Refining Our Practice

When we begin learning tai chi we focus on the footwork first (bow step and empty step), then the arm movements, especially push and rollback. These are the skills needed to perform section one, begin to experience tai chi’s beauty and power, and enjoy it’s physical benefits including better balance and flexibility.

But there are other aspects or our practice we learn over time in order to "refine" our practice. There is the "lively energy" in our "gaze" as we follow the movement of our hands with our eyes; details of our fingers, shoulders and elbows we make use of as we take in that imaginary opponent.

This is the stuff that connects our practice in 2019 to six generations of Yang family members who created, reinterpreted, and refined the movements over 200+ years.

This is also where we can find echos of tai chi's even more ancient past. Influences from both Buddhism and Taoism reveal themselves in principles like empty and full--yin and yang--the Taoist concept that guides us in learning effective tai chi and actually teaches us how to keep our knees from getting injured. Martial arts roots are revealed in High Pat on Horse (warriors on horses). Snake Creeps Down and White Crane Spreads its Wings tell Monk Zhang Sanfeng's famous 1,000-year-old story, often described as the “origin” of tai chi at the Shaolin Temple. My current favorite move, Carry Tiger Return to the Mountain, describes a mythical and slightly mystical journey to a mountain, carrying with us our inner “tiger,” which by the end of the form we must “shoot” with a bow and arrow, maybe because we don’t need it anymore. It’s also one of the most beautiful and complex movements in the form.

You don't have to think about any of this to learn and enjoy tai chi. But it can be rewarding to do so.


It's always worth going back and reading the words by Master Yang Jun's very eloquent grandfather (also pretty well translated from Chinese).

Achieve the requirements gradually. Plan to work day by day. One day focus on dropping the elbows, the next day, the footwork. There is no end to this study. Gradually skill levels improve, the eyes become sharper and one is no longer satisfied with beginning efforts. Look, compare and evaluate. As understanding improves, dissatisfaction increases.--Master Yang Zhen Duo, from "The Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Essentials."

Why is the long form long?

Here at Tai Chi Montclair, we practice the Yang Family Traditional Long Form with 103 movements. We all begin learning the first three (Grasp the Bird's Tail) and work our way through the first section (16 movements), then the second and third if we are smitten. It takes a minimum of one year and for most two two or more to learn the whole thing.

Yang, as the most widely practiced of the five major styles, has had it's slight or not-so-slight modifications over the centuries, made by Yang Family sons and cousins and valued students (often called "disciples") who have themselves branched out across the world. Many of those branches have favored shorter forms like the well known "24" (which in fact was created by a committee in Beijing about 50 years ago, including several “Yangs” but also representatives of other styles). But the "long form" has stayed "long." So why? Our organization is grappling with this question itself, and in consulting some sources I find the answers are straightforward, exactly what I answer when asked:

  • You are partaking in something great that expands across the centuries. (Imagination is a powerful motivator for me.)

  • It's a good physical workout. (You don't go to the gym, do one push up and go home, do you?)

  • It increases focus as your mind can’t wander during the long form or you forget where you are.

  • The movements gently stretch all ligaments and tendons.

  • Greater repetition, especially of the harder moves, results in greater ability. Think: Grasp the Birds Tail.

The three sections get longer and more challenging and we can all develop abilities we might never believed possible! Let's seek to grasp that bird's tai every day!

This concise list of "reasons" was taken from Tai Chi Basics, a website based on the work of a doctor and researcher named Herbert Benson. I intend to explore him more. But instead of quoting him I'm going to quote who he quotes. Don't know who Lao Tzu is? That's a subject for another post!

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. – Lao Tzu

Anticipate the difficult by managing the easy. – Lao-Tzu

The Beginner's Mind

First, a reminder that classes will be a little different this week: There will be only one class on Monday, Sept. 23, at 7pm. Beginners welcome. There will be sword practice at 8pm.

I want to talk a little about the "beginners mind." I first learned this term when I was learning karate, but the term its roots in Zen Buddhism. It means that no matter what level of success you have achieved (like the Level 4 Copper Tiger), you should always approach your practice with openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions.

As soon as you learn the first section and begin to learn the second, you will need to--and want to--go back and "re-learn" the very beginning. Because you will have new understanding of and ability to perform the bow step, the waist movement, the roll back... Tai chi is complicated, we all know that. But I believe that our Tai chi long form is uniquely designed to teach us at the speed and depth we are able to "grasp" that bird's tail, and enjoy the physical benefits in the process. That's why we say that a beginner is learning do the form "approximately" right. An intermediate tries to become "standard," and an advanced student works toward "refinement." That process never ends nor gets boring!

--Judith Rew

New to Tai Chi?

Greetings, tongxuemen(students).

If you are reading my weekly e-letter for the first time you are probably one of the many new students who have joined our classes in the last few weeks. Whether you are taking class for exercise or relaxation, are fascinated by Asian martial arts, hoping for help with a particular medical problem, or just want to try something new and different, maybe with your spouse or friend, you are in the right place for the right reasons.

But I wonder how many of you realized before you began that it would be--well--hard? That learning Tai Chi involves actually "learning"?

You are not alone. Arthur Rosenfeld's great book Tai Chi The Perfect Exercise describes perfectly how it feels to start Tai Chi class, which goes something like this: You come for all those reasons but find yourself immediately forgetting which foot is left and which is right. You thought you were pretty coordinated but everybody around you seems like an Olympic athlete in comparison. You are frustrated but you try to do what the teacher suggests: most importantly relax and set aside all other thoughts in order to gently focus on the movements.

When the hour is over you feel kind of good! As confusing as it is you want to keep coming. Over the weeks you begin to find that little aches and pains are going away; that you are beginning to remember some of the movements; that you find yourself thinking about tai chi while you're standing in line at a store, taking a walk, in the shower!

So you look forward to class. You've discovered, says Arthur Rosenfeld, that Tai Chi is a "way of life" and you like it! Welcome to the Tai Chi life!


I was just introduced to the wonderful work of Robert Chuckrow. This comes from his article "Why Study T'ai Chi?" .

Frequently, people say, “I wouldn’t be good at T’ai Chi because I am so uncoordinated.” Actually, the more uncoordinated you are, the more you can benefit from learning and practicing T’ai Chi. Another thing that people say is, “It’s way too slow.” One reason it is so slow is that, if it were any faster, the mind would have trouble encompassing the many things that are going on. Also, once the movements have been learned, there is a natural rate of motion that coordinates the breathing and flow of something called ch’i.--Robert Chuckrow

--Judith Rew