One of the great challenges of learning an art such as qigong or tai chi is developing a consistent practice. Here are some thoughts, based on my own experience.
Just a few minutes
When I first started learning qigong and tai chi, my teachers, Kathryn and Bill, emphasized that a few minutes of practice was better than nothing.
I’m glad they said this because I often didn’t feel like practicing, or felt like I had too many other things to do that seemed more urgent than practicing, so I was reluctant to set aside time for it. But I would tell myself, “I’ll just practice for a few minutes, It’s better than nothing.” More often than not, I didn’t stop after a few minutes. A few minutes would turn into 10 minutes, or 20 minutes, or more.
For many people, the resistance to practice is about committing what feels like a big chunk of time. If you believe that you need to put in a lot of time to make your practice worthwhile, you may end up not practicing at all. Removing that obstacle can allow you to get started.
And if you only end up practicing for a few minutes, that’s a lot better than nothing. For one thing, you are starting to develop the habit of practicing. Once it becomes a habit, it feels natural to do it. It doesn’t take as much thought or will power.
Additionally, when you are just beginning to learn qigong or tai chi (or if you are not used to regular practice) a short practice session can actually be better than a long one. This is because qigong and tai chi require you to use capacities of your mind and body that you are probably not used to using for sustained periods of time. You need to build those capacities through regular short practice sessions.
If you push far past your capacity for staying present to what you are doing, then you are spending most of your time practicing bad habits. Many beginning students are surprised to find how quickly their mind or their nervous system or their legs get tired. Others are blissfully unaware of these things happening. This is one reason to follow the 70% Principle.
First thing in the morning (or another dedicated practice time)
Even with the above advice in mind, it can be hard to find those few minutes in the day to practice. Establishing a regular practice time can help ensure that you get to it.
For me, first thing in the morning has generally been a good time, because then I know it is done. If I leave it until later, the chance of unexpected events squeezing out my practice time go up. For others, later in the day may be better - if you wake up to kids that need to be taken care of, for instance.
What time you practice is not nearly as important as whether you practice or not. If there is a time that you can make regularly available, dedicating it as practice time may help to keep it from getting filled by something else.
Once you have been practicing at the same time for awhile, your mind and body tend to get used to that routine, and it becomes easier to just do it.
Dedicated practice space
This works on the same principle above - your mind and body will get used to practicing in the same place and that makes it easier to practice once you get there. Being in that space becomes a trigger for the habit of practicing qigong.
It’s helpful if you make your practice space a place that you like to be, and that is conducive to practice - whatever that means for you. For many people that means a quiet place that is not overstimulating, but to each their own.
It’s also great if you can dedicate that space to practice only. That way, when you go there, you know that’s what you’re there to do. Practice becomes the energy of the space.
That said, it doesn’t have to be perfect. If you don’t have a bamboo grove with a tinkling stream right outside your backdoor, you can still have a practice space. It can be as simple as standing in a certain spot, facing a particular direction in your bedroom or kitchen.
Give yourself a day off (or two)
You don’t have to practice every day to learn tai chi and qigong. As important as consistent practice is, it’s also important not burn yourself out or make it into a chore. Taking a day off can help to keep your practice feeling fresh.
Find Practice Partners
Practicing with a friend or a group can be helpful in several ways:
Group Energy: There is a group energy, even when the group is two people. This can help you stay engaged with the practice, and is really helpful for those days where you don’t feel like doing it, or can’t seem to focus.
Commitment: If you make plans to practice with someone, you may be more likely to stick to those plans. You can use this strategy even with friends who live far away, if you commit to checking in with each other regularly to talk about your practice. You won’t want to have to say, “Ummm, I didn’t really want to practice this week.” This can help you stay accountable to your plan.
Putting your heads together: Your practice partner(s) will likely have insights that are different from your own. By working together you can learn from each other - which makes practice more interesting.
Disregard everything I just suggested
Of course, everyone is different. I have written here about what has worked for me. You might find that to really relax into your practice, it helps to have a bigger chunk of time set aside. You might find that practicing at the same time everyday feels forced and that you get deeper into it if you practice whenever and wherever the desire spontaneously arises. Or your schedule may vary so much from one day the next that you need to be flexible about when you practice.
And this may change over time. All of the above have been true for me at times.
Why It Matters
Regular practice can make a big difference. Consistent input helps the new skills and modes of being that you are learning to take root in your system. So figuring out an approach to practice that works for you is a worthwhile investment.
And Why It Doesn’t
But it’s also okay if you don’t practice consistently. I would never tell someone that it’s not worth doing qigong or tai chi if you’re not going to practice. You can still learn and benefit from it just by coming to class. Practice will just help you to learn more quickly and allow the benefits to go deeper.
Going to class is a great first step. It may take a while to get to the point where you are ready to start practicing regularly. Or you might be at a time in your life where practice just isn’t happening, but going to a qigong or tai chi class is really helpful. That’s fine.
(Some classes move at a pace that requires practice to keep up with. But it’s likely you can find a class where the form is simple and the pace is very relaxed).
I hope this has been helpful. Please feel free to share practice strategies that have worked for you in the comments below.
PS: When I showed Bill this blog, he showed me a book titled The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s a good resource on how to establish new good habits, such as qigong practice.