Circles and Harmony

Yin Yang

Think of the circular path of each movement, in Tai Chi every movement is in curve or circle that has no ending or beginning.”

~ Dr. Paul Lam, Founder of Tai Chi for Health(TM)

Tai Chi can often seem elusive to the casual observer. There is grace and both mystery to the movements in tai chi.  The slow and gentle movements sometimes punctuated with a swift release of energy hide the internal aspects of the exercise. Yes tai chi can be considered an exercise. The power of tai chi lies within, while medical evidence and research show the benefits of tai chi to improve muscle strength and aerobic conditioning, there are internal benefits that provide powerful health and healing properties.   Much of power of tai chi comes from spiral or circular movements.  In tai chi there is a calming rhythm of growing and shrinking, opening and closing throughout a particular form. Energy is generated and partially released only to gather more energy for each cycle.    Essentially, all movements are circular. Expansion outward, including strikes and blows, is circular. Yielding, or retreating, also has a circular nature, and is not linear.

How does it all work? Tai chi model is based on the premise that there is a bio energy system in the body. The bio energy or Qi gets carried round the body in energy channels called meridians – a bit like the way the veins carry blood around the body. Now there are 12 main meridians and 8 secondary meridians carrying Qi throughout the body and through the major organs. Interrupted, weak or blocked flow of Qi causes illness. Tai chi works because the muscle movements in the exercises are designed to stimulate the flow of Qi through the body and the major organs. When Qi flows smoothly people are well.  The circular motion, the relaxing of the joints, the slow and continuous movements of tai chi open up the channels.  Tai chi movements should be made smoothly and in a continuous, unbroken manner just like when silk is drawn from a cocoon.  That is why sometimes tai chi is called silk reeling.

There is harmony in tai chi movements, soft and strong movements, balanced against each other.  In classical written texts it is described thus “If the real intention of the movement is to move upwards then one should first move downwards slightly.  If the real intention is to move to the left then one should precede this movement with a slight move to the right first.  It should be understood that when there is a forward pushing force then there is always a backward balancing forces as well, and when stretching out in one direction there is also stretching out in the other direction.  When moving in curves and circles there is still an element of straightness.”

That’s a lot to think about, one thing I know for certain it works. It can be easy to learn, and you don’t need special equipment or a gym membership to practice tai chi.  The best thing about it, is you start experiencing the benefits right away, you don’t need to have 20 years of study to gain the health benefits of tai chi, you can start getting them right after your first lesson.  What are you waiting for? Join a class today and get your chi on!

Advertisements

Keep your Chen up!

chenshi2 I just finished a weeklong training session to learn the Chen 36. The Chen 36 was created by Professor Kan Gui Xiang based on the Chen style 83. Professor Xiang wanted to promote and preserve this form of taijiquan so she condensed the Chen 83 style, retaining all the essential parts so it would be easier to learn. I can tell you now that learning Chen style 36 is no walk in the park, but with diligence I was able to grasp the basics. I will be working on my Chen 36 for the rest of my life. Chen has always intrigued me, having learned some Yang and Sun styles, I thought learning Chen will help me better understand the internal aspects of taijiquan and I was not wrong. As with many things in nature, there are no straight lines in taijiquan, everything is a curve.

 What is Chen?

Chen style taijiquan is one of the most ancient forms of Chinese martial arts, or wushu. It is actually the oldest form of taijiquan and considered the original form of taijiquan from which all other forms developed. Chen Style taijiquan is more than 380 years old placing its birth during the Ching Dynasty. Chen comes from the Chen Village located in Wen County of Henan Province, China. Chen Wang-Ting, an ancestral native of the Chen Village, developed the martial art based upon family-taught fighting techniques in combination with external resources. For hundreds of years Chen Style taijiquan was not disclosed to the public. For the majority of its existence, the art was kept secret and was only passed on from generation to generation by males within the Chen Village. Over time, Chen Style Tai Chi slowly began to spread outside of the village and its inhabitants. Over time other styles of taijiquan formed based on Chen; Yang Style, Wu Style, Wu Hao Style, and Sun Style.

 Why Chen?

All forms of taijiquan practiced regularly working all the taijiquan principles are beneficial. Chen, however, provides some extra dimensions, such as the spiral or circular movements and the hardness followed by the softness of movements that give Chen an edge. If you are looking for a more physically challenging form of taijiquan, then look no further than Chen. Because of the many circular movements in Chen and the transitions between them, it is more difficult to learn and do correctly. All throughout the practice of Chen it is important that you understand and appreciate the inner meaning of the movements. There are subtleties to learn in each movement. As Professor Xiang explains; “If the real intention of the movement is to move upwards then one should first move downwards slightly. If the real intention is to move to the left then one should proceed this move with a slight move to the right.” None of the counter movements should be obvious, but done subtly making it even more challenging, but internally rewarding. In doing Chen you simply feel different. When I did a weeklong of Yang or Sun, I was tired, but Chen wore me out!

 Where to go from here

Now that I know the basics, I can see where different parts of Yang and Sun evolved from Chen and I have a better appreciation for all three of these styles of taijiquan. I can see now when there are times when one form is better practiced than the others. For instance, I would not start off the day with Chen, I would do some Sun to warm up, followed by Yang then top it off with some Chen. This is going to be fun mixing taijiquan styles in my regular practice. I don’t want to scare anyone off, anyone can learn Chen, it’s just going to take longer, so keep your Chen up!

“I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar!” Hoban “Wash” Washburne

Serenity

Sometimes I feel like Wash when it comes to Tai Chi. If you ever have watched Serenity? There is a scene where Wash has to navigate Serenity through an impossible number of ships and debris in space, so he steps into his zone and says to himself “I am a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar!”  His focus and concentration were all on the present moment, every thought was tied to every movement; his Yi was tied to his Chi. When he says it again, Capt Malcom Reynold “Mel” says “What does that even mean?” That’s the part that reminds me of Tai Chi.

Sometimes when we try to explain Tai Chi to someone that has no previous knowledge of the practice, will get that Mel look that says “What does that even mean?” It’s the internal aspects of Tai Chi they don’t get. We live in an area where if your exercise does not equate to one hour of heart pounding, strenuous, gut wrenching physical exertion then it’s not exercise. There is a big difference in the benefits achieved from proper practice of Tai Chi and traditional western exercise. One is internal the other is external. Don’t get me wrong you can still achieve many of the same goals from practicing Tai Chi as you can from running, biking, hiking, swimming or even weight lifting but the approaches are vastly different.

The Chinese have a lot of terms referring to Tai Chi that frankly, we here in the west just don’t get. Often we take them to be some Taoist philosophy in practice and never stop to consider the true meaning of what is behind the terms. The Chinese have been at it for centuries, this is not some fad they just made up to sell DVDs. The terms are probably what throw people off, take Chi for instance. In Tai Chi we try to cultivate our Chi and use the Chi to direct our movements and we learn to transfer the energy from our Dan Tien to other parts of our body. See? Sounds like I am saying “I am a leaf on the wind.”  If, however, I told you to use your core to direct your movements, you might understand.

Tai Chi is designed to work around the structure of the body. You may have heard the phrase that God does not draw in straight lines, well that’s how he designed your body, its curvy and circular. Tai Chi movements use the circular nature of the body, both internal and external to cultivate energy and move it around internally. Tai Chi opens up the channels of the body and allows things to flow. In Tai Chi, the subtle rotations of the joints, together with the spiraling movements (twisting movements of the torso), produces tremendous internal energy which emanates from your core or what we call your Dan Tien.

Your body is an electro-chemical machine that streams both fluids and electrical current throughout your body so you can live. Think of your body as containing a great river with many tributaries and controlling it all are a vast array of pumps and an extensive electrical grid. Tai Chi is designed to work the pumps, electrical system and open up the rivers in a very efficient way. The slow, continuous, circular, smooth, flowing movements of Tai Chi are conducive to working your internal system, provide healing where it is needed, unblocking blockages and transferring energy from one part of your body to another. The interior benefits are well documented in “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi”  and countless other scientific studies.

Just doing the movements are only a portion of Tai Chi, you have to actually use your brain to think through each movement as you do them. This is where you are meditating in Tai Chi; you are visualizing each movement you do them. You think about how you are tapping into your vast energy stores and directing them to where you need them. This is not as easy as you would think. When we start Tai Chi, we work to quiet the mind, that’s not emptying your mind, because Tai Chi takes work. You want to quiet the thoughts and cares of the day so you can concentrate and make room for guided purposeful thoughts. Scientific studies have shown how frequent practice of Tai Chi actually increases your brain size, improves your memory and combats Alzheimer’s. Tai Chi is not mindless repetitive exercises, it takes brain power (Yi) and body power (Chi) and that’s what makes it so effective.

So give it a try sometime, it’s not as easy as it looks and the benefits are tremendous. So like Wash you can learn to be in the moment where your thoughts and movements become one and you are now like a leaf on the wind, so go out and soar!

Tai Chi is Internal

tai-chi-woman

During training sessions you will often hear your Sifu or leader talk about the internal aspects of Tai Chi.  Tai Chi is all about cultivating your internal energy and using it efficiently.  What makes Tai Chi unique from all other forms of exercise and even any other of the  martial arts  is that it is internally focused.  The inner structure of your body is what grants the whole body access to energy and gives you the ability to move as a whole. Its the internal that really provides the total benefits to Tai Chi.  Yes the movements in themselves are beautiful, energizing and are in fact, good exercise, but once you learn the internal aspects, you gain a tenfold advance in fitness and health.  Its like I read once, learning Tai Chi forms are hunting and finding oysters, but learning how to use your Chi or the internal, is finding the pearl.  Lets go find some pearls!

How do you get there?  Learn and incorporate the internal?  Believe it or not it all begins in your head and learning to connect to your core.  Or as Master Trainer Dan Jones (Tai Chi for Health Institute) told me, “connecting the Yi to the Chi”.  You may have read an earlier blog entry about the principles of Tai Chi–those are actually the secret to connecting your Yi to Chi.  It starts with quieting your mind, or as some say emptying your mind.  To do this we always begin with mindful meditative warm ups designed to do a few things; get you to start breathing correctly , activating your Chi and emptying your mind (letting go the day’s thoughts and worries).  Emptying your mind is not working mindlessly, it’s taking out the trash so you can concentrate and think clearly. Once you have eliminated the unnecessary you are now free to move your chi.

If you want your energy to flow freely, you have to open up the channels.  Its the same natural principle with what you see in nature: a stream flows better without obstruction, clogged pipes restrict flow and electricity flows better without resistance.  What you do when you begin with mindful warmups and focused meditation is to take out all the kinks, obstructions and resistance, once that is accomplished you are ready to let the Chi flow!

While learning the various forms (Yang, Sun, Chen, Wu and others) is important, you must learn to work the internal aspects of Tai Chi to allow for the Chi to circulate and move the muscles, bones and tendons so you can cultivate and use your energy efficiently.  Chi is the key.  While electricity today acts as a foundation for our modern civilization, Chi is the bioelectricity or life force of the body.  As you can’t really see electricity, you can feel and see the effects.  So it is with Chi. There are both scientific and Taoist views of what Chi is, but suffice to say, without your internal energy you begin to experience health issues, you age faster and your immune system becomes compromised.   We will explore this more in future blogs, because Tai Chi is a journey not a destination and Chi is the train that gets us moving there.

Get Your Chi On!

Go where no other exercise will take you!

flowerHave you ever been stuck in the dreaded center seat on an commercial airline flight?  It’s not fun!  The person on the right thinks they can have full use of both arm rests.  Guess what?  The person on the left thinks they deserve both arm rests as well.  Where does that leave the center seat person?  Usually arms crossed the entire flight. You would think that there is not much you can do on a three hour flight in this situation; you would be wrong!  You can exercise!  That’s right!  With Tai Chi you can exercise anywhere on the planet.

I was at a silk reeling workshop all weekend and one of the warmups we did was seated Qi Gong.  We were even able to incorporate spiral movements using our feet.  There are some very simple seated moves you can do on a plane, even in the middle row.  You can start with relaxed dan tian breathing.  Sit straight up, chin tucked in slightly and imagine a golden thread gently pulling up on the crown of your head.  Put you hands in your lap and close your eyes and practice Dan Tian breathing for a few minutes.

Next it starts to get fun. You can practice a modified open and close, keeping your elbows in and not expanding past the arm rests.  As you do this start with bent elbows, but as you progress gently extend your arms out  until they just about touch the chair in front of you.  Practice this for a few minutes.

Now with your arms and hands out stretched, you bring one arm in and the other out gently, only use your Dan Tian to guide you.  You can do this by alternating the gentle push from each of your heels, left then right, then left and keep going, not forgetting to breath.  Try to feel your qua open and lead with your dan tian.

Next you can do a modified yang style repulse the monkey. with the left hand slightly out and palm up, bring it in with your elbow leading while your right hand pushes over the Lao Gong. When your have gone as far as you can go in your space rotate the palms so the right hand is in the bottom, palm up and the left hand is ready to push over the meridians toward your right hand lao gong.  Keep doing this, again using your dan tian to lead and alternating pressure from each heal.

There those are three simple things you can do in the middle seat!  Once you are done then you can explain to the person on your right and left what you are doing and ask them to join in next time!  Who knows maybe you will gain back some space!

Get your Chi On!

Tai Chi Possibly the perfect exercise

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!”
― Jillian Michaels

Picture1

“Pain is no gain”

– Tai Chi Master Martin Lee

Does exercise have to hurt to be good for you?  You would think so, there are so many different forms out that that are grueling and painful.  The old addage “no pain no gain” are often used by personal trainers to help “motivate” their students. Some people like to run marathons, ultra-marathons, climb mountains, or cycle till they drop and feel cheated if they are not totally exhausted at the end of their exercise.  Granted, the benefits of any exercise are well documented, but all in moderation.  What I have found, as many others, after years of running and doing high impact exercise, my joints started giving out.  There are a few, genetically speaking, that are built to do these high impact exercises their entire lives and will never suffer from joint generation. For us less than super humans there is an alternative; Tai CHi.  If you don’t want to end up with double knee joint replacement, yet still experience profound physiologic changes, try Tai Chi.

Not to be confused with other forms of martial arts that are solely focused on defense (remember Mr. Miyagi’s teaching “Karate is for defense”) ,Tai Chi, which is based in martial arts can be solely a profound way to exercise. Don’t get me wrong, every aspect of Tai Chi is based on a martial art form that by themselves and used properly are darn effective.  Tai Chi combines intense mental focus with deliberate, graceful movements that improve strength, agility and — particularly important for the elderly — balance.  Each move in Tai Chi is done against a gentle resistance, and doing them slowly with purpose and proper breathing–as Dr Oz might tell you, “you need this every day”.

Practitioners praise Tai Chi’s spiritual and psychological benefits, but what has gotten the attention of Western scientists lately is what Tai Chi does for the body. In many ways, researchers are just catching up to what tens of millions of people in China and Chinatowns around the rest of the world already know about Tai Chi. Scientists at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene reported in 2002 that Tai Chi offers the greatest benefit to older men and women who are healthy but relatively inactive. Previous studies have shown that Tai Chi practiced regularly helps reduce falls among healthy seniors. In the past ten years there has been an explosion of medical and scientific studies from all walks of the health community all pointing to the same conclusion: Tai Chi, done regularly have many benefits to your health, from arthritis to diabetes, to parkinsons disease to Osteoporosis.  But you don’t have to have an ailment to enjoy the benefits of Tai Chi, in fact, many are turning to Tai Chi as an alternative form of exercise from all walks of life

There are several styles of Tai Chi, but most of them start with a series of controlled movements, or forms, with names like Grasping the Sparrow’s Tail and Repulse the Monkey. There are many good how-to books to get you started, or you can choose from among the growing number of classes offered at rec centers and health clubs across the U.S. (These have the added benefit of combining instruction with a chance to meet new people.) Either way, the goal is to move at your own pace. As Tai Chi master Martin Lee of the Tai Chi Cultural Center in Los Altos, Calif., puts it, “Pain is no gain.”

So why might Tai Chi be possibly the perfect exercise?  It is well rounded, involving aerobic exercise, muscle and joint exercise, balance and coordination and what most other forms of exercise miss: it exercises your brain.  That will be the topic of another blog entry, but suffice to say, Tai Chi hits all of the key areas for good exercise. The best thing about Tai Chi is that people enjoy it, so they are more likely to stick with it long enough to get some benefit. It helps when something that’s good for you is also fun.

Make Tai Chi a Daily Part of Your Life

Even if you are taking a regular class of tai chi, its best to practice daily. The real benefits come from regular practice. Sometimes in our busy lives it is often difficult to start something new, yet alone keep it up for any real length of time. In the classic book “The Greatest Salesman in the World”, Og Mandino has the apprentice read each scroll and practice each of its principles for 30 days, after 30 days they become a regular habit and a new part of the salesman life. This should be a goal of each new tai chi practitioner. I recommend starting with just 15mins then building up to at least an hour. You can break up your times throughout the day as well. Unlike some other exercises, you don’t need a certain amount of reps or time on the machine to gain benefits. You can gain the benefits of tai chi by simply practicing “open and close” while concentrating on your breathing.

Even if you feel carving out as little as 15 minutes of time each day, the “Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi” offers some practical advice on how to integrate tai chi throughout your day. While standing in a line at a store at bank you can practice your breathing and be mindful of your balance. While watching TV, during commercial breaks, stand up and practice waving hands like clouds. Practice tai chi walking on your way to get your early morning cup of coffee. There are thousands of way you can integrate a little tai chi in you life each day.

Tai Chi at workA Stand Up Desk Provides a Perfect Place to Practice Tai Chi

For those that work at a desk all day, tai chi is the perfect way to take a break between work activities. One of the latest trends is the standup desk.  I have one of these in my home office, and it allows me to stand as long as I want working throughout the day. This provides a perfect platform for practicing many different parts of tai chi throughout the day, while you work. The Yang 10 forms come to mind, as you can do these in place while you work. I took my stand up desk environment to one higher level; I invested in a good gamer headset with a microphone and about 30 feet of cord so during long telephone calls I can step back and do more complicated forms of tai chi.

There are a lot of ways you can start to integrate tai chi throughout your day to make tai chi a daily habit. Now get out there and do it!

Get your Chi On!