Category Archives: Practice

Tai Chi and Cross Training

When it comes to sports and exercise, I’m the kind of person who likes to dabble in everything. Because of these diverse tastes, it’s important for me to grasp the basic skills of any new sport relatively quickly. In this process, I’ve come to realize how applicable many Taij Chi movement and alignment principles are to everyday exercise and cross training. Below are some examples from my own observations:

Swimming:

This is probably the sport I’m most adept at, having been a part of a team throughout elementary and middle school. Many friends in China have asked for tips on how to swim faster, but I’ve noticed that for swimming (and probably many other racing sports), speed is directly related to energy efficiency. Take breast stroke for example. The circling of the arms and contraction of the legs happen simultaneously during the process of “gathering energy.” Then the arms shoot forward just as the legs kick out frog-style, which is the process of “expending energy.” The more synchronized and fluid this process is, the more efficient your energy will be, thus making you swim faster. This is the same蓄力 (Xuli – gathering energy) and 发里 (Fali – exploding energy) principle as in Taijiquan. Because swimming uses continuous movement, controlling the flow of energy is key for optimal efficiency. This was something I hadn’t previously thought much about until coming across this concept in Taijiquan.

2014.03.12 - breast-stroke-1

Tennis:

A couple weekends ago, our Water Village Chief Jimmy and I took advantage of a good air day in Beijing and went to play tennis (want to make your own Taiji Zen training village?  Check out the Community Section). It was his first time playing, so as I was giving him pointers on his swing, I noticed myself again referring to key movement principles we learned in Taijiquan. When preparing for a swing in tennis, the stance is the same as in many Taijiquan forms. Front and back feet are positioned at an angle to create a strong triangular foundation while keeping the legs rounded and knees slightly bent. As you begin the swing, energy travels from the ground up through the legs, directed by turning the waist, and executed through the arms and racket, which feel simply like extensions of the body’s core. Sounds quite familiar doesn’t it?

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Last but not least….Hula Hoop-ing:

What, you ask? How can Taijiquan principles relate to something as trivial as using a hula hoop? Well, first let me tell you that I used to hula all the time using those traditional, light-weight, hollow plastic hoops. Then recently I discovered a new weighted hooping gadget that has round nobs on the interior, which are supposed to have a massaging effect as they spin and press on the waist. The first time I tried this, I really almost cried, but as I tried to endure through the painful spinning, I felt myself naturally “rounding the back” and “relaxing the waist / sinking the hips.” This made the spinning energy a lot easier and more comfortable compared to when I had spun the hoop standing fully upright with an arched back. Pretty soon, I was standing in full horse stance, even holding out my hands in a 站桩 (standing meditation) pose. Ironically, it was this crazy, almost sadistic new hoop that helped me discover a more effectively aligned (and probably also safer) way to hula.

2014.03.12 - hula

The Most Important Thing For Practicing Tai Chi

While I was filming a documentary about Tai Chi, the director wanted some B-roll of me talking with the great Chen style Tai Chi master Wang Xi’an (for more info on that documentary, check out this post).  They sat me down in a chair next to the grand master and instructed me to talk.  There was no audio for this scene, so I could say whatever I wanted.

I’d been dying for a chance to talk to Master Wang but wasn’t sure how much time I’d have, so I didn’t mess around with small talk.  I asked my first question: “What’s the most important thing about practicing martial arts?”

I'm the awkward white guy with a smooth Taiji suit on.  Grandmaster Wang is on the far right.  We never ended up using the scene where I was talking to Wang Xi'an.

I’m the awkward white guy with a smooth Taiji suit on. Grandmaster Wang is on the far right.  We never ended up using the scene where I was talking to him.

Without hesitation, Master Wang answered, “To practice with your mind.”

“You mean like visualization and that kind of thing?” I asked.

“Not just that.  Any time you practice, focus your attention completely on what you’re doing.  If you practice without your mind, you’re just wasting time.”

“Cut!” said the director.  “Thanks Eric, that’s perfect.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask follow up questions, but afterword I thought incessantly about the master’s wise words.  I decided to try it out myself.

At that time, I was practicing iron arm kung fu*, which entails me slamming my arm into a tree as hard as I can for about 10 minutes every day.  It’s a painful and repetitive experience, not exactly something I looked forward to.  While practicing, I often merely went through the motions, more like a masochistic ritual than training kung fu.

I decided to switch up my strategy from mindless bludgeoning into one of mindfulness.  I concentrated on which strikes would hit the tree the hardest.  I noticed there was some consistency about which were strongest and which were weakest, and began changing my technique to try to increase power across the board.  In a short time, I could feel my technique improving.

For me, this was incredible.  A practice which I dreaded became increasingly interesting and productive.  I started trying to apply mindfulness to all of my practice sessions, and I’ve seen great results ever since.

What do you think is the most important thing about practicing martial arts?  Tell us about it below in the comments section!

*Editor’s note – Iron arm kung fu isn’t a part of the Taiji Zen curriculum.  I just enjoy practicing weird/crazy things.

Effective Tai Chi Partner Practice

I recently wrote about the importance of visualization in solo Tai Chi practice.  Visualization is a powerful tool, but I believe it’s even more important to practice with a partner.

But how can we find partners?  And how should we practice with them?  I’m writing this post to share some of my insights on training with other people; I hope you find it helpful!

partner

The ideal situation is to find someone who shares the same love of the art and determination to constantly improve his or her understanding.  Having a partner will not only help you understand movements more deeply by applying them on a real person, but it will also help build up your accountability and help you persevere when you’re feeling too lazy to practice (accountability is a huge factor in building sustainable rituals!).

Having another person to practice with can also help foster a competitive spirit, which makes practice feel more like a game rather than mindless repetition.  Competition can be a great motivator; however, it can also become a hindrance if we forget why we’re competing.  The purpose of competition is not to win; the purpose of competition is to make development more enjoyable.  If all you want is to win, then whenever you lose you’ll wound up feeling upset or discouraged.  If all you want is to get better, whether you win or lose makes no difference.  In fact, you’ll probably learn more from losing, so maybe you’ll learn to enjoy it more than winning!

However, we can’t always find a consistent Tai Chi training partner.  Don’t let this discourage you!  I remember in elementary school there was a banner on the wall that said “you retain 10% of what you hear, 20% of what you read, 50% of what you do, and 90% of what you teach.” So if you can’t find a partner, just teach any friend or family member enough to practice a specific concept you’re working on; not only does this solve the problem of having a partner, but the act of teaching itself is likely to help you remember a movement much more succinctly.

I remember when I first had the feeling of not being the biggest newbie at my kung fu school.  At first it was great, but when I had to practice with people who weren’t as familiar with the art as myself, I would get frustrated.  It felt like a waste of my time to go over moves I thought I’d mastered, let alone with people who didn’t know what they were doing.  Eventually I realized the inherent negativity in this way of thinking and started thinking about how I could make practicing with beginners more useful.

I realized that every movement has an infinite amount of depth.  Bruce Lee famously said, ”I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”  You can practice the basics ad infinitum and still learn new things; the only limitation to learning new things from old moves is a failure to look more closely.

Also, when my practice partners would do an exercise ‘wrong,’ that used to always annoy me.  Until I realized that nobody will ever do a technique the ‘right’ way in a real fight.  Now, if my partner does an exercise improperly, this is an opportunity to practice my ability to react on the spot.  If I get hit because my partner did something they weren’t ‘supposed’ to do, it’s my fault; I should have reacted quicker.  Even if you’ve completely mastered a technique’s application, it won’t be very useful if you can’t react quick enough.

For those readers who have found a partner already, how did you find him or her?  And how do you make sure you’re practicing effectively?  Share your answers in the comments section and lend a helping hand to those still in need of a partner!