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Yiheyuan Martial Arts

Real Tai Chi in Leeds, UK

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Common Tai Chi Errors
After several decades teaching Tai Chi to thousands of people, we would like to share with you the inadvertent mistakes that crop up again and again. 
These errors are not surprising when people are first learning Tai Chi, which is quite complex and a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but they are also common in experienced students who have been doing it for many years.  These students may become very frustrated that they have not "got it" yet but may be very resistant to any suggestions to correct these basic misunderstandings. 
This is not necessarily due to an unwillingness to cooperate.  Habits can be tricky to unlearn unless we have the determination to bring them under our conscious attention and control until the correct version becomes habitual. 
Another reason is that our brains, apparently, only process about one tenth of the information in front of us and we fill in the gaps with our own expectations.  We came across an example of this recently when we discovered two students clapping their hands under their leg during a kick.  Everyone else was doing a sweeping, circular kick and slapping the leg or foot with the hands as the leg passed them, but these ladies had heard the slap and in their mind's eye, seen it as clapping of the hands. 
When we misinterpret what is happening in this way, we can be very sure that we are right and it is very difficult for anyone to convince us otherwise, even the teacher who taught us in the first place.  It can therefore take great courage and an open mind to take a fresh look at what we are doing and ask ourselves with all honesty if we are really doing what the teacher is doing.
We're listing the twelve most common errors here so that you can avoid them or recognise them if you are doing any of them.  Some of them are quite subtle but have a huge knock-on effect in your Tai Chi forms and martial skills.  Once you have seen what not to do, and recognised it in your own forms, you can look at our Tai Chi Tips and explanations of the Tai Chi Classics to find out how to do it properly.
You may, of course, already be doing your Tai Chi perfectly.  If, however, you are scratching your head and wondering why other people seem to be picking it up more quickly than you are, you may find the following very helpful and will then be able to progress through the various levels of the art easily and safely.



1. Narrow stances - as if you are walking a tightrope, especially in ward off position.  This leads to loss of balance, instability and an inability to use the waist and dantien effectively.  It only takes a little more effort to step out diagonally into a shoulder width stance, as if your feet are on parallel train tracks, but the rewards you reap from doing it are quite profound. (Tip: The lower you sink into your supporting leg, the easier it is to step out to the diagonal).

2. Chicken leg - allowing the knee to collapse inwards due to turning in the toes of the front foot.  In forward stances, the toes point forwards towards an opponent but, because of the roughly triangular shape of the foot, it needs to be the big toe, or the inside edge of the foot, that is pointing forwards, otherwise, as you transfer your weight into the front leg, the knee bends inwards.

3. Throwing the hip out - moving diagonally from hip to hip rather than forwards and backwards.  This makes the posture unstable, the weight over-committed into one leg or the other and prevents you from using the waist and dantien effectively. Apart from having less power in your movements, you are also more likely to be pushed or pulled over in a fight.

4. Straight legs - either one or both legs locked out straight during some or all of the sequence.  This prevents correct use of the waist and dantien, makes it difficult to change direction or issue any power and can lead to loss of balance and even injury. If the back leg locks out in a forward stance, it tips the body forwards.

5. Stiffening the thumb joint - it seems like only a little thing, but squeezing in the thumb alongside a flat hand creates tension not only in the hand and arm but throughout the rest of the body and interferes with the fluidity of the movements.  The area between the thumb and hand should be open and relaxed and the palm slightly hollow.

6. Raising the shoulders and/or elbows - lifting one or both shoulders or elbows or using the shoulder muscles to lift the arm.  In Tai Chi the shoulders relax and just go along for the ride.  If an arm is raised, it rises from the wrist, with the rest of the arm dangling.  Using the shoulders or lifting the elbows creates tension and stiffness and interferes with the smooth, connected, whole body flow.  (Remember the Tai Chi Rap)

7. Leaning in any direction - Tai Chi works from a central axis (the spine) which needs to be free to turn.  Leaning interferes with balance and the ability of the spine to rotate freely at the waist. It also prevents you from dropping the tailbone and "rolling the dantien". Even in the Wu style, which encourages a forward slope to the body rather than the vertical line in other styles, the body is still in a straight alignment without "jack-knifing" or sticking the bottom out.

8. Leaving the back foot turned out  - In forward stances, the back foot turns in to an angle of about 45 degrees or less.  If it is left out at ninety degrees or more, it creates a twist on the ankle, knee and hip joints that can easily result in injury.  Whenever your waist turns you towards a new direction, let the back toes follow while your heel rests on the floor.

9. Not using the waist - In Tai Chi, if the waist doesn't move, nothing moves.  Trying to turn out a foot without allowing the waist to lead it is awkward and can cause problems with the hip, knee and ankle joints.

10. Looking up or down - The most fundamental Tai Chi principle is the suspending of the crown point, which is another way of saying "look straight ahead".  It might seem a little thing but if you are forever looking down at your feet to check where you are putting them, or looking up at the ceiling, this will affect the flexibility of your spine so that your waist and dantien will not be free to move properly.

11.  Trying too hard to "do it" - which leads to tension, stiffness and the mind interfering with the experience and expression of the form.  Once you have trained and mastered a movement, you can switch from thinking to feeling and allow it to flow naturally rather than forcing it.

12. Going too low - this error is more common among experienced students than beginners and is often seen in YouTube clips in which youngsters show off their gymnastic ability by performing their Tai Chi with their bottoms almost touching the ground and their knees bending as if they are made of rubber.  Usually this is accompanied by locked out back legs, bottoms sticking out, arched backs, leaning forwards, knees extended beyond the toes and back heels sliding out, leading to instability, loss of internal power and possible injury to joints.  It might look good in a demonstration but it's martial value is highly questionable and, since it's not following the Tai Chi principles, it's not, strictly speaking, Tai Chi.

If all of this sounds complicated, don't worry; once you have grasped all of the above, things become so much easier. If you study the classics, watch your teacher carefully and ask questions if you are not sure, you will start to see that the art is based on just a few basic principles (such as a relaxed, upright posture, dropping the shoulders, suspending the crown point, sinking and rooting, freeing up the waist and breathing from the dantien) and everything follows from these.

For further information about the basic Tai Chi principles, please download our free beginner and intermediate guides, available from our companion website

Tai Chi might seem difficult at first but some of the seeming complexity is due to the richness and depth that make it such a fascinating and rewarding pastime.  It never allows you to get bored because there is always some new insight to be gained or some new dimension to be explored.  If you have struggled at first, so have most people, even the ones who make it look easy and now teach others.  It all becomes clearer in the fullness of time.  The most important thing is just to enjoy the journey.


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