Sunday, June 30, 2013

Walking with Tai Chi

I recently returned from my annual week-long tai chi workshop. This article is a continuation of last week's article where I discussed my experiences at the workshop.

During the week, I walked everywhere. I was staying on the 5th floor of the student dormitory. That's 4 flights of stairs (68 steps) multiple times every day. The class room was in a nearby building on the 3rd floor. I didn't count the steps there, but it was at least 30 steps. Again, multiple times each day. There was an elevator available in each building, but I decided that I was not going to use it. I may be getting older, but I'm not that old.

One benefit of walking so much was that I could use the opportunity for some meditative walking. It was a peaceful, calming activity. I took 2 separate walks to the lake in the arboretum and another to a small garden in the area. I learned something new, too. Have you ever noticed that tai chi people usually walk much quieter than other people?

I also took advantage of the workshop to focus on other healthy activities. I ate vegetarian all week and limited my caffeine. I didn't eat any meat at all and I didn't have any sugary drinks or desserts. However, the workshop was done by about 4:00 on Saturday. After 6 days of intense effort, I decided to treat myself. I had an ice cream bar for dessert and took the elevator up to the 5th floor. I think I deserved it.

The Tuesday night talent show was a great experience, too. Attendees and teachers put their talents on display. There were musicians, singers, poets, and comedians on display. There were inspiring talks and demonstrations. Well worth time to see that show.

One other really fun thing happened during the week. We had a tai chi flash mob in the student cafeteria. We always ate in the cafeteria with the students that were attending summer school. The tai chi people greatly outnumbered the students. One morning, all the tai chi people stood up from their tables and started doing tai chi. It was hilarious to see the student's faces as they looked around and tried to figure out what the "old folks" were doing around them. Great fun.

Peace to all my readers. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

By the way, I lost about 5 lbs (2 kg) during the week.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Week of Intense Work

The workshop is done! What a wonderful week it was. As my friends know, I recently attended a week-long tai chi workshop. I have never known such a supportive and giving group of people.

The broad diversity of the people in the Tai Chi for Health Community makes the workshop an incredibly rich environment for learning and for teaching. There were people at the workshop from Switzerland, UK, Korea, Singapore, China, Australia, India, Canada, and from all over the US. (I apologize if I missed anyone.) We are all working with a common purpose to create a safe and supporting environment for people to learn to help themselves and to help others.

The workshop was held at a small private college in Connecticut. We stayed in the dorms and ate at the student cafeteria. It was a simple environment that allowed us to focus on our work for the week. There is tremendous value in getting away from our everyday lives and the distractions that are part of that. Here is where I lived for the week.

We worked hard for 6 days, from Monday to Saturday. Classes and education ran from 9:00 AM until about 4:30 PM. In addition, 3 of the days we also had optional evening classes and activities from 6:30 PM to about 9:00 PM. And Friday evening was a social dinner and dance. Saturday morning was for group practice. The afternoon was for demonstrations where each class showed everyone else what they had learned.

This is a very intense experience. We would spend from 4 to 8 hours each day on our feet practicing our tai chi. Our brains and bodies were filling up with new information. It was so exciting to see the woman that was using her walker at times during the week so she could maintain her strength to participate in the class and the demonstration.

Almost everyone experiences a "melt down day" where we become so tired that we cannot function effectively. For me, it was Wednesday. There is a section of the set that I was working on where we count our steps so the class can stay together in a group performance. By the end of the day, I was so tired that I couldn't count to 4 and synchronize it with my steps. I had dinner and went for a walk in the nearby greenspace to regenerate a little energy.

I called my wife about 8:30 that evening. After about 2 minutes, she told me to get off the phone and to go to bed. I followed her advice and finally got a good night's sleep. The next day I was recovered and the rest of the workshop was full of energy and became everything I wanted.

I have just 2 final thoughts. First, I encourage anyone interested in Tai Chi for Health to participate in weekend workshops or in the weeklong workshop. You can learn about upcoming workshops here. I also encourage everyone to join the Tai Chi for Health Community. You can learn more about it here.

Second, I have accepted some new roles within the TCHC organization and the Tai Chi for Health Community. You will be hearing about over the next year as the details get worked out. I'm really looking forward to it because it gives me more opportunities to help people. At the same time, I am a little bit apprehensive about it because I am stepping outside my comfort zone with some of it.

I will continue this topic with next week's article.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 15, 2013

First Separate, Then Combine to Learn Tai Chi

The term "First Separate, Then Combine" has been around a while. It describes a method of practicing to help us develop a deeper level of skill. It works by developing the neuromotor pathways (muscle memory) to make it a permanent part of our tai chi skill set.

Separate and then combine means to separate out a principle or a movement or form, practice it separately until it becomes second nature. Then separate out a different part of a form and practice it. Then combine those parts two at a time and practice them until they become second nature. Then separate out another different part and practice it separately. Then combine it with the others.

The part that you separate out could be the physical movement. In this case, practice the movements of one foot until it is clear. Next, learn the movement of the other foot. Then practice them together. Then learn the movement of one hand. Then combine that with the movement of the feet. Then learn the movement of the last hand and combine it with the feet and first hand.

The part that you separate out could be a principle, like a slow weight shift in one particular form. Practice that until it is second nature. Then pick a different form and practice the principle for that form. Continue this practice for every form you are learning.

Paul Cavel wrote an article published in IMOS Journal (read entire article here) In this article he defines 3 stages of Separate and Combine: 1) Broken Practice; 2) Continuous Practice; and 3) Awareness.

Stage 1: Broken Practice
The purpose of Stage 1 is to learn the movements of a form. Start with one part of the form, like stepping and weight shift. Use your intent (focused mind) to make sure you are doing it the best you can. and practice it over and over. Then add in one arm and it's movement and practice it over and over. Then the other arm, etc. The go back to the beginning and add in an internal component, like song to the weight shifting. Then gradually add in the rest one piece at a time. At the end of this stage, the movement of the forms becomes somewhat automatic.

Stage 2: Continuous Practice
The purpose of Stage 2 is to continue to practice the movements of a form and allowing your mind to focus on one particular aspect of the form. This stage can begin when you have practiced a particular part of a form for enough time that you can work without having to give it too much thought. You should focus your mind on one particular component (movement or internal principle) during the practice until the work has stabilized and can be repeated without thought.

You will find that you move back and forth between Stages 1 and 2 during your practice as you learn new things. Each time you practice, pay attention to any parts that don't seem to flow properly. Next time you practice, go back to Stage 1 for these parts of the form. This builds the foundation for Stage 3. It is important that you do not shortcut Stage 2 and try to move too quickly to Stage 3.

Stage 3: Awareness
The purpose of Stage 3 is to develop a awareness of everything that is happening. You should be continuously scanning how your body and mind feel during your practice. When you are operating at this stage, you can quickly detect when anything is not right. You can use your intent to fix whatever is wrong and get back to your practice. Now, it's time to go back to your teacher and learn something new so you can start again at Stage 1.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sinking the Qi

Sinking the qi is a common term in taiji, but many people find it very confusing. Sinking the qi simply refers to using your breath to help relax and calm the mind and body. A big part of sinking is developing song (), or relax and loosen, and jing (), or mental quietness, in your practice. Following the principle of song means to relax your body, without going limp, and loosening up the muscles, tendons, and joints. Tight muscles and joints block the flow of energy. Jing means to focus your mind on your forms and avoid distractions. Proper breathing helps with both of these principles.

In this sense of the word sink, it means to relax the hips and waist, lower the pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Let your shoulders sink away from your neck. Use your intention to lower your elbows to relax the shoulders. Avoid overextending your arms. Keep them slightly bent and hold them in a curve, with your armpits slightly open. Allow your skeleton to support your body. This allows your weight and energy to sink from the upper body toward the lower abdomen.

Breathing Helps With Sinking
Taiji movements generally alternate between gathering (storing) energy and delivering that energy. Every form in taiji has an associated inhale and exhale. In general, inhale during movements that are up and in (opening movements) and movements that store energy. Inhale during movements that expand your chest, such as with the open hands movement in Sun style. Also, inhale during movements that create an insubstantial (unweighted) movement, such as when doing a roll back. Inhaling during opening stores the energy, like drawing a bow, and brings in the qi.

Exhale during movements that are down and out (closing movements) and movement that deliver energy. Exhale during movements that compress your chest, such as with the close hands movement in Sun style. Also exhale during movements that create a substantial (weighted) movement, such as when doing a push or press. Exhaling during closing delivers the energy and sends the qi.

As you exhale, allow your body to sink. As you step, allow your weight to settle down onto your substantial leg. Visualize that your spine is stretching and the qi is flowing through your leg down into the earth. This helps improve your balance and strengthen your legs. Stronger muscles strengthen the joints and tendons and improve your joint health.

© 2013 Eric Borreson