A blog about the intersection of Tai Chi, Zen and Dao. I hope that you find something of value for your own practice.

Thanks for stopping by,


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

That Sinking Feeling

This morning, I decided to focus on sinking into my hip joint using Dantien energy.  Wow, what a difference that made!  It came from my teacher Diane mentioning during the form last week that sinking into the hip is what moves the leg back in "Step Back and Repulse Monkey". 

Previously, I had just gotten my hands in position, and did what I tell my students to do: "walk away from your upper hand".  While that is not a bad strategy, it really misses this whole other level and it's time to bring that into my form work. 

So here's how that works in Repulse Monkey.  You still get your hands in position, forward hand out, palm up, rear hand by the ear, relaxed into a position where the fingers are relaxed, sunken and pointing into that little dip between the upper and back shoulder bones.  Now, using your Dantien, sink everything into the hip of the leg that will move back and rotate it back.  That brings the leg back with it and also sends the upper hand out and brings the former upper hand back with the leg.  Rotate the energy back to centre, let the elbows settle and there you have it, one repetition of Repulse Monkey. 

Do it again and again.  This is not easy to do!  It will take some practice.

Ok, let's get the breath involved, too.  As you sink the energy into the hip/groin joint, breathe in (Yin) and when you rotate to move the leg back, send the opposite arm out, and come back to centre, breathe out (Yang). 

Now do this for every other part of your form!  Figure out how to sink into the hip/groin using the Dantien to send the energy there and then down to your root and simultaneously, send it out from the root to the upper or forward hand, or leg if it's a kick you're doing.

It took me almost 5 minutes longer to do the form because I was practicing so deeply into that.  And the form felt completely different.  Which is as it should be when you are incorporating a new awareness of movement.

It requires a concentrated awareness, which brings us back to zen practice and how zen and Tai Chi and Tao are all the same.  You have to practice them.

Here's to deepening your practice.  Play hard. Be aware.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Rich's 3 S's of Tai Chi; Sequence, Structure and Shen - Part 3


This has taken me a while to get to because it's a bit of a tricky subject.  Shen can be translated in various ways but for Tai Chi it is most commonly used to mean mind, energy or spirit.  So it is where the physical and spirit-ual sides of Tai Chi are joined at the hip, so to speak.

When I walk into a zendo or just sit down on my meditation cushion or bench at home, my mind and body instantly enter into a state of Shen.   This is because I have practiced this for years.  I don't have to think about it, it just manifests.  My spine straightens and aligns, my breathing deepens and slows down and my attention starts to focus on my breath.  Of course my attention invariably wanders and I have to bring it back time and again but that's just what we do.  We practice zen!  We never get it completely right.  And that's what you're going to start doing with your Tai Chi.  Start practicing Shen. 

When I watch an experienced person doing Tai Chi, I instantly can feel the Shen they are manifesting but when I watch an inexperienced person doing Tai Chi,  and depending on their ability they may look pretty fluid, I rarely get a sense of Shen emanating from them.  That's because usually, they're still working on the first 2 parts which I previously discussed, Sequence and Structure.  To really practice, develop and manifest Shen, you need to have Sequence and Structure firmly in hand. 

You can't be thinking "What comes next?"!  Soon as that happens, Shen just flies out the window.  Bye, bye.... And like zen practice, you have to bring your self back to it again and again.....

But you can develop your Shen and you don't have to know the whole sequence of a form.  You can practice it on any portion of the form you know well.  Just isolate a section, say the Grasp Sparrows Tail set of moves.  Or Wave Hands Like Clouds, etc.  As soon as you're confident with the sequence and the structure - what comes next, where do hands, feet etc go - then you can begin working on your Shen. 

Remember that you have a Dan Tien?  Okay, if you forgot, now's the time to remember!  You actually have three and now is when you're really going to start using the lower one to put Shen into your form.  Let's take a simple move from Yang style Tai Chi, Parting the Wild Horse's Mane

(BTW, none of us are likely to have ever seen a wild horse's mane no less parted it so I've recently begun to call this move, Throw the Frisbee.  Now that's something almost everyone can relate to!!  And it describes the move perfectly.  I'm working on other modern move descriptions but that's another post for the future.  Let's get back to Shen.)

In the Yang Style 24-Form set, the move is the first move after preparation for Tai Chi.  You are standing with your 2 hands in front of you in the position commonly called Holding the Ball.  Right hand is on top, chest high, palm facing down, left hand is on bottom pretty much right at the height of the Dan Tien, palm facing up.  You are fully weighted into the right foot with the left foot positioned right next to it, with only the toes touching the ground at about the middle of the right foot.  It looks like this:

 Now, what I want you to do is to imagine energy spiraling down from your Dan Tien through your right heel deep into the earth below you. 
  • As you step out with your left foot getting ready to enter a bow stance and Throw the Frisbee, you place your left heel on the ground without any weight in it.  
  • Now you're going to Throw the Frisbee with your left hand and to do this, you begin to send the weight and energy into your left foot by mentally placing it there.  
  • At the same time, you are going to send energy into your left hand by pushing it up from your "rooted" right foot through the Dan Tien to the palm of the left hand so there is a continuous string of energy spiralling from the earth to the right heel through the Dan Tien and ending in your left hand.  
Remember to send a little into the right hand as well as you place it by your right thigh or it will just hang there lifelessly.  No part of your body should be without some energy or you will not get full benefit from the posture.  In this case, I imagine and actually feel that my right hand is resting on a pulsing column of energy connecting the Lao Gung of my right palm to the earth. This energy link is completed when you complete the posture or an instant before.  When you finish,  you will have about 60% of your weight still in your back right foot and the other 40% in the front left foot.

Now you see why you couldn't do this until you had the first 2 Ss, sequence and structure.  That's a lot to imagine and manage.  If you find this difficult to do, don't worry, it doesn't come automatically the first time you do it.  Like all of Tai Chi, it requires practice and repetition over many years. 

Once you start getting Shen into your practice, your Tai Chi will begin to take on a whole new depth and feeling.  So get to it!

Sending you lots of positive Shen until next time,


Monday, 3 March 2014

Rich's 3 S's of Tai Chi, Sequence, Structure and Shen - Part 2


Let's continue illustrating with zen meditation practice and then move over to Tai Chi.

Ok, you now know a little bit about the sequence when when you go to your new Zen Centre.  You come in the door, take off your coat, hat, shoes (and socks if you like to meditate barefoot), Gassho when you enter the zendo, proceed to an empty seat, bow to the seat, turn around and bow to the meditators across from you and then sit down in your seat to begin meditation.  You know that the meditation period is 30 minutes long, then there will be a 10 minute walking (kinhin) session, then another 30 minutes of zazen, etc.... That's the sequence.  So what do you do while you're actually meditating?  

Now we come to structure.  First, you want find what kind of cushions work for you to give you the most relaxed, pain-free experience. That may take a bit of trial and error but you will discover whether you like hard, soft or medium resistance sitting cushions. And you may like cotton filled, air-filled, husk-filled, etc.  Many different kinds to choose from.   

Next, you need to determine your sitting posture - whether you're going to sit in full lotus, half lotus, seiza (using a small wooden bench), or a chair or some combination of the above. You want to get your head, spine and tailbone in a nice straight line so that the energy can flow and there is minimal tension.  Droopy postures will limit you in a couple of ways: they will promote pain and discomfort in your spine and they tend to lead to drowsiness, both of which are detrimental to meditation practice. 

Once you have your head, back and tailbone aligned, your feet and legs positioned, you then need to address how to hold your hands.  Most zen centres recommend either a classic "mudra" where the left hand sits in the right hand, thumbs just touching to form a nice circle of space or just placing the right hand over the left hand.  In both cases, your hands are positioned just a little below your waist with your thumbs at the height of your navel.  And your elbows are held a little bit away from your body.  There is an excellent description in Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  

As you can see, there is a lot to the simple structure of just how to sit during zen meditation and then all you need to do is maintain it for a certain length of time. Easier said than done!  But that's a discussion for another time...

When doing Tai Chi, we are constantly changing the position of our head, hands, feet, arms, legs, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, waist and torso etc.  So structure is the next stage of learning as we develop our understanding of Tai Chi practice and it's important to not have to worry about sequence when you begin to concentrate on structure.  I really like the KISS! method of learning -  KISS! stands for Keep It Simple for Students!  Structure can't be simplified until you already know the sequence.  So if you don't really know the sequence, go back and spend more time memorizing that!  It will pay off in the long run. 

Once my students have reliably memorized a portion of the sequence, we can begin to look at the structure of the form and the various postures. Here's a nice chart of the 24-postures Yang Style Tai Chi with simple drawings of the structure of the various postures.  There are others, just search Google images and you can find lots of different examples.   

You can see from careful examination of this chart how to hold the body, how to sink into a posture, how to move using the waist, where parts of the body move to, the timing of movement and all the other little intricacies of the structure of a given posture. But it's still a bit removed from the actual doing and the transitions can be confusing when just looking at diagrams.  That's where a teacher is helpful.  I also work with my students by demonstrating and practicing movement exercises with my them so they can get a sense of how postures transition in a fluid manner, without interruption; what the right hand does when the left foot steps forward, etc.  This is a very important aspect of Tai Chi and is also a bit of an introduction to Shen, but primarily it is  structure. 

What I have found is that if I try to teach detailed structures to my inexperienced students, it is too much for them to learn both the sequence and the structure.  And they get frustrated and discouraged and leave the practice.  I'm not just trying to keep new students.  It's more that I'm trying to remove the obstacles that frustrate and discourage them so that learning Tai Chi is a positive and reinforcing experience for them.  I want to encourage them and give them positive feedback on their progress because I know the long-term benefits they will get if they enjoy and practice Tai Chi.  Learning sequence is the 1st step on that path and is the foundation of my KISS! method. Once they master that step, then structure is appropriate and not nearly as difficult.  

Lastly, in Part 3, we will look at Shen, or mind-energy.  This is what underlies everything in Tai Chi, but just as in zen practice, you need to work with the 1st two S's before you can work with mind-energy. 

Remember, the most important thing of all is to keep playing!! 

We'll talk again soon,


Monday, 24 February 2014

Rich's 3 S's of Tai Chi; Sequence, Structure and Shen - Part 1

When you first enter a zen centre, if you have never been there before, you have to learn what the "rules" are.  Essentially this involves finding the answers to simple questions like, where is the entry to the zendo? What time does the sitting begin? How long is the sitting period?  Who do I bow to and when? How fast is the Kinhin line? When I go to see the Roshi or head of the centre, how many times do I bow?  and the list goes on...

It is critically important that you learn the answers to these questions because if you don't, then every time you come to that zendo to sit in meditation, you will create disturbances that may disrupt other sangha members' zazen and your own practice will be in constant disarray and confusion. In a very real sense, you have to learn the sequence of events.  Then you can begin to relax and work on other aspects of your zen practice.  Structure is the next important piece and some would argue that sequence is unimportant, that structure is everything but for now, bear with me on this. 

So, the structure of zen practice.  You have to learn how to sit properly.  It doesn't matter if you use a cushion, a seiza bench, a chair, whatever.  How you "hold" yourself physically while doing zazen is also an important part of the practice.  Where do your hands go, what position can you place your legs? Are the eyes open, closed, half-closed? Does the left hand go on top of the right hand?  Where are the hands held during Kinhin, how far do I step?  How far should I be from the person in front of me?

And lastly, how you work with your mind and energy (or chi) is important.  If you are given koan practice, you need to know how to do that.  If you are counting and / or following the breath, then you need instruction on how best to do that.  Your teacher will give you instruction in these parts of the practice, when you are ready for them.  

So just like Zen practice, learning Tai Chi also progresses along this same 3-fold path: Sequence, Structure and Shen.  I call these the 3 S's of Tai Chi.  


In most Tai Chi classes, you will be taught a form which is a series of postures that you move through from beginning to end.  Some forms have as little as 8 postures and some have as many as 108 postures.  It doesn't matter how many postures; if you want to practice that particular form, you have to learn the postures and the order in which they proceed.  That is the sequence.  

Different instructors teach differently and what I do is to have a warm-up Qi-gong session (which also has a sequence of postures) and then I lead my students through the form, calling out the moves as they come up and giving directions for how to move hands and feet, etc.  So I take them through the whole sequence, beginning to end.  I like to do this because then they can see their ultimate goal, get a brief exposure to all the different movements and how they transition to each other, see how long the form takes to do and begin to get a feel for what it's like to go from beginning to end.  

Other teachers take a different approach; they have a very formal class schedule. Class one starts at the beginning and each time the class meets, the next posture is taught so in week 1, you only learn the 1st posture, in week 2 you learn the 2nd posture, etc. so by the end of week 8, you will have learned 7-9 postures depending on how fast or slow they teach and the ability of the individuals in the class. 

There's no right or wrong way between the two methods.  I've had instructors use both methods and they both have their advantages and disadvantages.  I just prefer the first method for my own style of teaching.  

Once we go through the whole form, I then take the inexperienced students aside and we concentrate on learning a move and how to get into it from the previous move.  At this stage, with inexperienced students, I ask them to concentrate on learning the sequence and don't worry too much about any of the physical details of the posture.  Often my experienced students will join in both to refine their own sequencing and to give me a little help with the inexperienced students. 

Most folks have all they can do to just learn the sequence at the beginning.  As long as they are not falling over backwards, and doing harmful things to themselves such as bending the knees so that they extend past their toes, I don't worry too much about how things look, where their hands and feet are, etc.  Just memorizing the sequence is enough!

And that's enough to think about for now.  In Part 2 we'll look at structure. 

In Gassho to your Tai Chi beginner's mind,



Thursday, 30 January 2014

Chi Ski

It has been a terrible ski season here in Vancouver this winter, so far.  There has been no new snow falling on our mountains since I can't remember when and the snow they make at the local ski spots gets quickly eroded away so you have to get up there early to really enjoy it. 

I finally got my lazy butt up there for the first time this winter and the run I picked to start on was so "slushy" I fell over within the first minute of skiing.  (So much for Tai Chi Master) As I'm struggling to get back up, one of the ski patrol folks comes over and asks if I'm ok.  I was ok, but very embarrassed and I have the most ridiculous time trying to get back upright once I've fallen over if both skis are still attached.  Maybe someday I'll have the necessary core strength, but what I did, and what I usually do is to just release one ski and then I can plant a foot and leverage myself back up to standing. 

Ok, so he tells me the other slopes are less slushy than this one and I should check them out.  So I make my way down the rest of the run without any major problems and head over to the other lift that's open.  And sure enough, he's right, the snow is way better on those runs.  Must be how the sun hits it. 

(I know, you're thinking "What has this got to do with Tai Chi?!" Relax, be patient.... )

But I'm still not feeling the "flow" of it.  I'm expending WAY more effort than I usually have to make it down a simple green run.  What's going on here.  And then, all of a sudden, I'm in the groove.  Huh, what is the difference?  I figure I'm back to ski-normal and I can start hitting the blue runs. 

Nope!  Well, yes, I can make it down the blue run but it was a LOT of effort and struggle.  Usually I just fly down these things!  And then it came to me.  Time to chi-ski! (which is what I was doing without being aware of it when it felt effortless for that brief couple of moments)

What is chi-ski?  I made up the word so I get to tell you what it is. And I really like how it sounds.  Kinda like cheeky only with an "s" in it. Essentially, it is just like chi running only you're skiing.  I get back up to start a new run and sure enough, as soon as I start chi-skiing, it's effortless again.  What I do when I chi-ski is get into my Tai Chi wu-ji posture while on the skis, relax, push off and sink my Tantien into the foot that I need to weight to execute my turn.  And then back into the other foot for the next turn, ad infinitum and before I know it, I'm back down at the entrance to the lift.  And skiing is fun again. Relaxed.  Easy.  Effortless. 

Of course, if you don't have the experience of using your Tantien to focus and execute your Tai Chi movements, you won't have any idea what I'm talking about.  In which case, you need to ask your teacher about it and whether your Tai Chi is ready for that kind of work. 

So I hope you all go out and chi-ski and let me know how it feels for you.  It's just another way of practicing Tai Chi while you're out having fun. 

Relaxing into my Tantien,


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Tai Chi Mind, Beginners Mind

With several years of teaching Tai Chi under my belt now, I have to admit that teaching beginners is the hardest thing I have ever done.  When I started up, I was never quite sure just what I should be telling them to do.  I was afraid that if I give them too much, they'd feel overwhelmed and not come back, and if I give them too little, they'd feel like they were wasting their time and money and not come back!  Essentially it boiled down to - I'm afraid they won't come back and I "turned them off" to Tai Chi. I was taking it very personally.  I have finally realized that it's time to let go of that!

The truth is that for the most part, it really doesn't matter what I give them in the first class or two, as far as material.  What's most important is how I treat them as people who are concerned about their health and well being and are interested in Tai Chi.  I especially don't try to hide anything from them;  not my lack of skill in certain areas, nor how difficult or easy they might find Tai Chi to be, and that there are better teachers out there than me. For whatever reason, they have come to my class and I will do my utmost to support and help them to learn this activity to the best of my ability. And that just like them, I also take classes and work with teachers to improve my own Tai Chi.  Really, that's all I can do.

What I have learned is that students flow in and out of Tai Chi classes, just like sticks going down a stream.  Some float into my pool for a quick break, swirl around for a bit, get caught up in the current again and are taken away downstream.  Some find my pool to be a nice pool and stay for quite a while, discovering more and more about just what's in there that sustains their practice.  Some find my pool is too deep for them, others find that it is too shallow, others, that it's just right.  Kinda like Goldilocks and the 3 bears.  It's all good.  I just welcome them when they arrive, show them what's in my pool, and wish them well if and when they move along. 

And for me, that's just like sitting on my zen cushion.  I watch my breath come and go, my thoughts come and go, other zen practitioners come and go.  Both Tai Chi and Zen are very deep pools for me and the more I experience of both, the more I see that they are different aspects of the same pool.  And that there's always more to discover.

One of the things that I always liked about Tai Chi is that we often say to other Tai Chi people, "would you like to play Tai Chi with me?".  It could be to do a form together, or to do some push hands.  Just that it's play, not work.  And that's what I invite all my students to do, come play some Tai Chi with me for a while.  It seems to be working, I'm still teaching and I still have students.

So come play some Tai Chi with me if you're ever in Vancouver, BC. 


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Merging Zen, Tao and Tai Chi

It has been a long time since I put up a post in Reeling Silk's blog because I wasn't sure that I actually had anything to say that hadn't already said by others, and better than I could have said it.  And with what I was considering saying at the time, that was certainly true.

But I have finally discovered the place that I want to come from and talk about in this blog; the merging of Tai Chi practice with my Soto Zen Buddhist practice and my curiosity about how the Tao and Zen speak to one another through the medium of Tai Chi. So let's talk a little bit about my practice of both, so you know where I'm coming from.

Every morning before I begin my Tai Chi forms, I sit zazen.  Sometimes for as little as 25 minutes, sometimes as long as an hour.  Then after a stretch, I do a short bowing practice and then either begin my Tai Chi form practice or further warm up with a Qi-qong routine I learned from one of my former teachers, Master Xu Gong Wei (you learn a bit more about him here).  Then I practice 1-3 forms before beginning my regular morning routine.  They will either be chuan (hand/fist), jian (sword) or some of each, although lately I have been doing a chuan form and then Yang jian 51-form.

Sitting meditation before doing Tai Chi offers several benefits.  First, I get to wake up a bit more gradually, my zazen practice being to follow my breath.  Second, the slow awakening and the focus on breathing results in a very nice accumulation of energy, which I get to carry over into my form work.  And I can also carry my meditation breath work into my form work. Both aspects are especially helpful when doing my Chen forms, which require a bit more speed and oomph to them with the fa-jin moves than Yang or Wu styles.

Then it's on to the rest of day, whatever that may be; work, play, relaxing, etc.

That's a quick summary of how I physically approach Tai Chi from a Zen meditation point of reference.  Stay tuned for more regular posts in the future now that I know what I want to say.

Salute and Gassho,