Tai Chi, qi circles and digestion

taiji tuQi Circles and modified kagles that I learned years ago from Susan Matthews and Master Wang Hao Da didn’t do much for me at first. Susan stressed them so vehemently that I had to make myself do them even though I didn’t see the value at first. Gradually over time my body showed some positive response to them. Once I actually practiced them it didn’t take so long to see the value. Now I teach them to others.

Funny thing about qi circles, most people don’t see their value when first introduce to them. These days I vary how I teach them. I often don’t even talk about them specifically as a set of practices. I incorporate them in other movement practices, such as Chen Style form. The importance of shapes and directions in tai chi and qigong are profound, and a matter of fact with seasoned practitioners. It’s different with beginners, who in the absence of clarity, doubt. Understandable … many of us start with doubt, because it was doubt that developed before we tried one more thing in attempts to solve whatever concern we had.

Qi circles are useful for a number of things. For example, they can help to develop a stronger, more responsive digestive system. They can enliven the metabolism and reduce, even eliminate, constipation. Nutrition and digestion are interests for me, because stress seems to hit me right in the gut as I’m sure it does for many people.

I also try to eat stuff that is easy to digest if I can ever figure out what that all is for my particular body. I suspect it’s different for everyone, though there are commonalities. I believe that more easily digested food could be more nutritious because nutrients are more bioavailable  and metabolize more effectively. Food we had no trouble processing when our bodies were young and operating optimally may not be the best for older folks.

(https://www.youtube.com/embed/fnvtp1LfCUA“>watch a youtube clip of Susan demonstrating qi circles)

A tip for overcoming non-movement in tai chi

Tai Chi movement is interesting and tai chi non-movement may be even more so, especially if you are trying to detect the difference between the two. One thing to look for is if a part of the body is not moving, then the part attached to it probably isn’t moving.

For example, sometimes a part, such as a shoulder, runs up against stuck ribs which don’t support the shoulder movement. The shoulder is moving in isolation from the rest of the body, throwing off one the first things a learner should understand: whole body moves as a single unit. You can think of this, and practice it, in terms of bio-mechanics or energy. Bones, joints, ligaments and tendons, or qi (yi-qi-li).

More often than not we don’t recognize this is happening, even though we have a frustrating sense of something not being right. Aggravating it is. It’s not that it’s not right, it’s just not moving.

Here is a little solution: track this non-movement to its origins. Become aware of what moves or not. Learn how to move any one of these parts. Repeating single basic moves rhythmically is great to loosen and move stuck spots. You usually have to change your idea of how to move. You have to see it in your mind’s eye before you are able to move what you haven’t moved probably in years. Look at the joints, ligaments, and tendons, not the muscles. Move them. Feel the energy flow through the body.

Check out this sample of George Xu doing Chen form here, followed by a nice explanation


Central Equilibrium in tai chi is place and concept

The Chinese word for central equilibrium is zhong ding. It is a place and a concept. It is the center point of alignment. It is 3D, as Master George Xu says, meaning it can have volume, or more precisely, six directions: up/down, front/back, left/right simultaneously.

A basic concept of internal movement art is to move from a single point. The attention is placed and held on that point and the movement is initiated and the rest of the body is activated. Placing and holding the attention is a listening with your whole body, not just the ears. It’s like seeing with the ears and listening with the eyes.

To practice zhong ding, move just the spine. One vertebra at a time, like climbing a ladder. The attention climbs up and steps down each one at a time. A center line comes into your view upon which energy moves. It’s like a tube aligned along the spine from tailbone to top of head. This is the place of zhong ding. This line can go deep into the earth and high into the sky.

Progress to focusing attention on the central equilibrium of the legs. Ultimately you can shift your attention to anything, inside or outside the body, and give it a central equilibrium and move from there. This is the concept of zhong ding practice.

Just about any simple move will do. Perform slowly, softly, and intend on holding your gaze on the locus; in a beginner’s case, the spine area.

Qigong is like massage

CHI CharacterQigong is like Massage on the inside of the body. The effect of movement is from the inside out. The organs, ligaments, tendons, all the connective tissue. The fascia. The lymph nodes and channels, the meridians, even the bone marrow, all benefit from movement on the inside. When you are doing Qigong and Taiji keep this in mind.

The body’s way of knowing

Re-experience being with tai ji

People don’t know what tai chi really is, or could be, or how much more they could know about it and the potential it holds. Narrowing it down to a phrased description I would say tai chi is a whole-being movement art. It is body-mind movement. Even more, it is mind-energy-body movement meditation. It is being.

The body possesses a sentient awareness unique from the brain, which in turn has its own way of interpreting data provided by the senses. A quiet mind allows this to happen. The body is close to the life force. Thought is not essential, yet knowing is possible. The body can be kept alive even if the brain is dead. The body knows when it is sick and when it is well. It doesn’t need the brain to tell it. It has its own way of knowing. This way of knowing, the tai chi practitioner seeks in practice: to know with the body, to think with the heart, to feel your way, rather than have a discussion in the brain about what the body is doing.


Shoes for Tai Chi

Show me your shoes.

Show me your shoes.

What to wear when you do tai chi is a common question for (and from) beginners. Loose, comfortable clothing is typical. Shoes are perhaps more important for tai chi and martial art attire. Flat, low volume shoes are the best.

I prefer something I can wear in practice and on the street, but it’s not easy to find a good compromise. A good and light indoor practice shoe will fall apart pretty quickly out of doors. I found a pretty good middle ground with the Bushido (http://www.shopbushido.com/bushido-shoe/) that I have gotten at Valley Martial Arts in Glendale, California. The soles in the front are flat, smooth rubber and the rear has a herringbone type of tread. “Shaolin” is stamped on the sole in the case of my pair. The drawback for these is that they have a mesh construction over the top, so dust and sand can get inside. I actually don’t have much trouble with that and I still like them for their durability and lightness.

Of course, the ol’ standby from Shanghai, Feiyue (“flying forward”), is probably one of those shoes that every martial artist owns at some point. Bushido makes a Feiyue type shoe with their name on it that sells for $20. I find them to be hot in summer and cold in winter, but I still have a pair and where them around the house all the time to practice. Easy to get at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Claw-Feiyue-Martial-Shoes/dp/B00MH2QMWO).

I’ve had Tiger Claw shoes, too, which lasted a long time (tigerclaw.com). They sport a cool Chinese tiger character on the top. The have only one model and two colors: black and white)

The Onitsuka Tiger by Asics shoe is very close to the same thing as the Bushido. There are many models to choose from, including suede and leather, which presumably would last longer on the street. Check it out and let me know what you think.

http://www.zappos.com/onitsuka-tiger-by-asics-ultimate-81-exclusive-black-stone-grey. These Asics cost about $20 more than the Bushidos ($55) for what I think is about the same quality.

Adidas makes a martial art shoe that I wore when I first began studying tai chi. I like them because they lasted so long and they have a slightly higher top than other martial arts shoes. However, they are not lace up. The have an elastic, slip-on feature that’s cool, but I prefer lace up because I can tie them as tight or loose as I like. Still, the Adidas shoe is pretty good. Unfortunately, they are sold out a the Martial Arts Mart where they were recently on sale (http://www.martialartsmart.com/a90-sk.html).

Skechers (http://www.skechers.com) makes some shoes I’ve seen others wearing and I think they look really good, but I’ve never tried them out and I think they are overpriced.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a lot of options for martial arts shoes out there. Choosing can be a bore, so my rule of thumb is go with inexpensive as possible and see what works best for you.

Tai Chi Central Equilibrium Training Notes

Get connected. Practice central equilibrium.

Get connected. Practice central equilibrium.

… third leg and zhong ding practice.

Zhong ding, or central equilibrium, is a pivotal aspect of tai chi practice. A few years ago, George Xu incorporated the concept of “third leg” to describe zhong ding in motion. The concept of third leg helps to refine the movement by focusing on a point from which to move and how to move. Biomechanically, the motion pivots at a leverage point inside the hip assembly at the base of the spine. The femur and sacrum are connected in motion if not physically. This is from where you pivot and turn. Everywhere else is “loose, open” as Master Xu says.

Weighted in gravity is another concept to help incorporate the third leg in movement. You let the body’s gravity rest on the leverage point while moving. You feel your body’s weight sit there like a rock would on the ground.

Susan A. Matthews’ “Backwards Bicycle” motion (learn more) that she describes is another good application of zhong ding biomechanics. While it may sound simple, incorporating it in practice is a little awkward at first try, especially for unpracticed individuals.

Mind intention is necessary to refine the zhong ding movement, utilizing third leg and backwards bicycle. The mind directs the flow of energy in circle motions, figure eights, or spirals. The body wants to move in these configurations and the mind’s job is to allow it, intending the result, then enjoy the ride while directing it in those shapes and patterns.

No hard corners. Continual focus on movement or the sensation of motion, or flow. Spiraling motion results. Matthews described it once as two cones whose tips are touching and the circling is moving in a figure eight around the outer edge of the cone. You have two points: one fulcrum and the outer circling or waving action. They are always connected, no letting up, no pushing down; just weighted in gravity and in motion. This works well, but when you add the third leg to it, you have an added power-generating activity. More stable and refined. While learning and practicing, I find it fun to focus on incorporating these techniques into the form or basics.

The “I know you, you don’t know me” saying in martial arts


Xu Guo Ming (George)

George Xu says, “I know you, you don’t know me,” to describe a key characteristic of his approach to martial awareness. Whether you’re practicing tai chi or qigong, or taking a walk in a park, his refrain applies to how you listen to yourself and to others, even to things. I don’t grasp this fully in practice, but I can tackle some of what he means. Obviously, for one thing, if you don’t know yourself, you are vulnerable if someone else knows your weaknesses. This is true in martial arts and in life.

Master Xu is referring to how you are configured energetically and what is the status of your “qi.”

What is the shape of your energy? Where are you empty, full, concave, convex? In taijiquan, with enough exposure, you hear about peng, liu, qi, an and the other “13 Postures” which refer to these concepts. However, Master Xu is not so formal and traditional, because it can make learners complacent and stiff. So, where are you stuck and stagnant? Where are you too light when you should be weighted and vice versa? What is meant by weighted in gravity? Are you double weighted? Are you clear on the difference between being connected and being stiff, or agile and locked? Are all the parts of your body contributing to the whole? Where are you stiff and sluggish when you should be quick and agile? On and on it goes…

How do you know these things? By listening to the energy, Master Xu would say. Chinese martial artists refer to “ting jing,” listening energy. It is more of feeling performed with the whole being, not just the ears. Perhaps “sensing” is more accurate.

Actually, I like to think that it’s really learning to learn, which is the foundation of taiji training and, I suspect, for training in any mind-energy-body work. You’re taking in information and interpreting it in ways that are tangible, applicable within the context. You’re making sense out of what you feel as a result of engaging all of your senses and maybe one or two you’re not sure you possess, or even exist. Ting jing is a special skill that can be developed through the practice of taijiquan.

For 16 years, I’ve had the fortune to train with Master Xu who has allowed me to videotape many of his lessons, which I’ve compiled in a series of videos for DVD and online streaming. What stands out for me about them as a group is the many ways Master Xu constantly offers learners to imagine the essence of what he is referring to, through, for the most part, metaphors and analogies. If you can relate the concept to something that you are familiar with then a bridge can be built from learning to knowing.

Often his descriptive metaphors have a dramatic quality to them, like “I know you, you don’t know me.”  He often refers to predatory animals, such as a tiger, or even a house cat, who “moves inside his skin as he stalks,” and who covers you with its energy body, which you feel powerfully, before the physical body strikes you down.

Master Xu’s many images from the natural world effectively trigger my imagination and makes learning a little more fun. Not easier, of course, because his terms are often mysterious and esoteric. His martial results are very real and effective, however, so there must a whole lot more to his specialized language than meets the ear at first. So I keep listening.


Knowing yourself in tai chi: Advice from a poet

Yes, know yourself, but what is knowing? I like the way e.e. cummings describes it as a feeling that is as unique as the person feeling. What he says in A Poet’s Advice applies well to the art of taijiquan. As George Xu says, “martial art, not martial work!” Cummings writes:

“A lot of people think or believe or know they feel – but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling – not knowing or believing or thinking.”

“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”

I also like this…

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world – unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.”

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“Knowing yourself” in tai chi


What you don’t know about yourself is what you seek in practicing tai chi. That’s why I say not to be yourself when you practice. We choose to learn tai chi to change that part of ourselves that resists change and holds us back from accessing our fullest potential as human beings. Lofty ideal? Maybe. Many practitioners who choose to delve into tai chi are acting on intuition, perhaps an outright conviction, to wake up the stagnant parts of ourselves.

Old martial arts saying: “Know yourself to know your enemy.” I like this with a twist; i.e., we are our own enemies because we don’t know ourselves. We fight against ourselves. I’ve seen this during practice in myself and others. When we realize this is happening, we have reached a new level of awareness. We may never realize it without training. It is an unsavory feeling. We don’t like it. We want to change it.

Often, we don’t know how.

I say just keep doing the moves, practice. They will show you. Tai chi is like opening a door, except it is a door that is very difficult to open due to its massive size and the strange materials out of which it is made. It will open only very slowly and only with great, conscious effort, but once it begins to open it will not close again.