I don’t expect people to practise the material we cover in the classes, but when they do, it’s a huge bonus.
When they practise, progression is faster, they become more engaged in the activity, and it becomes their’s … they start to ‘own’ it because they’re taking responsibility for it.
I go for a private tai chi lesson (or qigong, depending on what we’re working on) every two weeks with my teacher, and I particularly remember one lesson a year or so ago when I had been unable to practise. I told her this before we started, and her only comment was, “That’s okay; it just means that you won’t have any questions”.
I didn’t have any questions about the previous lesson, and I realised that, because I’d been so busy with other matters, I’d been unable to engage with and embody what we’d done in the previous lesson.
This is not an exhortation to practise. People do tai chi for all sorts of reasons, some just to get out of the house, others to meet people, or get exercise once a week, others to find out a bit more about something they’d heard about, understand their own body, or perhaps just to improve their balance… etc.
Expecting them to practise is not part of my remit, but, if they do … it’s a bonus… for all concerned.
Apart from the time and habit factors in people’s lives, as well as the major problem that beginners encounter, which is remembering what we did in a class, I suspect that the vast majority of people don’t know how to practise.
Recently, I started playing the classical guitar again. When I was at music college, the guitar had been my second instrument, and although I’d enjoyed it, I never really got to grips with it; so, I thought I’d give it another try.
If you’ve never played a musical instrument, there’s a chance that you’ve never learnt how to practice effectively, although perhaps if you’ve played a sport you might have had the opportunity to endlessly repeat the same shot until you got it right.
With an instrument (although you can apply this concept to anything that you learn), the temptation is just to play the piece through, making mistakes but ignoring them, with the sole intention of getting to the end.
There’s an element of hope that the piece will go okayish, as though by either pushing hard enough or fast enough, somehow you’ll batter your way through to the end, and after that, you’ll convince your body and mind that they know what they’re doing, never to encounter any of the previous problems again.
Ultimately this method will work but takes twice as long as good practice.
How to practise
As soon as you hit the first glitch, however small, stop.
Repeat the connection between the part that was okay and the part that wasn’t, not just once but as many times as it takes to get it right.
In the case of my guitar piece, this might be the transition between two chords or notes or hand position changes.
In the case of a taiji or qigong move, this might be the change from one posture to another, or simply the way in which one limb moves its place in space, or how the contraction of the abdomen connects to an elbow or knee.
Whilst practising this way on the guitar, I re-learnt how extraordinarily efficient and fast it was. I noticed that, when it started to go well, there was a degree of satisfaction; then irritation, when it fell back a step or two. I noticed that, in the latter case, it meant that I’d stopped focusing and was hoping that automation would kick in.
Two steps forward, and one step backward
There is also a further stage to practising.
After a while, perhaps a couple of days or even weeks of learning something that you are trying to embody, it starts to go wrong again.
This happens to everyone and is very frustrating as you feel that everything you’ve done to date is wasted. However, this isn’t the case, you’ve simply moved on to the next stage.
This is the stage where you move on from physical learning (body) to analytical learning (brain), and often doesn’t last long; you are connecting body and mind so that the two work harmoniously.
This isn’t dissimilar to meeting a new person. On the first few times of seeing them you might
a) recognise them,
b) search for ‘hooks’ on which to hang communication (friends in common, experiences in common, similar sense of humour, etc., etc,), and
c) categorise them based on previous experience.
After a while, you begin to ‘get to know them’, in other words, much of the superficial information that you first picked up, or even assigned to them (perhaps incorrectly … all those judgements and expectations) are reconsidered, and you become more comfortable with them.
Getting through blockages
There is also a ‘trick’ that you can play when, in spite of plenty of practise, progress seems to completely stagnate; this is one that music teachers know can work when putting pupils in for an exam.
If you stop practising for a day before the exam (or even 2 days), you often play much better in the exam, almost as though, having removed the stress of trying to improve, you have gone on to automatic, and what you really know comes through, but without the stress.
Obviously you have to have done the practise in the first place!
When to practise
Earlier on I mentioned the ‘time and habit’ reasons for not practising.
The most common reason is, “I didn’t have time”.
We all use this, and probably all of us know it’s not really true. Perhaps it really means: “I didn’t remember to get myself in the right frame of mind, and organise my life very efficiently”. We cram an incredible amount into our lives, and sometimes it takes a too much energy to get it well-organised.
The ‘habit’ reason for not practising is that we live much of our lives operating on automatic.
This means we don’t have to think, but also means that we don’t really connect with what we’re doing: “I get up at 6.55am. I eat my breakfast. I leave for work at 7.45am. There’s no time for anything else.”
There is only one time in the day where nothing is going to get in the way. Get up at 6.53am, and do 2 minutes of tai chi practise.
- There’s nothing to distract you.
- You’ve gained extra time at little cost.
- You’ll feel better for it.
If you do only 2 minutes, there’s a fairly good chance that it will turn into 3 or 4 minutes, but if it doesn’t, you’ve still done the 2 minutes, and additionally started to form a new habit!
This is practising.