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In combat your tai chi skills need to be immediately at hand, spontaneous and well practiced. There will be no time to think, remember, analyse or cogitate. Hesitate and you'll be beaten up.
Most students fail in combat because they simply don't know the art well enough.


Double pushing hands is a higher-level exercise. At that stage of learning the student has acquired the requisite foundation skills necessary for this particular partnered drill.
When they reach an obstacle - which they will - they already possess the solution. The student simply needs to examine existing drills to find an answer that will work.
By contrast, a beginner cannot do this...
When a beginner encounters double pushing hands they have very little knowledge, experience and skill to draw upon. They misread what is taking place
Their reference point for understanding is exceedingly limited and they inevitably fall back into bad habits of using external practices of force and tensed muscles.

Silently treasure knowledge and turn it over in the mind.
Gradually you can do as you like.

(Wang Tsung-yueh)

In terms of yourself

The biggest problem facing a student is attempting to understand tai chi in terms of yourself. It simply won't work. You need to see the art and combat in terms of Taoism.
If seeing things in terms of yourself actually worked, you wouldn't even need lessons... Hundreds of new starters make this mistake and quit almost immediately because their ego is a problem.
When floundering they scrabble about for somebody to blame. The teacher. The art. Their practice partner.
The truth is much more simple. The problem is you

Beyond yourself

The only way to get past your own limitations is to dig deeper. Imagine that you're trying a new diet but not losing weight..
. What do you do? You can blame the diet. You can quit.
Or you could do a lot more research. Maybe your calorie count is inaccurate. Your meal configurations may be totally off. You may be eating too much or too little.
The worst thing that you can do is to draw an erroneous conclusion designed to protect your ego at all costs.

Gaining knowledge

Usually students fail on two counts:

  1. Inadequate amount of study

  2. Insufficient home practice

Inadequate amount of study

The teachings of The Tai Chi Classics, Tao Te Ching, The Way of Chuang Tzu, The art of War, The Book of Five Rings, Back To Beginnings and the countless other useful books need to be highly familiar.
It is necessary to read and re-read these books continuously. They will change how you think, how you see things and how you use your body in combat.

Insufficient home practice

Dr Michael Greger (author of How Not To Die) recommends 90 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day. Most students aren't doing this.
The three doctors who wrote The Okinawa Program maintain that tai chi - with its ancient origins and incredible health benefits - is the ideal form of exercise for modern people.
If this sounds like a lot of exercise, why not chop it up into smaller increments spaced throughout the day?

A beginner forever?

In tai chi is quite common for a student to reach a rudimentary level of skill and simply remain there. They may learn many new forms and exercises. But everything is performed in a simplistic manner.
The problem with training long-term at a simplistic level is that the training is intrinsically incorrect. Provably so.
Tai chi is a refined, subtle, complex, sophisticated art. If your progress halted at white belt and there are 13 belts; this is hardly impressive.

Without long practice one cannot suddenly understand tai chi.

(Wang Tsung-yueh)

A mirror

Beyond solo study and practice, the next step in getting better is to partner with somebody who is better than you are. A more skilled exponent will repeatedly expose your gaps and deficiencies.
Your weaknesses will let you down. You rush. You dither. You anticipate. You space out. You tense up. You force. You are awkward. You seek to take control. You get annoyed or aggressive.
Don't pretend that you're doing OK. Be honest with yourself. With your performance. Look at the proof. Judgement is unnecessary but clarity and honesty are essential.

No lies. No excuses.

If you want to make progress in tai chi it is important to recognise that there are no shortcuts, no cheats and no quick fixes. Read The Sword Polisher's Record
. Adam Hsu will say the same.
In fact, any traditional martial artist would agree.

Paradigm shift

A 'paradigm shift' is a fundamental change in your approach and your underlying assumptions. Gaining skill in an internal martial art requires a paradigm shift in how you perceive:

  1. The human body

  2. Balance

  3. Centre

  4. Pressure

  5. Emotion

  6. Intention

  7. Power

  8. Physics

  9. Gravity

  10. Alignment

  11. Strength

  12. Combat

You cannot conceivably hope to understand the unfamiliar in terms of your existing knowledge. What you have learned to date is not enough. Not by a long measure.
A student must wade deep into the unknown and immerse themselves in ancient Chinese wisdom. Contemporary thinking will not help you. Become lost in the Old Ways.

Muscle memory

One major advantage of consistent on-going home practice is the cultivation of muscle memory. Rather than having to recall every movement, the exponent's body knows where to go and what to do.
This is the first step in moving in a tai chi way... What's the catch? To accomplish this, frequent, mindful practice is needed. There's no other way to attain this skill.
The more often your body performs tai chi movements, the more likely it is to remember them automatically.


High repetition of qigong and tai chi movements results in muscle memory. The muscles are familiar with how and where to move and the brain directs the action.
It will feel as though they moved by themselves. This is essentially no different to what happens when you drive a bicycle or a car.
However, with tai chi you are learning long, complex sequences of movements/combat drills/applications, so the challenge is greater and more diverse. The advantage of muscle memory is habit.
You do not have to think as much. You can become immersed in the event itself.

Knowledge base

Your tai chi skill is largely dependent upon your 'mental representation'. How rich is your grasp of the art? How much do you know? How many insights do you possess?
We are not talking about quoting people or boasting about who you have trained with. This is about physical and mental knowledge and skill. Accept the fact that if you can't do it, you don't know it.


Have some humility. Humility is a recognition of our own incredible ignorance when faced with the enormity of what is known and what is yet to be known. We are all ignorant.

Fire raging in your hair

There is only one way out of this situation. Climb. Climb as though your life depended upon it. Climb up the syllabus. Go higher and higher.
Gain practical knowledge about anything and everything that may conceivably have a bearing on tai chi. This is a challenge that will ignite something precious in you. Life. Spirit. Vigour.

The journey

Education involves exposure to new material, unfamiliar ideas, theories, principles and concepts. The new becomes slowly familiar. The challenging is no longer quite as intimidating.
But this is not the end. It is still the beginning. Learning is a journey that has no conclusion.

The practitioner must carefully study.

(Wang Tsung-yueh)

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Page created 18 April 2005
Last updated 16 June 2023