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

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wuji Posture in Tai Chi (Taiji)

A foundation of traditional Chinese thought is a belief in a universe full of energy called qi. In the beginning, the universe was an endless void known as wuji. The taiji classics say that wuji gives birth to yin and yang, which are expressed as taiji. Yin and yang are represented by the double fish symbol.

Yin and yang are the all, representing the opposites that exist throughout the universe. All opposites are aspects of yin and yang. Light and dark, day and night, earth and sky, water and fire, and female and male are typical aspects.

We practice taiji to develop our ability to understand and use yin and yang. In traditional qi gong and taiji practice, the wuji posture is used as a resting position before beginning your practice. It symbolically represents the “great emptiness” of the original universal void.

External Physical Aspects and Body Posture
The external is the yang. To stand in wuji, begin with your feet apart about the width of your hips or shoulders. Gently rock back and forth and side to side to feel the weight shift. Take a moment to make sure your weight is evenly distributed on the three balance points of each foot, the ball of the foot, the point at the base of the little toe, and at the heel. Be aware of your weight on your feet and allow your weight to sink down into the ground on each exhale.

Relax in the wuji posture for a few moments. Stand as still as a tree and pay attention to any sensations you feel. Do not try to change anything. Just pay attention to the sensations. Progressively relax your body from the top down. Don’t go limp, but focus on eliminating any unnecessary tension.

Relax your entire body and loosen all your joints. Be sure that your knees are not locked. Adjust your posture so that your weight is supported by your skeleton. Look forward and relax your eyes without focusing on anything. Relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders, and all the other places where you build up tension during the day. Relax your arms and hands, allowing them to hang loosely at your sides. Gradually allow your breath to deepen. Allow it to expand your diaphragm. Don't overdo it and force your breath, but be sure to completely fill and empty your lungs.

Internal Mental Aspects and Flow of Qi
The internal is ying. Let your mind travel through your body. Open all your joints by visualizing them expanding and loosening. Visualize a string, or thread, connecting the top of your head with the heavens. The string lifts from the bai hui point at the crown of the head and pulls down at the hui yin in the middle of your perineum. Imagine the string stretching your spine, opening up the space between the vertebrae.

Standing in wuji is the ideal posture to help you sense the flow of qi. Use your breathing as a point of mental focus. Use this time as a short meditation to calm your mind and body. As you stand, let your mind follow your breathing. When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing. Let the calmness empty your mind of other things. An empty, calm mind can better sense the flow of qi.

As you stand still, become aware of any feelings of comfort or discomfort. Be aware of any muscular tension. Do not be judgmental. There is no right or wrong. The goal is to develop your ability to sense what is happening in your body. Awareness of your body develops your self-awareness.

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

Instead of moving, bring your attention to any point of tension or pain and imagine that your breath is entering and leaving your body at that point, Let your breath carry away the tension and pain. With every inhale, visualize bringing healing qi into your body at the place where you have tension. With every exhale, visualize expelling stagnant qi. Allow the healing qi to eliminate the discomfort.

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

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

Regular practice helps to balance your yin and yang, your internal and external. The balance of yin and yang helps you become more aware of the connection between your body and mind and improves your taiji.

This was originally published in the June issue of Yang Sheng magazine.

© 2011 Eric Borreson

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mindful Labyrinth Walking

I recently returned from a week-long tai chi workshop in Terre Haute, Indiana. We stayed and practiced at the College of St. Mary-of-the-Wood. This is a pastoral campus in a rural area on the edge of a small city. There were no houses in sight from the main campus. It was a beautiful place to get away the hustle and bustle for a few days.

I habitually rise fairly early. Sleeping in a strange place certainly didn't change that. I decided to take advantage of that early morning time and walk around the campus. On Tuesday morning during my walk, I discovered that there was a large labyrinth on campus. I decided to walk the labyrinth.

I started to walk the labyrinth with the intention to have an enjoyable start to my day. I quickly discovered the gnats. Millions of them. They were swarming all over every living thing within sight. They were buzzing around my head, landing and crawling all over me. I spent the walk swatting at them. I let the gnats interfere with the enjoyment of my walk.

My dharma teacher, Carl, often says that one reason we have so much stress in our lives is because we make up stories to interpret our sensory inputs. In other words, when we have input from one of our senses or when we have a thought, we tell ourselves stories to explain the meaning of that input. The stories help us react to the world based on previous experiences.

The story I have in my head is that having "bugs crawling on me" is a "bad thing." It is unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Therefore, I "know" that walking a labyrinth while bugs are crawling on me is an unpleasant situation. However, stories are not reality. Creepy-crawly bugs are just a story we tell ourselves.

That evening, I thought of another story, The Buffalo and the Monkey. Blessings to Dr. Tom for sharing this story with me. Here is an abbreviated version.

Many years ago (presumably in the time of talking animals), there was a buffalo living on the edge of the forest. The buffalo was large, fast, and powerful. All of the animals, even the tigers, stayed out of its way. All except one. A monkey regularly tormented the buffalo. The monkey pulled the buffalo's ears, hit it with sticks, poked it in the eyes, and did any other deviltry that the monkey could think of.

The wise owl asked the buffalo why he put up with the torment from the monkey when he, the buffalo, was such a large and strong animal. The buffalo replied, "All the animals have a purpose here. Even the monkey has a purpose. He is here to teach me patience."
I decided that I wanted to rewrite my story about the gnats. Gnats are not dangerous. They are not going to bite me. They are not going to spread disease. My new story is that gnats are just gnats. They are not important. I can ignore them.

One of my tai chi teachers, Caroline, said that in order to learn, we need intention, attention, practice, and a teacher. So the next day I walked to the labyrinth with a different intention in mind. My intention was to pay attention to my walking practice based on direction from my teachers Caroline and Carl. I decided to walk mindfully.

What is mindfulness? I posted a similar question recently on one my LinkedIn groups. I had 24 comments. Comments included " … the natural interactions between our conscious thoughts and the subconscious physiological responses that occur", "… a way to control the autonomic nervous system", and "… using the power of the mind to control pain". Let me give you my definition here. Mindfulness is being aware of your body, thoughts, and emotions at all times.

Following the direction from my teachers, I decided my intention was to use tai chi walking to walk the labyrinth. I wanted to enjoy the walk and continue to practice mindfulness. I brought my attention to my feet and my shifting weight. I focused on the path and how I was placing my feet. I focused on the feeling of my feet on the ground and how my feet felt as I shifted my weight from one foot to another.

I ignored the gnats and walked. They landed on my face. They crawled in my hair, around my ears, and down my neck. I noticed them, but I didn't worry about it.

I do have to admit that there were a few times when I had to shift my attention from my walking to removing the gnats from my ears. That was a little too much for me that morning. But I quickly brought my attention back to my walking.

During my walk, I met someone else walking the labyrinth. We passed silently and shared energy. Thanks to my new friend, Donna, for sharing that experience with me. That was truly a mindful, spiritual morning for me. It was truly meditation in motion.

© 2011 Eric Borreson