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Gains from Independent Practice of T'ai Chi

9th April, 2007

One of the most significant benefits to accrue from the practice of T'ai Chi is an approach to learning, since the approach is often more valuable than the subject matter. This is precisely why eastern cultures have placed greater emphasis on the process rather than the results. When the process is followed, results are bound to come.

There are three requirements for learning T'ai Chi, which also determine the rate at which the student learns and benefits from T'ai Chi. They are: Correct teaching, natural talent and perseverance or diligent practice. Of these three requirements, natural ability is the least important, and correct teaching is the most important.

T'ai Chi endows the practitioner with benefits like improved balance, coordination, and reflexes; calmness of mind, patience, concentration, self-awareness and stronger bones, muscles and organs. All these benefits come over an extended period of time, but the first thing to do is to cultivate the habit of practising on your own. It is imperative to realise that class practice does not make up for independent practice.

By freely sharing teachings and stimulating your thinking, the teacher leads you to the door of knowledge. It is up to the student to absorb and incorporate that knowledge by reviewing what has been taught and following instructions. Unless one maintains a fine balance between self-motivated study and class activities, possible benefits will remain unattainable.

The student who fails to practise on his own puts himself at risk of 'dual' failure. He may unconsciously feel, "I'm nowhere near where I should be" or "T'ai Chi is not as effective as it is claimed to be". These self-limiting thoughts take away the joy of learning and increase the possibility of the student quitting the class.

There are many important benefits of independent practice, which can deepen your understanding of the art and greatly increase your engagement with it.

Firstly, when you practise independently, you have the freedom to stop any time you feel like and repeat a movement or a sequence of movements, which is not possible in a class.

Secondly, you can settle on the optimal speed that allows you to harmonise your breathing with the movements, thereby enhancing the Chi flow.

Thirdly, when you do not have anybody to follow or ask, you are required to sort things out on your own. This infuses greater self-reliance and self-discipline.

Fourthly, independent practice calls for memorisation of the entire sequence of movements. Once memory hurdles are overcome, your mind is better able to perceive the beauties and intricacies of the movements. This leads to greater progress.

Practising in a group, however, confers many benefits which are not accessible in independent practice.

China has a long tradition of group practice of T'ai Chi. One benefit is that the combined energy and enthusiasm of the group increases the energy and enthusiasm of each individual. Another benefit is that group practice gives you an opportunity to process the movement, timing and spacing of other people. Observing the movements of others and noticing differences makes you conscious of your own deficiencies. This processing improves your ability to move harmoniously with others. As a result, you not only feel your Chi more intensely but also come away with a new dimension of connectedness.

However, if you can do Tai Chi only in a group and need to watch the teacher constantly to know what movement comes next, much of the meditative benefits of Tai Chi will not come to you.