There is an article on the Internet by a tai chi instructor based in Los Angeles. It outlines the 10 most important concepts you should remember when practicing Tai Chi. And it's the reason most Tai Chi being practiced in America is so weak.
This isn't a personal attack. I don't intend to insult this teacher or his group. I'm sure they're completely sincere, so I won't bring this guy's name into the discussion, but he's typical of so many Tai Chi folks I've met who focus on the wrong things, thinking they're doing Tai Chi. They do this because their teacher taught them a weak version of this art, and they believed he or she knew what they were talking about. It happens everywhere. The result -- you meet their students and see quickly that they have no concept of body mechanics.
Here--briefly--is his list of top ten important things to focus on:
Concept 1: Tai Chi is done with an emphasis on every movement. The fashion of every pattern must be connected with one another.
Concept 2: Maintain your shoulders dropped so that any tension will be eliminated.
Concept 3: Your wrists should be straight in order to maintain strength and a good flow of energy.
Concept 4: Learning to move ever more slowly is one path is increased cultivation.
Concept 5: Never let any hindrances stop you from being connected. In case you get disconnected, keep up with the motions.
Concept 6: In practicing Tai Chi, your knees must always be bent. Also you need to maintain your balance for your height not to bob up and down.
Concept 7: Power of Tai Chi will start from the feet going up to the legs, controlling the shoulders and will be expressed by the fingers and hands.
Concept 8: Your head must be maintained as if it was suspended on air.
Concept 9: Your chest must be depressed and your back should be raised but this must be done effortlessly.
Concept 10: Keep your breath to your body's center of gravity, the dan tien; again this must be done effortlessly.
My Response to these Concepts
Most of these concepts are things that you need to know and do -- but they are FAR from the top ten concepts you need. These are--in my opinion--add-ons; things to think of after you begin focusing on the top concepts that you need to know.
Concepts 1 and 10 I can buy into. You must be connected through the body. As you progress, you should focus on the breathing with the dan t'ien, but that is NOT done effortlessly at first. It takes practice and focus.
Concepts 2 and three are just silly. Yes, you should relax your shoulders and "drop" them, and usually you try to keep the wrists straight. But to list these specifically as the number two and three concepts is surprising. Rather than focus on the shoulders as this guy does, I encourage students to drop their weight -- "sink their chi" -- and relax everything, including the shoulders while you maintain ground and peng (see below for my list of concepts).
Concept 4 is just wrong. Learning to move ever more slowly is the key? Actually, you move slowly in the beginning to get the body mechanics, calming, sinking, relaxing, and learning to connect the whole-body movement in conjunction with the body mechanics that I will discuss below. After you learn to move properly in slow motion, you move faster and faster, learning fa-jing and how to apply the movements in self-defense. The more advanced you get, the more you enjoy--and are able to do the forms properly at both slow and combat speeds. Yes, I said combat. Tai Chi is a martial art, first and foremost.
Concept 5 is a distraction. Don't get distracted? Well of course. That also applies to reading a book.
Concept 6 tells you to keep your knees bent. This is another way to say relax and sink. It's difficult to move properly if your knees are locked. But one of the top ten concepts? It's part of a concept but not a stand-alone.
He almost nails Concept 7. Power does start in the ground, travels through the legs -- but he ignores the key concept that it is guided by the dan t'ien and then is expressed through the hands (or whatever part of the body is striking). Inserting the shoulders here is goofy. The power has to go through the shoulders but they are conduits for internal strength and should be kept out of play as much as possible except in certain circumstances involving kou energy.
Concepts 8 and 9 are pieces of advice told to all Tai Chi students. Yes, you keep your head up and balanced. The chest is slightly hollowed and the back slightly rounded but this is part of the whole body connection.
The Real Concepts You Must Focus on in Tai Chi
1. Establish and Maintain the Ground Path: All strength and power originates in the ground. You must maintain the ground connection throughout every movement, even the movements that some people call "transitions" (there are no transitions in Tai Chi, there are only fighting applications). You can learn ground path exercises through my online school and Internal Strength DVD.
2. The Most Important Energy is Peng Energy and it Must Be Maintained At All Times: Peng requires the ground connection. It's an expansive force, as if your body is inflated like a balloon. When you try to push a basketball or beach ball into a pool of water, peng is the feeling you get that -- even though the ball is going into the water, pressure is building for it to spring back. Peng and the ground path must be connected through all movement. If it isn't, you aren't doing Tai Chi. Peng is involved in every "energy" in Tai Chi. Yes, you must remain relaxed, but relaxation without peng and the ground is weak, collapsing when it meets opposing strength.
3. All Movement Must Be Connected Through the Body: Whole-body movement is crucial. Power should flow like a ribbon from the ground, connected. All I have to do is ask another Tai Chi person to grab me with both hands and pull me down. It becomes quickly obvious that they have no concept of whole-body movement. Chen Tai Chi players don't usually have this problem.
4. Silk-Reeling is a Key Component of Tai Chi: It's amazing how poorly this skill is taught, when it is one of the founding principles of Tai Chi. Yang LuChan would have learned it in the Chen Village before he created Yang style, but it has been lost. Some teachers actually say that silk-reeling happens when you "imagine" chi spiralling from the ground through the attacking hand. That's wrong, too. Silk-reeling is a way of spiraling and moving power in a connected way through the body. It relies on the first three concepts (ground, peng and whole-body movement) plus the next two. If you're not familiar with this concept, check out my Silk-Reeling DVD set.
5. Dan Tien Rotation: Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang says Tai Chi is "One Principle, Three Techniques." The main principle is "Dan Tien guides all movement and when one part moves, all parts move." The three techniques are "dan tien rotating side to side; dan t'ien rotating over and back; dan t'ien rotating in a combination of these directions. Dan t'ien rotation must be involved in every movement.
6. Opening and Closing the Kua: Some past Tai Chi masters have said that "to understand the kua is to understand Tai Chi." But I see Tai Chi players all the time who couldn't find their kua with both hands because they've never been taught this concept. Every movement in Tai Chi involves opening one kua and closing the other in some way. Dan t'ien rotation is key to this skill.
7. Maintain a Centered Stance: I saw a video recently of a guy teaching Yang tai chi and he began Grasp The Swallow's Tail. His right hip suddenly stuck out to the right and it appeared that the slightest push would send him off-balance. In Chen tai chi, standing stake is used to help you relax, sink, develop peng, build leg strength, tuck the hips slightly and remain centered -- but then almost every movement in the form is performed to maintain a centered stance. This is one reason early Chen students are made to hold stances while they are corrected until their legs give out and they fall on the floor. It takes a lot of strength to hold a centered stance. The better the stance, the harder it is to hold. And this is one reason you see such powerful legs on Chen masters. If you think pain is not involved in Tai Chi practice, you are not studying Tai Chi.
Those are my top concepts of internal movement. You add to this little things like keeping the head up, hollow the chest, keep the knees slightly bent, and the small things that help refine your Tai Chi.
Americans are prone to self-delusion. If a guy tells us he's a master, we believe it and everything he says is the truth and it can't be denied. And by golly if my master tells me I'm learning Tai Chi, then I'm learning Tai Chi.
Put these "masters" in front of the real deal and they crumble like a house of cards. In the meantime, they're teaching Americans the wrong things, having them "cultivate chi" instead of learn to move properly. They focus on the trees -- keeping the wrists straight and the shoulders sunk--and they ignore (or don't know) the forest, where the real skills are. Perhaps they think Americans are only capable of so much because we're busy and can't spend the time to get really good at this. Or maybe they're deluded about their own abilities and knowledge.
The best you can do for yourself is to NOT believe everything an authority figure tells you, but to investigate and research and read, watch videos and compare, and don't close your mind to the possibility that you just might be learning pretty poor quality Tai Chi.
Want to learn more about these key concepts? Sign up for a 10-part Free Video Course at my online school -- http://www.internalfightingarts.com.