Friday, March 19, 2010

The Learning Process, Perseverance

Confucius once said that if one man could learn something by one try then you knew it could be done. It might take more time and effort on your part, say ten tries, but you could do it if you persevered in the activity.

Throughout school and in our jobs we hear things like learning curve and progress reports and other such silly, fictitious things. These things are rules in the game of school and work. They should not apply to daily life at all. And yet... we tend to feel bad when we don't get something as quickly as someone else does. We feel stupid, slow, behind. All of this is because we are basing our idea of progress on either the accomplishments of our peers or on some imaginary charting system.

In my martial arts practice and teaching, there are no belts of certificates. This is probably not the soundest marketing strategy because people love marks of accomplishment, but I prefer the more traditional approach where ranking is based on amount of time practiced and your level of demonstrable skill. To give you some perspective, I've known a large number of Black Belts in various martial arts who cannot even defend themselves against simple attacks.

This being said when you start Tai Chi in one of my classes you don't follow me in class doing the form. You learn one movement per week. Maybe two if they are repeated movements or closely linked and that is it. Then it is up to you to practice. If you practice and I am satisfied with the technical aspects of the move, then the next week, you learn the next move. If I'm not happy with it we stay on that one move until you have reached an acceptable standard of skill. It's not a value judgment. It's not a critique of your character or who you are as a person it is simply my concern for doing what you are paying me to do which is to teach you a martial art for health and self-defense.

In the scheme of things let's say Sally in your class learns the movements about one per week, she is fairly skilled at memorizing choreography, where you spend six months learning two moves. Does it really matter? No, not at all. You have to put in more effort but in the end you and Sally have learned the same moves.

In fact, I'd have to say that Sally is less likely to ever become truly adept at Tai Chi. It was easy for her, like walking or breathing. She thinks nothing of it... and fails to practice regularly. You on the other hand have to work extremely hard to make progress. It's an investment of time and energy. You have struggled to get where you are, so the form is meaningful to you. So you practice everyday and surpass Sally's skill by progressing an inch at a time.

So when you join a Tai Chi class be willing to work for what you want, make your goals realistic in line with your current ability and most of all practice a little bit each day.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wu Wei

There is a concept found in Chinese philosophy called Wu Wei or doing-not doing or effortless action. If you have ever played push hands with me you will have a small taste of what wu wei is. Effortless action is where you do only what is required to perform the action and then stop. This is a powerful counterpoint to the idea of "Going the extra mile."

My students often comment in pushing hands practice that the harder they try, the more they get thrown backward or up into the air. This is correct. This idea this counterpoint to going above and beyond and putting in the effort to do something may seem like an invitation to laziness. Putting extra effort into doing a thing is pointless. The only work that is required is that required to perform the action. This however is not the only thing going on in the action.

When you see a Kung Fu master throw someone effortlessly, or you see a chef prepare a wonderful meal, or a writer produce an outstanding piece of work you are not seeing their efforts. The throw, the cooking, the piece of writing are in essence effortless. Does this mean that no work was involved? Not at all!

The Kung Fu master has put his or her effort into the practice and honing of the craft. The effort is expended not in the action we see but in the roots of the action. In the thousands of hours of learning movements, practicing stances, analyzing the movements of more experienced practitioners. The same goes for the chef and the writer. Thousands of hours of work and practice go into the meal or the writing.

What is the difference between this effort and the effort invested in performing the action? Simple... the effort of practice is a sustained, daily. It is spread over time and this means its results are more profound and far reaching. The amateur, the one who only puts forth effort when he or she is performing the action, can never hope to match that kind of effort.

I suppose the essence of Wu Wei lies in this: Small sustained efforts create actions of great power. Large, sporadic efforts create actions of little meaning and great strain.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doing what we can

Oftentimes I am in class and people marvel at some of the things my body can do. To me it's nothing special but to them it seems almost like magic. Then I look at someone who has been practicing longer than I have and say precisely the same thing but to these men and women it's nothing special.

I have contemplated this for a long time and a term pops into my head just now as I commit thoughts to writing. The term is gradual gains. If we want to master Tai Chi, or music, or cooking we don't leap up one morning and become masters of any art. We have to begin with something small. A single movement, a simple set of notes, an omelet. Then we can begin to grow our knowledge. cultivate it carefully by practice and attention. Practice is repetitive. Nothing thankfully is like in the movie The Matrix where we can simply download skills to our minds. We have to work for it. We have to use our creativity and our effort to accomplish the skillfulness we desire.

Desire for skillfulness is important. Without it we do not master anything. How many wonderful talented people are just sitting around unemployed or unappreciated simply because they lack the desire for skill? We all want instant returns. The lottery win, the inheritance, the windfall, the magic pill that makes us well without effort. Sadly none of those things exist. We all have to work at it to make things happen. So... we come to the newly coined phrase gradual returns.

Anytime you practice you make a very gradual gain. You are given something new each day you put in the time to practice. The trick is to appreciate it. Appreciate the small gains and remember what one of my teachers always drilled into my skull: "The years will see what the days may never know."

So do what you can and practice everyday. It's that simple.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Breathing and Health

I have mentioned before how important power training or force training is. Well in this entry we are going to talk about some specific techniques of power training. The first step is to learn abdominal breathing. Without this step you are hopelessly lost. Basically abdominal breathing is the act of expanding the abdomen when you inhale and contracting it upon the exhale. This expansion and contraction will feel somewhat forced at first. The best way to start to get the hang of this is to place your hand on your upper abdomen. (Many people recommend the lower abdomen but this is stomach pushing, not abdominal breathing) Once your hand is on the upper belly you practice expanding it outward and trying to feel your diaphragm, a large plate like muscle under your rib cage.

Once you get the knack of expanding and contracting your upper belly, relax and start trying to breathe in when the diaphragm expands and out when the diaphragm contracts. This is quite difficult to do for most people and really is most easily learned in a class situation. However, any effort is very, very useful. You will begin to get more air into the lungs on inhale and then you will push out waste gases on exhale. This is so valuable that you cannot underestimate its worth.

Most people are chest breathers, they take shallow sips of air while leaving poisonous carbon dioxide and other wastes in the lungs. This is a terrible state of affairs. Only with real, deep abdominal breathing can we even begin to talk about being healthy, let alone having internal force.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Goals and aims in training

In order to get the best from Tai Chi training, or from anything else in life, you have to have a clear idea of what it is you are trying to accomplish with your training. In the beginning of your training you may have a simple overarching goal like "I want to learn a Tai Chi form" or "I'd like to improve my health," or perhaps "I'd like to lose some weight." These are good general goals to have but they are the kinds of vague goals we set all the time. The biggest problem with them is that they lack specificity. They are general ideas not concrete destinations.

A goal has to be achievable in order to be useful. Learning a Tai Chi form has an end but learning the form is not an easy thing as anyone who has been to a Tai Chi class for more than five minutes will tell you. So in the beginning I try to give my students a very simple goal. They will learn one new movement per week. This enables them to have a concrete gain at the end of each class session. A good teacher strives to help you with your goals but the process is helped immeasurably by your consciously setting and discussing goals with your teacher. Then the two of you can work in tandem to accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish.

So the next time you consider starting anything, or setting a goal for yourself please take the general idea and get into specifics. Be specific about what you want and you will find yourself getting it far more often.