A Metaphor for Practicing Tai Chi
by John Super,
ATCQA Certified Tai Chi Instructor (Level I), published in February 2018
Water is often used as a metaphor to describe Tai Chi. Water is soft and forgiving, easily susceptible to change. Yet water is hard and powerful, able to carve and destroy the most resistant of obstacles. Fish swim easily through water, but the inexperienced diver suffers pain from the accidental bellyflop.
In teaching the principles of Tai Chi, I like to use water as a metaphor to help remember and then internalize the fundamentals of Tai Chi. We know that Tai Chi is an "internal" art and that it leads to many health benefits. How it works is the subject of ongoing research by physiologists and neuroscientists that will gradually help us to understand the science of Tai Chi. In the meantime, we can work on some of the principles of Tai Chi that help us realize a more meaningful experience.
The following sequence has helped others remember some of the fundamentals of Tai Chi as they practice shortened versions of Sun and Yang style Tai Chi. More athletic forms such as Chen will require a modified metaphor. As a beginning guide, maybe it will be of use to you as you practice the form.
Visualize standing at the edge of a slowly moving stream of cool, clear water. Relax and breathe slowly and deeply, not forcing the breath but comfortably inhaling and exhaling. Keep the neck, shoulders, and hips in alignment. With the feet together and hands softly at your side, sink and slightly bend the knees. Feel firmly rooted and at the same time suspended, almost as if you are connected by a thread to the heavens. As you relax and quiet the mind, begin to experience looseness in the muscles and joints. If you think of the softness of the water, it might help to internalize a softening of the parts of your body. Do your best to quiet the mind as well as relax the body. For some, this is one of the most difficult challenges of Tai Chi. If you sense the clarity of the water, its stillness, even if it is slowly moving, it might help to quiet the mind.
Now step gently and softly into the stream. Feel the water against your feet, legs, and arms, almost as if you are moving against a very slow current. Step lightly as you move in the water, and sense the contact with the stream bed. Walk with a slightly diagonal step, insuring that you always maintain your balance. When moving, experience the transfer of weight from leg to leg and foot to foot. As you move, maintain your posture and visualize each step, insuring that your mind and body are in harmony. The power that you experience as you move will come by concentrating on the dantian, which at this point you can think of as your lower core. It does not come from the arms or hands; they will move in a natural and relaxed way, deriving their own power from the movement of the dantian.
As you step softly against the current, if you are comfortable, try to move continuously, each step flowing into the next without any halting or jerking. Each part of your body is connected to the other, and as the Tai Chi classics remind us, when one part moves, all parts move. All is a unified and harmonious whole. When one part is still, all parts are still. As you move, do so in a rounded, almost circular way. Direct extension and locking of the joints is contrary to most forms of Tai Chi. If the muscles tighten, let the water relax and loosen them.
With each move, you are directing the feet, arms, and hands, almost as if the mind is an extension of each part of the body. Intent is always a part of the Tai Chi form. If you are mindless of what you are doing, you are not doing Tai Chi. The mind/body connect is essential, and is what distinguishes Tai Chi from other forms of exercise. Tai Chi is often described as meditation in motion. This is appropriate and reminds us that we are mindful of what we are doing. Awareness is the key here, knowing where and what we are doing. This is probably one of the reasons that Tai Chi is so effective in preventing falls. You are not only strengthening your muscles and improving your balance, you also know where you are and where you are going. As your mind wanders, bring it back ever so gently to your movement and the stream. Tai Chi is still a martial art, and the martial artist is always conscious of physical and human surroundings.
When you finish the form, imagine that you are at the end of the stream and standing under a waterfall, experiencing the soothing effect of the water. Relaxed and rejuvenated, you are ready to start again, and move slowly, softly, continuously, in a relaxed and rounded way through another set of Tai Chi.