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, 3 March 2014

Rich's 3 S's of Tai Chi, Sequence, Structure and Shen - Part 2


Let's continue illustrating with zen meditation practice and then move over to Tai Chi.

Ok, you now know a little bit about the sequence when when you go to your new Zen Centre.  You come in the door, take off your coat, hat, shoes (and socks if you like to meditate barefoot), Gassho when you enter the zendo, proceed to an empty seat, bow to the seat, turn around and bow to the meditators across from you and then sit down in your seat to begin meditation.  You know that the meditation period is 30 minutes long, then there will be a 10 minute walking (kinhin) session, then another 30 minutes of zazen, etc.... That's the sequence.  So what do you do while you're actually meditating?  

Now we come to structure.  First, you want find what kind of cushions work for you to give you the most relaxed, pain-free experience. That may take a bit of trial and error but you will discover whether you like hard, soft or medium resistance sitting cushions. And you may like cotton filled, air-filled, husk-filled, etc.  Many different kinds to choose from.   

Next, you need to determine your sitting posture - whether you're going to sit in full lotus, half lotus, seiza (using a small wooden bench), or a chair or some combination of the above. You want to get your head, spine and tailbone in a nice straight line so that the energy can flow and there is minimal tension.  Droopy postures will limit you in a couple of ways: they will promote pain and discomfort in your spine and they tend to lead to drowsiness, both of which are detrimental to meditation practice. 

Once you have your head, back and tailbone aligned, your feet and legs positioned, you then need to address how to hold your hands.  Most zen centres recommend either a classic "mudra" where the left hand sits in the right hand, thumbs just touching to form a nice circle of space or just placing the right hand over the left hand.  In both cases, your hands are positioned just a little below your waist with your thumbs at the height of your navel.  And your elbows are held a little bit away from your body.  There is an excellent description in Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  

As you can see, there is a lot to the simple structure of just how to sit during zen meditation and then all you need to do is maintain it for a certain length of time. Easier said than done!  But that's a discussion for another time...

When doing Tai Chi, we are constantly changing the position of our head, hands, feet, arms, legs, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, waist and torso etc.  So structure is the next stage of learning as we develop our understanding of Tai Chi practice and it's important to not have to worry about sequence when you begin to concentrate on structure.  I really like the KISS! method of learning -  KISS! stands for Keep It Simple for Students!  Structure can't be simplified until you already know the sequence.  So if you don't really know the sequence, go back and spend more time memorizing that!  It will pay off in the long run. 

Once my students have reliably memorized a portion of the sequence, we can begin to look at the structure of the form and the various postures. Here's a nice chart of the 24-postures Yang Style Tai Chi with simple drawings of the structure of the various postures.  There are others, just search Google images and you can find lots of different examples.   

You can see from careful examination of this chart how to hold the body, how to sink into a posture, how to move using the waist, where parts of the body move to, the timing of movement and all the other little intricacies of the structure of a given posture. But it's still a bit removed from the actual doing and the transitions can be confusing when just looking at diagrams.  That's where a teacher is helpful.  I also work with my students by demonstrating and practicing movement exercises with my them so they can get a sense of how postures transition in a fluid manner, without interruption; what the right hand does when the left foot steps forward, etc.  This is a very important aspect of Tai Chi and is also a bit of an introduction to Shen, but primarily it is  structure. 

What I have found is that if I try to teach detailed structures to my inexperienced students, it is too much for them to learn both the sequence and the structure.  And they get frustrated and discouraged and leave the practice.  I'm not just trying to keep new students.  It's more that I'm trying to remove the obstacles that frustrate and discourage them so that learning Tai Chi is a positive and reinforcing experience for them.  I want to encourage them and give them positive feedback on their progress because I know the long-term benefits they will get if they enjoy and practice Tai Chi.  Learning sequence is the 1st step on that path and is the foundation of my KISS! method. Once they master that step, then structure is appropriate and not nearly as difficult.  

Lastly, in Part 3, we will look at Shen, or mind-energy.  This is what underlies everything in Tai Chi, but just as in zen practice, you need to work with the 1st two S's before you can work with mind-energy. 

Remember, the most important thing of all is to keep playing!! 

We'll talk again soon,


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