Mapping out your tai chi form – a tool to help

Learning a tai chi form takes time. It can be hard to remember the order of moves, and one little mistake can throw you off for the rest of the sequence.

I recommend ‘mapping out’ the form, by which I mean paying close attention to the direction that you are facing in with each move.

Mapping is easiest if you always practise in the same place, and always start in the same direction. I mapped out my own form in a church hall in Oxford 20 years ago and I can still clearly visualise what it looked like inside! Even now I sometimes refer back to that mental map when running through my form.

To help my students map out their own form I have produced a PDF that lists the moves of the form and providing an arrow which indicates the direction that each move ends up facing.

I’ve provided a sample section above. If you’d like a copy of the full 2 page map then drop me an email or leave a comment below.


Make 2018 your year of Tai Chi!

The Monday night class in the Balloch Hall has now resumed. It runs from 2030 – 2130. If you fancy getting 2018 off to a healthful and relaxing start why not come along and give it a try!

I love this time of  year, with its lengthening days and the promise of a fresh start. There’s nothing better than a bit of outdoor Tai Chi in the crisp winter sun.

The photo was taken during a Chi Kung session on the shores of a frozen Loch Morlich, with the snowy Cairngorms behind.  I’m doing standing Chi Kung or Zhan Zhuang (literally standing like a pole). This practise is great for body awareness and  posture. One simply stands and listens the body, paying close attention to all the little micro-adjustments that the body makes as it effortlessly resists the pull of gravity.

Give the gift of Tai Chi this Xmas with a Taster Voucher from Wild Tai Chi!

Struggling for present ideas?

Why not give your hard-to-buy-for loved ones a Tai Chi Taster Voucher from Wild Tai Chi?

What is Tai Chi? Think of Tai Chi as a kind of standing Chinese yoga, with a dollop of relaxation and mindfulness thrown in for good measure!

What do you get? Each voucher entitles the holder to 1 hour of tuition, including gentle warmup exercises, body awareness, relaxation and balance.

Where will the session take place? It depends on the weather! If it’s wet and wintery I’ll use the Balloch Village Hall or a similar venue. If the weather is good we can use one of my local outdoor tai chi venues.

Can I bring a friend along? Sure – the voucher covers 1 or 2 people!

How long does the voucher last for? Vouchers are valid until December 31st 2018

What does it cost? Because it’s almost Christmas I’m offering these vouchers at £45 each (a 25 % discount over my regular price for a 1:1 lesson!)

Sounds great, how do I buy one? You can pay by Paypal or bank transfer, message me for details.

How do I redeem my voucher? Contact me on 07769 215 657 or, we’ll arrange a suitable time and place for your taster session.


Wild Tai Chi at Camas Mor

There are few things  more relaxing than a trip to the seaside, even better if it is a remote and deserted beach such as Camas Mor, on the headland between Gairloch and Poolewe in the northwest highlands.

The beach faces north, and the waves breaking onto the sand came straight down the Minch from the North Atlantic, unimpeded by the Outer Hebrides. It was a delight to just sit and watch them fold onto the beach before wandering down onto the sand for a Tai Chi session.

A fabulous venue that easily repays the not inconsiderable effort required to access it.

Wild Tai Chi at the Loch Fleet Family Fun Day

I ran a Tai Chi session taster session at the Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve  as part of a Family Open Day organised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Sutherland Community Partnership.

The dunes near Littleferry provided a perfect venue for Tai Chi, flat, dry and with inspiring views to the Sutherland hills and the sea. The day was showery but we got a great dry window for the session.

Thanks to all  who participated! Here’s a few photos from the event, taken by Ian Sargent of SNH.

What should I wear for my Tai Chi class?

This is the question I am asked most by new students.. When it comes to clothes the answer is easy – anything comfortable. Gym clothes are fine. There is no need to dress in robes like you’re from a different century.

It’s less straightforward to tell people what to wear on their feet. I used to go barefoot, then I got into wearing trainers. Both are fine. But I think I’ve found the perfect footwear – barefoot shoes!

I have previously been very suspicious of these ridiculous foot gloves, but I have been getting into barefoot walking as part of my efforts to strengthen the arches of my feet. Unfortunately my feet are really too soft and sensitive for walking around on jaggy stones, so I suppressed my doubts and ordered up a used pair of Vibram Fivefingers.

My toes can really spread out and they have just enough protection to take the pain out of barefoot walking. It feels like my feet are being reanimated  after years of being locked in foot coffins.

I’ve since discovered that Chinese copies can be had on ebay for a fraction of the cost of the overpriced genuine items.

Counting the Moves in the Cheng Man-Ch’ing 37 Posture Form

How many moves are there in the 37 move form?

This may sound like a trick question, but the answer is actually 65 moves. This is because many of the moves are repeated. For example Single Whip appears five times, Brush Left Knee Push appears three times. The table below lists all 65 occurrences of the 37 unique moves.

The early sections of the form take the longest to learn, because every move is fresh. But once you get past a certain point, you will be familiar with many of the moves and will race through the rest of the form.

The last column of the table is useful for those who are learning the form, because gives you an idea of your real rate of progress.

Punch Under Elbow is the 23rd of the 65 moves, or 35 %  of the way through the form. But if you consider only the unique moves it is actually the halfway point – by the time you get here you have learned 49 % of the form

Making these calculations strikes me as a distinctly un-Tai Chi thing to do, but I  think there is a lot of value learning all the moves quite quickly, rather than focussing on each one in great detail.  Once you have learned the sequence you can focus on developing relaxation and flow. Don’t forget to go back and refine the individual sections though!


Tai Chi without the Mumbo Jumbo*

Cheng Man-Ch’ing stated that to attempt to discuss Tai Chi without reference to Yin, Yang and the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) is like discussing mathematics without mentioning arithmetic or algebra. By which I presume he meant that it was pointless.

This can be off-putting to people of a Western mindset who have not been schooled in the fundamentals of Chinese philosophy. Does this mean that such people cannot benefit from Tai Chi? Of course not!

In their excellent book ‘Tai Chi for Every Body’, Eva and Karel Koskuba explain fundamentals of Tai Chi in terms recognisable to, but likely unfamiliar to, modern westerners.

Here is my summary…

Tonic and Phasic Muscles

We have two types of muscles, Tonic and Phasic.

Tonic muscles support our posture, stabilising us against the pull of gravity. They are not under conscious control. Their use is effortless. These muscles are always working. They also control our breathing, digestion, and blood circulation.

Phasic muscles are used to move, we can relax and contract them at will. Such  use requires effort. Deliberate motions such as lifting your leg, closing your hand or turning your head all primarily use phasic muscles.

Chi and Tonic and Phasic Muscles

In Tai Chi training we are encouraged to cultivate our chi to achieve the ideal of effortless action (wu wei). We are told that relaxation is the key to cultivating the chi.

The Koskubas interpret this as an instruction  to relax all the muscles that are within our conscious control (Phasic) and allow the postural (Tonic) muscles to do their job, making constant, subconscious adjustments to keep us standing erect despite gravity’s constant pull, the wind and any other forces that  may be acting on us.

In order to let the tonic muscles do their job, we must have proper posture. This is not the normal state of the typical western adult, in which improper posture has to be compensated for by active use of the Phasic muscles.

Try for yourself

Now you know the theory, try to stand upright for as long as you can, with proper posture (head balanced, neck relaxed, upper body balanced  on top of hips, whole body balanced on top of feet and ankles).

If your posture was correct and your phasic muscles were relaxed you could maintain this position indefinitely, using no more effort than is required to keep your heart beating.

Unless you have perfect posture and complete relaxation you will not be able to stand upright indefinitely. You will be able to identify the phasic muscles that you are using to compensate – they are the ones that hurt!

By standing and attempting to relax, while  making adjustments to your posture you will be able to stand for longer without experiencing pain**. This means that your posture is improving.



* Note that I am not dismissing Chinese philosophy as mumbo jumbo – merely noting that to those unschooled in its concepts it may as well be mumbo jumbo.

** Cheng Man-Ch’ing was once asked by a student when his legs would stop hurting. The professor replied that when his legs stop hurting he would  have stopped improving. In other words, when he had attained perfect posture.

Yunrou’s automotive metaphor for Tai Chi

Over the holidays I caught up with a few back episodes of the Forbidden Rice Podcast. produced by the renowned American Taoist, martial artist and writer Yunrou.

One episode that stuck with me was the following automotive metaphor for Tai Chi.

A car is a machine that uses an engine to convert fuel into power. That power is then connected to the ground using the transmission and directed using a steering wheel.

Here’s how Yunrou relates this to Tai Chi.

Gravity is the fuel for Tai Chi – without gravity one cannot drop the centre of gravity, because there isn’t one!

Relaxation is Tai Chi’s engine.  Relaxation can be thought of as the body’s response to gravity, hence it does the same job as an engine, converting fuel into power.

The Tan Tien ( a point about an inch below the navel, 3/7 of the way from back to front) is Tai Chi’s  transmission – it connects the power to the ground.

The Lower back is Tai Chi’s steering wheel, through which one directs the power to the hands and feet and the rest of the body.

Keep this in mind next time you practise. I found it helpful and I hope you do too.


Mountaintop Tai Chi on Ben Hope

I love sleeping high at this time of year. From the vantage point of a summit the pink glow of a midsummer sunset never quite disappears, it just slides along the horizon until the dregs of sunset become the first glimmers of the next day’s sunrise.

I took a trip up to the far north last week. In the afternoon I made a quick ascent of Ben Klibreck, then, after enjoying a meal of homemade dehydrated food at my car (the glamour!), shouldered my pack for an evening ascent of Ben Hope, the most northerly of Scotland’s Munros (a Munro is a peak over 3000 ft). I reached the top around 2030 hrs, pitched my tent just north of the summit and settled in for a memorable night.

Conditions were tremendous, with atmospheric shifting cloud giving way overnight to a bright and sunny morning. It can be tricky to do a tai chi form on the uneven ground of a mountain summit, but there is always space to do some standing exercises. I passed a pleasant morning in tai chi and meditation before the lack of water drove me back down off the hill.

During the descent I attempted to rationalise the tremendous feeling of wellbeing and connectedness engendered by my mountaintop tai chi session.

First of all let’s elaborate on the concept of chi. I’m a scientist, and early on my tai chi journey I had difficulty accepting my teacher’s statements about this amorphous, unmeasurable energy. But as my practise deepened I began to experience the feeling of chi flowing in my body.

I like this definition from Wolfe Lowenthal’s ‘There Are No Secrets’, in which chi is part metaphor, part physiological reality.

“In Tai Chi we try to relax in order to open up to the flow of the chi. Chi is transcendent energy, the life force…….. Chi relates to the circulation of the blood, but also to the energy of thought and spirit.”

Lowenthal goes on to quote Cheng Man-Ch’ing as saying

“The chi that flows in our bodies is the same chi that moves the stars in the heavens.”

This fits well with the eastern concept of the illusion of separateness, the idea that all things are connected. We are not distinct, independent entities navigating our way through an inert environment. In reality we are best understood as manifestations of the wonderful and mysterious unfolding universe of which we are part.  It is easy to ignore or deny this truth. But is much harder to do so when you are doing tai chi on the top of a mountain.