Taijiquan as a Beginner

When I was a young kid, I remembered groups of Chinese-American parents getting together for Taijiquan class. One of the sayings was: “You have a big watermelon. You cut it and give half to one side and half to the other side.” Simultaneously, they would make a big circle with their arms (drawing the watermelon), “cut” it in half, then “push” one half of it to one side and the other half to the other side. It was a long time before I realized that Taijiquan more than just using slow movements to chop imaginary fruit.

To an outsider, Taijiquan may look like random arm movements in slow motion. The pace may be slow, but a lot is going on in the mind and body, and eventually, you add spirit. Speed, intent, and martial power are added later. Also, the movements are not just in the arms, they involve the entire body and originate from your body’s center.

People practicing Taijiquan usually look so calm and relaxed, don’t they? I’m anything but calm. My mind is thinking about 5 things at once, my muscles are tired from low stances, and my breath is not always coordinated with the movements. As someone who has had a crash course in Taijiquan in the past 6 months, I want to reassure the beginners out there that it’s not easy, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Since the 10 and 5 year programs allow us to train with partners, our schedule has us spending less time on the Yang-style Long Form and more time on partner Taiji drills (Centering, Yin Yang Symbol, Pushing Hands (推手, Tuīshǒu), and eventually more advanced drills). The sequence is scheduled for 2 hours per week and it’s up to us to train more during our free time. The sequence is something we can practice and improve in for the rest of our lives, but won’t always have the partners to help us train certain aspects of the art.

Yang-Style Long Form Part 1 at slow-medium speed:

If I analyzed all of my corrections, you’d be reading a book. For now, I’ll focus on a few beginner level corrections that you can also look out for if you’re just starting out.

Péng (掤 Ward Off):
Peng is one of the major patterns in the foundation of Taijiquan. Books are written on the subject, so I will only describe it in the most basic definition. When you draw in your chest and arc your back, you create a structure which can be used to yield and neutralize an incoming force and simultaneously store jìng (勁 martial power) for release.* It’s easier to do this incorrectly than it is to do it correctly. I often catch myself over-stretching my shoulders in a bold attempt to create roundness, when the action is actually much more subtle. It’s difficult to differentiate when you first start learning.

Balance & Strength:
To have balance, you need strength. When you practice the sequence slowly, it becomes more challenging to hold your weight on one leg for a longer period of time. I find myself wobbling during many of the transitions and kicks. (Trouble spots include: Brush Knee and Step Forward, Play the Guitar, Pick Up the Needle from the Sea Bottom and more). Nowadays, many people practice Taijiquan for health and relaxation, but traditionally, practitioners would hold stances and condition their bodies the same way as they did for external styles.

Finish techniques/Extend arms:
This is a relatively easier fix compared to my other corrections. For movements such as Grasp Sparrow’s Tail (both sides), Brush Knee, and The Crane Spreads Its Wings, my arms are sometimes too close to my body. It helps to practice the application on a partner so you have a visual when you practice the sequence.

Flexible hips and ankles:
Everything we do requires us to have flexible hips and ankles so we can smoothly move our lower thirds (hips, knees, ankles). This one of my main problems. Without flexibility, it’s difficult to build Balance and Strength.

Connection from the ground:
Our power and root come from pushing off the ground. Without proper foot alignment, you risk injuring your knee as well as losing balance. Ideally, the power comes from the ground, to your foot, legs, waist, torso, arms, hands, and outward. Also, try not to rise in your stances. When you do, you end up floating instead of being rooted. It’s easier to be knocked off balance and more difficult to apply the technique on someone.

Smooth, Connected Movements:
The slower you train, the easier it is to spot the breaks in connection and jerky movements.

Tuck the Bum in:
I started noticing that with more flexible hips, my bum doesn’t stick out as much anymore. I have a lot of trouble on the 180 degree turns, specifically from Grasp Sparrow’s Tail Right, to Grasp Sparrow’s Tail Left, to Peng (Ward Off).

Since we don’t practice the sequence that often, I really wanted to take my time in learning it. I could stick to basic postures for years and continue understanding them at deeper levels, but since we’re in this program, we have to pick things up quickly or we’ll fall behind. I’ve recently finished learning the 3rd and last part of the sequence and now it’s time to polish it up. I’ve felt a big difference in my form compared to the first month and I’m looking forward to make it better.

Have patience. Especially at the beginning. A lot of the training may seem tedious or simple at the beginning, but it gets more and more exciting as you progress. (Yes, something that your 80 year old grandma might do can be exciting!)

*Source: Yang, Jwing-Ming. Taijiquan Theory. Boston: YMAA Publication Center, 2003

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