Internal feeling

This came up in conversation recently with my teacher Karel Koskuba in discussing how one progresses in Tai Chi – this constant process of practicing and noticing – paying attention to small things and following them – until suddenly there is a realisation of significant change and that something previously impossible is now relaxed, natural – almost easy.

A process which seemingly continues in successive cycles……………….until it doesn’t.



Over the years I have from time to time noticed changes in the way my body moves – recently I have noticed some small changes. Interestingly these changes have begun with very small perturbations in existing patterns – so small I could not properly describe them until a while later after more relaxed practice when they have grown bigger and more defined.
They are initially so small and undefined that it is often not even clear if they are a fault or an improvement until they have grown naturally into an extension of the basic pattern.
I suspect the same is true of other types of behavioural change where the new is developed “underneath” the old habitual pattern before it emerges and eventually replaces it.

I have learned through painful experience that partner work and physical corrections make up a potentially very sensitive subject – martial arts people will probably wonder why I am bothering to write about this at all – whereas beginners or people with no experience of interpersonal physical activity may well recoil that I even dream of writing about it – let alone speak of it as normal, when they may well find the prospect completely frightening, foreign, unnecessary, invasive and more – especially if it involves touch across the gender line. If that is you please bear with me and understand that this is one of those deeply personal subjects that spans very divergent extremes.

You may be someone who emotionally or for religious reasons avoids interpersonal contact completely – or you may be a martial artist or sports person into wrestling, dancing or similar, to whom close/intimate contact with strangers is normal, necessary and an important learning tool. So this piece is intended to address those people more toward the avoiding end of the spectrum with the hope that you may be somewhat reassured and perhaps even encouraged.

Humans are a social species with close personal contact ingrained in our psyche from ancient ancestral grooming and physical closeness in communal living. This is something our modern society has led us to draw away from in recent generations. It is also something associated with our vulnerability and our sexuality – so today many of us do not comfortably interact with close touch especially with strangers in public even in a relatively controlled group environment. Nonetheless when we see a child or adult crying (especially close family or friend) our first, and natural response is usually to make some sort of physical contact – maybe to hug, kiss or massage it better.

We need to remember our ancestral roots and the physical communication that is such a fundamental part of our species existence. Interestingly once people cross that intellectual fear barrier they generally become quite comfortable with partner work and physical correction – as they come to understand it’s benefits and how physical interaction forms an essential part of the healing and learning processes – especially with an internal art such as Tai Chi.

Personally I was brought up in a family both distant and smothering derived from post Victorian parenting – which led to a very conflicted view of this subject, but now with the perspective of martial arts training since 1971 it is really not a problem, except in judging and dealing with the extent to which students – especially female beginners – are comfortable with this vitally important aspect of Tai Chi. Issues of pain, responsibility, respect, appropriateness and intimidation are replaced by the benefits of enhanced awareness, clearer understanding, easier trust on many levels, the use of pain signals in learning and healing as well as an appreciation of how physical communication can enhance relationships by grounding and bonding the partners

Not only is touch an extremely quick way to communicate, it is also a very reliable way that can communicate many things words are completely incapable of conveying – we should remember that words after all only make up 30% of communication – visually physical and tonal voice cues generally make up the remaining 70% – until we factor in touch which often overrides all the rest – try closing your eyes and moving around a bit. It is difficult to lie with touch or physical expression, whereas words and intellectual models are not only inaccurate but make lying easy and common.

Clearly this is a much bigger subject than a few martial artists training together – if you do not include partner work in your training you will be missing out on the very core of Tai Chi and risk being blinded by lack of understanding that goes with the un-knowingness of simply not having the experience. Fears are involved here so I would strongly urge Tai Chi practitioners – actually probably everybody – to look at what is stopping them from dealing with them. If you choose not to that is fine – it is your choice, but in my view a severley limiting one.



We use the practice of mindfulness throughout Tai Chi both externally and internally by calming the body and quietening the mind

Mindfulness is receiving a lot of attention in “alternative” circles at the moment – but it is worth reflecting that it is, and has been, a vital component of spiritual meditation and of martial arts for centuries – helping us to link mind, body and spirit on a daily basis.

For example we use the practice of mindfulness throughout Tai Chi both externally and internally by calming the body and quietening the mind. This creates a meditation – a relaxed state of awareness in mind and body where our focus – our mantra – is our body moving in the world – from quiescent standing to dynamic fluidity. We use the habit of mindfulness to keep us connected and present – grounded in reality where our subconscious can work most beneficially without interruption and to achieve in Tai Chi a level of skill that we could not do with conscious intellect alone.

So how can we practice mindfulness in Tai Chi and continue the practice elsewhere?

Calming the body enables us to feel the slightest change, the smallest movement – while quietening the mind allows us to observe and notice what is going on in and around our body. We can use this internally to adjust how we move and to compare the external effect – thus we can create a feedback between our way of moving and our actions – also generally in relation to partner work where we use mindful attention to work with a partner so as to further understand how we move and how others do so – and how people move in relation to each other. We can then develop this movement to improve our balance, ease of moving and power of action – whether on our own or when in relation to others.

Mindfulness extends beyond our Tai Chi practice as we continue the principles into all aspects of daily life where we use it in physical actions and in the intellectual and emotional areas of living, working, relating, caring, loving and co-operating in positive and negative situations. Being mindful in our mind/body/spirit enables us to move from reactive to responsive and so to develop our own humanity and personal expression.

Simply Observing and Noting are vital habits of mindfulness allied to:

  • Copying – (and observing and noting)
  • Using repetition – (observing and noting)
  • Seeking new opportunities to observe
  • Replaying actions with changes – (observing and noting)
  • Trying old exercises in new ways e.g. slower, faster
  • Trying new exercises
  • Looking carefully and deeply – observing ever smaller detail
  • Looking for connections
  • Looking for patterns
  • Looking for discontinuities and differences
  • Working co-operatively with partners
  • Seeking understanding – considering one’s observations and their relationship

Thoughts on Teaching and Learning Martial Arts

3 December 2015
Thumbnail image for Thoughts on Teaching and Learning Martial Arts

I like the “teach what they can take” approach but also see a need to give a view of what is possible. A problem exists that where a really good teacher is available every day then the best way is one to one coupled with group work, but with UK students who have to travel […]

Read the full article →

Beginners Guide to the Development of Internal Feeling in Tai Chi

8 April 2015

The following thoughts and linked article are not definitive – just some observations on the journey. Readers may recognise some of them and hopefully will be encouraged in looking for their own internal feeling. We each bring our differences to our practice and each of us takes different things from it – so will change and […]

Read the full article →

Learning the skill of Tai Chi

8 January 2015

In class I have often used the analogy that learning Tai Chi is very like learning to play a musical instrument , or golf or indeed probably many other things. We all go through similar stages a bit like these: 1. Like it/attracted to it 2. Start and find it confusing but see the possibilities 3. […]

Read the full article →

Tai Chi and Reality

15 December 2014

One of the favourite sayings of my teacher Karel Koskuba is that “everything is otherwise” (attributed to Rabbi Loew of Prague) – and recently looking at my New Scientist I saw a piece on quantum weirdness that pretty much discusses the idea that quantum physics is weird only because we cannot understand it – sort […]

Read the full article →

Getting the sequence right – in Tai Chi as in Life

19 November 2014

My kids can’t/won’t have their breakfast, brush their teeth, get dressed, go to school in the morning until I have done their breakfast first – it is a time honoured sequence – there are many occasions in life where one action or outcome depends on a defined sequence like making a cup of tea. In […]

Read the full article →

Tai Chi – Internal art – external art?

16 September 2014

Try standing in front of a mirror with your arms lightly out and palms up Then open the hands as far as you can. Relax and let them spring back – can you feel the spring in your hands? That is an internal feeling What you can see by looking at you hands in the […]

Read the full article →