As an intermediate student. regular practice becomes more important. Although I have had students who have learned the whole form while only practicing in class, their form remains shaky and uncertain in comparison to those who practice regularly. Remember, I am not saying that you have to devote hours a day to this – even when you know the whole form you’ll be able to go through it in 12 – 15 minutes. Traditional Chinese advice on this is to practice an hour at dawn and an hour at sunset (when the chi strongest are balanced), but most of as have difficulty clearing that much time out of our schedules! I like practicing in the morning and have been starting each day with 20-30 minutes of T’ai Chi for almost twenty years now. Regular practice will allow you to integrate T’ai Chi more deeply into your life and you will learn extraordinary things as you persist. Essentially, you need to find the level and time of practice that fits well for you.
At this point in your learning, the different ways to practice should be more and more in your awareness. At first we practice to learn the movements and their sequence. Here the focus is on memorization and doing the external postures, movements and sequences correctly. This kind of practice requires focused attention and repetition of chunks.
It can also be extremely useful to practice single moves, both the transitions and their end points. Ideally, we continue to practice in this manner even after we have learned the basic sequence and postures, making the movements ever smoother and more deeply ingrained. By holding a given posture for 15-20 breaths and really relaxing into it, you will make a more accurate template of that posture which allows a deeper experience of the form.
Once we’ve learned a given sequence, however, we are more free to do the movements for sheer enjoyment and flow. Personally, this is the foundation of my practice. And there are lots of ways to play with the form, including allowing yourself to free associate and improvise using the form as a foundation for moving in a way that feels deeply right for you in the moment. As you’ve probably heard me say, the form is like the scales we practice in learning to play an instrument, we learn them in order to play our own music.
As you get even more comfortable with the movements, additional issues arise that can benefit from the repetition and polishing of the first type of practice. This goes back to the various different reasons for practicing in the first place that I mentioned in the first handout (you might benefit from going back and rereading that now). At different times we may feeling interested in the health benefits of T’ai Chi, or the martial applications or the exercise or meditation value. Whatever aspect is drawing your attention can be used as a focus for a given practice time. When I practice in this manner, I will usually do the entire form with an issue as the focus. And when I do this, my movements will reflect my focus – a martial practice session will not look like a breathing practice session, or meditation or rooting or whatever else. Also there are often particular movements that catch my fancy which may work especially well or badly for this focus and I will often stay with those for a little longer.
In the course of making the T’ai Chi form more and more your own, allow yourself to experiment with a variety of ways to practice. Try it at the beach, in the wind, on rough surfaces, by moonlight, with your eyes closed, to various types of music. Play with expressing mood and emotion through your form or making sounds or doing it in the pool. In order to really get yourself hooked on this practice (which you know is good for you), it’s necessary to allow as many different sub personalities or parts of yourself to play with it is possible. The whole organism has to get an opportunity to experience T’ai Chi and come to a place of welcoming the practice into your life and heart. So let yourself be free to be wild and crazy or however you want to be in the moment. Those people who practice from a place of “should” alone rarely persevere long enough to really make T’ai Chi their own. Being a pretty goal oriented, driven kind of guy, I use shoulds a lot in my life. My T’ai Chi practice is best, however, when I leave my shoulds at the door – I’ll often use the sense of should (my will) to get me to start, to clear the mental and physical space to practice, but then that part’s job is done and it is time to be present and enjoy and play with the movement.
As an experiment, make a commitment with yourself to practice more frequently or longer for a given period of time. Then use your will to help you keep the commitment even when you don’t feel like it. Notice that nine times out of ten by the end of your practice time you’ll be glad that you did it. So, practice, learn and above all have a good time!