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.