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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Tai chi and getting some energy back

It is said that we are born with a finite amount of energy and that is all we have to make it through life. As life progresses that supply of energy is depleted through living: events, act, thoughts, points of view. It takes energy to live. Less of our original life force becomes available to us as we age. It becomes stuck, tucked away, or wasted upon others. We can get much of it back, however. If you knew this were possible, would you consider doing what it would take to get it back?

Integrating new movement to internalize it

Taiji is about moving differently. To move in a new way requires a fresh perspective. Start with gaining clarity of a habituated movement pattern. Habitual patterns are most difficult to see because they become “transparent” or invisible to us over time. So train your mind’s ability to focus and concentrate on the move. The eventual discovery of a new way to move will come automatically as a result of the effort. Aim to internalize new movement so it becomes integrated into the whole as a beneficial contribution.

Article Forward: How practicing tai chi can help the heart

This article’s news is good reading, but I’m a little disheartened as tai chi teacher. But that’s okay. I still am forwarding it because it’s yet another documentation of people utilizing tai chi with measurable success to address challenges they have with their health.

Composed by Alice Park for Time Health, it describes a tai chi program for heart-attack victims that demonstrated positive behavioral changes after practicing twice or three times a week for 12 and 24 weeks.

Many of the practitioners were obese and had not exercised much in their lives. They were actually afraid to exercise after having cardiac arrest. So they tried tai chi and got good outcomes.

I live in a health-oriented town. Outdoor recreation activities rule. The median age is 31.7 years (city-data.com). Not the best market for a tai chi teacher if you compare all the studies finding tai chi helping people with age-related issues or life-threatening illnesses. None are about young people.

Young people don’t do tai chi as a preventative practice, not even as a health and well-being maintenance practice, not even as a practice for attention deficit disorder. The up-trend in articles suggest populations get sick before starting tai chi. But articles like this one should create more buzz around tai chi. The next thing I would like to see are studies demonstrating the preventative and daily lifestyle management qualities of tai chi and qigong.

Anyway, enjoy reading the article.

http://time.com/4977110/tai-chi-heart-attack/

Thoughts on Developing Your Home Tai Chi Practice Routine

I was recently asked about developing a routine for home practice. Most of us are probably used to being given a set of movements to do—one set for everyone. I take a different approach, suggesting that you choose a few moves from among the many that we do in class that appeal to you and remember them at home.

While we share a lot in common, every person is different: different bodies, different circumstances, and different interests, needs and desires. So the routine you develop should be customized to you and not have to be a “one size fits all” approach.

Still, you need a place to begin when you’re new to the system. That’s why I share a system made up of loosening exercises, stretching, single-basic moves, qigong, some standing (called Zhan Zhuang), and tai chi form. This is the context out of which a home practice develops.

I also say that that tai chi is founded upon moving in six directions and in three patterns, or shapes, of movement: up/down, left/right, front/back, and circles, figure 8s, and spirals. This is the foundation of your practice.

To add to that, you begin to cultivate an awareness of the energetic piece of the practice, which brings up the questions of “how” to move in the directions and patterns. What you’re doing with your mind, more specifically.

I begin with the question of, “How do you initiate the move and from which point in the body?” You can begin with the dantian point below the navel and inward about three inches (xia dantian), or the zhong ding (central equilibrium/spine). Remember that the focus of your attention is what you’re working on in any particular moment. With experience you can hold your attention on more than a single thing at a time. The key is to develop a concentration and sustain that concentration. This correlates with the meditative function of tai chi and qigong.

With these ideas you have a foundation to begin your home practice. It takes a little time to get familiar with these concepts, but with some effort it comes together. And with a little help from teacher and fellow practitioners you can build a stronger understanding through group practice and testing.

So pick out a few single moves and practice them at home. You can do a few minutes every day whenever your feel the urge, or remember that you have the chance to make a difference in your condition if you try.

This way you’re doing a more customize practice rather than having to do what the teacher forces on you regardless of your unique situation.

Dementia research findings and my pitch for tai chi

Researchers list nine activities that can help prevent as much as 33% of the world’s current estimate of 47 million cases of dementia (expected to triple by 2050), including Alzheimer’s.

Tai chi is a physical activity and mentally stimulating exercise, two factors that recent research suggests can prevent dementia in millions.

In a recently published article (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/one-third-of-dementia-cases-could-be-prevented-alzheimers-report/), researchers list nine activities that can help prevent as much as 33% of the world’s current estimate of 47 million cases of dementia (expected to triple by 2050), including Alzheimer’s.

For healthy mental activities, researchers recommend people  stay in school at least until past the age of 15. The article doesn’t specify kinds of physical exercise, but most articles about that subject usually talk about aerobics, interval training, resistance training, even weight lifting.

More and more, people are talking about the benefits of tai chi and qigong, especially for older people who have put off exercise practices in their younger years. It’s lower impact and offers a wide range of desirable results with proper practice. Plus, it’s one of the more preventative practices I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’m seeing more young people looking into tai chi. I think one reason why is that they are born into more sedentary lifestyles, more urban, more media eccentric, more passive. Yet, they know they need something that gives their mind and body connection more stimulating health and longevity activities.

This is the very same reason Boddhidharma (Damo) introduced exercises to Buddhists in China 2600 years ago. The body is your vessel through life. Treat it well and give it what it needs. We’re all learning what that means and we’re looking for ways to treat our bodies and minds better.

I noticed while reading the dementia article that physical exercise, which it recommends, of course, is known to help reduce the effects of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, three factors that cause dementia.

Rather than reciting the old cliché of killing two birds with one stone, I would prefer to say “giving two birds life with a single act.” I feel like tai chi and qigong offer strong possibilities for helping a lot of people who would otherwise suffer from what the article refers to as the world’s “most feared illness in old age.”