I have written this article for students of Surrey and Hants Tai Chi to provide clarity on what they should be focusing on at each stage of their study of Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan.
This information comes entirely from what I have learnt through ongoing training with my own teacher Master Wang Haijun and from his Teacher, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, (CZL) via his books, which are a highly valuable resource and which I recommend to anyone serious about learning Chen Style Tai Chi - available from our Webstore or in class.
First of all: Surrey and Hants Tai Chi class levels
I have structured SHTC class levels to correspond with the 'Steps and Methods of Training' set out by Grand Master Chen Zhenglei. For clarity, I have named the different levels of our classes. These are: Beginner, Beginner plus, Improver, Improver plus, Intermediate. I'll talk about how they correspond with CZL's Steps and Methods a bit further down.
The names of the our class levels should not be taken as 'badges' (or belts) to attain. One should not be in a rush to move out of Beginners since the name serves only to identify the level of class so that students know which other classes they can attend and have continuity of learning. For Example, anyone in a Beginner Level 1 class can attend a different SHTC Beginner level 1 class and understand what is going on. However, Beginner level 1 class at SHTC may be different to a beginner level 1 at another school - It is not a universally accepted 'grade'.
The class levels also emphasise that there is a STRUCTURE and PROGRESSION in learning.
Clarity preceeds Excellence -Train the Mind to Train the Body
If you've attended classes for some time, you'll have heard me talk a lot about clarity. We have to be very CLEAR in our minds of WHAT is required, in order to train those principles. Whether or not we will ever reach the standard of 'Excellent' remains to be seen, but the path we are walking should be with our hearts and minds on that direction, nonetheless.
Learning from a point of clarity means that Tai Chi Chuan isn't aimlessly wafting from one shape to another, but constantly (and that's micro-second by micro-second) checking, analysing, realising, and changing what we are doing with all parts of the body at once, so that it corresponds with a prescribed list of TAI CHI PRINCIPLES, handed down to us from the past Masters
Now there is a considerable list of principles: 5 main ones, 12 pretty important ones and some others, depending on who you ask... we'll get to them below.
In ALL PRINCIPLES the MIND must be calm present and tranquil. Before starting practice take some time to relax, set aside the worries of the day, soften the breath and settle the mind.
It is not possible for beginners / improvers / intermediates to learn and train ALL principles at once and so, as per traditional methods of training, different principles are focused upon within the different levels. The same principles should also be the focus of students own practice.
Setting out what is trained when, and how, is the main purpose of the rest of this article.
SHTC Beginner level 1 - CZL Stage 1(a)
Discovering Oneself with fresh eyes!
The PRINCIPLES we will be focusing on are:
1. Ding Jin (head upright / body centred)
2. Xu-Shi (empty /full - weight distribution)
The EXERCISES we focus on in order to practice the PRINCIPLES are:
Stances: 70/30 bow stance - left & right and 90/10 empty stance left /right / front-back-side variants
Stepping: forwards backwards sideways
Directions - how the direction of the pelvis /hips affects whether we are stepping forwards, sideways and how sometimes we have the illusion that we are stepping sideways when we are actually stepping forward-ish! Keeping Ding (1) means keeping hips and shoulders level, not leaning and keeping head erect.
Hand shapes - palm, fist, hook (Zhuan, Chuan, Gou)
Specific Loosening Exercises - GM Chen Zhenglei's set of exercises to loosen the body
Relaxing the body whist practicing - at this stage, just the intention to relax and doing your best to soften a little is adequate -we'll be looking more at this in Beginner Plus stage
Introduction to Silk reeling movement - legs only and one handed reeling in 2 planes:
1.Zhong Mian Chan Si - front aspect silk reeling
2. Ce Mian Chan Si - side aspect silk reeling
Common problems at this stage are sticking out the chest or bottom, tensing the shoulders and leaning or collapsing when stepping. However, don't worry too much about these just yet - all of these are the result of weak legs and will be addressed / be naturally corrected) when your legs have strengthened sufficiently through just doing the movements.
This stage is mainly concerned with learning the first 9 movements of the 18 form: stepping in the right direction, shifting the weight at the right place, learning the stances and 'choreography' whilst keeping the body upright.
By the end of Beginner level students will have learnt (committing to mind and muscle memory, rather than having to follow) the first 9 movements of the Chen 18 form (a DVD is available to practice at home) with correct direction, understanding full and empty in the stances - ie how much weight is where and when, and keeping Ding (upright and centred) at all times. Beginner students should aim to practice at home for half an hour a day, four or five times a eek, or more.
SHTC Beginner Level 2 - CZL Stage 1 (b)
(Intelligent use of Oneself)
The PRINCIPLES we shall be focusing on are:
1,& 2 introduced in stage 1a -
3. Song - loosen and relax
4. Yong Yi - Use the mind
5. Chen Jian Zhui Zhou - relax shoulders and sink elbows
3. Song - the progressive loosening of the joints via the joint loosening exercises will incease the amount thaat we are able to relax the body. Switching off muscles that are not required for the movement, rather than hunching shoulders, tightening the chest etc.
4. Mind: The danger is that once the first half of the form is committed to memory, the movements aren't given as much mindful attention. This is something we have to avoid at all costs because Mindfulness is absolutely vital to developing good Tai Chi Chuan. Therefore we slow down the movements so we have time to notice when the mind is actively leading the movement vs those moments when we are on 'autopilot' . A good question to get into the habit of asking yourself, at any second during the form is 'what am I /should I be doing right NOW'. Have I got Ding and Xu/Shi in correct proportion? If you don't know -make a not to ask in your next lesson.
5.Shoulders and Elbows - the shoulders must stay down and not be lifted up, the elbows feel as if they are drawwn downwards towards the knees with elastic.
The Exercises we will learn to practice the Principles are:
Strengthening the legs via Silk Reeling and form work:
Individual postures from the form,repeated again and again S...L...O...W...L..Y will cause the thighs to ache. This aching is the result of loading previously under-used muscles. There is no way to get strong legs without "going through the training" says Master Wang. This stage of training is called 'Chi Ku' or Eating Bitter. To quote the Masters "Make no mistake about it, right practice means aching legs'. Do your legs ache? If yes, congratulations ) if not - train for longer! NB: KNEES must not hurt. If your knees begin to hurt ,this probably means that your posture / technique is wrong. Stop training and ask me in class.
Relaxing the body whilst under pressure - you can practice this in class, in your own practice, in the slow moving checkout queue at the supermarket, in the dentists chair, in traffic etc - a skill for life, not just the classroom
Double Handed Silk Reeling (Shuang Shou Chan Si) consisting of: Zhong Mian-Front aspect, Ce Mian- side aspect, silk reeling wth stepping , Peng Lu.
We will continue to add more movements to the 18 form,concentrating on learning correct choreography and then applying the principles.
Beginner stage 2 ends when the 18 form has been committed to memory and can be performed with good understanding of the individual postures. Although the requirements of the postures may be understood, it is possible, in practice, that they may not all be apparant all at once, as the mind is still only capable of watching one or two things at a time at this stage. Students are aiming for clarity in class and using this clarity to train at home. Progress will be evident depending on the amount of practice put in. Generally you will have learnt the 18 form (to memory, with understanding) a year from when you began to learn Tai Chi. Remember the aim of practice is not only to learn the movements and encompass the principles, but to strengthen the legs via fatigue. There are no shortcuts. Go train some more!
Improver Levels 1,2 & 3 -CZL Stage 2
The Way of the Body - Controlling all parts of the body at once
The PRINCIPLES we focus on in these three levels are:
1-5 introduced in Beginners 1 and 2
How to adjust the joints to manifest expanded round elastic buoyancy in the body- this includes other sub-principles - Han Xiong Ba Bei - sink / soften the chest to expand the 'bow' of the back and Chen Jian Zhi Zhou - sink (open) the shoulders and drop the elbows to create the 'bows' of the arms, Song Kua Ruan Dang - relax the hips and open / round the groin and knees to create thebows of the legs. A 'Bow' shape (think archer) is able to store and transmit energy.
Developing sunkenness and rootedness
EXERCISES we employ to train the PRINCIPLES in Improvers level 1 are:
1) Zhan Zhuang - Standing Pole exercises - to quieten the mind, strengthen legs, build Qi at dantian
2) Silk Reeling exercises, peng lu ji an, tilting the back, dragon lands like a sparrow, reverse silk reeling
3) Chen 18 Form practice in a lower stance
4) Pushing Hands -Partner work to develop sensitivity and rootedness
We also move on to learning a new form - the traditional 74 movement form taught in Chen village. Each section of the form (6 in total) refers to a different SHTC Improver level:
Learning Section 1 of the Chen 74 Laojia Yi Lu Form in IMPROVERS 1 level
Learning Section 2 of the Chen 74 Laojia Yi Lu Form in IMPROVERS 2 level
Learning Section 3 of the Chen 74 Laojia Yi Lu Form in IMPROVERS 3 level
all the time focusing on the principle applicable in this, and previous levels.
Students entering this stage will have committed the 18 form to memory and be practicing the form at least 10 times a day, or more (not necessarily in one go) assuming they are serious about developing true Tai Chi Skill. They will be developing a strong Xia Pan (lower body) *
Ideally students will be challenging their brain by making some effort to recognise some of the form names in Mandarin (sometimes you only need one keyword to link to a posture) Form names in Mandarin are used in our classes and aare encouraged, since when students go on to study with Master Wang Haijun, he will refer to the movements by their proper chinese titles.
We are aiming for awareness of the body as a whole in this stage - being away of what the right shoulder is doing when I take a step to the left, being aware of my right hip as I shift left and keeping Ding and Chen at the same time... etc There is a lot to learn and train into the body in this stage, which will take about a year before moving onto the next stage:
Improver Levels 4,5,6 Stage - CZL Stage 3
Adjusting the Way of the Body to feel the Internal Energy (Qi)
More Principles are added to 1-7 introduced previously, although we continue to utilise and develop those looked at previously, throughout our learning:
8. Shang Xia Xiang Sui - coodinate the whole body - upper body moves in conjuction with and cooperates with the lower body - using the Kua more, feeling the connections throughout the body
9. Xiang Lian Bu Duan - continuous and unbroken - in this stage mainly referring to the movements, but ultimately referring to the flow of energy - which we are training towards
In this stage the gross 'beginner errors' in the movements have been corrected and previously learnt principles are becoming well trained into the body, feeligmore like second nature. We are now paying attention to the FEELING of the form. Instead of having to apply the principles methodically and logically by brain power and 'rote' we are now starting to FEEL when something is wrong because we lose the pleasant 'full' and limitless feeling that is sometimes present. This feeling is the movement of internal energy, or Qi. Suddenly, one day when practicing we will discover a pleasant feeling of fullness or movement within the body. We will find it again -occasionally, here and there, coming and going, seemingly outside of our control, which can be frustrating. But remain patient. With more MINDFUL practice the feelings come more often until they begin to be there more than they are not. At this point we start to realise what it is that we do, or don't do, in the form, or in standing practice or when silk reeling, to 'get' (or allow) the feeling of Qi to be present. This is an exciting time for students as their hard work in the past year or so is being rewarded. Practicing slowly, not allowing ourselves to get caught up in the feelings and looking at and applying the principles learnt beforehand to the places where the feeling is LOST will improve skill in this level.
This stage will take a year whilst we refine previousy learnt movements and complete the second half of the 74 form. THE 74 FORM then becomes our main vehicle to achieve more skill
Improvers 4 level - Section 4 of the form
Improvers 5 level - Reviewing sections 1-5 (section 5 is a repeat of section 2) we will spend a little time before moving on to section 6 to improve errors
Improvers 6 Level - the last section of the form
Intermediate 1 Level - CZL stage 4
The boundaries of inside and outside merge & everything* works together
(* everything = heart/mind/breath/energy/body/movement)
Although we are still working on some of the principles from previous stages, there are two more principles to embody
10. Nei Wai Xiang He - internal (mind / energy) and External (body / movement) are harmonised
11. Dong Zhong Qiu Jing - Seek stillness and tranquility in movement
Practicing very slowly using micro adjustments and tuning in to what's happening in the body (ting jing - listening skill) we can tweak the movements very slightly to get 'the feeling' we found in the last level more easily / frequently - sometimes all that is needed is extending the arms, levelling off or relaxing the hips, releasing tension in the lower back, softening the chest or lightly pressing the toes onto the floor. We come to see our own errors, to be our own teacher, rather than relying on our own teacher to point our errors out to us all of the time. (But we still need a teacher!!) Eventually stiffness in the movements subsides and the abundant Qi feeling will be there all or most of the time. When this is achieved very little physical effort is required - the form almost seems to 'do itself' guided by the mind and assisted by the breath. Although the body will sweat, we will not become tired or short of breath and will often feel euphoric and energised or else very tranquil and rested after practice :))
Qi - comprising of a yin force and a yang force, always seeks to create balance, therefore it manifests in the body (provided it is not hindered by stiffness or incorrect posture or scattered mind) as just what we need at that time, leaving us in a state of health and harmony.
GM Chen Zhenglei advises: "In every form and every posture, the focus should be on using the mind to guide the Qi and using the Qi to move the body in a smooth and natural way... There must be no contradiction...for example it is problematic to swing the arms too quickly when the body movement is slow..." Master Wang would tells us at such times that the connections (alignment of the Qi meridians/ pathways) are 'broken', so the energy will not flow and power cannot be issued. Joints must point to joints he often tells us. Going back to GM Chen Zhenglei: " During this phase of Tai Chi development, the focus in on the co-odination between the mind and the form. That means the heart, the mind, the qi and the form should all be connected" he says.
In my recent experience, when Qi flows fully when doing a form it feels as if the physical boundaries of the body have melted away and internal Qi has merged with the air and ground surrounding and supporting the body. Wowzer!! This feels overwhelmingly mind-blowing and yet very familiar and secure at the same time, like something lost and re-found :)
Feelings experienced in this stage may be tingling or even stabbing feelings in the fingers or other parts of the body, a feeling of heat and swelling in the skin and a sinking feeling at the dantien. I experienced a very strong sensation of burning at the soles of my feet - and a very sharp stabbing in my fingertips - both to the point of moderate discomfort. Both have subsided now and a feeling of warmth and throbbing and mild static electricity tingling is felt at various places in the body. Everyone, so I hear, experiences slightly different phemonima but the secret is to stay focused on the practice and not get carried away by the feelings.
SHTC Intermediate students will be attending Master Wang's London seminars.They may also start to learn Cannon Fist (2nd Routine of Laojia) and weapons routines, but the main focus of their study will be on Laojia Yi Lu.
Intermediate 2 Level
Students in this level will also be attending level 1 classes for Laojia Yi Lu / Er Lu practice
SHTC Intermediate Level 2 denotes a weapons form class
There are six more steps in Chen Zhenglei's training methods. You can read about them in the book Chen's Tai Chi Old Frame One and Two, if you wish :)
A bit more about Training
Traditionally in Chen Village, students would spend 8 years on the 74 form and then learn all other forms in just 2 years. Because the principles were so ingrained in them by that time the other forms came 'easily'. Master Wang says that Laojia Yi Lu (74 form) is like the main course of a meal - it is the bit that will nourish and sustain you, it must not be skipped in favour of dessert- which he said refers to weapons forms training.
By the time students start learning Laojia Yi Lu, they should be practicing every day. This might be one or two sessions of an hour or more. At least 5 (74) forms a day are recommended and Master Wang says 8-10 forms a day are needed to really develop skill, although not in one session. Traditionally, in Chen Village three sessions a day are spent in training, normally around farming duties or school.
For students who are only just starting laojia, then the 18 form should be practiced, for at least an hour a day, to develop strength and understanding.
Mindset in our approach to training
Quantity vs Quality or How Many vs How Long
We are all different. What works for me may not work as well for you, so try different apporaches. In my own practice I have found that the 'Quantity Oriented' approach to practice - focusing on a set number of forms, doesn't work well for me. Aiming for 'x' number meant that I would use the time available just to 'bang out' forms towards that number goal, rather than selecting areas of my practice that I really needed to analyse, correct and re-train. If my target was 10 forms and I only did 7 then in my mind, the 7 would be irrelevant and i'd just berate myself about the missing 3, resulting in feeling that i'd failed. Repeat that 7 days a week and you can imagine I would be feeling pretty bad about myself after a short time, and I was losing the motivation to train! DISASTER!
So now I have switched to a TIME oriented approach.
I aim for 2 hours practice a day (This is an achievable goal). In that time I will loosen, practice silk reeling slowly and mindfully, stand for 20 minutes or so, do one or two Laojia Yi Lu to thoroughly warm up and then look at specific movements within the form which Master Wang has corrected me on recently, or places where my breath comes up in my chest, or where I wobble a bit etc. I will do these movements 15-20 times over once I find the correct feeling. I might then practice the Cannon Fist form, once slowly and once quickly and / or a weapons form a couple of times. I normally finish with another Laojjia Yi Lu. Some sessions I practice Xinjia in place of Laojjia. But at no time am I thinking I MUST do 'x' forms, looking ahead to completing a number goal. Instead i'm looking at QUALITY of practice at every moment within those 2 hours. Result - I DONT end up feeling like a failure, and I feel motivated and encouraged to train next time because I can see an improvent here and there. This MOTIVATES me to practice again. This also suits my 'learning type' - see below
What motivates us to learn - (aka the carrot or the stick)?
Last year I took part in an experiment in Guildford Uni where I was connected to an EEG machine that read my brainwaves whilst I performed a series of tests on a computer. This involved picking one of two shapes, based on that which I deemed to be the 'stronger shape'.
For example: I was shown a square and a triangle. At first I picked one at random as there was no way of knowing which was the most superior shape. My answer was flashed up as correct or incorrect after each answer, displayed as a big red X or big green tick, the size of the screen. Different shapes and kanji characters were added as the test went on and it continued for half an hour.
After the tests were done, they explained that what they were measuring was my response to receiving a tick or a cross and in particular whether I learnt (the correct answers) from being told I had got something wrong, or from being told I had got something right.
I felt that I have always learnt more quickly when trying to avoid a 'punishment' (the 'x mark) rather than seeking a 'reward' (the tick), but the results of the test proved overwhelmingly the other way - That I learnt (remembered) the right answer 83% of the time as a result of being given a tick (reward) whereas i only learnt (remembered) the correct answer 17% of the time after being told I had the wrong answer (punishment) - remember this is just a simple a choice of two shapes, one is right and one is wrong, there are no other outcomes. The rearcher said this shows that the desire to gain approval /be a success / get a reward was my driving force rather than the fear of receiving disapproval / failing / being punished. Interesting!!
So applying this to my own traning, if I set myself up to feel like a failure (Quantity Oriented) then I am also limiting how much I will learn (17% rather than 83% as the test suggests). If I set myself up to gain a reward- a good feeling about myself for having done "the available time" of useful practice regardless of how many forms I did in that time, (Quality Oriented) then I will also have learnt a lot more. Nice one!
Of course different people's minds work in different ways and although this is right for me, maybe you will find it more encouraging to have a number goal to work towards in your training and you may find that the fear of failing to reach that goal will motivate you even more to succeed. Food for thought anyway. Basically If one way doesn't work for you, switch to the other
Ultimately my aim is to be free of the mind's desire for gain and fear of loss...but that's an article for another time....
OK It's stopped raining now so I'm off to get some more carrots :))