Monday, January 31, 2011

Using Tai Chi to Strengthen Your Immune System (Part 2 of 2)

Stress is known to damage our bodies in many ways. It appears that one of those ways is a weakened immune system. According to WebMd, stress management could be the key that helps calm our bodies and strengthen our immune system. Tai chi is a well-known method of developing a mind-body connection that can invoke the relaxation response and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces damage caused by stress.

Meditation has been shown to strengthen our immune systems. The mechanism is not entirely clear, but it seems like it is related to stress reduction. Dr. Herbert Benson studied the effect of meditation starting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. He concluded that meditation relaxes our body and mind. He coined the term “relaxation response” to describe how our body responds to meditation and calms us after a stressful event.

Our nervous system has two parts. The sympathetic nervous system manages the stimulating activities related to the fight-or-flight response when we are under stress. The sympathetic nervous system keeps us alive when we are in danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the relaxing activities that calm us down. It is sometimes called the rest-and-digest response because it is responsible for the activities that happen when we are at rest.

Many tai chi teachers (myself included) incorporate meditation as part of the class. This happens for a couple of reasons. Meditation is good for your health by itself. In addition to that, learning tai chi is stressful for beginners. It is difficult to teach our body to move in the slow, precise ways used in tai chi. No one ever pays attention when I tell them to relax and not worry about it. If I put stress into their lives, I want to help them manage it properly.

Tai chi can also be used to directly invoke the relaxation response. The basic principles of tai chi say to breathe deeply, move slowly and continuously, focus on the movement, and imagine moving against a gentle resistance. This is too much for a beginning student to be able to do at first. However, it can happen once a student develops a basic level of knowledge of the tai chi forms.

Regular practice of the forms in a simple set can be used to practice the basic principles of tai chi. This is very helpful in helping the student develop the relaxation response. To the students, it may seem like they are “in the flow”, or “really focused”, or some similar feeling. In tai chi terms, it means they are starting to develop some inner strength and intention. In medical terms, they are developing a mind-body connection and invoking the relaxation response, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Be aware that this does not happen immediately as people are learning tai chi. It takes time and practice to develop the feeling.

In part 1 of this article we developed the idea that the movements of tai chi activate the lymphatic system. In this article, we developed the idea that tai chi can be used to invoke the relaxation response. The overall effect of regular tai chi practice is that we are healthier, both physically and mentally, and we just feel better.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Using Tai Chi to Strengthen Your Immune System (Part 1 of 2)

There is considerable evidence that tai chi and qigong can help strengthen your immune system. It is not always clear what is really happening to your body when you practice tai chi. Doctors don’t claim to fully understand what happens, but they do agree that it helps. One way that tai chi may work is by activating your lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system works by circulating lymph through the body. Lymph is a fluid that carries white blood cells (lymphocytes) from the lymph nodes, through a network of lymphatic vessels, to the interstitial areas around cells.

We normally think of white blood cells being associated with your circulatory system, but they are moved around by your lymphatic system, too. However, there is a big difference between the two systems. There is no heart to pump lymph. Lymph circulates only when the lymph nodes are massaged and compressed. The nodes can be manually massaged by medical professionals, but are normally massaged when you exercise. One of the best types of exercise for this is tai chi.

Lymph is stored in lymph nodes scattered throughout the body. There are concentrations of nodes in your upper chest near where your arms join to your torso, in the center of your chest, in your lower abdomen where your legs join to your torso, and the bottoms of your feet.

The nodes in your upper chest are massaged when you move your arms back and forth and up and down. This happens in many tai chi forms, such as brush knee, white crane spreads wings, repulse monkey, etc.

The nodes in the center of your chest are massaged by deep breathing. Really focus on deep breathing when you are practicing your tai chi.

The nodes in your lower abdomen are massaged when you step, shift your weight, or open your kuas (hips). Tai chi emphasises using the waist to lead the movement. Any tai chi form that involves stepping should have the effect of opening and closing the kuas.

The nodes on the bottom of your foot are massaged when you step forward onto your heel and shift your weight forward, bringing the rest of your foot down on the floor. In the medical field, the term “pedal pump” is used to refer to methods that massage the bottom of your feet to promote drainage of lymph from the lower extremities.

This is the end of part 1. Next week, I will finish this post by describing how the meditative aspects of tai chi also help strengthen your immune system.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Simple Qigong Relaxation Meditation (Fang Song Gong)

Fang song gong is a type of qigong relaxation. Fang means “doing” or “releasing”. Song means “relax” or “loosen”. Gong means “work” or “practices”. The phrase means to follow practices that relax or loosen and eliminate any unnecessary tension.

The Chinese language has a word, guan, that is a pictogram of a crane. It means “tranquil observation”. A crane appears relaxed while it is standing in the water, but it is vigilant for a fish to swim by and become lunch. We can learn to be this aware, too, but we must cultivate body awareness. We cannot relax and eliminate tension unless we are aware of having that tension, where that tension is, and how that tension is maintained.

As you become aware of tension in any area of your body, that tension dissolves away. As you become aware of your breath, your breath slows down. Essentially, Fang Song Gong consists of the following steps:

Step 1: Sit with your eyes closed for a few moments. With every exhale, relax your muscles, one section at a time. Begin with your face, neck, and shoulders where you build up stress. Relax the front of your body beginning with your arms and hands, chest, abdomen, legs, and feet. Relax the back of your body beginning with your back, waist, hips, thighs, calves, and bottom of your feet. Repeat until you feel light and relaxed.

Step 2: Repeat a simple word or phrase softly to yourself. Feel your body and energy meridians channeling your energy with every exhale. Let your body melt into a tranquil state. Continue as long as you are comfortable, perhaps 5 or 10 minutes.

The word or phrase can be anything that has meaning to you. If you prefer, use the word song. Stretch out the s at the beginning into a “tsssong” that lasts for your entire exhale.

There are a few other things to keep in mind while practicing Fang Song Gong.

o If some parts of your body do not seem to want to relax, just let it go. With continued practice, you will learn to relax all your body.
o You may feel parts of your body becoming tingly, warm, or even itch. This is normal. It means you are becoming sensitive to your qi.
o If you feel any discomfort, check your posture and make adjustments until you feel comfortable.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Agility in Tai Chi (taiji) and the Ability to Move Nimbly

Dr. Paul Lam, developer of Tai Chi for Arthritis, uses the Chinese word “huo” to mean “agility.” He says, “Being strong, having powerful qi, and being in a good mental state are essential, and these attributes will be even more effective with better agility. Agility comes from regular practice with the proper body posture, weight transference, control of movements, loosened joints, and strong internal strength. Agility aids qi cultivation and improves flexibility.” The word “ling” is also used to mean agility, as in “song ling jing” meaning “relaxed agility power”.

From readings of this term, another translation for some situations might be “adaptability” instead of “agility.” It is all about being able to adapt to the situation no matter your position.

Substantial and Insubstantial
 It is important to know the meaning of substantial and insubstantial. A substantial foot means that all (or most) of your weight is in that foot. For instance, if the whole body's weight is on the right foot, the right foot is substantial and the left foot is insubstantial, and vice versa.

If you want to step forward with your right foot, you must shift your entire weight to the left foot and leave no weight on the right foot, except a tiny bit for balance. Pick up your right foot and place it where you want to step. If you are stepping forward, touch down with the heel, then the rest of your foot, and then transfer your weight onto that foot. When you step like this, the movement will be light and agile. When you try to step forward with one foot while there is still some weight on both feet, the movement will be heavy and clumsy.

The same principle applies when stepping sideways. Transfer your weight to one foot, step out with the other, then touch down and transfer your weight. For most forms, you try to touch down with your heel when stepping sideways, although this is usually not too important. If you are stepping backward, touch down with the ball of your foot, then the rest of your foot, and then transfer your weight onto that foot. At all times, be mindful of where your weight is placed. This improves your mobility, coordination, and stability.

This type of stepping has been shown to strengthen your legs and improve coordination. This is especially important for older people to help prevent falls. In fact, several organizations have recommended tai chi to help prevent falls.

There is a simple way to improve your ability to be aware of shifting your weight. As you are practicing your tai chi forms, imagine that you are wearing a tap dancer’s shoes and you are practicing on a hard surface floor. When you step, place your feet down as if you were trying to avoid making any noise from the tap shoes. This develops your ability to shift your weight and control your balance.

If there is no huo, then double-weightedness occurs and your body is not able to adjust or adapt to change. Double-weightedness, sometimes called “weakness of double-yang”, means that your posture limits your potential to step or move. It gives you difficulty in shifting your weight. In order to avoid double-weightedness, it is necessary to differentiate between yin and yang. Yin and yang refer to complementary aspects of a situation or posture.

In the simplest situation, you must shift your weight before you can move. You cannot step without shifting your weight to one leg and picking up the other foot. The leg that gets the extra weight is substantial, or yang. The leg that releases the weight is insubstantial, or yin. In this simple case, differentiating between yin and yang means to be aware of substantial (yang) and insubstantial (yin) and shift your weight before moving. If you do not shift your weight, you will be double-weighted and clumsy when you try to move.

A slightly more complex situation is when you are standing in horse stance where your weight must be equally distributed. You could shift your weight to move and this would be the same as the previous situation. However, there may be times when you want to spring away from the fixed stance. Here, differentiating between your yin and yang means keeping your two feet on the ground (yin) and bending in your knees (yang). If you do not bend your knees, you will be double-weighted and clumsy when you try to move.

Your body should have yin and yang on each side of the body. If the right leg is yang, the left leg is yin, the right hand is yin, and the left hand is yang. For example, if you are doing a brush knee to your left, your right leg is substantial and you sweep your left hand past your knee to deliver power. As you shift your weight onto your left leg, you bring your right forward to deliver power. If you try to make the right leg and the right hand both yin, you are double weighted. This could happen if you try to do brush knee without shifting your weight.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Jing – Mental Quietness and Serenity in Tai Chi

Jing is a mental phase where your mind quiets down and ignores the mental chatter that we are normally bombarded with. Jing means to be focused and aware of your self and your surroundings. It has been said that Sun Lu-Tang, creator of Sun style tai chi, claimed that the highest level of tai chi is when it merges with the Dao and one is in harmony with nature.

There are two other words in Chinese that are pronounced as “jing” (homonyms). One of the words means force, as in jing energy (fa jing). The second word refers to sexual energy, or essence (jing, qi, and shen). The third word refers to mental quietness and serenity. This article is about the third word.

A way to improve your Jing is to practice tai chi. Move slowly with even speed. Push gently through the air as if it is thick like honey. Keep your focus on your body. Be aware of substantial and insubstantial. Keep your body aligned and your joints loose (song).

Seek serenity in activity. When practicing the forms, it is generally better to move very slowly. Slow movements help you breathe deeply and help to sink the qi to the dan tien. Sinking your qi also prevents top heaviness caused by rising qi.

Tai chi practice can develop your ability to move from your learning mind to your performance mind. Learning mind (conscious mind) – the learning mind is engaged when learning the form. We practice each part and put them together into the form, linking each part together. We then begin integrating the essential principles into the whole.

Performance mind (subconscious mind) – With practice, the form becomes second nature. The learning mind begins to give way to the performance mind. As the performance mind takes over, the mind begins to lead the body and mental quietness develops.

It can take time to develop a quiet mind. It improves with practice. With each successive practice, it takes less time to return to a quiet mind. Gradually, you will be able to move to a higher level with better focus. Mental quietness calms the monkey mind that bombards us with random, jumpy thoughts. It helps us cope with stress and crisis.

Another way to develop your Jing is similar to meditation. Imagine that you are outdoors in a safe and comfortable place. Sit still and imagine that you can feel light breezes and that you can hear the birds and other animals. Allow yourself to relax and become quiet.

Maintain an upright posture, song your joints. Gently tuck in your chin and your pelvis to straighten your spine. Focus on slow and gentle breathing. Concentrate on your dan tien. When you exhale, gently contract the muscles in the lower abdomen and pelvis while keeping the muscles still above your belly button. Imagine that you are bringing your pelvic floor just a little closer to your belly button. When you inhale, allow the muscles to relax while maintaining a little bit of the muscle contraction.

When you use your mind actively to focus on and enhance your body movements, you build a strong mind/body connection. Your energy follows your intention. This is tai chi.

Jing and Song work together to promote calmness and serenity. In addition, jing activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This calms our body and reverses the effect of stress. Therefore, people often find that jing improves their ability to handle stress.

© 2011 Eric Borreson