Tai Chi: The Path Toward Mastery

Mastering Tai Chi

In this lecture, we’ll get acquainted with the overarching principles of tai chi. Rather than being a strictly physical martial art, tai chi relies on a combination of the mental and the physical to create a harmonious set of movements. We’ll also touch on the tai chi routine we’ll be working on throughout the rest of this course.

Introducing Tai Chi

  • Tai chi means “harmony,” the best thing in the universe. Tai chi chuan is the “secret” art of harmony. Harmony has many benefits, including health, longevity, creativity, self-protection, self-confidence, success, and relationship benefits. The ultimate goal of tai chi is to achieve a lifestyle of harmony, balance, and inner peace.
  • Tai chi has a rich tradition of organizing principles. These principles originally passed orally from teacher to students. Eventually, they were written down and collected into the tai chi classics. Principles of Tai Chi Chuan

Principles of Tai Chi Chuan

  • Tai chi chuan (also known as taijiquan) is a beautiful Chinese moving meditation, self-development philosophy, and martial art that is practiced all over the world by people in almost every country and culture. How is it that all these people can practice it so consistently and with relative uniformity? The answer is that tai chi is based on a definite set of organizing principles, universally recognized by tai chi practitioners worldwide.
  • The “authority” on these principles is called the tai chi classics, a compendium of short essays and notes supposedly written by the tai chi masters of the past.
  • The principles of tai chi are the distilled teachings of the past masters and creators of this art. They express not only the organizing ideas for the physical structure of the movements, postures, and martial techniques but also how to use tai chi for personal development.
  • All of tai chi—meaning reading the classics and practicing the form—is both literal and metaphorical. It is external and internal. And in both cases, the interpretation must be practical and effective. There is a reason that tai chi is called “a living philosophy.”
  • When you read the classics, read it with an interpretation that substitutes “life situation” for “opponent.” Or better yet, remember that the most challenging opponents you will ever meet are your own doubt, fear, and prejudice.
  • The remarkable thing about tai chi is that it is philosophy for the whole person. We learn this philosophy with our bodies by learning the movements of the tai chi forms.

Image of Lady Practicing Tai Chi in Living Room

Getting Started

  • The tai chi forms introduce you to basic principles through the agency of your body, as well as your thinking mind. Such a principle as “alignment” can mean many things, both literal and metaphorical. But tai chi takes the approach of giving you a chance to experience alignment—feeling it in your body, comparing that feeling to the feeling of misalignment, and finding out the consequences and side effects of misalignment.
  • The forms are also a rehearsal method, a portable classroom that you take with you wherever you go. They come in various lengths, styles, and levels, from easy to advanced. The routine we are learning in this course is known as the Yang style 40 form

The Bow Step

  • The first basic position to learn is the bow step. This is a lunge position in which the front foot carries 60 to 70 percent of the body weight, and the back foot carries only 30 to 40 percent of the body weight. The toes of the front foot point straight forward; the toes of the back foot turn in at a 45-degree angle. Both knees are bent, softening the outer curve of the leg position and rounding the inner thighs and groin. Finally, there is a “channel” or gap between the two feet, as though you were standing with each foot on a separate rail of railroad tracks.
  • Each time you step out to create a new bow step, you will pay attention to the roundedness of the legs, the weight distribution (we call this distinguishing empty and full), and appropriate adjustment of the feet

The T-Step, Empty Step, and Holding the Ball

  • The next position is called the t-step. In this position, you are essentially standing on one foot. The other foot is placed—toes lightly touching the ground—right next to the supporting foot. From below, this position is supposed to look like an inverted T.

○ In actuality, the t-step doesn’t really exist. It’s not a stance or martial position. It represents a midway point during the transition between many of the moves in the tai chi routine. It is the most yin position between the yang of the previous and upcoming techniques.

○ You can stop in the t-step to catch your balance or rest for a split second, but most of the time, you glide through this space on the way smoothly to the next step.

  • The empty step is a foot position in which you stand on one leg, similar to the t-step. Here again, all the weight is on one foot (called the full foot). The other foot (the empty foot) has no weight on it. The empty foot is in front of the full foot, with the ball of the foot lightly touching the floor.
  • A basic position of the hands is a posture called “holding the ball.” Like the t-step, this is a transitional posture rather than a final position of an actual tai chi technique. In fact, you’ll often make hold the ball above and form the t-step below at the same moment. The position is created just as if you were holding a big beach ball against your chest. The two palms face each other. The top arm lines up with the collarbone, and the bottom arm lines up with the top of the pelvis. The arms are held a bit away from the bottom to make the position three-dimensional.

Image of hands in a Tai Chi Stance

Questions to Consider

  1. What is the one thing you have done the most for the longest time in your life?
  1. What is one thing you wish you could do that you have experienced the least in your life?
From the lecture series Mastering Tai Chi
Taught by Professor David Dorian Ross, International Tai Chi Instructor