[I first Posted this on May 11 this year, but I like it so I’m putting it here…]
Here and for the next series of posts I will be attempting to do two things. First this is a review, of sorts, of the new book, The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, by Peter M. Wayne, PhD with Mark L. Fuerst. I say “of sorts” because I am half way through reading the book and have simply highlighted certain things. My plan is to share here the parts I have highlighted and if I have the inclination and time I will add comments in brackets as I always do. And I am not the only one who thinks you should read this excellent book: take a look at this article.
The photos that accompany these posts are a sequence, in order, from the first section of the Hand Form (right handed). I will likely comment on each photo. A student learning the Form may be able to make use of these photos in learning the beginning and ending of, as well as the transitions between, Styles.
First, about the book. It’s a great book as far as I am concerned looked at from what ever angle you choose. These guys have made a landmark contribution. As you read, for example, try and imagine the pressure to be politically correct in conveying the history, context, and the implications of impact Tai chi could have if adopted by the general public, the scientific community, the health care industry and the public health authorities as a means of restoring and maintaining health in all the appropriate populations. Mindblowing puts it mildly, and I don’t think we have to worry about that happening on a big scale. But I write for you who may be interested in health and fitness, rehabilitation and recovery, and for those who may be interested in saving their companies tens of millions of dollars in direct and indirect costs from the lack of health and fitness of themselves and their employees.
From the Forward, buy Ted Kaptchuk, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Author, The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine
“Western patients now are asking for more prevention and health sustenance.”
“Sorely missing has been a book that bridges the wisdom of Tai Chi with the scientific insights of biomedicine. This exceptional book has finally been written, remarkably within the context of a leading medical school; it provides the needed platform to link East and West.”
“Tai Chi is broken down into component therapeutic parts, while science is used to demonstrate the intersection of mind and body and the importance of the imagination and ritual.”
“In the end, you will have tasted and experienced the vastness of a poem with limitless implications.”
“Chapter 1 is a clear, readable overview of Tai Chi’s history and current developments. The chapter goes beyond the mythic (though it tells us some of the myths) and presents Tai Chi as a constantly evolving practice that necessarily undergoes change as it reaches the Western world and must engage science and medical research.”
“Chapter 2 introduces a particularly unique contribution of this book – the articulation of what Peter has coined the ‘Eight Active Ingredients of Tai Chi’.”
“Chapters 4 through 9 present a very readable, exciting summary of medical and basic science research on Tai chi.”
“For example, Chapter 8, his discussion of clinical and physiological studies of motor imagery research is beautifully linked with the traditional Chinese concept of intention (yi).”
“In Chapters 10 through 14, Peter realigns and brings together all the previous discussions of science and situates them into practical activities of daily life. Tai Chi now informs the social interactions you navigate at work and at home, as well as your creative endeavors, including in the arts and sports.”
Now about the photo
“Beginning Tai Chi Style” isn’t the first Style. “The Ready Style” comes before it, and before that even is “Tai Chi at Rest”. We could talk all day about these first couple of Styles but apparently my photographer didn’t think they were important enough to include in the collection. That’s Ok. Just know that standing in the “At Rest” position is a standing meditation that could last as long you like and in my practice I hold that position, eyes closed, for three breaths. This is a time for getting centered, present, relaxed and prepared for the journey that is about to begin. The longer you practice Tai Chi the more you value this transition from the life before the Form to the experience of being inside the Form.
When you are “ready” you lower the hands and open the eyes into the Ready Style. Now you are ready.
Beginning Tai Chi Style is the beginning of movement (the separation of Yin and Yang). It entails circular arm movements, a hip hinged squat, a shift of weight onto one leg, a step and shift of weight onto the other leg, trunk rotation and pivot, and a sequencing of simultaneous whole body motion that finishes in a push that creates what we call the Yin/Yang hand position.
This photo shows the arms circling up and out. Relaxation is always the prime directive so the practice is to do the motion with as little muscular effort as possible. The timing of the breath and the motion may be matched. The mind is focused on the movement.
In general, my comments will be directed to the student learning the Form. In time things change and in particular many details are taught a certain way as the “right” way; later you learn there can be many right ways and just as many ways that are less right depending on several factors. In other words the rules apply until they don’t.
The worst mistake a new student can make is to try to copy some Master’s movements before gaining a full sensory competence of the basic structure and framework of the Form, as well as a cognitive appreciation for what is going on. If you are new to Tai Chi watching a Master do Tai Chi you really aren’t seeing much of what is going on and you aren’t likely to appreciate very much of what you do see.
All of this isn’t to argue in favor of you getting it perfect or else. What’s important is that doing things wrong enough has consequences. “Tai Chi knee” is a common injury among Tai Chi practitioners who don’t learn the knee rule. This book does a fine job of covering the knee rule.
Doing the Form really well also has consequences in terms of deeper learning, faster progress, much more functionality, and not having to go back and unlearn something later.
Feel free to leave a comment or question.