Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tai Chi – Stages of Development (Part 1 of 3)

This article has been extensively updated. Click here to see the updated version.

In general terms, there are three stages of development of your tai chi practice.

Stage One – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
Stage Two – practice how force is stored and delivered in each form.
Stage Three – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering force.

Over the next few weeks, I will write an article about each of these stages. Let’s start with Stage One.

It is important to practice your form at this stage until the movements and postures are automatic. This is the easiest stage to learn, but it can be very frustrating for beginners. Everyone else, teachers, videos, etc., seem so fluid and graceful. It takes time to get past the negative self image and learn to enjoy the movement.

Most teachers and videos do a pretty good job of explaining the movements of a tai chi form or set. However, there are many subtleties that can only be learned from a teacher. If you have access to a good teacher, great. Enjoy it and learn lots.

If you do not, do the best you can with videos, books, and other resources. Choose a common form so that you can find an occasional workshop. I recommend either the Yang 24 (Beijing) forms or the Tai Chi for Arthritis from Dr. Paul Lam Tai Chi for Health Community. There are many good weekend workshops available.

There are a few simple things that you should know as you begin your practice.

Take your time and learn methodically. Learning faster is not necessarily better. Work through learning the forms at a steady pace and take your time in understanding the details. It's better to learn a few forms or sets well than lots of them carelessly. Plan on learning only 1 or 2 new forms each week.

Remember the 70% rule. Estimate your greatest ability to perform an exercise. Practice at only 70% of that level. This is not a competition. If it hurts, stop immediately. Apply this rule to everything in tai chi, from how far you stretch, to how many repetitions, and to how long you practice. As you become more familiar with the forms and with your own body, you can gradually increase this.

Control Your Movements. A good first principle at this stage is to learn control of your movements so they are slow, smooth, and continuous. You should move as though there is a gentle resistance. Think of your qi flow as a river. As it flows downhill, it gathers strength. Keep your movements slow, smooth, and continuous to smooth the progress of the qi flow.

Body Alignment. Another way to think about controlling your movements is to work on body alignment. Being upright is very important, but it is not as simple as it seems. A way to approach it is to think of your spine as a string. Imagine gently stretching the string from both ends. Being upright provides the internal organs with more space. An upright body also strengthens the internal deep stabilizer muscles. Try to keep your body upright and supple throughout all the movements. Be especially aware of this when you start bending your knees because your alignment can change. When you bend your knees, imagine that you are sitting down in a straight chair (not the Lazy Boy!) and keep your back fairly straight. Use a mirror or video camera to check yourself while practicing.

Practice a little each day. Ten minutes of practice each day will bring you better results than practicing for an hour at a time once a week. You will find that tai chi is more challenging than it looks. If you need a break, take one. Frequently, take time to review what you have learned.
Start to learn the essential principles of tai chi. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. Most of them won’t make much sense yet, but that’s OK. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Heng – Perseverance

Heng can be translated as perseverance, or constancy of purpose. It implies steady, unceasing effort, patience, and a long-term point of view.

An important element of learning tai chi is “perseverance”. When you start tai chi, you may find it slow and even awkward. This is because tai chi is very different from most western exercise and sports. Tai chi puts emphasis on soft flowing movement while delivering powerful internal energy. That is why we move slowly and in a curve. It can appear easy but it really does take time to get used to. The slow, yet controlled, movement balances the stressful fast pace of today’s life. In nature, slow and fast and soft and hard complement each other. Persevere and soon you get used to the rhythm and feel of tai chi. Begin to enjoy the wonderful feeling of well being and serenity from within.

“Perseverance first and foremost means persistence. Whether or not the weather is cold or burning hot, you should train regularly. It is a process of testing the character and strength of mind of the student. Furthermore, perseverance means a constant quality, i.e. a certain intensity must be achieved. Only the person who trains under the motto “A pestle can be honed into a needle with an iron will” can learn the true essence of Tai Chi Chuan.”

This is closely related to the ideas of morality expressed in martial arts training. Morality of the mind includes will, endurance, perseverance, patience, and courage.

In Chinese thinking, we have 2 minds. The emotional mind (xin), also called the monkey mind, is the part of the mind that jumps around from one idea to another and lacks focus. The wisdom mind (yi), also called the horse mind, is the calming, strong and stable part of the mind. Without training, xin dominates yi. When someone fails at something that requires long-term effort, it is usually because the emotional mind has overcome the wisdom mind.

With training and practice, the yi can learn to control the xin. This means that you have to fine-tune your wisdom mind in order to control your emotions and become calmer and more focused. Different meditation styles use different methods to train your mind.

This article is primarily about learning tai chi. However, the lessons apply to all aspects of life. According to a translation of the I Ching, “Heng [Perseverance] demonstrates how, faced with the complexity of things, one yet does not give way to cynicism.” Sometimes we hit rough patches in life and become distracted from practice. However, achievement comes from steady effort at improving. Improvement comes from perseverance and continued practice. Success comes to those who endure and have faith in themselves because of their long hard work.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Qigong Benefits Heart Health

From the May, 2006 issue of Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, reported in the Summer 2007 issue of Qi Journal.

Recent studies have concluded that qigong, an ancient technique, may benefit the human heart’s overall health. Practicing qigong lowers the pulse rate, blood pressure, metabolic rates and oxygen demand.

Doctors of a recent study of qigong said, “the qigong group demonstrated greater improvement in psychological measures in addition to reduction in systolic blood pressure.” Note: the article did not specify the qigong exercises used.

Qigong is a 4,000-year-old technique that involves preventative and therapeutic health care, physical training and philosophy. There are nearly 5,000 styles of qigong cataloged by the Chinese Government.

Medical qigong consists of breathing exercises and meditation, which controls energy within the body, which, in turn, replaces stress and anxiety with positive images, increased confidence and enhanced spirit.

Qigong is frequently practiced with Taiji [t’ai chi], a Chinese movement-based exercise. The practice of qigong and taiji is a low-cost means of improving functional status in older persons.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Meditation Practice and Improvement (week 3 of 3)

Anyone who has practiced meditation knows the effect of the “Monkey Mind” where one’s mind jumps around from one idea to another like a monkey jumping from one branch in a tree to another. This article from Wildmind gives some practical advice on how to train your mind to improve your practice. The third principle discussed in this article is to apply knowledge of which antidotes are effective in dealing with the hindrances.

“The next week you might take on building up and applying knowledge of which antidotes are effective in dealing with those hindrances you have recognized. I suggest that you take on the practice of noticing distractions quickly, recognizing hindrances accurately, and applying antidotes effectively, in three-week cycles over three months.

“A good habit to establish if you meditate within a busy schedule is to give yourself at least five minutes at the end of the meditation, before plunging into something different. If after meditating you suddenly listen to the news on the radio or even start to plan your day in a determined way, that original subtle experience of concentration will be jarred. Over time an inner rebellion to being put through such jarring can develop. The result may be that you feel resistant to meditating, without knowing why.

This is really interesting. I can’t remember all the hindrances while I am meditating. My mind wanders. I have found it useful to sit for 5 minutes after completing my morning meditation. I think about where my mind had wandered and try to identify the hindrances. Then the next time my mind wanders off in a similar way, I can try to catch it sooner by identifying that hindrance.

This article went on to discuss how discipline arises from faith. In this case, faith means that we can have confidence that meditation really works and that we can apply ourselves to make it work.
© 2010 Eric Borreson