Power stretching tip for older people beginning tai chi

ImageI consider power stretching an essential practice for supporting tai chi practice or any other movement. Professional dancers, runners, swimmers, hikers, skiers, etc. know this of course, along with master martial artists. One thing I have learned about how people power stretch is that they over do it and can injure themselves, especially in the beginning of practice. They stretch when they are not warmed up, for example. Or they overstretch when it would be better to gradually work their muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints into more extension. They rip and tear, rather than coax and nurture. The older you get the more liable you are to do this if you are not mindful.

Power stretching is an essential part of practice if you want deeper benefits; but until you understand through practice over time, I suggest not over doing it when you add power stretching.

Chinese martial arts power stretching is different from other systems for the most part, but you do find things similar in other systems. One difference is how you incorporate your attention in the postures, which is more internal and energetic in nature. Some teachers offer detailed methods of observation to help sharpen our attention and our sensitivity to subtle changes in our bodies. I know my teachers and I do, anyway.

For older people who are beginning tai chi or have been practicing for a short time, stretch only as much as it is comfortable at first, then progress to more challenging extension. Most of us can go out of our comfort zone without harm. But if you are following a seasoned practitioner, don’t push yourself to match their effort and extension. You won’t be able to. However, allow them to challenge you a little. My teacher, George Xu (Guo Ming) once told me, “Go slow in the beginning. The master goes his speed, you go yours.”

We seldom push ourselves beyond our limits, or what appears to be limits. Most of us will stay where we are if it’s working for us. That’s not a bad thing, because it allows us to save energy for when we need it. It’s sort of a survival trigger, but you also risk complacency. It’s also true that the more we stretch beyond perceived limits, the more energetic capacity we develop. This is the essential tai chi principle: know your limits, but practice to go beyond them. Learn what they are, but overcome them through regular, consistent practice … alone and as part of a group. It will do wonders for you.

I enjoy doing Shin Jin Ba Go stretch I learned from Grandmaster Shou Guan Shun in Shanghai, a free clip of which you can see on SusanAMatthews.com.

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.

Powerstretching In Chinese Martial Arts

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

Powerstretching is an often overlooked aspect of martial arts training. Many practitioners understand taiji as a tendon stretching exercise but they might not think of it as powerstretching. Tai chi is much more, of course. Energetic movement is a huge part of taiji that has informed my practice for a long time. It takes time to develop understanding of the many streams of this multi-layered practice. So getting to powerstretching often is not at the top of the list for many practitioners.

When powerstretching was introduced to me, I was training in Lan Shou Quan. My body responded well to the sets that my teachers were sharing. Powerstretching opens up channels and lets the body breathe in fresh energy. Like opening a window on a beautiful spring day and letting fresh breezes in to replace stagnant air, powerstretching moves stale qi out from the body’s nooks and crannies.

Master George Xu exposed me and other students to a little powerstretching back in 2002 through a simple set that was qigong-like in its execution. He still combines stretching with spiraling and internal qigong movement (he focuses on it in his Complete Practice video).

I first started really powerstretching at Master George’s China Camp in 2007 with Master Wu Ji, who gave us a set of stretches from the Lan Shou Quan system. And in 2009, Master Shou Guan Shun gave a group of foreign students his set from the Lan Shou System that we practiced several times a day for several days.

You can perform the postures as gently or energetically as you want, although Master Shou makes you really put yourself into it. I videotaped that set as well in different locales in Shanghai in 2009. Master Shou’s students, Wang Ming Bo and Rose Oliver show their international workshop participants the same set when they came to the US last year and recently this year.

These sets are very good to know and practice when you have sat for long periods of time or have done strenuous activity for a long time. They help open your body up and clean out the stagnant energy and replace it with fresh. You can do as little as three minutes or as much as 10 minutes. You can do one set three times in a row at a time. There really is no limit to what you can benefit from adding powerstretching to your daily practice.

Susan A. Matthews has posted a lot of powerstretching info and learning resources on her webpages at www.taichi-secrets.com or www.susanamatthews.com. You learn about the teachers I learned from there, as well. Her new powerstretching page contains educational content. Look for the Lan Shou page on her video store and scroll down to the bottom of the page and read her text about powerstretching.

Developing a complementary art to taijiquan

Tai chi masters, old and young, traditionally have had practices other than martial arts. They often apply their skills to other forms of art. Calligraphy is one, of course. It is very common for a tai chi practitioner to express his qi through writing the characters. There are others too: musicianship, painting, tea mixing, dance, and so on. Susan Matthews, my friend and teacher, practices ballroom dancing. George Xu practices calligraphy and antique collecting.

As taiji is practiced more by more people across the world are developing their other art. One difference is that new artforms are evolving in response to our changing times and the demands of living in the current era. The trend of less common and emerging arts complemented by tai chi reflects what I see as the rediscovery or rebirth of a modern taiji.

In my case, I have played my guitar with a taiji mind. And more recently, I have been studying nutrition in my search to find the best foods to put in my body. This is an emerging application of taiji knowledge, one that brings these two complementary practices into play with each other. I talk about how this focus came to be on my website. I even have begun a business to help others with nutrition and overall health. I call it A Well Balanced Dream.

On and on it goes. I always tell people that tai chi is a complementary exercise that will enhance whatever you already do. You might swim, run, bike, hike, garden, rock climb, ski, golf, or play competitive sports, such as tennis, baseball, football, and basketball. Tai chi can enhance all of these and more. What is your art?

Cultivate Senstivity with Tai Chi and Qigong

Tai chi cultivates sensitivity to subtle changes in your body and beyond. You may not be very sensitive at first, but with a little effort to pay attention, the moves themselves will offer up very satisfying results. Surprisingly pleasant results arise as our minds open up to new perceptions of what is achievable by practicing simple movements.

Qigong practice also offers sensitivity training benefits. I definitely agree with Masters George Xu and Susan Matthews, who say that Qigong basic movement is important to develop qi, or energy forces. It is very beneficial for developing the mind and physical body to be loose, open, empty free, light, everywhere moving, letting the “qi go through.” Train the mind to ‘look’ for any stuck place in yourself; look for too much yang or too much yin.

“You must develop this in yourself before you can see or create attackable tension in the opponent,” Master Xu says.

The important principle, no matter what style of martial arts you practice, is that qi must move for the physical to move. At the same time, the physical, continuously moving, creates the qi. As Master Xu explains in his new video, “something up/something down, something left/something right, down with up, in with out, forward with backward, sinking with floating, shrinking with expanding, yin with yang must be expressed in all qigong movements in order to create a field of force outside the body.”

You can practice the movements along with Master Xu in his video. He instructs to “practice feeling, not power,” and be continuously reminded of how to apply these principles more and more over time to become more high level.