(My photo taken while camping in the Adirondack mountains, Summer 2012)
I do not normally speak to beginning students of this for they certainly have enough on their plate. Perhaps it will help some few to see where we have been and what to avoid in order to see where we are going and thus what stage you are at in learning Tai Chi? We speak of stages in the learning of Tai Chi and the first stage is to take command/control of the torso. In this stage you will learn to differentiate between what is moving (yang) and what is non-moving (yin): In other words what part of the body is energized and what part is relaxed. Contrary to what is commonly thought, the indication is that one can relax only if one achieves some energizing. In this regard, one's attention will concentrate on the energized and not on the relaxed part of the body. In other words, if you have no intent on certain parts of the body and no sensation of feedback (feedback from movement) then those parts will become relaxed. An example of this is the student who tried to relax his shoulder by concentrating on relaxing that part of the body, focusing on the shoulder. Here we have a classic "did the chicken come first or did the egg" kind of problem. By focusing on the shoulder, the student had so much attention on the shoulder that it kept that part of the body moving. If the body is relaxed then energizing and energy flow will fluorish and if the body is tense then it will not. However, the problem is summed up by one who in asking for directions to Carnegie Hall, was given directions to practice, practice, practice for there is no easy route.
One can achieve these higher levels but speaking from experience it does take years, particularly if one does not have consistent access to a teacher. In discussing stages, Master Hwa tells me in passing that my level of internal energy is higher than his when he was at my stage. This is not to gloat or brag but simply to stress the point that even distance learners can not only progress but also achieve high levels.. What has been achieved in distance learning is due to Master Hwa's caring, straight forward, but no nonsense and intensely comprehensive course of study presented in Classical Tai Chi. The number of years will tell you that my part in the process was to persist and practice, practice, practice. In all humility he will tell you he also sees a direct conduit to his teacher and the teachers who went before. This has not been easy, partly because I never took regular weekly and in-person classes with him. There were private classes on numerous occasions but largely they worked to reinforce what has been learned from the DVD.
I hope I am not letting the cat out of the bag but I noted early on that he does not spoon-feed students. I say "...letting the cat out..." regarding the learning for I think that most students do not realize this is happening. He tells me something once and I make it a point not to continue on with the mistake. Of course there have been occasions where I did hear what he was saying but I did not listen and I realize (later to my chagrin) that I finally snapped out of it. I don't believe that he dislikes people because of these foibles, on the contrary I know that he seems happy that students make effort to persist. The recorded lessons are not perfectly comprehensive for one would need volumes more to hold it all. One hears his in-house students speak of things that he did not elaborate on in the DVD series and I am temporarily taken aback, for I thought differently. On the other hand I was able to fluorish early on with just the DVD's and outpace even the in-house students in several aspects. What went before is study of what I call external style Tai Chi for some time and that helped in some ways but it has hindered me in others. It is still difficult to forget some of the things that were learned previously for that has involved a weeding out process where I culled what I thought things should be and what they actually are with no illusion. Without a doubt and aside from what little contribution I make here, I also feel that writing has helped a great deal with the weeding out process.
The eventual goal is that one will make all movements internal and integrate them with the arms and legs. This is so that one can achieve the ability to "use internal movement to direct one's external motion". Internal energy circulates in the body with no stopping or breakage in the the flow. You can then play the form without thinking, it is subconscious and any attempts to integrate internal movement into your everyday life is easy. So as you see in my second paragraph, there is an intensity of struggle and engagement in the beginning stages. Now, as he has stated, the mind is free to enjoy feelings of pleasure from the movement. I am talking about, real ( not imagined or visualized ) feelings, sensations of stretching and energy circulation in the body. When I speak of internal "energy" I am referring to the tactile (as in touch) sensations that one feels when moving any area of the torso. I am not referring to the many other definitions attributed to the word energy such as "force of the universe", etc., etc. The tactile energy is also defined by its continuity of movement, its flow and circulation. In a relaxed body, it can keep "going and going and going", flowing and flowing and flowing to recoin the popular phrase about the Energizer Bunny.
Inevitably in talk of energy, students talk to me of their Qigong or speak in terms such as "well in Qigong one does this or one feels that". But really I find that my state of mind (at this level of achievement) when doing the Tai Chi is indistinguishable from any of the motion induced Qigong practice I did in my previous Tai Chi training. I would say that the present state of mind is that of Tai Chi and Qigong being one and the same. Herein is the danger for beginning students, some of whom may have read books, articles, or watched video about the subject of Qi (Chi). I see there are many teachers, books, videos out there that bring emphasis about Qi way too early for beginning students. Aren't they overwhelmed and confused enough? Do we have to browbeat them into learning by overloading them to the point of submission? My teacher speaks of students being only part of the way into the learning process yet talking of Qi, Qi, Qi.
In his book Master Hwa further states that "enamored by the glamorous and mysterious qi, they start to dabble with the advanced visualization (note his use of the word visualization) qi gong exercises or mind-induced qi gong in contrast to safe, motion-induced qigong such as Tai Chi. Without a good qigong teacher this may lead to the wrong path. Here is a video link to an excerpt wherein Master Hwa speaks of the dangers of visualization Qigong: Link to Visualization Qigong Problems could include uncontrollable spasmodic motion (people start jumping around, waving arms, yelling, singing, screaming, rolling on the floor) or the more serious qigong psychosis which is now included in the DSM-IV (as a "culture bound syndrome"). I have personally witnessed these types of spasmodic body motion reactions, singing, yelling when I visited a Qigong session at an Acupuncture clinic.
The well known acupuncturist (featured in Forbes Magazine and treated the NY Giants football team) said: "I know you do Tai Chi but come to my clinic tonight, you have never seen Qigong like this". Watching the group from a seated chair outside their circle I observed various individuals move uncontrollably as I describe above. When I say uncontrollably, I mean exactly that, for in one case I saw an obese woman bending and flopping her arms to touch her toes from a standing position. I see no way someone with such girth could do that completely of their own volition, for in watching her enter the office, she could barely walk due to her weight. The acupuncturist was using "external qigong" and directing it at the patients. The external qigong came through the physical movements of the acupuncturist as he moved in and around the circle of patients and it induced such uncontrollable movement in their bodies. The acupuncturist also taught visualization Qigong to the patients and they (according to his statements) were visualizing the Qi while he treated them. In my estimation, unless one has the right teacher (not found in Classical Tai Chi curriculum, we do not teach these practices) one should steer clear of practicing these "visualizations" on their own.
I conclude by saying as does my teacher: "The best approach for the student is to practice Tai Chi Form or silk reeling exercise without any conscious thought, (conscious visualization, conscious imagery) or hidden longing about qigong. Just enjoy the sensation of internal energy (tactile sensations) circulating in the body and let qi come naturally"