Relieve pain with subtle shifts in tai chi movement

If you experience recurring pain while practicing, a slight shift in your tai chi practice method may be all you need to affect a big change. For example, a closer alignment to the center may be all you need to relieve, or dissolve, pain.

Many have knee pain, which is often a sign of incorrect posture or incorrect usage. Chronic or acute, it doesn’t matter. Either we seem unable to track the hurt back to its origin (chronic), or it is (relatively) recent injury (acute).

Sometimes it is caused by practice itself. We don’t realize we are kinking the knee too far out (bow-legged), or too far in (knock-kneed). The arches may be too flat or too stretched up, as well; which suggests uneven foot pressure toward one side or another. These positions cause alignment to go out and often result in pain during and after practice.

Sometimes we just work too hard. In aerobic or resistance training, people often push themselves. While this has its value, doing tai chi that way may aggravate chronic issues that you want to alleviate.

Master Ching Manching
standing in Wuji

The issue might be merely postural in origin, whether it be in muscle, tendon, ligament, or joint. If your structure is off just a little, you could over work and over strain that area.

Working to improve skills at detecting subtle postural changes while in motion—something more difficult to do in fast movements—could really help to discover new training possibilities. Sometimes you need to go easy on yourself to give yourself a chance to detect subtle changes. You may have to move more slowly and pay closer attention to finer degrees of movement.

Moving while being mindful of central equilibrium, or zhong ding, can highlight where your structure is out of balance. The solution could simply be a mere shifting one way or another. While practicing, you can ask yourself where you tend to pivot from—perhaps, feet, knee, thigh, hip—and see what subtle changes you can affect.

Picture a fulcrum at the core of your balance and movement. Dr. Susan Matthews has referred to this as a teeter-totter, or see-saw, idea; whereby a part of the body lies at the center point of a motion. You essentially move from or through that point, and return to it. Then to get a sense of alignment, or equilibrium, picture a line of such points moving in relation to each other.

This kind of attention to alignment may be just what you need to help find and fix those little spots that catch and hurt.

You can find lots of info on alignment in general on the Web from other disciplines and authors. I would just add the idea that many practitioners are unaware of how a greater depth of awareness and a simple, subtle shift in alignment can lead to relief from common hindrances in training like pain.

For other aspects of this subject, see the following posts.

—“Zhong Ding
—“Standing in Wu Ji
—“Zhong Ding: A Fundamental Part of Tai Chi Practice

Also, view a video demonstration by Wu Tai Ji Grandmaster Wang Hao Da. His zhong ding training is superb.

For more in-depth training, you might be interested in visiting Susan Matthews’ Spiral Anatomy™ Training Course (Module #2).

Hold that (tai chi) thought

Tai chi teachers hold a place for other learners who are unable to put in the time to maintain a regular practice. They hold the thought for when they return to practice and pick up where they left off.

Hold Up Sky

Speaking of holding the thought, to build awareness in the practice of tai chi, look for something to work on or improve every time you do form. Remember to be aware of this each time you stand in wuji. Example: watch for a particular tension in body that you carry with you through the form. It may be a discomfort or even pain – in the knee, for example. Or maybe it’s a tension in the nape of the neck from leaning too far forward.

The next time you do form pay more attention to that issue and try to alleviate it. You could straighten the angle of the leg or raise the shen by elongating the spine and opening the solar plexus a little more than usual.

This is a zhong ding concept. Internal practice requires focus on the center line (zhong ding). Getting essential and beneficial alignment is key to free movement in the structure of the body. Proprioception will improve gradually, then exponentially.

Movement begins with mental focus. Place attention upon the space of interest and connect the dots.

Knees bend softly, never locked, flexible, changeable, not torqued, not tensed, not stressed or weighted upon. You must watch for these things, these states of being in motion and in stillness.

Sounds complex? Maybe it is, but with immersion it becomes less so. I am always amazed at how much awareness I can muster and how many activities of which I can stay cognizant while in motion.

At first, it is only one thing at a time. Beginners will focus on that. Then it is an ease of shifting focus from one thing, or even two things, at a time and maintain that focus. Maybe intermediate practitioners can do this fairly well.

Then, in advanced stages your view broadens and a whole symphonic movement evolves in unison, almost as if you are a spectator and conductor simultaneously.

Unique cloud hands demo

A view of cloud hands from teacher Master George Xu, with whom I have studied extensively. Not your common, slow, meditative motion. You can find more brief youtube clips of Master Xu highlighting many common basic maneuvers for practice at Golden Gate Lion Tiger here. Most are drawn from tai chi, xing yi, bagua, and/or lan shou styles.

Curated Article: Tai Chi for Seniors by William C. C. Chen

This is a good read written by William C. C Chen, who is 86 years old now. Entitled “Tai Chi Exercise for Seniors,” I thought I would pass it on to readers of this blog. http://www.williamccchen.com/Seniors.htm

Thursday, July 12, 2018

“The ancient Chinese martial art of Tai Chi Chuan is the perfect callisthenic for today’s seniors. The relaxed and unhurried movements help alleviate nervous and muscular tension. Tai Chi Chuan lubricates joints and promotes automatic body alignment for better control of balance, helping to prevent the instability that can lead to falls.”

How tai chi can improve balance in aging persons

Our ability to walk and stand and move in all the ways that we do relies heavily on our sense of balance. For some time now research has been finding that tai chi can improve postural stability, especially as we age. Harvard University is particularly focused on such research, much of which is discussed in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi (Wayne P, 2013).

For something that we take for granted for so much of our lives, the statistics can be a wake-up call.

  • Muscle strength decreases 20 to 40% between the ages of 20 and 70.
  • Ankle flexibility, which is critical for postural control, declines by 50% in women and 35% in men between the ages of 55 and 85.
  • Spinal flexibility is often the first thing to go, especially spinal extension (the ability to stand up straight). We have 50% less spinal extension after age 70 then we had in our 20s.

We don’t have to be “old” to see this progression. It actually starts in relatively early years of life.

As research findings show, it’s a no-brainer that tai chi improves balance. Tai chi practice does so by improving the conditions of aging reported above: improvements in muscle strength, particularly through changes in muscle use and control, joint flexibility in terms of range of motion and speed, spinal flexibility and extension, as well as alignment. Greater overall postural control is possible.

Since the day we stand and begin to walk, we rely on balance as we journey through life. I could tell in my own practice as I have aged that I started out in a particular state of balance and through practice progressed to where I am now. I am my own personal research project. I have seen the progression and can mark its passage in changes in my body and in the way I feel. I think every tai chi practitioner can say something similar if they practice long enough.

Lan Shou Quan powerstretching
Master Ye Xiao Long powerstretching in late 1990s in San Francisco at George Xu Summer Camp Training

Research also suggests that taking a 12-week course of two 90-minute tai chi classes per week can produce noticeable changes in your balance. I would say a number of other changes would be observable, as well. A sense of overall well-being, for example, might result; or a more relaxed feeling when in motion.

I would add that if you practice regularly for two years you would see rather amazing growth in your ability not only at doing tai chi form, for example, but at having cultivated a movement strategy for overcoming conditions, such as chronic pain. I have myself as a case study, but I know many who have stories to tell about overcoming ailments simply by sticking with their tai chi practice.

These positive strides from learning tai chi relate to balance resulting from addressing the functions of four systems in the body, as described by Dr. Wayne: musculoskeletal, visual, sensory, and cognitive. He dissects these into their components and by doing so makes it clearly evident how tai chi improves balance.

Tai chi is a practice of utilizing all of these systems with attention to how they are working in our minds and bodies. We become more adept at how we walk, stand, see, feel, breathe, and even hear merely by focusing on them in movement. Overtime we cultivate expertise through practice similarly to what we do as we grow up, but with a renewed emphasis.

Tai chi movements truly are the movements of life itself. We can transfer the specialized movements of tai chi to daily activities. Just the act of memorizing something new has significant benefits for brain function. And just the simple act of taking a walk can be a practice of tai chi, in addition to a healthy exercise. It’s nothing short of amazing for so many practitioners. I can say this because I’ve seen it and I’ve heard them say so.

We may not be able to completely eradicate the symptoms of aging, but maybe we could slow the decrease in muscle strength, or slow the lack of flexibility in the ankles and other joints. For me, it’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. The catch is that you have to start and keep it up. The longer you wait the more catching up you have to do—but having less time in which to do it.

The good thing is it’s really never too late to start, especially if you have a knowledgeable and supportive teacher and a friendly group of fellow practitioners with which to practice.

We all have our own unique challenges to tackle in the quest to age more gracefully and with good health. This is something to keep in mind when beginning to learn tai chi movement. Hopefully, you will find a teacher who can help you through your particular situation.

The key is to see and feel progress which comes only after effort and time. Each us takes the time we need and makes the effort that we can and that sets your pace. I’m always confident that just about everyone can make progress and see the difference tai chi can make in their balance and other functions.

 

Paul Tim Richard shares perspectives on internal martial arts and the art of movement based on two decades of study. He has co-produced MastersFromChina.com instructional videos since 2002 and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong in Colorado, USA.

How tai chi changes habitual movement

Sunday, June 9, 2019

How we move says so much about us. We identify so closely with how we move. Whether or not we are aware of it, our manner of moving is very often a matter of self-image. Posture and gait even develop from attitudes—how we see ourselves and how we wish others to see us.

It’s a personality thing. We would not be the person we know if we moved differently. We’re not going to saunter like John Wayne, because we are not him. Our walk is us; our posture is us.

The famous actor’s walk was made up, of course. Normally, we are not conscious of how we walk and stand. We learned without direct attention to how we were doing it. The goal was to stand and walk, maybe just to please mommy and daddy, and to be like one of the big folk.

Over time, we engaged in activities that gave us the postures and ways of walking that matured as we aged in life. More likely than not, those activities were performed under some kind of physical (and mental) stress, whether mild or intense.

So it follows that how we move often correlates to aches and pains that develop over time—from regular usage, but also from over use, misuse and abuse. Some usages result in chronic pain. Chronic pain is an ache that seems to have no source, seems never to go away, and if it does, it’s temporary.

We find ourselves saying, “Why does my knee hurt all the time? I don’t remember injuring it.” Or, “It must have been that time I slipped on ice. But that was years ago! Why won’t it go away?”

Because we return to moving in the old ways. The angle of attack we use to manage the issue often causes even more discomfort. We wish it would go away. We feel unable to change the situation. It just has to run its course.

Sometimes, you reach a point where you think you need to redirect and look for ways to fix it. If you had a new way to move that could alleviate the problem, you might try it.

What if just moving differently could control the problem? We are all familiar with how we walk differently because of a sprained ankle or a bruised leg. We move “contrarily” to alleviate the pressure and the pain.

We can’t stop just for that little problem. Keep moving. It will go away. This thinking usually works, at least until the initial injury heals. Makes sense.

Our tendency to keep going despite a painful condition is normal. Chronic pain presents a unique challenge, though. The old ways of shifting weight or hobbling don’t work anymore. Your body could be suggesting you might need a new direction.

When plugging away at the same old-same old doesn’t work, the question may come up of how ready you are to change your move patterns. You don’t know if anything you try might actually work and it may not be worth the required effort.

I often see people who try tai chi to fix a movement problem by moving in the same old ways. But in tai chi, fixing it correlates directly with shifting your perception of how you move.

You have to look at it in a different way and that’s what the practice of tai chi helps you to do. Tai chi may not be for everybody, but then again, something like tai chi can help to resolve some issues. It’s all about breaking that familiar fixation of habituated movement.

I like tai chi because it can align the mind and body in harmonious motion that produces calming effects.

The challenge at the body level is ongoing and you have to deal with it on the long term; but it’s less of a difficulty for the body as it is for the mindset. Tai Chi movement helps to focus the mind and body on specific tasks beneficial to both. You see more clearly and move more smoothly.

It affects how you feel, too. I get the most excited over this aspect of tai chi, because that relates to what the old Chinese called “Qi” (chee), or life force; or simply, energy.

Life force relates to determination—the will to live, in other words. It’s kind of like the question of which comes first: the chicken or the egg. Movement or life force? Do you start moving differently first, or do you get a will to move differently first? It doesn’t matter, really. You have to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, just that you do.

 

Just what are you moving when you do tai chi?

One thing I like about learning and doing tai chi is that it is something that we haven’t done before. At least what we don’t recognize as something we’ve done before. Maybe we have, but don’t realize it as something familiar, … maybe we do.

Nevertheless, whatever way you may see it, tai chi is taking new pathways into the mind and body and discovering new ways of thinking and being. In fact, learning tai chi is more like discovering. You discover a process of movement that produces new perceptions about what you’re doing which, in the case of tai chi, has movement at its core.

The question I have asked myself in the past is: “What is it that you’re moving when you’re “doing tai chi”? The most obvious answer is moving the body, of course; but is that all there is that is actually moving? What about the mind? Is not the mind moving as well? Are we not shifting our attention, our perception to become aware of something about movement that we didn’t notice before?

Next time you “do” tai chi, maybe you will enjoy thinking about this little aspect of movement than may not have occurred to you before.

Beginning tai chi when younger may help avoid problems of aging

Doing taijiquan and its complement, qigong, can add great benefits to the lifestyles of younger practitioners, as well as reducing the effects of growing older. Why younger people don’t get into tai chi is asked often and many reasons have been discussed. One is that “tai chi is for old people,” as discussed in this video clip.

For me, there are many more reasons for younger people to do tai chi than not to do it. For one, I’m convinced that as preventative practices, tai chi and qigong both can help reduce healthcare costs related to aging (which comes sooner these days than we think!). We just don’t expect problems while we’re young and our bodies are still new and healthy. Instead of waiting until we’re sick or breaking down we could do something about it.

But often, you could have greater effectiveness by accepting that you’re going to have those problems sooner or later.

Tai chi and qigong are also complementary activities to many exercises you choose to do for staying shape, which often is a lifestyle choice. We look good when we feel good. These can be enhanced by practicing even just a few principles of tai chi. You don’t even have to do it as a martial art, either.

As a tai chi and qigong teacher, I find more and people in their twenties, even teens, interested in trying tai chi. As a multi-level exercise for mind, energy, and body practice, no other exercise does all that tai chi can. It helps to heal injuries, maintain healthy systems functions, such as nervous and lymph systems and blood circulation. It helps to detoxify and cleanse.

It trains memorization skills, too; like a crossword puzzle for the whole body, not just the brain. Whether you’re in school, on a job, or whatever, that’s a good thing.

Even if you’re in the grips of aging, you might find that a steady, long-term tai chi practice will have positive effects on the flexibility of your brain function.

Neuroscientists talk about “neuroplasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to disrupt our tendency towards inertia and be more easily changeable. As Catherine Kerr, a Harvard Medical School instructor, says, “For anyone who practices tai chi regularly brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice.” Kerr is investigating brain dynamics related to tai chi and mindfulness meditation at Harvard Medical School.

In addition to tapping into the brain’s capacity, it’s a bio-mechanical stretching method that can maintain and improve elasticity of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles so we may live longer and better.

All of these reasons to start tai chi sooner than later apply to every stage of life, but if you start sooner, you might just be happy you did. Starting tai chi is only a matter of joining a class and making a habit of practicing regularly over time. This is a relatively simple key to success.

If you’re in your twenties and already practicing, feel free to comment about your experience. Maybe we can spread a little enthusiasm for beginning younger in life to others who may be pondering the possibility of giving it a try.