Refinement: Making Corrections in Taijiquan

Beth Rosenfeld
12 February 2019

We’ve been working with the theme of “deepening the practice” this year, which requires making corrections to one’s shapes and movements as one’s mindfulness and skills increase. As the practice deepens, it becomes more fascinating and enjoyable -- and worth the frustrations and challenges of making corrections.

Speaking of frustrations: For a time, early in my studies with Jane and Bataan, I kept getting corrected on the same posture -- Push. In one class, Bataan would pull my arms out to a more expansive place; the next class Jane would say, “Oh, you’re so tense!” and put my arms closer to my body. I just wanted to put them in the right place, but it seemed every place was the wrong one! This went on for a while before it finally dawned on me: Neither one of them was trying to correct me to a specific external place. When I focused on the feeling of their corrections, I discovered that it was really the same correction, even as it seemed contradictory. Bataan saw that I couldn’t relax because my arms were collapsed; Jane saw that I wasn’t relaxed because I was reaching too far. They just came at it from opposite ends of the problem.

As students, we want to get it “right,” even as we know intellectually that the study of taijiquan is an endlessly revealing process. Maggie Newman once told us, “There’s no such thing as right. When students ask me if they’re doing it right, the best I can say is that it’s in the right direction.” As teachers, we want to give students enough challenge to keep them working but not so much as to be discouraging.

Not everyone who studies taijiquan welcomes corrections to their form. In fact, we’ve changed terminology and now call it “Form Refinement” class because the word “correction” can have negative connotations. We welcome students at all levels to our classes, and we want to be sure that everyone can proceed at a pace that suits them. But I would encourage serious students to make peace with the work of making corrections.

We got the message early in our studies, hearing stories that Cheng Manching would give a correction three times, no more. After that, he stopped giving that person corrections. That put some fear in us! And then we saw Maggie do exactly that -- after giving someone the same correction three times without the person seeming to notice, she abruptly moved on to something else.

We aren’t that hard core, but we definitely notice who works on our corrections. We’re not looking for perfection, but we do appreciate seeing students take them seriously and work on them. Those who work on corrections are much more likely to keep getting them from us. If our corrections aren’t getting through, we might try a different tack, but eventually we’ll stop offering them to someone who sends the message that we should stop. That message can come in many forms: sometimes students just don’t perceive corrections, sometimes they make excuses, sometimes it makes a difference if we ride them in the moment but it never sticks. And sometimes it’s just not the right time for someone to make changes -- and that’s perfectly ok.

Sometimes you just want the experience of practicing in a group without trying to work on the next set of skills. You will still get benefits from the practice, and some of the work we’re doing will rub off on you over time. We try to be mindful of what is appropriate for each student, and that directs our efforts accordingly.

The reason we give corrections is to try to help students get better at taijiquan. That only happens if they spend time in their personal practice exploring the work we do in class. Maggie once told us, “You’re always welcome in my classes; you make the corrections,” which seemed kind of strange. We thought: of course we try to remember them and work on them -- we are going to a lot of effort to get across the country to be in her classes! Over time, we understood what she meant. We’ve been told that Professor Cheng used to charge more money the longer you studied with him because you became harder to teach!

We’ve been in classes with Maggie where she changed how she wanted us to do something simply because she wanted to see us break out of our habits and do something different! The difficulty with making corrections is multifaceted, and it comes down to the resistance to change. Mind and body struggle with change, particularly when the pattern has been deeply ingrained. it can seem like an affront to think we weren’t doing it “right” all along! Quieting one’s thoughts and relaxing the body are necessary to even being able to hear/perceive the correction.

Some advice on getting corrected

Be open to getting corrections; it is a good sign if the teacher gives you something specific to work on. It isn’t a judgment against you! And if you find yourself judging a classmate for being corrected, instead use that time for self reflection to see if you are making the same error, or if you can improve how you’re doing it.

Treat every correction you hear in a class as if it were intended for you personally. You can always bring more attention and care to what you’re doing. Just because you haven’t been personally named doesn’t mean it wasn’t intended for you!

Corrections don’t necessarily mean you’re doing it “wrong” -- they could be a sign that you’re ready for the next level of work. Likewise, not getting corrected doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it “right”! It’s a process.

Ask for clarification if you don’t understand enough to start working on the correction in your own practice. But be careful about giving the teacher the message that you are saying “no” to the correction!

You may not be able to get it right away; most changes won’t happen overnight. But do try to remember the correction, notice when you make the error and try to notice a little sooner next time. Some corrections take only mindfulness to change; others require deeper work. Don’t neglect either one.

We often use drills and exercises in class; spend some time with them in your own practice. These are designed to give you a way to work toward a new feeling. If you get a glimpse of the new feeling, that is progress! If you’ve felt it once, you can find it again, even if it’s fleeting at first.

If you get a correction for a detail that seems different from how you learned it, be willing to really explore the new detail and try to understand what makes it different from how you learned it. You may ultimately revert to your old way of doing it, but don’t reject the new way until you understand it!

Set aside ego -- stay calm and try to absorb the correction. You may not be able to get it in the moment, but if you keep an open mind, you’ll be more able to recall and work on the correction on your own time.

Sit with the discomfort of not being able to make the change right away. Work at it little by little, allowing yourself to find the change gradually. This is where it can be tempting to turn it into something that you can already do so you can convince yourself that you’ve made the correction and don’t need to keep working on something that’s proved to be elusive. Give yourself the space for understanding to develop.

Corrections can be an uncomfortable reality check. But really, do check to see what you are actually doing -- not just what you think you’re doing! Accept that what you “know” about taijiquan is not necessarily what you do. Notice the tendency to respond to a correction (whether or not it is directed at you) by mentally checking that box. Let that remind you to check your body and not just your idea of what you’re doing.

If you lack the physical skills to make the change, work on the steps you can take to gain those skills.

It can be emotionally difficult to allow the vulnerability that comes with getting some corrections; we hold memories and hurts and injuries in our bodies, and as we relax them, it can be overwhelming. It’s ok to be overwhelmed.

Be gentle with yourself. Some corrections are very difficult to make, and you will not succeed right away. Avoid getting trapped in a spiral of negativity.

I know very well how frustrating it can be to work on taijiquan corrections, and how discouraging it can feel. I know that sometimes you just want to give up because it seems the harder you work, the further your goal recedes. One of my favorite stories comes from a classmate about being at a Ben Lo camp. She told me that one night, she just lay in her bed sobbing. Ben was in the room next to hers, and in the morning he came to her and said, “We all cry. Then we get back to work.”

Seeking perfection

One of our classmates shared a saying he once heard: “Seeking perfection, you will find errors. Seeking errors, you will not find perfection.” Many of us seek perfection; that means we must be prepared to find errors.

Be sure to do your first form of the day for the joy of doing it. “As if you’re already a master.” Then just pick one thing and work on it. It’s ok if you don’t get it “right” -- just trying to bring more awareness is a step in the right direction. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get it, but do be demanding enough to see it as something that will take practice. Persevere. Little by little, things will change. You can’t rush it, but it won’t change if you ignore it. “Gradually gradually” -- “man man” in Chinese; we’re told Professor Cheng said that often (pronounced like “mahn mahn”).

You know it…

One of Ben Lo’s favorite sayings was, “You know it, why you no do it?” He said it so often that a student made him a t-shirt with iron-on letters spelling the first half on the front and the last half on the back. In classic Ben Lo fashion, he made it sound like an admonition -- bad student, why you no do it? But in recent times I’ve heard it with a different emphasis: WHY you no do it? Explore what’s keeping you from doing what you know you’re supposed to be doing (relaxing, separating the weight, turning, upright, etc.). Honestly looking at what’s going on will help you figure out how to make progress.

Lifelong practice

Taijiquan is a deep well to explore. It has many layers, and over time it can change you in subtle and profound ways. Try to find the balance between passively waiting for a miracle as the years add up and expecting one just because you’re working sincerely. It takes time to bear fruit, and every time you reach a new level in your practice, it will become a plateau you must cross to make it to the next one. Keep in mind that it’s called a “practice” for a reason. No matter how hard you work today, a serious practitioner will still have to practice again tomorrow. And next year and the one after that. Without being alert to corrections, we risk carving our forms into stone. Authentic movement should remain open to change.

In other words

Here’s another take on this issue from one of our assistants, Heather Craig of Vessel Yoga and Taiji LLC. She says it better than I did, and with more eloquence.

Commitment is an intimidating concept. One may be excited at the beginning, and when challenges surface, one may begin to question if they've made the right choice and begin searching for a door.

When we practice yoga and taiji postures, we confront our physical limitations, and at this moment we have a choice. We can choose to ignore the fact that we have a limit and entertain the mind with distractions, or we can choose to look directly at the limit with awareness and breathe with it; as if listening to a friend in need. We are attempting to commit to each moment with attention, patience, and self-acceptance.

When we practice in this way with the physical postures, it gives us experience in staying present while brushing up against the discomfort of not knowing or being able to do everything. It motivates us to look closer and ask questions.

Fall in love with your wonderful self, this wonderful moment, and your wonderful world - you are worthy of this experience.