Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Bamboo Story – Perseverance and Plateaus

There is a story often told about bamboo farmers in China. They clear a field and plant bamboo seeds. They need to nurture and care for the seeds even though there is no visible growth for years. The farmer must make sure the seeds get watered every week. The seed is slowly building a root system that will support it later in life. The story goes on to say that nothing is visible until the 5th year. The seed suddenly sprouts and the plant shoots up many feet in a very short time.

I'm sure the story has grown over the years, but it does illustrate a couple of important points: perseverance and plateaus. An important element of learning tai chi is perseverance. Tai chi does not feel comfortable at first. You have to have faith that it will eventually "work" for you. You need to continue to practice. Read more here.

When you start tai chi, you may find it slow and even awkward. This is because tai chi is very different from most western exercise and sports. Tai chi puts emphasis on soft flowing movement while delivering powerful internal energy. That is why we move slowly and in a curve. It can appear easy but it really does take time to get used to.

The slow, yet controlled, movement balances the stressful fast pace of today’s life. In nature, slow and fast and soft and hard complement each other. Persevere and soon you get used to the rhythm and feel of tai chi. Begin to enjoy the wonderful feeling of well being and serenity from within. You have to have faith that something good will come out of it even though you don't see much happening at first.

The other thing to remember is that we move through plateaus before we can climb the peaks. Read more here. Even with deliberate practice and slow and steady learning, learners often reach a plateau where it seems that improvement is not happening. A practitioner can seem to stay at the same level for some time until one day something new becomes obvious. This is a sudden, steep rise in growth and learning. Then the learner works at this new level for some time until something new becomes obvious.

Plateaus and steep rises are yin and yang. The plateaus are yin where energy is stored before it can be delivered in the steep rises of yang. Some students can get bored during the necessary plateaus. This causes some students to drop out and miss out on the benefits of long-term taiji practice. It is the teacher’s responsibility to discuss this with students so that they know what to expect.

This article is primarily about learning tai chi. However, the lessons apply to all aspects of life. According to a translation of the I Ching, “Heng [Perseverance] demonstrates how, faced with the complexity of things, one yet does not give way to cynicism.” Sometimes we hit rough patches in life and become distracted from practice. However, achievement comes from steady effort at improving. Improvement comes from perseverance and continued practice. Success comes to those who endure and have faith in themselves because of their long hard work.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moving in Tai Chi: Just like Goldilocks

Most tai chi forms are made of more than one movement that are normally performed slowly in a continuous movement. First question: Why move slowly? Second question: How slow? Let's look at these separately.

Why move slowly?
There are many benefits to slow movement. I have written about this before. (Read more here.) Here is a quick summary:

Pay attention to detail - One of the major reasons for slow movement is so that the learner can pay attention to every detail. Moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how we want to move instead of how we usually move.

Coordinating the upper and lower - 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. Moving slowly allows the learner to understand the relative speeds and how to coordinate the movement. (Read more here.)

Song - One of the first principles typically taught to students is Song, or relax and loosen. (Read more here.) 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 - One 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. (Read more here.)

Stillness Within Movement - Slow movements in tai chi force you to spend time with all your weight on one leg as you step and move. 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. (Read more here.)

How Slow?
It is common for beginners to practice too fast. The previous section explains why to slow down. Slow, relaxed movements really are the best for your health. However, it is possible to move too slowly if you are new to tai chi. If you have some experience and are happy with the results, then you are doing just fine. If you are moving too slow, it can be difficult to sink your qi. (Read more here.) It becomes difficult to coordinate movement and breath.

A common rule of thumb is to use your breathing as part of your movement. You want to breathe slowly and deeply. At the beginning of a form, or short sequence of movement, you are storing energy. Begin inhaling as you begin moving. At the end of a form, you are delivering energy. Finish exhaling as you finish moving.

Let's look at a common example. Most styles of tai chi include some kind of movement called Brush Knee. You start from central equilibrium. Inhale as you store energy and begin the movement. At some point during the movement, you switch from inhaling (storing energy) to exhaling (delivering energy). As one hand moves down to brush past your thigh or knee, your other hand extends forward to deliver energy. As you reach the normal full extension, you finish exhaling as you finish moving.

Don't get me wrong. There are reasons to move very slowly. There are reasons to move very quickly. Let your teacher work with you on this. You will need to find your Goldilocks point, where your speed is just right, not too fast, not too slow.

Beginners - be cautious about following this advice about breathing. Breathing is generally not taught to beginning tai chi students because they have a tendency to let the breathing become more important than the movement. When you are learning, it is more important to learn the movements correctly than to try to breathe correctly. Most teachers recommend that you practice for several years before you spend much time working on your breathing.

Note: If you are not familiar with the story of Goldilocks, all you need to know is that the Goldilocks story is about a young girl that needed to find something that was just right: not too hot, not too cold; and something else that was just right: not too hard, not too soft.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ba Duan Jin - Separating Heaven and Earth

Ba Duan Jin (Eight Silken Brocades) is a traditional qigong exercise set. One of the exercises is called Separating Heaven and Earth. It is also known as Harmonizing Spleen & Stomach by Raising Arm Separately; Raise Each Arm to Regulate the Spleen.

Qigong exercises are intended to harmonize the body, mind, and breath. Use slow, gentle breathing during the exercise and synchronize your movement with your breath. Move slowly and exhale when you extend. Finish extending as you finish exhaling. Inhale when you move back in. Finish moving in as you finish inhaling. Keep your mind focused on your breathing in order to develop a calm mind and body. (Read more here.)
There are many variations in the details of the movements from one teacher to another. Regardless of the details, one of the fundamental principles of this exercise is the split energy used to open up the joints in your spine.
1. Start in wu ji, with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Slightly tuck in your chin to straighten your upper spine. Take a moment to settle into the proper posture. (Read more here.)
2. Place 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. (Alternatively, hold your hands at the same level, palms down, with fingertips pointing toward each other.) Begin to exhale, starting from the abdomen. (Read more here.) Bring your bottom hand upward, inside the top hand, so the palm passes in front of your chest. Move the hand overhead, palm up with the fingers pointing toward the opposite side of your body. At the same time, bring the top hand down near your hip with your fingers pointing forward. It is a gentle stretch with your elbows bent. Bringing the bottom hand to the inside adds some spiral, twining movement that twists and massages the muscles of the arm.
3. As you reach full extension, focus on expressing energy with both hands. This is the split energy. (Read more here.) Visualize that your spine is a string and you are gently pulling the string from both ends to stretch your spine. Visualize that your qi is flowing down the front of your body.
4. Pause briefly and feel your spine stretching and the space between the vertebrae opening up. This is just like the exercise I teach to expand the joints in your hand (Read more here.) Feel your qi flowing up your spine over the crown of your head. Imagine yourself growing taller. As you inhale, bring your hands back to the center with the hands reversed from the starting position. Feel your qi flowing up your spine to the top of your head.
5. Repeat to the other side. Repeat the entire exercise as many times as you wish.
1. Wu ji is used to get you into the proper posture and frame of mind.
2. If you wish, you can shift your weight back and forth. When you shift your weight to the right leg, the right hand extends overhead. When you shift your weight to the left leg, the left hand extends overhead.
Benefits & Effects
This exercise increases the flow of qi in the stomach and spleen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the stomach is known as the sea of water & grain and is responsible for digesting food. The spleen is responsible for transporting nutrients throughout the body. 
The alternating stretching stimulates the muscles in the front of the upper body, improves circulation to the stomach, liver, and spleen. The muscles of one side of the body are stretched against the other side. This kind of exercise harmonizes and adjusts the digestive system, the energy level of the body (particularly the stomach and spleen), and the vital energy circulating through the internal organs.
The internal organs, especially the stomach, spleen, liver, and gallbladder are massaged and stimulated through this exercise. The exercise stimulates the digestive process and the peristaltic action of the intestines.

© 2012 Eric Borreson
Notice: I am not a medical professional. I am not giving medical advice. I am writing about the reported effects of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tai Chi Breathing

Many of my students have asked about breathing during their tai chi forms. I always tell them that the first thing to keep in mind is that they must breathe. Slow, gentle breaths are best. However, many students press for more information. First, I tell them about storing and delivering energy. Later, I tell them about abdominal breathing.

Storing and Delivering Energy
Tai chi forms contain parts where energy is stored and parts where energy is delivered. In general, the storing energy parts are when your hands are moving up or in. The delivering energy parts are when your hands are moving out or down. All styles of tai chi have some kind of commencement form. It often contains a beginning part where the hands move up and an ending part where the hands move down. I ask the students to inhale some time during the storing energy parts and exhale during the delivering energy part.

Abdominal Breathing
I next discuss abdominal breathing with my students. (Read more here.) This uses your diaphragm to open up your lungs and improve overall fitness. It helps you focus your mind by creating a calming effect that helps you minimize the mental chatter that is always going on.
To learn how to breathe with this method, place one hand over your upper abdomen, above your belly button. Place your other hand over your lower abdomen, below your belly button. When you inhale, imagine that the air fills your lungs, bypasses your upper abdomen, and fills your lower abdomen and gently expands it like a balloon. Gently relax the pelvic floor muscles at the bai hui point, in the middle of the perineum. When you exhale, gently contract your lower abdomen as if the air is leaving the balloon. During both inhales and exhales, try to keep your top hand from moving.
This technique adds an extra focus on your perineum, the area between your anus and your genitals. Use your yi, or focused attention, to gently contract the muscles of the pelvic floor located at the midpoint of the perineum. Visualize that you are contracting those muscles toward your belly button as you inhale. Allow those muscles to relax as you exhale. If you get tired, just relax and go back to breathing naturally.
Dr. Paul Lam uses the term "dan tian breathing" for this technique. He describes it like this:
“This breathing method is created based on traditional qigong and modern medical research into the deep stabilizer muscles. It is effective to facilitate sinking qi to the dan tian and to enhance qi power, in turn improving internal energy. It can be incorporated into all your qigong and tai chi movements.
Use abdominal breathing while opening and closing your hands. (Read more here.) Dan tian breathing can be practiced during the open and close hands form of Sun style tai chi. After the student starts to become comfortable with this breathing technique, it can be extended to other forms. It takes great concentration to do this kind of breathing while moving through your forms. Don't overdo it. Practice it when you can. If you have difficulty at any time, let it go and resume your normal breathing.
© 2012 Eric Borreson

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Simple Tai Chi Technique to Calm the Mind

One of the signature movements of Sun style tai chi is the open and close hands. On the surface, it is just a simple movement of the hands. Start by holding your hands in front of you, about chest height or head height, as if you were holding a ball. Hold your hands about 6 or 8 inches apart. Slowly separate your hands to about shoulder width. Slowly bring your hands back in to the starting position.
That's it. Or is it? Let's look a little deeper.
Find Your Qi
This is an exercise to help you become aware of your qi. First, stand in wuji. Raise your hands in front of you at a comfortable height. Cross your arms at the wrist with the insides together. Hold the inside of your wrists near each other, about an inch or so apart but not touching. Slowly move your wrists past each other in a small circle without touching. Repeat about 10 or 15 times. Focus on the feeling between your wrists. You may or may not feel anything.
Next, hold your hands close together with the palms facing each other but not touching. Slowly move your hands past each other in a small circle without touching. Repeat about 10 or 20 times. Focus on the feeling between your palms. Many people start to feel a warmth or tingling or pins and needles while this is happening. This is your qi.
Open and Close Hands in Depth
Learn to manipulate the qi that you feel between your hands. Start by holding your hands in front of you, about chest height or head height, as if you were holding a ball. Hold your hands about 6 or 8 inches apart. Feel the qi between your hands. Inhale slowly while you move your hands apart (open) to about shoulder width. Concentrate and feel the air moving through your nose and filling your lungs. It may feel like there is resistance to movement. It can feel like it takes force to separate your hands.
Slowly bring your hands back in (close) to the starting position. Exhale slowly while you move your hands together to the starting position. Concentrate and feel the air moving through your nose and emptying your lungs. It may feel like there is resistance to movement. It can feel like it takes force to push your hands back together.
Calm the Mind
Open and Close Hands is very effective at helping with relaxation and calming. Whenever you feel stressed, take a moment to practice open and close. Take slow, gentle breaths and open and close your hands. You will find that your stress level will immediately be reduced.
© 2012 Eric Borreson