The basics

classes     qigong     tai chi     kung fu     about us     reviews     a-z

Learn the basics

Tai chi students working through the lower grades need to focus on attaining fundamental skills through dedicated practice:

  1. Attitude

  2. Verbal understanding

  3. Hard work

  4. Deliberate practice

  5. Patience

  6. Increase your strength

  7. Re-train the mind

  8. Relax

  9. Open

  10. Connect the arms to the back

  11. Turn the waist

  12. Physical coordination

  13. Ergonomic body use

  14. Mobility

  15. Big

  16. Slow down

  17. Stances

  18. Forcing a result

  19. Ad-libbing

  20. Understanding

  21. Proof


Most new starters are not prepared for the reality of learning a martial art. They are expecting the skills to just be given to them... after all, they've paid the fee? This is a foolish and absurd.
Attitude is everything. It is the reason why most people never finish what they start. The skills are attained through hard work and daily practice. Just like learning to play the piano.

Teachers can only teach you to the level that the strength of your basics will allow them to. They can't do anything more, it's impossible.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Verbal understanding

Students read about tai chi or think about combat and get carried away speculating... But they cannot even stand properly or move in a coordinated fashion.
Their thoughts are scattered and their minds unclear. Reading information or watching a video is not the same a being able to do the skill yourself. Understanding is the outcome of doing.
What can a lower grade student they possibly know about tai chi? Much is missing from their training, and this can lead to misconceptions, incorrect focus and a superficial grasp of the art.
Modern technology has quite literally put all manner of information at our fingertips. Books do the same. But does this mean that we actually understand anything?

Hard work

There is only one way to get good at tai chi - hard work. Talk will not lead to skill.

In all martial arts there is a constant, never-ending emphasis on getting your basics right because without those basics, you'll never become all that you could be.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Deliberate practice

Hard work alone is not enough, though. Simply working hard will not necessarily lead to progress.
It needs to be deliberate, focused improvement designed to improve your practice by developing key skills outlined by your instructor.
The student must implement corrections, study the recommended books, undertake assignments and challenge their comfort zone.


Be patient with yourself. It is not possible to plough your way through the syllabus. Take your time. Understand the aim of each exercise. Learn the skill being taught.
Without the basics, your progress will be very slow. You will only comprehend tai chi if you understand the basic skills. The on-going syllabus will elude the impatient student.

Increase your strength

The more effort you make at the start of training, the more long-term progress you will make. Your first concern is to notably increase your physical strength. This is not accomplished by going to the gym.
All you need to do is train the qigong exercises: both standing and moving. Every day. Build your standing up to 20 mins a day for the main 4 hand positions.
Then add the Long Yang form to your routine and start drilling it the same way. Do this with every new thing you learn.

Re-train the mind

The biggest obstacle for the beginner is their mind, their ego, their self-image, their idea of themselves. Working the brain is the real key to success.
A strong, pliable, flexible, adaptive brain is required for learning this art. Brain work includes: meditation, awareness, clarity, composure, metacognition, constructive reading, memory and rest.
There is no point attending classes and training at home if your mind is sorely neglected. People worry about dementia and focus on memory... why? What about everything else the brain can do?
Train it all.


Until you shed old habits of tension, you cannot make progress with tai chi.
The hard part is that you must train new, physically challenging ways of doing things whilst simultaneously shedding old, comfortable habits.
Relaxation must take place continually when you exercise new skills:

  1. Relax your thoughts

  2. Relax your face

  3. Relax your eyes

  4. Relax your jaw

  5. Relax your neck

  6. Relax your shoulders

  7. Relax your elbows

  8. Relax your wrists

  9. Relax your sternum

  10. Relax your sacrum

  11. Relax your hip kwa and groin

  12. Relax your knees without bending unduly

  13. Relax your weight through your body and into the ground

Do not mistake relaxation to mean floppiness. Heavy - but supported - is the key. No tensing of the muscles.

If you let go of your muscular strength your body will start relaxing.

(Bruce Frantzis)


Opening the joints is a major concern for the beginner. Use the joints less. Encourage the major muscle groups of the body to do the work.
Make your body open and expansive without exerting or exaggerating.

Connect the arms to the back

This is just a training method:

Draw the scapula forward so that you are using all three parts of the arm. The scapula flattens and the upper back becomes rounded.
This connects the arms to the spine and allows the groundpath to travel through the arms, downwards. Initially, drawing forward is necessary but in time it must be relaxed.
Remember not to close the front of the shoulders - keep the arms rounded and the armpits open. The arms can move up and down or flex towards and away from the centre.
When the 'connection' is present at all times, stop 'doing' and see if the arms remain attached to the back. Now, start thinking about cultivating 'peng'.

Turn the waist

When the arms are connected to the back, you can use the waist for power. Avoid using the joints too much. Use the larger muscles of the legs and torso for strength.
Let the soft tissue do the work: muscle, fascia, tendons and ligaments. Recognise that a waist turn should be coupled with a weight shift.
Turning the waist will amplify your strength so be careful to avoid 'forcing'; blend with your partner instead and lead them.
Once you can use the waist properly, your instructor will encourage you to involve the spine and start thinking in all three dimensions .

Physical coordination

People train tai chi for years but still cannot coordinate their own body. Up & down, side-to-side, backwards and forwards. These must all move in synchrony.
Practice, practice, practice.

They would be a lot better off doing a lot less movements and extracting more quality out of them than to continue doing a lot of movements and having minimum or no quality within them.

(Bruce Frantzis)

Ergonomic body use

Learn about range and reach, how to bend at the hip kwa, how to step closer. Understand basic biomechanics. Avoid doing anything physically harmful.
With careful consideration, every form, drill and exercise can be considered with optimal structure in mind. The key thing is not to interfere with what the body itself wants to do.
Becoming attuned to your body requires awareness, sensitivity and relaxation.


Suppleness, flexibility and nimbleness are paramount. Your body must be free to move in whatever direction and in whatever manner you choose. This means that it must be trained.
Moving qigong exercises, reeling silk exercises, form and partner work will all assist with mobility.
Solo training at home is the key here i.e. beginners normally neglect form practice because they are not very good at the sequence... This is OK.
You will get better by practicing. Thousands of repetitions are required.


Your movements need to be big, obvious and distinct. Show clear lines of force. Focus on using the body in an expansive way without stretching unduly or exerting.
Be clear. Be simple. Attempting to make the movements small from the onset will severely retard your progress; the connections have not yet been made and you have nothing to minimalise yet.
This is not the time for subtlety or cunning.

Slow down

The emphasis needs to be on centering the attention on the here and now. The immediate. On what is happening in reality, not in your imagination.
Slow down. Feel your body. Hone your nervous system. Be aware of your thoughts, your emotions. Cultivate sensitivity and balance.


Many inexperienced tai chi people are concerned about their hands. But their legs are awry... Without a balanced foundation the art cannot work.
The stance determines the method in which power is generated, how the waist turns and the role of the hands. The basic stances are easy to learn:

  1. Parallel stance

  2. Turning stance

  3. Bow stance

  4. Rear bow stance

  5. Single whip stance

  6. Pigeon toe stance

  7. Empty/cat stance

  8. Heel stance

  9. Horse stance

Become skilled with each.

Forcing a result

You must never resort to force or brute strength. The moment you start to tense your muscles, you sabotage your efforts at cultivating whole-body strength.
An inexperienced student has difficulty coming to terms with the nature of whole-body strength.
The reason why you train it for years is so that you do not have to consciously apply strength when you need it. Whole-body strength is inherent; it is there all the time.
If your strength never comes or goes, why would you need to deliberately summon it? Tai chi never uses force against force. It can only be applied when there is very little resistance.
We only ever apply 4 ounces of pressure.


Students may sometimes think to alter the material, deviate from the lesson, show off or try and be clever.
If you want the teacher to take you seriously as a student, it is important to start off in the right way. Arguing, time wasting and second-guessing the teacher will only bring you adverse attention.
Just do what you have been asked to do. No more, no less. Improvising is a sign of arrogance and impatience.

You may have all sorts of wonderful ideas, what you consider to be valuable contributions and insights, your own personal take on matters. Nobody cares. Quite the opposite.
The fastest way to alienate yourself in a dojo is to make known these ideas or to volunteer your suggestions on how training might be better or more effective.

(Dave Lowry)


Tai chi contains a great deal of mystery. The principles, strategies, skills, methodology and insights can only be acquired (and understood) by actually practicing the art.
If someone explained them to you beforehand, they would lack context.
You would try to comprehend them based upon your previous memories, opinions, ideas and experiences... rather than understand them in terms of tai chi.
With tai chi, the deeper you dig, the more you find. Unexpected avenues lead to unanticipated places. You learn to embrace the unknown; to seek out information and experiences.
There is no guarantee of a conclusion, and the very idea of completion seems naive.


People have lofty ambitions but very few see them through to fruition. If you are earnest in learning tai chi this will be quite evident to your instructor. Don't just talk... Act.
A resolute student attends every lesson, signs-up for workshops, boot camp, watches school DVDs, reads the books and trains at home. This level of commitment is reflected in their on-going progress.

school database

Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023