Saturday, June 25, 2011

The 13 Elemental Postures of Tai Chi

Bamen Wubu – Eight Gates (Hand Skills) and Five Steps (Footwork Skills)
Shi San Shi – Thirteen Basic Skills

The 13 elemental postures of tai chi are often considered the fundamental practices of tai chi. They really aren’t postures. They consist of eight expressions of energy (forces) and five directions of movement (steps). The first four energies, peng, liu, ji, and an, are considered the primary forces. They can be considered as four ways to enhance your internal energy. The second four energies, cai, lie, zhou, kao are considered the corner forces. They are important, but less common. The five directions are

A teacher can provide guidance, but a student needs to do the work. In this case, a student should work and focus to develop a deep understanding of every tai chi form. Each form can be analyzed in terms of the 13 postures and then the correct posture can be learned and the proper application of force can be used. The related acupuncture point is a place to focus when applying the force. It leads your energy in the correct directions.

The 8 Energies (Forces) of Tai Chi
1. Peng – Ward Off
Peng can be thought of as a projection of force that places a curved barrier, or buffer zone, between you and an opponent. Peng is usually directed up and out. Ward off is the initial movement of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi. Your body is placed in such a way as to repel any incoming force and to ward it off. This is like pushing on a large beach ball. The word “listening” is often used to describe peng energy in the sense that you use peng to feel, or listen to, your opponent’s force.

There are 6 bows in the body that can be used in ward off: both arms, both legs, and the spine bow and the chest bow. Peng force is present in many tai chi forms. With the proper posture, a person using peng force is nearly immovable. It is a rising, or expansive, yang energy. The acupuncture point to focus on is Ming Men.

2. Liu (or Lu) – Roll Back Liu can be thought of any type of turning movement that diverts (redirects) the opponent’s force away from center to the side. It neutralizes (absorbs) the opponent’s force and causes him to lose balance. In the tai chi classics, liu means to “lead the opponent’s force into emptiness”, or “attract into emptiness” by diverting it to the side. Your body motion yields to your opponent’s incoming force to sense what it is like. You then use your waist to divert it to the side and pull him off balance. Roll back is the second motion of Stroking Bird's Tail in Tang-style tai chi.

Another application is with Cloud Hands where your circular hand movements divert any force. Liu is usually used to direct the opponent’s energy backward toward oneself. Liu is also part of some forms of Leisurely Tying Coat in Sun-style tai chi, where your movement is backward along your center line.

The tactic is to present a false target for the opponent to attack. During the attack, the defender allows the attacker’s momentum move past the point where he expects to go and he becomes unbalanced. It is the opposite of Peng. It is a yielding, or contracting yin energy. The acupuncture point to focus on is Xuan Guan.

3. Ji – Press Ji can be thought of the action of squeezing your force into a small area of your opponent. It is your extension of force toward your opponent. It always requires both hands or arms working together. Press is the third part of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi. It consists on one arm being curved horizontally with the palm facing in or up and the other hand pushing against it.

Press often involves bringing forces together from two directions and forcing the opponent away. It can be used to squeeze your opponent’s elbows together to dissipate his power. Ji is usually directed forward toward the opponent. Be sure to maintain an upright posture. Tuck in your tailbone to be able to direct the force. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jia Ji.

4. An – Push An can be thought of gathering (receiving) power and then redirecting the power outward or back at your opponent. Push is the fourth part of Stroking Bird’s Tail in Yang-style tai chi and of and Push the Mountain in Sun-style tai chi. The incoming force is absorbed and then directed out and up to lift and drive the opponent away. The push can be done at any angle, but the actual power comes from the earth through the legs. Use your intention to direct your force. The acupuncture point to focus on is Tan Zhong.

5. Cai – Pluck or Pull Cai can be thought of as using your hands or fingers to pluck, or pull. Cai may also be called “Large Roll Back”. It usually consists of an up and down motion where you use ward off to lead your opponent upward and away to move the opponent off balance. It can be followed by a pull. The pulling is against some part of your opponent’s body. It is not a grab. It typically uses your thumb and one or more fingers to press on pressure points. A common use is to grasp your opponent’s wrist. One hand may be placed at the other wrist to help with the quick movement. An example of cai force is Needle at Sea Bottom. The acupuncture point to focus on is Xing Gong.

6. Lie – Split Lie can be thought of as a force that causes your energy to split into two directions. It may come from pulling with one arm and pushing with the other, such as an arm break maneuver or with Parting Wild Horse’s Mane. It may be used to break your opponent’s hold on you. Split requires two hands. Lie may be combined with Ward Off to provide power. It may include a lifting action as in Fair Lady Works the Shuttles or White Crane Spreads its Wings. It is the opposite of Cai. The acupuncture point to focus on is Dan Tien.

7. Zhou – Elbow Zhou can be thought of as using your elbow to strike an opponent or to create a twisting force. You can use the elbow strike to bump your opponent off balance or to prevent your opponent from controlling your elbows. Zhou is sometimes also known as “turn and chop with fist”, as displayed in Deflect Down, Parry, and Punch and in Fan Back forms. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jian Jing.

8. Kao – Bumping, or Shoulder Kao can be thought of as using your shoulder with your full body weight behind it against an opponent. If the shoulder force is insufficient or blocked, then your back or any other body part can be used to provide force. Kao is sometimes called Lean Forward. It is usually used to bump your opponent off balance to set up some kind of attack. An example of Kao is Diagonal Flying. It is the opposite of Zhou. The acupuncture point to focus on is Yu Zhen.

The 5 Steps of Tai Chi Rooting is an important concept in stepping and movement in tai chi. I’ll write more about that some time. Rooting helps build your awareness of weight shifts and delivering force. With this awareness, you can apply the footwork of the 5 steps. Standing meditation is a good starting practice for rooting.

1. Jin Bu – Advancing Forward Jin Bu can be thought of as momentum forward. Place your heel down, shift your weight forward, and place the rest of your foot down. The rear foot controls the waist. Jin is used in any form that steps forward, like peng, ji, and an, and Brush Knee. The acupuncture point to focus on is Hui Yin.

2. Tui Bu – Retreating Backward Tui Bu can be thought of a creating a space for your opponent to fall into while overextending. Step back and place the ball of your foot down, shift your weight back. This is used in Roll Back, Ready (Playing Lute), and Repulse Monkey. The acupuncture point to focus on is Zhu Qiao.

3. Zuo Ku (or Zuo Gu) – Stepping to the Left Zuo Kou is a step to the left, like with Parting Wild Horse’s Mane, Brush Knee, Wave Hands Like Clouds and Single Whip. It also includes all kicks to the left. It is sometimes called rotate attack where you advance to the left to indirectly close with an opponent. The acupuncture point to focus on is Jia Ji.

4. You Pan – Stepping to the Right You Pan is a step to the right, like Parting Wild Horse’s Mane and Brush Knee. It represents the idea of avoiding and dissipating incoming force while gaining positional advantage. It also includes all kicks to the right. It is sometimes called rotate withdraw where you increase the distance between you and your opponent. The acupuncture point to focus on is Tan Zhong.

5. Zhong Ding – Central Equilibrium Zhong Ding can be thought of as maintaining your center position. “Be still as a mountain, move like a great river” – The Tai Chi Classics. Zhong Ding is the key direction of the 5 steps and represents the balance of yin and yang around the center. Zhong Ding is the primary direction in wu ji and standing post. Forms that include it include White Crane Spreads its Wings, Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg, and Needle at Sea Bottom. The acupuncture point to focus on is Dan Tien.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Zhan Zhuang (Standing Post) in Tai Chi (Taiji) Training

Zhan Zhuang (Standing post) 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." It appears that the person is just waiting for something to happen. In truth, it is more about waiting to act, like a cat waiting to pounce on a mouse.

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.

Zhan zhuang also helps you learn to sink your qi to the dan tian. There is nothing mysterious or mystical about sinking your qi. On the simplest level, it 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.

Beginners to zhan zhuang will find that they are not able to stand in this posture for more than a few minutes. With practice, your lower body becomes stronger and more solid. 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.

PostureGetting into the correct posture is fairly simple. Start by standing in wu ji 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. Keep your posture vertical. Avoid leaning back or extending your abdomen forward. If you start to feel pain while standing, it indicates a problem with your posture. Try to identify the source of the posture problems and correct it.

Hold your hands in front of your lower abdomen, keeping a small space in your armpits as if there were a small ball in your armpit between your arms and your upper abdomen. After several weeks of this practice, extend the practice and hold your hands in front of your arms as if they are wrapped around a tree. Hold your hands and elbows at about chest or shoulder 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 or slightly back on your heels.

Internal Work
Now the work really begins. Visualize that all your weight is moving down through your feet into the ground. Imagine your head is floating on the top of your spine and let your body and mind become calm and tranquil. 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 dan 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 arms or 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.

This is a very brief introduction to Standing Post. There are many variations and advanced exercises for you to explore further.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Get Control of Your Life

Do you ever feel that your life has gotten out of control? Are things happening to you that you have no control over? Things happen and you say, "Where did that come from? I've got enough going on right now!"

I have written several times in my blog 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.

One day, Nasrudin was riding his donkey through town. Something frightened the donkey and it bolted. The donkey started running down the street as fast as it could.

Some of his countrymen watched with amusement. They called out to him, “Nasrudin, where are you going in such a hurry?”

Nasrudin shouted back to them, "Don't ask me, ask my donkey!"
Is a donkey running your life? Has it seemed like things were flying past and you were being carried along with the current? Or in Nasrudin’s case, carried along with the donkey.

Sometimes, things just happen for no reason. We need to deal with that as it happens. However, other times things happen because our lives have gotten out of balance. We may be trying to do too much. We may be trying to do the wrong things. We need to regain that control.

The first step in regaining control of your life is to step back and look at where your life has gotten out of balance. It all starts with taking time for reflection. Stop and think about what is really important. Make up a list of the top five or ten things that are important to you. Don't list things that you think other people think is important. What is important to you is certainly different that what is important to other people.

Take some time and talk about this list with the people who are important to you. Think about it for a few days. Make sure the list truly reflects your priorities. Then keep track of how you spend your time for a few weeks.

Compare your priority list with your log of how you spend your time. Do they match? If you are feeling that your life is spinning out of control, I would bet that your time is being spent on things that are not important to you.

Now it’s time to take action. What are you going to do about all the time wasters in your life? How important is Facebook? If your goal is to build a business, then Facebook may be an important way to reach customers. If not, perhaps it's not too important.

Is your life better because you know all the names of the contestants on that TV show? If your goal is to be a television writer, then watching TV may be an important way to learn how to write. If not, perhaps it's a waste of your time.

What are you going to do to learn how to spend your time on the important things in your life? This is your chance to differentiate between what you want and what other people want of you. Time is your only asset in your quest for meaning in your life. The parasites in your life will use up all your time if you let it happen. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do a favor for a friend, but the choice must be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.

Be prepared for a long journey. It may take years of hard work to accomplish some of your goals. You may need to delay doing some things to give yourself time to finish other things. Remember this if nothing else: You are responsible for your own life.

Opportunity often shows up at your door dressed in work clothes. -Thomas Edison

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leg Strength and Balance in Tai Chi (Taiji)

Strong legs and good balance are what keep you mobile as you get older. Balance improves as you strengthen the muscles in your legs. Tai chi is great practice to help with both strength and balance.

For many people first learning tai chi, leg strength and balance can be problems. When you first learn tai chi, you are probably taught a simplified set that is easy to learn and doable by most people. These simplified sets often omit the single-leg stances and kicks. When students finally advance to a set that requires a single-leg form, they often find it difficult to balance on one leg.

The following are examples of exercises that can be used to strengthen your legs, starting with exercises for people who have the most difficulty and need the most improvement. Pick the ones that seem most appropriate for your health. In all of these exercises, work within your comfort zone. With tai chi, slow and steady is the best.

For these exercises, or any other exercise that requires you to balance on one leg, it helps to focus your eyes on a fixed point on the wall or floor in front of you. In addition, you can turn the foot of your supporting foot outward at an angle to get a better base. It also helps to extend out your counterbalance arm before you extend your kick.

Supported Leg Lifts
For learners that have difficulty standing on one leg at all, the first step is to begin with full support. To do this, stand beside a table, counter top, or sturdy chair. Place your hand flat on the table or hold on to the back of the chair. Gently hold on and carefully lift one leg just off the floor. Hold as long as it is comfortable and lower your leg back down to the floor. Repeat with the other leg. Alternate legs and repeat several times. Practice a few minutes every day.

It may take a few days, weeks, or even a few months, but you will gradually get stronger and more confident in your ability to stand on one leg. As you get stronger, repeat the exercise and raise your leg higher or repeat with only four fingers on the edge of the table or chair. Continue as long as needed. Gradually increase the height you raise your foot, increase the time you stand on one leg, or reduce the number of fingers on the support until you feel confident enough to do this without any support.

Tai Chi Stepping
If you can stand on one leg in a fairly stable posture and hold it for a few seconds, it is time to add some dynamic action to the posture to improve your strength and stability. A good example of dynamic action is tai chi stepping. Stepping in tai chi is different than the stepping we do when walking.

Start with your feet about the width of your waist or shoulders and your weight placed evenly on both of your feet. Begin by bending your knees slightly. Then slowly shift your weight to your right leg until all your weight is there and the left leg is “empty”. Slowly lift your left foot and move it directly forward. Touch your heel down, then the rest of your foot. Slowly shift your weight forward until your left knee is bent and most of your weight is on your left leg. Pause, then shift your weight back to your right leg, slowly pick up your left foot, and bring it back to its original position. Shift your weight back to center. Repeat with your other foot. Optionally, add a very slow punch with the opposite hand, where you punch forward as you shift your weight forward and pull your hand back as you shift your weight back.

There are a couple of things to be aware of when doing this exercise. First, be careful to move your empty foot directly forward. Do not place in front of your other foot. I call that “walking a tightrope” and it is very unstable. Second, when shifting your weight forward, do not allow your knee to bend forward beyond the tips of your toes. Third, when you are shifting your weight forward, be sure to keep your heel of your back foot on the ground. If you lift your heel, you can become overbalanced very quickly.

There are a couple of visualizations that can help with this. First, visualize walking like a cat when it is stalking. It picks up one foot and carefully and quietly places it down. Try to do the same kind of step. Alternatively, visualize wearing tap-dancing shoes on a marble floor. Imagine touching your foot down without making a sound.

Loosening Your Hips
 Dr. Paul Lam teaches an exercise in his Tai Chi for Arthritis program to loosen (song) your hip. For this exercise, you need to be able to stand and be stable on one foot for a few seconds. Start with your feet about shoulder width apart. Slowly raise your hands in front of you, palms down, to about shoulder height. Slowly bring your hands back down and move them slightly past your hips for balance. Bend your knees slightly as your hands come down. At the same time, shift your weight onto your right leg. Pick up your left foot, bring your left foot forward, and touch your heel down.

Raise your hands to the front again. At the same time, bring your foot back behind you and touch down with the ball of your foot. Bring your hands down again and bring your foot forward again. Repeat for a total of three times and then switch to the other side. It’s perfectly OK to touch your foot down in the center for balance as you move from front to back. If you feel fairly strong while perform this exercise, try to bend the knee of your weighted leg a little bit and work from a lower stance.

Marching While Bouncing a Ball
This exercise is from shibashi tai chi/qigong 18 set. For this exercise, you need to be able to do the Loosening Your Hips exercise described above. Stand naturally and relax. In this movement, you slowly raise one knee. At the same time, raise the hand on the same side, palm down, to about shoulder height. Lower your leg and arm at the same time. Repeat to the other side. If you can, raise your knee to about waist height.

At any time, change the combination, e.g. right hand and left leg, or two steps on the right and one on the left, etc. The change should be smooth and relaxed. If you prefer, you can slowly punch forward instead of raising and lowering your hands while marching. You can also walk instead of marching in place. This can be in any direction. Walk forward, backward, in circles, or figure eights. When you walk, it is called "Cloud Walking."

Heel Kick While Squatting
An exercise that takes quite a bit more strength than any of the previous exercises is a heel kick done while squatting on one leg.

Stand naturally and relax. Empty your left leg and bring your left foot in to touch your right foot at the instep. Bend your knees a little and lean forward very slightly. Hold your right hand at your side with your fingertips touching the outside of your thigh. Bring your left hand forward to touch your leg at or slightly above your left kneecap.

Bring your left leg up so you can keep touching your left knee. Slowly extend your left leg toward the front, leading with the heel, in a slow-motion heel kick, keeping your fingertips on your knee. Kick three times and return to the beginning posture. Repeat on the other side. As you get stronger, use deeper knee bends and work lower and lower.

© 2011 Eric Borreson