Tai Chi. The right exercise for the right reasons.
My excitement for practicing tai chi (taijiquan) often isn’t enough to inspire others to take classes or practice it long enough to get the most from it. There are many reasons why, but here are 10 common assumptions and misconceptions about tai chi and a few remarks about each.
- You don’t have time.
My answer: This is so common it’s a cliché. I don’t have time to mow the lawn, but I do it anyway, because it has to be done. No different with tai chi, especially once you accept what this whole-body exercise offers.
- You really don’t know what tai chi is so you are reticent to try it, or the “I don’t get it!” syndrome.
My answer: You can’t really know what anything is without experiencing it first hand. Get the real story yourself if only to make sure you’re not turning down something you really want. When you do “get” it you’ll be elated. I always say get familiar with it first, then comfortable, then refine from there. Every time you begin form, for example, is a new beginning and there is something refreshing about that.
- You may injury yourself doing tai chi.
My answer: Don’t strain or try so hard that you do hurt yourself. You can hurt yourself stepping up stairs if you’re in bad enough shape. Key tai chi concept: know your limits. You are responsible for yourself. My karate instructor warned me I would hurt myself if I started tai chi. I said this after he injured me in a faux attack during our practice. It took years of tai chi to heal from the injury.
- Lack of motivation.
My answer: Do anything, even briefly. Like brushing your teeth and eating. You don’t have to feel as though you have to attain great heights. It’s good to be excited and happy about discoveries and new sensations of well-being that you get in practicing tai chi, but don’t set yourself up for a motivational backslide. New discoveries and elation should be taken as just the push you need to continue on, as an incentive to practice . . . . at home or anywhere.
- Mind gets confused trying to focus attention on details.
My answer: This is one of the deepest areas of challenge and resistance. Simply put, tai chi is a mental exercise as much or more than a physical one. It gives you a chance to utilize your powers of observation, to focus your attention in fresh ways that allow you to free your mind from habitual thoughts and brain chatter. Gaining control over your wayward mind is a major reason to do tai chi in the first place. Allow the body’s senses to register what they are experiencing without the mind’s influence, without interpreting automatically. Suspend judgment. Suspend disbelief. Let yourself feel.
- You don’t know if you’re doing it correctly, so you don’t try.
My answer: Go to class and work on what feels good and what is comfortable. Don’t worry about “correct.” Develop a home practice. Tai chi is not a performance sport, it’s a process of discovery about your self.
- Muscle pain after over-straining in practice.
My answer: This is rare, so, simply, don’t strain or stress. Don’t put off practice, though. Help muscles heal while letting them relax and actually strengthen. Once, I was so sore in the inner thigh muscles that I used it as an excuse to avoid horse stances. Then I got out of shape again. What many don’t know is tai chi is actually a practice of “no muscle” in which you focus on movement of bones, ligaments, tendons and joints (at least early on), and ultimately achieving pure energy flowing in order to move.
- I’ll do tai chi when I retire.
My answer: Yeah, sure you will… If you don’t do it now, you may never. I can have you doing the simplest things that take only a few minutes a day and you’ll be practicing core concepts. It doesn’t take loads of time, only a little effort and commitment: not to “tai chi” but to yourself. We’re all capable of going an extra mile when necessary and we’re glad when we do.
- It’s a religion or a cult.
My answer: No it’s not. It’s an exercise that happens to have its origins in China. If anything, it’s a fighting style that doubles as a fitness routine that truly benefits the whole being: body, mind, energy. Besides, what do you have to fear if you are a strong devotee to your chosen belief system anyway?
- It costs too much.
My answer: So do doctors and hospitals, but you do what they tell you anyway. It can cost if you train as avidly as many practitioners do, but we save money on doctor bills which we avoid because we do tai chi. Thankfully, tai chi is often free and very affordable in many towns. Plus, you benefit greatly from building a preventative healthcare program into your life. Can’t beat that, when you consider you could avoid medical bills in the long run. I really believe this and many people do.
- The teacher is not advanced enough.
My answer: Learning incorrectly often leads to fewer benefits due to lack of teacher training and knowledge. You might say, “It’s the teacher, not the information” that hinders you. One reason why is tai chi is still relatively new in the USA and other countries. However, the skill and knowledge levels are growing steadily. Plus, you can still learn something as long as it’s really tai chi (or qigong for that matter). Tip: Seek a teacher who regularly trains with acknowledged masters. I happen to have trained mostly with Chinese teachers, such as Master Xu Guo Ming (George), and many others in China; but my first teacher, Susan A. Matthews, with whom I still train, is a master in her own right and known for highly specialized skills as a teacher and caregiver. If you can’t find an instructor with proper training then maybe you should train to become one yourself.
- It takes too long to learn.
My answer: It takes years of regular, consistent practice to become a highly evolved tai chi practitioner; about as long as it takes us to learn to walk, to talk, to read and to write. Nothing wrong with that if you consider the benefits. Anyway, as I said before, I can teach you something in three minutes that you can do for three minutes everyday and get some really cool benefits. Like more oxygen into the lungs, increased blood circulation and metabolism, improved posture and balance, even a healthier appetite (for more nutritious food). The list goes on…Of course, you probably won’t want to stop there. I know I didn’t and that was about 17 years ago.
This is an older article but the content is still current. “Adding a little tai chi to your life could help lower your risk for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Read the whole article at: http://www.prevention.com/health/brain-health/health-benefits-tai-chi
The article provides links to DVDs and websites, but I recommend going straight to the highest (and deepest) level of teaching from the start. Take a look at http://susanamatthews.com for streaming videos and opportunities to learn that incorporate taiji qigong and movement theory. Or http://mastersfromchina.com
One of the things you’re going to hear and hopefully see for yourself by practicing taiji and qigong is that consistent efforts bridge the body’s physical structure with our energetic essence. I found a very interesting and well-written article about that from the perspective of quantum physics. Science confirms much of what the old Chinese practitioners discovered and acknowledged millennia ago (yogis and Tibetans, too, of course).
Nothing is solid, everything is energy
I recently shared a view of how the body has an awareness separate from the brain (The body’s way of knowing) and just now discovered this video that helps to confirm my attempt at voicing the insight. I just barely scraped the surface with that post. So much is explored and understood by so many across the world trying to articulate what appears to be emerging in collective consciousness. Enjoy the video.
Entering practice is like going into an edifice … one of learning. This edifice is active, ever changing, built out of the stuff of life itself. Fresh with every passing moment. To receive understanding, the learner must shift with the constant and endless fluctuations of the edifice’s structure. In this way, you and your practice are like the edifice…energetic, ever-shifting, agile, changeable, free, alive, infinite.
Note to self. Do tai chi and qigong.
Breaking old, or so-called “bad,” habits is not easy. Though we commonly think of habits as bad, we develop them in the first place because they comfort us. Habits, routines and repetitive behaviors actually have useful purposes. And while they often do turn on us (like smoking, for example), acknowledging the positive aspects of habits might actually help in leaving old habits behind. Unloading the negative attachment is the key. So how do you do it?
More and more people are finding that tai chi and qigong movement offer beneficial ways to help shift from one habit to one that we welcome. Practice evolves positive change to grow something new and fresh, which is invigorating and life-affirming. Repetitive, rhythmic movement powerfully influences our ability to loosen the hold of undesirable habits and open us up to the positive power of routine. It works for me and I know it can work for others.
(While writing this post, I searched for similar writings and discovered this one in the Huffington Post:
“Want to have a perfect posture? Rearrange your habits.”)
I welcome comments on how tai chi and qigong have helped others curb unwanted habits.
The effects of taiji practice are cumulative. You might say it’s like riding a bike. The body never forgets. But taiji is much more. The more you practice, the better it gets. Your whole being carries the effects onward even if you don’t practice for a long time. It’s like taking a pill that works on you while you just keep doing whatever you do. Of course, you do have to practice enough initially in order to store enough memory for the cumulative effects to take. But by the time you do, you won’t want to stop practicing. Nice trick, eh?
I like this brief article about how the author discovered tai chi by weeding out tech-based tools to help reduce weight and arriving at tai chi, the “unplugged” exercise. It is often the case that tai chi is the last ditch effort for people in need. I certainly believe it can help you lose weight along with improving a whole lot of other things. With mindful application, it can do wonders.
Qi 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)
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