Friday, March 4, 2011

Using Tai Chi (Taiji) to Integrate Mind, Body, and Spirit (Part 2 of 2)

Read Part 1 of this article here.

Tai chi can be used to develop clarity of mind, awareness of body and qi, and strength of spirit. A key component of tai chi practice is focus. The shorter forms develop our understanding of the movements and develop our understanding of qi. The longer forms develop our focus by requiring us to concentrate for several minutes at a time in order to do the form correctly. The longer concentration develops our ability to use the universal qi.

2. Awareness of Body and QiTai chi is a martial art. You need to concentrate to develop clarity of mind, but you also need to be aware of what is happening around you. Closing your eyes during the form helps build awareness of your body, but it doesn’t help you become aware of the environment around you.

There are three stages to being able to direct your qi. These are covered in much more in my articles on “Tai Chi – Stages of Development”.

Stage One – Practice your external movements to develop the correct posture and tempo.
Without practice, our mind may not know exactly what the body is doing. For example, you may think that you are keeping an upright body during your forms, but you may actually be hunching over. You need feedback during your training so that you can develop this integration. Use another person, a video camera, or a mirror to test your posture.

Stage Two – Learn how to direct your force and follow an opponent’s force
Even the simplest forms have several (many) parts to learn and master. It is a big oversimplification, but we can say that the six things to focus on at this point are 1) what your feet are doing, 2) what your hands are doing, 3) what your waist (body) is doing, 4) what your eyes are doing, 5) opening, and 6) closing.

Stage Three – Practice focusing on moving your qi to where you want it
When you are practicing tai chi, move slowly and continuously and use intent to move beyond the physical part of the form. This helps to develop a strong mind-body connection. Qi gets stronger as it continues to flow, just like the force of water gets stronger as it flows downhill. If you stop moving during the forms, your qi also stops moving.

3. Strengthening Your Spirit (Unconscious Mind)The word “spirit” needs a little explanation. It has nothing to do with the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. It is attitude, in the sense of “He is in high spirits.” Spirit is mostly controlled by your unconscious mind. You can be aware of your spirit and make temporary changes, but long-term change requires long-term practice. Tai chi can be a path to control your unconscious mind.

The slow movements and breathing and mental focus of tai chi can reduce stress by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of your nervous system that slows down your body after a stressful event has gotten you all wound up.

A key component of managing your spirit is using guided imagery. The imagery may have a short-term goal, such as mastering a difficult part of a form or keeping upright during a form, or it may have a long-term goal, such as improving your control of your speed during the entire set.

Mental imagery works on the unconscious mind and can be effective in ways that standard practice alone cannot be. It can help guide you to a higher level of tai chi. As a suggestion, set aside 5 or 10 minutes every day for mental imagery before practicing your forms. Use this time to work on your goal. Imagine that you do your forms perfectly. Look at the smallest details. Your unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between visualization and actual movement. The visualization influences your following practice.

The classics of tai chi clearly recognized the use of imagery. Many of the names of the individual forms reflect this idea. We are not likely to be using tai chi for combat any more, but the creator of Chen style tai chi created a form that included the description “sky full of stars” to describe the effect on your opponent when you hit him in the head. Another form included the term “red fist”, meaning red from your opponent’s blood.

It is not possible to learn all of these things at once. During your daily practice, pick one thing to work on for that day. Work on that topic for several days or weeks and then move on to something new. Eventually, come back to the first topic and work on that one again. You can continue to learn something new about yourself as you continue to work.

For further information, see my previous posts about Stages of Development, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

© 2011 Eric Borreson