A Point About Mindful Breathing and Moving

Gardener with vegetable seedling. Spring garden. Plant seedling in farmers hands.

Coordinating inhale and exhale with various arm movements: up-down, front-back, left-right can be a meditation. Maybe you can do it in a qigong or taiji class, but can you be aware of breath and motion while doing everyday things?

Tai chi is simply a way of paying attention to how you move while moving. Developing a daily practice is central to learning, but we usually struggle to remember every time we start to move not to jump ahead and forget the body.

Gardening in SW Colorado is a big activity now, because it’s springtime. How do you maintain awareness of breath while hoeing, shoveling, weeding, raking and watering? What is the priority?

I gardened and practiced taiji much of the morning yesterday. The weather has been nice for three days now—a big shift from April’s unsettled waves of clouds, some rain and snow and few periods of full sun. While working around the garden, I concentrated on paying attention to moving from the center of my body. I moved up-down, forward-backward, and left-right—initiating each move from that center point. Try it. See how long you can go without forgetting to hold the view of moving from the center.

 

The mood of tai chi

IMG_0354Tai chi and qigong are moods–somewhat of an ephemeral notion to a novice perhaps, yet real to a long-term practitioner. If you skip practice for a certain amount of time, you begin to miss it. Your body might even crave it and you won’t feel content until you practice. Both tai chi and qigong place you in a feeling of being more fully present in a moment–a mindfulness moment.

Something about that feeds the spirit.

When you do the moves that make up these systems of exercise, you’re tapping into the flow of energy prevalent in the universe. Imagine yourself dipping your toe into a river … the vast energy of life. How long you can go without a feeling of being swept up by the rush of the current, or the wind lifting your spirit?

A note on “change” in tai chi

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In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

Editorial Specialist, Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies, teaches and blogs about fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as he understands them. He also produces and edits instructional videos of master practitioners.

An Exercise for a Taiji Stroll

Sometimes I feel like I’ve stared at the computer for too long and I need to take a break, maybe go for a walk. Often, when I do, it’s difficult to shift. It’s like I’m still looking at the computer while I’m walking. The eye muscles are stagnated in the position of staring at the computer. This stiffness in the eyes affects the whole body while trying to walk and loosen up. It’s like I’m fighting against myself. When I become aware that this is happening, the question of what to do about it comes up.

My first inclination is to move. Do some sort of exercise. Simply walking is good. Tai chi is good, of course, because you’re exercising your whole body, not just a single part. Tai chi walking is even better.

Here is something you might want to really think about as a practice goal when you’re doing tai chi: “the whole body moves as a single unit.” Part of moving as a “unit” is to coordinate movement with mind focusing on a particular point in the body as part of an initial stimulus to move the rest of the body.

For example, you might be able to move the eyes in circles while circling the body on a horizontal plane. As you move, the eyes are connected with the dantian (center point of body essentially) while turning in that circle pattern and focusing on as much detail in your view as you can. Let the eyes lead the rest of the body.

It may be difficult at first to smoothly coordinate the eye movement with the rest of the body. But with practice the physical—timing and pace—improve.

Along with that, if you have a mind to focus on it, will be an awareness of the energy connecting all those parts together. Even though they’re separate parts, something is connecting them as a single unit and that’s the energy we call “qi.”

It’s Tai Chi Time…If I Could Find the Time

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Many people would like to do tai chi but they can’t fit it into their busy, demanding lives. Tai chi is the easy part, actually. Time, energy, desire, and volition are more difficult to come by. Ironically, doing tai chi itself is a gateway to getting all that other stuff. Funny, huh?

I do tai chi and qigong everyday, if only for a few minutes. It wasn’t always easy to “find time,” so to speak; which sounds like time is something you find laying around waiting to pick up along the way.

I eventually did “find the time” and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. I realized that time wasn’t the problem. Volition was. So was lack of creative juggling of not only time, but energy. Effort. Desire. Volition.

The hardest thing to break was the routine. All I really had to do was break the habit of doing what I was used to doing. Easier than I thought.

Taiji is all about control . . . . of body, of mind, of energy, of effort, of timing and pacing. These things apply on a grander scale, the “lifescale.” How to use time efficiently, for example, or energy, in order to achieve what you aim for every day.

So what drives you in whatever direction you seem to be going? If it’s not you, then what?

Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of acknowledged master practitioners. He also teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as learned from members of his lineage and others. He lives in Durango, Colorado and travels often for study and teaching. Learn more at fourcornerstaichi.net.

A simple (sort of) stretch to break ergonomic fatigue

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Push Up Sky from Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong

I take walks and do tai chi and qigong to ease the ergonomic strain of sitting at a computer for long periods. One move I do is push up sky, the first posture of Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong. To do it, the arms are stretched directly above the head, palms facing skyward, and fingers of both hands pointing towards each other. I also vary the posture with movement, spiraling the hands so fingers face out away from each other, then turning them back in towards each other.

This move may initially seem to be turning at the wrist, but I actually aim to move the legs, hips, waist, sacrum and spine by virtue of connectivity of the bones, joints, ligaments and tendons in order to ultimately spiral the wrist, hands and fingers. If you moved this way, you’d be doing what commonly is referred to in internal martial arts as “whole body moves as a single unit.”

Just about anyone who has practiced internal martial arts long enough is familiar with this way of moving and they are constantly working to improve it with more ease, precision and power. Many beginners, however, have difficulty concentrating on moving in such an unaccustomed manner. They may also not be aware that physical movement is only the beginning of what can be learned.

The wonder of tai chi is that it allows you to be aware of your energetic matrix. For example, when you do a simple posture, such as push up sky, it’s possible to see an energetic line from sacrum (or feet) to finger tips linking the physical dimension with a more-ethereal energetic connection. Initiating a movement at the focal point ignites a subtle burst or flashpoint of energy that flows unbroken along that line from initiation to completion. The fingers listen for what’s coming, but they don’t move before the energy reaches them.

Moreover, energy moves, yet is still at the same time, as though it creates its own conduit through which to flow. You could do this from any focal point. Focusing the attention is the key practice.

There are a number of reasons to play with movement this way. One is to cultivate more precise control of the body. Another is to improve ability to concentrate singlemindedly on a simple task. Perhaps above all, it just feels good. These are outcomes as well as reasons, I suppose. Other more-basic outcomes you can expect of course include better posture, circulation, balance and so on.

It’s also a good practice for grasping what tai chi offers that is rarely seen otherwise, which is to become more aware. Whatever your level, practice offers a grand opportunity to see and surpass limitations to new, more-effective habits of posture and movement. The possibilities for health and mindfulness are enormous.

 

Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts. He teaches fundamentals of tai chi and qigong, and also produces instructional videos.

Just what I thought, everything is energy

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