One of the things I like best about T’ai Chi is that I usually feel energized, not tired, after practice. Of course, that’s not always true, particularly when I first started. It’s stressful trying to learn something new, and stress, and repetition, always makes me tired. However, the longer I practice and the better I learn moves, the less stressful it becomes. Once I’ve learned a section of the form, practicing that section at home is revitalizing, not tiring.
Relaxing is a vital part of T’ai Chi, a part most beginners find extremely difficult to practice, particularly when holding positions. Waysun Liao points out that Master Yang, the one who started the branch of T’ai Chi I’m learning, stressed relaxation:
As Master Yang reminded his students constantly, "Relax; relax completely, as if the body is transparent." And Master Cheng advised, "Relax; each joint, each part of your body should open up and be loose." Unless you reach a state of total mental and physical relaxation (shoong), the flow of ch'i cannot be felt. Therefore, the T'ai Chi practitioner should spend a great deal of time meditating in order to gain awareness of ch'i.
I’d have to say that over three fourths of the instructor’s corrections during practice have been moving my form towards a less-rigid, more relaxed position.
While part of the tightness comes from improper positioning of the arms or legs, much of it comes from trying too hard to master various positions.
Mental relaxation is much more important than physical relaxation, because mental tension will undoubtedly cause physical stiffness. Beginners should start with a calmed mind, progress to a totally relaxed body, and then meditate with the universe. This will allow the practitioner to sense the rhythmic power waves of the universe and to eventually increase the awareness of the ch'i circulation within the body, as if it circulated with the entire universe.
Perhaps it’s just me since I’ve always seemed to have two left feet when it comes to dancing, the critical part of T’ai Chi is establishing a rhythm that can carry you through all of the positions. When I think too much, I often end up in a herky-jerky sort of motion rather than the continuous flow that I’m aiming for.
It’s hard for me to believe at this stage, but Waysun Liao says one danger is that students will begin to practice mindlessly:
In the beginning it is imperative that a great deal of attention be paid to the mind, the body, and the new forms that have to be learned. As time goes on, however, the forms become much easier. The physical movements require so little effort, in fact, that they can be performed without the student having to pay any attention to what is being done. All too often, T'ai Chi becomes a mechanical routine, and the student ignores the important mental aspects of the discipline completely. This attitude, which develops gradually, can paralyze mental development.
While I haven’t seen any signs of that happening yet in my practice, I’ve certainly had that happen in the past with other forms of physical exercise, like the Army’s daily dozen.
Still, if you consider T’ai Chi as a form of meditation, as I do, you’ll realize Waysun Liap is right when he states:
In T'ai Chi practice, concentration on the entire body and mind is needed to achieve a state that increases ch'i awareness and serves as the foundation for progress in the art. The T'ai Chi Classics say that "whether you are doing a Ward Off Form, a Rollback Form, Press, or Push, you should concentrate on the real practice." Master Cheng explains: "You have to look into its real meaning instead of paying no attention to what you are doing; otherwise a Ward Off Form won't be a Ward Off Form, and a Rollback Form won't be a Rollback Form any more." Because the true T'ai Chi practitioner works by exercising the mind and body together, not paying attention to what you are doing means that you won't be in the state of T'ai Chi. You will only be performing a T'ai Chi like exercise, which cannot be considered true T'ai Chi practice.