little by little
“Experience arises together with theoretical assumptions not before them,
and an experience without theory is just as incomprehensible
as is (allegedly) a theory without experience.“
Paul Karl Feyerabend, Against Method
I started learning tai chi with Ian Cameron, Five Winds Tai Chi Edinburgh (1982). Then, as now, the warm up consisted of, Cloud Hands, Tiger embraces head, Retrieve Moon from the Sea, and single lotus leg swing. The beginner was then introduced to the Square Form, with each style broken down to a count of 1, 2, 3, so that ‘Beginning style’ would be a count of 9, ‘Seven Star Style’ would be 3, and so on. I continue to view this as a smart innovation responsive to a teaching situation that required it, i.e., a large group of learners. As a teaching tool Square form allows the learner (while the teacher is going around the group correcting postures) to explore distribution of weight, substantial and insubstantial, alignment and sense of balance, then the transition to the next posture, and pace. One can also hold the individual postures learning to relax into a balanced body while building strength.
In those days one had to learn the whole Long Form square which took around 6 months, only then did one begin the Circular Form. So I welcomed Dan Docherty’s development of a short form, I found this a more useful introduction to learning Tai Chi. I say ‘useful’ from the prospective of a qualified teacher and training manager in adult education (Social Work) very aware of facilitating learning. I believe the Short Form, square and round, does make learning tai chi manageable allowing learners to see a complete project that introduces them to key principles, e.g. transferring weight from one foot to the other, turning the waist, whole body movement, etc. Another development leading from this was the early introduction to circular movement and the Round Form, that is, the learner would start learning the Short Round Form even before completing the Short Square Form. Again, I liked this development because learners felt they had progress to ‘real’’ tai chi.
Another innovative development I took form PTCCI was the teaching of Seven-Star Step pushing hands first rather than further down the line. I took from this a realisation that some movements deemed ‘advanced’ were actually easier to learn and facilitated effective learning. This also led me to look closer at how some Hand Form styles might be broken down, say into an exercise, to facilitate learning. For example when demonstrating Cloud Hands it’s not unusual to demonstrate with one arm to highlight the movement of the waist and torso and the arm together. Similarly, I demonstrate, from Horse Stance, the transition of weight from one foot to the other which also highlights the turning of the hips. I then add the waist to raise the arm as in ‘Push the Ball’ (Shibashi), developing the movement further by moving feet and hands as in ‘Wave Hands in Clouds’.
My approach to teaching has also been influenced by my training in Gao Style Baguazhang with Ed Hines, Aarvo Tucker, and Luo DeXiu. Here I was first introduced to Qigong process. I particularly liked the standing Fang Song from Lou DeXiu which was the only Qigong I was able to practice during my surgery and treatment for throat cancer. We also practiced Eight Brocade (It was much later I learned ‘Immortal Family Baduanjin’ with Dan Docherty) . Of course circle walking, Palm changes and linear sets gave another and interesting perspective to body structure in movement, and in form and application.
I developed further my understanding of Qigong with a brief course in Yiquan Standing with Luigi Zanini. I also studied Yi Jin Jing with Luigi although I didn’t continue with this. Again while I continued privately my interest in Yiquan Standing (on this video try the first 4 postures, 3 - 17 mins.) I was hesitant to do any of this in class because it is time consuming and I find many people have difficulty standing still for even for a brief time! In other words it requires motivation and commitment.
On the subject of class structure I do stick with the Wudang format but I have incorporated Luo DeXiu’s use of frequent breaks in training, I find this provides an opportunity to relax, reflect on what has just been shown and practised, and to record notes. So, I give lots of breaks if only because learning Tai Chi requires a lot of concentration which is surprisingly tiring, as Bruce Frantzis observes,
“Tai chi is one of the most sophisticated methods of integrated whole-body movement that humans have
created. All parts of your body are supposed to move together at the same relative speed. In all movements,
no matter how tiny, ideally each individual joint is directly and simultaneously linked to and moves in
coordination with every other joint in the body.”
Following extensive treatment for throat cancer in 2006 I wound down my involvement with ba gua and returned to tai chi with Wudang /Practical tai chi chuan. As part of my rehabilitation I attended Alexander Technique Lessons. From this experience I was surprised to discover just how much tension I had in my body even after many years training in tai chi and bagua. I continued daily practice of AT, particularly the Semi-Supine position with the 'Whispered Ah', and feel I have acquired a better understanding of the concept of ‘letting go’, or maybe it was just a better understanding of tai chi’s concept of ‘fang song’. In any case I try to incorporate this understanding into my teaching, exploring various exercises that might facilitate more loose and correctly structured activity. For example, ‘Rocking’ to establish a sense of being centered and shift the weight down, this is developed further by stepping forward and rocking. This exercise I also use to explore the turning of the hips in stepping forward and back in the Hand Form. This orientation to being loose and relaxed with a sense of being in the body is something Peter Ralston has explored in ‘Zen Body Being’, and it’s something I believe facilitates an ability to ‘feel’ one’s way through the form. ‘Squatting’, as demonstrated by Yun Yin Sen I teach to help learners learn to sit into the coccyx (beginning style) and strengthen the legs and facilitate rooting.
I guess that’s where I’m at. I continue to explore the potential for the practice of Tai Chi to engage people and raise their awareness of the reality of ones body-being and the difficulties that arise from constantly living in ones head, not least being out of touch with the sensation of the body in motion.
Finally, as Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki tells us,
“After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid,
extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always
little by little.”
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind