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.

 

 

 

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Filling gaps in learning tai chi

tai-chi-shoulder-roll

I’ve noticed that, while I received basics in beginning tai chi, much was skipped over. I entered mise-en-scene. I jumped into the middle of the stream. There was no actual “beginning.” As a result, I’ve felt a gap in my learning progress. I think it was partly from a lack of organization in the presentation of information. The learning continuity had holes that I would have to fill in years later.I would have to practice regularly for long enough to discover and fill them. I did it by evolving my perspectives on the basics.

Now, I try to help new learners avoid some of this if I can by showing them little practices that they can easily work on in the beginning of their learning journey.

I’m not faulting my teachers, because tai chi in the U.S. has been in a process of evolving since it started becoming better known a few decades ago. We’re working simply to figure out what works for us in terms of pedagogy and content. It’s really a life-long effort, but we’re trying to start up on a fast track. That can cause us to skip ahead a little bit.

Speaking of “skipping ahead,” we also skip ahead in doing individual movements. For example, I might say connect the qi to the back and move incrementally from tailbone to top of the head while performing a qigong move. You then jump from the tailbone to the top of the head, skipping over the rest of the spine. We anticipate where it’s going and in the process jump ahead, missing out on some real therapeutic results.

This is a case of our concentration faltering as the focus on a specific point oscillates. It’s like forgetting something and not realizing we have until a moment comes after time has passed. We then wake up to the fact that we weren’t paying attention, or that we had forgotten to concentrate on the task at hand. This is very common in training for internal movement.

Movement awareness is an effort to begin at points in the body that we typically don’t pay much attention to. I like to direct my attention to a point in the body and move from, around, or through that spot as an exercise in concentration. I want to incorporate a number of principles one at a time, then simultaneously. Being connected, weighted in gravity, whole body moves a single unit, spiraling, agile and changeable are a few. This is the basis for calling tai chi a “moving meditation” or simply “meditative.” This is my particular view.

What we skip is to focus on rather subtle movements and learning how to do them. With beginners, I often start asking them to focus on the soles of the feet—just about where the apex of the arch is located. Many know that this is called the “bubbling well” or “spring.” The idea is to stand and simply be attentive to the feeling of the soles. Sense the ground and your weight, for example. The toes, heels, arch, inner edge and outer edge, and the bubbling well.

This basic, preliminary movement practice is fairly simple to try at home. It’s probably easier to doing with a group so you can get and give feedback as you work with others learning the same stuff.

Practice Suggestion: Focus on bubbling well…

Feel the weight of the body funneling through and down the soles of the feet into Earth. Draw attention to your calves. How do they feel? Strained, relaxed? Try to focus on the skeletal structure and loosen the muscles. Tai chi requires a lot of visualization, which in turn requires concentration.

Stand with one foot forward—a forward stance. Place more weight on the front foot. Hold the weighted feeling as you shift you position in a small circle pattern around the bubbling well. Feel the muscles of the soles of the feet shift as you circle around the bubbling well.

If you get proficient at this, the force of the downward action will reverse and travel up the leg in a spiral pattern and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments will spiral around the bones. This takes a while to see. At first, just focusing steadily on shifting weight in a circle takes most of your concentration. See if you can do this at home.

Yin-Yang Learning

Yin-Yang Learning

taiji tu

The taiji symbol of yin-yang, light becomes dark and darkness becomes light. Taiji movement expresses these relationships.

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A tai chi learning progression

Learning the simplest things in tai chi can be a challenge, not because they are difficult; but, because we’re unfamiliar with them at first. Tai chi is like that. Life is like that. For example, sometimes new learners grasp the details of simple cloud hands with great effort. Or remembering to maintain a proper stance while moving the upper body takes reminding ourselves over and over. With practice though, we gradually build familiarity with the moves, then we become more comfortable, then we can refine what we’ve learned. Every successive move is a refinement of the last one. Over time, with practice and continued focus, we improve at the learning process itself. We are able to sustain concentration longer and with more depth. We look forward to new information so that we can practice learning skills that the moves themselves teach us.

One-minute or less tai chi exercise tips

We think we have to separate tai chi practice from our jobs and other daily requirements. We see it as a time thing. We either have time for tai chi or we don’t. We have to work. No doubt about that. Tai chi is extracurricular, not necessary.

This is difficult to accept as a teacher and a long-time practitioner. I prefer to see the issue as a “timing” thing and what kinds of movement can fall under the category of “tai chi.” By that I mean that if we time it right, we can do tai chi anytime during the day by simply recognizing that we have a minute or two to do something—however little it is.

To know what that something is is easy. I’ve given learners several things they can do and they can be practicing intricate subtle principles of tai chi anytime they think of it. Simply standing in Wuji and opening the lower back (ming men): hip sink down, waist rise up, spine elongates, vertebrae open and separate. Top of head rises, back of neck fills (“xu ling ding jing”). One of my teachers calls this (or something like it) “raising the Shen.” I call it a “one-minute exercise.”

Another one minute exercise: visualize expanding the dantian from point to ball. Maintain it as a ball. Even for 10 seconds. You will create a kind of “guardian chi” (not exactly the original meaning, but it applies in this case). It helps to protect you from detrimental energies in your environment.

The challenge is to shift the mind from the demands of work to tai chi even for just a minute or two. That’s the issue, not whether we have time or not. There always is time. The true goal, and what I believe motivates a person to learn tai chi in the first place, is to integrate some sort of “practice” in our daily lives that helps us to rise above demands (often unwelcome), and integrate mind and body connectivity in movement and thought throughout the day—to develop greater awareness of our deeper selves and to awake to that even in the midst of meeting the challenges.

Whether it’s having time, not having time, or simply, timing, doing tai chi is one challenge. Having energy is perhaps a greater, deeper challenge. I’ll have to talk about that another time though. I’m tired.

Starting tai chi with trust

When I started tai chi I didn’t know what to expect, but I was rather desperate. I had been ill for a long time and I was willing to try anything. It just so happened that a colleague at work invited me to join him in his tai chi class. So I did, and that was the beginning of my journey into discovering what tai chi is and what it would mean to me.

Essentially, tai chi is a journey of discovery for whoever endeavors to learn what tai chi can do for them. It’s a journey of accomplishment. The “excitement of discovery and satisfaction of achievement” is my fancy, wordy way of describing it.

One thing that I’ve always been pretty good at is doing things without questioning why I’m doing them, or questioning what teachers, preachers, parents, doctors, dentists, and friends tell me to do. I trust things that way. It hasn’t always served me well, but it has worked in the case of tai chi. I think most children are naturally that way–to trust without knowing where it’s going.

And that’s how I felt about tai chi when I began 17 years ago. I’m still practicing, and it is a major part of my activities. In the beginning, I took to it slowly—one 90-minute class a week. I had difficulty lasting the whole class, and several times I walked out before class ended. But at some point I was feeling better. I got really excited about how it, so I started training more intensively.

After a while, as most long-term practitioners are aware, I met a “wall of resistance.” By this, I mean that at some point in a practice you become challenged to go beyond yourself, and to seriously shift to a new level of skill. You’re not sure how to, though. You’ve never been there before.

In order to rise above the block, you have to make clear choices about wanting to continue. One thing I’ve learned after practicing and teaching for this long is that every beginner that comes along has to do the same thing. However long you practice, for a month or many years, you have to make a conscious choice every day practically to practice.

The truth is you’re always at a starting point at which you’re at a new learning edge. It’s a chance to learn something you didn’t know before. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But if there’s anything that we human beings are good at, it’s overcoming the obstacle of not knowing something and learning anyway. You just have to trust.

Where is the proof in tai chi?

They’ve got theories to explain and practices to prove, but you may never prove anything. However, the effort you make to do so is proof enough that it was important enough to at least try.

A tale of a taiji student seeking secrets

George Xu told a story a few times about visiting his aging teacher in hopes of obtaining “secrets” from him. But his teacher never told him anything. Master Xu visited him often hoping for some insight, but his teacher passed away before he ever did. After he died he asked his teacher’s wife what he did when no one was around and she said that he didn’t do anything.

“What do you mean?” Master Xu asked, surprised and distraught. “He didn’t do anything?”

“Just sit there and drink tea all day,” she said.

Although he must have learned a lot from his teacher, Master Xu worried that his teacher would pass away without divulging more of his knowledge . . . . which is what happened. Many old masters have taken much knowledge of Chinese internal martial arts to their final resting places.

Master Xu then told us that he eventually learned that the old master was actually visualizing the moves of the form and other applications in his mind. He wasn’t just sitting and drinking tea all day. He was actively going through his practice in his mind’s eye.

Master Xu tells his story hoping it’s the revelation for us as it was for him and we would see the lesson for our own practice.

Master Xu actually used the word “imagined” instead of visualized, which I see in the context of “imagery.” Susan A. Matthews refers to this as “mental practice.” She instructs the learner to see a move before your body does it. Don’t jump to doing it and sacrifice concentration.

Imagery helps to maintain continuity, which in turn cultivates powerful results. Indeed, research into sports has confirmed the power of imagery in cultivating competitive success. You become more precise in your coordination, your timing is more accurate, you’re stronger, quicker, and you develop power. Memory improves as does your skill at remembering. You can read many articles about this subject by googling, “sport imagery” or “sports visualization.”

Master Xu’s story resonates with me to the degree that I even instruct beginners on the importance of visualization as a powerful tool for learning and remembering things. But I think that few actually understand at first, probably because visualization lacks context with their own experience. Yet, perhaps we are all familiar with visualization, which is so ingrained in habitual mental processes that we no longer give it the attention it deserves when learning new information.

It’s certainly not easy for most of us to do at first. It’s like trying to swim without having learned. Or like trying to drive a truck with a stick shift after seeing it done only once or twice. It’s meditative and takes a little more effort than we are accustomed to. Learning new things keeps us on our toes and stimulates the inherent faculties we have to learn; abilities that, if we don’t use them, will shrivel and be lost.

Every beginner to tai chi is challenged with the very idea of learning itself in order to cultivate a familiarity with the information. Imagery and visualization are tools for learning. Growing adept at them will undoubtedly lead to greater knowledge and ability. Then when you are old and have mastered a great skill, and students come to visit in hopes of learning secrets, you can tell them they already know what it is.