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.

 

 

 

I like getting questions in class

“Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.” – David Epston

Questions in tai chi group practice give me something tangible to relate to. They challenge me to delve into knowledge immersed just below the surface, waiting to emerge and bring light to a topic of interest. They bring teacher and student closer in shared experience and understanding. They bridge one story with another, thus creating a single story out of many.

A note on “change” in tai chi

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In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

Editorial Specialist, Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies, teaches and blogs about fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as he understands them. He also produces and edits instructional videos of master practitioners.

A tai chi tip: Doing tai chi anywhere, anytime

Tai chi doesn’t have to be something you schedule to do. With a little knowledge you can practice a simple technique anywhere, anytime. Here’s one idea.

Standing in Wuji . . . . or Being Like a Mountain

One way to begin tai chi is simply by standing. For example, Wuji is the first posture in a tai chi form. You return to Wuji when you finish form. It basically means to stand quietly but alive and agile. It’s sometimes called “standing like a mountain”; silent, expansive and powerful. “Empty” is another term used to describe the state of being in Wuji. Quiet, without thought, without tension, even without mind.

The Classics say that Taiji was born out of Wuji and from Taiji came Yin-Yang, or the separation and movement of things in the world. So when you stand in Wuji then move, you are expressing a universal principle of Taiji, the supreme ultimate expression of movement.

Here is a little pointer on beginning form by standing in Wuji. Stand facing forward, arms at sides, feet parallel and shoulder width, a straight line from ear lobes to ankles, chin downward, not up. Abdomen loose, shoulders relaxed and “sitting on the hips.”

Breath should be natural, even and full, but not strained. Place your attention on your feet. Feel the surface of whatever you are standing on with the soles of your feet. Feel the muscles. Feel the weight. Feel warmth or coolness. Shift your weight slightly to one side then the other. Feel how your body as a whole responds and adjusts to the shifting.

Visualize something like water or a breeze flowing into the ground through the point behind the ball of the foot. See how far you can project the flow into the earth. Now, visualize the flow rising from the earth through that point all the way to the top of your head and back down. Feel how the rising force causes your body to rise with it.

That’s it, that’s all you have to do. Just standing in Wuji and visualizing a flow is good practice any time you like.

An Exercise for a Taiji Stroll

Sometimes I feel like I’ve stared at the computer for too long and I need to take a break, maybe go for a walk. Often, when I do, it’s difficult to shift. It’s like I’m still looking at the computer while I’m walking. The eye muscles are stagnated in the position of staring at the computer. This stiffness in the eyes affects the whole body while trying to walk and loosen up. It’s like I’m fighting against myself. When I become aware that this is happening, the question of what to do about it comes up.

My first inclination is to move. Do some sort of exercise. Simply walking is good. Tai chi is good, of course, because you’re exercising your whole body, not just a single part. Tai chi walking is even better.

Here is something you might want to really think about as a practice goal when you’re doing tai chi: “the whole body moves as a single unit.” Part of moving as a “unit” is to coordinate movement with mind focusing on a particular point in the body as part of an initial stimulus to move the rest of the body.

For example, you might be able to move the eyes in circles while circling the body on a horizontal plane. As you move, the eyes are connected with the dantian (center point of body essentially) while turning in that circle pattern and focusing on as much detail in your view as you can. Let the eyes lead the rest of the body.

It may be difficult at first to smoothly coordinate the eye movement with the rest of the body. But with practice the physical—timing and pace—improve.

Along with that, if you have a mind to focus on it, will be an awareness of the energy connecting all those parts together. Even though they’re separate parts, something is connecting them as a single unit and that’s the energy we call “qi.”

A simple (sort of) stretch to break ergonomic fatigue

push up sky

Push Up Sky from Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong

I take walks and do tai chi and qigong to ease the ergonomic strain of sitting at a computer for long periods. One move I do is push up sky, the first posture of Eight Pieces of Brocade Qigong. To do it, the arms are stretched directly above the head, palms facing skyward, and fingers of both hands pointing towards each other. I also vary the posture with movement, spiraling the hands so fingers face out away from each other, then turning them back in towards each other.

This move may initially seem to be turning at the wrist, but I actually aim to move the legs, hips, waist, sacrum and spine by virtue of connectivity of the bones, joints, ligaments and tendons in order to ultimately spiral the wrist, hands and fingers. If you moved this way, you’d be doing what commonly is referred to in internal martial arts as “whole body moves as a single unit.”

Just about anyone who has practiced internal martial arts long enough is familiar with this way of moving and they are constantly working to improve it with more ease, precision and power. Many beginners, however, have difficulty concentrating on moving in such an unaccustomed manner. They may also not be aware that physical movement is only the beginning of what can be learned.

The wonder of tai chi is that it allows you to be aware of your energetic matrix. For example, when you do a simple posture, such as push up sky, it’s possible to see an energetic line from sacrum (or feet) to finger tips linking the physical dimension with a more-ethereal energetic connection. Initiating a movement at the focal point ignites a subtle burst or flashpoint of energy that flows unbroken along that line from initiation to completion. The fingers listen for what’s coming, but they don’t move before the energy reaches them.

Moreover, energy moves, yet is still at the same time, as though it creates its own conduit through which to flow. You could do this from any focal point. Focusing the attention is the key practice.

There are a number of reasons to play with movement this way. One is to cultivate more precise control of the body. Another is to improve ability to concentrate singlemindedly on a simple task. Perhaps above all, it just feels good. These are outcomes as well as reasons, I suppose. Other more-basic outcomes you can expect of course include better posture, circulation, balance and so on.

It’s also a good practice for grasping what tai chi offers that is rarely seen otherwise, which is to become more aware. Whatever your level, practice offers a grand opportunity to see and surpass limitations to new, more-effective habits of posture and movement. The possibilities for health and mindfulness are enormous.

 

Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts. He teaches fundamentals of tai chi and qigong, and also produces instructional videos.

Best Place Tai Chi

Tim_lazy tying-webIn front of Bear Creek Falls a three mile hike up from Telluride, Colorado, USA. A nice Chen style form should do the trick.

 

 

 

 

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.