A blog about the intersection of Tai Chi, Zen and Dao. I hope that you find something of value for your own practice.

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Monday, 24 February 2014

Rich's 3 S's of Tai Chi; Sequence, Structure and Shen - Part 1

When you first enter a zen centre, if you have never been there before, you have to learn what the "rules" are.  Essentially this involves finding the answers to simple questions like, where is the entry to the zendo? What time does the sitting begin? How long is the sitting period?  Who do I bow to and when? How fast is the Kinhin line? When I go to see the Roshi or head of the centre, how many times do I bow?  and the list goes on...

It is critically important that you learn the answers to these questions because if you don't, then every time you come to that zendo to sit in meditation, you will create disturbances that may disrupt other sangha members' zazen and your own practice will be in constant disarray and confusion. In a very real sense, you have to learn the sequence of events.  Then you can begin to relax and work on other aspects of your zen practice.  Structure is the next important piece and some would argue that sequence is unimportant, that structure is everything but for now, bear with me on this. 

So, the structure of zen practice.  You have to learn how to sit properly.  It doesn't matter if you use a cushion, a seiza bench, a chair, whatever.  How you "hold" yourself physically while doing zazen is also an important part of the practice.  Where do your hands go, what position can you place your legs? Are the eyes open, closed, half-closed? Does the left hand go on top of the right hand?  Where are the hands held during Kinhin, how far do I step?  How far should I be from the person in front of me?

And lastly, how you work with your mind and energy (or chi) is important.  If you are given koan practice, you need to know how to do that.  If you are counting and / or following the breath, then you need instruction on how best to do that.  Your teacher will give you instruction in these parts of the practice, when you are ready for them.  

So just like Zen practice, learning Tai Chi also progresses along this same 3-fold path: Sequence, Structure and Shen.  I call these the 3 S's of Tai Chi.  


In most Tai Chi classes, you will be taught a form which is a series of postures that you move through from beginning to end.  Some forms have as little as 8 postures and some have as many as 108 postures.  It doesn't matter how many postures; if you want to practice that particular form, you have to learn the postures and the order in which they proceed.  That is the sequence.  

Different instructors teach differently and what I do is to have a warm-up Qi-gong session (which also has a sequence of postures) and then I lead my students through the form, calling out the moves as they come up and giving directions for how to move hands and feet, etc.  So I take them through the whole sequence, beginning to end.  I like to do this because then they can see their ultimate goal, get a brief exposure to all the different movements and how they transition to each other, see how long the form takes to do and begin to get a feel for what it's like to go from beginning to end.  

Other teachers take a different approach; they have a very formal class schedule. Class one starts at the beginning and each time the class meets, the next posture is taught so in week 1, you only learn the 1st posture, in week 2 you learn the 2nd posture, etc. so by the end of week 8, you will have learned 7-9 postures depending on how fast or slow they teach and the ability of the individuals in the class. 

There's no right or wrong way between the two methods.  I've had instructors use both methods and they both have their advantages and disadvantages.  I just prefer the first method for my own style of teaching.  

Once we go through the whole form, I then take the inexperienced students aside and we concentrate on learning a move and how to get into it from the previous move.  At this stage, with inexperienced students, I ask them to concentrate on learning the sequence and don't worry too much about any of the physical details of the posture.  Often my experienced students will join in both to refine their own sequencing and to give me a little help with the inexperienced students. 

Most folks have all they can do to just learn the sequence at the beginning.  As long as they are not falling over backwards, and doing harmful things to themselves such as bending the knees so that they extend past their toes, I don't worry too much about how things look, where their hands and feet are, etc.  Just memorizing the sequence is enough!

And that's enough to think about for now.  In Part 2 we'll look at structure. 

In Gassho to your Tai Chi beginner's mind,



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