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Ambition in tai chi

Peter Southwood remarked that students often have great ambitions but little interest in practice. If you do not practice your exercises regularly, your progress will be slow.


We frequently hear all sorts of excuses from students who are not training. In Asia you would attend the dojo even if you were injured.
Rather than train, you would be expected to learn through observation. Students would be embarrassed to miss class on account of a 'cold'.

We can change disharmony, transform tension into relaxation, fear into joy, illness into health. The power is in us, not in the situation nor in the other person.

(Wolfe Lowenthal)


A keen student has no reason to push themselves to train. They do it because they want to. No willpower is required.

Talk is cheap

Taoism and Zen have always treated talk with scepticism, since words cannot extend to reality. The word is not the thing. We live in a culture that embraces meaningless chatter.
It is far easier to talk about tai chi than actually do any practice. In our culture of mobile phones, e-mail and blogging... talk really is cheap. Talk is lazy. Exercise requires effort.

"I don't want to train bad habits"

The student argues that home training is pointless because their knowledge of the exercise is incomplete. They claim to be worried that they will simply be practicing bad training habits.
Be realistic - unless you are in the dan syllabus, your knowledge of tai chi is bound to be flawed.
When a child learns how to write stories at school, do they quit because they make spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and cannot express their thoughts skilfully?
When a person learns a new language, do they expect to be fluent immediately? Do they quit because their French is not as good a natural-born French person? Or do they persevere and improve?

"I don't have time to practice"

People make time to watch TV but they do not exercise. Setting time aside to practice is a matter of choice. Everyone has the same number of hours in their day. You choose how to spend those hours.
No one is short-changed.

We're not a charity

Playing the victim is pointless. You have a choice. If you do not want to practice at home, that is OK. Just be honest with yourself. Don't waste our time with role-play.

"I can't remember"

What an embarrassing admission. The problem is laziness, not memory.
A student who works through a list of exercises on a training handout regularly at home will find themselves referring to the handout less and less.
Eventually, they will know the order and the list becomes unnecessary. If this doesn't work for you, buy a class DVD.

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.

We get good at what we do

If you want to get good at form, practice form. If you want to become proficient with weapons, then practice with weapons. The more often your body undertakes the practice, the more familiar it will be.

Weekly attendance

Some students only train in class. They do make progress, and the pace is satisfactory for them. Despite no home training, they can feel an improvement in their tai chi. This is fine.
Now consider how much greater your skills would be if you practiced.
If you enjoy the skills you have achieved through weekly attendance, how much more might you enjoy the skills that come through home training?

Little and often

Most people are not used to training at home. If you possess a tremendous enthusiasm for the art, training is easy. If you struggle, it is because training at home is unfamiliar; it is not yet a habit.


The key to home training is to work into it gently. Try doing a small amount every day. Nothing ambitious.
Gradually cultivate the habit of doing tai chi at home. Eventually, you will find yourself wanting to do it. And if you miss the training, you will notice its absence.

What's the point?

Tai chi offers excellent health and fitness benefits, the potential for a calm mind, emotional wellbeing and significantly less stress. Plus, the higher up the syllabus you climb, the better the view..

The root of ignorance itself is our mindís habitual tendency to distraction.

 (Sogyal Rinpoche)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023