Is Exercise Too Strenuous? Learn Tai Chi.

Image of tai chi teachers testing

My teachers, Susan Matthews and Xu Guo Ming (George), practicing their passion.

What I like about tai chi is that it puts you in a position of learning. Learning makes you feel good about yourself. When you feel good, you’re more likely to feel good about other things. It’s like being in love or being loved by someone. It tends to overflow into other things you’re doing.

In my years of practicing and teaching I’ve seen a lack of motivation among many aging baby boomers and post-boomers to do physical activity. One thing that happens is work depletes their energy reserves. They resist exercise, as a result, because a lot of exercise, like the kind you find in gyms, is too strenuous. A lot is repetitious and boring, too. What we need after a tough day on the job, office or field, is to relax, right?

If you’re dealing with a similar issue and feel stuck, you probably haven’t figure out that tai chi can help you replenish. Maybe you have not discovered tai chi at all. Not yet, anyway. From my perspective, after practicing and teaching tai chi for many years, the accepted exercise norms lack the mind-energy-body integration that tai chi offers. The imagination is not stimulated. The excitement of learning is not there. So we don’t “exercise.” We don’t make the effort and if we do, often, we give up trying sooner or later.

This topic was covered recently in a article, “Boomers building muscle at the gym—but where’s the passion” (8/6/2014).

“What stunned me was when we think of boomers — healthy ambulatory individuals who are reasonably robust and who theoretically have more time on their hands — one might imagine they would want to continue having fun and experiencing personal challenge and growth in what they’re doing,” says Prof. James Gavin (Concordia Univ. Dept. of Applied Human Sciences, published study results in the International Journal of Wellbeing). As a contrast, he points to the excitement and spontaneity that young children display in their physical activities.

Gavin says the results of his study propose a challenge for the fitness industry to move away from machine-dominated options toward personally meaningful and socially connected pursuits. He points to activities where passion happens in the sport itself and physical benefits are wonderful secondary outcomes. Team sports and martial arts are clear examples — even though many older adults mistakenly see themselves as “too old” for these activities.

Gavin goes on to talk about finding “passion” and “deep personal meaning in physical activity.” As far as I’m concerned tai chi remedies the problem, which is that too often individuals don’t stick around long enough to learn enough tai chi to get its fullest benefits. If we were just a little more passionate, we might reignite the excitment of youth when learning and physical activity were intertwined harmoniously.

Maybe it’s the charisma of the teacher, maybe the sheer depth and width of the information that we’re exposed to, that stops us. I certainly no longer accept the excuse that we don’t have time. I say make time. Your life is at stake.

Maybe we’re not desperate enough. I was when I began practicing. I was lucky to have a great teacher, who had a great teacher, who introduced me to other great teachers. I share my knowledge with others, because that’s how this kind of knowledge gets disseminated. It’s a word of mouth method. So I say, Learn Tai Chi. It’s easier than you think. I can show you something in less than 10 minutes that you can do with amazing results everyday for the rest of your life. How much trouble can it be to do that?

Tai chi … Circles and Spirals

Tai chi … Spiral versus circles
The (perfect) circle in nature doesn’t exist, I’m told; but the spiral is everywhere. In tai chi if you want to replicate natural movement it makes sense to practice spiraling. Circles are effective, as they are in Chen Style Taijiquan. They are the foundation for spiraling, figure eights and more. Humans discovered or invented the circle. It’s an attempt to give static order to the universe which is in constant and endless flux and more super-organized like a spiral or a figure 8, the infinity symbol shape. Both are more three dimensional in tai chi and more active, with more motion built in. But they are related in the way that moving the hips in figure eights or the dantian in circles transfers energy out towards the extremities in a spiral.

A yin-yang perspective of solo and group tai chi practice


HotelGarden_SuzhouMany times, I’ve seen a lone person across the lake in a Shanghai park, standing beneath huge weeping willows, or eucalyptus trees, at the water’s edge repeating the same movements in a very rhythmic, synchronous manner. In this very tranquil setting in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world, I find solitude in solo practice. It’s the yin to the yang of group practice.

A view of the mindful movement of tai chi

White Crane Spreads Wings tai chi posture

Yang Panhou, White Crane Spreads Wings

Normally when we move through life, our attention is divided. We seldom give full attention to anything that we happen to be doing in any given moment. We are multi-tasking to the ultimate, rushing around, moving here and there. Our minds are elsewhere, thinking about things beyond what our bodies are doing. This wearies many of us and stress builds. We have difficulty managing emotions, we react to the world in desperation and despair; and over time, our health even wanes.

Take driving an automobile for example. While driving we are doing many things at once. We are steering, operating accelerator and brakes, reading road signs, watching out for other drivers, making sure we stay in our lane, the rearview mirror thing is happening. At the same time, we’re also thinking about what’s for dinner, or what a friend or relative is doing, or what was said earlier, or about work problems … on and on it goes. If this ever wears you down, then welcome to the club.

For respite we turn to diversions, such as movies or television sports, or participate in sports. These help take our minds off our worries. These activities give us a break from the more stressful stuff … until we’re off again multitasking states of being. Often, we end up doing even more stuff to try and relax from the other stuff we are doing that wears us down. It’s a vicious cycle of endless return.

In contrast, the mindful movement practice of tai chi gives us a chance to move with the fullest attention of our whole being to the very act of movement itself. And when we do this, we feel different, refreshed, whole again. Relaxation is letting go, unburdening ourselves of energetic stagnation and energetic weights that are not us.

Tai chi differs from watching a movie of course, since tai chi is movement you do yourself. You are consciously choosing to give your fullest attention to the movement.

For many practitioners tai chi is the ultimate meditative movement, because it involves all levels of our total being. It’s not just physical, which most western-based exercises or therapies are limited by. Tai chi is mental, energetic, even spiritual alignment in the sense of connecting the very same energies in our beings with those that make up the whole universe. You immerse your whole being completely in the moment, and in return it feeds back regenerative power.

If you discover the wonders of tai chi, you probably will consider yourself extremely lucky and your gratitude will be reflected in your practice. How much should you practice? Even the smallest amount of effort can produce big benefits in terms of how you feel.

What are you good at in tai chi?

With enough tai chi practice each practitioner discovers that we have an affinity for a particular skill or technique or style. We discover what we are really good at. Some of us are good at being heavy, some at being light, or fast, or big, or little and so on. In China some people are even given nicknames for what distinguishes them and they are known for that particular ability. This affinity evolves naturally from practice and once you discover it your practice will grow. It could take years.

A Simple Tai Chi BreathingTechnique

Eight Pieces of Brocade drawing

Separate Heaven and Earth posture from a Qing Dynasty text

Visualize breathing from various locations in the body. For example, as the body moves, imagine inhaling and exhaling through the lower back as though through nostrils. Breathe into and out of the joints, the solar plexus, the soles of the feet and top of the head, the back of the neck. See how it changes how your sbody moves. The central equilibrium gravity dantian open close left right front back big little. You don’t have to practice tai chi to try this. Anyone can incorporate this simple tai chi breathing technique anytime during the day. It relaxes and teaches the body, plus it improves circulation, getting life-giving oxygen and nutrients into the blood stream. (…more about me)

Six common mistakes tai chi practitioners make

Image of susan matthews and george xu

Susan Matthews and George Xu testing internal principles.

One…they don’t learn to connect single basics to form. Teachers say that before you do form you should learn and practice the basic moves. This is key for internalizing the principles of taiji. I practice standing and walking drills which are repetitive and rhythmic. This is better for many, because many try to memorize the form sequences of moves without learning the internal understanding.

Two…they use muscle. They must become conscious of the possibility of moving differently. Go deeper and focus attention on moving from bones, ligaments, tendons, for example. Or go directly to moving with energy; i.e., qi. This refers not only to a new way of moving, but aslo to a different way fo perceiving.

Three…they don’t incorporate mind intention; i.e., yi. Speaking of a new way of perceiving, taiji is a mental practice as much or more than a physical. Develop intent to achieve a specific goal and maintain it. I practice visualization which can help to build a strong connection between mind, energy, and body.

Four…they give up. They think they need to do so much all at once. They should see learning in small pieces and as an incremental stepwise process. This is where learning single basics comes in. Learn to do one thing well before moving on to the next and you won’t have to worry about doing 100 things poorly. As the Taoist proverb says: “The journey is the destination.”

Five…they move on to next move before the current one is completely executed. This is a slightly different perspective of number four, but it merits repeating, because it is so important. Don’t rush. Berginners could coordinate breath with the moves if that works. Pace and rhythm are key. Make sure the move is extended completed before changing. The mind initiates then watches.

Six…they are in their heads when they think they are not. They think they are doing the move when they are not. This is a huge obstacle to overcoming our presumptions about movement. But the fact that you are practicing, trying, is admirable. The mind’s focus should be from where the move is initiated: dantian, zhong ding, wherever, just not the head. You should seek a feeling and not a thought. The mind should be quiet, observant. The qi should flow through.

These statements might be unclear for many readers, but for others they will ring true. The list doesn’t stop at six either. I could go on. Many of these subjects are commonly heard in tai chi practice, such as “no muscle.” Others are more esoteric, but seasoned practitioners will understand them. Ultimately, practices brings you around to them all, plus many more.

Join us for the next annual workshop with George Xu, July 12-13 in Cortez, Colorado. All of these things come to the forefront during our workshops.

Tai chi is like walking in a dark forest

Doing tai chi is like walking in a dark forest. The forest is your body and the space around it. You have to feel your way more than rely on sight. Your awareness is your eyes, your sense of touch, all of your senses unite into a single entity. A feeling rises in your solar plexus and all of the gates. Even in the middle of a sunny day, your forest is dark, mysterious; but your curiosity leads you on into the thick of it. Every time you come out on the other side it is a new forest in some way.

What you do in tai chi is only as good as how you move

What you do in tai chi is only as good as how you do the moves. So learning tai chi is all about how to do them…how to relearn how to move, really. Here are some thoughts on how to think about it. I added the video clip that a friend snuck while I was doing form to my podcast, because I haven’t learned how to do podcasts yet. Visit my youtube channel for more visual media.