Saturday, December 31, 2011

Silk Reeling (Spiral Force) in Tai Chi: Part 1 of 3 – Role of the Dan Tien

All tai chi styles include forms that use what is called spiral force. Spiral force is also known as silk reeling because of the spiral movements involved in unwinding a silk cocoon. Silk reeling exercises (drills) are repetitive spiral movements that place an emphasis on ground connection, waist connection, dan tien rotation, knee alignment, and opening and closing of the kuas and folds of your arms. The exercises train the body to move as one unit led by the dan tien.

This is Part 1 of a brief (very brief) introduction to the concept of spiral force. You need an experienced teacher to help you master these skills. You will not learn enough from this article to proceed very far on your own. This is intended to supplement what your teacher says.

Part 1 discusses the role of the dan tien.

Role of the Dan tien
There is a saying in the tai chi classics that says, “Internal force is rooted in the feet, developed by the legs, governed by the waist, and expressed in the hands.” Other translations may differ slightly in the wording, but they all mean the same thing. There in a internal spiral force generated at the feet that travels up and around the leg and causes the dan tien to rotate, which leads the hands in the various tai chi forms. In this case, the term waist refers to the area above the hips and below the diaphragm. It includes the dan tien (elixir of life) in the front and the ming men (gate of life) in the back.

Developing and Sensing Spiral Force
Many teachers start out with Zhang Zuang (standing post) training, as they should. Then they follow up with Zheng Mian Chan Si (front silk reeling). I think that many students have problems with this and it is better to start even simpler. Stand in wu ji for a moment and allow your body to settle and your mind to calm. Sink the qi. Imagine a golden thread connecting the crown of your head with the heavens, extending through your spine and into the ground at your feet. You need to be relaxed so that you can learn to sense the subtle spiral force.

It is important to learn how to sense the dan tien and use it to move your body. Some students are able to visualize, or sense, their dan tien. For those students that can do this, imagine the dan tien as a trackball that can be moved around in response to the spiral force generated at your feet. For the rest of the students, an explanation that uses the physical sensation of pressure on your hip is enough to help them sense the spiral force.

Gently use a little force and push down with your right heel into the earth. Pay attention to any change in how your hip and waist feel. You should start to feel a subtle force that causes your waist to turn to the left. Allow that force to rotate you on the axis created by the golden thread. This is the spiral force rooted in the feet, developed by the legs, and governed by the waist. (The hands follow in a later exercise.) Practice sensing this force and allowing it to turn your waist to the left. Focus on rotating and try to avoid shifting your weight back and forth.

Repeat this enough that it starts to feel comfortable and then switch to the other side. Gently use a little force and push down with your left heel into the earth. Again, pay attention to any change in how your waist feels. You should start to feel a subtle force that causes your waist to turn to the right. Allow that force to rotate you on the axis created by the golden thread. Practice sensing this force and allowing it to turn your waist to the right. Focus on rotating and try to avoid shifting your weight back and forth.

This exercise opens and closes the kuas. The kuas are the inguinal folds in front where your leg connects to your abdomen. Understanding how the kuas open and close is essential to tai chi. You have to practice it over and over.

From a healing perspective, Silk Reeling exercises loosen up the joints, enabling freedom of movement, improved circulation, strengthened connective tissues, and increased secretion of synovial fluid which lubricates the joints, keeping them supple. From a martial perspective, the movements develop spiraling energy within the body; develop revolving energy to rebound incoming force; develop piercing energy; and develop neutralizing energy to lead incoming force to emptiness.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Qigong - Strengthening Your Vital Energy

Qigong is part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. One way to translate "qigong" is "exercises to promote the flow of vital energy." There are thousands of exercises and routines that have been used for centuries to promote wellness. This Qigong for Health routine has been developed as a healthy and fun way to revitalize after a stressful day.

I. Warmup

The exercises start by working with your hands. Walk in a small circle, opening and closing your hands, and smile. This gets the blood flowing and your energy moving. Smiling promotes good energy and good feelings.
Feel Your Qi
Start by crossing your arms in front of you with the inside of the wrists near each other, almost touching. Move your arms in slow circles with your wrists moving past each other. Pay attention to any feeling between your wrists. After about 15 or 20 slow circles, turn your hands so that your palms are facing each other. Move your hands very slowly in circles with your concentration on your palms. Pay attention to any feeling between your hands. This exercise activates qi flow through the center of the palm. You will probably start to feel some warmth or tingling between palms. Spend some time "playing" with the energy. Learn to push one hand with the energy from the other.

II. First Set

The first set loosens your joints to get the energy flowing. All exercises start in wu ji posture with your feet about hip’s distance apart. Relax your shoulders and let all the tension go. Center your weight on both feet. Stand with active knees to allow for slow, smooth movements. Use abdominal breathing to encourage deep breathing. This is where you expand your abdomen when inhaling and compress your abdomen when exhaling. Above all, work within your comfort zone.
Loosen the Neck
Head Down. Start with your chin down toward your chest. Inhale and slowly raise your hands in front of you with your palms down. Visualize a balloon lifting each hand. As your hands move, follow the movement with your chin. When your hands reach shoulder height, you should be facing straight ahead. Turn your hands so that your palms are toward your face. Bring in your hands toward your chin and move your chin backward, as if your hands were pushing it back, keeping your head upright. This straightens your spine. Exhale, turn your hands so the palms are forward, and push your palms forward and then down. Allow your chin to follow the hand movements by extending your head forward and bending it down.
Side to Side. Raise one hand to shoulder height in front of your shoulder with your palm facing in. Move your hand out in an arc to the side. Keep your hips still and turn at the waist. Follow the movement by turning your head. Return to center and switch hands. Repeat to the other side.
Loosen the Shoulders
Shoulder Roll. Roll your shoulders forward three times. Stretch your shoulders outward and maintain a small space in your armpit to open up the joint to promote the flow of qi. Then do it again by rolling them backward three times.
Press the Qi. Inhale and bring your hands around from the sides toward your body in a big circle, bending your knees slightly and gathering qi as you move. Exhale and press your hands down in front of you. Imagine gathering qi into your hands from the universe around you. Reach out to expand all the joints in your arms as your move. As you exhale, sink your qi to your dan tien.
Stretch the Spine
Separating Heaven and Earth. Slightly tuck in your chin to straighten your upper spine. Hold your hands in front of you with one hand about chest height and palm down and the other at your lower abdomen with the palm up, as if holding a ball. Separate your hands and inhale, moving one hand palm up over your head and one palm down at your hip. As you inhale, visualize that your spine is a string and you are gently pulling the string from both ends to stretch your spine. Feel your qi flowing up your spine to the top of your head. Pause briefly without moving and feel your spine stretching and the space between the vertebrae opening up. Imagine yourself growing taller. As you exhale, bring your hands back to the center and visualize that your qi is flowing down the front of your body. Repeat to the other side.
Moving the Qi Ball. Hold your hands in front of you, right palm down and left palm up, as if holding a ball. Rotate at the waist in the direction of the top hand. When you reach your limit, reverse your hands and rotate in the other direction. Try to separate the movement of your hips and your waist and keep your hips still. There is no need to turn more than about 45° each way.
Loosen the Hips
Forward & Back. Shift your weight to your right leg and bend your knees slightly. Lift your left leg and extend it forward, touching your heel down. Keep most of your weight on your right foot. At the same time, push your hands back from your sides toward the back. Lift your left leg, bring it back to where you started, and extend it behind you, touching down on the ball of the foot. At the same time, raise your hands in front to about shoulder height. Repeat for a total of three stretches. Repeat on the other side.
Side Stretch. Shift your weight to your right leg and bend your knees slightly. Extend your left leg out to the left and gently touch down. Raise your hands with the palms facing to the right, right hand above the left. Press your hands to the right as if against a wall on your right side. Repeat to the left side.
Strengthen the Legs
Brush Knee. Place them at your waist, palm down. Shift your weight to your right leg and bend your knees slightly. Slowly lift your left foot slightly, place it forward, touch down on your heel, and touch the rest of your foot down. At the same time, shift your weight forward and slowly press your right hand forward while exhaling. Bring your left hand down past your left knee. Keep your back heel flat on the floor so you don’t become overbalanced. Keep your feet apart so you are not “walking a tightrope”. Shift your weight back, pick up your left foot, bring it back, and touch down where you started. At the same time, bring your hand back to your waist while inhaling. Maintain an upright posture to keep your qi flowing properly. Make sure your movements are slow and continuous. Stretch your hip joint from within by keeping your crotch in an arch. Repeat to the other side.
Kick & Punch Forward. Make your hands into loose fists and place them at your waist. Shift your weight to your right leg and bend your knees slightly. Slowly lift your left leg until your thigh is horizontal. Slowly kick out with your left foot. At the same time, slowly punch forward with your right fist while exhaling. Bring your foot back in and touch down where you started. Bring your fist back while inhaling. Focus on slowly, gradually shifting your weight. Repeat to the other side.

III. Second Set

The second set of exercises moves your mind and body into the calming phase.
Balancing Your Qi. Bring your hands to the Dantien, palms up and fingers facing each other. Lift up your hands out and up to chest height while inhaling. Turn palms down, bend your knees slightly, and let your hands move in toward your chest and sink down to the Dantien while exhaling.
Seven Jolts Prevent All the Ailments. This stimulates six of the main qi meridians and balances the flow of qi. Start in Wu Ji. inhale and raise up on your toes, lifting your heels as high as you can. Draw your shoulders back and expand your chest. Exhale suddenly, drop your heels to the floor and relax your entire body. Come back to the beginning position. Optionally, clasp your hands behind your back as you raise your heels.
Open and Close. Feel your qi as in the first set.

IV. Meditation

Meditation is a mental practice used to get beyond the thinking mind into a deeper state of awareness. It is voluntary sensory deprivation. Part of the idea of meditation is to develop concentration so that you can control distractions. Try to keep your mind on a single point of focus. The point of focus could be a short repetitive prayer, one’s breath, a breath count, qi energy flows, or anything else.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Does Mindfulness Help Us?

Modern psychology tells us that mindfulness can be used to help us manage the stress in our everyday lives. We are taught to pause and reflect when we are faced with a stressful situation. It is often stated as pause and be "in the now". There have been many studies done in the last few years that show this approach has real physical benefits including enhanced functioning of our immune system, reduced blood pressure, and improved cognitive functioning.

How does this work? What is it about mindfulness that helps us? A recent article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science provides some insight (see below for complete reference).

The authors define mindfulness as "the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment". They provide evidence that mindfulness is a "multi-faceted mental practice that encompasses several mechanisms". The mechanisms include 1) regulating attention; 2) awareness of body; 3) regulating emotions; and 4) changing perspective on the self.

The authors further say that these mechanisms work together in mindfulness meditation and that mindfulness is "associated with neuroplastic changes" in the brain. When they say "associated with", it means they haven't proven cause and effect, but the events are correlated. In other words, mindfulness meditation is correlated with rewiring your brain. The authors go on to say that more research is needed. No surprise there, they are researchers after all. They suggest that further research may be useful in guiding targeted treatments of psychological disorders.

I'm not sure I agree that studying these mechanisms separately will provide the benefit the authors seek. The mechanisms seem to be closely interrelated. For example, awareness of body (mechanism 2) is hard to develop without improving our ability to focus (mechanism 1, regulating attention). It's hard to argue that changing the perspective on the self (mechanism 4) can be accomplished with learning more about regulating your emotions (mechanism 3).

The main point I take away from this study is that mindfulness meditation is not a vague placebo that cures all. It requires training to develop specific meditation techniques and it has measurable results on brain functioning.

How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective.
Perspectives on Psychological Science November 2011 6: 537-559, doi:10.1177/1745691611419671 
The abstract is available online at

A summary of this paper is provided at Wildmind.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Friday, December 9, 2011

Linking Hands and Feet in Tai Chi

This week's article is a continuation of a previous article, Manifesting Yin and Yang in Tai Chi. In that article, I wrote "As we begin to move, wu ji separates into yin and yang, the opposite poles. In other words, our body manifests yin and yang throughout the forms. Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy. Throughout a form, our hands and feet continuously transition between yin and yang."

Why is this important? What difference does it make whether a hand or a foot is yin or yang?

The answer to these questions is simple, yet subtle. Intention, thus visualization, is very important in tai chi. We need to learn to visualize the movements of the forms. When we become aware of yin and yang as described above, we start to develop a mental image of a linkage between our hands and feet. When you mentally link your hands and feet, you also coordinate the movements (link) of your upper body with your lower body so the top and bottom follow each other. With practice, it becomes more natural for the movement of your legs to create movement of your hands.

In turn, this awareness of connectedness helps you become more aware of substantial and insubstantial as you shift your weight. In turn, this makes you more aware of your balance and weight. You become more rooted.

It's a virtuous circle. As you practice your tai chi, you become aware of the interconnected principles that underlie tai chi. Spiral force helps you move properly. Moving properly helps you understand yin and yang, which relates to substantial and insubstantial. It develops into a never-ending spiral of deeper and deeper understanding.

Be aware though, you can't just read about it. You have to do it. Each time you practice, focus on one principle until it becomes second nature. Then focus on another principle. And so on. Then go back to the beginning and do it again with your newer understanding. Practice your forms. Thousands of times. There are no shortcuts.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Friday, December 2, 2011

Ten Signs Your Tai Chi for Health Practice is Working

Tai chi training is all about results. Here are some results that you may see because of your tai chi lessons and daily practice.
1. You feel better after your daily practice than you did before you started.
2. People start to notice that your personality has changed for the better.
3. People start to notice that you walk/move differently.
4. You don't get those minor, nagging illnesses that everyone around you shares.
5. You become stronger and more able to do things that you couldn't do before.
6. You start to feel calmer, with more thoughtfulness in your life. You are more able to manage your emotions.
7. You start to feel more creative and can find new solutions to old issues in your life.
8. You have more energy to do daily activities.
9. You look forward to your daily practice.
10. Your healthcare professional notices changes in you.

If you experience any or all of these, it indicates that your tai chi practice is working.

Let me give you an example from my own practice. Somehow, I had cut way back on my tai chi practice for a month or so. I was really busy with other things, I was traveling, I was trying to write, etc. I had lots of excuses.

I could see negative changes in my life because of my lack of practice. In short, I was turning into a couch potato. One thing that was really bothering me was a serious case of writer's block. I had a blog post that just wasn't getting done. I couldn't find the right words to finish it off.

I decided to start practicing again regardless of the excuses. Within three days, I could notice a significant increase in my energy level. My writer's block was gone. Over the weekend, I finished off the problematic article and the next three articles I had planned. I wrote an article for a newsletter. I got a significant start on a magazine article I had been planning to work on. The creative juices were flowing again.

Thanks to Marcus Santer, for the inspiration for this article.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Guest Blog Post - Allison Brooks

Tai Chi:
Kicks you into shape and cancer out of here
Tai Chi is an old martial art that is focused manipulating one’s chi through controlled movements or postures. Chi is an energy that is the core and basic foundation of all Chinese methods of healing. Not like its Bruce Lee’s predecessors, Tai Chi is more a peaceful movement art that is muscle toning, yet relaxing. Many have adopted this technique to relieve stress, build strength, or to assist with treatments for chronic illnesses or cancer.

Tai Chi is another therapy that many patients have adopted while undergoing conventional cancer treatments. Just like in Road House, Tai chi is used to stimulate muscle function and relax the mind. Though everyone might not do it as well as Patrick Swayze, everyone will achieve the desired energy balancing effect. There have been many patients that swear by the use of Tai Chi, and actually teach sessions at local hospitals.

It is understood that the chi and body have to work in harmony for a healthy sense of well-being to be achieved. For example, a person that is sick or in pain, means the chi is interrupted or unbalanced. To re-energize the chi and return it to its normal flow, a series of precise movements must be performed. The movements and postures of Tai Chi are similar to dance, in that each movement is followed by counter-movement that perfectly coincides. These slow, precise movements combined with controlled breathing from the diaphragm produce the desired effect.

With the time and mastery, Tai Chi provides an increase in muscle mass and tone, flexibility, improved posture, and increased stamina. Cardiovascular benefits are another result from the carefully articulated and focused breathing throughout each movement of the body. Tai Chi is a perfect exercise and relaxing agent for just about everyone, and is also becoming a complementary therapy for cancer treatments. MarthaMcInnis, a breast cancer survivor, learned about using Tai chi as an integrative medicine when she was undergoing radiation, and hails that Tai chi made her live better and gather the strength to fight her cancer with full force.

Though it is not a direct cure for certain ailments and cancer, it helps ease the pain of treatments, relieve stress, and promotes immune system function. Many doctors agree with Martha, and recommend patients with aggressive cancer treatment plans to adopt Tai Chi or any complementary therapy. Patients diagnosed with cancers, like non-hodgkin’s lymphoma or mesothelioma face difficult road ahead. Since intense amounts of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation are the main treatment options, a complementary therapy is a great way to help settle the mind and body. The increased wholeness and wellness of the whole body is what doctors and patients claim to be the benefit of using Tai Chi with conventional cancer treatments. 

My name is Allison Brooks and I am a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi. I earned my B.S. in Biomedical Anthropology and have continued my research to work towards a completed ethnography. I mainly focus on the effects of biomedicalization on different cultures, but I do branch off into other fields of anthropology. 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Emptiness Really Does Exist (Part 2 of 2)

In my last article, Emptiness Really Does Exist (Part 1 of2), I wrote how the word "emptiness" refers to the idea that we assign meaning to sense contacts and the meaning depends on who does the assigning. Read that before you read this.

Everything comes from our own minds, from our own perceptions. That doesn't mean things don't exist. Of course they do. Things won't change or go away because we wish it so. But everything is empty, something coming from our own minds.

I have been reading the book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally. In this book, he describes the word "emptiness".

The author, Michael Roach, describes how he was working for a diamond company in New York. Their business was expanding and they needed to find larger quarters. He wrote a long story describing all the possible alternatives they had. Should they move into a larger building closer to the diamond district where it was more expensive? Would that impress potential clients so they could charge more? Would that drive away clients who now had to pay more? Should they rent or buy? What if real estate prices go up or go down?

There were many other possibilities described in the book. Every alternative he described had good points and bad points, depending on the point of view. This is where he described the idea of emptiness as "the hidden potential in things".

He said,
"What if we try to evaluate whether the building, or the acquisition of the building, is in itself a good thing or a bad thing. The obvious answer, if you think about it even for an instant, is that, in itself, acquiring the building is neither a good thing or a bad thing -- it just depends on who's looking. ...nothing that ever happens to us is a good thing or a bad thing from its own side because -- if it were -- then everyone else would experience it that way as well."

First we learned about emptiness. Now it's time for another concept. Any experience gives us a mental imprint of that experience. We can say that the experience makes an imprint on our mind. Our minds are constantly recording our experiences. Those experiences all come through our senses or through our thoughts. We have no other contact with the world.

These imprints are our way of interpreting our sense contacts. When a sense contact is repeated, we remember what happened last time. Based on that previous experience, we respond in a way that gives us more of what we like and less of what we don't like. In other words, our response to and understanding of the world is based on previous experiences. Karma.

The point of all of this is that a sensory contact is just a physical sensation or a thought. That is the reality. Our response to the sense contact is based on our imprints. That is not reality because it is empty.

From The Diamond Cutter again, there are four rules about how imprints work (paraphrased):
1. The type of imprint determines the type of response. A negative imprint leads to a negative response. A positive imprint leads to a positive response.
2. The strength of the imprint increases over time.
3. Every response we have is triggered by an imprint. If we have a completely new sense contact, we don't respond well because we don't have an imprint to tell us how to respond.
4. Every imprint we have leads to a response.

To summarize, "Even a relatively minor action, if undertaken with a conscious awareness of how imprints make us see an otherwise "neutral" or "empty" world as we do, will lead to tremendous results." Those people who understands how imprints make us see the world as we do can go about consciously creating the life they want.

The authors are saying that this is not just creating an attitude that affects our future. They are saying that this process of selecting imprints actually creates the reality we want. We can learn to work back from a desired result to identify the particular imprint that will lead to the desired result. Then we can use that particular imprint to create the outcome we want.

How do we use these imprints? Here is my final quote from The Diamond Cutter:
Giving brings wealth, a good world comes from ethics;
Patience brings beauty, eminence comes from effort.
Concentration brings peace, and from wisdom comes freedom;
Compassion achieves everything we all wish for.
A person who takes all seven of these
And perfects them together will reach
That place of inconceivable knowledge,
No less than the world's protector.

That seems a little strange to people that are accustomed to thinking that things happen to us. Let's put it into a more familiar Western perspective: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap". Let's look at an example. Suppose your business is having difficulty in these tough economic times. It may be necessary to make changes to conserve cash.

The imprint you use determines the result of your actions. If you use the imprint of stinginess, poor morale will result and employees will not voluntarily participate in improving the company. The conversations will be something along the lines of "Money is tight this year. We are not paying bonuses to anyone except the executives. We need you all to work harder to help restore us to profitability." In fact, employees will grumble and will not work hard because of the imprint of stinginess.

If you use the imprint of generosity, good morale will result. Imagine the difference in the conversations when the attitude is something along the lines of "We are having concerns about being able to share profits this year. Profits are way off. Here is what we are doing to help the company weather this storm so we can return to profitability and start giving out bonuses again." Employees will work hard because of the imprint of generosity.

When you are faced with any decisions on any topic, the imprint you choose to work with absolutely determines the outcome of the action you take.
Note: The title Geshe is an academic award for Buddhist scholars. The title Lama is usually used as an honorary title for Buddhist scholars who have achieved the highest level of spiritual development.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Emptiness Really Does Exist (Part 1 of 2)

I've been thinking about emptiness. No, that doesn't mean I've been thinking about nothing. Emptiness is a word that has a very specific meaning in Buddhism. I had always supposed that it means something like "nothing exists", or "absence of spiritual meaning". It turns out that I was pretty clueless.

From Wikipedia:
In Buddhism, emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena, arising from the Buddha's observation that nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination. Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated.

This is an example of those Buddhist writings that quickly wander off into the "land of makes no sense". That statement is a lot of big words put into a complex, hard-to-read paragraph. When you read something like this, your mind starts to wander and gets lost. Let's break it down to make it easier to understand. Note: This is not an exact quote. I took out the references to the original Pali words. It's hard enough to read is it is.

The phrase, "emptiness is a characteristic of phenomena", means that everything that exists, including our thoughts, has characteristics that can be used to describe it. Emptiness is one of those characteristics.

The phrase, "arising from the Buddha's observation", means that Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a pretty smart guy who had lots of time to observe and think how the universe actually works. His teachings make up what we call Buddhism.

The phrase, "nothing possesses an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination", is the most important part of this paragraph. It is the foundation of Buddhism. Whenever we sense (see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or think about) anything, we assign a meaning to that sense contact. That meaning is different for every person. Nothing has any meaning by itself.

For example, suppose I observe a pen. Most of us associate the sight of a pen with the idea of writing. But is it correct to say that a pen has some inherent meaning so that everyone that sees it assigns the same meaning? Of course not. What about a pre-literate society where the people have no idea what writing is, let alone what a pen is? Judging just by appearances, a pen may be designed to clean the wax out of my ears. It's obvious that a pen doesn't have any inherent meaning. We have experience with pens as a writing instrument, so that we can assign that meaning to it.

We can extend this idea to everything that we sense. Let's look at the idea of "heroin". For most of us, heroin has meaning as a drug that destroys lives. Heroin is "bad". What about the person that enjoys using heroin to get high? In that person's world view, heroin is "good". I'm not saying you should go out and shoot up and get high. I'm saying that you cannot assign meaning to things because "nothing has an essential, enduring identity, by virtue of dependent origination".

The phrase, "Thus to say an object is "empty" is synonymous with saying that thing is dependently originated", means that everything in the universe only has meaning that we assign to it and that meaning depends on who does the assigning. This does not mean that our sense contacts are not real, or immaterial.

For every sense contact, we have a story (or stories) in our memory banks that we use to explain what it means. This story is probably a memory of previous experiences with that sense contact or something very similar.

Let's look at an easy example. In one of our dharma classes, Carl had us walk outside, barefoot, in damp grass. Several people expressed dismay at the thought of doing that. The point of the exercise is that the feeling of wet grass on our feet is just a sense contact. We all have a story about what it means and we assign a value to that story. After the experience, we all realized that the sense contact is just a story.

Stories are not real. They are a construct of our mind. Stress appears in our lives when we try to see life as something other than what it really is. We need these stories to understand what is happening. We need these stories to communicate with other people. However, our stress begins when we start to believe the stories.

Next time, I will add to this by discussing how to apply this in your life.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Taiji – Stages of Development

This was originally published in the October 2011 Issue of Yang Sheng Magazine.

There is an old saying in tai chi that says, "The first 10,000 times don't count". You should expect that you need to practice your forms that many times to move through these stages. There are no shortcuts. You can read about it. You can think about it. But in the end, tai chi is an experiential exercise. You have to do it.

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

Stage 1 – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
Stage 2 – practice how energy is stored and delivered in each form.
Stage 3 – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering energy.

Stage 1 – practice your external movements so that they are done with correct posture, pacing, and direction of vision.
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 seems 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 taiji 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 Taiji for Arthritis from Dr. Paul Lam Taiji 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 taiji, 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 number.

Control Your Movements. A good first principle at this stage is to learn to control 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 recliner!) 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 taiji is more challenging than it looks. If you need a break, take one. Frequently, take time to review what you have learned. As you learn the basics of your forms, you will want to practice quite a bit more than ten minutes.

Start to learn the essential principles of taiji. 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.

As you continue to practice your taiji, you will find that you gradually develop these skills. As you start to get a better understanding of what each form is intended to do, you will eventually start to move into Stage 2 without even being conscious of it.

Stage 2 – practice how energy is stored and delivered in each form.
In Stage 2, study each form in detail and understand the intentions. 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 seven 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, yin and yang, 6) opening, and 7) closing.

According to the classics of taiji, “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 taiji 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; 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 centering stance (golden rooster stands on one leg). The stance is important in delivering energy (power) during each form.

2) Your hands should be in certain places during the movements of the form. Your hands deliver energy during each form. Understand this and be aware of it during each form. There are many specific hand positions and shapes for different forms.

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 energy.

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 energy. 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 energy to be delivered.

5) Learn the yin and yang of each hand and foot during each movement. As we begin to move, wu ji separates into yin and yang, the opposite poles of the universe. In other words, our body manifests yin and yang throughout the forms. Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy. Throughout a form, our hands and feet continuously transition between yin and yang.

6) 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 taiji 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.

7) 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 taiji 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 energy as you contract your abdomen.

In summary, continue to learn the essential principles of taiji. 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.

Stage 3 – practice moving your qi to where you are delivering energy.
In Stage 3, 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, as described in Stage 2, is to start moving your qi as you open and close. When you open (inhale), move your qi from your dan tian, 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 tian.

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 taiji 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.

Intent is discussed in Yang Cheng Fu's Ten Essential Principles of Taijiquan, where he says, "use intent, not muscular strength.". Intent has 3 common meanings in taiji practice. First, intent means thoughts or expectations. Second, intent means qi or internal energy. Third, intent means to be aware of and pay attention to your own internal strength.

The emphasis on intent is important in taiji because the use of strength is very different than other martial arts. Taiji 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.

Intent also involves the use of your eyes. In the taiji 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.

When you are practicing taiji, 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.

Don’t forget that taiji 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 energy. As you move, think about applying a soft, gentle energy 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.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sinking the Qi Part 2 – Focus on Breathing

I have written about the word sink in the context of sinking the qi. In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. Use your intention to lower your elbows.

A big part of sinking is developing song (relax/loosen) and jing (mental quietness) in your practice.  Following the principle of song means to relax your body, without going limp, and loosening up the muscles, tendons, and joints. Jing means to focus your mind on your forms and avoid distractions. Proper breathing helps with both of these principles.

Last week I wrote about when to inhale and when to exhale and how that relates to storing and delivering energy. This week, I am going to focus on breathing techniques that help you focus your mind and improve your flow of qi.

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 below the diaphragm. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in your pelvis and lower abdomen. Keep the chest relatively still. When you inhale, expand your abdomen. Again, keep your chest relatively still. In other words, exhale by contracting your abdomen. Inhale by expanding your abdomen.

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.

Continue to practice abdominal breathing during meditation or while practicing tai chi. Keep your attention on your lower abdomen in the area around your dan tien. With enough practice, it will become natural and comfortable.

Dan Tien Breathing
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. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving.

When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. Gently contract the pelvic floor muscles at the bai hui point along your perineum.

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. Gently relax the pelvic floor muscles at the yin hui point in the perineum. You probably will not be able to breathe as deeply as you could during regular abdominal breathing.

This technique adds an additional focus on your perineum, the area between your anus and your genitals. Use your yi, or focused attention, 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.

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 (dan tien breathing):
“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.”

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming talked about this in his book TheRoot of Chinese Qigong: Secrets of Health, Longevity, & Enlightenment. He described it like this:
“... abdominal breathing is an important part of Buddhist Qigong training and so it is often called "Buddhist Breathing". To practice it, you must first use your Yi to control the muscles in your abdomen. When you inhale, intentionally expand your abdomen, and when you exhale, let it contract. In addition, when you inhale, you should gently push out your Huiyin (Co-1) cavity or anus, and when you exhale, hold it up. “

This type of breathing helps clear your mind (develop jing) and helps loosen and relax your body (song). It takes lots of practice. There are also other benefits to this type of breathing. According to Dr. Lam, 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 this type of breathing, as well as proper posture and alignment.

Traditional writings in tai chi refer to “pulling up the anus” or “contracting the anus”. I have never understood that idea very well. I think that this means the same as what I have been calling Buddhist Breathing. However, note that this does not mean contract the buttocks. These muscles need to be relaxed when not needed, just like all other muscles.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sinking the Qi to the Dan Tien

I have written before about this topic. It sometimes seems a little esoteric, but it doesn't need to. I have rewritten a previous post with more detail about some of the key topics to try to remove some of the confusion.

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.

 In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders relax away from your neck. Allow your skeleton to support your body. If your shoulders are lifted up, the tight joints block the flow of energy. Use your intention to lower your elbows. Avoid overextending your arms while practicing tai chi. Keep them slightly bent and hold them in a curve, with your armpits slightly open. This type of sinking is soft on the outside and hard on the inside. This is the origin of the term “strength like a metal rod wrapped in cotton”.

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.

Every form in tai chi has an associated inhale and exhale. The whole process of breathing and sinking your weight is called “sinking the qi”.

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 opening 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 movement 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.

As you exhale, allow your body to sink. As you step, allow your weight to settle down onto your substantial leg. Visualize that your spine is stretching and the qi is flowing through your leg down into the earth. This helps improve your balance and strengthen your legs. Stronger muscles strengthen the joints and tendons and improve your joint health.

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.

My next article will continue this topic and focus more on breathing to help you learn to focus your attention.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Taiji and Plateaus in Learning

When people begin learning something new, they often learn at a good rate. Their minds become engaged in the learning. However, when learning taiji, learning quickly is not necessarily better than learning slowly and deeply. Taiji has many subtle details that take time to learn. You have to “digest” taiji. It takes time for it to get into your body and your mind. With each lesson, it is important to practice regularly until that lesson becomes part of you. Even with deliberate practice and slow and steady learning, learners often reach a plateau where it seems that improvement is not happening.

A practitioner can seem to stay at the same level for some time until one day something new becomes obvious. This is a sudden, steep rise in growth and learning. Then the learner works at this new level for some time until something new becomes obvious. Plateaus and steep rises are yin and yang. The plateaus are yin where energy is stored before it can be delivered in the steep rises of yang.

Some students can get bored during the necessary plateaus. This causes some students to drop out and miss out on the benefits of long-term taiji practice. It is the teacher’s responsibility to discuss this with students so that they know what to expect. Some dedicated learners may want to work hard to get through the plateau phase. Others may get frustrated with the plateau.

However, a plateau is a necessary part of learning taiji. It's not that "nothing is happening". It may seem like little learning is happening, but a plateau happens while the lessons are trained "into the body". After the lessons have become part of the learners reflexes, new learning can begin. Enjoy your practice during the plateaus. Know that eventually plateaus become steep rises that bring new depth and enjoyment to your practice.

 © 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cultivating a "Not-Knowing" Mind

We enter the world not knowing where we came from. We will eventually leave this world not knowing where we are going. Religions and philosophers have debated birth, life, and death for millennia without actually resolving anything. Where can we get answers? Let's look at the Dao De Jing by Laozi.

The writings of Laozi indicate a different approach than religion or philosophy. He wrote about the "don't know" mind. In chapter 71 of Dao De Jing, he wrote (Byrn translation):
Knowing you don't know is wholeness. Thinking you know is a disease. Only by recognizing that you have an illness can you move to seek a cure.

The cure that Laozi prescribes is given in chapter 48 (Byrn):
1. One who seeks knowledge learns something new every day. One who seeks the Dao (the way of nature) unlearns something new every day.
2. Less and less remains until you arrive at non-action. When you arrive at non-action, nothing will be left undone. Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course.
3. You can not master the world by changing the Dao.

Writings in classical Chinese are always subject to varied interpretations. I think Laozi is saying that we need to appreciate the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Simplify your life. We do not need to aspire to enlightenment. We do not need to study philosophy to understand the world. We just have to live it as it is. This is our greatest treasure.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tai Chi for Fitness

As part of the Tai Chi for Health Community, we have done a good job of communicating that tai chi is good for the elderly to regain function and as a rehabilitation training. But let's not forget the benefits of tai chi are available for people of any age. Tai chi can be useful for younger and middle aged people to help maintain fitness throughout their lives.

There are many people that would benefit from tai chi but they are not interested because of a perception that it is for "old people", that it is "too easy", or that it is a "martial art". We need to communicate better that tai chi is good for everyone. The best way to communicate with health care professionals is with scientific studies.

There was a recent publication, a review report, that looked at several other studies. It was published in a Japanese journal, Nippon Eiseigaku Zasshi, in Japanese, so I have to depend on the English abstract. Their main conclusion was that tai chi is beneficial as a rehabilitation training for older people and patients with various diseases. In addition, they concluded that tai chi is beneficial as an exercise for healthy people.

Hasegawa-Ohira, M., M. Toda, et al. "[Effects of Tai Chi exercise on physical and mental health]." Nippon Eiseigaku Zasshi 65(4): 500-5.
Recently, Tai Chi, which is one of the Chinese traditional martial arts, has been receiving attention. The main feature of Tai Chi is its flowing movements including loosening up, relaxing, and practicing meditation with slow abdominal respiration. Tai Chi is widely taken as part of health-promotion activities or rehabilitation training, and significant mental and physical effects have been reported so far. In this review report, Tai Chi was confirmed to be beneficial not only as a rehabilitation training for old people or patients with various diseases but also as an exercise for healthy people. These findings suggest the potential of Tai Chi as a complementary and alternative therapy.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Proprioception and Tai Chi

Tai chi is a great exercise to improve proprioception and kinesthetic sense. What does that mean? Read on. During movement of any kind, we are constantly losing our balance and regaining it quickly. The better our ability to regain balance, the safer and more skillful our movement. Better balance makes athletes less likely to get injured and reduces falls among the elderly. Balance is improved by improving your proprioception and kinesthetic sense.

Proprioception represents your body's ability to react to external forces. A kinesthetic sense is your ability to sense where your body is in space. It should be pointed out that not everyone agrees on the definitions of these terms.

Proprioception is an inner sense that works with the central nervous system. It is the ability of your brain to communicate and manage parts of your body with each other. It is your reflexes working to keep your body in balance. Good exercises to improve proprioception are those that challenge your balance and equilibrium. (That sounds like tai chi to me!)

Proprioception works through proprioceptive nerve endings to sense your body's location. Muscle spindle fibers in the muscles communicate information to allow the muscles to maintain proper muscle tension to support the joints. These nerve endings and muscle spindle fibers degenerate without regular use. Tai chi works many muscle groups to restore and improve function.

Kinesthetic Sense
Kinesthetic sense, or kinesthesia, is an outer sense that works with your body in space and time. It is your mind knowing where each part of your body is in relation to things around you. Good exercises to improve kinesthetic awareness are those that require coordination and movement control. (That sounds like tai chi to me!)

Your kinesthetic sense can improve through practice. Just be aware of every movement in your tai chi forms. Be precise about placing your hands and feet. Check your placement to give yourself feedback and learn from that feedback.

Combining proprioception and a kinesthetic sense improves your ability to control your body's movements. Improving your proprioception and kinesthetic awareness can turn you from an eternal klutz into a skilled athlete. It helps you make more precise movements with less effort. In other words, it improves your balance and coordination. Tai chi is very precise and controlled. This brings the player's focus to the movement and that focus transfers to everyday life.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tai Chi and Fibromyalgia

There was a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that tai chi improves the symptoms of fibromyalgia. There is something that we need to keep in mind when reading medical studies. The word "significant" is used to mean that there is a measurable difference between the test group and the control group. However, this word does not mean that the difference is enough to make a difference in the patient's lives. The word "important" means that there is difference that matters to the patients.

For this study, a total of 66 patients with fibromyalgia were divided into two groups. Half the patients (33) were controls and were given wellness education and stretching for the treatment of fibromyalgia. The other half of the patients (33) were placed in a class where they learned classic yang-style tai chi. Both groups met for an hour twice a week.

The primary measured effect was a change in the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) score. According to the authors, the tai chi group had "clinically important improvements in the FIQ total score and quality of life."

This is really important. Fibromyalgia is very difficult to treat and many patients do not feel that get any benefit from Western medicine. Tai chi can really change lives for people with fibromyalgia.

Below is the citation and abstract of the article. (I added some paragraph breaks to make it easier to read.)

Wang, C., C. H. Schmid, et al. "A randomized trial of tai chi for fibromyalgia." N Engl J Med 363(8): 743-54.

BACKGROUND: Previous research has suggested that tai chi offers a therapeutic benefit in patients with fibromyalgia. METHODS: We conducted a single-blind, randomized trial of classic Yang-style tai chi as compared with a control intervention consisting of wellness education and stretching for the treatment of fibromyalgia (defined by American College of Rheumatology 1990 criteria). Sessions lasted 60 minutes each and took place twice a week for 12 weeks for each of the study groups.

The primary end point was a change in the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) score (ranging from 0 to 100, with higher scores indicating more severe symptoms) at the end of 12 weeks. Secondary end points included summary scores on the physical and mental components of the Medical Outcomes Study 36-Item Short-Form Health Survey (SF-36). All assessments were repeated at 24 weeks to test the durability of the response.

RESULTS: Of the 66 randomly assigned patients, the 33 in the tai chi group had clinically important improvements in the FIQ total score and quality of life. Mean (+/-SD) baseline and 12-week FIQ scores for the tai chi group were 62.9+/-15.5 and 35.1+/-18.8, respectively, versus 68.0+/-11 and 58.6+/-17.6, respectively, for the control group (change from baseline in the tai chi group vs. change from baseline in the control group, -18.4 points; P<0 .001=".001" p="p">
The corresponding SF-36 physical-component scores were 28.5+/-8.4 and 37.0+/-10.5 for the tai chi group versus 28.0+/-7.8 and 29.4+/-7.4 for the control group (between-group difference, 7.1 points; P=0.001), and the mental-component scores were 42.6+/-12.2 and 50.3+/-10.2 for the tai chi group versus 37.8+/-10.5 and 39.4+/-11.9 for the control group (between-group difference, 6.1 points; P=0.03). Improvements were maintained at 24 weeks (between-group difference in the FIQ score, -18.3 points; P<0 .001=".001" br="br"> 
CONCLUSIONS: Tai chi may be a useful treatment for fibromyalgia and merits long-term study in larger study populations. (Funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and others; number, NCT00515008.)

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Health Benefits of Tai Chi

There was a recent study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology that discussed the health benefits of tai chi. The study authors claimed that tai chi significantly increases blood levels of adiponectin.

I had to look up the role of adiponectin. Adiponectin is a hormone that regulates glucose concentrations in the blood stream and the breakdown of fatty acids. It also plays a role in suppressing the metabolic malfunctions that lead to Type II diabetes, obesity, and atherosclerosis. Increased levels of adiponectin correlate with better health.

I'm not sure that this study proves what they claim. They showed that tai chi is better than sitting around. They did not show that tai chi is better than other exercise. Nevertheless, it is good news because it shows that tai chi improves health.

Here is the citation and abstract:

Chang, R. Y., M. Koo, et al. "Effects of Tai Chi on adiponectin and glucose homeostasis in individuals with cardiovascular risk factors." Eur J Appl Physiol 111(1): 57-66.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the acute effect of a single bout of Tai Chi (TC) exercise on adiponectin and glucose homeostasis in individuals with cardiovascular risk factors. Twenty-six individuals (mean age 60.2 years) with at least one cardiovascular risk factor who had been practicing Yang's style TC exercise for at least 3 months were recruited from a regional hospital in Taiwan. A one-group repeated measured quasi-experimental design was used. Participants completed a 60-min Yang's style TC exercise routine including warm up, stretching exercises, and TC followed by a 30-min resting period.

After a 1-week washout period, the same group of participants underwent a control condition in which they were instructed to remain seated for 90 min at the study location. Blood samples were collected both before and after the TC intervention or the sitting condition. The difference between pre-post measurements for adiponectin was 0.58 +/- 1.42 mug/ml in the TC trial and -0.46 +/- 0.99 mug/ml in the sitting trial. The differences between the two trials were statistically significant (P = 0.004). The changes from pretrial to posttrial were significantly greater for glycerol (P < 0.001), cholesterol (P = 0.046), and LDL-C (P = 0.038) in the TC trial compared with those in the sitting trial. Conversely, the changes were significantly lesser for HOMA-IR (P = 0.004), log (HOMA-IR) (P = 0.001), and glucose (P = 0.003) in TC trial compared with those in the sitting trial. In conclusion, a single bout of TC exercise had a significant positive effect on blood adiponectin concentrations in individuals with cardiovascular risk factors.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Manifesting Yin and Yang in Tai Chi (Taiji)

One of the fundamental principles of tai chi is that we start in wu ji, or neutral emptiness. As we begin to move, wu ji separates into yin and yang, the opposite poles of the universe. In other words, our body manifests yin and yang throughout the forms. Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy. Throughout a form, our hands and feet continuously transition between yin and yang.

Brush Knee
I've been working hard on Sun style for a couple of years, so let's look at Sun-Style Brush Knee. We are facing South (forward) as we finish Open and Close Hands. From Open and Close Hands, we move to the West (right) into Brush Knee. In the Yang 24, we move East (forward) into Brush Knee from Crane Spreads Its Wings. The same principles apply, but the actual movements differ slightly.

When we finish Open and Close Hands, we are neutral for an instant. As we move into Brush Knee, we begin to shift our weight onto the left foot. As we shift our weight, the left foot is becoming yang and the right foot is becoming yin. The left hand is becoming yin as it extends outward to store energy. The right hand is becoming yang as it sweeps down to brush past the knee. The left foot is substantial and the right hand is delivering energy.

At the instant we pick up our right foot to step out, yin and yang are at a maximum in the hands and feet. When we place our right foot, it is becoming yang. The left hand is starting to move forward past the ear, becoming yang and delivering energy. Our left foot is becoming yin (insubstantial) and our right hand is finishing the brushing movement and becoming yin. As we finish shifting our weight onto the right foot, our left completes the follow step.

Let's look at the hands in detail. At the instant the weight starts to shift to the left foot, the left hand is becoming yin and the right hand is becoming yang. When we step out, the hands start moving toward the other pole. The left hand starts to become yang to deliver the energy and the right hand starts to become yin to store energy. You can use intention to feel the difference in your hands through this form.

The body is moving as a whole. There is unity between the upper body and lower body. The opposite hand and foot manifest the same energy. When the right foot is yang, the left hand is also yang. When the left foot is yin, the right hand is also yin. The left and right feet manifest opposite poles of energy. The left and right hands manifest opposite poles of energy. We are clearly distinguishing between yin and yang throughout the Brush Knee form.

Double Weightedness
If we do not properly distinguish between yin and yang, then double-weightedness occurs. Double-weightedness, sometimes called “weakness of double-yang”, means that your posture limits your potential to step or move. Your body needs to have yin and yang on each side of the body. If you try to make the right leg and the right hand both yin or both yang, you are double weighted. Your movements become just movements and not tai chi.

It is informative to point out that as we move from one pole to another, we must move through a neutral position where our weight is equal in each leg. We become double weighted for an instant as we move from one single weighted posture to the next. This is not the same as being double weighted in a static posture.

Take Home
Here is the lesson I want you to take home from this. You can use this explanation as a guide to study your own forms. Take time and analyze each form separately and then as a sequence. You may learn something new.

On one of his TCA teaching videos, Dr. Paul Lam said, "One of the most fascinating things about tai chi is that it looks like we are repeating the same thing. But each time we do that, there is something else that is deep and meaningful to it. So, I invite you, when you do your practice, to approach it with a fresh feeling each time and look at the movement from different aspects and to see if you feel that you have learned something fresh and gained some extra depth in the movements."

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moving Slowly in Tai Chi

Why are tai chi movements done so slowly? I get this question from beginning students. I'm sure most other teachers do, too. There are many benefits to slow movement. As far as I am concerned, one of the major reasons for slow movement is so that the learner can pay attention to every detail. When we move quickly, we move in the way we have always moved. We have habits that we follow. Moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how we want to move instead of how we usually move.

It can be very difficult for beginners to move slowly. They do not have a well-develop sense of proprioception. Their mind is not even aware of where and how their body is placed. A beginning tai chi class starts to develop this skill in the students. With continued practice, they can become aware of and control finer movements.

For more advanced students, slow movements also help you identify the rough edges that need work. Sometimes we don't notice that something isn't quite right until we slow down enough to see it better.

It is important to complete one movement before moving into the next. Beginners often get sloppy when in transition between one form and another. Moving slowly helps them become aware of what is happening. With slow movement, beginners can learn to become more aware of how they are moving from one stance to another.

Tai Chi PrinciplesThere are many principles that students learn as part of their tai chi practice. It would be too much to discuss them all here. I decided to focus on just a few of them to show how slow movement enhances the student's ability to learn and practice them.

Coordinating the upper and lower. The first things students learn is the physical movements of the forms. With slow movement, it is easier to figure out where to place your feet and hands, when and how to turn, and where to look. A common mistake for beginners is to have the lower body move faster than the upper body. In other words, they finish stepping and shifting their weight before they finish their hand movements. Sometimes it is the other way around where they finish their hand movements too soon. Moving slowly allows the learner to understand the relative speeds and how to coordinate the movement. Slow movement allows you to think about and analyze what is happening as you move.

Song. One of the first principles typically taught to students is Song, or relax and loosen. Quick movements hide the tension. It is easier to identify any areas of tightness in the muscles and joints when moving slowly. It allows us to feel every muscle as it contracts and loosens.

Distinguish Between Substantial and Insubstantial. Another common problem for beginners is learning how to step. If the feet make any sound while stepping, it means that the movement is too fast. A common visual used to teach students how to step is to have them imagine walking like a cat. Each foot is carefully placed before any weight is placed on it. I also use another visual. I have students imagine wearing tap dancing shoes and try to step without making a sound. A good student will try several different ways of moving until they have enough experience to understand what the teacher is saying. This can only happen when the movements are slow.

Once students learn to step, they can learn to distinguish between substantial and insubstantial so they are able to turn and move lightly and gracefully. If you can’t tell the difference, your steps will be heavy and sluggish. When you prepare to move, place all your weight on one leg. That becomes full, or substantial, and the other becomes empty, or insubstantial. Slow movement makes it possible to understand this. In addition, it is easier to focus on your breath and coordinate your exhales with your yang movements.

Stillness Within Movement. Tai chi emphasizes stillness instead of movement. Even when moving, the form appears to be tranquil. Slow movements in tai chi force you to spend time with all your weight on one leg as you step and move. This develops leg strength and improves balance. Better strength and balance leads to smooth and tranquil movements.

Calm Mind. With slow movements, the body and mind learn to relax naturally. It is in introduction to the meditative state. In her book, Tai Chi as Spiritual Practice, Caroline Demoise says, "Slow movement calms your mind and leads you on a path in ward to experience the stillness at the center of your being. The energy of tai chi is innately meditative and produces this inner alignment. The underlying principles teach you to harmonize with Tao and flow with change."

That sounds like Meditation in Motion to me. Smile, enjoy, and play tai chi.
© 2011 Eric Borreson