Article: Tai chi not just for “old”

“Tai chi is not just for old people,” says columnist Viki Mather. I know what she’s talking about. People hate anything that resembles “exercise.” Not my problem. They are so WRONG.

“There is a stigma about tai chi that it is for old people. And it is true that doing tai chi can help regain mobility, balance, prevent falls and all the other things that seniors need to stay independent and active. It does this for younger people, too. It can help you play better golf. It can improve posture, which is important for skiing, skating, horseback riding, and having dinner at Grandma’s house. And it reduces stress.”


Another article on research about research on tai chi

“Falling is the primary cause of traumatic death for older adults, and more than 17% of older adults report between one and five falls in the past three months. The problem seems to be getting worse.”

More research of research on tai chi.

There seems to be a steady stream of it for sometime. This article from refers to a report published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on a review of 10 randomized studies on tai chi effects on balance. It’s another report on another study about more studies. I wonder if it actually influences more people to try tai chi.

The referred-to study and the Time article, build on the growing inventory of the benefits of tai chi in media and the research community interested in exercise modalities, particularly as they relate to the aging population of Baby Boomers. The body of text essentially is arguing for doing tai chi, without actually saying it outright. It suggests to readers to at least look into the subject.

The article concludes with: “More research is needed to determine just how beneficial tai chi really is in preventing or delaying the occurrence of serious falls.” I’m not sure if the article writer is making this conclusion or just repeating what the researchers state.

Either way, research papers and articles talking about them commonly conclude with such statements. So much so that they are drawing attention to the repetitive nature of cliche and un-examined habitual speech.

More research is not necessary, really. That might just be another research group throwing in its two cents on the efficacy of just another exercise method. More people just need to do tai chi and find out for themselves.

Learn tai chi young and slow the aging process

taijiquan_WebFrom my tai chi perspective, young people are just as bad off as older folks in many ways. The reason why is because we all learn to move incorrectly from the very beginning. We learn to walk wrong. We learn to use our bodies in ways that expedite decrepitude.

Young bodies in the teens and twenties are still relatively new so they don’t show the wear and tear of, say, fifties and sixties. Their bodies are strong and they heal more quickly. Of course, we take all that for granted when we’re young. But the young are doing the same things that old folks were doing during those years of life … misusing, abusing, overusing, underusing, and so on.

One sign of this, for example, that I’ve noticed is in the position of the ankles in many young people. So many kids at very young ages have crooked ankle joint positions. Their ankles are caved inward, sometimes outward to a gross degree. Even very young kids have flat feet, weak arches. This throws off their postures and eventually leads to various chronic pain issues, poor balance and who knows what.

Shoes we wear as infants are one source of this problem. They force the feet to conform to the hard unyielding structure and materials with which they are constructed. Also, we simply don’t learn to walk properly from the very beginning when we learn to balance ourselves upright on two legs and start propelling ourselves forward in space. It’s such a wonderful feeling that we can’t help but run around, joyous in our newly found freedom of movement. It’s especially great after being bound by wretched immobility for the first several months of life.

Basically, what happens is we learn techniques for movement that place uneven pressure on bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. After a lifetime of moving with incorrect posture, your body wears out and you feel pain and discomfort. If you’re an athlete, injuries will occur probably due simply to overexertion; extending beyond the limit of your body’s ability to withstand the strain. But it could just as easily be from simple misalignment that was learned through incorrect usage. If you’re an average person of average active daily living you are merely extending the timing, but you inevitably wear out by old age from usage or injury.

I don’t believe this should be an accepted reality of aging. That’s not a way to live nor a way to die.

Could it be that many of our bodily issues stem from how we learn to walk in the first years of youth? A sign that this may be true is the fact so many people have trouble with their balance as they age. It had to start somewhere in life. It doesn’t just happen because you’re older. Many are turning to tai chi because it is known to help improve balance and reduce or even overcome chronic joint and muscle pain. Tai chi definitely can help. This is known and accepted by more and more people across the world.

What if you could avoid these age issues by starting tai chi earlier in life? You would learn that these problems are not as inevitable as commonly assumed. If more people recognize the promise of tai chi later in life, why not while young? Why wait until you have time to do it once you’re retired? That’s only putting off the inevitable when you are closer to desperation and in great need of a cure for old age, like so many of us experience.

Believe it or not, tai chi is a remedy for old age … and young age.

Power Stretching Step One: Connect and Root

Master george sxtetching in lan shou posture
Master George stretching in lan shou posture

To cultivate connectedness in tai chi and build a strong, yet flexible root, and develop whole-body movement, sooner or later you’re going to discover power stretching. The following is from guest blogger Susan A. Matthews. It is part of her developing manuscript, Spiral Training.

On her website, she generously offers the kind of information that more-seasoned Chinese martial arts practitioners seek to help verify perspectives and learn new insights. Power stretching is dynamic and active in nature, in contrast to quiet and relaxed, which she addresses in later steps because, ultimately, moving with energy is preferred.

The fascinating thing about power stretching, as she states, is that it produces collateral benefits. In her work with chronic pain, she says that “this structural change is required to eliminate foot, ankle, and knee pain and swelling, as well as to reduce arthritis pain and to rejuvenate joints. The method increases energy and lymphatic circulation to muscles, bones, and tissues of the lower body.”

In the first step, she pays attention to the action in the ankles, knees and pelvis, focusing on how to visualize spiraling and rooting at first. She also links to video footage demonstrating or explaining what she is writing about. She describes testing procedures, too. This might be too detailed for some, but many enthusiasts should find useful applications from it. [Italics are mine.]

First, connect the feet to the ground by spiraling or screwing both feet outwards. Stand with feet almost parallel, hip width apart. Imagine each foot is a wing nut with the ankle joint as the axis around which the big ball [of the foot] and the inside edge of the heel grip and rotate. The foot stays planted on the ground while the spiral torque force travels up to rotate the ankle bones. Let the bones of your feet and ankle move inside the skin. Often this action lifts and restores a ‘fallen’ arch if required.

[The energy component]
It is important to use mind energy as soon as possible once the body has practiced the physical change. Imagine energy spiraling downwards instead of a screw. This spiraling goes down the inside of the ankle and sends the big toe forward while the pinky toe and outside of the ankle spiral up into the hip. …

Next, the knees also rotate outwards because the spiral travels up and rotates the tibia and fibula. … Put weight on one leg, unlock the opposite knee so that it will rotate easily. Screw into ground as described above and allow the rotating ankle to rotate the knee. … the hip will actually move back (keep weight on the big ball). … The tension in the hips is then transmitted downward and the upper and lower legs rotate inward to compensate for the tight hips. To correct this, generally, most practitioners need to outward rotate and straighten both knee joints, and this requires adjusting the pelvis….

Next, the rotation from the feet must change the position of the pelvis. We have often been taught to tuck the tailbone to open the low back and get more ground power [or root]. … Rather than tucking the tailbone with hip muscles, use the rotating feet-ankle-knee-femur-ball-socket to rotate the pelvis … . The rotating ball and socket at the top of the femur rotates the sacrum/tailbone downward/ pubic bone upward. A gentle ‘sucking up’ feeling from the perineum to the navel accompanies and helps the rotation. … It is this action that connects the ribs in the back to the hip bones. … There is an opening/stretched feeling at the inguinal fold/line.

It feels like the feet are pushing the front of the torso up and open while the scapula is pulled down … . The downward rotation of the sacrum stretches the low back (lumbar vertebra open). Do not crunch the front. Hang the pelvis.

It also works to imagine a spiraling downward force from the back of one shoulder-diagonally across to the sacrum-down the back of the opposite leg. Another feeling is to create or sense a line of force that seems to extend from the center (dantian, ball in front of the sacrum) both downwards towards the feet and upwards towards the back of the neck. This opposing, opposite force lengthens the spine and raises the posture from the ground up.


Two advanced tai chi techniques to improve balance and more

Many tai chi practitioners lack central equilibrium, or “zhong ding” in their posture while they move. Many people, even teachers, don’t even know about it. But it’s important for so many things. For example, improving your zhong ding will improve your balance. Also, to advance your tai chi practice and experience the ultimate benefits of tai chi, zhong ding training is pivotal.

I’ve found that visualization helps to incorporate it into practice. My teachers introduced me to two useful concepts to think about: “third leg” from George Xu and “backwards bicycle” from Susan A. Matthews.

The Backwards Bicycle
Sifu Matthews uses bio-mechanics descriptions that effectively help transfer many concepts into experience. Fairly early on in students’ learning she introduces her trademark “Backwards Bicycle™” motion to get the hips to move and stimulate awareness of the importance of the spine in tai chi training. The idea is simple, but familiarizing yourself with moving that way takes some of us a little extra effort at first. Backwards bicycle results in more-effective, full-body movement with more-precise alignment of the spine and skeleton.

The Third Leg
George Xu introduced the term “third leg” during a workshop a few years ago. Like backwards bicycle, the concept of third leg helps to refine the movement of your zhong ding by giving you a visualization to focus on. There is a leverage point in the hip assembly at the base of the spine at or near the sacrum where you can pivot and turn. It’s as though you are sitting on the top of a pole that is planted in the ground. Master George often says “sit on the chair” and it’s like you’re moving the chair with your sacrum while keeping a steady pressure on it to maintain your connection with the ground. I call this “weighted-in-gravity.”

Eventually, with practice, mind-energy-physical integration, or “harmony,” is a key outcome of these two visualizations to help develop zhong ding awareness in movement. To accomplish this, use mind intention to focus on directing of the flow of energy. Move in circles and figure eights. No hard corners and continual focus on movement. Look for the sensation of motion or flow. Enjoy the feeling.

Placing yourself in a position of learning is a main goal of tai chi training, and learning about third leg and backwards bicycle can make it rather fun. To learn more about incorporating them in your practice, visit the MastersFromChina video store. Sifu Matthews’ talks about zhong ding in Volume 1 of her Brain Workshop™ series, and Master Xu describes it in his Complete Practice video. Of course, attending one of their workshops is a nice way to experience learning in person.