Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chen – Sinking the Qi to the Dan Tien

Chen means to sink. Chen refers to using your breathing to sink your qi to your dan tien. The dan tien is important to everything we do in tai chi. Chen enhances song and jing. During exhalation, your qi naturally sinks to the dan tien when the principles of tai chi are followed. When song and jing are achieved, the qi flows naturally.

Breathing is generally not taught to beginning tai chi students because they have a tendency to let the breathing become more important than the movement. Specifying breathing patterns during a form can impede your progress by creating tension. It can lead to an emphasis on the breathing at the expense of the essential principles of tai chi. It should be the opposite. Allow your body to breathe naturally. Use these guidelines to give some direction. There may be exceptions.

In general, inhale during movements that are up and in (opening movements) and movements that store energy. Inhale during movements when expanding your chest, such as with the open hands movement in Sun style. Also, inhale during movements creating an insubstantial movement, such as when doing a roll back.

Exhale during movements that are down and out (closing movements) and movements that deliver energy. Exhale during movements when compressing your chest, such as with the closing hands movement in Sun style. Also exhale during movements creating a substantial movement, such as when doing a push or press.

Tai chi movements generally alternate between gathering (storing) energy and delivering that energy. Inhaling during opening stores the energy, like drawing a bow, and brings in the qi. Exhaling during closing delivers the energy and sends the qi. Raising your hands in commencement stores the energy. Lowering your hands delivers energy and sends the qi. This means to inhale or exhale sometime during the movement, not necessarily during the entire movement. Your body will develop the ability to breathe properly as you practice tai chi.

Abdominal Breathing
Abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, helps you to sense qi. As you exhale, you should try to sense a warm, tingly, or heavy feeling in your dan tien. Don’t worry if you don’t feel this at first. That’s normal. Continue practicing to develop your ability to sense your qi.

For abdominal breathing, take several long slow deep breaths. Allow your mind to relax so you can begin to focus on your mind-body connection. Concentrate on the abdomen area belinow the diaphragm. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in your pelvis and lower abdomen. Keep the chest still. When you inhale, expand your abdomen. Keep your chest still. In other words, exhale by contracting your abdomen. Inhale by expanding your abdomen.

Continue to practice abdominal breathing during meditation or while practicing tai chi. With enough practice, it will become natural and comfortable. I should point out that abdominal breathing is also practiced in yoga.

Reverse Abdominal Breathing
When inhaling with reverse abdominal breathing, your upper abdomen expands and your lower abdomen contracts. When exhaling, the upper abdomen contracts and the lower abdomen expands. The exhale is usually faster than the inhale. This is how you deliver force. As you breathe out, try to song (loosen) your body. Focus on the feeling of qi sinking to your dan tien.

Dan Tien Breathing
The muscles closest to the spine work different than other muscles in terms of function and neuromuscular properties. Their function is to protect and strengthen the spine. In Western medicine and anatomy, these muscles are called the deep stabilizers. A way to strengthen these muscles is to use dan tien breathing, as well as proper posture and alignment.

To learn how to breathe with this method, place one hand over your upper abdomen, above your belly button. Place your other hand over your lower abdomen, below your belly button. When you inhale, imagine that the air fills your lungs, bypasses your upper abdomen, and fills your lower abdomen and gently expands it like a balloon.

When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving. When you are comfortable with dan tien breathing, remove your hands and stand in dan tien. In addition, the dan tien breathing method can be practiced while doing the Open and Close Hands form of Sun style tai chi. Dr. Paul Lam describes it like this:
“The dan tien breathing method is especially effective for relaxation and for healing. Whenever you feel stressed or nervous, take a gentle breath. Start doing open and close. Breathe in and out and you most likely will find your mind clears up and the stress eases off.”

This type of breathing uses your diaphragm to expand your lungs. As we get older, we tend to breathe shallower. This change is primarily due to sitting and hunching over. This exercise greatly expands your lung capacity and counteracts the bad influence of hunching over. This is very relaxing and improves your qi.

Another way to think about this is to gently contract the muscles of the pelvic floor located at the midpoint of the perineum. Visualize that you are contracting those muscles toward your belly button as you inhale. Allow those muscles to relax as you exhale. If you get tired, just relax and go back to breathing naturally.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wuji (Wu Chi) – Posture of Infinity

A foundation of traditional Chinese thought is a belief in a single, cosmic universe full of energy called qi. In the beginning, the universe was an endless void known as wuji. From this void arose activity expressed as yin and yang. Yin and yang are sometimes thought of as aspects of female and male, but this is incorrect. It’s the other way around. Yin and yang are the all, representing the opposites that exist throughout the universe. All opposites are aspects of yin and yang. Light and dark, day and night, earth and sky, water and fire, and female and male are typical aspects. Yin and yang are represented by the double fish symbol.

In tai chi, wuji is the posture of infinity, corresponding to the neutral universe. A main purpose of wuji is for posture awareness, where we allow ourselves to mentally scan our body, discovering our physical and mental needs and wants.

External Aspects of WujiIn traditional qigong and tai chi practice, the wuji posture is used as a resting position before beginning exercise and sometimes placed between other movements. It symbolically represents the “great emptiness” of the original universal void. The tai chi classics say that wuji gives birth to tai chi, where emptiness transforms into activity. We practice tai chi to develop our ability to understand and use the energy of the universe.

To stand in wuji, begin with your feet about shoulder width apart. Relax your entire body. Your weight should be evenly distributed on the three balance points of your foot: the ball of the foot, the point at the base of the little toe, and at the heel. Be sure that your knees are loose. Tuck in your elbows, drop your hands to your sides, and allow your shoulders to droop. Do not lock any joints.

Keep your spine straight without being stiff (song). Tilt your pelvis slightly forward and push your chin slightly back to straighten your spine. Imagine that your head is suspended above your body by a string from the ceiling. Allow your eyes to close without pressure, and bring each breath all the way down to the dan tien energy point, about three inches below the navel. Proper alignment opens the gates of the body to achieve proper qi flow.

Progressively relax your body from the top down. Look forward and relax your eyes without focusing on anything. Relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders. Relax your arms and hands, allowing them to hang loosely. Allow your breathing to deepen gradually and expand your diaphragm.

Internal Aspects of WujiThe first step is to relax in the posture for a few moments. Stand as still as a tree and pay attention to any sensations you feel. Do not try to change anything. Just pay attention to the sensations.

Visualize a string connecting the top of your head with the heavens, lifting you and stretching your spine. Let your mind travel throughout your body. Continue with deep breaths for several minutes. Use your breathing as a point of focus. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing. Calm and empty your mind. A calm mind can better sense the flow of qi.

Be aware of any feelings of comfort or discomfort. Be aware of any muscular tension. These are not good or bad. They just are. Do not be judgmental. The goal is to develop your ability to sense what is happening in your body. Awareness of your body develops your self-awareness.

Standing in wuji is the ideal posture for the balanced flow of qi. All the places where qi is not flowing become apparent. Areas of poor qi flow become uncomfortable or even painful. Discomfort during standing reveals places where your body is not functioning properly. Your natural instincts are to move when you are uncomfortable. Move your body to eliminate painful postures, but try to maintain the posture when you are merely uncomfortable.

One method to eliminate the discomfort is to imagine your breath moving to the area of discomfort. Imagine your breath entering and leaving your body at that area. With every inhale, bring healing qi into your body. With every exhale, expel stagnant qi and carry away the tension and pain. Allow the healing qi to eliminate the discomfort.

Another method to eliminate the discomfort is to image the discomfort dropping through your body toward the ground. Allow it to fall through your feet and into the ground. When the discomfort leaves your body, it should be replaced by a feeling of comfort.

Try to stand in wuji for a few moments every day. It seems very simple, but it will be very difficult the first few times you try this. The time will drag on seemingly forever. Boredom will drive you crazy. Be persistent and these feelings will pass. Over a period of several weeks, gradually increase the amount of time you spend standing. Remember though, quality is more important than quantity. Do not force yourself to stand when you are distracted.

With practice, you can develop the ability to achieve the same mental state at any time, even when sitting. This can enhance your health by helping you deal with stress. Apply the principles of body awareness and dan tien breathing to develop calmness.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Relinquish Your Attachment to Perfection

I have written several times about Nasrudin. Nasrudin is a character in many tales and parables. He lived in the Middle East many hundreds of years ago. Here is another story about Nasrudin.

Nasrudin wanted to add some beauty to his life, so he started a flower garden. He prepared an area in his yard and planted many kinds of beautiful flowers. In due time, the flower seeds sprouted and the garden was filled with the beautiful colors and aromas of the flowers.

There was only one problem. The flower garden was full of dandelions. He didn’t want dandelions. He wanted only the flowers that he had planted. He tried everything that he could think of to get rid of the dandelions. He asked advice of gardeners from all over and tried everything they suggested. Nothing worked.

Finally, he went to the capital to ask advice of the royal gardener at the palace. The royal gardener was a wise old man that had given advice to many gardeners. He suggested many things to Nasrudin, but alas, Nasrudin had already tried them all.

They sat together in silence for some time. The royal gardener finally looked at Nasrudin and said, “I suggest that you learn to accept them.”
The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by attachment. When I was first learning tai chi, we used the phrase, “Relinquish your attachment to perfection.”

We cannot expect things to be perfect. There are times when things just do not work out the way we want them to. There are some things in life that we cannot control, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try.

How we respond to events determines our stress level. We can worry and stress about how things didn’t work out the way we wanted or we can let go of our attachment. Peace and happiness comes when we accept what we have and do the best we can with it.

Let me repeat: “We cannot expect things to be perfect”. We are all human. We make mistakes. We have weaknesses. For example, I have been working to lose some weight. This is not vanity. I am trying to get better control of my blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides. I need to do this for my health and my life. I have been doing great for the last several weeks.

So what did I do last night? Laurie and I went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. I ate almost the whole basket of chips. At least I saved some of the meal for later. My blood sugar was way too high that evening because of it. I could beat myself up emotionally about my failure, or I can remember that I need to “Relinquish my attachment to perfection” and get back on track.

Let us not forget that “We are spiritual beings on a human journey”. Life is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the trip.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tai Chi – Stages of Development (Part 3 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.

In Stage Three, you begin to learn to use your intent to direct the flow of qi through your body. Mental focus is essential to this step.

Circulating Your Qi
The next phase of understanding open and close (see Stage 2 for more information) is to start moving your qi as you open and close. When you open (inhale), move your qi from your dan tien, through your perineum, and up your yang meridian (along your spine) toward the bai hui point at the crown of your head. When you close (exhale), move your qi down your yin meridian (the front center of your body) to the lower dan tien.

Keep your mouth gently closed with your tongue touching your upper palate. It may take a long time (years) to become comfortable with this. It is important that you do not force your breathing here. If you are not sure where to be inhaling and exhaling or you get tired, just allow your body to breathe naturally.

There is a statement in the tai chi classics that says something like, “The mind (intent) moves the internal energy and the internal energy moves the body.” This is an important principle, but it is difficult to learn. It is important to practice your way through the three stages of development before you can really understand intent.

Whenever the "use of intent" is mentioned with regard to the practice of Taijiquan, most Taijiquan practitioners think "the mind is the primary controller and the body is the follower. This is illustrated in Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essential Principles of Taijiquan as “use intent, not muscular strength.”

There are usually three meanings of intent when discussed in Taijiquan. The first meaning is "to pay attention to one's internal strength.” The second meaning of intent is the same as the term "internal energy" or qi. For example, "the movement of the intent" or "the intention (qi) must change with vigor while remaining circular and smooth.” The third meaning of intent is "expectations" or "thoughts.”

The emphasis on intent is important in tai chi because the use of strength is very different than other martial arts. Tai chi uses slow, soft force to deflect or divert an opponent’s energy instead of meeting force with force. This allows time for your mind to contemplate the movement and imagine the movement in your mind before your muscles actually move.

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.

Intent also involves the use of your eyes. In the tai chi classics, it says something like, “The eyes and the hands must follow each other.” However, this does not mean that your eyes must exactly follow the movement of your hands. It means that your eyes and hands must arrive at the same point at the same time.

Don’t forget that tai chi is an internal art. This means that the movements begin in your mind. Your intention leads the movements of your energy. And from that energy, you create an internal force. As you move, think about applying a soft gentle force to your movements. Use that to lead your movements. Eventually, you will begin to feel the internal energy move within you. The key is to practice regularly.

Dr. Paul Lam, the developer of the Tai Chi for Arthritis form, uses a slightly different description. He divides the stages of development as follows:

1. Make the movements slow and continuous, developing control of your muscles.
2. Move as though there is a gentle resistance, as if you have to move through water. This helps cultivate internal force.

3. Be aware of weight transfers. Control your balance, alignment, and posture.
4. Be aware of body alignment, keeping your body in an upright posture.

5. Song – loosen the joints. Stretch and loosen the joints. Be aware of this as you practice.
6. Mental focus – try to keep your mind from wandering. This helps to integrate the internal and external.

NOTE: Of course there is much more to it than this. You need a good teacher and lots of practice to find it though.

© 2010 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tai Chi – Stages of Development (Part 2 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.

In Stage Two, study each form in detail and understand the details. Most of my experience in is Yang style, so this explanation will follow that experience.

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.

According to the classics of tai chi, “Internal force is rooted in the feet, developed by the legs, governed by the waist, and expressed in the hands.” This internal force is a spiral force generated at the feet that causes the waist to rotate, which leads the hands in the various tai chi forms. Spiral force is beyond the scope of this article, but the comments about the feet, waist, and hands are important at this point in your learning.

1) What is your stance? What are your feet doing? There are many stationary stances, from horse stance with equal weighting on each foot (wu ji); to bow stance, with the 70/30 weight ratio (brush knee); to empty stance, where essentially all your weight is on one leg (playing lute); and T stance during transitions (fair lady works shuttles). In addition, you should become familiar with dropping stance (snake creeps down) and independent stance (golden rooster stands on one leg). Other forms have stances that I am not familiar with, such as sitting stance, pan knee stance, and cross stance. The stance is important in delivering force (power) during each form.

2) Your hands should be in certain places during the movements of the form. Your hands deliver force during each form. Understand this and be aware of it during each form. There are many specific hand positions and shapes for different forms. I’ll write about that someday.

3) The waist is the part of the body above the hip bones and below the diaphragm. The waist can be moved independently of the hips in some forms. In general, most forms have turning movements. The waist should lead the movement of the arms and the rest of the body. This increases/improves the delivery of force.

4) During most forms, your eyes should follow your hand(s) during movement. When your hands are moving separately, your eyes should follow the dominant hand. The dominant hand is the one that is delivering force. This is usually the higher hand or the one that is the most forward. For example, during brush knee, the hand that pushes forward is dominant and should be followed with your eyes. The hand that brushes the knee is not dominant. However, this statement is a little misleading. Your eyes really should be looking “through” your hand at a point beyond the hands to where you want your force to be delivered.

5) Every form has an open. This is the part of the form where power is developed and stored. Think of it as a bow and arrow. Pulling on the bowstring is opening and storing energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes back while the other one is placed somewhere near your elbow. This is the opening where you are storing energy.

In general, you should inhale sometime during opening movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style tai chi master, wrote that when you are opening, you are solid outside and soft inside. You can feel your body soften as you inhale and expand your abdomen.

6) Every form has a close. This is the part of the form where power is delivered. Again, think of it as a bow and arrow. Releasing the bow string is closing and delivering energy. For example, during brush knee, one hand goes forward while the other one brushes past your knee. This is the closing where you are delivering energy.

In general, you should exhale sometime during closing movements. Chen Jin, a Chen-style tai chi master, wrote that when you are closing, you are soft outside and solid inside. You can feel your inside harden, or become more solid, when you are delivering force as you contract your abdomen.

Continue to learn the essential principles of tai chi. Read Yang Chen Fu’s Ten Essential Principles and start to incorporate them into your practice. They should be starting to make more sense now. Keep returning to them and it will become more clear in time.

© 2010 Eric Borreson