How to get the best from your Tai Chi

The most obvious advice is….practice.

No practice, no improvement. Simple as that.

A little and often can be more productive than trying to manage special time to do a lot at once. (If you can, that’s great, but be realistic.) The most common excuse is “I don’t have time”. Well….make time….a little time.   Ask yourself if everything else in your life is more important than your Tai Chi (?) If you’re not sure, ask yourself why you’re learning Tai Chi and what you want to get from it.  Is what you want really less important than everything else in your life?                                                                                                                    So, perhaps start with just a couple of minutes occasionally whilst waiting to do something else; practice a movement we’ve been doing in class, when a convenient opportunity arises.

Also, often heard is “I’m afraid of getting it wrong”.  What is there to be ‘afraid’ of? Just have a go at practicing something as best you remember. It can be corrected later, when we meet in class. If you’d like me to check what you’ve been doing and see if it needs some adjustment, just ask before or after class. I’ll always be pleased that you’ve made some effort and be happy to help!

It’s really not possible to learn Tai Chi, or get much healthy benefit, by simply turning up once a week for practice. You’ll only get out of it what you put into it. No ‘excuses’. The more you put in to Tai Chi, the more you’ll get out of it.

There are many DO’s and DON’Ts. Here, we’ll focus on the DO’s to avoid errors and problems that can hinder getting the best benefits from your Tai Chi practice.

1:  Follow ALL of your teacher’s instructions. This may seem an obvious thing to do but surprisingly, some people don’t. It’s quite natural to forget details occasionally, but all instructions are there for a good reason. They aren’t optional suggestions. Please don’t ignore any instructions because you find them difficult to do, don’t fully understand, or just don’t like them (yes, this does happen!)  If you’re not sure about something, don’t be afraid to ask for further explanation. If you’re not comfortable doing this during group practice, ask during a break or before/after class.

2:  LISTEN to your teacher’s instructions carefully, and don’t be misled by your eyes deceiving you (which they will often do)!     It’s essential to follow instructions precisely and not interpret them as meaning something else. For example, when beginners hear the instruction “relax your hips” (in opening preparation – ‘sinking’), they will usually bend their knees instead,  focusing on a more obvious visual detail. Now the instruction has been interpreted as something quite different. In this example, the student leans backwards and the muscles stabilizing the hip joints tighten up to maintain balance, which is the exact opposite of the original instruction. If an instruction isn’t fully understood, ask for further explanation. Don’t do something else instead. (Although this recommendation mostly applies to beginners, improvers must still follow this, otherwise little faults can become bad habits.)

3:  “More is less….but less is more”   Adding extra movements or making them bigger, higher, wider or lower (than your teacher’s) is NOT ‘better’. Just the opposite; it’s making the movement more complicated. This usually happens when students place too much emphasis on their hands, which are the least important part of the overall body movement. Furthermore, as arms extend (losing shape/structure) and hands move further away from the centre of the body, shoulder muscles tighten as they have to work harder against gravity, instead of relaxing and softening. Consequently, the movement becomes less fluid; the opposite of what’s supposed to be happening. Similarly, ‘flappy hands’; creating tension in the wrists and fingers, doesn’t add anything positive to the posture. ‘More’ is not ‘better’….. ‘less’ is better. Pay close attention to your teacher’s movements and don’t add in anything extra.

4:  Focus on lower body movement as your priority.      We can easily become distracted by our arms/hands and forget that Tai Chi movement begins with correct positioning of the feet, progressing through the legs and hips and pelvis, to direct the body into position. If these movements aren’t working, the body will be out of alignment and excess arm movements are added, trying to compensate for the errors. The result is the addition of even more mistakes and a poorly constructed posture which can also inhibit smooth movement. Practice some lower body movements occasionally, without using your arms. (Refer to the article Stepping or controlled falling). If the lower body movement is working correctly, the arm movements will follow in the correct direction and a good posture will be achieved.

5:  Develop independence gradually.      When doing group practice of the form, pay some attention to what you are doing rather than fixing your attention entirely on your teacher’s performance. Beginners will naturally need to watch what the teacher is doing, but there’s the danger over time of becoming over-dependent on your teacher and not paying enough attention to your own performance. Aim to develop ‘independence’ by gradually reducing how often and the amount of time you spend referring to your teacher. You will start to become more aware of your own body movement and begin to really ‘feel’ your Tai Chi.

6:  Vary your viewpoint     It’s a characteristic of human nature to be ‘territorial’. We like our own space and are quite prepared to protect it. So, it’s not surprising that people stand in the same place in class every week.  That presents a genuine problem with observation (and limits learning).  If you view the activities from the same viewpoint and never change it, how will you know if you’re missing important details, or misunderstanding something?  We live in a 3-dimensional world but, like a camera, our eyes collect information in 2 dimensions. The brain has to ‘fill in’ the rest and interpret this ‘flat’ information into a 3-dimensional whole. Same as looking at a photograph; we see a subject in front of a background but can’t accurately judge depth or distance.  So in class, the only way to evaluate movement in 3 dimensions is to vary the viewpoint and give the brain more information to work with.  Look at the image below. Self explanatory, isnt it?

Perspective                                                            Also, look at these 3-D postures from my main website.   The figures in each one are identical. Despite what you may think, the model never changes. The only thing that does is the viewpoint.  Examples of how changing the angle can often give a misleading impression.  Simple optical illusions.  So, from time to time, stand somewhere different.  Confront your ‘territorial instincts’.

7:  Focus on positive thoughts and rid yourself of ‘Self Limiting Beliefs’                 These are the worst enemy of everyone who wants to get some health benefit from Tai Chi.  The most common examples are:

“I’m no good”

“I can never remember”

“My co-ordination is useless”

“My balance is hopeless”

Such thoughts are all part of the human inclination to stay in the security of the ‘Comfort Zone’. They are ‘self-limiting beliefs’ and stand in the way of you getting the benefits of Tai Chi practice.  Get rid of them!  You don’t need them !


What are the advantages of clinging to your self-limiting beliefs?

What are the disadvantages of letting them go?

8:  Use the learning resources provided – regularly.      These are to help you develop your learning and appreciation of Tai Chi. Read the articles here, not just once, but regularly to remind you of the points you need to remember and focus on improving. Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and watch the video clips available on the website: You can pick up things from watching as well as from practicing. Follow some links to read more on other websites. You can access my public Facebook community page ‘Tai Chi & Qigong students‘,, look at the regular postings of video clips, links to articles, and other items of related interest. (This is a public page, so a Facebook account is not necessary to view the content.)

9:  Remember that any Tai Chi form or sequence is merely an expression of underlying principles.     Movement, softness, balance, alignment, posture, co-ordination, control, mindful attention….Without expression of these qualities, any Tai Chi form is just empty, pointless and meaningless ‘choreography’. Make sure you don’t fall into the common trap of becoming too focused on Tai Chi ‘forms’ (choreography), whilst neglecting the principles.  It’s these, not ‘choreography’. that can improve quality of life and benefit health.

Gareth Davy  American College of Sports Medicine: Health/Fitness Specialist

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