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,


Monday, 29 October 2012

The Secret to Relaxing During Tai Chi


One of the things I was constantly told when I was a beginning student, and now I tell my students is that they need to relax more.  Just relax.  So simple, right? 


How can you relax when you're busy trying to remember your posture movements and transitions, you only have a few minutes to practice, you have to get groceries, the laundry needs to be done, the kids are screaming or need to be transported, your arthritis is bothering you, and on and on....

I have puzzled over this myself for many years and I think I may have finally unlocked the secret!  And it's deceptively simple.  Ready?

be......... here.......... now!!

It's a bit counter-intuitive but the more you can concentrate on what you are doing IN THIS MOMENT, the less the rest of your external world that creeps in and the more you end up relaxing.  The deeper you focus your awareness on the single movement you are performing (rotating your waist, sinking into your root, extending your hand/foot), the more your physical body will drop tension in other areas and relax.  And this is not a forced, conscious "trying to" relaxation.  It just happens without you even noticing or realizing it at first.  

Another thing that often sabotages students' attempts at relaxation is simple physical discomfort.  You absolutely cannot relax if you are uncomfortable.  I keep telling my students that if they feel any pain or discomfort then they need to adjust the posture so that it feels comfortable.  We have all heard the expression "No Pain, No Gain" especially associated with increasing performance in sports.  Well fawgeddaboudit for Tai Chi.  If anything, in Tai Chi, it will set you back and can easily lead to injury from improper body positioning and strain.

So start by getting comfortable. If your postures are leading to really tense muscles and regular soreness, talk to your teacher and work out variations that are best for you.  We all do Tai Chi differently because we all have different bodies and capabilities.  And even those are continuously changing if we are practicing regularly. 

Let's do a little simple relaxation exercise.  Assume your starting Wu Ji pose.  Just stand there for a few moments and pay attention to all of your body.  First, centre your weight to rest equally on both feet, preferably mostly in your heels, but also throughout the bottom of your foot.   Now take a few abdominal breaths and check other parts of your body.  To check your shoulders, shrug them up military style and then let them fall loosely.  Now they will be relaxed.  Tense and wiggle your toes and then just let them be. Now they should be relaxed.  Clench your fists and then extend your fingers as far down as possible and then just let them hang.  Now they are relaxed.  And you can do the same with any other parts of your body; knees, elbows, neck, head.  So you will now be pretty fully relaxed and ready to start your form practice.

Simple, right?!  And all you had to do was to pay attention to what you were doing and feeling in that moment.  You were Being Here Now. 

Tai Chi can be practiced on many levels - from simple exercises to advanced martial art skills - but most people that I encounter are looking for the health benefits that they have heard about.  Bottom line: The more often and deeper you can relax, the more those benefits will begin to manifest and appear in your life. So pay attention, relax and enjoy. 

Keep on playing,


Monday, 10 September 2012

What Should I Practice?

This is probably the most common question that I'm asked.  The other one is "How long will it take me to learn the form?"  As they are both related, let's talk about them together.  

How Should I Practice and What?

Good question!! I'm glad you asked.  And the truth of it is there is no one answer.  If you're a long time student, you pretty much know what you need or want to work on but as a beginner, it is often a bit of a mystery.  There you are, you've just completed your first class and depending on your teacher, you may not even have learned any of the postures in the form, yet!  Here's what I tell all my beginning students: 

"Give me 5 minutes a day.  That's all I ask.  5 minutes."

Whoaaaa!! How can I learn Tai Chi if I only practice 5 minutes a day??  What benefits can I get from only practicing 5 minutes a day?!  Must not be that important if he's only asking for 5 minutes. 

That couldn't be further from the truth!!  

What you need to do is to start to incorporate it into your everyday routine so that it becomes a habit.  This is more difficult than it sounds.  In my experience, the reason many students stop doing T'ai Chi is because they were never able to get into the habit of practicing.  But if you start with just 5 minutes a day, 3-5 days a week, after a few weeks, you'll find yourself practicing a couple of minutes more.  And that's a good thing.  Now it's in your routine, it's a habit and you're more likely to improve and learn your forms.  And it's a lot easier to find 5 minutes a day than it is to try to set aside 15-30 minutes.  Especially if your life is as busy as mine!!

And let's take it a step further, so to speak.  Once you know a simple form like Yang style 24-form, how long does it take to do it from start to finish.....Just 5-10 minutes depending on just how fast or slow you do it.  And if that's all you do - Yang style 24, everyday - you'll get a significant amount of benefits, both mental and physical.  That's why it's such a popular form!  Only takes 5 minutes or so to do and the payoff is terrific!!

Ok, that's enough about how you should practice. Now let's talk about "what should I practice?" Of course your teacher will tell you what to practice, and that's usually the last thing they taught you!  But personally, I think anything you can remember from your classes is what you should practice.  Or if you have a weakness in a particular part of doing Tai Chi, for instance, foot placement during bow stance, which we talked about in a previous article on this blog. And this brings up another less verbalized question that students have: When am I actually doing Tai Chi? 

I always take a few moments with new students to let them know that "doing Tai Chi" is not about completing a form from beginning to end but rather is practicing whatever piece of Tai Chi you are working on at that moment.  If what you practice is the opening sequence and work on using your Tan Tien to transfer your weight properly to acheive good body position, alignment and foot placement, you are doing as much Tai Chi as someone who is doing a form from beginning to end.  Don't short change yourself by thinking that if you don't know a whole form you aren't really practicing Tai Chi yet.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  It is not the what that you practice but the intention and awareness that you bring to your practice that transforms it from just casually moving your body to actually doing Tai Chi.  I often do Tai Chi when I'm waiting for a bus.  I just stand there and conciously align my body and practice shifting weight from one foot to the next.  Try it the next time you're waiting for a bus or in a line at the grocery store.  No one will know you are actually practicing Tai Chi because most people are constantly shifting their weight and moving around when they're in a queue.  They just don't bring the awareness aspect into play. 

How Long Will It Take Me to Learn the Form?

I think now you can see how the 2 questions are related.  Obviously, the more you practice, the quicker and better you'll learn the form.  But this is also related to how the form is being taught. 

There are 2 common modern styles of teaching forms that I have encountered.  They both have advantages and disadvantages and I have learned from teachers that used one or the other as their method for instruction.  The first method is to go through the whole form every class - calling out each move with directions as to how to do it - while students of all levels follow along as best they can.  Then after going through the form, the instructor will work in depth on one form or set of movements to help students understand them better. 

The second method is to introduce a new movement each class.  In this method, the class starts off  reviewing the form with the instructor up to the movement learned in the previous class.  Then questions from students and problems with performance as noted by the instructor are worked on.  After a while, the next move in the form is then introduced, with the rest of the class session being devoted to it's instruction.  In this method, you're never quite sure how far along in learning the form you are but you can assume that if it's a 24 posture form, it's going to take you at least 24, and more likely 30 weeks to learn the form.  That's because it is always necessary to take a week now and then to just work on the form up to where the students have progressed.  This also gives students that have missed an occasional class a chance to catch up to where everyone else is. 

So how long will it take you to learn a form via the first method?  Probably about the same amount of time as by the second method!  Unless..... you are a very dedicated student, who practices hard (more than 5 minutes a day!), and has a talent and a good memory for body movement patterns.  Those students are rare so don't worry about them.  They'll be your teachers, soon!!

Ok, enough reading about Tai Chi for now.  Go practice for 5 minutes!!


Thursday, 5 July 2012

Resolving Body Confusion: Your Feet

As I watch my T'ai Chi students, I often see a common problem that I'll call, body confusion.  They're not sure which part should move when and to where, and how to get it all connected. How DO you know, apart from listening to and watching your teacher?  In the next few articles, I'll give you a few simple tips to help you sort through and improve this part of your practice.

Tip 1: Work on one thing

Sounds so simple, doesn't it?  But what should you work on; hands? feet? transitions? connections? smoothness? energy awareness? and the list goes on.  How do you choose where to start?  Well, there's no right or wrong but what I like to do is work from a position of strength.  And since strength in T'ai Chi comes from your root, which is your connection to the Earth, the feet are usually a good place to start so let's talk about your feet.

First, let`s just look at your feet.  Just take your normal everyday comfortable stance that you would assume if you were talking to someone who is directly in front of you. What`s going on down there on the floor? Do you have large, small, narrow or wide feet?  Do you stand with one foot splayed out to the side? Are you pigeon-toed or knock-kneed?  Are they spaced wider than your body or very close together?  All this will have an effect on how you do your T'ai Chi forms.  Let's go right back to the beginning and start with a good technique I use for finding a good starting foot placement during T'ai Chi Form work.
  • Just stand naturally
  • Place one foot directly in front of the other, in a straight line, with the heel of the foot in front touching the toes of the foot in back.  Not so easy to stand like this is it!
  • Now, rotate the front foot on the big toe toward the side of the foot that it is - right to right or left to left - until they make a perfect right angle (corner of a rectangle) to each other, about a foot's distance apart.  You should look and feel kind of silly. 
  • Finally, rotate the front foot on the heel so that the toes are again pointing forward naturally
You should now have a good solid stance, with the toes of the back foot a little less than your foot's length from the heel of the front foot.  And there should be about a bowling ball's width spacing between your legs, depending on the size of your feet. This is a perfect position and in T'ai Chi, this is called the bow stance.  It requires very little effort to hold and also uses minimal effort when shifting weight from back to front and vice versa.

OK, let's do some analysing.  Start doing your form and at any posture of the form you're practicing, stop, hold the posture and then look at how you've placed your self and in particular, your feet.  If your feet aren't well placed, get them where they need to be and hold that for a minute or so.  Try to memorize what that feels like.  Then continue your form. Stop again and repeat.  In Forms that have repeating postures, you might see if you achieved a better position the next time it comes around.  If not, readjust and continue.  T'ai Chi is a never ending source of learning and practice.  Eventually, with good intention and many repetitions, your feet will begin to obey you. 

Most important, playing T'ai Chi should be fun. That's why we say playing, not working! Don't worry if it's not exactly right in the beginning. You have the rest of your life to get it right.    


Too much, too little, Just right

I've been thinking about this for a while now; how much is too much? How much is too little? and How much is just right?  For the most part, I'm referring to leg and knee extensions but it also applies to arms, upper body, waist turns and other aspects.

Let's concentrate on the legs and knees.  When I watch my students, I often see a fair amount of confusion as to how far to step and how far to extend the knee in relation to its foot's placement.  I have talked a little bit about how to place one's feet in relation to each other so let's focus first on how far you should step.

What I teach is that it is totally unique to each individual.  Tall people with long legs are often going to step out further than a short person like myself.  The bottom line is that there is no simple formula for distance that I know of.  It also depends on what you are practicing at a given moment.  Often, when I do a form in the morning, I'm still a little stiff and so I tend to economize in movement - all my movements - but especially the extensions.  In the afternoon and evenings, I'm a lot looser so I will often explore larger movements and leg extensions.  That translates into needing anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 the space to do the same form in the morning vs the evening!  And I'll sink lower later in the day, which also makes it easier to do longer extensions, especially in Chen forms.

Ok, how about the knees.  I have only one critical rule for your knees and it's this:
  • Never let your front knee extend past the toes of its foot!!
  • Repeat, Never let your front knee extend past the toes of its foot.
I have been in classes where some younger Taiji teachers told their students to extend their front knees past their toes because it makes them stronger.  Maybe when you're younger this is true, but most of my students are not young folks anymore (nor am I!!) and extending knees past toes while putting weight on them is a sure recipe for disaster.  What it leads to is people quitting T'ai Chi because their knees hurt when they do the form.  In my experience, the most optimal position for the knee over the foot is when the knee is directly over the heel.

Let's take a look at a picture taken from this article about Tai Chi's effectiveness for increasing motion in arthritic joints.  Look particularly at the top right and lower left drawings.  This has the angle where the leg meets the foot looking like the corner of a square when viewed from the side.  This is the most comfortable, least stressful position for the joints,  will result in smoother form work, and facilitates sending your Chi energy into the earth through the heel and bubbling well to establish your root.

Also note that the upper body has the spine at a right angle to the ground, as well.  This prevents you from overextending your arms and helps to establish a good sense of balance and rooting.

So if you haven't thought much about it, this is a good time to examine how you're positioning your body in regard to these basic concepts.  And keep practicing!!  A little effort each day can take you a long way on this T'ai Chi journey you're on. 


Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Why Study T'ai Chi?

There are as many reasons to learn and study T'ai Chi as there are people who do it!  Some of the more popular ones that I have heard people express are "Doing T'ai Chi helps to relieve the stress of my high pressure life";T'ai Chi helped improve my mobility and balance"; "I feel more alive after doing T'ai Chi"; "T'ai Chi has really helped me to become a healthier person"; "T'ai Chi helped me to recover more fully and faster from my injuries"; and the list goes on. So there are many reasons to do T'ai Chi.

I started my own T'ai Chi practice to help aid in my recovery from a serious chronic lower back condition that was severely restricting the types and amount of activity that I was able to do and occasionally would keep me bedridden for days at a time. Those days are long gone and T'ai Chi definitely played a major role in my recovery.  I now regularly go on multi-day hiking trips, extended bike rides and run several half marathons a year.  In May of 2012 I completed my first marathon!!

T'ai Chi is a wonderful meditative practice and is an excellent complement to spiritual  practices.  It can help you better integrate sitting meditation into your daily life because during T'ai Chi practice, you need to maintain a similar state of awareness while actually moving your body through a series of complex postures.

T'ai Chi is also quite beautiful to watch.  The movements of the forms are very carefully arranged to move you from posture to posture while at the same time, gently stretching and reforming your tendons and ligaments to increase your mobility and energy. The quality of flow that results often looks like a graceful dance.

T'ai Chi is different for every person because every person's body is different. I am very sensitive to this and work with my students to do the best T'ai Chi they can with their unique physique and physical challenges.  Because my own practice began as a means to help relieve a chronic back condition, I  especially enjoy working with people who have physical limitations that they would like to improve or overcome.

Keep playing.