Friday, May 30, 2014

Yield to Yield

(This is a guest post by Arthur Lopez)

Yield” has been one of the most difficult Tai Chi concepts for me to learn. After 16 years of regular practice, I sometimes still find that I am not yielding when I should. I wondered why this is so? In researching the definition of the word, I realized that the concept of ‘yield’ in our western thinking is quite a paradox. An idea may have contradictory meanings yet still be true. In essence, to yield can mean to give forth and to give in. Both ideas share the root term ‘to give’; but produce different results. If you look at the definition from a Western mind set, both negative and positive connotations abound. One such example is “yield” to your opponent or “yield” a bountiful harvest.

The Tai Chi way of looking at the term combines both elements. By yielding to an incoming force, there is a natural letting go, which results in less conflict resulting in increased balance, peace and harmony. The Ying and Yang symbolizes the synergy of the concept of yield. It is a circle striving for perpetual balance. Ying yields to Yang; yields to Ying yields to Yang. Endlessly, they seek harmony. There is no gain or loss; only balance.

As a Westerner, I have been taught directly or indirectly that victory is an ideal that must be embraced. However, in order to have victory, there must be loss. Yet, I have not been taught to embrace the idea of loss. In our culture, it is anathema to loose. You can clearly see it in the expression of many of our sports heroes who lose a competition.

So, as I studied the martial art of Tai Chi Push Hands as taught by Sifu Yeung Tu Ho, he would often admonish me not to resist. Of course being of a Western mind set, my tendency was always to “push” and to “get the other person off balance”. Hence, win. Hence, Sifu Ho would admonish, “you are using force, do not use force”. At one point I latched on to the concept that there is victory in loss - thinking that I had a fundamental grasp of a Tai Chi principle. Was I wrong? I was still stuck on the victory part and not the loss part.

We know that in Tai Chi there is neither victory nor loss. A fundamental principle is to always realign to what is natural and balanced. The net result of this balance is harmony in mind, body and spirit.

This is easier said than done, especially if you are in an earthquake or hurricane. How do you find this harmony in the midst of a tempest? How do you calm yourself when we have evolved to either fight or flee and adrenaline flows? Recently, I had an insight as I was participating in a TCA 2 Training conducted by Master Trainer Robin Malby in Fresno, CA. She used a term that triggered the beginning of a deeper understanding and later more comprehension of what we mean by “yield”. In teaching rooting techniques, instead of saying “shift your weight or transfer your weight into the rooted leg” she said, “relax your weight.”

I tried it. This was a new experience for me. I used my mind and consciously relaxed my weight and lo and behold, I had a completely different sensation. I found that my body felt more song and at the same time much more nimble. As I continued to practice this technique, I stopped thinking about doing it and just did it, which enhanced the suppleness of the flow of movement.

This ‘letting go’ sensation was not necessarily new in my life. I realized that I had experienced it, for example, when sitting in front of camp fire and just losing myself in the flames or looking out into the rolling waves of the ocean and becoming one with its rhythm. The difference is that in the Tai Chi movement, we have disciplined our bodies to move in certain patterns and rhythms.

We engage our minds and at the same time we let go, becoming song, actively relaxing the whole body including the joints. In this state of engagement and letting go, “yield” transcends being just a goal and becomes the actual state of being. I like to use the metaphor that when we are song, the body, mind, and spirit are like jello - soft, supple, firm, connected, and yummy. Well, that’s another essay.

Sifu Ho had often talked about the feet and the legs being as relaxed, or song, as the hands and the joints of the upper body. But not until I heard the term “relax your weight into the supporting leg”, did I comprehend what he meant.

A few weeks later, I pushed hands with a friend and I found that if I relaxed my weight into the supporting leg and at the same time tried not to resist the incoming force, my movement was much suppler at the waist which translated into more relaxed breathing and mental and physical harmony with my practice partner.

Relaxing, rooting, and springing through the feet, legs, waist, and hands began to feel as one flowing movement. We practiced for at least half an hour and I found that I was very relaxed at the end of the session, even though we were moving continuously. I was starting to ‘yield’ to yield!

I was somewhat anxious about using the term with the TCA participants thinking that with those with severe hip, knee or ankle arthritis, relaxing into the leg might be difficult or unsafe. Hence, I decided to approach it with those that were in the intermediate class which includes TCA 1 and 2 and the Sun 73 class. To my amazement and joy, after doing some simple rooting exercises and queuing with the term “relax” into the leg, all the students did very well. I am exploring using the term with our beginning class using the commencement movement and the students also are doing very well. However, I remain very vigilant in reinforcing the principles of leg, ankle, and foot alignment along with modification.

Is it remarkable that when we learn to yield, we yield such a bounty of rewards?

© 2014 Arthur Lopez

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tai Chi Improves Ability to Perform Complex Tasks

A recent study shows that tai chi practitioners are more able to perform complex tasks that combine physical and cognitive challenges than non-practitioners. The study looked at older experienced tai chi practitioners and healthy controls. The practitioners were mostly in their 70's.
The first challenge was to step down from a 19 cm (7.5 inch) platform and maintain a single-leg stance for 10 seconds. After that challenge was evaluated, the participants were asked to perform the same step while responding to a cognitive challenge called an auditory Stroop test. They were required to respond to the tone of voice regardless of the actual words. The primary outcome measure was postural stability, with other outcomes also measured.
There was a significant difference in the measures between the two groups. The authors said, "… the auditory Stroop test showed that Tai Chi practitioners achieved not only significantly less error rate in single-task, but also significantly faster reaction time in dual-task, when compared with healthy controls similar in age and other relevant demographics. 

Similarly, the stepping-down task showed that Tai Chi practitioners not only displayed significantly less COP sway area in single-task, but also significantly less COP sway path than healthy controls in dual-task. These results showed that Tai Chi practitioners achieved better postural stability after stepping down as well as better performance in auditory response task than healthy controls. The improved performance that was magnified by dual motor-cognitive task performance may point to the benefits of Tai Chi being a mind-and-body exercise."
The study was published in: Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Mar 14. By Lu X, Siu KC, Fu SN, et al. from Dept of Rehabilitation Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China. 
© 2014  by Eric Borreson