Saturday, May 21, 2011

Integrating Mind and Body with Tai Chi

Mind-body integration means to be aware of your movements, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In order to develop a mind-body connection, we need to learn how to continuously adjust our movements, posture, breathing, thoughts, and emotions. Tai chi is the perfect vehicle to do this. Tai chi helps develop clarity of mind, awareness of body and qi, and strength of spirit.

A basic principle of tai chi is that the yi (mind) directs the qi (internal energy) and the qi drives the jing (internal power.) This makes it sound like yi, qi, and jing are separable and can be developed independently. However, in practice they are inseparable.

It takes a lot of practice to develop your internal power. You need to rewire your nervous system so that your mind can properly understand your body. With extensive practice, you can begin to understand the connection between yi, qi, and jing. There is a saying, "The first 10,000 times don’t count", referring to the amount of practice needed to understand tai chi. It doesn't really take that long to make progress, but growth continues to happen with more practice.

The tai chi classics often make statements that mind is more important than the body. I don’t think that this means to separate mind and body. It means that mind directs the body. Mind and body are inseparable but they must be properly integrated. There are three steps, or parts, of the process of integrating mind and body. They are not independent of each other. The three steps are 1) clarity of mind, 2) awareness of body and qi, and 3) strengthening your spirit (unconscious mind).

1. Clarity of Mind
Clarity of mind comes from focusing your mind on your tai chi form. Be aware of each of the movements. Know where your muscles and joints are moving. Be aware of the intention. The mind must be engaged in every part of every movement. There are three parts to developing clarity of mind.

Clarity Part 1 - Jing - Mental Quietness. Quiet your monkey mind.
Mental quietness happens as you breathe deeply and rhythmically during performance of the forms. During the close part of a form, you exhale and sink your qi, which also helps to calm your mind. It also can help to develop jing if you imagine that you are practicing in a peaceful, tranquil place.

Clarity Part 2 - Song - Relax and Loosen. Loosen your muscles and joints.
Song does not mean to allow your body to go limp. It means to get rid of any unnecessary tension in your body. Your qi flows freely when your body is loosened and stretched out. Imagine your qi sinking to your dan tian. Thinking of your dan tian helps you focus and pay attention to your body.

Clarity Part 3 - Mental Focus. Focus your mind on one thing at a time.
Mental focus is the ability to concentrate on one thing and ignore the monkey mind that constantly distracts us. The three parts to developing focus are to focus on your body, the martial meaning of each form, and your internal emotional balance.

First, focus on your body. Be aware of what is happening and where your Qi is moving. Try to get to know a little bit about the acupuncture meridians because that’s where your qi moves. Focus on your muscles and joints. 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 and move our qi.

Second, focus on the martial meaning of each form. It is important to understand the open and close of each form. Know how and where power is developed and delivered. This helps you to understand the correct posture and movement. Then your mind can direct your body into the right movements. Focus on the movements and their intention.

Third, focus on cultivating your internal emotional balance. This gives you a controlled and relaxed personality to match the controlled, slow, and relaxed tai chi form.

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. Once again, there are three parts to this.

Awareness Part 1 - Develop the correct posture and tempo.Without practice and feedback, 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 bending forward a little bit. 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.

Awareness Part 2 - Learn how to direct your 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 are feet 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.

Awareness Part 3 - Focus on moving your qi.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 "Being 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.

Spirit Part 1 - Use guided imagery.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.

The classics of tai chi clearly recognized the use of imagery. Many of the names of the individual forms reflect this idea. Tai chi sets have descriptive names like "playing the lute" and "white crane spreads its wings" that bring the images to mind.

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. Visualize that you do your forms perfectly. Imagine the smallest details. Your unconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between visualization and actual movement. The visualization influences your following practice.

Spirit Part 2 - Get your flow going.Flow is the feeling you get when you get lost in the moment. This is when you don’t even notice anything going on around you. This is sometimes called being in the zone. People perform their best at everything and have the most enjoyment when they are "in the flow." When someone is in flow, their emotions become energized and aligned with the task at hand. Agitation and anxiety prevent you from getting in the flow.

There are three main factors that improve your flow. First, have a clear short-term goal for each practice. Second, it is important to receive immediate and relevant feedback. Third, match your goals to your skills. You want an achievable challenge.

When you are beginning to learn taiji, your goal may be to remember how to remember the movement. Your feedback comes from knowing that you completed the movement correctly. For a more advanced movement, your goal may be to focus on the substantial and insubstantial weight shifts during the form. In this case, your feedback, comes from you knowing that you completed the form or set and were aware of your weight at all times. In both cases, you are selecting an appropriate goal for your skill level.

Spirit Part 3 - Practice, practice, practice.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 f topic and work on that one again. You can continue to learn something new about yourself as you continue to work.

Note: I use the term "tai chi" even though the correct Pinyin translation is "taiji." It has become part of the English language as tai chi, so that is what I use.

This was originally published in the April issue of Yang-Sheng,

© 2011 Eric Borreson