Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review - Tai Chi Theory and Principal Precepts

Book © 2011 Larry Costner - Book review by Mari B. Hamilton Gromer

A short book (275 pages) by any reader's standards. But the facts are all here. After many hours of practice and study, I think I have finally found a book that helps me not only to play at tai chi with renewed vigor, but to understand why it is important to not only go through the motions, but to internalize the many concepts some instructors leave out. There are no steps to learn, no videos to watch, no explanation of tai chi forms.

One should practice daily. Mr. Costner boasts he has not missed one day in the past twelve years. An accomplishment to be proud of, surely. The quality of his practice though, is also so internalized that he promotes it to his daily living. A fascinating thing about tai chi is that it really does "get under your skin".

Mr. Costner translates the more esoteric aspects of tai chi into a concise and understandable notion. My practice has improved after reading about the history, roots and language of tai chi. His theory is that although you may play at tai chi unless you internalize the concepts and conception of the art it can be merely a "pretty dance".

In the first chapter he discusses that tai chi is a good investment for life. His philosophy is that in the coming years tai chi will ride two strong demographic and societal trends to become a dominant form of exercise through out the world. The first being the dynamic growth and increasing influence of China. The next is our aging population, which is not just an American phenomenon. As tai chi is a sport that one can enjoy well into their nineties and more, the handwriting is on the wall as far as more acceptance.

In the following chapters he discusses origin of tai chi, qi, jin, three treasures and the mind-body. Mr. Costner has a way of expressing these concepts in a simple, understandable and applicable way.

In the mind-body section, he helps you realize that along with yoga, tai chi is the preeminent mind-body exercise. The encouragement to use your mind to move your body, the concept of it, is so highly appropriate! Mr. Costner has really nailed this in his writings. I mean, so many people do just think of tai chi as a "pretty dance", but when you focus the power of your mind, tai chi becomes so much more fulfilling and relevant to daily life.

The most relevant area, in my mind, of the book is the chapter entitled The Seven Principal Precepts. All beginning in the letter P-they are as follows: Presence, Poise, Peace, have better Proprioception, have better Prolepsis, Persistence, and Patience. Each important precept is explained fully. When you internalize these precepts there is limitless knowledge to be gained by yourself and your students.

The encouragement to GO SLOWLY is something that I think is sometimes lost in the wish to rapidly advance the movements rather than to enjoy the movements you have already mastered. Through out the book, Mr. Costner continues to impress slow movement and gentle mindfulness.

The end of the book pulls it all together with a simple sort of haiku-like verse:

Not future, not past
Dignified grace
Muscles not taxed
Awareness of space

Creative intent
 Like a dog on a bone
Time well spent
Water melting stone

Whether master or novice, instructor or student, this book should be recommended as a 'must read' for all tai chi players. And I now return to page one.

Tai Chi for Heart Failure Patients

A recent study showed that tai chi is more beneficial to heart-failure patients than simple aerobic exercise. The study was conducted by the Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the VA Boston Healthcare system. It was a small sample size, but it was a good study because they compared tai chi to aerobic exercise. This study is one of the few studies that gave very complete details on the tai chi that was taught. They used adapted forms from Chen Man Cheng's Yang style tai chi.

This study looked at 16 patients with heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFPEF). Definitive therapy for this disease is unclear. Aerobic exercise has been shown to help this group. However, compliance with the exercise regimen is typically fairly low.

This study lasted 12 weeks. Compliance in the tai chi group was 89%. There were several measures where the tai chi group improved more than the group that did the aerobic exercise. These include 6 minute walk distance and Profile of Mood States-Depression scores. During exercise, the tai chi group showed reduced oxygen uptake, respiratory rate, and heart rate. This indicates that the tai chi group wasn't working as hard. This indicates a lower cardiovascular risk.

There were several other measures where there was no difference between groups. These include Minnesota Living with Heart Failure scores, self efficacy, and peak oxygen uptake.

The authors concluded that tai chi is feasible and safe in this study group. Therapeutic endpoints appear similar with tai chi relative to aerobic exercise despite a lower aerobic training workload.

My conclusions are that the improvement in Profile of Mood States-Depression is very important. It means that tai chi improves health, which we already knew, and it improves attitudes about life. In other words, this study shows that tai chi works with the mind and body to improve a patient's outlook on life.

The article was published online on Oct 12, 2012 ahead of publication in Congestive Heart Failure. The article is available online at

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ba Duan Jin (Part 3 of 8) – Separating Heaven and Earth

This week's post is a detailed look at the Ba Duan Jin qigong exercise called Separating Heaven and Earth. It is also known as Harmonizing Spleen and Stomach by Raising Arm Separately and as Raise Each Arm to Regulate the Spleen. It is traditionally the third of the exercises.

Ba Duan Jin is a traditional qigong routine with hundreds of variations. It is variously translated as Eight Silken Brocades, Eight Pieces of Silk Brocades, Eight Section Brocade, Eight Silken Exercises, Eight Fine Exercises, or many other names.

Qigong is all about body, mind, and breath. These exercises contain specific movements that are synchronized with the breath while the mind concentrates on the movements. The exercises are intended to help develop mental focus and calm, peaceful movements. At all times, keep your knees loose and flexible.

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 grain and water and is responsible for digesting food. The spleen is responsible for transporting nutrients throughout the body. 

Standing Instructions:
1. Stand in wuji with your feet two shoulder widths apart. Hold your arms in front of your chest with your palms down and fingertips pointing at each other.
2. Shift your weight to your right foot, inhale, raise your right hand overhead, and turn your palm up, its fingers pointing to your left. Simultaneously, press your left hand down with its palm down and fingers pointing to the front.
3. Exhale and return both hands to the beginning position.
4. Shift your weight to your left foot, inhale and repeat Step 2, but this time raise your left hand overhead and press your right hand down.
5. Exhale and return both hands to the beginning position.
6. Do this exercise eight times.

Modification for seated form:
1. Sit in wuji with your feet flat on the floor.
2. Simultaneously, press your left hand down and forward with its palm down and fingers pointing to the front.
4. Press your right hand down and forward.

Modification for a more challenging form:
1. Start in horse stance.
2. As you stretch and extend your hands, rise from the horse stance.
3. As you relax and return to neutral, exhale and return to horse stance.
NOTE: Continue moving from horse stance and standing wuji as you alternate hands.

Benefits & Effects:
1. The alternating stretching stimulates the muscles in the front of the upper body, improves circulation to the stomach, liver, and spleen.
2. 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 to coordinate the internal organs.
3. The internal organs, especially the stomach, spleen, liver, and gallbladder are massaged and stimulated through this exercise.
4. This exercise brings favorable effects to patients who are suffering stomach and duodenal ulcers or stomach inflammation.
5. Stimulates the digestive process and the peristaltic action of the intestines.
6. A prophylaxis and a treatment for intestinal and stomach diseases.

For the rest of this series, start with:

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why Do I Blog?

For those of us of a certain age, blogging is a fairly new phenomenon. Why did I start writing in this format? Why do I place myself "out there" by opening up my thoughts to the world? Isn't it a risky thing to do, to open myself to the internet trolls that search for ways to criticize others?

I can answer this question in several ways:
First, there are real benefits to blogging.
Reason 1: They are very few people writing useful blogs about my topics of interest (tai chi, stress management, and meditation). There is a real need to inform. I get a lot of feedback when something I write is helpful or meaningful to someone. (For example, see What I wish I Had Known at the Beginning). I wish I would get more.

Reason 2: Blogging is a low cost way to communicate. I only spend a few hours a month blogging. It's not too expensive in terms of time and entirely free in terms of out-of-pocket expenses. Do you have any idea how long it takes to write a book?

Reason 3: It's a great way to meet people. I have had many people contact me about something I wrote. Such wonderful people are hard to find any other way. I have readers from around the world.

Reason 4: Blogging makes me think. Therefore, I learn. I have to think about how I can communicate some difficult concept. My process is simple. Write it down, read what I wrote, think about for a few days, and reread it. Then I can clarify what I am trying to explain. I even learn when I have to fine tune my argument for people that disagree with me.

Reason 5: It makes me a better teacher. The more thought I put into my writing, the more I learn about how to communicate my ideas to my students. Feedback from students helps my writing. I also use my blogging as a teaching tool in my classes. I give reading assignments to my beginning students.

Second, there are real risks to blogging.
Reason 1: They are very few people writing useful blogs about my topics of interest (tai chi, stress management, and meditation). There is no track record to tell me how it will be received.

Reason 2: Occasionally I write an article intended to "poke a stick in the eye" of those that have an inflated view of their own importance. (For example, see Authenticity in Tai Chi). Very few of these people will respond and tell me that they think I'm a jerk. They are just going to remember my name and avoid me or boycott me in the future. I'm willing to take that risk.

Reason 3: I'm not making any money from blogging. I am not independently wealthy. I need to earn a living to pay the mortgage. Blogging takes time. Not a lot, but it does take some time that I could be using to earn money.

© 2012 Eric Borreson

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Using Tai Chi to Deactivate the Fight-or-Flight Response

Our bodies have a physiological reaction to danger called the fight-or-flight response. When we are facing danger, our body reacts to help us survive. This is also called the sympathetic nervous system. Several involuntary responses follow, such as the release of stress hormones, increased heart rate and blood pressure, the activation of our immune system, etc.

Under normal circumstances, our bodies respond as needed and everything returns to normal after a time. However, a difficulty appears when we realize that our body responds the same way whenever we face emotional stress, like anxiety, anger, fear, or any other destructive emotion. We all face chronic stress because of the way we live our modern lives. Long-term chronic stress causes damage to our bodies because the stress hormones contribute to chronic illnesses like hypertension, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and many other illnesses.

Fortunately, our bodies have a complementary physiological response called the relaxation response. This is also known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The relaxation response calms down our bodies and minds to help us deactivate the fight-or-flight response and reverse the effects of stress.

Breathing is something that we do both voluntarily (conscious) and involuntarily (unconscious). We can use conscious breathing to affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Since the parasympathetic nervous system works to counteract the sympathetic nervous system, we can use conscious breathing to control, or even to reverse, the effects of stress on our body.

Tai chi is a nearly perfect way to practice conscious breathing. Tai chi can use abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing is a breathing technique that helps you learn to calm the mind and body.

To practice abdominal breathing, start in a normal wu ji posture. Take several deep breaths with long exhales to allow your mind and body to relax. Place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen just below your belly button. Pay attention to how your hands move while you are breathing. Inhale through your nose and consciously expand your abdomen. Exhale through your mouth and contract your abdomen. You should notice that your right hand (on your chest) barely moves. Your left hand (on your abdomen) should move much more. After you become comfortable with this technique, you no longer need to place your hands.

Breathing is also part of "Sinking the Qi". The slow, continuous movements of tai chi lead to relaxed breathing. The rhythmic yin-yang movements can be used to match the inhales and exhales of abdominal breathing. The mental focus required by tai chi helps us develop a mind-body connection and awareness. This all leads to teaching our mind and body to relax and calm down in order to counteract the fight-or-flight response.

© 2012 Eric Borreson