Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tai Chi for a Calm Mind

One of the most difficult things you can do in your lifetime is to learn to master your mind. As we begin to learn, we don't even notice the chatter. Our senses are not fine enough yet to notice what is happening. Many learners get discouraged when trying to develop mental quietness. The constant mental chatter, or monkey mind, is very hard to control.

In tai chi, jing is a term for the 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 yourself and your surroundings. Jing activates our parasympathetic nervous system. This calms our body and reverses the effect of stress. This is why people often find that tai chi improves their ability to handle stress.

Tai chi practice can develop your ability to move from your learning mind to your performance mind. The learning mind (conscious mind) is engaged when learning your forms. We practice each form and put them together into a set, linking the movements together. With practice, the forms become second nature.

The learning mind begins to give way to the performance mind (subconscious mind). As the performance mind takes over, the mind begins to lead the body and mental quietness develops. Work with body, mind, and breath to develop jing.

Body - Move slowly with even speed. Push gently through the air as if it is thick like honey. Keep your body aligned and your joints loose (song). Gently tuck in your chin and your pelvis to straighten your spine.

Mind - Keep your focus on your body. Be aware of substantial and insubstantial. 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.

Breath - 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.

It can take time to develop jing, but it improves with practice. Each time you 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. If you have ever worked out in a gym in order to get stronger, you know that it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and hard work.

I hate to disappoint anyone, but it takes even more work to accomplish the harder, but much more rewarding, task of mastering your mind. It takes self discipline and a commitment to a long-term practice. Practice your forms. Thousands of times. There are no shortcuts.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Three ITS for Tai Chi Success

There are many things that we need to do to be successful with our tai chi practice. I've been thinking about this and I have distilled it down to three requirements I call the three ITS and it's easy to explain what they mean.

Investigate - When you first decided to try tai chi, the idea had to come from somewhere. You probably read or heard something about the health benefits. Spend a little time investigating tai chi before you commit to spending time and money. What do you want to get out of it? Define what you mean by "successful" tai chi practice.

Teacher - A teacher is essential. You can learn a little bit from a video. A video can show you the basic movements of a tai chi form, but it doesn't give you any feedback. It doesn't give you any of the depth of tai chi that makes it such a wonderful practice. Teachers are all different. Some have been studying for decades. Some for less. Some are great at their practice, but lousy teachers. Visit a class. Observe how the teacher interacts with the students. Ask if the teacher has experience with other students who have similar expectations as you. You want to find a great teacher that can help YOU. It can take time to find the right teacher, but it's worth it.

Student - You are the most important requirement. You can investigate and find the best teacher. You can spend your money on classes. But you won't be successful if you don't apply yourself and learn what the teacher is giving you. The teacher can show the way, but you have to put in the practice time. You have to do the hard work of learning.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Friday, April 13, 2012

Posture in Tai Chi

Tai chi teachers always talk about maintaining good posture. What are some things you can practice to improve your tai chi posture? First, simply be aware of your posture as your practice your forms. Be aware of whether or not you are upright when you are supposed to be. If you focus on posture every day, your posture will start to improve.

One of the 13 classic postures of tai chi is called Zhong Ding, or central equilibrium. It's all about posture and it can be thought of as maintaining your center position. 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. 

Separating Heaven and Earth
If you find that you still have difficulty maintaining an upright posture, there is a very simple exercise called Separating Heaven and Earth that you can do as part of your daily warmups. It is a classic exercise that has been used for thousands of years. It is part of the Eight Silken Brocades (Ba Duan Jin) qigong set.

Slightly tuck in your chin to straighten your upper spine and tuck in your tailbone to straighten your lower 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 exhale, slowly moving the bottom hand palm up over your head and the top hand palm down at your hip. Keep your elbows slight bent.

Visualize that your qi is 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 inhale, bring your hands back to the center and visualize that your qi is flowing down the front of your body. Reverse your hands and repeat to the other side. Repeat several times.

Remember that this exercise is called Separating Heaven and Earth, not Stretch for the Heavens. This is a spine stretch, not a full body stretch. Don't stretch your whole body as if you are trying to reach the heavens. I have seen people doing this by leaning to the side and trying to reach as high as they can. That's not the point. This is primarily a visualization exercise, not a stretching exercise.

Visualize your body reaching for central equilibrium. As you exhale, visualize that your spine is a string and you are gently pulling the string from both ends to stretch your spine. This is very similar to the Song exercise I wrote about last week.

Modification for a more challenging form
If you are looking for a little more of a physical challenge, you can get that here, too. Begin in horse stance. Move your feet farther apart, as if you are sitting on horseback. Bend your knees to the extent you find comfortable, while maintaining an upright posture.

As you stretch and extend your hands, rise from the horse stance. As you relax and return to neutral, inhale and return to horse stance. Continue moving from horse stance to standing as you alternate hands.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Note: If you are practicing Wu style, it's probably better to talk about whether you are properly aligned, but I have no experience with that style and can't provide any help.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Simple Exercise for Song (Relax and Loosen)

Song () means to loosen and relax. It means to open up your joints so the energy can flow. What does that really mean, though? It means to stretch the ligaments that hold our joints together. How do we do that? Here is a simple exercise to help you learn about song.

Look at your hands at the inside of your wrists. At the base of your palm, right where it joins with the wrist, there is a line, or fold, in the skin. You can usually see this line on both hands. Bring your hands together so that your hands are in a prayer position. Hold your hands together, palms facing each other, and align the two lines. Look at your finger tips. For many people, the fingertips will not be even. One hand is larger than the other. Note which hand is smaller. If they seem to be the same size, note which hand is your non-dominant hand.

Now, look at your smaller or non-dominant hand. Start with your little finger. Look at the first knuckle, the one closest to your palm. Visualize that joint is expanding and stretching. Keep your attention there for about 3 to 5 seconds. Move to the next joint on the little finger. Visualize that joint is expanding and stretching. Focus for about 3 to 5 seconds again. Move your attention to the last joint in the finger and repeat.

Move your attention to the next finger, the ring finger. Look at the first knuckle and do the same visualization. Follow this with the rest of the knuckles. Move to the middle finger, then the pointing finger, and then the thumb. Do the same visualization for each knuckle. Now, visualize your entire hand. Imagine that the whole hand is expanding, that it is growing with each heartbeat.

Now, line up your hands again from the line at your wrist. Most people find that their hand has grown a little bit. You certainly didn't increase the size of your bones in that short time. The increase has to come from the space between the bones, the joints. This is song.

Now the tricky part begins. Use this same technique for the rest of your body. Don't worry about the measuring or comparing here. You know it works. Open up your shoulder joints during your tai chi warmups. Focus on your shoulders while you do your forms. You may need to pause once in a while to bring your attention back to the shoulders. Continue this practice for the elbows, spine, hips, etc. You can use this technique for your entire body. With lots of practice, you can start to develop the ability to continuously maintain song throughout your body.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

© 2012 Eric Borreson