Here are a few tips to guide you when practicing Taijiquan on your own. These tips are meant as a supplement for those who have prior grounding in Taijiquan for at least 1 month. However, we still stand by the importance of a good instructor to check your postures for reasons of health as well as to avoid injury, until the time when you have acquired a certain level of mastery yourself.
First and foremost – CONENTRATION and CONCENTRATION. We cannot emphasize this more. You need to concentrate on getting your posture and body alignment correct in order to keep your Qi, or internal energy flowing smoothly through your body. When you are able to find a posture that is not only comfortable to yourself but you are able to hold that stance stably (firmly), then Congratulations! you have found your foundation of power.
Below are a couple of pointers that might help you nail down that elusive position which would give you stability and keep you firmly rooted into the ground.
- Try to move your center of gravity so that it is resting over the supporting leg. That is, the leg which is taking most of your weight. Next, try to relax yourself into the stance by imagining that your weight is a ball sinking all the way into your feet, and into the ground.
- Make sure that your knees are slightly bent with your lower back held straight.
- Your shoulders should be relaxed, without being rigid. They should be moving naturally at ease within the shoulder sockets, even if you raise your arms (remember not to exceed shoulder level!), both shoulders should be on a level with each other and not with one shoulder raised.
- Finally, your head should be aligned with the spine, as if suspended by a string.
One way to get the ideal horse stance may be to take a stool (not a low stool, but those you normally find in the kopitiam (coffee-shop) and sit on it with your back straight, eyes forward. Once you are seated comfortably, then shift your center of gravity onto either your right or left foot. Get someone to pull the stool from under you. And that should be your proper stance. Having developed your proper stance, it means you have found the proper kua position. Significantly, it means you can literally practise continous sets without a break and not feel the strain. Of course, this is not some magical ability, your body will tire physically. It just means that you can practise longer sets than normal, by optimizing the use of your energy.
As a beginner, when you are not familiar with the routine, the learning curve is steeper as you have to remember not only which movement comes next, but at the same time, you will be trying to ensure that your body adheres to all those bodily requirements. It is a tremendous task! So if you are just beginning, it is helpful for you to practise the movements as slowly as you can. When you slow down the movements, it allows you to become more aware of your actions and to gain control over them. At the same time, practising slowly helps calm you down and helps erase any tension in the muscles.
Our Masters have always told us, "Breathe naturally!". Although many books (or Instructors) state that a particular pattern of breathing is practiced, trying to do this before you have attained a sufficient level of mastery in Taijiquan would only set you back. So when would a student be ready to start focusing on breathing more? To test if you are ready, do this "simple" test. Get someone to place both hands with an index finger from each onto your abdominal area. Next, get that someone to exert pressure in one finger into your abdomen, leaving the other lightly resting on the surface without any force. If you have managed to reach the level where you can control the Qi within your body, you should be able to propel the force-exerting finger out, by virtue of directing your Qi at the point of force. Don’t worry, when you have gained sufficient mastery, you will notice that you automatically breathe in harmony with your movements. This comes with regular, sustained practise.
FOCUS (MIND INTENT)
To make our point firmer, here again, we emphasize CONCENTRATION or MIND-INTENT. Clear your mind of any worries and just concentrate on the movements themselves. You should ideally be free from all distractions. Don’t simply practise mechanically the external forms without thought about the movements. As you practise, always keep the requirements in mind, and think about what the movements mean, how they are used (martially), and how the line of energy (and Qi) originates and transmitted through your body.
There is a constant balance at the core of all movements. Balance comes when you are able to control your upper limbs such that they are moving in tandem with the lower limbs, at the same time using your breathing to match the pace of your movements. For beginners, the movements are awkward as the different parts of the body are moving at the wrong speeds relative to each other. For example, your arms might have finished drawing that loop whilst your legs have yet to complete the step. This creates a break in the flow of movement. The goal is to complete the entire routine as if it were one, single continuous movement. This aspect is a little tricky to give pointers on as you need a good teacher to guide you and correct your execution of the moves when you practise. One single movement could comprise of many finer dong or actions. Further, you need to be mindful of the speed at which your hands, or upper torso is moving in relation to your legs and kua.
Notwithstanding the finer intricacies above, Taijiquan is an art which is deeply fascinating, which will yield long-term health benefits for the persevering student!