Essential Tai Chi Principles

By: Dr Paul Lam and Nancy Kaye

Dr Lam's tai chi workshop in Stockholm 2006© Copyright Tai Chi Productions 2007. All rights reserved, no part of this article may be reproduced in any forms or by any means, without permission in writing, except for non-profit educational purpose. For example: you can photocopy this article for a paying student or participant as long as this article is not included as part of your charge.

Tai chi is a sophisticated art with many different styles and forms. Despite the many variations of tai chi, its immense power for improving health and inner energy derives from a set of essential principles.

Here we present the most important ones. We've put them into simple, easy-to-understand language. By bearing them in mind as you learn and practise, you'll be able to do tai chi more effectively right from the beginning. To see if you're following these principles, you can use a video camera, a mirror, or check with a friend or instructor.Sybil and friends at Dr Lam's tai chi workshop in Sydney 2007

1. Do your movements slowly, without stopping. Make them continuous like water flowing in a river. Don't jerk. Maintain the same speed throughout.

2. Imagine you're moving against resistance. That will cultivate your inner force (qi). Imagine the air around you is becoming denser and that every move you make is against a gentle resistance-almost like moving in water.

3. Be conscious of weight transference. This is important for improving mobility, coordination, and stability. Be aware when you transfer your weight and be aware of each step of your weight transference. When you move forward, for example, put your weight on one leg while maintain an upright posture, touch down gently with the other heel first, and then gradually place the entire foot on the ground and put more of your weight onto that foot, slowly and consciously transfer more of your weight forward.Dr Paul Lam performing a tai chi posture white crane flashing wings

4. Maintain an upright posture and body alignment. Maintain the body upright supplely and keep the body well aligned in a straight line without undue tension is important. This can be more difficult than you expected, especially when you start bending your knees. Very often when people bend their knees the body alignment become distorted. Test yourself, standing side on to a mirror, don't look at the mirror, bend your knees and look at the mirror now. Is your back in a vertical line to the ground? A good way to keep a good alignment as you do this, imagine you're going to sit on an empty chair, bend both your knees and hip joints. Practice it with the mirror and check yourself every now and then. We have found many people don't keep a good body alignment, and are not aware of it. That is why we said it is more difficult than expected. However once done right, your tai chi will improve greatly because qi flows best in the aligned body. Hunching forward will hinder the qi flow, and compromise your balance and leaning backward will create extra strain to the spine.

5. Loosen or 'Song' the joints. You should relax when you do tai chi, but by relax we don't mean let your muscles get floppy. Instead, consciously and gently stretch your joints from within, almost like you're expanding your joints internally. Many people mis- translated the Chinese word 'Song' into relaxation, which is wrong. Song is both relaxed and loosened.

To loosen the spine, imagine it's a string, and that you're gently stretching it from both ends. For the lower limbs, bend your knees and stretch your hips out to form an arch as you crouched. Other lower limb joints will gently expand from within.

6. Focus on your movements. Avoid distraction. Focus on what you're doing. Be aware of all the principles mentioned above, but think of them one at a time.

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