Monday, July 27, 2020
How do I know if my Tai-Ch Solo Form is correct?
With all the free time, and worry and stress, of the CoViD lockdown, many people have had more time and impetus to practice Taiji. Much more than when they were busy with their old lives. I have been getting asked a lot, "How do I know if I'm doing it right? Without coming to class to get corrections and lessons, am I moving away from the correct path?"
The first few years of my study, I was very concerned with knowing if I was doing it right, "getting it", and asked my teacher, Master T.T. Liang about this many times.Unlike weight-lifting or running, I had no increase on the barbell, or better time for running a mile, or a black belt to measure my progress. Here is what Master Liang told me, with some additional ideas from Grandmaster Wai-lun Choi.
Right from the beginning, Master Liang always used the Taiji Classics, writings from ancient masters, to be a rule and guide for how to learn, practice, and master Taiji. He told us that his teacher, Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing always taught that if your Taiji followed the classsics it was correct. If it didn't, you would stray from the path and gradually lose all the benefits. So, one way to see if you are doing it correctly is to see if you are doing Taiji as the Classics instruct. Here is one example:
"Take steps like a cat walking"
Check your steps and landings while doing the solo form. Are they soft, silent, and in balance? Do you have control over when and where you place your foot? Do your steps keep your breathing calm and smooth, originating in your lower abdomen? If you answer yes to these questions, you are following that classic.
If your steps are hard, loud, uncontrolled, and cause your breath to rise up into your chest and speed up, you are not following that classic. There are many classics to help you get the principles and theories which you can put directly into your practice.
Another time Master Liang said, "When you finish your solo form, you should feel more comfortable than when you started." After one round your circulation should be free flowing, your breath deep and smooth, and you mind just a little bit more clearer and calm. I paraphrased it to, when you finish, you should be more comfortable owning a body, or having a body.
One time Master Liang told us about a most profound example of if "it's correct." His 150 Posture Solo Form takes between 17 and 20 minutes to perform. During this time you can experience various depths of meditation and focus. This form begins with the heels together and the toes to the corners, a Natural stance. It ends with the feet shoulder-width and feet parallel, a Wuji stance.
Master Liang told us that one time he did the form, he didn't know if he did it or not. He couldn't remember if he was starting or finishing. He had no recollection of any postures. He looked down and saw his feet were parallel! He was at the ending position! He told us this was " complete emptiness of mind and body for 20 minutes." Like being on automatic pilot, with no distraction from outside, or inside. He ended by saying, "Can you do like that?"
You can check your own level of meditation by seeing if you are swallowing or blinking. See if your are using your rational mind to keep the sequence, or your intuitive mind, your spirit.The Classics say, "All the movements are to be directed by the consciousness within, rather than by the appearance without."
Of course, one way to see if you are progressing is to go to class, either group or private, and get corrections. When I would get a correction and thank him, Liang would say, "No one can see the dirt on their own back!" CoViD will end, or become less dangerous, sooner or later. When it does, go to your teacher and have them take a look at your form. It doesn't need to be the whole form, they can help you after seeing only a few postures.
Gradually with enough corrections and practice, you will be able to "self correct." An old practice method was to do the solo form three times in a row. The first time just do it for fun and joy. The second time look for mistakes and postures that need correction. The third time, correct and fine-tune those movements.I also heard to do the investigating first, corrections second, then enjoy the third.
With all the technology available, you can film yourself and correct your postures from the outside. Imagine that is a stranger you are watching, and write down what you see that needs refining, tuning, or correcting. Maybe your teacher can Zoom, Skype, or remotely give a lesson or corrections.
My teacher, Grandmaster Wai-lun Choi taught that we have a gauge, an internal thermometer, or indicator, that shows us whats going on in our posture. It's our breath. His main teaching is summed up in his oft repeated axiom, "Don't bother the breathing." When your breath is deep, meaning low in your body, and smooth, meaning relaxed, that shows you your movements are correct.
If you align your bones with gravity, your muscles will relax. When your muscles relax, your oxygen need is reduced and your breath will become deep and smooth. When your breath is deep and smooth, your mind will calm down and you will get all the benefits for your body, mind, and spirit.
Incorrect alignment, tense muscles, disjointed movement or independent actions will show up in your breath.If you find your breathing is high in your chest, mouth open, shoulders up, panting, short breaths, or you are running out of energy, Master Choi would say you are bothering your breathing.
Another way to know if your practice is correct is if your are getting the full, or many of, the benefits. Master Choi would ask us, "Do you want to work for eight hours and get paid for four?" He would say that if you practice correctly you will get all the benefits. So what are some of the benefits?
-Deep, smooth, slow breath
-Loud ( if you want it ) voice
-Shiny, bright eyes
-Soft, sure, firm, steps
-Healthy appetites for food, sex, learning, sleep, life
If you are experiencing many of these your practice is correct. If you are practicing for self-defense and martial arts, can you defend softly, control inexplicably, and attack suddenly? Then your practice is correct.
For weapons, if your shoulder, elbow, wrist or all three get tired and sore, you are not using your whole body and your practice is incorrect. Using your whole body to wield your sword, saber, or spear, is the correct method from the classics. If you can move your weapons easily, without strain or bothering your breathing, your weapons forms and practices are correct.
I hope this helps you, clarifies your practice, puts your mind at rest, and inspires you to continue. I leave you with a lesson I received over 30 years ago, in Boston, at the feet of the Master.
"Don't be concerned with being as good as Yang Lu-Ch'an. Don't try to reach his level. Just practice."
-Master T.T. Liang