Learn Tai Chi Moves: Strategies and Tips

Learning the moves--and the corresponding hand, leg, and body positions—can be challenging. Memorizing choreography simply isn’t something most of us are trained to do.

Leaving the actual execution of the moves for later, first here’re some tips on learning the moves:

Learn the names of the movements

Be aware of the fighting applications

Help your body remember the moves

Use visualizations and more

Refer to DVDs and video clips

Freeze frame approach

Learn the Names. We usually try to learn the names of the people we’re introduced to. It’s polite and makes the conversation easier.

In the same manner, learning the names of tai chi moves is a sign of respect and gives additional mental hooks if you’re wondering what comes next. For example, knowing that the Needle at the Sea Bottom move is coming next helps you prepare for making a deep dive downward to the floor.

Of course, this works better with some names than others. Don’t worry about Chinese names at first if you don’t already know the language.

tai chi martial art bruce
Learn the Basics of the Fighting Applications. Whether you have an interest in the martial aspects of tai chi or not, knowing the basic applications can be useful for learning the sequence of moves.

For example, in some moves one hand is facing upward while the other faces downward. It’s easy to confuse which hand does what. Knowing that you’re trying to push someone upward and back can help you to better position your hands and to have the appropriate hand facing upward and the other downward.

Body Memory. When learning a new move, help your body to retain it. If you’re up for it (and the instructor has nothing against it), try to practice the move on your own before going on break. Practice it again before leaving the class, and try to get any lingering questions resolved before stepping out the door.

Between classes, practice it as often as you can. Start as soon as you can after getting back home.

Even a short distance between class and home can wipe out details about a new move. If you’re worried about forgetting and are feeling ambitious, make a video of yourself (or someone) doing the move correctly. Refer back to it when practicing if you’re unsure what comes next.

Spaced repetitions will help you feel more comfortable with a new move—and maybe even ready to add another move to your tai chi form in the next class.

tai chi relax girl

Visualizations Plus. Use a strategy that Olympic athletes rely on. See yourself doing the move in your thoughts. Picture where your arms and legs go next.

But don’t stop there. Make the visualization as rich as possible. If the move ends in a foot stomp, hear the sound of that as well. Feel the force of it in your foot. If your left hand moves by your ear, feel the air movement by your head. If you like to practice with a favorite set of clothes, make sure that’s what you’re wearing in your visualization as well.

This can be done anytime you have a few seconds. Just before falling asleep while in bed is perfect. So is when brushing your teeth or any other opportunity you have for a quick, mental tai chi workout.

Technology and Tai Chi. If your mental visualization isn’t going too well, maybe a DVD or video clip is available. Check out the moves on-screen.

Surprisingly enough, the same areas in the brain are activated, even when just watching a move as when we’re actually up and about and doing the move ourselves.

Both practicing the move and watching someone practice the move can help to wire it into your brain. Both can play a role in mastering a new move.

Freeze Frame Approach. During a tai chi class, its not uncommon for the instructor to have students hold a position. The instructor will then adjust the student’s position.

You can use this approach yourself, particularly if you know how a position should be held or the ‘feel’ of a position. Practice holding the final position of a movement for a few seconds or for a few minutes before continuing. Your body will better remember this position, which can become a reference point when executing the form.

Be aware that some positions may be initially very uncomfortable or painful to hold. But over time, your body will relax into the movements. Do your best to be relaxed in the position, both in body and in mind.

First Step. Learning new moves is the first step in learning tai chi.

By learning the move name, visualizing and possibly watching the move, on top of actually practicing it—both in isolation and with the rest of your form--you’ll soon be comfortable with it.

Over time, you’ll be able to execute the move without worrying about what comes next. This is when you’ll be able to truly deepen your tai chi practice, with smooth, fluid, and relaxed moves.

Next: Read about learning strategies when practicing tai chi for health.