Saturday, February 26, 2011

Using Tai Chi (Taiji) to Integrate Mind, Body, and Spirit (Part 1 of 2)

Tai chi can be used to develop clarity of mind, awareness of body and qi, and strength of spirit. A key component of tai chi practice is focus. The shorter forms develop our understanding of the movements and develop our understanding of qi. The longer forms develop our focus by requiring us to concentrate for several minutes at a time in order to do the form correctly. The longer concentration develops our ability to use the universal qi.

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

It takes a lot of practice to develop your internal power. You need to rewire your nervous system so that your mind can properly understand your body. With extensive practice, you can begin to understand that connection. There is a saying, “The first 10,000 times don’t count”, referring to the amount of practice to understand tai chi.

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

1. Clarity of MindClarity of mind comes from focusing your mind on your tai chi form. Be aware of each of the movements. Know where your muscles and joints are moving. Be aware of the intention. Dr. Paul Lam wrote an article, “Yi (the mind) and Quan (the fist or martial art).” In this article, he lays out steps to develop mental focus.

Part 1 – Jing – Mental Quietness. The first step is to quiet your monkey mind. This happens as you breathe deeply and rhythmically during performance of the forms. During the close part of a form, you exhale and sink your qi, which also helps to calm your mind. It also can help to imagine that you are practicing in a peaceful, tranquil place.

Part 2 – Song – Relax and Loosen. Song means to loosen your muscles and joints. Your qi flows freely when your body is stretched out. Imagine your qi sinking to your dan tien. Thinking of your dan tien helps you focus and pay attention to your body.

Part 3 – Mental Focus. There are 3 parts to this. Focus on the body, the martial meaning, and your internal balance.

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

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

Third is cultivation of your internal balance. This gives you a controlled and relaxed personality to match the controlled, slow, and relaxed tai chi form.

Dr. Lam concludes by saying, “One way to test your improvement is to be aware of your eyes or visual fields.” He goes on to say, “If your mind is focused and integrated, your eyes will be looking in the right direction and have the right energy within them.”

It is not possible to learn all of these things at once. During your daily practice, pick one thing to work on for that day. Work on that topic for several days or weeks and then move on to something new. Eventually, come back to the first topic and work on that one again. You can continue to learn something new about yourself as you continue to work.

(Part 2 will be published next week)
© 2011 Eric Borreson

Friday, February 18, 2011

Tai Chi Practice - Standing Post (Zhan Zhuang)

Standing post, or zhan zhuang, is a common practice in tai chi training. One way to describe standing post is to say that it is standing meditation. This is partly true, but it only touches the surface of the practice. Looks are deceiving. There is a lot going on while "just standing there." There is an old saying, "Doing nothing, accomplishing everything."

Zhan zhuang helps you learn to sink your qi to the dan tian. There is nothing mysterious or mystical about sinking your qi. It simply means to lower your weight, or center of gravity, from your chest or upper abdomen down to your dan tian. You learn to relax your weight and let it sink. Your lower body becomes stronger and more solid.

Zhan zhuang also helps you strengthen your legs. Beginners to zhan zhuang will find that they are not able to stand in posture for more than a few minutes. Experienced practitioners can generally stand for half an hour or more. This is especially important as we get older. Strong and flexible legs are what keep you walking instead of using a cane, walker, or wheel chair.

One principle energy, or direction, is a centered stance, called zhong ding. Zhong ding is the key direction of the 5 steps and represents the balance of yin and yang around the center. While you are standing in zhan zhuang, you learn to develop zhong ding.

Getting into the correct posture is fairly simple. Start by standing in wu ji (insert link) and allow your body and mind to calm down. Relax your knees and let them bend just a little bit. Make sure that your weight is centered on your feet and that your body is upright. Relax into the posture and let your weight sink on each exhale. Visualize that all your weight is moving down through your feet into the ground. Hold your hands in front of you as if your arms are around a tree. Hold your hands somewhere between your dan tian and chest level.

Tuck in your tail bone and pull in your chin slightly to help straighten your spine. Check your posture to verify that you are still upright and not leaning. Check the feeling on the bottom of your feet to verify that your weight is centered on your feet.

Now the work really begins. Visualize song and let relaxation spread to every part of your body, including your arms and legs. Breathe deeply and visualize qi energy entering your body with every breath. Move the qi to your tan tian and store it there. Imagine your arms enclosing a ball of energy. Let the ball enlarge and expand with every inhale, but use your arms to contain it. As best as you can, forget everything else and focus on these things. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to your body and breath.

When your legs get tired, call it a day. Don't push it unless you are doing martial arts training and your teacher tells you otherwise. Improvement comes from long term practice, not from overdoing it until you hurt. Five minutes a day is plenty for beginners. With regular practice, you will be able to bring your mind to your dan tian even when you aren't standing in this posture. Imagine the calming effect if you can use this technique the next time you are in a stressful situation.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Friday, February 11, 2011

Health Benefits of Tai Chi

This is one of occasional blogs that I plan to write on the health benefits of tai chi. I recently read an article by researchers at Tufts University about how tai chi has been shown to be effective in treating knee osteoarthritis.

One of the authors of this article was Ramel Rones. He is with Mind-Body Therapies, Boston, MA. He has many years of experience with tai chi, martial arts, and medical qigong. He taught a simplified Yang tai chi form used in this study.

The patients were placed in either a tai chi class that met for 1 hour twice a week or another class of wellness education and stretching for a comparable time. The tai chi class consisted of 10 minutes of self massage, 30 minutes of tai chi, 10 minutes of breathing exercises (presumably qigong), and 10 minutes of relaxation (presumably meditation).

After 12 weeks, the patients showed statistically significant improvements in measures of pain, physical movement, and quality of life. After the evaluation at 12 weeks, the patients were encouraged to continue practicing on their own at home.

Additional follow-ups were made at 24 and 48 weeks. After 48 weeks, less than half the patients were still practicing tai chi on their own. The group average pain score worsened after people stopped practicing tai chi. Improvements in self-efficacy and depression continued for the entire 48 weeks.

The authors conclusion about the improvement was that “… synergy between the physical and mental roles likely plays a role. First, tai chi may enhance cardiovascular benefits, muscular strength, balance, coordination, and physical function. All of these are thought to be able to reduce joint pain. Stronger muscles and better coordination improve the stability of the joints and reduce pain. Second, the mind-body component is thought to influence immune, endocrine, neurochemical, and autonomic functioning. Third, controlled breathing and movements promote a restful state and mental tranquility.”

My conclusions: Tai chi has proven health benefits, but the benefits continue only if you continue to practice. It is not a magic pill that can be taken one time to cure illness.

Tai Chi is effective in treating knee osteoarthritis: A randomized controlled trial
Arthritis & Rheumatism (Arthritis Care and Research)
Vol. 61, No. 11, November 15, 2009, pp 1545 – 1553
Chenchen Wang, Christopher H. Schmid, Patricia L. Hibberd, Robert Kalish, Ronenn Roubenoff, Ramel Rones, Timothy McAlindon

© 2011 Eric Borreson


I have written several times about Nasrudin. Nasrudin is a character in many tales and parables. He lived in the Middle East many hundreds of years ago. Here is another story about Nasrudin. In some stories he was a wise mullah. In others, he played a fool to illustrate a point. Here is another story about Nasrudin.

The emperor Tamerlane was faced with a revolt in a far flung region under his rule. Workers had rioted in one of the cities and murdered their extremely unpopular governor. Tamerlane summoned his greatest military commanders, ordering them to stamp out the revolt immediately.

“Take all the troops you need, ladders to scale the city walls, cannons to blow the city to smithereens, camels and elephants to bring terror to the hearts of every man, woman and child.”

“You have forgotten the most effective weapon to settle the violence, which you must deploy before all others,” whispered Nasrudin into the ear of the emperor.

“Tell me Nasrudin, what is that?”

“One man with the sense to listen to the complaints of the citizens and assume the role of governor.”

Once again, the old stories have parallels in our modern times.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What is Stagnant Qi: How Tai Chi and Qigong Can Help

We may occasionally hear the terms "stagnant qi" or "bad qi" in reading about our practice of qigong and tai chi. Both of these terms refer to problems of some kind with your qi. If we think of qi as an energy that flows through our body, then stagnant qi and bad qi refer to some kind of blockage of qi flow. If we think of qi as connectedness throughout our body, then stagnant qi refers to some kind of interference with that connectedness. Tai chi and qigong can be used to help with problems of qi flow.

Bad qi can be seen or felt as nausea or tiredness. It may be a general malaise. Stagnant chi is a little more severe, manifesting as pain, stiffness, problems with mobility, general ill health, or many other similar symptoms. There are many specific treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for stagnant qi or bad qi.

Left untreated, stagnant qi and bad qi and turn into a chronic illness. If your Western doctor is unable to identify or treat symptoms, you may need a diagnosis from a TCM specialist.

Wherever tension is held in our bodies, we develop blockages to qi flow. Long term experience of any kind manifests itself in our bodies. For example, if we are under a lot of stress, we shoulders become hunched over because we "store" stress there. If we habitually stand with locked knee joints, we develop blockages and stagnant qi that manifest as foot, leg, hip, or back pain.

Long term practice of qigong promotes the flow of qi. Tai chi is a great form of qigong. The movements are designed to loosen our joints, muscles, and tendons. In fact, one of the fundamental practices of tai chi is called song. When you practice tai chi with song in mind, your joints open up and the qi flow improves. Further tension in your muscles is relaxed by being aware of substantial and insubstantial in our weight shifts.

Breathing is another important part of tai chi. This can also help with stagnant qi. Stagnant qi can feel like a heaviness or slowness in the body. Use abdominal breathing during your forms practice.

Slow down your form and breathe deeply. Use one in-breath for opening movements and one out-breath for each closing movement. Imagine your breath reaching all the way to your dan tian. As you exhale, imagine taking your breath to points of heaviness. Use your breath to move the stagnant qi out of your body. Use this to develop jing, or mental quietness.

Note: I am not a medical professional. I am not giving medical advice or providing a diagnosis. I am summarizing a concept from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Do not disregard advice from your doctor because of anything you read here.

© 2011 Eric Borreson