Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ignore the Noise

We are constantly bombarded with information that causes us worry, anxiety, and stress. It can be hard to decide what to do. Here's a simple tip. Everything you see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or think can be placed into one of four categories.

1. Things that are not important and you have no control over them.
2. Things that are not important and you have control over them.
3. Things that are important and you have no control over them.
4. Things that are important and you have control over them.

I bet you just skimmed over those categories. It is important that you understand them. Go back and read them again.

Categories 1 and 2 are not important. Ignore them and don't worry. Don't waste any time on them.

Category 3 is important, but you can't do anything. It will look good or it won't. It will sound good or it won't. It will feel good or it won't. It will taste good or it won't. It will smell good or it won't. Your thoughts will be pleasant or they won't. Ignore them all. You can't do anything so don't worry.

Category 4 is important. That deserves your attention. Everything else is a waste of time.

Some people cannot tell the difference between important and not important. That causes endless stress because they react to everything that happens. Here is a simple decision path to help you decide what is important or not important:

1. Will anyone be hurt if you ignore it? If yes, it is important. Do something about it. If no, go to step 2.
2. Will anyone care about the topic in a week? If yes, it may be important. Think carefully about before you do anything. If no, go to step 3.
3. It is not important. Go find something important to work on. Practice your tai chi.

At times, the noise from categories 1, 2, and 3 can get overwhelming. It can be hard to ignore, but you can do it. Just keep it simple and ignore the noise.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

NOTE: I realize that this is oversimplified. It's more about the thought process than the details.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Your Brain on Tai Chi

I read a journal article recently where the researchers compared the brains of people that were long-term tai chi practitioners to the brains of a control group. It's not too surprising that differences were found. The researchers said, " These findings indicate that long-term tai chi chuan practice could induce regional structural change and also suggest tai chi chuan might share similar patterns of neural correlates with meditation and aerobic exercise."

Looking a little deeper at what they say, tai chi practice was associated with significantly thicker cortex in several areas of the brain. A thicker cortex means that part of the brain is being used more and is probably more effective. Since I am not a medical professional, I had to look these areas up. A sulcus is an inward fold on the surface of the brain. A gyrus is an outward fold on the surface of the brain.

The medial occipitotemporal sulcus and the lingual sulcus are related to spatial navigation - knowing where your body is in space (Read more about this topic here.) The insula sulcus is related to anxiety sensitivity, peacefulness, and relaxation. The middle frontal sulcus is responsible for motor planning - in other words it is related to organizing and executing movement. It also helps with integrating emotion and cognition in a way very similar to meditation. It is also similar to changes seen related to exercise by the elderly.

The precentral gyrus is part of the primary motor cortex. It is the area responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. This seems to explain why tai chi helps reduce falls. The superior temporal gyrus is the area that has the primary auditory cortex. It is the area responsible for processing sounds and understanding language. It is part of social cognition. The authors used a lot of medical terms to explain that they didn't know how this part of the brain relates to tai chi.

To summarize, brain changes are noted in tai chi practitioners. These changes are similar to changes seen in the brains of people who meditate and those who get regular aerobic exercise. In addition, changes are seen in the parts of the brain related to voluntary muscle movement (preventing falls). This is not seen in meditators or those that get regular exercise. Therefore, tai chi shows indications of helping us develop peacefulness and relaxation, control movement, and understand how our body moves through space.

The entire article can be read here.
© 2013 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Begin As You Mean to Continue

I recently came across the term, "Begin as you mean to continue". I have never heard it said stated that way before. I have only just noticed how true this is with my tai chi (I must be a slow learner).

Some days, I am in a hurry. I am careless about how I start my tai chi forms. It becomes very difficult to change my intention when I am moving through my forms. Therefore, I am still careless when I finish my forms. That means that I wasted an opportunity to learn.

Some days, I take time to focus my mind. When I start, I pay attention to one principle. I practice all my forms slowly and mindfully. When I finish my forms, I am still moving slowly and mindfully. I gave my mind and body an opportunity to learn.

It seems too simple, but it's true. Your intention determines the results of your practice. Try it and see what happens.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tai Chi and Tensegrity

I recently wrote about how the internal connections in our body are used to move in tai chi. You can read that here. I had planned that this week's article would be about a new idea that has been floating around lately called tensegrity. 

In physics and engineering, the word "tensegrity" means that a body is supported by the internal connections that create tension in the connecting pieces and compression in the supporting pieces. This prevents bending moments in the support pieces. You can read more here at Wikipedia. I am an engineer and I understand this. An example of tensegrity is a suspension bridge. A system of connecting cables keeps a bridge in the proper shape. If one of the cables is cut, the bridge no longer functions properly.

People are starting to claim that the muscles, bones, facia, tendons, and ligaments of the body work in this way, too. This had led to claims that body work related to facia can help with releasing tension and improving general health. I am absolutely positive that I do not understand this.

I have spent many hours over the last week researching this topic. I can find many articles. I cannot find any useful articles. For example, I read one article that uses the phrase, "Connective tissue is a continuous living matrix that unites each cell in the body in an intelligent energetic web." What? That sentence is unintelligible. It has no meaning to me.

Later, the same article says, "Tensegrity accounts for the body’s ability to absorb impact without damage." I have to ask why? I don't understand the connection. Then it goes on, "The more relaxed and flexible the body, the more likely that energy will be taken in as information rather than injury." Again, What? That sentence is unintelligible. It has no meaning to me.

I have seen web pages with elaborate drawings of human anatomy. One makes the statement, "That all important role of holding everything together is left {mostly} up to the body’s connective tissues, displayed as the white sections on the muscle chart, and together, collectively known as the fascia."

I see a lot of unproven claims with no explanation of why they are true. These quotes are from what seem to be some of the better web pages. There are many others that are much harder to believe. If you know of any sources that clearly explain how this works, please let me know in the comments below. And don't tell me about buckyballs. I understand the engineering. I don't understand how any of this relates to the human body.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Finger Bone's Connected to the Hand Bone

I have been teaching tai chi for a while now. One thing that I've learned is that none of us really understand how our body moves (teachers included). I keep learning new things.

When we start learning tai chi, we begin by using muscular force to move. Eventually, we start to learn how to use spiral force to connect with the ground and use our whole body to move. However, there are subtleties with this can take years to understand.

Let's look at an example. Most styles of tai chi have a form called "Push the Mountain" or something like that. The hands move into a position where the palms face forward towards an imaginary opponent followed by a push or lift. There are different ways this is done, but they usually involve starting with the hands palm down, stepping or shifting backward, turning the palms forward, and stepping forward to push. In Yang style, it is the end of Stroking Bird's Tail (the "an" of "peng, lu, ji, an").

Let's look at one tiny piece of that. How do you move your hands from palm down to palm forward? Let's start with muscular force. Stand with your feet slightly apart, about the width of your hips. Bring your hands up to about shoulder height with the palms facing down, your elbows slightly bent, and your shoulders relaxed and loose. Bend your wrists to raise your fingertips so that your palms face forward. It's not very satisfactory, is it? It is weak and causes tension in the wrists and shoulders. That's not good tai chi.

Let's add in a little bit more connection. Place your hands at shoulder height as before. This time, bend your elbows and allow your hands to pull in toward your chest. Your palms now face forward. Your shoulders and wrists can remain loose. That's a little better.

Let's add in a little bit more connection. Place your hands at shoulder height as before. This time, sink your weight into your right leg. Let your weight spiral around as you sink. Let your body relax and loosen. Pay attention to your right elbow. You should feel a little force pulling your right elbow down. Do it several times until you become familiar with the feeling. Now try it on the other side. Sink into your left foot and feel the force pulling your left elbow down. You have just figured out how to connect the ground to your hand.

If you are not feeling it, go practice your tai chi and work on relax and loosen and sinking the qi. Read more here. Then come back to this in a month or two.

Let's apply this to your forms. Get into the proper posture for the style you practice and try it. You will have to practice it to understand how to apply it to your own tai chi. You cannot do this seated. Quit reading, stand up, and try it.

There is an old spiritual song in the United States called Dry Bones (sometimes called Dem Bones). Part of it goes something like this:
The finger bone is connected to the hand bone,
The hand bone is connected to the wrist bone,
The wrist bone is connected to the arm bone,
It's easy to connect them dry bones.
It's obviously not anatomically correct, but it goes on and on in a fun story about how each part of our body is connected to the rest of our body. Tai chi teaches us about this if we are smart enough to listen.

© 2013 Eric Borreson