Over the last two decades or so in the tai chi game, I’ve noticed that many practitioners have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve in short timeframes. Many times, students seek to learn a form and gain a high level of skill within a period of a few months, which of course is impossible unless you’re a rare genius in mind-body-chi. The irony is that those who let go of these expectations are usually the students who advance more quickly and, more importantly, experience the deeper health and healing benefits for which tai chi is renowned.
Learn Tai Chi
There are three primary layers beginners want to focus on when learning tai chi, which are:
- Formwork–the shell or movements;
- Neigong–the specific internal content; and
- Circularity–that which allows the full potential of neigong to come into play within the form.
This hierarchy is important as each previous layer must be developed and become solidified in order to achieve results from the next, more complex layer.
Tai Chi Form
Tai chi begins with learning a form, which is a style (i.e., Wu, Yang, Chen, Hoa and combination styles) as a long (typically 100+ movements), short (20-30 movements) or medium form. The shell consists of:
- Choreography–all the stepping, turning, weights shifts and arm motions.
- Basic principles–relaxing through movement, which, for example, is done by using the mind’s intent and moving from the kwa, as well as others.
- Proper methodology–although there are too many to list here, some examples include keeping the shoulders down, dong open and the body sung at all times.
Regular and accurate practice of the form creates a shell or containment field for the neigong to be brought to life. It allows the basic movements to become embedded in the cellular memory of the body, which frees the mind to focus on ever-more refined levels of detail. In time and with enough practice, you can arrive at the point where most of what you have learnt becomes embodied. One way to think about embodying your form is putting your body on autopilot, leaving your mind free to focus on very specific threads of internal neigong content.
Depending on the type of form you choose, long, medium or short, this learning process could take many months or years. My teacher, Wu and Yang Style Tai Chi Lineage Holder Bruce Frantzis, has said that in China the masters often don’t consider someone a true tai chi practitioner until they have at least 10 years experience.
Until you reach the point where you can go on autopilot–i.e., you don’t have to think about the movements–there’s little to gain from advancing to more complex considerations in your form because your foundation will not hold. I’ve seen many practitioners try to circumvent or rush the process, but ultimately they only undermine the results they’ve achieved in the earlier stages. Most of these people give up practising just before the real health and healing benefits become a reality. So be content to stay at whatever level you’re at and don’t worry about external goals that seek to pull you away from your reason for taking up tai chi in the first place.
When you do achieve the level where your form operates without a bunch of mental gymnastics, then the focus once again shifts to stretching out the body. This includes both the outer muscular frame as well as the skeletal frame, allowing you to release generalised stress and tension and long-term, bound tension localised in specific areas of your body. As this gentle, stretching, pumping action takes place, blood flow increases and the nervous system is lulled into a state of relaxation, which thereby stimulates the flow of chi.
After a tuning in period, many new tai chi students report that they experience old aches and pains vanishing, dead or numb areas waking up, and most commonly that their overall sense of well-being and energy level begin to increase. Some students have major breakthroughs, such as the disappearance of sciatica or carpel tunnel syndrome. Although the clearing out process is highly individual and is dependent upon your state of health when you start practising, all of these benefits are made possible by practising your tai chi form consistently and accurately.
Neigong Content: How Tai Chi becomes Internal Exercise
Once your skill at performing the movements of your tai chi form increases to a reasonable level, the body begins to operate as one basic unit rather than a collection of jumbled, out-of-sync and discombobulated parts. A smooth quality as you transit from one movement to the next perpetuates the flow, which reinforces autopilot mode. Again, your focus will begin to shift because less effort is required by the mind to maintain it.
Although neigong training is not set in stone and there is no best hierarchy for learning and developing your skill in the neigong system, two streams that commonly come into play are:
- Opening-Closing (also known as pulsing)
- Yin-Yang tissue stretches
Opening and closing is the alternating rhythm of expansion and condensing between two counterparts. In early neigong training, opening and closing techniques focus on the space between the joints (e.g., hands, wrists and elbows) and cavities (e.g., armpits, kwa and backs of the knees), which facilitate relaxation in the body and mind.
Yin and yang tissue stretches allow you to divide the body so that either the yin (front, inside) or yang (back, outside) surfaces can be stretched while the other remains completely relaxed and inactive. This creates a looping of energy at the level of wei chi (in the fascia located between the skin and muscles), which thereby boosts the body’s natural defence mechanisms.
Activating and engaging the pulse or yin-yang tissue stretches requires fine motor control through hyper focus on very specific parts of the body. This cannot be achieved if the mind must devote attention to where to step, turn, shift, or move the arms. The hyper focus on very specific areas of the body is absolutely critical at this stage because it is precisely what allows the deeper kinks and blocks to be uncovered and eventually released.
The deep relaxation gained from the pulse along with the boosting of the flow of wei chi begins to open up the body at a more profound depth. This in turn allows you to penetrate the shell (muscular and skeletal frames), which thereby provides access to the deeply rooted condensed energy inside the body. If you have to stop and think about formwork in this process, you will severe your ability to maintain the stream of consciousness necessary to unlock that which is hiding under the level of your awareness.
Once you contact these deeper blockages, you can then tune your form, and the weave of internal neigong content that derives it, towards that which will be most helpful in releasing them. When you do, the health and healing benefits naturally arise. There isn’t any specific outcome you can expect, but whatever restraints you become in tune with and aware of can be melted and vanished for good.
The condition and vitality of your internal organs is ultimately what makes you more or less healthy. It’s not surprising that the deeper tensions affect your organ base in some way or another. Releasing these tensions can therefore have a profound effect on your well-being. If someone uses their fingers to apply pressure on your windpipe, when they finally let go, how good is it going to feel? To start, you’ll be able to breathe more easily! The freedom many students experience internally as they let go of these bound and restricted areas in their organs is similar, and possibly even more profound.
Circularity in Tai Chi
Circularity is a major point of the internal arts because it’s an efficient method for supercharging the circulation of blood and other fluids (e.g., lymph and interstitial) and chi. However, until the formwork is solid and the essential neigong content is present, circularity has little effect. Conversely, when the form and content is online and your practice is truly internal, then you can really boost the functioning of your whole system.
Every time you stop at one posture or another during your form, you effectively apply the brakes to any flow you have managed to generate. This diminishes momentum and prevents you from moving along the continuum towards greater and stronger chi flow that in turn further stimulates production and circulation of all the other bodily fluids–that which creates incredibly efficient body function and, equally, deep and long-lasting relaxation.
This deep relaxation and cleansing the body of harmful toxins and waste by-products go hand in hand. As your nerves release and maintain a calm state, your body can operate more efficiently and thereby disperse stagnant chi. All you are left to do is feel better.
Start + Grow Your Tai Chi Practice
Each of the three layers of tai chi training require many months and years of dedicated practice to achieve its full potential. Rushing ahead not only precludes you from enjoying the real health benefits, but also takes the fun out of the process. There’s no need to try to become a tai chi master to experience the tremendous and wide-ranging benefits of practising tai chi anyway!
Without an accurate form, the content has no containment field; without the neigong alive and operating consistently, circularity does little to boost your overall results. So take your time and focus on executing the movements of your form correctly before moving on to move advanced practices. Then, as you weave in neigong content, it will reinforce your investment in a solid foundation, so that circularity can pay you real health dividends.
Attend My Tai Chi + Neigong Intensive in Kentish Town, London
I rarely teach tai chi choreography since most students benefit more from learning simpler forms unless they make a commitment to learning a tai chi form or, for existing practitioners, focusing on developing neigong that can be applied to any formwork.