What is the most important exercise for tai chi students? What can students of all levels do to propel themselves toward mastery? If you have taken so much as a single class in tai chi, you have probably already learned it!
For many people, learning tai chi can involve no more than a simple 10-posture routine. Others immerse themselves in years of study that encompasses an extensive curriculum of qigong, forms, tuishou (push-hands), theory, philosophy, weapons, martial applications, sparring, medicine, and more.
The irony is that the most enthusiastic student and scholar may not develop any greater skill than the person who sticks to the simple exercise. Learning a lot is not the same as doing it well.
I myself have been adding to my own knowledge for 30 years. Yet I know that there are many students with far less time under their belts who have a higher level of skill than I.
In some schools of qigong there is a term that translates roughly as “the extraordinary foundation method.” This refers to a simple, introductory exercise that is a prerequisite for learning the more advanced practices. It is called extraordinary, however, because the diligent practice of the extraordinary foundation method can, all by itself, lead a student to a high level of achievement. In addition, the extraordinary foundation method is practised even by the most advanced students.
One starts with the extraordinary foundation method in order to qualify to learn many more advanced and sophisticated methods. But in the end, the student will find that the only thing that makes a real difference is the extraordinary foundation method.
In most cases, the extraordinary foundation method seems to be a means of relaxing the body and calming the mind. This is an obvious requirement for students of martial arts, qigong, and other tools of self transformation.
But the implications of relaxing the body and calming the mind are quite profound! With this skill comes great awareness, improved alignment, focus, root, power, speed, and harmony with the universe.
All of the advanced skills depend entirely on the extraordinary foundation method and its achievements.
What is an example of an extraordinary foundation method?
For students of yiquan, it might be zhan zhuang (standing meditation)
For students of tai chi it could be the slow practice of a very simple routine (or zhan zhuang).
For students of baguazhang, it is walking the circle and the single palm change.
For qigong students it could be guanqifa (qi permeating technique) or just sitting still.
For other martial arts students it could be wubuquan (five basic stances) or just horse stance.
Many students are happy to learn the extraordinary foundation method and nothing more. Others require the advanced training in order to understand the importance of the extraordinary foundation method. After years of training and study, they finally come back to the extraordinary foundation method with a new awareness of its importance and power.
Many is the student who, upon reaching 3rd, 4th, or 5th degree black belt, comes to the stunning realisation that the only thing that will make a truly profound improvement in their ability, is the exercise that they learned on the first day of class.