Article Forward: Trying Tai Chi for the First Time

Another view from a young woman discovering tai chi

REPORT: For Tai Chi, the reduction in rate of falls in elderly is statistically significant

This is the text of a Cochrane report stating that statistically, tai chi reduces the rate of falls among elderly people. I always like to hear that. If you like scientifica findings and the language that describes them, then this one’s for you.

Tai Chi movement, qi and yin-yang equilibrium

The word Qi (pronounced “chee”) in Chinese refers to vital energy and is found everywhere in nature. The Chinese refer to Heaven Qi, Earth Qi, and Human Qi. In learning tai chi, when we talk about Qi, we often talk about Yin and Yang— two opposing, but complementary, forces that are seen in endless variations. Taijiquan and Qigong are activities that you could think of as exercises, or methods, for working towards a balance of yin and yang in the relationship between our minds, qi, and bodies. I lead tai chi practice with these relationships in mind.

According to Chinese thought some of us are too yang, some too yin, generally speaking. The movements introduced in practice can help balance out your Qi whether you are too yin or too yang.

You can be both at the same time, as well. Too yang in some aspects and too yin in others. For example, you may be too yang in your Qi and too yin in your physical body. As Yang, Jwing-Ming writes in The Root of Chinese Qigong, “A person who seems to be externally strong and healthy may be weak internally” (p4).

Either case can result in the whole being being weakened. Most of what I teach focuses on both external and internal exercise with mental concentration, or mind practice. You’ve probably heard of mind-body connection. I try to bridge the mind and body with what is often the missing link in rebalancing one’s being—vital energy. I truly believe that the motivation to learn and practice tai chi comes from feeling the need to rebalance your energetic configuration. It’s marvelous that tai chi movement performed with mind intention can result in profound shifts in mental, energetic, and physical equilibrium.

A Basic Tip

The mind, energy and body interact in a sequence of movement. Your attention travels from mind, to energy, to physical in that order. It works this way: You focus attention on a specific point in the body, which invites the energy to go there. You actually feel it. Then the body is invited to move in the way that you intend. So you allow it to move. Over time, you refine this progression to build inner strength and skill.

How this happens is a kind of mystery to me, but it happens. You may not detect the sequence at first as a beginning practitioner, especially the feeling of energy flowing to a place where you direct your attention. You will with practice, but I think everyone is familiar with it very quickly.

Standing in Wu Ji

Wu Ji is the first position in the form or before doing anything in Tai Chi or Qigong. The first thing to do is find your Zhong Ding, your central alignment. Your ears are over the shoulders, which are in line with the hips, which are in line with the knees and ankles and the “Bubbling Well” (Yongquan). You will probably have to bend the knees to get there and maybe tilt the pelvis. This physical alignment is only part of Wu Ji. A place to begin to train your attention.

Next is to become aware of tension, clenching, torqued parts of your body. Release that tension if you can. Keep in mind that tai chi movement itself is the way to release tension and relax the stress points. It’s a gradual process of letting go, coaxing your body and your mind to cooperate to relax and move smoothly with a flowing motion.

How you adjust your alignment can determine how the qi flows through your body, even that it can, and whether or not it does. However, Qi can flow through despite the alignment of the physical. This potential suggests that the mind is the key determining factor in whether or not qi flows through the body, despite physical structure. You could be bent over from illness and still feel and direct the qi.

These two approaches are both valid, I think. You can contemplate doing either according to your nature, or constitution.

Qi moves to a point in the body to where you direct your mind, such as the hamstrings or sacrum, or anywhere.

Qi flows linearly and sequences through the body like the old analogy of a string of pearls. Practicing the small circuit qigong is a good way to see this and intend it in movement practice. You can see it rising from the bubbling well, up through the muscle and fascia of the legs into the hip assembly. This tends to straighten the posture. If you fight against the rising—you’ll crumple, collapse, or bind up. The qi won’t flow. This points to resistance within yourself as a reluctance to let go. The qi makes you aware of why you’re holding in the the first place.

We have to come to some clarity about this—that we hold on and are afraid to let go and that fear of qi is not the problem. Qi is a healing force, nothing to fear at all. It’s often fear held for a long time after surviving a physical or emotional trauma that doesn’t completely resolve and remains lodged—dormant. After so much of our lives have passed, does it matter how it came to be? Isn’t the important thing to realize we’re holding back and that it’s okay to let go and let the energy flow through? Resistance, or fighting against one’s own self, is very tiring physically and mentally. Wouldn’t it be nice to let it all go and trust that your are made of whatever it takes to move through life without falling down, or apart?

Major sticking points are the hips, waist and neck. If you could move qi all the way from the earth through the bai wei (top of head), something in these places would have to open up and let it pass. If you learn to adjust the position of them (zhong ding alignment), qi could suddenly flow through, and probably would.

When the qi enters the thighs, for example, it fills the thigh, causing it to expand similarly to how the lungs expand when they fill with air. So it doesn’t just flow linearly. You feel energy through the smallest areas of the membrane, as well as the larger. It’s as if it even expands out of the flesh into the space just beyond the body. It wants to flow, so you allow it to go up and it enters and fills the hips changing its position, maybe tilting the pelvis down and forward and up a little, then rising up the spine readjusting the vertebrae. You either let this happen or you don’t. I prefer letting it happen, but for a long time I fought against it, unaware I was doing it.

This tendency reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while I’m performing some mundane task such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, or reading or talking to another person. I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it. Then suddenly like waking from a frightful dream I jump awake and realize I had been in absentminded reverie while my physical body was involved in some activity I barely noticed I was doing.

Sometimes, it’s the other way around. My focus was on something else like thinking in a dream. You’re thinking, it affects your behavior or what you feel about what you’re witnessing and yet you’re not aware of doing it. It is very common.

Sometimes you lose the continuity in the flow. It breaks, like cutting a taut string. This is not resistance to the self, rather a sort of losing yourself and not knowing how to reconnect to the activity. This is associated with skipping the attention from one place to another that is not directly connected. This is breaking mental concentration and reducing your attention on deeper levels of the body.

Another place of holding qi is the diaphragm. This holding is subtler than the other parts. It stems from how we breathe. The diaphragm hardens from breathing abdominally, but not allowing the air/qi to pass into the lower lung, then on into the upper chest. If you breathe more fully, the diaphragm can soften and become more pliable and changeable. It will function more efficiently and its range of motion will expand to its real capabilities.

As you practice you may, probably will, become cognizant of tightness in the lower back and/or the psoas muscle. The rope-like muscles along the lower spine may also feel quite hard to the touch.

We can go on into greater detail, but this is a good place to begin to gain clarity on the practice of Wu Ji in Tai Chi. It much more than merely standing up straight, rather it’s a whole state of being aware of what’s going on without increasing tension in the mind-body relationship.

Does “Quiet” in Tai Chi Mean Being Still?

People perceive being still for being quiet, but there is another way of understanding “quiet.”

Trying to hold still is only one kind of quiet. It can lead to clenching and tension, pain, and poor balance, especially in beginners. That kind of tension can’t be held long.

“Quiet-in-movement” offers better balance, less clenching, reduced or no pain, and much more. Quiet results from the mind letting the body move according to its own rules.

Not just quiet mind, but quiet body. No anticipation, no judgment, no projecting, no hesitating, no forcing.

The mind provides the intention and the body provides the results. Quiet mind means suspending habitual thinking, or internal dialogue. Observe moves as though from a distant promontory, like scanning a distant landscape for wildlife, or the ocean for whales.

Quiet body in motion means getting out of the way of the qi so it can flow through. Something must “let go.” Some describe it as “controlled falling.” Allow yourself to feel it. It’s as though you are seeing with a part of you that is not your eyes. Your mind’s eye perhaps. The heart perhaps.


Gentle movements produce more exercise than you might think


“According to research, taking tai chi in small groups for a dozen weeks two to three times a week reduces falls up to 55 percent.”

“Instructor Brenda Michaelis likes tai chi because it works your entire body. ‘You don’t realize you’re exercising, and it’s good for your spirit as well as your body,’ she said.”