Tai Chi in Principle

To develop tai chi to its potential requires a singular focus. To develop this we spend a lot of time meditating. There are many forms of meditation, when you mention it people usually think about sitting cross legged, probably in a darkened room with their eyes closed. That is not the way we approach it.


If you study meditation probably the first thing your teacher will tell you is “Still your mind”. What probably happens is that you then spend the next six months furiously trying to turn off your mind as you sit uncomfortably cross legged, you calves cramping, your knees screaming, your back aching. Then you decide that you can't do it and give up.


The effect is probably the exact opposite of that which meditation should achieve because the experience leaves you feeling depressed about your inability, destroys your feelings of self worth and leaves you frustrated that you can't do something that is supposed to be so 'good' for you.


Maybe that wasn't your experience. Perhaps you achieved everything, managed to 'turn-off' your mind and reach nirvana. I am pleased for you.


Let me tell you now, you are kidding yourself.


First of all you cannot stop your mind. It runs 24/7. It runs while you are awake, it runs while you are asleep – you do dream don't you? In tai chi we call it 'the monkey mind' and it never stops. How often when you are trying to concentrate on something, perhaps something that is a bit boring, a document you need to read, a talk, even a difficult book, do you find you mind 'wandering off'? You come back to your situation with a start realising that you have missed the last three pages of the document, everything the speaker just said, and just how did that character end up here? Oh the times I have been working through the Yang long form – 108 positions – and suddenly realised that I can't work out where I am up to. My mind had decided to plan that meeting I have later on rather than focus on what I am doing. Moving meditation? You got it!


Your mind has its own agenda. It does not like concentrating, it just wants to fantasise, it has no problem with the most ridiculous situation in the latest Bond movie, it willingly suspends disbelief as our hero, once again, escapes from an impossible situation. 'You' can't stop it.


And there is the clue: who is this 'You'? Isn't your mind you? Well really this is the point of meditation, discovering who 'You' really are. (Your teacher did tell you that didn't he?)


I have spent 40 years meditating (on and off; mostly on though). Before I started tai chi I used to sit, I have a small Japanese stool for the purpose, it is nice to go back to that occasionally on a dark, wet winter's morning when I don't want to go outside.


The meditation form that we use in martial arts, and I mostly practice these days, is called 'Zhan Zhuang' which translates as 'standing like a post'. It is an ancient form with its roots in Taoist practices and has strong links to traditional Chinese medicine. Sometimes the practice is loosely referred to as qi gong (chi kung). Do not be fooled by the fact that it is a standing meditation; it is hard, it can be very hard. I sometimes think that I would rather be sitting, for all the body cramps and discomfort associated with that.


And the mind does not like it any more than it likes any other form of focus and concentration. So, what to do about your monkey mind? I was taught that the you cannot still your mind, so what you do is let the guy get on with its own stuff; you just learn to ignore it.


The big mistake is for us to think that our mind is 'us'. It is just a tool that we have to learn to use. The object of the exercise, particularly in the internal arts like tai chi but also as part of life, is to control the monkey and make it work for us rather than us working for the monkey.


Whatever form of meditation we practise we have to train ourselves not to get caught up in a train of thought. In his book How to Meditate Laurence LeShan describes the bubble meditation, a technique that I have always found extremely helpful. You think of yourself as sitting – or standing – at the bottom of a pond, your thoughts are bubbles, as your mind starts a thought you promise to get back to it later and let it float away. Eventually you learn to ignore your mind and focus on the business of relaxing, sinking, letting your energy settle in your dan tien.


We begin every tai chi session with ZhanZhuang:


First stand with your feet approximately a shoulder width apart. Shoulder width refers to the inside of your shoulders not the outside of the muscles. Perhaps it is more akin to hip width but we are tough martial artists – so shoulder width it is.


Move you hips back and sink a little as though you are about to sit on a high stool


Let your hands hang loosely by your side, palms turned back, thumbs touching your thigh.


Lift your head by gently stretching your neck upwards.


Then relax.


Feel your shoulders drop, relax (hollow) your chest, relax your back muscles and let your abdominal muscles go. (Come on guys, I know you spend hours doing sit-ups but, just this once, let go. You aren't on the beach and the ladies are not really impressed anyway, they just pretend to keep you happy.)


Feel your rib cage relax and try to feel inside, relaxing all of your internal muscles.


Then relax your pelvic girdle and your thighs. Work down your legs, relax you calves (yes you can) and feel all of your weight go onto your feet – and then relax those as well.


Your spine should feel slightly stretched (make sure you keep your neck stretched) and you will probably sink down a little. Don't panic, you won't fall over.


And the most important of all; breath into you abdomen, slowly. About four breaths a minute is perfect.


Try this: breath in, rest for a couple of seconds, then breath out. Rest again, then breath in. Do not try to hold your breath, make it a gentle and natural pause.


This position is wuji. It is neutral, the state before yin-yang begins.