Tai Chi Y3D241: Beginning a Project

A while ago this year, starting back on Day 125, I wrote a series of poems about my experiences doing tai chi. The first one was the Opening:

At the opening, breathe in deep three times,
and soften the eyes to see land and sky —
Begin at once, at the day’s dawning chimes,
before the pigeons have a chance to cry
or the wren has chittered in the branches.
Begin with bent knees, but so your toes show;
tuck your buttocks in and tense your haunches;
begin to move, and turn from the waist slow.
Lift the left foot, and widen out your stance—
lift both hands, and then push down and away.
Move, as in syrup, in water, or trance,
with muscles in tension and mind at play.
Be all curves, and relaxed in this rebirth,
suspended from heaven, anchored in earth.

Commenter Quin has promised/threatened to try to learn tai chi from my description of the movements.  Ack.  I feel for him— I’m not sure it can be done. But he’s asked for a set of photographs or something to work from. Ack. Again, I’m not sure that such exist. At the same time, though, I thought… hey, what if I made the diagrams? What would that look like? Feel like? Could I do it?

Challenge? Accepted.

1. Opening
1. Opening

It’s a new way to grow my practice, which I’ve been casting about for, and a new way to develop my skills in relationship to this practice called Tai Chi.

So, I immediately did a drawing.  There’s four pieces of Opening, namely breathing in and filling the lungs three times, and then connecting heaven and earth by sinking into the floor and straightening the spine (by tucking the butt under), and then twisting to the right while anchoring the left foot and weighting the right arm, and then turning back to center and getting ready for the next motion.

Quin intends to start learning the form on 11/22… that gives me today, tomorrow… a seven-day head-start on him.  A week.  Yikes.

I don’t think I can do it. It doesn’t feel like enough time. I don’t think I can create two drawings a day for thirty days straight instead of writing, so that he can learn the form in thirty days.  Certainly not more than this sketch (made with Paper by fiftythree.com), which doesn’t feel like it’s really enough to do the form.

But, OK.  Even if all I do is this quick set of sketches, it’s still more than I have now. And it’s something daily, probably for considerably more than a month of practice.  And it will get me out of my current funk.  And it’s something I was planning on doing with my practice anyway.

OK! I’m beginning — drawings to accompany my tai chi poetry, and the beginnings of a manual, of sorts, to learn this tai chi form.

I must be out of my mind. Really.

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  1. So we’ll admit that this is going to be a 30-day experiment in whether the sonnets, sketches and summary CAN ever work together to teach a form, and build on that in the long run.

    Of course they can! Surely people have written perfectly good Tai Chi books before. And I bet they didn’t even have sonnets! It’s just a question of putting in the time required to make it work, if it’s really something you want to do.

  2. 11/22: Day One.

    All right. This is going to be tough. My original plan was to take your advice and try to work on the first several moves at the same time, and keep on practicing them over the course of the week. But, I’m now literally spent about two hours just trying to figure out the Opening. So let’s stick there today. At least I’m starting something. That’s important, regardless of how far I get with it.

    Because I’m coming to this as a completely tabula rasa, there are a lot of things I’m having trouble understanding. The problem I’m having is that the poem, the drawing, and the text summary of the drawing each seem to contain elements lacking in the others. (I’ll call them by three S’s: Sonnet, Sketch, and Summary.)

    Sometimes there are apparently contradictions, as in between the Sonnet’s instruction to “lift both hands, and then push then down and away” vs. the Summary’s instruction to “weight the right arm”. But then perhaps these are two different movements? And, just when does one lift the hands? While still in the turned position, or after returning to center? Does one lift the left foot to widen the stance before or after anchoring the left foot? Or is the widening the very act of anchoring? Things like that. Alas, even after Sonnet, Sketch, and Summary, it’s still unclear to me.

    When I tried to turn to YouTube for a video reference, I discovered a fair variety of different ways to do an Opening… and none of them seem to quite match up with any of your versions. The main thing that stymies me is that, to my inexpert eye, I don’t see any of them with a turn involved in the Opening. As soon as a turn begins, they’re always starting a Ward Left or Parting Wild Horse’s Mane or whatever. So no real help there.

    So, I decided the best plan would be to write out my own set of detailed instructions, attempting to interpret and integrate Sonnet, Sketch, and Summary. This is only a “best guess”. If you don’t mind, please check it over and see if I’ve got things right here. Numbering system bears zero relation to the numbers in the three S’s.

    1. If at all possible, perform this exercise at dawn’s first light. All movements are curved and relaxed, as in syrup, water or trance, with a sense of being suspended from heaven yet anchored in earth.

    2. Stand straight, feet together, knees very slightly bent (you can still see your toes), with arms relaxed (not locked) and at your sides.

    3. Breathe deeply in and out three times, while softening the focus of the eyes to take in the entire environment before you, land and sky.

    4. Lower your center of gravity, as well as your chi, down toward the floor (“connecting heaven and earth”) by bending your knees — but not so deeply that, were you to look down, you couldn’t see your toes [*this is just my guess]. As you do so, don’t let your bottom jut out behind you. Rather, keep your spine perfectly vertical, by tucking your buttocks in and tensing your haunches. [*Note: the Sketch seems to indicate a shift to a feet-shoulder-width stance here, but in trying to reconcile it with the Sonnet, I’m waiting until the next step to widen the stance.]

    5. Twist slowly to the right, turning from the waist. As you do so, weight the right arm so it stays roughly in place [*wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret “weight the arm”], and lift the left foot, widening your stance to shoulder width along the same axis you began at [*just a guess].

    6. Twist back to center.

    7. Lift both hands to about shoulder height [*I say shoulder height because I am assuming this is the move I see in Openings of various videos], and push them in a nice curve down and away, to about stomach level. [*nowhere do the Sketch or Summary seem to indicate a lifting and pushing away of both hands, so I’m just going by the Sonnet here, hoping I put it in the right place.]


    All of this takes about ten seconds to perform; but deciphering and integrating the three S’s took a fair bit of time.

    So, am I on the right track?

    • Er… Yes. That is, no. Well, sort of?

      That’s probably not helpful. 🙂

      Steps 1, 2, and 3, are completely correct. Step 4, too, despite your guesses.

      I don’t know quite how to describe step 5, “weight the right arm”, except to say that as you cultivate chi’s internal power, the right arm begins to have a heavy feel to it, and the left arm is lighter. It’s where your attention lies, at least at the moment. This is also where the stance widens to about shoulder width, but still facing… in the words of our common instructrix in other matters, “notional or lodge east” where we were first facing at the start of the form.

      Step 6 is correct.

      But Step 7, lifting the hands to about shoulder height, is in many ways the first step of Circling the Arms, although it could be understood to be the last movement of Opening.

      Does that make sense?

      So, one of the things I’m gathering from this is that the three S’s — Sketch, Summary and Sonnet — are out of alignment with one another, and this is good in some ways because it pushes the student to integrate movements with one another and not see them as disparate pieces; but it’s also challenging to uncover the actual sequence of movements without a teacher on hand to actually teach the material. through direct instruction and modeling. Is that about right?

      • Thank you for the confirmation. Frankly, I’m rather amazed I got it basically right. I very nearly went with a different version that would have been very wrong.

        I would say that the ways that mis-alignment are good are handily outweighed by the confusion and uncertainty which are involved. At several points I nearly gave up in favor of choosing to begin work with a random “Beginner’s Tai Chi” video on YouTube. Actually, I did give up a couple of times, but then I felt bad for not trying harder, and went back. I suspect most people would surrender. I basically only found the gumption to keep on trying simply because I feel a personal connection with you, and also out of a sense of duty to the unique — if I gave up now, almost certainly nobody else would ever again try to use these carefully crafted sonnets to learn Tai Chi.

        In its current form, this process will only work, I think, if we do something similar for each Sonnet, where I write a full set of instructions for each Sonnet/Sketch/Summary as I get to them, and you check them over in turn. I’m pretty sure this write-up is a necessary step. Even my sending you a YouTube of my attempted movement each time wouldn’t work too well– I need to go through the process of writing it out in order to figure out what movements to even make!

        So judging by this first day, which as I said ate a couple of hours (more, actually, after doing the write up), I do believe I will be doing just as much work as you are! 🙂

        Are you still up for it? I am, with the caveat that I suspect that once in a while I will have to spend more than one day on a single sonnet while I wait for your response to my questions about it.

        But it’s okay. Were you ever to seriously consider making this into a set of proper educational materials at some point, you absolutely would need an absolute beginner (like me) to field test it first to make sure it’s comprehensible. And perhaps you can use my instructions written from a beginner’s perspective to write a more complete set of Summaries when it comes time to redo the art in a more presentable fashion.

        So, the “lift both hands” in line 10 of this sonnet is the same move as “both hands rise up” in line 1 of the next sonnet? That’s rather confusing. I’d recommend removing that phrase from the Opening sonnet in favor of something else, such as

        “Lift the left foot, and widen your stance–
        Body face front, in even display.”

        Wait, that rhymes “display” with “play”, maybe that’s not good. Well, I’m not the poet here anyway!

        One more comment, about the sketches. Obviously please take care that they match the movement precisely (e.g. if feet are meant to be together, draw them together, please!). But beyond that, whenever there is a change to a new position– especially a turn– more sketches would help. I get that it’s a Zeno’s Paradox situation– there’s always room for another sketch between existing sketches. Still, a bit more would be helpful. For instance, now I get what you were going for with the red arrows in Sketches 3 and 4, but it took me a very long time to figure it out; and even now I really don’t know the depth of the turn involved. (I am guessing not too deep.) But just one more sketch– a “Sketch 3.5”– would clear it up instantly.

        If this is ever turning into too much work to seem like a good use of your time, please say so!

        Right. Back tomorrow with my attempted Sonnet/Sketch/Summary translation instructions for Sonnet #2.

        • I think all of that is fair. I also am very much aware that I’m going to have to re-do all of the sketches from beginning to end, in order to make this work. But I think of these sketches as rough-drafts to help flesh out in my own mind what the movements are.

          And let’s be honest here, to be be strong enough, the Sonnets are going to have to go through the same sort of process. Maybe what I’ll wind up with is a ‘druidic’ tai chi, maybe not, but it’s kinda cool to think about.

          So we’ll admit that this is going to be a 30-day experiment in whether the sonnets, sketches and summary CAN ever work together to teach a form, and build on that in the long run.

  3. Here’s a brainstorm: for your sketches, rather than numbering them “1-2-3-4” and so forth, how about you number them by sonnet line? That would help me be certain I’m connecting the picture with the description at the right places.

    Just to comfirm: is this right? In the sketch above…

    (1) is sonnet lines 1-5
    (2) is lines 6-7
    (3) is 8-10
    (4)…well, I’m not sure what 4 is showing exactly. The waist, moving back? The center of weight, moving back? Well, something moving in syrup, water, or trance, at least.

    Also, are you keeping the name of the form you’re teaching in these sonnets a secret from me so I won’t be tempted to search for it on YouTube? (And if so, may I say, clever move.)

    • I don’t know that I’m keeping it a secret because I don’t want you searching for it on YouTube. I’m just not telling you because I don’t really quite know it. My teacher called it “Star Farm Tai Chi”, because that was the name of his school. I think it’s derived from Yang-Style, but it might be from Sun-Style, and I don’t know.

      The numbering by sonnet line is a good one, and I’ll work on that for the future.

  4. Well then! Looks like my threat worked! 🙂

    You are *clearly* out of your mind. I didn’t ask you to do this! But you didn’t ask me to either. We’re both trying something that may not quite be possible. But a touch of shared madness may be good for the soul.

    Nice drawings. They even look like me. Is the red arrow under #3 the “down and away”? Is there any kind of color coding you’re using? If so, please let me in on it.

    As for pace. In an ideal world where all of the drawings already existed, do you actually recommend me, as a Tai Chi beginner, to actually try to learn the moves at the pace of one new sonnet per day? A slower pace might be appropriate. More important is just to see if I can make meaningful progress each day this way.

    • As I recall from my own training, we did the first sequence, from Opening posture up through the first “Roll Back-Press-Push-Single Whip” over the course of several weeks. We were tasked with learning that sequence first, even as we began learning the others.

      That sequence runs – opening, ward off left, ward off right, roll back, press, push, single whip — which is seven postures. So if you practice that for the first seven days of /your/ practice, exclusively, then the next seven drawings, the next seven steps, will be ready in time for your next week. In theory. Yikes.

      I’m going to address color theory in the next posting, because it will be an important part of the whole discussion. Essentially, though, black will be the figure, red the center of gravity where it’s important to note its presence, yellow the center and size of the /chi/, and blue showing where the lines of strength need to be — not so much what’s tense, as what’s focused.

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