Break tai chi down to its simplest components

Single basics, or ji ben gong. Easier to remember. Easier to do. Offers quick results in a number of areas: repetitive movement facilitates mental plasticity (see Matthews Brain Workshop). While you do one action over and over, your mind is freed up to take into account various other components of the movement. I talk about single basics in past posts if you want to read more.

Two Bodies Concept in Taiji

In taiji we are doing two things at a time. Maybe four. All require and active and present mental awareness. We are moving physical and energy and we are tracking both with the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Don’t ask me which because I’m not neuroscientist. Susan Matthews could answer that question.

All I know is that you are moving physical body and the qi flows through the body and outside of it and it is as though you must separate the brain’s halves to track each. I know that we are capable if it. Our human resources are infinite if we are willing to step beyond perceived limitations.

I learn different things from George Xu and Shifu Matthews but they are in alignment on at least one thing that I have learned from both. The fundamental universal thing common to all martial arts. Maybe you know to what I refer. Hopefully it resonates in some wordless part of you, because words fail me when I try to describe what it is exactly. That is no doubt the key and we all are looking for the key that unlocks the mystery.

Power Stretching in Chinese Martial Arts, Step 2: Connect the Upper and Lower Body

Master Wang Ming Bo
Master Wang moves in power stretch.

Susan A. Matthews’ guided description of power stretching from the Lan Shou Quan system contains six steps to help the practitioner practice. I present step one in a previous post, which describes the beginning “basic mechanism of spiraling biomechanics and power stretching from the ground up through the legs to open/flatten the low back.” This is a basis for practically all movement in power stretching, if you want to transmit force from the ground through the upper body out to the hands. To reach this goal requires connecting the upper and lower body through the low back.

In Step 2, Shifu Matthews describes how to use the quadratus lumborum (which she describes in her video, Mind and Energy Movement in Taijiquan) to pull the lower rib cage securely down towards the iliac crest near the sacroiliac joint. “Do not arch the low back, rather open the low back by rooting (spiral screwing) into the ground with the feet (see Step #1). Release the front. Allow the shoulders and head to elevate by opening at the hips in the front. Also use the latissmus dorsi to stabilize the low back. The latissmus dorsi attaches to the humerus in the armpit. Contracting it should pull the shoulder and elbow down. Try one side, then the other, then both together. Try one side, feel the ribs contract in the back, feel the ribs open opposite front. We like rib action without twisting.”

On her website, Shifu Matthews includes instructions on testing with a partner how this step, along with step 1, can be applied.

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.