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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Spirit in Taijiquan

This week in Qi Elements’ Taijiquan classes we have been focusing on a combination of three of the Taiji Essentials—an intangible and lively energy lifts the head upward, match up inner and outer, and seek quiescence within movement. All three concern the intent and spirit in Taijiquan. When the spirit is raised, and the movements are performed with correct manifestation of the martial intent, the Qi can be abundant and circulate freely. The raised spirit and the abundance and smooth circulation of Qi are critical to manifesting Taijiquan’s martial power and to achieving the full benefits of Taiji for maintaining and improving health.
It is very difficult to raise and maintain a high spirit if your head is not lifted and your gaze level. Try it sometime. Try to raise your spirit while looking down. It’s difficult if not impossible. I think this is why the common folk were forced to bow their heads to the nobility in ancient societies. Doing so would lower their spirit and keep them aware of their subordinate position in the society.
In Taijiquan the spirit is raised but contained within. That is to say, the spirit is evident but not overly obvious. It is said that such a raised but contained spirit shows through the eyes. This inwardly calm and contained spirit in Taijiquan contrasts with the externally manifest spirit in other, hard-style martial arts. Watch an old kung-fu movie, and you will probably see examples of externally manifested spirit—an angry face, tense muscles and loud sounds. These are correct in the harder styles as performed by younger people, but not correct in Taijiquan. External manifestation of spirit consumes energy, Taijiquan conserves energy. The need to conserve energy is one reason why many aging martial artists move from hard styles to internal styles.
In regard to matching up inner and outer, it is said that when practicing postures your internal intent will manifest spirit. Without knowing the intent of the Taiji movements it is difficult to raise the spirit and move the Qi strongly. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for Taiji to be taught as simple choreography without an understanding of the internal intent of the movements. When you see Taiji performed in such a manner, it looks lifeless and limp.
The gentle lifting of the head to maintain a level gaze and the raised but calm and contained spirit are two of the most important transformations that most people should achieve when they begin and continue to train Taijiquan. The habit of lifting the head will help maintain correct posture and prevent the decline that accompanies advancing age in many people. The raised spirit will help in the constant battles we fight with stress, illness and premature aging.

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More about adjusting to Autumn

The growing Yin of autumn means increasing focus on contraction and storage in the natural world. Harmonize your daily life with the growing Yin of autumn by becoming less active and going to bed earlier. It is a good time to examine what’s going on in your life to sort out what is important and what is dispensable.

Another way to help your body adjust to autumnal changes is by adjusting your diet. Drink more water to counter dryness in the lungs. Eat fewer spicy foods because spicy foods have a drying and sweat producing quality. Sour foods are gently moistening and hold in sweat and other fluids. Increase your intake of vinegar, pickled vegetables, and plums. Other foods such as soy milk, and fruit juices (particularly apple and pear) also help to prevent excessive dryness. Start to reduce your consumption of cold foods, which burden the spleen and stomach when the weather becomes cooler.

Starting about the second week of September, you will notice that although the afternoons can still be very warm, the temperatures will be noticeably cooler in the mornings and evenings. Take care to dress appropriately for the cooler times of day. It is a good idea to dress in layers that you can put on or take off as appropriate to the temperature.

Wishing you good health throughout the year.

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Start Preparing Now for Fall and the Cold and Flu Season

Ever wonder why we mark the start of summer on the longest day of the year (the summer solstice), and the next day the days start already to get shorter? In Qigong and Chinese medicine, we mark the seasons differently. Accordingly, the summer solstice marks the middle of summer, not the beginning. This way of marking the seasons is more in tune with nature, and when we are in tune with nature, we stay healthier. We can stay in tune with nature by changing behavior, such as sleep patterns; changing our diet; and even changing our mental attitude with the seasons.

For several years now I have been sharing with my Taiji and Qigong students an acupressure routine to help ward off common colds and flu. I started out publicizing the routine in late September, but after a few years, I began to realize that by late September some of my students, particularly those whose immune systems were run down by overwork and stress, would already have suffered a round of cold or flu. The Qigong system marks the beginning of autumn already in August (August 7th this year). With that in mind, I realized that if I want to help my students stay healthy during the cold and flu season, I need to start early in August.

Although in Northern Virginia it is still hot and damp at this time of year, it is a good time to begin taking greater care of your lungs. They will soon be under attack by autumn allergens and in time the dryness of Autumn will also put your lungs under stress. You can perform the Lung Cleansing Qigong shown on our You Tube channel qielements1. In additions you can begin to apply acupressure to tonifying points such as St 36 and Sp 6. I have also found that herbal supplement formulas help keep the lungs healthy. I have used Respiratory Support and Defense from Nature’s Secret and a general formula called Wellness Formula from Source Naturals. (I don’t sell supplements so there is no conflict of interest here.) This is the time that I will begin taking supplements to strengthen my lungs.

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Don’t outsource your emotional center

One of the principles of the Taoist Qigong exercises Six Healing Sounds and Inner Smile that we started in our Wednesday evening Qigong classes two weeks ago is that persons should accept responsibility for their own emotional state. Whatever the external event that triggers the emotional experience, you should experience the emotion, resolve it, let it go and return to a state of emotional calmness or equilibrium.

You may know people who seem to like outsourcing the responsibility for their emotional state.  They say,  “I can help it. It/he/she makes me so angry/sad/frustrated/worried/fearful/etc,” but the Taoists would say that you have a responsibility for the sake of your own health and the health of  those around you to eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later, resolve those emotions.  We all should be aware that emotional overloads or negative emotions held for a long time are damaging to our health.

The Taoist exercises that we are now working on Wednesday evenings provide techniques for relieving emotional stress and for transforming negative emotions into positive virtues. Another technique for achieving such transformations is “Functional Meditation,” which I have mentioned in previous posts.

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More on Giving Up Ego in Taijiquan

We spent some time on Wrist Na training in today’s Taijiquan class. In Wrist Na, you try to keep your palms on top of your partner’s wrists. Your partner uses the Yin and Yang coiling of the “snake climbs over the branch” exercise to move his hands to above your’s. You try with light and agile movements that originate in your root and waist to prevent partner from coiling over and if he succeeds in coiling over, to in turn coil back over his hands. The Taiji classics say, “light then agile, agile then variable, variable then neutralize.”

Many beginners try when they first practice Wrist Na to prevent their partner from coiling over to atop their hands by tensing, resisting by using force, and even by grabbing and holding the partner’s wrist. This response maybe a symptom of having one’s ego invested in “winning” at Wrist Na. They tend to take the same approach to other Taijiquan training exercises such as pushing hands.

But Wrist Na, pushing hands and other Taijiquan training exercises are not ends in themselves where it is meaningful to think in terms of “winning” or “losing.” Although it might be fun to engage in win/lose competition in these exercises, it will be counter productive if such an approach leads to the building of bad habits such as using excessive force or resisting instead of yielding and following. Such bad habits will be very detrimental to the student’s progress in higher levels of Taijiquan training.

When the student’s training moves to higher levels, habits of tensing, resisting, or grabbing developed if the student attempts to “win” at Wrist Na will result in the student remaining slow and clumsy and becoming vulnerable to Qin Na. If your partner in Wrist Na is so skillful that you are unable to keep your palms atop his or her wrists with light and agile movements, then the proper response when your partner coils over is to follow partner’s coiling with your own.

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