Sifu Dawn's Thoughts and Answers to Common Questions
Sooner or later, nearly every student comes to me and asks me how they can develop discipline. Some ask me if it's something I can inspire in them directly, hold them accountable for, or help them to attain. Unfortunately, I don't have a magic wand I can wave and grant you discipline. I like to say that discipline is a choice, your choice is based on your priorities and your priorities are based on your value system. You must ask yourself, "What do I want, and why do I want it?" What does it mean to you? True achievement in Taijiquan requires skill. The development of skill requires diligent practice. Diligent practice requires discipline. Therefore, the development of a disciplined practice is motivated by the desire to develop a skill. Well, now you must ask yourself, "how badly do I want it?" How much you want the skill is determined by how much you value the skill.
Every martial artist will eventually come across this statement: "if you miss one day [of practice] it's like missing ten days." You might even hear: "it is better to miss sleep than to miss practice." In my 20+ years of martial arts I heard both of these statements...a lot. I was recently asked by a student if he should take this with a grain of salt; he was feeling guilty for missing a day of practice. We as teachers realize that these statements can have a tendency to foster obsessive behavior and feelings of guilt for the average westerner. It's important to not only remember the culture that this sentiment originates from, but WHY it persists. To have discipline is a very highly valued trait in Chinese culture and it has, historically speaking, been a indication that you honor the art/skill, history and ancient masters of the art/skill, your teacher, and yourself. Take a moment and recall your high school days, did you do your homework diligently because you honored the subject, your teacher and yourself? Most likely if you were diligent and disciplined in your studies it was for the love of the subject, reward of a good grade, fear of consequences, the approval of someone important to you, and/or the accolades of good old fashioned competition. So, if our value systems are so different from east to west: reward vs. honor, why do we still teach this statement? I will answer this in three parts.
1.The process of Qi cultivation is cumulative. Every time we practice we are adding a single drop of water into a bucket. It will take several weeks before we have enough for a swallow of water, months before a drink of water, and much longer before we can quench our thirst and the thirst of others. Now, consider this...every day we are also using our qi during our activities of daily living. Think of this daily use as the sun shining down into our bucket causing each precious drop to slowly evaporate. Our mindfulness during practice (how we practice), our mindfulness of our spiritual walk in our daily behavior (how we live), and our discipline are akin to placing that bucket in a shady spot to protect it from evaporation. Every action has an effect. This is what I am referring to when I talk about our choices having a price. Do you cultivate and then squander your practice, or do you cultivate and guard it with right actions? Do you add to your bucket and place it in the sun or in the shade? Do you neglect your bucket and not add to it daily? If that is the case, what happens when you get thirsty? Meaning, what happens when you remember that this is important to you and you feel like you've let yourself down? That begins the detrimental process of guilt and shame: two great barriers of true progress. You must stop this now! The time you spend beating and chastising yourself, you could be practicing!
2. To develop mastery of any skill requires focused intention and repetition. Any art, any skill, any practice requires focused and intentional repetition in order to develop and approach the perfection of that skill. I could throw a basketball up in the air towards a basket every day, but if I'm not focusing and intending to get it in the basket every time, am I still developing the skill to become a great shooter? My intention to make it in the basket will cause me to reevaluate my technique both when I make it and when I miss. In a culture that loves its rewards it can be difficult to persevere when one more drop in a five gallon bucket doesn't look like anything at all. It can be easy to get lazy and complacent. I find that it's more productive to think of your practice as something you get to do versus something you have to do. This minor difference can transform your approach to your practice from being a chore to being something that you look forward to doing daily. Additionally, from a practical point of view, the more intentional (disciplined) your practice is, the faster you will improve. At this point you have another choice: will you practice Taiji as a habit, like just throwing the ball in the air? You can do that mindlessly. Or, will you practice the fully present disciplined art of developing mastery every day?
3. All 3 bodies must be trained in order to develop discipline, a process very different from forming a new habit. The three bodies I am referring to are our physical body, our energy body, and our spirit body. All humans are naturally lazy. All of us. Most of us have developed habits of being lazy and talking ourselves out of being lazy without even realizing it. For example, nobody wants to wake up early and get to work on time, especially when you had a late night, didn't sleep well, or can think of more enjoyable ways to spend your mornings. But, we know that there are consequences we are not willing to endure if we don't get up. Now, take a look back at your daily activities before you began this practice, was there a moment of your day that was not filled? Were you watching tv, working, reading, exercising, cooking, talking to people, talking to yourself, etc., etc.? Every moment of your day was filled and you made choices (consciously or unconsciously) about what you filled your time with. How many of those choices were actually habits? How did you develop these habits? How did you choose what to do with your time? Consequences can be a huge motivator! Notice whether you feel better about yourself when you practice versus when you don't. This will give you insight into your value system. Forcing yourself into a new habit means finding the will to do something new every day. This also means creating the space in your day for the new activity. Usually, in order to create space we have to give up something else. This is no small task. A habit is developed by simply making a choice over and over until you no longer have to make the choice and you just do. You are likely to go though a period of time when you have to force yourself to stop doing one thing in favor of your practice. Eventually, if it makes you feel good to practice and you're telling yourself that you get to practice instead of have to practice, then missing one day suddenly becomes a choice instead of the other way around. If you are choosing to miss a practice, don't beat yourself up about it, just acknowledge that something else was more important to you that day. Your choice is personal to you and I would like to encourage you to do your best to stop judging it. If you continue to feel guilty when you choose not to practice it might be time to reevaluate your value systems that are prioritizing your choices. Ask yourself again, "How badly do you want the skill?" What does it mean to you? Why, in a day with 24 hours, can you not give yourself time? When you can tell yourself what you value and why, your choices will be directed from that self awareness. There is a spirit of discipline that is very different from a habit. Be cautious of turning your practice into a habit. A habit can eventually become an unconscious decision. Discipline is something that we remain mindful of and that we hone in order to refine a skill. You can practice a habit without awareness, whereas you must be present and put forth sincere effort to refine and improve a skill. A habit can involve only the physical body. Discipline to refine a skill requires the focused intention of the spirit body to make use of the energy body in order to create a transformation in the physical body. This is kungfu.
So, when we, as disciplined instructors of martial arts tell you that if you miss one day it's like missing ten days, we're not looking to make you feel guilty for not practicing; we're asking you to make a conscious decision to practice in consideration of how much you value mastering the skill. We value the skill and hold it in the highest esteem. With a skill, everyone knows that if you don't use it, you lose it. Our greatest hope is for you to obtain mastery; for in attaining mastery of the skill and art of Taijuquan, you will in fact be mastering yourself. The potential skill you can develop has infinite possibilities. You don't have to do it, you get to do it. Practice with the joy of the moment, the focus of your spirit, and the curiosity of a child and Taiji will open itself to you. I love Taiji. It is a joy for me to practice every day knowing I can continue to improve infinitely! That's exciting to me! I am a better practitioner today than I was yesterday, but I'm not as good as I will be tomorrow. I love that. But, that's just me ;)
Wishing you a joyful practice,
2. What is the difference between Taijiquan and QiGong for Health?
I used to get this question more often as a practitioner in San Francisco where there were so many incredible teachers and practitioners, all touting the superiority of their art for health and longevity. The simple truth is, the benefits you receive from any art you choose to practice will rely heavily not on what you do, but how you do it. Daily practice and discipline are a wonderful place to begin, but the mind-set and spirit in which you approach your practice will determine your outcome. A mind that is busy and preoccupied as you go through the motions will get you minimal results and you may as well invest your time in an aerobics class, which will also be great for your health! A mind that is intent and stays focused on feeling and sensing changes in the body, the energy, and the spirit will rapidly gain skill. 10 minutes of focused practice is 100x more valuable than hours and hours of practice with a scattered mind.
Sifu Li was fond of saying that "Taiji is QiGong, but QiGong is not Taiji." This is true! In order to understand this, you must know what QiGong is and how it is meant to be practiced. Qi means "life force," "energy," or "breath" and Gong means "skill" or "work." Often the breath is coordinated with a movement as the mind is focused on an aspect of the physical or energetic body in order to strengthen an internal organ, dilate the energetic channels of the body, or balance the energies of the internal organs, channels and protective wei qi fields of the body. There are many different forms and styles of QiGong and by practicing any one of them you can expect to gain health benefits and stress relief. Some people practice Taiji as QiGong, this will work too. However, Taiji is so much more. In Taiji there are aspects of QiGong, and we can see and apply the breath and movements in our practice in a similar manner. In name alone, QiGong is "breath skill" and Taiji is "supreme ultimate." This means Taiji has breath skill and infinitely more. Taiji embodies qigong (energy skill), neigong (internal skill), weigong (martial skill), and shengong (spirit skill).
First we learn the outer skill, or form, as the postures, principles, and root. Next we learn the martial skill and how each posture can be refined and applied. Then, as our posture becomes aligned and we are able to root and relax, we learn to feel the energy in our body and the body of the opponent. Most uniquely, taiji has a spirit that the most dedicated practitioner will discover if he or she is able to surrender and trust in the form. I hope this simple explanation will suffice in showing how qigong is part of taiji, and how they also greatly differ.
Ultimately, Taijiquan is something to be experienced and not talked about. Much like its Daoist roots, its name says everything and yet it cannot capture what it truly is. Sifu Li used to say that in Taiji you are a beginner for the first 10 years. I like to encourage my students to maintain a Beginner's Mind throughout your lifelong practice. Forget all about what you know or think you know and surrender to the experience and let it be new every day. I wish this for all of you.
I hope this has answered your question. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to know more.
3. Where can I find a video to follow at home?
Currently, there is no video that I recommend to review and follow along with at home. I have not made a video for the following reasons:
1. TaiChi is a lifelong journey and learning the form is just a part of the practice. The form is a tool to harness your mind to be more fully present, relaxed and grounded in your tissues. One can infinitely develop it so learn at the pace your body and mind allow. Keep coming to class and it will sink in. You have your whole life to go deeper.
2. For those who have trouble remembering the form this is what I suggest: focus on the principles of Relax, keep the weight in the back half of the foot, keep your butt tucked under, chin in, head up, and relax some more! Breathe into your lower dan tian. Then, even if you are doing the form out of order you will still be practicing the principles of moving correctly.
3. Every day is a new day and every practice is unique. We tend to be creatures of habit. If I make a video, students will tend to think that this is now how the form must be done all the time. The form can be developed infinitely and when I am focused on developing a new internal aspect, it will look different to one who is observing. TaiChi evolves just as we evolve, learn and grow. My form rarely looks the same or feels the same from day to day, moment to moment, beginning to end. Practice the principles and all will be well.
4. Follow vs. Feel. We do what we see. If you have seen the form you know we are turning left and right then around 180 degrees. If you are trying to follow the form while watching a video you will be more preoccupied with what you see on your screen versus what you feel in your body. You are developing your own practice. You must feel your whole body. Feel your feet connect with the ground, feel your heel push your hips to turn, move forward, or back. If you are watching, you do not feel.
5. You cannot get behind. There is no competition or comparison going on except in your own mind. Do not give any thought those who know more of the form than you, and do not mind those who are new. The class is currently cyclical; you begin wherever the class is in the form and if you keep coming eventually you will have the whole thing as we begin again. You will see it over and over. Each time we may focus on something new. Maybe for today we focus on feeling your feet, maybe next week we focus on keeping your butt tucked under as you shift and turn your hips, etc., etc.
Practice what you know, what you remember. Do not worry about what you think you do not know, you will get there when you get there. There is no finish line unless you make one for yourself. I do not recommend this. TaiChi can reveal your true potential as a human being, your potential to feel, to know, to endure, to heal, and to let go. Let the form unfold for you.
Be patient and learn to trust your body.