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People are biologically inclined to be lazy, to stay put, to refrain from change. Breaking the status quo requires a deliberate, conscious effort. We like to stay in our comfort zone.
At least 10,000 hours
Dr. K. Anders Ericsson found that an expert must have at least 10,000 hours of practice behind them. This was true of any art; whether tai chi, dancing or playing the piano.
However, it is not just 10,000 hours... it is 10,000 hours of continued improvement, insight and development.
10,000 hours spent doing the same thing doesn't lead to expertise because the individual is still within their comfort zone.
So what is our comfort zone? This is a tricky one. It is actually more complex than we realise.
Let's imagine that you do weight training. If you want to move outside of your comfort zone, you could perform more repetitions, lift a slightly heavier weight or perform unfamiliar exercises.
This is quite straightforward and proven to work. Just remember not to over-tax the body and avoid injury.
More complex model (qigong)
Imagine that you perform one set of qigong exercises and want to improve your skill. You decide to do two sets involving different exercises.
This works initially; and leads to improvement. And then you plateau (status quo) and there is no further improvement in skill.
You increase again. After you've increased your workload to four sets, you begin to plateau again. So, what do you do now?
Unlike weight training, qigong will not improve by increasing a weight or by performing more repetitions. Instead, the student needs to diversify.
Core strength exercises, (mild) cardio work, leg stretches, psoas exercises and Taoist Yoga will work the body in unfamiliar ways.
The benefits of cross training
Instead of doing more and more qigong, the students work on their overall muscular development, alignment, suppleness and strength.
The effects of diversified practice will feed back into the qigong.
It enables the student to perform one set of qigong exercises better without needing to increase their focus/time commitment on those exercises. Think of this in terms of the effort/reward ratio...
Comfort zone and form
If qigong is not as straightforward as weight training, form is in a different league altogether. Students begin by learning the pattern of the movements in a crude manner.
This is known as the 'square version'. It is far from accurate and could be said to only approximate form.
Consider this: Most people live
lives that are not particularly physically challenging. They sit at a desk,
or if they move around, it's not a lot. They aren't performing manoeuvres
that require tremendous balance and coordination. Thus they settle into a
low level of physical capabilities - enough for day-to-day activities or
maybe even hiking or biking or playing golf or tennis on the weekends, but
far from the level of physical capabilities that a highly trained athlete
The reason that most people don't possess extraordinary physical capabilities isn't because they don't have the capacity for them, but rather because they're satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it.
The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in. We learn enough to get by but once we reach that point we seldom push to go beyond.
Square form is not really form. It is just going through the motions/marking time.
The student has no idea what the movements mean, what they can be used for or indeed the biomechanical considerations necessary to make the form viable for combat.
Most students have not even read The Tai Chi Classics and cannot incorporate the tai chi principles into their form. Remaining at this level of ability is pointless.
Each section of the Long Yang form is longer than the preceding section and demands more skill from the student. There is no scope for settling into a comfort zone.
Having learned all 3 sections to a square form standard, the student is now faced with the daunting task of mirroring the entire sequence. This is perceptually challenging.
The end product (mirrored) should be equal in quality to the regular version.
A common next step for tai chi students is to acquire more forms... This is OK in principle, but needs thinking through somewhat.
What standard of practice does the student currently possess?
If a student is at the 'square form' standard then any subsequent forms will also be practiced at this level; which is not good.
Excessive practice at a low level of skill will lead to no real improvement and increases the risk of injury.
Is the new form(s) offering a diverse range of skills (or more of the same)?
Any new form needs to bring something new to the equation.
For example, the walking stick form is different to the Long Yang form because it features a weapon, different body mechanics, new goals, nimble footwork and unfamiliar movements.
It is not more of the same. Each new form must be equally challenging.
Let's imagine that a student knows the pattern of 5 different tai chi forms. They offer a very wide range of skills and don't simply practice more of the same.
Eventually, the student will once again plateau. It is inevitable...
A common solution is to collect even more forms... this is akin to the qigong situation above, isn't it? Form collecting is not the answer. Nor is collecting forms from other styles of tai chi.
Instead of learning more and more forms, deepen your knowledge and diversify your practice. This time, you won't need to cross train.
For example, there are 8 stages involved in learning every form.
Shen (fighting spirit/martial intent)
Martial applications (7 per movement)
Whole-body strength (neigong)
Whole-body movement (form)
Whole-body power (jing)
Natural-feeling body use
Don't look to more forms for inspiration. You're still in your comfort zone because you are form collecting. Instead, journey deeper and gain real understanding.
Tai chi started life as a martial art, not a health exercise.
A student needs to understand martial principles, 3-D, 4 ounces, 36 strategies, adjustment, central equilibrium, centre, composure, internal & external training methods, fa jing, force, gaps & deficiencies, groundpath, internal/external ratio, jing, jutsu & do, listening, nervous system, range & reach, sensitivity, shen, small circle, softness, spontaneity, sticky, sung, weapons, yielding, anticipation, applications, blocks, bracing, chin na (seizing), Chinese martial arts, conviction, finishing off, freeform combat, grappling, holds, impact, incapacitation, martial concepts, martial sets, melee, minimalism, multiple opponents, neijiaquan (internal martial arts), nerve, neutral state, neutralise, Newton's laws, penetrating defences, powers & principles, reacting, reasonable force, redundancy, shuai jiao (take downs), skills, technical skills, techniques and unpredictability.
Everything you learn will improve your ability to practice the form.
1 August 2017
Last updated 15 May 2020