Imagery As the Body’s Guide

A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook by Martin Mellish

A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook by Martin Mellish

It’s been more than three years since I studied Yang-style taiji with Martin Mellish at Anderson Park, a wonderful City-of-Redmond park with very old, very tall evergreen trees and a couple of restored log cabins.

However, I’ve been with him again these past several weeks as I’ve reread his book, “A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook: Spirit, Intent, and Motion,” published shortly after he left the States to live in China.

Martin used to say that doing taiji involves far too many variables for you to rely on your conceptual mind to manage the process, because the logical, linear conceptual mind just isn’t very good at multi-tasking. It’s better to turn the process over to your non-verbal, intuitive faculties and let images be your body’s guide.

Martin used many images when he taught, but my favorite was mini-Martin:

Martin would say that instead of struggling to do the form perfectly, which he couldn’t possibly do, he would imagine that there was a mini-Martin at his dantian who WAS able to do the form perfectly, and he would rest his mind at his dantian and let this mini-Martin do the rest.

I loved that image—but I could never really get it or a lot of Martin’s other images to work for me, even though they seemed to work for other students.

At the time, I thought it was my inability to visualize that made it difficult for me to utilize Martin’s imagery suggestions.

Now I know that wasn’t it. As Martin points out in “A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook,” you can hold images in your awareness without “seeing” anything; what you can and indeed must do is feel them in your body.

However, for this to happen, your conceptual mind has to loosen up and yield control to the parts of the brain that deal in art, poetry and dreams—and back then my conceptual mind wasn’t about to do this.

But three years of qigong practice may finally be getting my conceptual mind to loosen up, because I think I’m beginning to “get” imagery. I still am not able to imagine a mini-Barbara managing my form from my dantian, but there have been times when I’ve held my dantian in awareness as I was doing the form and had a vague sense that the form was coming from there.

And as I re-read Martin’s book, I found many other images that I want to work with now, some of which I remember from our classes, some that I do not.

The book is so full of images for all sorts of movement and energy matters that it’s difficult to know which to single out as examples.

However, I think I’ll focus on Martin’s images for opening the Jade Pillow, because he does say that “of all the benefits you might gain from this book, opening the Jade Pillow is potentially the most important.”

The Jade Pillow, which Martin terms “the gateway between mind and body,” is the soft area at the back of the neck between the top-most vertebral knob and the base of the skull.

As it lengthens and relaxes, Martin writes, the spine falls into better alignment, worry and anxiety fade away, and you feel soft, open and receptive. The balance between various parts of your brain shifts away from intellectual thought towards the physical, emotional and instinctual.

The Jade Pillow is important in my Yi Ren Qigong practice, as is loosening the control of the conceptual (intellectual) mind, so I am very much drawn to the images Martin offers.

Here are two:

The first is “Jade Pillow like a marshy lake fed by a stream”:

“Feel the Jade Pillow at the back of your neck like a lake with indistinct and marshy borders, fed by a river that runs up the spine. As more and more water runs into it, the lake expands more and more, and the ground around it becomes softer and softer.”

The second is “Head like a helium balloon or a buoy”:

“Feel your head as lighter than air, like a helium balloon, and feel your neck as the string. Allow the upward buoyancy of the head to gently straighten and extend the neck. This gentle extension happens all by itself: all you need to do is relax and watch it happen.

“Alternatively, feel you head like a half-submerged buoy whose buoyancy causes it to float and also stretches the chain anchoring it to the bottom of the sea.”

Two additional images for opening the Jade Pillow are also described in “A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook”—“Feather extends upward from back of head to paint the sky” and “As if balancing a book on your head.”

I wish that Martin were still here; I will always consider myself fortunate to have had him as my taiji teacher for eight years, but I think I could learn things from him now that I simply wasn’t able to learn back then.

But since Martin’s not here, I’m grateful to have his voice in print—along with quite a few photos of him among perhaps 150 illustrations of images and principles of movement.

“A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook: Spirit, Intent, and Motion” by Martin Mellish is available at, along with five 5-out-of-5-star reviews and one 4-star review.

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