Thank you for all the interesting responses.
Jerry, thanks for the reminder about the importance of the Ten Essentials. When I composed my question, I had them in mind and should have made some explicit references. I had thought of beginning my post with them as a base, but was afraid the scope of the question might come off as being even broader than it was. I find the “mental mapping” that Louis mentions to be an iterative process that benefits from cross checking from different sources; however, it is probably a good idea to establish a starting point, such as the Ten Essentials.
Speaking of which, one specific question I had in mind was how to judge when the elbows are correctly positioned. Although I think I have reasonable positioning in most postures (which I learned posture by posture), this is not the same as knowing for certain why a particular angle is correct in one posture or transition, but not in another, or how to define precisely what “drooping” or “dropping” the elbows means. I find, for instance, that there appears to be much unexplained variation in practice with respect to the elbows in the withdrawal from the Push in Grasp Sparrow’s Tail and in the subsequent Single Whip Transition. Similarly, some people seem to attempt to use similar elbow heights and orientations for Push, the Single Whip Transition, and White Crane Spread Wings; whereas I understand the forearm height and orientation to vary substantially among and within these three postures.
On occasion, I have looked to the sensations described or hinted at in the Twenty Character Motto to guide my practice and understanding of what I am instructed to do. For Ward Off, I also recall Yang Zhen Duo testing the Ward Off arms of seminar participants in a way that seemed to value how firm and stable they were (heavy arms?), rather than other possible qualities, such as the softness of the muscles. Although the orientation of the elbows is usually described in a way that uses reference to the ground as the only factor, it seems that the direction in which power is being exerted is also an indispensable factor. Based on what I recall of how the Yangs and others test postures, I have ended up using as a guide how I would perform the postures powerful in water. Again, my question is “how do you know what is correct” if you do not have an instructor who has time to individually track you from posture to posture and transition to transition and point out slight deviations day after day?
Larry and Charla, I love your mention of the smile. You both mentioned the smile as reflecting something inward. Far from being a trivial point, it probably deserves a separate thread. Just to delve into one or two aspects, I have always been fascinated by how the outward can affect the inward, i.e., how the outward smile can work internal changes.
I believe an external smile tends to creep inwardly if it is maintained. I would personally be wary, however, of taking a smile as a practice goal, as opposed to an indicator. Smiles come in such wide varieties, and some are undoubtedly inappropriate: for example, supercilious ones, vacant ones, forced ones, etc. I like to think that correct practice will lead to an expression on the face that is transparent to the inner intent and movement of the practitioner, just as the face of a good musician often betrays a spirit that both possesses the music being expressed and is possessed by it.
Put another way, I would think that the right kind of smile would be evidence of being in the zone you, Larry, mention, but the wrong kind would indicate the opposite. By the way, I think that my own temperament and level of practice are unfortunately more characterized by phrases like “pained expression” and “grimace,” rather than smile.
One thing I have used smiles for is to explain to non-T’ai Chi friends my understanding of what the classics say is the interaction between qi (energy), yi (mind-intent), and shen (spirit). To smile while focusing on the facial muscles (i.e., focusing on “qi”) invites a forced, wooden smile. To smile while focusing on the communicative content of a smile (i.e., the intent and purpose of the smile) automatically activates appropriate facial muscles, but requires much concentration. If one can cultivate a spirit (shen) of joy in one’s heart, smiling is effortless. The intent (“yi”) is focused; the muscles move (as the “qi” is mobilized?). The trick is getting the “spirit” right, which is much easier said than done.
One last thing that comes to mind in the arena of expression is that I have often met or read of T’ai Chi practitioners who talk of doing form as an experience where they lose themselves or zone out. For instance, they “wake up” in the middle of the second paragraph and cannot remember getting there. I personally feel T’ai Chi can be used for many things, and have no objection to using it for achieving such “altered states” or light trances; however, I do not feel that this is consistent with the writings associated with the Yang family.
In other words, being “in the zone” as you, Larry, describe, whether or not one is aware of it at the time, is not the same as “zoning out,” as I have heard others describe. The writings associated with the Yangs seem to describe an intense focus on the flow in the here and now that seems the antithesis of zoning out or falling into a trance. Again, I would draw an analogy to musical performances, where it would be unthinkable for the performer to disconnect his or her spirit, purpose, mind, etc. from the flow of the music.
By the way, what do you mean by an “A” split vertically down the middle? Where is the apex of the “A” and where does the horizontal stroke join the long slanting stroke?
Fletcher, you ask about whether or not to follow your feelings to “feel the flow” or whether you should be able to follow a schedule to do so. My limited understanding of Taoist health practices is that one must always follow natural rhythms and that this presumably includes biorhythms and emotional rhythms. On the other hand, the point of any martial art is to be able to summon up one’s art at any time. Certainly, most of what I have read in the T’ai Chi literature stresses the importance of regular daily practice and implies that the discipline of regularity is in itself useful and necessary.
Perhaps a way to reconcile the two approaches is to insist on regular, scheduled practice and on the ability to learn according to someone else’s schedule, but not to insist that your mind and body react the same way each time, as David mentions. In other words, insist on seeking out a zone or on feeling for a groove, but do not insist that it be the same zone or the same groove each time.
Also, I get the impression that the Yangs take the view that correct performance of the basics is really enough, and not particularly dependent on mood. Put differently, they seem to feel that if one is in an average physical, emotional, and spiritual state, one should be able to put the T’ai Chi basics into practice and create T’ai Chi magic on demand.
Much of the energy feel the Yangs talk about at seminars and in their writings seems linked to very simple actions, if performed correctly, such as what is described in the Twenty Character Motto or the discussion of the various hand techniques elsewhere on the site. When one does not feel proper energy flow, the cause may be time of day, etc.; however, more likely the cause is directly related to something simple that may be hard to discern, but that in theory should be immediately correctable, at least when proceeding at a slow pace. Again, I am not talking about level of ability, but about an approach to practice and learning.
I obviously do not have the answers; nevertheless, I feel very strongly that one needs to proceed as if understanding how to express a particular principle in the form or in push hands is always possible in a matter of minutes, not years, given the right instruction and the right teacher-student relationship at the time. Once understanding comes, it then can take years to master all the details and implications, to perform the movement at speed, etc. In this, I think T’ai Chi, as practiced slowly, is like learning to pronounce a foreign language, as I alluded to in my original post about the two types of “t.” I think this is different from, say, learning to play music on the piano or guitar, where the body really needs time to acquire the skills to follow the dictates of the mind. Does anyone feel differently about this?
Bob, thanks for your thoughts, with which I basically agree, especially about listening to one’s body. If I am not nitpicking, however, I would be curious as to what your view of “coordinating with the breath” entails, if I have not already asked this question earlier in the history of the board. There seems to be much disagreement in the T’ai Chi community about the proper role of the “breath” in practice and would be curious as to how you view this. Do you exhibit a fixed or repeated breathing pattern in your form? Do you breathe in the same pattern regardless of the speed at which you do form? Do you coordinate breathing only when you “emphasize” a particular technique?
Larry, Jerry, and Louis, one personal example of discarded sensation I would like to add to your postings is sensations of heat in the hands. Based on what I had heard from some teachers and read in some writings, I was thrilled when I first felt heat in my hands during performance of the form, since this was supposedly a sign of increased qi flow. As I continued to work on other principles, I discovered that the sensation of heat did not correlate very well with my sense of progress in other areas and even seemed occasionally associated with departures from principle. I no longer pay much attention to this as a result.
I speculate that the reason for the change is that the feeling of heat comes from feeling increased blood flow. Although T’ai Chi practice improves circulation, there are other ways to do so. If one makes improved temporary circulation the only goal, I think it is very possible that there are physical and mental practices that are superior to T’ai Chi for this purpose: for example, Yoga relaxation techniques, massage, sitting in a whirlpool, aerobics, etc. Focusing on this narrow goal, may involve taking the wrong fork in the road from a T’ai Chi perspective. A similar problem would probably arise from making improved leg strength or balance the only goal for one’s T’ai Chi practice or altering the stepping methods to maintain a “burn” in the thighs and a challenge to one’s balance.
Louis, I like your description of the classics as “mappings of direct subjective experience.” You had mentioned something like that in a previous post, and my main purpose behind this thread was to solicit more “coordinates” for the mapping to help in “triangulating.” The trick, of course, is to make sure one is receiving coordinates for the same location on the map and not confusing different destinations, however worthy each may be in its own right.
David, thanks for your list. Posture testing is something I definitely do not do enough of and need to understand better. For instance, should postures be tested from all angles, or merely along the principle lines of force?
You also mentioned “things falling into place” as a good guide. An allied feeling might be when T’ai Chi seems to simplify, such as when worrying about ten different details begins to feel like worrying about nine, or three, etc. Again, I find the Twenty Character Motto very instructive in this regard, since it seems to unify the feelings associated with seemingly discreet principles.
I also liked your suggestion of feeling changes in blood pressure; however, I think that by itself, using this as an indicator can lead down different paths. Taking the wrist position, for instance, it is probably easier to feel pressure changes if one never flexes the wrist, as was advocated by Cheng Man-ch’ing. On the other hand, by never seating the wrist in this way, as required by the Yangs, one does not get the opportunity to feel how this motion in itself changes the pressure in the hand and forearm.