs.
For example, I have high arches, which doctors tell me have contributed to my multiple, long bouts of plantar fasciitis. So sometimes it’s difficult for me to relax my feet despite all the wonderful images we have for this. But if I think about walking barefoot on firm, warm sand against a gentle, shallow tide rolling in and out, and how good that feels on the bottom of my feet, my feet instantly relax. The same goes for when I think about massaging the earth with my feet with each step, as if the earth were a living being—if you’ve ever given or received a Thai massage where the massage therapist carefully walks on the client’s back, this image may be the one for you!
After serving four years as an Intelligence Officer with the CIA in Taiwan, Robert Smith was the first western student of Cheng Man-Ching in Taiwan, starting in 1959. Smith was also the first writer to introduce Cheng Man-Ching to western readers. In my search for what has been written about bringing our uniqueness as individuals into our tai chi practice, Smith writes:
“Everyone’s form will be different—like fingerprints or snowflakes—but the basics will be the same. The structure will be pretty much the same while the flow will come to express some of the personality of the person doing it. Together these two elements comprise the technique of taiji.”
Smith then describes how Cheng Man-Ching expressed this same concept to his students in Taiwan:
“Professor Zheng [Professor’s name is spelled Zheng Manqing in Taiwan] would ask taiji practitioners: How much of the taiji technique is structure and how much is flow?”…Professor Zheng would go on to say that structure and flow together—the technique—make up only 30 percent of taiji.”
Wait. What? Why did Professor tell his students that learning the structure and then the flow are only 30% of our practice? That seems like a pretty low percentage for all that–
Smith continues with how Professor would then ask his students:
“What is the missing 70%?”
I am visualizing his radiant, smiling face, as Professor answered his own question:
“It is the same as in many arts, in calligraphy—the queen of the Chinese fine arts—for instance. Seventy percent of taiji is naturalness, the intrinsic you, which can only come from inside you.”
Wile, D. (2007). Better to be Content with Little than Greedy for Too Much. Z. Manqing. Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writings on Taijiquan, Qigong, and Health, with New Biographical Notes (p. 98). Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Sweet Ch’i Press.
Hanh, T. (2009) Q. How can we deepen our practice? T. Hanh. Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life’s Burning Questions (p. 75). Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.
Smith, R.W. (2015). Zheng Manqing and Taijiquan: A Clarification of Role. In M.A. DeMarco & T.G. La Fredo (Eds.), Cheng Man-ch’ing and T’ai Chi Echos in the Hall of Happiness: An Anthology of Articles from the Journal of Asian Martial Arts.