GUIDELINES FOR BEGINNING A TAIJI OR QIGONG PRACTICE
 
I write this from the perspective of a physician of Chinese medicine (acupuncture, Chinese herbs, medical qigong, and related bodywork). Because my main focus is on health and longevity, I practice the martial aspects of taiji in a more limited way than someone whose taiji focus is as a martial art. For the same reasons of health, longevity, and for personal and spiritual cultivation, I also practice qigong extensively. Accordingly, the opinions I share with you here may differ from those of someone who is primarily a martial artist.
 
Considering Taiji
If you who have the genuine desire, the motivation, and the time to devote to learning taiji, I wholeheartedly encourage you to begin studying this beautiful martial art. It’s a relaxing, energizing and pleasurable way to improve your health, reduce stress, promote a calm, clear mental focus, and extend the healthy years of your life. As a martial art, it’s also an excellent means of self defense, and because it’s a soft style martial art, it’s relatively gentle on your body.
 
Millions of people practice taiji daily for its many well-documented health benefits. However, depending upon your personal circumstances, it might not be the best practice for you, or possibly just not the best place for you to begin a course of study. Take a few minutes to read through this article, to understand a little more about what taiji really is, some of its benefits, and what is involved in learning it. If you’re unfamiliar with qigong, take a look around the rest of the site to learn more about that as well, and consider what you read about it here. Then assess what your genuine needs are, and make a more informed decision in determining if learning taiji will serve you best right now, or if another related practice might be a better place to start.
 
People often choose something just because it’s more familiar, or because it’s recommended by someone they trust. In the west, most people are still more familiar with taiji than they are with qigong. This includes the majority of US health professionals (M.D.s, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc.) who may recommend that their patients or clients study taiji to improve their health, usually as an adjunct to healing a back or joint problem, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, or improving balance. While it’s true that taiji is very useful in helping to address these things, has other distinct health benefits, and may also be practiced to include meditative and spiritual components, taiji is primarily designed as a martial arts style of qigong. Every movement, no matter how peaceful and dance-like it may appear, has a fighting application. Even if you choose never to work on those applications, at some point you will need to at least learn what they are. This is necessary in order to learn taiji well, to be able to practice the movements more precisely, and to be able to direct your energy (qi) in the manner in which the form was created to do. If you are not able to move your qi in your taiji practice, you can only do what the Chinese refer to as practicing an “empty form”. It may look very nice, but there is no power contained within it, and consequently you won’t achieve much of its health benefits, let alone its martial power.
 
In beginning a course of study, you should know that taiji has an extensive and complex choreography. As important as the choreography is, it’s the most external part of the form, and a only small part of what learning taiji involves. The choreography of a short form may take many months to learn, while long forms typically take one to three years. Because it’s likely you’ll mainly learn the externals in that amount of time, you may still be practicing an empty form at that point.  Then you can begin to learn the deeper aspects involved--the empty form can be thought of as a type of container waiting to be filled with all that comes next, the internal aspects of the taiji form that make it so powerful.
 
Many people practice the external choreography for years and never get passed the empty form. At that level of practice, you may still find that taiji is very relaxing, and may be useful in improving balance and coordination along with providing at least a few other health benefits. Some modern teachers have created very short forms of only six or eight movements as a fast, easy way to accomplish just such purposes, and this may be part of the reason why even in contemporary China, taiji is often (erroneously) viewed as a practice best suited to the elderly. Taiji is popular with the elderly  because it helps address many of the problems associated with aging, and has a rejuvenating effect.
 
Because taiji  is such a wide-spread, versatile practice, some teachers will try to encourage all people to learn it regardless of their circumstances. Sometimes a teacher just wants to have more students, or sometimes it may be the only approach that particular teacher knows. Often a well-intentioned teacher makes that recommendation with the belief that once a person begins to study taiji, they will experience some of its benefits and develop a real passion for it, just as the teacher did. That can be the case, but just as often a student will become disappointed or frustrated once they learn of the amount of time and effort that must be invested in order to really learn the form, and they wind up quitting. That’s an unfortunate outcome for those people, since they might have otherwise been directed to a practice better suited to their immediate needs and circumstances.
 
Considering Qigong

If you have a back injury, high blood pressure, or other more serious health problem, taiji will help heal those conditions, but only after you’ve learned to practice it diligently with at least some degree of skill. If that’s your main reason for learning taiji, you should know that there are qigongs and other types of Chinese self-healing exercises that will specifically work to remedy those health problems. Since qigongs are simpler to learn than taiji, you can begin healing much sooner than you otherwise might. Frequently, the skills you learn in a particular qigong may be incorporated into a taiji form if you choose to learn taiji at a later time. In fact, traditionally in China, people would learn qigong before learning taiji, or they would include other qigong and gongfu training along side of their taiji training.
 
One of my main teachers, world renowned martial artist, qigong master and daoist lineage holder Master B. K. Frantzis has observed,  “There are many very powerful martial artists who are not very healthy individuals.” Practicing a martial art, even with a high level of skill, may not be the most direct way for you to become more healthy. Another of my teachers, Master Hong Liu, who is a good martial artist, but whose focus is on healing (he is a qigong doctor and cardiologist) and spiritual cultivation, has made a related observation: “If you get migraine headaches or have a chronic back ache, how can you sit in meditation for more than a short time?” The message is, regardless of whether your main interest is in fighting, longevity, or spiritual cultivation, getting healthy or staying healthy should be your first priority, since that will also allow you to better accomplish whatever other goals you may have.
 
These are some questions you may want to ask yourself:
1. Should I learn taiji now?
If you’re relatively healthy and want to learn a martial art that is gentle on your body, will help sensitize you to more subtle aspects of your being, and will make you stronger, more supple, increase your energy, and improve your health over time, the answer to this question is yes. Under those circumstances, there’s no time like the present to begin learning taiji.
 
If you’re facing a moderate or significant health challenge, the most honest answer is “maybe”. It would depend largely upon the nature of your health problem, your desire to learn a martial art, and the amount of time you have available to invest. Your teacher’s focus and training must also be considered. You may get more from learning a style of medical or daoist qigong that will specifically address your health needs first, and then learn taiji a little later.
 
2. Should I learn taiji at all?
If you are interested in taking more responsibility for your health, well-being, and longevity, you should learn some form of qigong, and that can include taiji since it’s a martial arts style qigong. These practices have been researched and developed for just such purposes for thousands of years, and I’m not aware of any other practice that will do that job as well as qigong.
 
Some vigorous, active westerners, especially the younger ones, have difficulty slowing themselves down enough, which really means quieting their minds enough, to do some of the entry-level qigong health and longevity practices. Those qigongs typically do not involve so much external movement, and the moving practices are usually balanced with quiescent ones. Taiji would be a good place for that person to begin, since its more involved choreography will give your mind more to be occupied with. Over time, taiji practice itself will help to still your mind, which is necessary if you want to make any real progress.
 
3. Should I study a short form or a long form?
You can get most of the health benefits of a taiji long form by learning a short form. Short forms are extracted from long forms, usually minimizing the amount of overt martial content and more difficult movements such as low bends and low punches, kicks, and spins on one leg, and eliminating all of the repetition that you’ll find in a long form. In fact, in 1937, professor Cheng Man Ch’ing developed the Yang style short form, which is the most popular taiji form in the U.S., specifically to keep the general population of China healthy and strong during its war with Japan.
 
For those less interested in the martial aspects, for those whose bodies are less flexible and open, and for those who currently have less time available to commit, a short form is a good choice to begin with. Even for someone who’d like to learn a long form, a short form is still a good place to begin since you’ll be able to apply everything you learn to the long form when you learn it later. If you want, you can get a similar workout in a short form by repeating it a number of times, so you’d spend the same amount of practice time as you would on a long form. Running through the short form numerous times each practice session will give the added advantage of allowing you to work on difficult passages a few times each day.
 
The long form has all the martial content intact, is more physically demanding, and has a more complex choreography requiring a substantially longer time to learn. While there may be some exceptions, in general this is a practice best suited for a more serious, devoted martial artist. There are some added health benefits to the long form, in part due to the more physically demanding nature of the practice, which will increase your level of fitness. You use more muscles than you do in a short form, and you use them in more varied ways. As you layer in more components (bending and stretching, lengthening tissues, openings and closings, wrappings, etc.) you also move qi in more varied ways than in the short form, with all the implications that go along with that. But remember, for general health, doing the short form, especially if you practice it enough to do it well, is all that most people need.
 
4. How do I know if qigong might be better for me?
 
Respecting everyone’s individaul needs and desires,  here are a few guidelines to consider.
 
First, on a practical level you can only do what you have the time and physical capability to do. If your life is very busy and you can’t make much time for yourself, then learning qigong makes more practical sense, since typically it will require less time, at least in the beginning, learning stages, than taiji. Remember though that “gong” means “effort you put into a practice over time”, so some time commitment is involved. If you have a significant physical restriction, you may find a qigong that will suit you, or you may find a teacher who has the understanding and ability to modify a qigong practice to accommodate your needs. Almost all qigongs have the inherent flexibility to be modified for the individual. Although possible, this can be more difficult to accomplish in taiji, due to its more involved choreography.
 
Second, if you have a specific health problem you’d like to work on, it’s more likely that you’ll find a qigong that will help you to directly address and heal that, since there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of qigongs, and most have specialized purposes. Restoring or improving health as soon as possible is always a high priority.
 
Third, depending on where you live, you may find someone in your area who only teaches taiji (more likely) or qigong. In that case, you have to take what’s available to you. It’s all good, even if some practices may be better than others for your immediate needs. If this is your situation, another option would be traveling to study at a weekend or week-long workshop in the subject of your choice, wherever it’s being taught. This becomes a reasonable option if you are motivated enough to continue practicing what you’ve learned on your own once you return home, especially if there’s not a teacher in your area to work on the same material with. Along these lines, some teachers offer private instruction to students who travel to see them, when workshops may not be available. This gives you the advantage of being able to study exactly what you need and when your schedule permits.
 
If you’re mainly interested in improving your health in a general way, having more energy, reducing stress, and increasing your longevity, and you have the time, then either taiji or qigong may work equally well for you as a starting point. If you choose taiji, a short form would be a good place to start. After you have a little experience with either taiji or qigong, you may choose to include a second practice, which may support or deepen your existing one.
 
If your main interest is in the martial arts, high performance athletics, and high-level fitness that involves increasing muscle intelligence and not just strength, then taiji would be your best first choice. Frequently, teachers will include qigong or gongfu as part of this type of training, to augment its benefits and add another self-healing and power-building dimension that might otherwise be missing.
 
For higher levels of healing (for yourself and others), for a specific focus on longevity, and for spiritual cultivation, qigong is arguably the best place to begin, and as you get deeper with it, you may choose never to learn taiji. Daoist qigongs are designed to promote longevity, and some more advanced qigong practices are a direct bridge into meditation (in the daoist traditions).
 
As you continue your practice over time, which is really how these things are meant to be done, you will find yourself becoming transformed. The skills, sensitivity, perception, good health, and calm focus that you cultivate in your practice will begin to pervade your daily life, and your practice will become a way of life for you. Then, among other things, you’ll develop a sense of which practices are best for you to add next as you progress along this path, and which may be dropped or de-emphasized once you’ve outgrown the need for them. Becoming that involved may not be your personal goal, and the practices will most certainly provide many benefits before reaching that stage. However, for those who are interested in deeper cultivation, this is a reasonable goal for anyone to attain after a period of diligent practice.
 
I hope this has been helpful for you in deciding where to begin or to move to in your next level of practice. If you live in the Boston area and are interested in any of the courses I teach, please feel free to contact me and we can discuss what might work best for you.

 


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