Six Power Stretching Steps

ImageGuest Post by Shifu Susan A. Matthews, MS, ND

Power stretching is part of basic training in the Lan Shou System, an internal style of fighting characterized by its side-power technique. Any practitioner of Chinese Internal Martial Arts who studies consistently for long enough will eventually learn some form of power stretching exercises. Power stretching tones the body and prepares the bones, tendons and ligaments for whole-body connection, one-unit movement. It’s an excellent preparation for applying spiraling biomechanics in Chen Style chan shi chin practice. This is what I have learned from my teachers Lan Shou Masters George Xu (http://www.georgexu.com), Wu Ji and Ye Xiao Long, as well as Wang Ming Bo and Shou Guan Shun. These masters are from Shanghai. All have study several forms of internal arts for many years, and consider power stretching essential.

. . . .  Power stretching works well for creating a strong root, great balance, and formidable power. I describe in detail six steps to powerstretching on my website (http://www.susanamatthews.com). The key is activating the musculoskeletal structure to connect the upper torso to the waist/hips and the waist/hips to the ground. The steps are:

  1. Create Ground Force:Connect the Upper and Lower Body
  2. Stretch the Joint Tendon Ligaments
  3. Straighten the Posture
  4. Practice Energy
  5. Three-Dimensional Expansion/Contraction
Image of wu ji

Master Wu Ji

Key points to consider when power stretching.
References and sources of this information are recorded on many videos found on the website.

Power stretching is initially a physical practice, meaning you focus on what the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and skeletal structure are doing. Strength is felt in the physical body and testing creates a form of hard power through the bone-tendon-ligament, as opposed to power derived from energetic focus. When practicing on the physical level, forces are set up to oppose and stop rather than to yield and redirect as in taijiquan.

With practice over time power stretching can physically transform you. After reaching this stage, power stretching can still be practiced, except the focus should be on energetic lines of force flowing through the bone-tendon-ligament channels within the body.

Describing it in anatomical terms, power stretching focuses on transforming the body’s connective tissue including tendons, ligaments, fascia, joint capsules, cartilage and bone, as opposed to focusing on muscle-tendon lengthening. The translation, “powerstretching” is somewhat misleading, it is not as one usually thinks about stretching, nor is it like yoga; but it is a form of isometric stretching (muscles stay the same length) combined with using ground forces to actively stretch and manipulate the joints. The joints and attendant stretched connective tissue becomes more hydrated, elastic, and bouncy.

The primary goal is to connect the body into a one-unit snake that makes the body a whip that can transmit spiraling force; alive, vibrating like a well-tuned violin. Force and energy are transmitted fast and easily, just like plucking a string or banging a drum. So after combining power stretching with spiral training the body moves as one unit with suppleness, fluidity, and flexibility, a beautiful and healthy place to be.

Image of Ye Xiao Long

Ye Xiao Long

A body trained like this is great for all martial arts and every other sport or movement art. This training allows the body to transmit qi easily. Energetic meridians, blood vessels and lymphatic vessels run in fascial planes and when the fascia is aligned, stretched and made more elastic, qi energy and fluids flow more openly.

Image of George Xu

Master George Xu powerstretching in Lan Shou Cao Quan form

At the beginning,physical work modifies the tissues and changes the physical structure. At higher levels, the work can become energetic mind work, revealing lines of forces, with the physical body responding to the energetic command. At the simplest level, I describe the specific anatomical manipulations that create basic rooting and the fundamental postural changes, anatomy and biomechanics required in all power stretching. Selected video titles contain a variety of power stretch sets. George Xu presents it almost as a Qigong practice, while Ye Xiao Long demonstrates martial applications and amazing flexibility. Wu Ji has the most beautiful long, full-body stretches. Jin Shin Ba Gu from Shou Guan Shun and Wang Ming Bo also trains for maximum extension.

Note: This Guest post is excerpted from Shifu Matthews’ new educational powerstretching page where she has posted new streaming video links of the mentioned masters and other info useful for powerstretching.

Tai Chi and High Blood Pressure

When you have HBP it is more difficult to get blood to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the body’s cells, which of course is where life itself is regenerated. Without this process we don’t live. This is a simple statement, but it helps to be reminded, because many of us neglect the fact that the better our body’s function the better we feel. Okay, that’s a simple statement, too. Yet how well do we live by it? Often life is cut short by things that we can change before it’s too late. In taiji it’s quite simple. Just move the body so that the heart opens fully and let (help) the blood flow more completely to the cells. This is easy to do with minimal training.

Plaque builds up cholesterol, another relatively well-known piece of information; an accurate description of what goes on in the blood vessels as a result of eating certain foods over time and doing little to prevent it. It’s also true that, for most of us, our bodies are fully equipped at birth to heal themselves if they have the nutrients necessary to achieve and maintain optimum function. Okay…another simple statement.

What is within your power to make necessary changes? I know one thing to do in addition to eating better, and even though good nutrition eludes you. Stand in wuqi with good intention, take a deep breath, stretch your body, do qigong moves with attention and affection. Open the body so the blood will flow, so oxygen will feed the cells and stimulate the life force, sending signals to your whole being that you are not prepared to die the slow death that HBP delivers, and that you want to live as fully in each moment as possible.

Does the hole you’re in look too deep to get out of?

Does the hole you’re in look too deep to get out of? And so … you might as well stop trying to free yourself? Here’s a little piece of information that will surprise you. There is no hole and you only think you’re in one. Fact is, you’ve been tricked into thinking that you are. It’s not as bad as you think and you can do something about your predicament. Yes, your predicament is real enough. Maybe your health is compromised by being overweight, for example. But you can see a path to freedom. You’ve seen others overcome conditions and circumstances. There is plenty of proof of the probability of success. If we could strip away our pessimism what would the world look like? It would look bountiful, abundant, and some of the bounty is destined for you. If you allowed yourself to believe this, wouldn’t you feel better? If you just spoke these words aloud, what would it feel like? “The world is beautiful, bountiful and abundant, and some of it is destined for me.”

Reading Abundance—the Future is Better Than You Think—by Dr. Peter Diamandis (Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation) and Steven Kotler
Read Abundance

Who does tai chi?

White Crane Spreads Wings tai chi posture

White Crane Spreads Wings in a Tai Chi Class

The impressive resumes of the people who learn tai chi with me makes me grateful that they are part of the effort to bring such an effective exercise system into our community. Their presence in class makes teaching rewarding. Their efforts to learn something new when they are such accomplished experts in their own fields is especially heartening.

They are professionals and students of a wide range of ages, incomes, educational backgrounds and life experiences. I’m especially honored by each one of them. Right now you will find a GIS mapmaker, a physical therapist, an IT systems analyst for a city, a mountaineer and EMT, an animal hospital nurse, a very active retired husband and wife in their mid-seventies, a massage therapist who specializes in Rolfing and who has four kids, an accountant who also owns and manages a popular toy store. They are extremely busy individuals, but they find the 1-3 hours a week to fit tai chi classes into their schedules. Some of them are perfectly healthy, and others who are experiencing health challenges, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and heart disease, deserve credit for taking bold steps to rebuild their health and hopefully prevent further complications.

In a way it takes a lot of faith to view tai chi as a preventative self-help/healthcare activity, but nowadays plenty of science-based evidence makes that a pretty sure bet. I’ve seen it in my life and in the lives of many others. As they say, “Seeing is believing.” Plus, we in class feel the positive results everytime we practice. We feel better after a practice session. The evening class is special. Exhaustion of the day’s work is gone and we are simultaneously relaxed and re-energized with physical, mental, and emotional renewal.

The fact that these individuals are part of the tai chi community reflects something special about both them and tai chi. They’re not afraid to place themselves in the sometimes awkward position of learning something new, tai chi in this case, because they know and enjoy how it stimulates the brain and the body in positive and constructive ways.

If you do anything related to tai chi, be sure to make attending class a priority. I provide instructional videos for learners, which are very useful for in-home practice in conjunction with group practice; but, regular practice over time with fellow practitioners helps immensely, particularly if you ever need mending from an injury or illness, or simply with aging itself.

Tai chi is preventative and participatory by nature, so take a hint from these wonderful professionals who have made it part of their busy lives as they engage in an activity they can do now to address many issues they may have in the future. Just think. They may very well not have issues just because they are doing tai chi now.

How to think about eight pieces of brocade

Eight Pieces of Brocade drawing

Image of Separate Heaven and Earth posture from a Qing Dynasty text

Eight pieces of brocade (ba duan jin) is an ancient Qigong that incorporates powerstretching, spiraling, open/close, up/down, left/right and energetic realignment. It seems to be a physical exercise at first, but it is more. It is a medical qigong, since each move positively affects an organ, such as liver, heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys, and central nervous system. It is an energy qigong because as you learn to do the postures through practice you relax the muscles and allow energy to travel in previously unused channels. It is a martial qigong because it incorporates many, if not most, of the essential  configurations of tai chi internal movements.

Eight pieces of brocade is ultimately a path of becoming aware of qi (energy) and learning to move it, and directing it at will. This healing aspect of this qigong is its true power.

You have to do tai chi to know what it is

Learn tai chi and reexperience the feeling of just being.

Learn tai chi and reexperience the feeling of just being.

I would say that most people who have heard of tai chi have no accurate idea of what it is, so they’re reticent to try it without knowing more. But no one knows what tai chi is without doing it. You cannot know it second hand. You must experience it first hand. If you’re not already doing tai chi and you’re curious, get the real story yourself … if only to make sure you’re not turning down something you may find rewarding.

I think a lot of people don’t do tai chi because they feel it would be a full-time job to learn. They’re right; it is a full-time job, at least for those who choose to make it one. But it doesn’t have to be so involved for everyone. You can do tai chi at whatever regularity that feels good. Whether you do more or less, the effects are cumulative. The more you do, the better off you are; especially if you focus fully on learning during the time you devote to practice.

What is not an option to not to do tai chi at all.

What everyone should seriously consider is to put in enough practice time when you first begin to get enough basics so you will have something to work with at home or in the park, or wherever you are inspired to practice. This spring I am offering a multi-week, seasonal session in which learners get a block of exercises that can be learned, remembered and practiced on their own or in a group.

While many people have made a lifelong pursuit of tai chi, they are still employing the same universal, fundamental concepts and principles in their movements as every other learner (check Dragon Journal archives for several posts on fundamental concepts and practices). While regular, consistent practice naturally produces the best benefits, once you have a working understanding of the fundamentals, and as long as you apply them, it’s possible to benefit. Of course, being motivated to get up and practice is another challenge that many fail to overcome. You still have to move beyond your usual comfort zone, at least in the beginning.

Expose yourself to taiji early in life

200069253-001I began doing yoga at the age of 36, Shotokan karate at 44, and tai chi at 46. I wish I had been exposed to tai chi sooner in life. I wish the same for everyone else. I was always active in my work, physical labor, for most of my life, but during my mid-thirties I had become disillusioned with seasonal work and hourly wage jobs. I was beat up physically with injuries from accidents and the usual misuse/abuse of my body common to this society. Early on, the career I thought I was working towards failed, so I drifted around for years looking for I don’t know what.

One day, I enlisted in college courses, got a four-year degree, got an office job, got a master’s degree, kept working in the office. My health waned and waned some more. Yoga helped to some degree, but I wasn’t practicing it enough. But I was so busy anyway. Sound familiar? I hear that from people about tai chi often. We have to make choices from among competing interests for our time. So healthy activities that slow the aging process lose out.

Then one day a physical therapist told me she couldn’t help me anymore with a pulled “groin muscle” that I had injured in karate. “Do tai chi,” she said curtly. Strangely, a co-worker was actually practicing tai chi with the only teacher in town. So I went with him to class one evening. Long story short. I’m still practicing tai chi 15 years later. I’ve been to Shanghai China to train three times. I’ve been to training camps many times and have hosted many training camps in my town. I go to the doctor once a year for the annual check up instead of many times a year for one debilitating problem after another. I’m healthy for my age of 61. But there is a long way to go, meaning the rest of my life. Some people are lucky that way.

But nowadays we’re entering a new phase in the history of tai chi. Young people, millennials, are discovering it’s something that could work for them to prevent many of the health problems us old guys are experiencing as a result of injuries, habits, and aging processes that took root when we were in our twenties and thirties. Three millennials have contacted me during the past year or so to learn tai chi and that gives me hope for the future of tai chi and for the health of the younger generation. Also, parents of kids under 12 have contacted me to start their kids on tai chi. This is very unusual. Furthermore, more and more discussion can be found on the subject of young people learning tai chi and integrating it into their lifestyles. This is very heartening to see.

Does Man of Tai Chi cover up the real message with the usual plot elements of a martial arts film?

Man_of_Tai_ChiI recently viewed the new film, Man of Tai Chi directed by Keanu Reeves, who also stars along with Tiger Chen. Critics rated it poorly and it went to Netflix very soon after release. Not much play in theatres in the US anyway. I don’t know about Hong Kong or China. I imagine it is a popular movie there. The fight scenes are so uniquely choreographed that any martial art enthusiast should enjoy the film just for techniques. Yes, they use the blue screen and invisible ropes and pullies, but even that is done pretty well.

The predictable usual plot, of course, is not what drama-oriented viewers will rave about. The protagonist starts out honorable, goes against his honorable teacher’s warnings, so the bad guys entice him into bad ways, but for a good cause. He meets the enemy and it looks like he’s going to lose, but he returns to the honorable way at the last minute, beats the bad guys, and gets the girl in the end. Whew.

But that’s not what the film is about. The film is about the fight scenes. It’s also about the notion of the deep significance of the taiji principle of humbleness. What? You’re kidding! Well, to a degree anyway, which keeps the faith to taiji cosmological principle. Not in the sense of Christian piety, but in true release of the self in order to flow with the source of all things in your movement through space and time. Of course the film does not go into such esoteric detail but it’s still included in the film, The film of course is marketed to the masses and in these times of trite mass appeal, even a little superficial attention to the lasting principles of mind awareness and internal equilibrium have some value. I recommend readers watch it and reply with your thoughts. I would love to hear them.

Two more memory aids to learn a tai chi form

24 form chartResearch has shown that your brain registers the same impulses whether you mentally go through actions in your mind or actually do them with your body. So it goes without saying that you can learn the tai chi form you’re working on by going through it in your mind.

This technique is a “mnemonic” tool for improving memory.  Mnemonic is a Greek word for a memory tool, or techniques for remembering information difficult to recall.
The process is simple. See it in your mind’s eye, feel it in your body as you move step by step through the sequence.

The classic Taijiquan Lun says the the whole body should move if any part moves. This is the “whole body moves as a single unit” that is so often referred to. If you practice this completely you would make sure you integrate your mind, or the brain’s mental processes, into the activity of moving as a single unit. So, it makes sense to practice using the mind to learn and recall tai chi form or any other activities associated with tai chi.

Using the visualization mnemonic to learn is something makes tai chi an excellent practice for helping to improve other areas of life.

You can find many websites providing tips and other information on improving your memory skills.

Another helpful tool is to play music while you do the form. Many tai chi practitioners do play slow music while they do form, such as Chinese guzheng instrumental music or non-percussion flute music.

Many practitioners spend a lot of time and effort remembering the names of moves and postures, but I have not done that. Other than to remember main postures, such as single whip or wuqi and so on, at least at first, early practitioners get caught up in remembering the names of moves rather than the moves themselves. That is a major distraction. I recommend learning the moves first, then worry about the names later when you are very comfortable with recall.

One more tip: if the thought arises then that moment is the time to practice tai chi. I often ask learners what they have practiced since the last time we practiced together. And often they say sheepishly, “Well, not much.” I get nothing at all regularly. Then I ask, “Did you think of tai chi at all during the week?” and often the answer is yes. Then I say, “That is the time you should practice, because it is the spirit talking and reaching out and giving you a chance. Don’t pass it up next time you hear it speaking.”

Where are the best places to do tai chi?

photo

San Lorenzo Canyon in New Mexico. A Best Place to do Tai Chi.

Well, the answer to where is the best place to do tai chi is anywhere you can and anytime you want; however, it’s fun to talk about some of the more memorable places with like-minded practitioners. So, my new blog focus is: The Best Places in the World to do Tai Chi. And to get started, I’m going to photograph or videotape myself or others doing tai chi in various landscapes and world class locations. I encourage readers to send me your own photos and videos of peole doing tai chi from around the world. It’ll be fun and educational, I’m sure. Check out my latest youtube post at mindseyetouch. You’ll find two clips of me doing tai chi and qigong on the Rio Grande River in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Definitely a worthwhile journey to do tai chi.