Saturday, January 26, 2013

Tai Chi for Stroke Rehab

A recent publication summarized several other studies on the use of tai chi for stroke rehabilitation. Five different clinical trials were reviewed. The authors concluded that studies were of only moderate quality, but there were indications that tai chi may be helpful in rehab.

Three of the studies reported that tai chi improves balance in participants who have had a stroke. Three studies examined quality of life and mental health and reported improvements in the tai chi groups. Three studies examined patient mobility and reported no benefit from tai chi.

Their conclusions: "This focused review suggests that Tai Chi exercise might be beneficial with respect to balance, quality-of-life, and mental health in survivors of stroke."

My conclusions: Tai chi improves mental outlook. This has been shown in other studies, too. This study points out that there are many poor quality studies out there that waste a lot of time and money. Medical researchers generally are pretty good at putting together good randomized trials. The difficulty seems to be that medical professionals don't understand tai chi. We can help with that.

There were no indications what the control groups were doing or what style of tai chi was used. The abstract is available online at American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.
© 2013 Eric Borreson

Friday, January 18, 2013

Plateaus In Learning Tai Chi

Sometimes a pause in the growth of our practice can be an indicator of greater change to come. An initial learning curve is marked with rapid growth while subsequent periods of less growth are normal and an essential part of the process of learning.

When people begin learning something new, they often learn quickly. Their minds become engaged in the learning. However, when learning taiji, learning quickly is not necessarily better than learning slowly and deeply. Taiji has many subtle details that take time to learn. It takes time for it to get into your body and your mind. With each lesson, it is important to practice regularly until that lesson becomes part of you.

Learning is not a steady path toward perfection. Even with deliberate practice with slow and steady learning, learners often reach a time where it seems that improvement is not happening. This is called a plateau. A learner can seem to stay on a plateau for a long time.

However, at some point there is a sudden change and something new becomes obvious. This causes a sudden, steep rise in growth and learning. This sudden change may cause a temporary period where the student has to rethink the details of the movement in light of this new understanding. Then the learner works at this new level until there is another steep rise in growth and learning.

The presence of this sudden change does not mean that nothing was happening during the plateau. Plateaus and steep rises are yin and yang. The plateaus are yin where energy is stored. The steep rises are yang where the energy is delivered in a burst of new understanding. There is no yang without the yin.

A plateau is a necessary part of learning taiji. The daily practice during the plateaus helps the movement become automatic. It needs to soak into the marrow of the bones. It may seem like little learning is happening, but a plateau happens while the lessons are trained into the body.

Some dedicated learners may want to work hard to get through the plateau phase. Others may get frustrated with the plateau. This causes some students to drop out and miss out on the benefits of long-term taiji practice. Sometimes learners really do get stuck on a plateau and need help to make progress. It is the teacher's responsibility to discuss this with students so that they know what to expect. There are several strategies to help get past a plateau.

Encourage The Learner To Move Outside Of Their Comfort Zone
It is sometimes necessary to put emphasis on things that have been too difficult. The learner may need to risk looking foolish in order to make progress.

Learners Need Honest Feedback
We all want to encourage our students by giving them positive feedback. It is sometimes necessary to deliver constructive criticism. The learner may need to survive a bruised ego in order to make progress.

Learners Need To Use Directed Practice
Each practice session needs a short-term goal. The teacher may need to identify areas where the student needs to focus more attention. It is sometimes necessary to get back to the basics and relearn something. The learner may need to learn humility and go back to the beginning in order to make progress.

Enjoy your practice during the plateaus. Know that eventually the yin plateaus become the yang rises that bring new depth and enjoyment to your practice.

Previously published in Yang-Sheng magazine

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ba Duan Jin (Part 6 of 8) – Pulling Toes to Strengthen Kidneys and Waist

This week's post is a detailed look at the Ba Duan Jin qigong exercise called Pulling Toes to Strengthen Kidneys and Waist. It is also known as Touching Toes then Bending Backward and as Two Hands Hold the Feet to Strengthen the Kidneys and Waist. It is traditionally the sixth 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 alternately obstructs and frees up the flow of qi in the kidney meridians. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the kidney does not completely match the organ of western medicine. It has the function of storing the qi so as to nourish the viscera, bones, and brain. It assists the lungs and spleen in metabolizing body fluids.

Standing Instructions:
1. Stand in wuji with your feet together.
2. Inhale and lean back, simultaneously raising your arms sideways with palms facing up until your hands are overhead with your palms facing up and arms are straight up.
3. Exhale, keeping your knees straight without locking your knee joint, and bend forward to reach your toes, or as far down as possible if you cannot reach your toes.
4. Pull your toes or ankles for a second, then release, inhale, and resume the beginning position.
5. Place your hands at your lower back, bend back gently, and massage your kidneys for a couple of breaths.
6. Do this exercise eight times.

Modification for seated form:
1. Sit in wuji with your feet flat on the floor.
3. Extend your legs in front of you.
3. ALTERNATE: Extend your legs in front of you. Stretch your feet and toes outward as far as you can. Then bend your feet back toward your shins.

Modification for a more challenging form:
2. Inhale and stand straight, bringing your left knee to your chest, balancing on your right leg. Hold the sole of your foot with both hands.
3. Exhale and extend your left leg as far as you can.
4. Hold the sole of your foot for a few seconds, release, inhale, and resume the beginning position.
5. Place your hands at your lower back, bend back gently, and massage your kidneys for a couple of breaths.
6. Repeat on the other side.

Benefits & Effects:
1. Opens the governing vessel, stretches the muscles and tendons in the legs, and massages the kidneys.

For the rest of this series, start with:

To continue with this series, go to
Ba Duan Jin (Part 7 of 8) - Punch Slowly with Intense Gaze

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Marines Expand Use of Meditation Training

I often talk and write about the benefits of mindfulness meditation. No one that knows me would say that I am a wu-wu new ager. I am all about results. Researchers are using neuroscience to study what happens to people that meditate. The results are real. Meditation helps us be better people by nearly any measure you can imagine.

Doctors used to believe that our brains are fixed and never change after reaching adulthood. This is not true. In one way, our brains are like our muscles. Use it or lose it. Muscles that are not used shrink and become less effective. Muscles that are used grow and become more effective. It's the same with the brain. Meditation has been shown to
• increase the number of neural connections in the part of the brain responsible for concentration and empathy
• decrease the number of neural connections in the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls anxiety and fear
• enlarge the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls memory

This is proof that we can use meditation to rewire our brains to become happier and more peaceful. We can remember better and make better decisions under stress.

The results have been so positive that the military has taken notice. In a small 2008 study called Mindfulness-based Mental Fitness Training (M-Fit), a small group of marines took part in their normal 8-week, 12-hour a day training as they usually did. In addition, they were taught breathing exercises, how to focus, and how to manage monkey mind. After their training was completed, they were found to have improved mood and attentiveness. The ones that meditated the most had the most benefit.

Tasks that require lots of mental effort, such as elite athletics and combat require lots of working memory capacity. So do emotional challenges, like leaving family behind and heading to a war zone. These types of tasks use up working memory. Over time, that working memory can be restored. Troops who meditated regularly increased their working memory capacity and they were more aware of their bodies response to stress. Before it is restored, depleted working memory leads to poor decision making, impulsive behavior, alcoholism, and domestic violence.

According to an article in Men's Journal, working memory is:
... a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.

There is more in the newspaper article here (WashingtonTimes):
© 2013 Eric Borreson