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Author: sprath

Taoism on how to Improve Sleep

Do you have trouble sleeping?  When did it begin?  The exact answer isn’t important.  What is important is that you remember a time when your sleep was at best, heavenly or at least, not an issue.

Most people hearken back to their childhood when sleep was powerful and rejuvenative.  Or their early 20s when sleep could be turned on whenever you were not having fun.  Out at the club until 4?  Just sleep until noon.  Need to study?  Pull an all-nighter.


“I wish my mind would shut off so I could sleep.”

The Relaxation Progression

From Taoism we benefit greatly from their strict studying of how to effectively use different portions of the day optimally to accomplish mental, physical, and intellectual goals.  For Taoists, different parts of the day provide us with different amounts of energy to carry out different types of tasks.  Each day is broken into 2-hour segments and associated with an animal and element.  Each 2-hour segment is further broken into 6 20-minute “Ho.”

improve sleepAs an example, 5-7 am, rabbit, is an extremely sacred segment of time because it is the transition from the Delta brainwaves of deep sleep back to full consciousness.  It is the best time to fully leverage our concentration, originality, and creative thought and is reserved for deep thinking and meditation.

So if certain time periods are advantageous for certain activities, it would be beneficial to enter that time period quickly in an optimal state of mind right?  This is where the Relaxation Progression or “Sleeping Yoga” comes in to play because the Taoists studied how to fall asleep in order to create highly restful and restorative sleep and have more meaningful dreams.

“I wish my mind would just skip the late-night thought session and just go to bed already!”

Start with the feet.  Relax tension from both feet and move up to the calves.  Take your time.  Each body part should take 5 seconds or more and you don’t move on until it feels heavy.  Let each of these body parts relax and release heavily down into the bed:Here is how it works.  Get into bed and lay on your back with your palms face down right below your belly button.  Your right palm is against the body and the left palm is on the back of the right hand.  Some people find it extremely comfortable to put a thinner pillow below the knees.  You are going to bring you attention to every body part starting with your toes and ending with your head.

improve sleepFeet – calves- knees – upper legs – hips – lower back – entire spine – abdomen – chest and ribs – upper back – neck – face – head.  Then scan the entire body.

Here is the trick:  You are not just thinking about your body part.  You imagine that you are releasing tension from each body part and feel it heavily sink into the bed and ultimately into the ground.

Next, come to your breath.

Try breathing so deeply and so softly that you wouldn’t disturb a cobweb floating in front of you.

Your mind will race or wander.  That is kind of the whole point.  When you bring attention to something it can get worse.  You are in working to slow these Beta brainwaves which indicate that we are thinking, down to the slower Alpha, Theta and hopefully Delta brainwaves where we are sleeping so well we can enter into dreaming.  Good luck if you actually make it to your head!  I can’t tell you how many times I was working up through my body sections and didn’t make it past the hips before it was lights out!

Two Bonus Suggestions:

improve sleepPut a bowl of water at head-level near your bed

The dense, calming presence of water matches the clear density of slumber that we are after.  Truthfully, “sleep yoga” requires this step but I have found the Relaxation Progression to be really powerful without it and an extra step just complicates things for some of us if we are already lying down.


Give gratitude for the rest you received

This last part of the Taoist’s sleeping suggestion occurs upon waking up.  We voice gratitude for the rest we got.  Even if it is not that great!  Here’s why:  The brain does not deal well with contradictions.  If you state that you are rested, the mind will look for all sorts of indications as to why this is true.  Conversely, if you announce at work that you “are a zombie” because you slept poorly (you think), the mind will also work to prove this true.[hr]

improve sleepIf you want to learn more about Taoism, check out this great audio book by Ken Cohen.

Taoism:  Essential Teachings on the Way and its Power

Standing Meditation: A Case Study

Each year in our tai chi community we have been undertaking a 21 Day Standing Meditation Challenge to bring in the new year and to help introduce standing meditation and reap the benefits.  The benefits of Standing Meditation are often difficult to explain because of their subtlety.  A student responded with his experience so I thought it only appropriate to share.

My Experience with Standing Meditation

This time last year, I found myself in very tumultuous times personally. I had hit a depressive state that I had not experienced since my mother passed away over 20 years ago. I was very unfocused, in a very dark place, and constantly had suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, during that time in my youth I was surrounded by amazing friends and remarkable professors, one of whom integrated some Tai Chi, Chi Gong, and Yoga into our daily warm-ups in class. His class was one of the most transformative classes I have ever experienced in my life. What I learned in his class laid the foundation for how I take care of myself today mentally, physically, and spiritually.

Week 1

When I heard about the standing meditation challenge last January, I felt like I was needing something like this since I found myself struggling with depression again. I liked how they spent some significant time during that first class in January to explain what was behind the meditation (ncluding these two articles: Benefits of Standing, What is pole standing?). They told a story about how Master Chen Qing Zhou would not tell them the secret to improving one’s Tai Chi, because they would not believe it.  Ultimately he shared that standing daily would improve their Tai Chi. One of the sound bites that stayed with me throughout the time that I did the standing meditation and even today is that it only takes 5 minutes of your day.

The True Commitment

I did the math: There are 1,440 minutes in a day. This meditation would only take .3% of my day. That’s less than one percent of my time during my daily routine. I was also looking forward to doing the challenge with my fellow Tai Chi peers. Basically, every week we would report about our progress and talk about the challenge in class, and it was inspiring to see so many fellow peers committed to doing it every day.

Trouble with Weight, Sleep and Health

During the month of December I had lost 5 pounds due to a loss of appetite. I was really struggling with depression that came about due to some personal challenges that I was facing. I was at 200 pounds when we started the standing meditation challenge at the beginning of January. I was also struggling with insomnia, so sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and toss and turn for 1 to 2 hours before being able to go back to sleep. I would try to force myself back to sleep because I knew that in the morning I would feel very tired going to work. I was a high school teacher at that time. In addition, I had been cautioned frequently by my physician that I needed to take care of myself, since I have a family history of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Both of my parents died of cancer, and I have witnessed many of my relatives fight a losing battle with these illnesses. This provides a lot of motivation for me to be proactive about my health.

Week 2

Despite all this motivation my greatest challenge in doing the standing meditation was finding those 5 minutes in my very busy schedule to do it. So my attitude became that I would make sure to do it everyday no matter what. And one of the drastic measures that I took was that I quit watching television completely. I started dedicating those 2 hours a day to playing music, and doing my standing meditation. There were several days where I did the standing  meditation in the morning before I took a shower to go to work. Some days I would do it after coming home from work when I felt really exhausted and stressed out.

The standing meditation would reenergize me on those days, and I would be more productive the rest of the day. And some days I would do the meditation before doing my routine to go to bed. I would be really tired, and not really feel like doing it, but I would push myself.

Even during the 21 day challenge I continued to struggle with insomnia. It would not be until much later in the year that I figured out that the stress level at work was really affecting my sleep. The stress of being a teacher is not the students. The stress comes from the toxic attitudes of colleagues and administrators, the pressures of high stakes testing, and politics in education. These problems kept me up more times than not in the middle of the night. There were times when I would just get out of bed and do the standing meditation as well as a few other Chi Gong exercises that I had previously learned that helped with settling your core so it would lead to better sleep. I had also discovered that the nights I got the best uninterrupted sleep was on Tuesday nights after Tai Chi class.

There was another discovery I made about the standing meditation: The more I did it, the more difficult it got because I would need to sink deeper into my stance to experience the sensations you experience when you are doing it right. However, I kept going knowing that my Tai Chi peers were doing the same. After about 2 weeks, I started to experience several positive effects. One of them was the reenergizing effect the meditation had on my mental state as well as my physical state. I was able to easily deflect the negativity I was experiencing from some of my colleagues and administrators at the high school, even if figuratively speaking they threw daggers, knives and spears at me.

During those first 2 weeks of the standing mediation, I started getting my appetite back, but I was also eating a lot healthier. I was staying gluten-free, cutting down on the carbs, eating more protein like fish and chicken, and making sure that I ate more veggies and fruits. I stayed away from wheat, dairy and sugar. And I drank lots of water along with my daily dose of green tea.

Week 3

During the third week of the challenge I had sustained a minor injury that landed me in a medical clinic. It was there that I got on the scale that I was so surprised. The scale read 190 pounds. I didn’t have time to really take it in because they hurried me over to one of their examination rooms, but I even told myself, “that scale must be off or broken. It can’t be.” When I returned to Tai Chi class the following week I weighed myself on the scale right outside the
weight room, and it was true. I was down to 190 pounds. I was blown away because I hadn’t been anywhere near that weight since college. More than anything I liked the way I was feeling physically. I had more energy during the day. And I started to notice that I was sinking deeper into my stances as I was practicing Tai Chi in class.


Month 2

However, life kept coming at me in so many ways that even after the 21 day challenge was over I continued to do the standing meditation. The meditation would bring me back to center when I felt my life was spinning out of control. I was also still battling my depressive states at times. My work environment was not improving, and I was still facing personal challenges that created emotional instability.

I continued doing the standing meditation all through the month of February without missing a day. I continued to observe small improvements in my Tai Chi form. I remember in late February several aha moments where I was either doing one of the exercises with the bowling ball or doing the form and feeling like “Wow, this is how this is supposed to feel!”

Month 3

I continued doing the standing meditation in March. The second week in March I attended theSXSW Edu conference, and I continued to do the standing meditation daily. The following week was Spring Break, and I attended the SXSW Interactive, Film & Music Festival. I wanted to keep the streak alive, and I succeeded for one day of the festival. Then on March 12th I came home extremely tired and worn out from being at the festival for over 14 hours that I just went to sleep. I had gone 67 straight days doing the standing meditation.

The Rest of the Year

Even though my streak stopped, I still continued to make the standing meditation a part of my daily routine after Spring Break. I haven’t had a streak like that since then, but I will have streaks where I still do the standing mediation for like ten days straight. I also bought a bowling ball so that I could do the strengthening exercises that we do in Tai Chi class at home at least two times a week. I continue to see positive results in my Tai Chi form, and in my overall health.

I am looking forward to another 21 day challenge with all my peers at the Chen Tai Chi Association of Austin. I decided to share this story because I know how tough it is to overcome procrastination, challenges that life presents us, and depression. I hope that this personal story that I am sharing with you will inspire you to commit to something that enhances your well being. You deserve it.


Help Me Help You Deepen your Tai Chi Practice!

This amazing community increasingly asks for ways to deepen their practice, improve their tai chi, and have tai chi dramatically impact on their lives. I am thinking about writing a book to help us all advance in a positive direction. Please take two minutes to share your thoughts and I will commit to creating something to help you deepen your practice. If you are interested, leave your email at the end. I may reach out to you to talk to get a clearer idea of what you need!

Using the 3 Dantiens to find Enthusiasm

I recently went through a time at work where I really wasn’t motivated.  Projects I was part of took on a gruelingly slow pace.  Activities I would normally do without any real effort required coffee. And rather than be energized by what I was doing, I was really exhausted by the end of day.

At the time I can assure you that I came up with all sorts of excuses as to what the problem was, no of which were me (of course).

Looking back, the situation really hadn’t changed.  Same job, same tasks.  But how I related to it or enjoyed it was completely different.

You all know what comes next.  Doubt and frustration.  Should I change what I am doing?  Why is everything an uphill battle?  Should I still be doing this job?

It was at this time that I was reading up on the 3 dantiens because a student asked:

How are the dantiens different from Chakras? What are they for? and Why are they important?

3 DantiensQuick Overview of the 3 Dantiens

In the Chinese system, there are three power centers.  The Lower Dantien is central in the body and just below the navel.  The Middle Dantien resides at the heart, and the Upper Dantien is behind the center point between the eye brows inside the head.  Click here for more on the 3 Dantiens.

Using the 3 Dantiens to identify what gives you energy and how much you have.

Thinking about where the 3 Dantiens are, they are skillfully located in the thinking center (upper), feeling center (middle), and power center (lower).  For those of you familiar with meditation, this is also the order that we travel through when we are moving energy through our body.  We send energy up the spine into the head, down the front channel through the heart, into the lower dantien at the navel, and back up the spine again.

3 dantiensThis creates a perfect metaphor for digesting a problem at work.

We bring a problem up into our mind.  We think about it.  We react emotionally to whether we want to do it or “have” to do it, and then we “sum up” the energy or “dive right in” based on how we related to it emotionally.

E.g. We bring a problem into the Upper Dantien, move it down to the Middle Dantien and react to it, and then move it into the Lower Dantien to decide what kind of energy we need to complete the task.

Who doesn’t love tangible examples when we are talking about the esoteric??

Positive Situation

Negative Situation

Upper Dantien3 dantiens


I receive an email about returning to work with a client that I really like.  I think about the person, how to reply, and my mind automatically assumes the role of remapping out my schedule to make this happen.


A project is entering its seventh month and pretty much everyone is tired and has abandoned it.  I have to email people 2-4 times just to get a response.  I have meetings that go nowhere.  People recommit but nothing happens.  I am the one responsible for it and if I set it down I am continually asked what the status is.  It is always part of my thought process and on my list of “what I have to do.

Middle Dantien

3 dantiens


I am happy but a little bit worried about the time commitment.


I am frustrated at myself for not knowing how to proceed.  The amount of time and energy needed was completely underestimated and now I feel saddled with it and overwhelmed.

Lower Dantien

3 dantiens


My excitement gives me a burst of energy which I use to wrap up some other projects to dive into this new thing.


This project takes many early mornings, some weekends, and a near-illegal amount of coffee to complete.  Even when it is done there is no celebration.  Everyone is just relieved that it is over.

Studying the 3 Dantiens helped me see a clear difference between these two scenarios.  There were situations that seemed to produce their own energy and situations that reduced energy.  Yes, many and most activities are not on these extreme poles of the spectrum.  But wouldn’t it be great if we could spend more time on the positive side?

There was nothing I could do about the “negative” situations that I had already committed to, but here is what I did.

Assessing Old Activities with the 3 Dantiens

  1. I thought about everything that was on my plate and used the above criteria to identify if a task was giving me energy, neutral, or sapping energy.
  2. For the sapping energy group, I determined if it was emotionally draining or physically draining.
    1. This was actually the easy part. If I was mad about it or it was frustrating me, I realized that I could just turn that off because it was in my power (heart center).
    2. If it was just a lot of work (energy center) I could find time and energy to complete it and did get a tiny boost from getting through it.

Here is the big important part: I evaluated new tasks before I started them, did not over-commit, or at least was accepting of the situation and didn’t feel like I was being abused or taken advantage of.

Assessing New Activities with the 3 Dantiens

  1. I let my mind race with all the optimistic and great possibilities.
  2. If warning bells went off that I wouldn’t like it, not enjoy it, it didn’t align with what was important to my boss, then I shared this before the assumption was made that I would be a part of it.
  3. I evaluated what kind of energy I needed to get this done. Let’s face it.  We have to do things that may not be our favorite.  But by thinking about what was needed ahead of time, I was able to spread the tasks across many weeks so I wasn’t slammed at the end.  This never happened before because I was avoiding it.

Enthusiasm: from Greek enthous ‘possessed by a god, inspired’

So I thought about my work and why I was so exhausted.  “Thinking” about work  didn’t involve much action in negative situations until avoidance (feeling) caused so much delay that immediate action (energy) HAD to be taken. I wasn’t truly in control.

The body provides immediate feedback in the form of pains, fluttering, sweating…  If we weigh an opportunity with all three thinking centers we can activity  choose activities that will make us “possessed by a god.”  In less  ideal situations that we still have to participate in, we can determine how much thought, emotion, and energy are needed.

“When awakening happens, the heart has to open. I think that for realization to be complete, it has to really hit on three levels—head, heart, and gut—because you can have a very clear, enlightened mind, which you’ll know in a deep way, but your being won’t be dancing. Then, when the heart starts to open just like the mind, your being starts to dance. Then everything comes alive. And when your gut opens up, there is that deep, deep, unfathomable stability where that opening, who is you, just died into transparency. It’s become the absolute. You are That.”

Adyashanti, in Emptiness Dancing


Our Obsession over How to Find Your Dan Tien

how to find your dan tienWe obsess, as a community, over how to find your dan tien.  Google it, and you will find inconceivably anatomical approaches to describe its location as well as mystical proclamations on par with poets’ descriptions of “love.”

On one hand, we are told that our tai chi development cannot progress without a full understanding of the Dan Tien.  On the other hand, we are told that it doesn’t physically exist.

What to do?  What to do?

how to find your dan tienI found an elegant answer to this problem written in 1886.  Not produced by some unpronounceable Chinese philosopher but instead by an equally unpronounceable German philosopher: Nietzsche (Knee-chuh).

Hang in there for the next few paragraphs because I feel that this idea sets the stage for the next generation of western tai chi/qi gong practitioners to improve our development and move closer towards the development level of our eastern peers.

An ‘Anthropologist’s Dilemma’

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche introduces the problems inherent to Anthropology.  Let’s say that we study an ancient tribe.  We have no relationship to this tribe and can discuss their habits and lives objectively (this is good).  If we find a pot or strange building, we are made to guess at what they are for (not so good, but we are still not emotionally tied to our opinion).

Let’s say now that we study a living tribe.  We still have no relationship to someone in Papua New Guinea so we could remain objective.  However, now we can ask what things are for.  When they tell us about the witchcraft that the pot or building celebrates, our values and personal experience kick in and we form a judgement.

The anthropologist’s dilemma points out that there is real value in studying something novel and foreign because it can teach us more about our self.  However, our own experience, culture, and judgments never let us get close enough to understand the truth.

Michael Tanner, a writer on Nietzsche explains it best:

Nietzsche, in trying to take up an anthropological stance to his own society… is in a different but perhaps more worrying plight.  For he is the first person to insist that there is no such thing as a substantial self, which can view the world with dispassion, uncontaminated by its environment. 

Nietzsche continues that we are bound to see things from our own point of view and that we cannot control this.  So…

The only satisfactory way to understand something that is foreign to us is to take up as many points of view as possible. 

Understanding How to Find the Dan Tien from Many Perspectives

how to find your dan tienTo truly understand and/or how to find the dan tien we have to make a composite of all of our points of view.  If we focus too closely on one aspect it will be like getting hung up on the use of the color yellow and not seeing a whole painting.

The Physiological Dan Tien

A physiological view of the dan tien is limited because it doesn’t jive with how our culture defines physiology.  It cannot be cut into.  It cannot be located due to its relationship to adjacent body parts.  However, it is felt due to its central relationship to the entire body.

The Metaphorical Dan Tien

It is solid and yet it is spacious.  A room is a nothing that is defined by things (walls, ceiling, floor).  Without those pieces, a room doesn’t exist.  I love this picture of the pelvic musculature because it looks like the sinks that were made in a factory near my house as a kid.  With the guts removed, you can see that the dan tien is the equal-distant middle space.

how to find the dan tien

The Physical Dan Tien

It is “nothing” but it can be moved.  We can also see by this picture that when we “move” our Dan Tien we are manipulating the muscles around it and the diaphragm above.  This creates real pressure on the organs that fill this space, massaging and invigorating their processes.

The Sense-ational Dan Tien

how to find your dan tien

The Dan Tien can feel as though it grows and shrinks, and changes temperature.  But again, it is not connected to the endocrine system (directly) in order to convert energy.  Additionally, every cell in the body produces heat as it burns energy, but the Dan Tien is not cellular???  This “truth” is a little out of my league in all honesty.  However, I understand how the body converts energy to heat so I “know” the process is possible.  How this heat is concentrated in a central space, manipulated, and expanded is outside of my wheel-house. Yet, each of these processes exist independently in the body for a fact, and in the case of the Dan Tien, appear to be brought together.  In isolation you can see that this idea appears far-fetched. When taken as one of many perspectives it aids our understanding.

The Greatest Hang-up to our Collective Progress

Three DantiensAnalyzing and understanding how to find your dan tien is incredibly important.  Yet I am saddened that we as a community never develop much past this discussion.   Even my tone in this essay alludes to the idea that the Dan Tien is one thing when in fact there are three!  We talk incessantly about the Lower Dan Tien because of its importance but never make enough headway to advance the discussion to include the Middle Dan Tien and Upper Dan Tien.  We are students forever grappling with addition, never to experience the power of multiplication.  We must seek a relationship with our dan tien and not pursue concrete understanding.  Otherwise our inherent cultural and experiential beliefs will not allow us to progress.

In all fairness,  I highlight the importance of all 3 dantiens so in the next essay I will share my thoughts on how the three dan tiens relate to our daily life.

To Summarize

In reading Nietzsche I believe that he is right.  Self-analysis is so incredibly difficult due to our belief system, experience, and knowledge that we inadvertently bring to bear on a situation.  True understanding comes from accepting this, and defining something novel by using as many different perspectives as possible.  We then “taste the soup and not just the oregano.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond good and evil. Penguin, 2003.
Nietzsche: A Very Short IntroductionFeb 1, 2001.  by Michael Tanner


Qigong Healing – Are cultural beliefs stopping qigong from healing your body?

There is so much debate about the potential for qigong healing the body.  I for one believe that qigong can heal the body and benefit from my practice.

However, aside from my personal experience I do not feel that there is a large enough body of evidence to sway non-believers or people who have not had positive results (yet!)


So what to do?

What I can do is share how my cultural beliefs (and maybe yours) didn’t let me accept the potential for qigong healing.  There will always be a seed of doubt until the first change is felt but knowing that it is possible has to be the very first step.  Let’s unpack this a bit.



Believers share their successes which are typically powerful narratives about overcoming an affliction with some dedicated qigong healing practice.However, each instance is typically an isolated case that cannot easily be replicated.

Furthermore, if someone suffers from a true affliction such as back pain, hearing that someone alleviated their symptoms without drugs or surgery is very attractive.  This is even more critical when someone has tried all the traditional western options.


Nay-sayers consider the healing to be coincidence or too inferior a solution when compared to a western approach.For every person who has benefited from qigong healing their body, there are many more who are unsuccessful.  At best, qigong may be a weak alternative or an addition to care but not a cure.

From a purely debate standpoint, the nay-sayers hold a naturally stronger position because they do not have to produce the burden of proof.  They simply highlight their own lack of success or case-studies that have not been systematically proven true.

What is qigong healing?

Metaphysical and esoteric arguments only make this explanation harder so let’s set that aside for today.  At its essence, qigong healing is:

  1. Getting the body and mind into a relaxed healing state typically through breathing, gentle movement, and mental effort to quiet the mind or make our thoughts positive.
  2. Using the mind to heal. There are two basic modalities which are used separately or together depending on the qigong set.



Directing the mind to an injured area and using the forced concentration to heal. Improving and increasing the energy of the entire body so that it “overflows” into the area of need.


Without a systematic way to validate qigong’s healing powers, how do we get to a place of hope and potential?

The body is the proof.

qigong healingLet’s undertake a thought experiment.  Answer YES, NO, or MAYBE to the following questions.  Choose whatever comes immediately to mind:

  1. Can a person be so afraid that they are unable to move?
  2. Can an activity, such as public speaking, cause a person to be so uncomfortable that they become physically ill and can’t do it?
  3. Can grief over the loss of a loved one make a person unable to get out of bed?
  4. Can reliving a fight you had in your mind cause your heart to race and cause you to sweat?
  5. Can directing energy into a body part with your mind cause it to heal?

If you are like most people, you answered YES to the first 5 questions and NO or MAYBE to the last one.  So here is a question for you:

Why are we so willing to accept that the mind can cause pain and sickness in the body yet we struggle to believe that the mind can also heal?

Our Culture Determines what we Think about Qi Gong Healing

Growing up in the United States I simply didn’t have a metaphor or belief system that would accept the mind’s ability to cause positive change in the body.  Plenty of negative ones.  The closest thing for us is a religious explanation or spontaneous regression.

Every day our negative thoughts and emotions trigger physiological responses.  This is a natural human process.  Survival depends on us being acutely aware of what can harm us so don’t beat yourself up over it.  Negative thinking is the o know that you can actively engage the same system though for positive benefit.

Where the evidence is.

Qigong Healing I wonder if the “lack of evidence” surrounding qigong at this point is simply due to the fact that Asian cultures don’t need it.  They may inherently believe that it works and have moved on to study which qigong set best fits each ailment.

Some large-scale studies do exist and are underway but I don’t even know that more are needed.  Major western money has already been pumped into studying how the mind can heal the body and it has all been verified.  They just call it mindfulness.  Jon Cabot-Zin’s work is a must if you need more buy-in (below).

Otherwise just make the conscious choice to heal.

Further Reading:

The Science of Mindfulness

MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness


Why Learning Qi Gong is Unbelievably Hard

Most pursuits in life have a pretty gentle learning curve in the beginning.  You can take a weekend cooking workshop and come away with enough skills and ideas to enhance how you eat.  You can take an “Intro to Piano” intensive and come out with some semblance of a song and an understanding of how much time you would have to put in to get to where you would want to be.

Not so with Learning Qi Gong.

A weekend workshop could teach you a set of movements with no real understanding or sensation of “chi.”  Benefits might not be initially gained and I am not sure that we often experience the glee and enjoyment from partaking in something new because there is no feedback or the benefits are not obvious.

Learning Qi Gong is Difficult due to the Nature of the Teaching, Not the Task at Hand.

learning qi gongYes Qi Gong and Chi manipulation is something that might be entirely outside of our wheelhouse but I believe that it remains inaccessible because of how we are taught, not because it is inherently difficult.  In this essay I have pulled together the reasons why I feel that so many fail to make tangible progress with Qi Gong and thereby don’t enjoy the benefits.

Readers note:  There is no difference between the words “Qi” and “Chi” and I use them interchangeably here.  Qi Gong is typically written with “Qi.”  The energy is typically written as “Chi.”

5 Reasons Why Learning Qi Gong is Difficult

  1. You cannot “learn” a set all at once

A Qi Gong set can typically last 3-15 minutes.  When taught correctly, each section is focused on for a large amount of time until the energy is felt and developed successfully.  As you progress, the set actually gets SHORTER because each move can be performed with a correct level of intensity and accuracy.

An example:  Mantak Chia teaches a sitting meditation that takes 30-45 minutes to perform when you are learning.  When you have ample knowledge and sensitivity, the same set can be performed in under 8 minutes.

Workshops tend to deliver on their promise of teaching a full qi gong set.  It has been my experience that there is great attrition in practice after learning because the attendee isn’t realizing the benefits of the set.

  1. Qi Gong builds over time

Through Qi Gong (Energy-Set) we are building energy in the body.  When Qi Gong is taught correctly you often spend more time working on the individual components to really sense what is going on and then glue them together into a Qi Gong form at the end.   This means that a full month of diligent practice could pass before the set is completed.  Focus often remains on the movements.  “I learned the movements therefor I know the set, right?”  No.  Sets are often pretty simple, some having a single posture.  What is complex is our waking up to and feeling the energy that is emanating from our body and then knowledge that we can manipulate it.  This is powerful but cannot happen all at once.

  1. Qi Gong is often considered ancillary or secondary

Rarely do we find a Qi Gong school or a specified Qi Gong teacher.  Typically, it is taught as part of another martial arts class or as secondary to some other importance.  For example, tai chi classes may do 5 minutes of qi gong before getting to “the real stuff.”  Also, some healthcare practitioners such as massage therapists and acupuncturists have begun learning and teaching qi gong.  This is a good start and I applaud their efforts.  However, the bulk of their learning goes into their primary occupation for obvious reasons.    I am not being negative here, just pointing out a current limitation.   I believe that these professionals may carry qi qong into the next level of acceptance and development in our western countries.

  1. There is little opportunity to ask questions during development

As one starts to feel chi it is so so subtle and the mind easily ignores it or makes up an explanation for the new sensation.  The diligent practitioner starts to feel more and more but who do they bounce their experiences off of without sounding like a lunatic?  What do they do with those sensations and what is the next step?

As an example from my early development, I was blown away when I started sensing chi in my hands.  I worked for months trying to improve this sensation and make it stronger.   However, the harder I tried, the weaker it became.  Flash forward one year to a Tai Chi workshop where I got to share my experience during a private lesson and seek advice.  It was translated to me that the sensation in the hands was like a car’s exhaust.  That heat in my hands was the natural overflow of abundant energy in my center.  By increasing my body’s chi, the chi in my hands would increase as a beneficial side effect.  That simple conversation changed the course of my development and moved me on to the next stage but I had not progressed for a year.  I had been focusing on the hands to no avail.

  1. Chi development is extremely subtle and unrecognizable at first

learning qi gongIf you are out of shape and you go to the gym what happens?  Fat and eat well for a week?  Drunk and sober up?  Most things in life give us immediate feedback and the initial efforts have the greatest positive impact.  Chi development through Qi Gong is the exact opposite.  Little to nothing can happen for 20-30 days.  Without knowing this and practicing with active faith you are likely to quit.  After diligent practice, you begin to sense qi, begin to manipulate it, have enough to share, and then see positive changes within your life.

Good Qi Gong instruction requires a heavy dose of intellectual instruction so that a person sees the entire arc of development.  It also contains as much scientific, physical, or historical information to give us the needed buy-in to continue.  If we begin learning a set without understanding what to expect it will seem like hocus pokus and again, we may quit.

In Summary:

I am really stricken by what I have written here because it is true and yet I can’t but hope that more people get over the initial hurdle and truly benefit from Qi Gong.

So in my dream world (and hopefully really world for some of you out there) what criteria can you use to find Qi Gong that you will be successful with?

  1. Instruction should build over a period of time so that you can increase your sensitivity to chi and so your body can adjust to the increase in energy.
  2. You should have the opportunity to ask questions as you develop to keep you on the correct course.
  3. You should have knowledgeable explanations for what you are doing and why you are doing it to gain the needed buy-in until you can sense how you are manipulating chi.
  4. Qi Gong should be a main focus of the instructor or school, not just a minor aside.

Many readers have shared a real interest in Qi Gong and I will be on the lookout for programs that meet this criteria.  I will share what I come across but please add to the comments if you find something valuable.

Tai Chi Weapons – 6 Reasons to study arcane fighting techniques

When was the last time you resorted to using a 7 foot spear to settle a dispute?  Or, do you think you would feel safer if your double-edge sword skills were up to snuff?  Ridiculous, I know.  Yet we study an art form that continues to teach ye-olde weapons forms.  Why bother?

Tai Chi weapons forms teach us skills that cannot easily be accomplished with the open-hand form or any other fitness regime.

Here are six reasons why you should study tai chi weapons

1) A weapon gives you tangible, reliable feedback

I love the word “implement” rather than “weapon” to describe this group of tools. Weapons serve as feedback devices to let us know if we are moving and using energy correctly.  This really isn’t possible in the open-hand forms.  If you leaning over in the ball/sphere form, your back hurts.  If you issue into the pole or spear and your weight doesn’t stay low in the body, it doesn’t shake.   If you issue into a straight sword with less energy that goes into the opposite hand, the end of the sword barely quivers.  Immediate, tangible feedback that uncovers bad posture and disconnected movement.

2) A weapon teaches how to extend your energy out past your physical body

The material of each weapon is responsive.  It shakes, quivers, snaps, or rings.  When you move correctly (from the center and with a balanced body) energy travels out to the tip or to the edge of the impliment.  By taking our focus a few feet past our body we are introduced to a greater extension of our power.  The alchemy people argue that our energy extends out past our skin.  This esoteric ideas become easier to grasp when you are manipulating a physical object.  Pushhands or the open-hand forms puts its focus on energy traveling out to the hands which is great.  However, if you study weapons you can shift your energy and focus out to a large area of influence.

3) Weapons help us understand how to separate heavy and light chi

We talk about moving from the center but the actual separation of lightness into the upper body and heaviness into the lower body is more easily understood if you are manipulating something with weight.  You must keep your weight low and your upper body relatively relaxed so that you do fall over or lose your balance.

4) Weapons isolate individual energies

Tai chi weapons practice isolates specific energies in the same way that a musician isolate specific notes in a phrase.  We isolate these energies to improve them and then re-integrate their use into the open-hand form.  For example, the broadsword is centrifugal and sends the body in circles to power the single blade.  Conversely, the spear spins portions of the body to create micro-cycles of energy.  The straight sword teaches balance and equalization of power between the dominant (weapon) and non-dominant hand.  Meanwhile, the dense pole teachers a summation of energy as the pole has to be powered from the heel through a correctly aligned posture in order to get the pole to respond correctly.

5) Weapons correctly transmit knowledge across time

Ok pretend you have valuable health information to share.  And, you want to make it available to people in the year 2514.  What do you use?  A floppy disk?  Reel to reel? Will paper last outside of a museum? See what I am getting at?  Yes, weapons have conveyed martial knowledge but I believe there is a more practical solution that was at hand.  Someone wanted to teach energy work and the found objects that had and would likely be around (wax wood, bamboo, steal, etc).  Their dimensions had been recorded and would largely stay the same.  These “implements” would be a great way to convey their knowledge.

6) Tai chi weapons are fun as h#@! and connect us to tradition

tai chi weaponsLet’s cut to the chase on this one.  Tai Chi weapons forms are beautiful, fun, and you are participating in history.  The arcane implement you are swinging around connects you to 2000 years of history!  Be proud that you have chosen to align yourself with the thousands of practitioners over time who have worked to understand themselves better and align themselves with something greater.  Plus, we don’t always have to be so serious.  Let’s yell, jump in the air, and hit things!

Tai Chi Breathing: 9 Guidelines to get the most out of your practice

If you are overwhelmed with the intricacies of tai chi then this topic is going to be refreshing for you.  For the ultra-beginners, tai chi breathing is one area that you don’t need to focus too much on.  Your job is to learn the movements of the form.  Breathing will improve just from learning the form and practicing.

Once you complete the form and have been practicing for a while, questions always arise as to how you should breathe, when you should breathe, if you should breathe…

Why should tai chi breathing take a back seat?

The movements of tai chi are so scripted that corrections are continual.  It is natural to think that there is corresponding breath work that exactly maps over each movement.    However, too much focus on the breath takes us away from the main reason we are doing the form; which is to relax and return the body to a sense of equilibrium.

Secondly, tai chi breathing is hard to define because throughout the form different breathing patterns are acceptable.  Typically we want long continuous breaths but short quick breaths are also employed during longer movements and for quick transitions.

Thirdly, trying to standardize instructions for movements and breathing completely ignores what state you are in when you begin the form.  For example, on any given day I can arrive at class: hyper from too much coffee, exhausted from a long day at work, happy, under the weather, chilled, or sweating from the heat.   How I begin and how I am breathing at the beginning of the form is very different from how I end it.

tai chi breathing Fourthly, each of us has different lung capacities, coordination, and speed of movements.  If you are trying to match a classmate or teacher, it will not be right for you.

In this essay I am talking about breathing that takes place during the tai chi forms.  There are various exercises called “tai chi breathing”  which isolates breath-work in standing postures or with minimal movements.  This is fine.  Qi gong breathing is also incredibly specific and many qi gong sets purposefully manipulate breath.

9 Guidelines to get the most benefit out of tai chi breathing.

Not having a breathing prescription per se does not mean that we breathe willy-nilly.   Instead, we can adhere to a certain set of guidelines throughout the form.

1.  Breathe out long enough so that you feel like you need to take a deep breath.

2.  Your exhale should be slightly longer than your inhale.

3.  Keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Say “la” and notice where the tongue goes.  Place the tip of the tongue here when practicing tai chi.

4.  Primarily inhale and exhale through your nose. Use mouth breathing only if you’re suffering from allergies, colds, or other types of nasal congestion.

5.  Aim for a long, continuous breath without a pause between the inhale and exhale. Breathing should not stop.

6.  Breathe into the belly.  The changing pressure on your organs while your breathe gives them a massage.

7.  When you’re inhaling (storing energy), think of taking in the life energy-oxygen- into your body. When you deliver energy or force, you exhale.

8.  When your hands move apart breathe in, you are storing energy.  When your hands come together you are delivering energy so breathe out.

9.  When your hands move up, breathe in, you are storing energy.  When your hands move down, breathe out, you are delivering energy again.

Reasons why NOT to over-concentrate on your tai chi breathing

tai chi breathingOver-concentrating on breathing can have some undesirable consequences.

  • Holding of the breath causes an anxiety response and can stress us out.
  • Relaxation causes energy to sink to the dantien or to the feet.   Too much pressure (like what is used purposefully in qi gong breathing) can push the chi in the wrong direction.
  • Becoming sensitive enough to feel energy moving in your body is dependent on the free movement of breath.  You have to learn how to feel and sense your breath before you can manipulate it.
  • Worst case scenario, tooooo much pressure can lead to intestinal problems or hemorrhoids can flare up.

Our main goal in tai chi is to bring ourselves back to center, to balance, and tai chi breathing can get us there.   We begin the form in a certain state such as tired, agitated, or anxious and change our state to something more pleasant simply by doing the form.  Pretty powerful stuff.


The Benefits of Correcting Posture

Experience the benefits of correcting posture!   Why do we spend so much time correcting posture and why is the western world waking up to posture’s importance?

Take any tai chi class, the good, the bad, or the ugly, and your first and continual introduction to the art has a huge focus on posture. The quintessential tai chi images, regardless of style, show beautifully erect and elongated postures.

While posture alignment in tai chi has always been a foundational focus, the reasons behind why it is a focus have not always been clear. With the advent of integrated fitness regimes and huge numbers of people suffering from back pain and sciatica, posture has finally gained its rightful position (pun intended) of importance in EVERYTHING that we do.
benefits of correcting posture

Here are some incredibly sad statistics compiled on The Gokhale Method website:

  • 90% of adults experience back pain at some point in their lives.
  • This year, 50% of working Americans will experience back pain.
  • Back pain is now the leading cause of disability in people under 45 years old.
  • By age 15, more than 60% of all adolescents have experienced back and/or neck pain.

This essay is about the benefits of correcting posture but for those of you that have back pain or are serious about experiencing the benefits from good posture, Gokhale’s book: 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back is unparalleled. She debunks ideas that weight, height, or bending cause back pain by sharing research on world populations where back pain does not exist. Plus, I am a big advocate of her work because it parallels tai chi theory. She does not focus on posture for posture’s sake by filling your time with exercises. She embeds changes into your daily routines.

The Benefits of Correcting Posture

Maintaining good posture is hard work! It takes focus throughout the day and awareness while sitting, lying down, or standing until good posture becomes an ingrained habit. Here are some primary reasons why it is worth your time.

Improved Alertness

Dr. Mladen Golubic, with Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, states that:

“When you slump, you have reduced your capacity to inhale properly, to inhale through your diaphragmatic breathing rather than just expanding the chest. That could lead to feeling tired and exhausted and feeling sleepy.”

Improved Cognition

Improved posture means an increase in oxygen throughout the day and during sleep. Try to fill a crushed balloon. We also still operate under the old ideas that the brain is just in the head. The brain and the spinal column are one integrated system sharing all of the nerves, fluid and synapsis to power our body, think, organize our movements, and manage the processes of our organs. When we start to think about our brain being our spine, bad posture is bad for business.

Increased Power

Yes, ego, pull up a chair. That deadlift you were attempting, that running distance that is just out of reach, that perfect punch, is just one posture correction away. Your power and efficiency is determined by your posture. Secondly, that injury you are nursing or trying to avoid can be directly related to posture. An article by Jeff Kunland on captures the idea really well.

“Positioning in exercise is critical to force output, energy conservation, and safety. An athlete in a good position is resilient and tends to remain injury free. The body is meant to move large loads and have great endurance. Poor positioning and posture not only require additional energy but also strain the body in unnatural ways and directly correlates to higher injury rates.”

Relieve Pain

Let me think this through… So you’re telling me that whoever invented the body put all of the main nerves and control for nerves endings in a tube along the back? That they put hard parts (vertebrae) to protect them and cushions (discs) between the hard parts? And if I bend this tube I crimp the nerves and get pain? Hum… Straighten the tube. Elongate the tube. Get the pressure off of the soft parts so it can heal.
Back to BreakingMuscle with another great quote:

“If you have poor posture with shoulders forward, a curve in your spine, and collapsed hips, your body is literally healing the micro-tears and micro-trauma into this poor position. You are actually healing in a shortened muscular state that remains static, slowly solidifying the new connections your body is making.”

I would add that the process works the same in reverse. Consistent work (a la the tai chi form or standing/sitting meditation) heals micro-trauma into good positions.

Improved breathing

The sole purpose of the lungs is to bring in fresh oxygen and carry away carbon dioxide and used gases. However, the lungs have no way of functioning on their own. They are basically empty sacs which are glued to the interior of the rib cage. Their behavior is dependent on our breathing an d the expansion and compression of the ribs and the diaphragm. The rib bones rotate as the lungs fill and empty while the diaphragm expands down. Now picture a person bent forward. How much is this mechanical process impaired? Back to points 1 & 2 on cognition, how do you think the oxygen amount is affected?

Better mood

We accomplish more based on our outlook on life. But can that outlook be influenced by physical changes? We know the answer is a resounding yes based on work by Richard Wiseman (See our “as if” happiness post) 
Research has also been carried out specific to posture.  The department of Health Education carried out several experiments to test the effects of posture on energy level and positive and negative thoughts. Participants felt more energetic, happier and positive when upright and dynamic. Participants who slouched reported feeling sad, lonely and isolated.

Reduced stress

Mental health is also coming around to this idea that posture predicts mental and emotional states. Imagine a proud person. Now, imagine a depressed person. Our internal state is directly reflected in our external posture. It used to be thought that the posture was the result of the emotional state. While this still may be true, the opposite is also found to be true. Creating a great posture purposefully can brighten your state of mind.
This from a neat article in the Huffington Post : “Sit Up Straight!” The Mental Health Benefits of Good Posture 
“…the researchers theorize that as the brain receives muscular and hormonal signals with information about bodily posture, it then translates those signals into emotions. Think about it like this: “If I’m feeling sad and stressed, I am more likely to sit in a slumped position. And if I’m sitting in a slumped position, I am more likely to be sad and stressed.”

What is Good Posture?

When you have good posture sitting or standing you should be as tall as possible. Standing posture means your ears should be in line with your shoulders, in line with your hips, and over top of your knees and ankles. You should feel tall and stand neutral shoulders, not letting them roll forward REWORD

The importance of posture is now universally accepted

The importance of posture is now known. So why do we still have statistics like the ones above? I feel that suggestions that are made on how to improve posture focus on a specific outcome or problem. For example, you could learn how to improve your posture to lift more weight or to reduce back pain while sitting at work. Articles and research have traditionally made suggestions to affect a certain change or outcome.

benefits of correcting posture How is Tai Chi’s focus on posture different?

One studies tai chi as if you are in a laboratory or kitchen. Tai chi is an out-of-the-box exercise where you learn how to act or think differently with the intended goal to improve your life. This is different from the traditional suggestions. To bring the point home, the equivalent would be if you were told “improve your posture so that your tai chi form looks better. There you go. Now you look pretty.” We care about the form but our greater goal is to understand the benefits we are receiving during class or practice and translating them to the movements we perform every day. We work to maintain great posture for a 60-120 minute class, reap the benefits, feel great, and then go home and try to emulate the posture in our natural environment.


8 Steps to a Pain Free Back
How You’re Sabotaging Your Posture and Your Time in the Gym
Burning Question: Why Sit Up Straight?
How to Unlock Your Athletic Potential Through Good Posture
10 Proven Benefits of Good Posture
How Bad Posture Can Affect Your Attitude
Research on posture yields insight into treating depression
Want to Feel, Look Better? Improve Your Posture