Taiji, Qigong, and Immunity

In today’s Washington Post Health & Science section there is an article titled “Science tackles how immunities decline with age.”  The issue that prompts the article is, of course, the corona virus, and its particularly strong impact on older adults.  The article also points out that the seasonal flus have a similar impact on older adults.  For example, during the 2018-2019 flu season, three out of every four persons who died from the flu were age 65 and older.

In addition to older adults being more susceptible to flu, flu vaccines are less effective for older adults.  The seasonal flu vaccine tends to work for three out of five persons 17 or younger, but for only one of four adults 50 and older.

The article discusses in detail the microbiology of the immune system and the work of T and B cells as well as that of antigen-presenting cells.  One of the factors in the decline of immunity in older adults is that these cells become fewer and less effective in performing their various functions as we age.

My Qigong teacher, Dr. Jwing Ming Yang, always stressed in his Qigong seminars the importance of three ingredients vital to the cells’ functioning and replacement in the human body:  oxygen, nutrients (primarily glucose), and Qi (bioelectricity).  These ingredients must be abundantly available in the human body and able to circulate to the places where they are needed for cells to function efficiently and reproduce abundantly.

Unfortunately, as we age, the supply of these vital ingredients tends to decline as does the body’s ability to distribute them to where they are needed.  As we age, we tend to breathe more shallowly.  Consequently, the supply of oxygen declines.  We tend to accumulate more body fat and become less active with age.  Both tendencies result in slowing and impairment of the circulation of blood, which, of course, is the distributor of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.

The practice of Taiji and Qigong and the lifestyle changes that we encourage people to undertake when they begin their training help to combat the harmful tendencies that accompany aging.  The techniques of movement and relaxation as well as the cultivation and conservation of Qi that are the essence of these arts promote the circulation of blood and Qi.  Deep breathing, also integral to these arts, helps increase the supply of oxygen to the body.

The article focuses on efforts to improve the effectiveness of vaccines in older adults, which, of course, is very important, but the overall effect is disempowering to the average person because it implies that everything having to do with the effectiveness of our immune systems depends on medical science.  Dr. Yang points out in a series of articles he has written in response to the corona virus crisis that we have become too focused on medical science to the neglect of the things we can do for ourselves.  The things we can do for ourselves include lifestyle changes that improve our health, which, of course, include practicing the arts of Taiji and Qigong.

The Washington Post article is based on a report produced by Knowable Magazine. The complete report can be read at knowablemagazine.org.

Dr. Jwing Ming Yang’s articles in response to the corona virus crisis have been reposted by permission  on Qi Emements’ website.

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Keeping Calm in Historic Times

I’ve posted before about the process of functional meditation, which I learned in a seminar with Dr. Yang Yang.  Functional meditation deals with the issues that sometimes make it difficult for people to calm their minds for meditation.  These issues arise when you attempt to begin meditation but find when you try to stop your thinking and quiet your mind, you are unable to do so.  Sometimes it is because suppressed memories or emotional issues from the past resurface and disturb your attempts to calm down.  Sometimes, as in our current situation, it’s fears about the present and future that disturb our attempts to stop thinking and meditate.

In essence, functional meditation is based on using your wisdom mind to regulate your emotional mind.  It teaches us to apply wisdom principles to reduce or eliminate emotional turmoil.  We face lots of uncertainty and disruption to our normal lives in the current Corona virus situation.  We may also face the loss of people we know and love and even loss of our own lives.  Throughout, we should keep in mind some important wisdom principles.

The world and we as Americans have endured and recovered from bad times before.  Depressions, plagues, famines, wars–the human race has endured and come back from many of these, some of which were much worse than what we are facing today.  It is estimated that the Black Plague killed 30-50% of Europe’s population.  The Corona Virus is much less deadly.

You are not alone.  Millions of other people around the world are going through what we are going through what we are going through.  Some are in better circumstances.  Many are in worse.

Seek out the help you need.  There are people and organizations providing help and support.  Make use of them.  There is no sense in attempting to deal with a historic disruption on a worldwide scale by yourself.

Take action where you can.  Do the things you can and should do.  Distance, mask, hand washing, self-care.  Apply for loans, unemployment, or other support.  Do whatever is in your power to do.  Help others however you can.  It will make you feel better.

Leave everything else in God’s hands.  Don’t worry about what you cannot control.  Worry, fear, anxiety, sadness will tire you out and impede your ability to do the things you can.  Over the long term, the stress from such emotions will cause serious damage to your health.

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Let’s Have a Cup of Tea

The teas listed below are believed to benefit the immune system. While no supplement can prevent or cure disease, supplements along with other healthy lifestyle practices can boost your immune system, your body’s internal defense against disease. Be sure to check the links, especially for information about when you should not use the herbs.

Chamomile– reduces stress and tension, relieves digestion problems, fights bacteria. It helps to relax the muscles in the intestines and the stomach and can help relieve digestive problems such as gas, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as relieve gastrointestinal symptoms associated with anxiety. Rich in antioxidants, chamomile helps reduce inflammation and block growth of cancer cells. More on chamomile.  

Cinnamon— (ceylon) helps the mind focus and work more quickly, promotes growth of neural pathways. Cinnamon improves digestion and can calm an upset stomach, gas, and diarrhea. Benefits of cinnamon.

Echinacea—increases the production of white blood cells, which combat viruses and bacteria. Its anti-inflammatory properties help relieve lung disorders such as bronchitis by reducing the irritation and mucus in the lungs. More on echinacea.

Elderberry– anti-inflammatory, anti-viral due to its high bioflavonoid content, and full of immunity boosting antioxidants. It can help to clear up congestion and runny nose. Benefits and dangers of elderberry.

Eucalyptus– fights respiratory infections with its strong antibacterial properties that help reduce phlegm and mucus and help fight common fungal infections, improves respiratory circulation, soothes stiffness and swelling of joints caused by arthritis and rheumatism. Eucalyptus’ antioxidant properties help reduce oxidative stress while also lowering blood sugar and dilating arteries. Its cooling nature helps boost energy, decrease emotional stress, and mitigate mental fatigue. More on eucalyptus.

Rosemary—contains a strong antioxidant, reduces headaches and may prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s, helps protect the body from oxidative stress. It is often consumed to relieve cold symptoms. It is an anti-inflammatory and has shown promise as an anticarcinogenic. More on rosemary tea.

Uva Ursi (Bearberry)– diuretic properties help flush out the urinary system and thus combat bacterial infections of urinary bladder and kidneys. Uva Ursi helps the body rid itself of bloating and water retention. It is a rich source of antioxidants and contains vitamin C. Uva Ursi and urinary tract infections.

White Tea– has some serious anti-cancer properties that can protect your body from multiple forms of the disease and can help strengthen the immune system to boot. It has also been shown to be a powerful antibacterial antibiotic agent, perfect for fighting an oncoming cold. More on white tea.

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The Rhythm of Our Lives

A cold wet nose in your eye at 7:30 AM.  “No, Sash.  It’s Sunday.  Let me sleep!”  Another gentle nose poke in the eye, accompanied by a whine.  “It’s time to get up, and get moving, Daddy.  Let’s go out and play  ball!”  That was our dog, Sasha, every morning.  When he got older, he developed an evening routine, sitting at the foot of the stairs, looking at us, then looking up the stairs.  “It’s time to go to bed!”  His reproachful “it’s time for bed” look would do your grandmother proud.

Sasha was reminding us of the importance of routine or rhythm in our lives.  The need to create habits that keep us on track, productive, and alive.  I’ll venture to say that now in the midst of the Corona virus pandemic, most of us are experiencing major disruption to the rhythm of our lives.  And that means that we need to create a new rhythm.  Tempting as it may be for some of us to sleep late, skip shower and shaving, hang-out all day in pajamas, and sit on the couch and binge watch TV, it is vitally important that we do not succumb to that temptation.

We need to keep mentally and physically active to avoid falling into malaise, depression, and to stave off premature aging.  This pandemic situation could continue for several months.  Just moping around for several months will have serious consequences for our health.

Take this time to accomplish things, maybe some things that you always wanted to do, but never made time for.  Might I suggest that improving your health be one of those things.  Set times during the day for active exercise.  Do a morning and afternoon walk.  (Here’s the benefit of having a dog like Sasha, who will nag you to get out.)  You can do a walk and still keep your social distancing.  Set a time for daily meditation.  Meditating will help you deal with the mental stress of the current situation.

Even those of us who are working at home still have an opportunity to accomplish more for ourselves.  You should have free time if you are no longer commuting to and from work.  I hope you won’t feel obliged or compelled to add that time to your work hours.

If you need suggestions on meditation, look at some of my earlier blogs and stay tuned for more.

Be careful, stay well.

Shifu Roger

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Mobilize Your Internal Forces against Corona Virus

Feeling at a loss in the current situation with the Corona virus?  Authorities say we won’t have a deployable vaccine against the new virus for at least a year, and then what about the next new virus or unanticipated strain of ordinary flu to come along?  You need not feel helpless.  In addition to the common sense precautions to protect yourself from germs (frequent hand washing, adequate sleep and diet, etc.), you have the means to strengthen your immune system and overall health with Taiji and Qigong exercises, both of which are effective in reducing the stress-load and boosting your vital internal energy (Qi).

My teacher, Dr. Jwing Ming Yang, likens a human being’s existence–physical, spiritual, and energetic–to a battle, which we are fighting all the time against the invasion of germs and other pernicious influences.  Your physical body is the battlefield.  Your white blood cells and other components of your immune system are the soldiers of your army.  Your mind is the general, who leads your army.  Your Qi, oxygen supply, and nutrients are the supplies your army needs to move and fight effectively.

You want your mind-general to be calm and focused.  Your mind-general should know the battlefield, but for many of us our minds are too often focused outward and have lost touch with our internal feelings.  The result–our mind-general doesn’t know what is happening on the battlefield.  The meditative aspects of Qigong and Taiji help relieve our mind-general of external stress, calm down, and focus on what’s happening internally.

You want your mind-general and your soldiers to have high morale.  Their morale depends on your morale.  If you are feeling sad, helpless, fearful, or depressed, your general and your army will feel the same.  With Qigong and Taiji you can take action to help yourself, and these exercises’ effectiveness in building up your vital energy will in turn raise your spirit.

You want your army to be able to move easily and quickly around the battlefield to where they are needed.  Your Qi channels, blood vessels, and nerve pathways are the transportation routes by which your army and its supplies travel.  However, when we sit too much, which is all too common in our modern lifestyle, these transportation routes tend to clog up, as when roads or trails are not regularly maintained and become snow clogged, muddy, or pot-holed.  The movements of Qigong and Taiji help keep these transportation routes open, and as your soldiers grow stronger and your general gains focus, they will have greater ability to clear away obstacles on the routes and make sure that they can move freely to where they are needed.

Exercise in general is good, but Qigong and Taiji exercises that focus on special movements, proper breathing, mental concentration, and vital energy strengthening are especially effective weapons you can use in your everyday battles to stay healthy.

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Slow Down

Did you watch the half time show during the Super Bowl?  Visual and auditory stimulation from start to finish at who knows how many beats per second.  Rapid fire stimulation is the ethos of the modern, techno age.  You can see it in the movies, too.  It seems like the message of many modern movies is how many special effects can the creators cram into each minute.  Faster, faster, faster, more, more, more!

Faster, faster, more, more, shows up at most modern workplaces.  Squeeze more out of the employees.  “Do more with less!”  Next day delivery isn’t good enough.  Now we aspire to two hour delivery.  Close of business is an obsolete concept as business becomes 24/7.  Mobiles keep us connected and always on call.

Can you imagine what the constant stimulation and ever-increasing pressure for speed does to your body?  You can measure what it does to your heart rate and blood pressure, but the effect on your body chemistry and the work your brain has to do to process the constant stimulation are not easily measured unless you are wired up in a medical center.

I can see this effect creeping into Taiji classes.  The other day while leading the barehand form, I noticed that one student was three moves ahead of my commands.   And this was a student doing Taiji to reduce stress.  I might be wrong, but I think I notice that students working IT jobs are especially prone to speed up their form and their sensing hands practice.   I keep saying, “slow down.”

You know that there are three speeds for Taiji form practice–slow, medium, and fast.  Those who want to acquire martial arts ability should practice fast form in addition to the slow and medium, but most students aren’t that committed to learning martial skills.  This means that for most of us, we should be practicing at medium and slow speeds.  (Medium speed is 18-23 minutes; slow speed is as slow as you can go while still coordinating with breathing.  That’s for the traditional Yang long form 108.)

Practicing Taiji you step back from the modern world and slow down.  Let’s keep it that way.

 

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The Meaning of Taiji Form Movements

Closely connected to the subject of my previous entry, the importance of maintaining a sense of enemy, is the need to understand the meaning of each of the movements in the Taiji form.  This means in effect the need to know what the martial application of the movement is, what exactly are you doing to the imaginary enemy.  This knowledge is necessary even if you are practicing Taiji only for health and have absolutely no interest in Taijiquan martial art.

It is true that the movements have more than one application.  At Qi Elements we have selected what we call the “standard application” for each movement.  The “standard application” is the one we think best illustrates why the the correct way of performing the movement is correct and why the incorrect ways are incorrect.  Why does teacher say my hand position correct here but not there?  Why does one movement require an an empty stance with heel down and another movement require the ball of foot down?  Why does teacher say my movement is too big, my stance is too narrow, or my stance is too wide?

It is also true that in some traditional schools, the answer to the above questions is “because teacher says so!”  But we believe that the student learn more quickly, understands better, and remembers longer when the answer is explained in reference to the meaning of the movement and how it applies to the standard application.  We might illustrate, for example, that in the standard application, “If your hand is here instead of there, you will lose contact with your opponent.”

OK, so what if the student is only interested in health and the loss of contact with an imaginary opponent seems irrelevant to him or her.  Well, in almost all cases, when something is incorrect for the standard application, it is incorrect for health too.  Too big a posture can cause muscle and joint tension, which restricts Qi flow.  Too small a posture can also restrict Qi flow.  Incorrect foot position can affect balance, and if continued through prolonged practice will irritate the joints.

Correct performance of the form movements is also important for the mental benefits of Taiji practice.  Learning how to perform the movements correctly helps improve memory and executing them precisely helps refine the mind-body communication.

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The Imaginary Opponent in Taiji Form

Whether you are doing Taiji drills or practicing the bare-hand form, it is important to maintain what Grand Master Yang calls “a sense of enemy.”  Remember that Taijiquan is a martial art and that many of its benefits for health derive from its ability to raise your spirit and boost the circulation of your internal energy, Qi.  Maintaining a sense of enemy is essential in raising your spirit and in promoting circulation of your Qi.  Thus it is essential to essential to both the main goals for practicing Taiji–attaining martial skill and improving health and longevity.

I tell people who are learning Taiji to imagine that they are interacting during form performance with an imaginary opponent.  Your imaginary opponent does not cause you to become angry or frightened.  Of course, creating tension from anger or fright would be contrary to Taiji principles, which dictate that you remain calm and unemotional.  Your imaginary opponent does, however, cause you to become feisty.  Feisty was what my friends and I became when we played “tackle the man with the ball” in our backyards many years ago.

Your imaginary opponent, coincidentally, is always the same size as you are, which permits you to do the movements without contorting yourself out of proper position.  Your imaginary opponent has friends.  In some parts of the form you know that you no sooner knock one down than another joins in.  Sometimes, as in single whip, two attack you in quick succession from opposite sides.  Don’t worry, you always prevail.  When you are performing the form, your imaginary opponents always does when he, she (they?) are supposed to.  So if you make a mistake in the sequence, don’t blame your imaginary opponent.

The idea that you are pushing, pulling, punching, or locking the joints of your imaginary opponent strengthens your Qi flow and your spirit.  Without that sense of imaginary opponent, your Taiji practice will be empty and you will be missing a large part of the benefits of doing Taiji form.

 

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Skin and Marrow Breathing

On November 2, we opened November’s Saturday focus on Coiling, Spiraling, and Silk-Reeling Jins with a 45-minute performance of Master Yang’s Taiji Qigong Coiling Set.  As you may know, the set is accompanied by Skin and Marrow Breathing.  During this breathing, we have intention to move Qi strongly, so we proceed on the foundation of Reverse Abdominal Breathing.  The Skin and Marrow addition to Reverse Abdominal Breathing means that on inhalation we visualize drawing our Qi into our bone marrow as if the entire body were being vacuum sealed.  On exhalation, we visualize the Qi expanding all around the body as though it were a balloon being inflated.

Externally, the Coiling Set is designed to help Taiji practitioners connect the whole body in coiling and spiraling movements.  The inclusion of Skin and Marrow Breathing allows us to accomplish several internal goals while performing the Coiling Set.  Speaking first of health goals, Skin Breathing leads Qi to the skin cells to aid cell replacement, which you know diminishes with age.  It also expands guardian Qi (Wei Qi).  Marrow Breathing leads Qi to the bone marrow, helping to keep it heathy and functioning well in its task of producing red blood cells.  For martial arts, Skin Breathing increases listening Jin.

Skin and Marrow Breathing can change the body’s Yin Yang state, i.e. warm it up or cool it down, and it is important to keep this in mind because you don’t want to change this state unintentionally.  Skin Breathing makes the body more Yang, i.e. warmer.  If you want to make your body warmer, you can enhance the warming effect by uncoupling Skin Breathing from Marrow Breathing (leave the Qi out beyond the skin at the end of exhalation), holding the breath for a count of five at the end of the exhalation, and/or making the “haaaa” sound during exhalation.  You might want intentionally to do this if you are chilled during cold or chilly weather.

Marrow Breathing makes the body more Yin, which can be useful if you want to cool your body in hot weather.  I have also been told that it works well for dealing with hot flashes that often accompany menopause.  I don’t know that personally.  You can enhance the cooling effect of Marrow Breathing by doing just the opposite of the techniques for enhancing the warming effects of Skin Breathing but use the Heng sound during inhalation.

Skin and Marrow Breathing can be done by itself in addition to during the Coiling Set.  In either case, take note if you finish feeling too warm or too cold.  Unless you have intention to change your body’s Yin Yang state, you should make the length and mind emphasis on inhalation and exhalation even to prevent significantly changing your body’s Yin or Yang.

For more information on these topics, consult Master Yang’s book and DVD on Taiji Qigong.

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Taijiquan and Sport Fighting

Anyone can shoot a video and post it on platforms like You Tube.  This is great.  You will see some amazing Taiji videos on You Tube, but most of what I see purporting to be about Taiji on You Tube is not good, especially when it comes to Taiji’s martial applications.

Occasionally you will see videos of someone who identifies himself as a Taijiquan practitioner attempting to engage in sport fighting.  It usually turns out badly for the “Taijiquan” person.  Commenters will say that pushing hands training doesn’t prepare one for sport fighting.  That’s true.  If you are going to sport fight, you must train to deal with speed and aggression.  Others with comment that the outcome proves Taijiquan is not a martial art.

But the problem of Taijiquan performing poorly in sport fighting is more than just a likely lack of training to deal with speed and aggression.  Taijiquan relies on the development of listening and understanding skills and on the application of four key principles: attach, adhere, connect, and follow.  This is all explained in Taijiquan’s classical literature.  The failure to take time to acquire those skills and learn to apply those principles—and sometimes a complete lack of awareness of those skills and principles—probably explains why so much of what we see about Taijiquan on You Tube is not good.

Another problem occurs in sport fighting where gloves or hand padding are used.  Is it possible to attach, adhere, connect, and follow when your hands are covered in padding?

Yet another problem is ethics.  Whatever you think about the ethics of sport fighting, many of Taijiquan’s techniques are clearly far beyond what any sane person would accept in sport fighting.  There are the joint destruction techniques of Qin Na applied with Fa jin.  Then there are the cavity press techniques.  Even the “mild” techniques such as plucking the opponent’s wrist and gauging the Neiguan are not ethical to use in sport fighting.  Moreover, and this is probably fortunate, those techniques would be very difficult to employ with padded hands.

Finally, there is, I think, an ultimate obstacle to applying Taijiquan to sport fighting.  Learning to apply the principles of connect and follow requires the Taijiquan practitioner to learn to give up ego.  Maybe I misjudge, but I don’t think that people who step into the sport fighting ring have learned to give up ego.

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