This post was written by LK who is a guest blogger on Taichi-daily.com
For almost two years, I have been practicing Yang style tai chi form regularly by going over the whole form at least once a day. Congratulations to me on being consistent! This in itself is a wonderful accomplishment (pat myself on the back!) and a valid way to practice tai chi to reap multiple health benefits. However, there is a different kind of practice that is probably more important for making steady progress in my development as a tai chi practitioner. I am talking about deliberate practice, a concept pioneered by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor at Florida State University *. It involves a special kind of approach to learning a new skill, which is based on repetition. However, it is not rote mechanical repetition, but deliberate repetition with a goal to optimize the performance of that skill. The key point to deliberate practice is that it requires stopping and evaluating the performance from time to time and making corrections to your performance. This evaluation can be in the form of self-reflection or feedback from a teacher. This constant re-evaluation will inform the incremental changes and adjustments of the performance towards improvement.
How is this relevant to my tai chi training, you may ask? I see two general ways deliberate practice can be applied to tai chi: you can pick (1) a body part or (2) a particular move from the form you practice, and work on that in a great detail, paying close attention to the quality of your movement, body sensations, balance, breathing, tension patterns in your body, trajectory of your movement, etc. Work on each element repeatedly, intentionally trying different ways (even make deliberate mistakes!) and learn how they feel and look. Any tiny detail or aspect of your movement matters – the angle of your feet or hands, the position of your knees, the amplitude of a move, the plane in which the move is done, how and where the movement originates, how and where it propagates, etc., etc.
To give you an example of (1), I am currently working on teaching myself to relax the lumbar spine and keep the pelvis vertically aligned throughout the form. I am trying to prevent my back from shortening and stiffening (resulting in the arched back, something a lot of practitioners suffer from**). Before the opening move, I mentally give myself directions to re-align and extend my spine, putting it into the neutral position and lessening naturally occurring spinal curves. As I go through the Yang form, at the end of each move I mentally scan my back and, if my it is tense, I remind myself to exhale and “drop the tail bone”. The choice of words here is important: there is a qualitative difference in my movement if I direct myself to “tuck the pelvis in” (try it both ways and feel the difference for yourself). Although the final result of both movements may look similar from outside, “tucking in” entails an active movement by contracting certain muscles and generating an excess of muscle tension. However, “dropping the tailbone” results in a release of muscle tension and letting the gravity do its work to reposition the pelvis naturally and effortlessly.
In a separate session, you can work on the position of another body part - say, your head and neck, - in a similar way, while going over the whole form or just a segment of it. Direct your neck to release “up and slightly forward” and imagine your head suspended on a string attached to the crown of your head. This will naturally bring your head into the correct position. However, using the command “tuck your chin in” will call for an active muscle contraction on your part and will not be as beneficial. The difference between the two will affect the quality of your movement: the neck will be stiff, the position of your head, which is supposed to move freely during the form, will be fixed and the flow of your movement blocked.
The second method (2) of applying principles of deliberate practice to tai chi would entail picking a particular movement in the form - say, “snake creeps down” or “ward off left”, and repeatedly going over it very slowly, paying attention to the quality of your movement at each moment: note your balance, distribution and transfer of your weight, breathing, positioning of different body parts and joints (feet, knees, hips, pelvis, spine, shoulder girdle, head, etc.) relative to each other, and trajectory of each body part as it moves. Again, try it many times, slightly changing the move every time to find the correct and natural way to perform it. Of course, here one cannot emphasize enough the role a good tai chi teacher plays in finding that ultimately correct form. It’s critical to check with your teacher regularly to keep your self-directed practice on the right path. When practicing by yourself, use a mirror to gain an insight into your form and make adjustments to it.
I find that this kind of methodical practice requires considerable mental concentration to be able to bring the attention back to the minutiae of body movement over and over. It seems difficult (or even impossible at the beginning) to sustain that level of concentration for a long time and it is not inherently enjoyable. Thus, I was advised to start small, even if it is just for 2-3 minutes at a time, but do it consistently. And I was promised that it would bring about the desired long-term changes, however painstakingly small.
The deliberate practice is, of course, relevant to learning not only tai chi, but any new complex motor skill – dancing, playing a musical instrument, acting, singing, and athletic performance. It is not an exaggeration to say that learning any of these skills is first and foremost a cognitive task and should be approached as such by complementing physical training with this kind of reflective (self-) coaching, which is crucial to attaining high proficiency level in a chosen art form.
P.S. After a short discussion with my teacher, I would like to add a disclaimer. This is my current view and I don’t certainly have it all figured out myself; so, take all this with a grain (or three) of salt. I may change my opinion in the future, as I am in a constant learning mode. This is where I am right now in my very own journey to self-improvement. Where are you on your tai chi path and on what goals are you currently working? ______________________
*If you are in the mood for some scholarly reading, here is the link to Dr. Ericsson’s webpage that lists his publications, including the original 1993 paper that introduced the concept http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson.dp.html
On a side note, this concept has been further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and has become a basis for his widely cited “10,000-hour rule”: http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930 However, it has been recently challenged by a study from Princeton University: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S40/43/14C80/index.xml?section=topstories
** This is especially true for female practitioners, as far as I can tell (but don’t quote me on this, as this is my personal, purely non-scientific, observation). It may be those shoes with high heels that I myself love to wear and am not willing to give up, even for health benefit.