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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 BreakingMuscle.com 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.

Resources

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

The Anatomy of Extreme Happiness

Extreme happiness seems to creep up on us.  On our best days we recognize that we are experiencing something truly rare but typically it rolls by us we acknowledge it only as a memory.

Watch this next video for two reasons:  1) You want to laugh yourself silly.  2) You want to see what extreme happiness looks like when it is caught on camera and learn how to experience it more frequently.

Extreme Happiness Video Background:

My Norwegian is rusty (aka – non-existent) but here is roughly what transpired.  Aleksander Gamme set out to walk to the South Pole and back.  As he trekked out he left surpluses of supplies along the way marked by flags.  He created a video-diary of portions of his expedition.  This video was shot on day 86 when he arrived at his second to last stash on his route back.

Let’s unpack this video by the numbers.

Extreme happiness is born out of hope

00:28:  Exhausted, weighing dozens of kilos less, Aleksander is willing to accept whatever he finds but there is a sound in his voice and an urgency to his motions to find what he himself left.

Extreme happiness is often the fruits of long and diligent work.

00:38:  Aleksander pauses and takes a second to tell the camera where his efforts brought him.  Whether it was a sporting event that you trained for, putting your child through college, or the passing of an exam.  Supreme satisfaction is the culmination of great effort with no guarantee that you were going to succeed.

Extreme happiness often small, self-created events, not winning the lottery.

00:56:  Cheese Doodles!  The crescendo of the entire video shows Aleksander in awe and disbelief that he has the good fortune of discovering cheese doodles.  His voice exudes the feeling of not being worthy of having such luck.

Extreme happiness leads to uncontrollable physical reactions.

01:02:  When was the last time you screamed at the top of your lungs?  Shook with emotion?  Threw something in the air for no other reason than to throw it?

Extreme happiness has the ability to stop time.

01:17:  Stupefied, minute 01:17 is so perfect because Aleksander appears to be caught in utter disbelief.  It takes a second for it to register that this is really happening to him.  He has to go pick up the Cheese Doodles that he threw to confirm that they are real.

Extreme happiness is self-perpetuating.

Once bitten, a landslide of good feelings can be transferred over to any equally trivial event.  A fruit nut bar (02:12) probably elicits the best scream and candies literally knock him on his back wailing (02:32).  As if this wasn’t enough, the discovery of Mentos equates to proof that God exists.

Extreme Happiness is something we create for ourselves not something that is given to us or done for us.

This is the most important point.  Our collective efforts, while realizing it at the time or not, have the potential of resulting in sudden epiphanies and periods of bliss.  What decisions are you making on a daily or hourly basis that could be the foundation for potential happiness?

Lastly, Extreme Happiness is contagious.

How many times have you watched the video already?  Are you smiling?  Did you forward it to someone?  Extreme happiness offers such a good feeling that we feel the need to perpetuate it and share.

Hallelujah!   Hallelujah!

 

 

More on Aleksander Gamme:  Aleksander Gamme, Norwegian Explorer

 

Eliciting the Relaxation Response with Tai Chi

While the name Herbert Benson might not ring a bell, his research is essential reading for anyone looking to understand eastern practices through the lens of western medicine.  His book, The Relaxation Response is a scientific validation of age-old wisdom.  It is a scientific study of how meditative practices can encourage the body to release chemicals and brain signals that cause the musculature and organs to slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.
relaxation response

The Relaxation Response

In his book he provides an intriguing metaphor.   When asked, most people would assume that there is a polar opposite to being stressed out that we naturally gravitate back to when things are not chaotic.  It would be akin to a STRESS-O-METER with stressed-out on one end and normal on the other  end.

STRESS-O-METER

meter lowmeter high

 

 

 

 

 

 

But research has shown that this is pretty far from the truth.  “Normal” is a middle range with stress right around the corner.  The Relaxation Response explains the mechanism that engages our sympathetic nervous system and causes our fight-or flight (read: stress) response.

meter middleWhile the body has this needed ability to fuel us when danger is near, an over abuse of this system leads to chronic stress.  Benson’s hypothesis and proven research has shown that the body also has the ability to elicit the opposite of Flight-or-Fright which he has termed the Relaxation Response.  In order to get our STRESS-O-METER down into the green zone, we have to undertake activities to make it happen.  Luckily, his research did not stop at the theoretical but detailed ways in which to make this happen.

This book is definitely a great read.  After extensive research with novice and avid meditators he created a list of steps to access this greater state of calm.  Let’s have a look at these steps and how they parallel with tai chi.

The Relaxation Response

Tai Chi

1.   Sit quietly in a comfortable position. Comfort and relaxation are 99% of the work while performing tai chi.  His research worked with sitting meditation but I don’t believe that “comfort” has to be “sitting.”

 

2.  Close your eyes. Ok, so I wouldn’t suggest closing your eyes during tai chi but we definitely soften the eyes, relax them, and turn our focus within to quiet the mind and complete the form.  I actually think that tai chi has an advantage over sitting meditation with this regard.  It is much easier to not have the mind wander when we are moving.

 

3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face.  Keep them relaxed. The Relaxation Response has a progressive relaxation phase incorporating the entire body.  Tai chi is whole-body.  There are also Daoist relaxation techniques that follow this process and Silk Reeling sets going from toe to head that are often used before tai chi form work.
4.  Breathe through your nose.  Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one”*, silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”,- in .. out, “one”, etc.   Breathe easily and naturally. The counting helps our ability to pay attention much like the movements and the breathing is the same.
5.  Continue for 10 to 20 minutes.  You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes. Not a coincidence that the long form shares this time frame.  Other evidence suggests that there is some intelligence behind the amount of time it takes to complete the form.
6.  Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation.  Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.  When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.” Not acceptance again!  What next?  Are you going to tell me to relax?  Progress in tai chi is dependent on acceptance.

Summarizing the importance of working towards the relaxation response

It is not enough for us to be “not stressed” and to hope that we are in a good place.  Positive mental states and maintaining a low-stress disposition are dependent on us actively engaging in routines that cause the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and reduce muscle tension and stress hormones.  While Dr. Benson’s research was conducted on standard meditation practices I feel that tai chi offers the same benefits while moving.  For anyone looking for motivation or justification for their practice, his book is engaging and a must.

References:

The Relaxation Response

Scientific research related to the relaxation response

Relaxation Response – Steps

 

Connecting Mindfulness and Tai Chi

 

It is extremely difficult to bridge the gap between actually doing the tai chi form and improving your meditative-mindful state.  On one hand, doing the form feels good and we definitely feel better afterwards.  But how do we answer the questions from students, classmates, and ourselves such as:

 

What should I be thinking about when I do the form?

Does your mind race?

Are you concentrating on something?

I will admit to you dear reader that I have historically been at a loss for providing a concise response that was satisfying.  But I found a really solid answer.  I was reading on Mindfulness and forgot I was reading on Mindfulness because I read this:

To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of instructions. No real process of learning is like that. It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur. In practicing mindfulness you will have to bring your whole being to the process. You can’t just assume a meditative posture and hope that something will magically just happen, nor can you play a CD and think that the CD is going to “do something” for you. (p. 19*).

Doesn’t that sound like Tai Chi?

The leading researcher on Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of major pillars of mindfulness that can be addressed simultaneously or individually to lead to a greater mental state.  Through Wiseman‘s work we know that physical movement can produce desired emotional states.  I will use this essay to interpret 5 of Zinn’s Pillars of Mindfulness in terms of doing the tai chi form.  Let’s watch Jon Kabat-Zinn in these short explanations and then apply them to tai chi.

Mindfulness and Tai Chi

1. Non–judging


Mindfulness is: “the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”  We spend a great deal of our waking hours judging and creating opinions on all of our actions and things that happen around us.  We are often most severe with ourselves when we are learning something new or are trying to improve ourselves.  Our job is not to try to turn this off but to witness it taking place.  To see ourselves as separate from the judging process so that we can enjoy, experience, and see things how they really are.  Read: do not judge your form while you are doing it.  Enjoy the process and know that this is (currently) your best attempt.

2. Patience


Do you want to complete the tai chi form more than you want to perform it?  The byproduct of rushing is that we are never mentally happy or present with what is actually going on.  Patience; the belief that things unfold in their own way, allows us to enjoy the millions of minutes of the process and not only the single second of completion.

3. Beginner’s Mind


Beginner’s mind returns the excitement to our repetitive daily activities.  Each time we return to do the form we are better than the last time simply due to our experience. How many of us concentrate on the few moves we can’t remember versus the many we do well?  A beginner is open to endless possibilities and isn’t looking at the “task” of doing the form through a clouded, negative lens.

4· Trust


“Can we come to trust the natural wisdom of the body?” Do we take our breathing and heartbeat for granted until something bad happens?  Tai Chi gives us the chance to listen to the breath, think about what we are looking at, etc.  Bringing awareness to all of the body processes that naturally occur without our intervention increases our trust and can increase our confidence in situations that might not be 100% in our control (a.k.a. every situation).

5. Non-striving


Tai Chi is a rare opportunity where we can just let things be as they are.  Tai Chi is a tremendous discipline to show us that we can be present AND be completing something, rather than ignoring our present moment and racing to some future goal.  Kabat-Zinn shares that present-mindedness is tremendously healing and restorative.

Mindfulness and Tai Chi “The attitude with which you undertake the practice of paying attention and being in the present is crucial. It is the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and to relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly. If the attitudinal soil is depleted, that is, if your energy and commitment to practice are low, it will be hard to develop calmness and relaxation with any consistency. If the soil is really polluted, that is, if you are trying to force yourself to feel relaxed and demand of yourself that “something happen,” nothing will grow at all and you will quickly conclude that “meditation doesn’t work.”

 

*Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness Jon Kabat-Zinn – Pub. by Dell Pub., a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. Group – 1991

 

Using Tai Chi to Prevent Illness

I have been conducting an experiment on myself for the last 6 months to see if I can use tai chi to prevent illness and am excited to share the results.

 

Here is the issue:

  • I practice tai chi.
  • Tai chi has purported health benefits.
  • Am I healthy?   Am I healthier than average because I practice tai chi?   If not, can I change this?

Last summer I was on a vacation with my family out of the country and caught the flu from a 6-year-old boy staying in the same place we were.  Vomiting, diarrhea, knocked out for 48 hours. Plus add on two days of a slow climb back to the land of the living.   I don’t want to beat myself up because it is hard to avoid exposure to the flu.   Plus we were gone for two weeks and at this point and had eaten exotic and at least uncommon foods.    BUT!!!   And this is a REALLY BIG BUT and the reason why the whole event upset me.

I had the pleasure of being ill in paradise, staring at a beach I couldn’t swim in, trading beautiful meals for crackers, avoiding my wife and daughter when the entire purpose of the trip was to spend time with them.  It…stunk…

So I asked some questions about health:

Are their people who never or minimally get sick?  Lots

Do they have specific behaviors?  Umhum.

Is it rocket science?   No. The first few decisions are easy but you can deep dive on these subjects as far as you want to go.

What is my specific problem?  Me.

Researching how to be healthy

tai chi to prevent illnessI read tons of really great books identifying people and entire populations that are not sick.  For example, The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick by Gene Stone identifies dozens of people who do not get sick and chronicles their often bizarre behavior.  It is a good read although he shies away from any concrete conclusions.  The main take-away?  People exist who never get sick.

What was paramount for me was that two common threads that were present in all the literature.  People made progress when they were honest with how healthy they actually were.  They also were religious about taking data.  Here were my two main take-aways:

  1. People think they are healthier than they are.

All of the different resources brought to light that we may have a skewed idea of what healthy is.  When asking people if they were healthy a common response was:  “Oh yeah!  Now that I am on X medication for my Y I feel great…I am probably only sick two times per year and take Advil for the headaches…My allergies are better too.”  Wouldn’t a healthy person be free of medication and not visit the doctor?

  1. We need good data on our specific health if we have any hopes of becoming healthier.

I was embarrassed by how simple this was.  We are all different. I had to figure out what my level of health was, numerically, and then try to make a shift.

n equals 1My experiment:  Being your own llaboratory

I put a calendar by my bedside and each day recorded my health for six months.  I highlighted the date with a color and made a note.

tai chi prevents illnessGreen = good, high energy, my health did not stop me from doing everything that I planned today.

Yellow = I did everything I planned today but was:  tired/groggy/achy, etc.  This could be related to a work out, bad eating, social event, etc.  In each case I had to do something or take something extra to boost myself.  I made notes.

Red =  I had to alter my plans today, cancel things, or take medication.  I made notes here too.

Month 1

tai chi prevents illness

I felt pretty good most days but reacted to workouts, drinking alcohol, stress, or allergies by “giving myself a boost” of some sorts.  I quickly saw that I needed to quantify what this boost was that I was using to improve the situation.   I started coding my yellow days with activities that improved my well-being:

N = nap:  This was usually 15-20 minutes between 430 and 630 on really tired days.

E = EmergenC:  This is a vitamin packet that I drank in a cup of water.

S = Sleep in:   I normally wake up at 5:15 to practice guitar, meditate, read, or do tai chi, before I get the family and dog up at 6:30. These days I skipped this.

Things that did not work?  Eating bad food due to stress, eating more or greasy food in the morning if I drank or was out late.  You mean to tell me that doing bad stuff doesn’t elevate bad stuff?  Data doesn’t lie.  Sometimes it is ridiculous to see your behavior when it is written down.   I was excited to learn that some of my old cure-alls were not effective.

Month 2

tai chi prevents illness

Change happens rapidly when you focus on something.  I detected a pattern to my yellow and red days and began to

PREemptively, PREvent non-green days.

I napped before evening workouts.  I allowed myself 2 days/week to sleep in if I was really tired at night.

Month 3

tai chi prevents illness

By month 3 I was extremely accurate at responding to a yellow day so that a red day never happened.  This was good.  No medication, no altering my schedule.  It is also amazing how calm things are when you are never having to “make up” work or cram things into a day because you couldn’t complete them the day before.  When I was really taxed I called them my NES-days meaning I preemptively Napped, took an EmergenC , and Slept in.

 

Can I use Tai Chi to Prevent Illness?

This is the point in the story where you say BIG WHOOP!    I said that too.  I study tai chi remember which offers outstanding health right?  Was there a path to purely green days with no preemptive work needed?

The answer is YES.  The epiphany came in the next three months and from information I learned in a seminar with Master Chen Bin.

Month 4

 

Using Tai Chi to Avoid IllnessMonth 4 brought really great results.  Two days with naps and Emergen-C because we had social engagements in the evening and I got up early the next morning for work.  Being proactive and preventative was paying off.  I saw another bonus:  Winter came and I didn’t catch what anyone else had.  I believe I just wasn’t susceptible.

 

 

 

Month 5

Using Tai Chi to Avoid Illness

All green days and no need to support my energy with vitamins or naps. By this time in the process, I started sleeping in on both weekend days and also drink a big glass of water each morning.  I have continued both of these habits without effort because I am just naturally my tired and thirst at those times.  The biggest change came after I attended a lecture-style seminar with Master Chen Bin and he spoke on “How to Judge Other People’s Energy.”  Being in the place I was in,   I read this as How to Judge MY energy.  Read what he shared here.

 

Month 6

Using Tai Chi to Avoid Illness

The pie graphs of month five and six are identical.  However, the big difference is that in month 6 I didn’t need the naps, vitamins, or extra sleep.  This process has made me more highly intuitive and I am making micro-adjustments throughout the day to alter may water intake, food intake and need for sleep.

 

 

 

So I conclude that Tai Chi can bring extraordinary health.  I feel that it led me to ask if great health was possible, address it objectively, and refine it after the heavy lifting of changing my habits was in place.  Tai Chi teaches a high level of attunement and without it (for me) I don’t think that the shift experienced from month 4-6 would have been possible.

Author’s note:  Sickness and low energy does still occur and it is not completely avoidable.  In month 7, I experienced cedar allergies that got up into my head for a few days.  Somewhat manifested itself as a cold.  However, neti pots, steam treatments, and patience resolved it.  Work and family obligations all stayed the same.  I find this to be an incredible improvement to my life.

 

Related Reading

Boost Your Immune System Naturally with Tai Chi | Prevention

Tai Chi: Health and Disease Prevention

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health

 

 

How to Judge People’s Energy Level

 

Tai chi steady improves the attention and awareness that we bring to different aspects of our life.  This same awareness can act as an early warning system for disease and illness if you are attuned to the signs.  In this essay I will share insights gathered at a seminar with Master Chen Bin.  It led me to conduct a 6-month experiment on my health.  I will share those results in next month’s post.

Three ways to evaluate the health of another person are:

1) Length of Breath

Using Tai Chi to Avoid IllnessThe length of one’s breath determines a lot.  During a full and deep breath, enough oxygen is taken in to reach all of the extremities.  The intercostales rotate the ribs pulling your entire upper body into better posture.  The diaphragm expands down to compress and massage the organs.  This has positive effects on digestion.    Shallow breathing is the breathing normally saved for protective postures and only guarantees that the central body is replete with oxygen, circulation, and warmth.

2) Tone of voice

A deep, resonant voice is connected with the breath but it also is an auditory warning  system of sorts.

Using Tai Chi to Avoid IllnessHow is our voice when we are stressed?  In general, I don’t think we freely admit that we are stressed until it is really bad:  “I’m not stressed!! Da*^ it!!”  By listening to our voice we get an indicator of our true state.

How do we sound when we are tired?  Voice is literally powered by the lungs.  Capacity and force create volume.  When we are fatigued it is hard to sound like Chef from South Park

Our voice lets us know if we are internally hydrated.   When we run out of water, our vocal folds let us know with parched airy breath.

3) Greetings

Chen Bin went on to add that a person’s energy is most evident when they are meeting or greeting someone.  When are we at our very best?  When we are introduced to someone new.  We perk up, paint on an ingratiating smile, make eye contact,  articulate clearly and deeply, and offer a firm hand-shake or hug.  So in this situation, with our very bestest bestest intentions, have you ever met someone who was raspy, struggled to raise their mouth from a frown, and gave the limpest and clammiest of handshakes?  A greeting should be the best representation of our energy.  If we are not able to rise to the occasion or it is a struggle, it is a sign that our energy is on the way out or low.

Judging YOUR OWN Energy Level

I undertook a 6-month study of my health to find out how healthy I was and if it could be improved.  While I was generally healthy, I was still susceptible to allergies, exhaustion at times, and even other people who were sick. What Chen Bin introduced at this seminar was mind-blowing to me.  As I started to notice when my voice was not robust and resonant, when my interactions took energy from me rather than giving me energy, I realized that fatigue or illness were around the corner.  Greetings and voice are now daily sign posts telling me to sleep in, drink more water, eat more or improve my nutrition, or nap.  These minor re-calibrations mean that the major illnesses are kept at bay.

 Judging SOMEONE ELSE‘s Energy Level

It goes without saying that I am attuned to the moods of others.  It allows me to be more compassionate than reactive when a coworker is combative and I know who to avoid if needed.  When deciding what my family is going to do on the weekend.  Recently the answer has happily been NOTHING! more often which before wasn’t a conceivable option.

Related Reading

Boost Your Immune System Naturally with Tai Chi | Prevention

Tai Chi: Health and Disease Prevention

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health

 

 

The Best Way to Learn Qi Gong without a Teacher

You thought it was difficult to find a good tai chi teacher?  Try finding a good qi gong teacher.  Qi gong is an energy art that can dramatically improve health, concentration and well-being.  It can be undertaken by people of any age and with any physical limitation.  Learning qi gong on your own is possible and valuable because the benefits are huge.

Here is where the hard part comes in.  Great progress usually demands 1) a great teacher and 2) an explanation of what progress looks and feels like so that we have a tangible sense of what changes are taking place.  Here is a book that does that.

Chinese Chi Gong

Click image to view.

Chinese Chi-Gung

I found out about this book while researching ways to improve qi development without needing a trip to China.  I attended two seminars this past year that were pretty good.  However, the instruction bordered on mysticism and the suggested exercises were not practical.  When I found this book, my first impression of the website and description was that it was a little bit odd and the description of the book was written in a weird way.

But ask yourself: if you wanted to learn qi gong, what would you need?

You would have to be taught by someone who speaks an Asian language.  Someone who has had exposure to qi gong across the different periods of life because our energy is different at different ages, someone who has testimonials, someone who has taught at a high level, and has some sort of mathematical or scientific style to the writing so that we are not left off in esoteric lala-land when we are trying to understand why something works.
learn qi gongWhat that means is that if you get all of these things on your wish list, this person might not be that great at other things such as marketing himself.

So here we find the book The Real Chinese Chi-Gung.  It is written by Tommy Cheng who has a math and physics background and has studied martial arts since age 12.  He has experience in many martial arts, had won  tournaments, and instructed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  All of which he has worked to condense in this book.

learn qi gong

Let’s take a constructive look at the book

The minuses

  • learn qi gongThe writing in English isn’t 100% polished but it is 95% the way there and transmits all of the ideas and activities he is trying to convey.  For those of you that have read extensively in this area, you actually begin to question materials that are too polished by westerners.  For example, in many western books the reading is clear but the message is cloudy and often the stances in pictures areincredibly flawed.
  • The price is about $10 more than books in this genre but this is written more like a textbook with history, evidence, and exercises so it is not fluffy.  Plus Cheng is self-published so we have the rare opportunity to give all of the money to the author and not the publisher or conglomerate.  Increasingly rare nowadays.
  • It is only in book format.

The Pluses

  • learn qi gongThe history of Qi Gong /Chi Kung is incredibly accurate and serves its purpose.  It is not drenched with unpronounceable  Asian predecessors but gives you enough history to increase your TRUST in the facts that there is some truth to this stuff.
  • The book is actually a refined version of Cheng’s notes from having taught Chi Kung over several decades.  I don’t know that something this large has been shared before.  You see his distilling of his practice down to the very essential steps.
  • Here is the best part and why he is not full of malarkey.  He counsels us to progress through levels of difficulty only when we have had success at a certain level.  We all have different bodies, ages, and experience and no one can say:  “after X days you should feel Y so move on to this exercise.”
  • It is great for beginners (basically all of us).

Who should buy this book?

If you want to seriously learn qi gong, interested in improving your health, or have a desire to develop the internal side of your tai chi, yoga, or meditation practice, then this is a great find.

Visit:  Chinese Chi-Kung:  The Secret of  Chinese Chi-Kung & Longevity

 

The importance of the number 9 in Tai Chi

This essay is a compilation of notes taken in an interview with Chen Youze, 20th generation Grand Master in Chen Tai Chi.  Chen Youze is a consummate teacher.  As his student, you are simultaneously blown away by the level of development that he has achieved in his lifetime and warmed by the fact that he has the ability to convey his knowledge and enable you to progress.  He is typically very direct but on this unique occasion he spoke along more esoteric lines employing the math and angles of tai chi as teaching tools.

Let’s begin by exploring how 9 shows up in shapes and directions and then how 9 relates to the body.

the importance of 9The Importance of Nine

Nine is the highest single-digit number and stands for completeness and eternity.  It has historical significance.  Nine Continents described the large territory of an empire, emperors wore nine-dragon imperial robes, and constructed nine-dragon walls.  9 is considered whole and has a special relationship with all angles, relationships and divisions.

Integrated movement

Our goal in tai chi is to be able to move in an entirely connected manner.  Learning the movements of a form can be easy but figuring out how to integrate all parts of the body in each movement is where the work and rewards begin.  The number 9 enables us to see how any small movement or division of movements always relate to the whole.

importance of the number 9360 degrees (3+6+0 = 9)

Wuji, as in wuji standing is a state of emptiness.  It is a single point in space and there is no polarity.  Standing without moving is the easiest way to experience being fully integrated but we then have to maintain the integration as we begin to move.

180 degrees (1+8+0 = 9)

importance of the number 9The splitting of the whole refers to the dualism of heaven/earth, light/dark, soft/hard, etc.  These are the polar ends of everything and form the words that we use to describe or experience.  The second that we move away from a centered state we are traveling in one of these directions.  The goal is to be conscious of the shift and work to not over compensate in any direction.

Yin Yang  180 degrees (1+8+0 = 9)

Yes the Yin-Yang symbol of tai chi represents this polarity.  In life, we have two conflicting forces that need to be addressed in order to maintain balance.

importance of the number 990 degrees (9+0 = 9)

By dividing the polar ends into fourths we have the first independent meaning.  The four seasons and the four cardinal directions describe categories that are related yet very distinct.  These four sections represent the first true movement in advancing, retreating or sidestepping.  We want to arrive wherever we are going with as much stability as possible and a continual goal of returning to a centered state.

importance of the number 945 degrees (4+5 = 9)

Further dividing the 4 areas we have our first combinations.  Each section is normally described by how it differs from adjacent pie pieces.  On the martial side of things, these are the angles of attack and the manipulation of joints at these smaller angles give us the torque and tactical advantage to control another body.

22.5 degrees (2+2+5 = 9)

importance of the number 9Further dividing into smaller angles exposes the intricate movements of higher skill levels.  The truth is that most of our daily movements are incredibly intricate and fine.  We reach for an object, adjust our hand and pressure, and then adjust our stance depending on the object’s weight.  Are we letting our posture and gravity do most of the work or is their tension in our shoulder and throughout the body?  In the tai chi classroom we focus on large, more defined angles but our hope is that our balance infiltrates our entire day.

11.25 degrees (1+1+2+5 = 9)

11.25 degrees11.25 degrees is the maximum number of times you want to divide a whole object.  Smaller angles are too tiny to manage if we want to guarantee that our body is positioned optimally.  The armpit spacing is a great example from the tai chi form.  The arm rotates in every direction but we would never want it completely closed.  11.25 degrees would be the arm at rest in the opening movement but without the armpit clamped shut.

Yes this is esoteric.  However, it provides a great way to discuss how the sum of all movements relate to the whole.

The 9 Sections of the Human Body

the importance of 9The body can be described by the relationship of all of its parts to the ground and Chen Youze used a rocket as a metaphor to describe how the sections should interact/articulate under force and movement.

Fired from the bottom upon launch, each section of the rocket has to be aligned with the one below it or it will not be able to take the force and transmit the energy along its frame.  Tai chi emphasizes this type of connectedness and relaxation so that the weight of the body or pressure from an opponent can transferred through each section to the ground.

  1. The ground/floor and the foot
  2. The foot to the ankle
  3. The ankle to the knee
  4. The knee to the hip
  5. The hip to the waist
  6. The waist to the shoulder
  7. The shoulder to the elbow
  8. The elbow to the wrist
  9. The wrist to the finger tips (hitting surface)

“Just Relax!”

Any practitioner of tai chi is eternally frustrated by suggestions to relax.  Thinking of the body with the 9-section model makes this easier. In a dynamic situation where we are moving, if you are not relaxed you cannot be sensitive to each body part’s relationship to another.  For example, I was recently corrected to relax my shoulders during pushhands.  Each time I touched the opponent I was immediately tense again.  Trying to relax the shoulders seemed futile until I went one segment down and corrected the alignment of my torso and spine.  The shoulders had just been trying to protect me and relaxed effortlessly as soon as my back was aligned and safe.

Reverse Breathing

Surprising to most of us, we don’t have just one breath.  There are several types of breathing that our body employs and it changes throughout the year, throughout our lives, and depending on our emotional state.  Reverse breathing is a natural body process that we can consciously manipulate to improve health.  Let’s discuss the importance of reverse breathing to the internal arts, dispel some negative ideas, and offer some simple instructions to improve our practice.

What is reverse breathing?

Reverse breathing is the process of inhaling as the abdomen constricts and exhaling as the belly relaxes.  It is used in internal arts to:  move energy around the body, heal joints and tissue by focusing intention and breath on an area, deepening a meditative state, and storing energy to issue power (fa jing).

Is reverse breathing bad for you or unnatural?

Reverse breathing has gotten a bit of a bad rap as being dangerous for us because of the manipulation of breath that is included in hard qi gong practices and other more advanced (read: should have a highly skilled guide) internal arts.  However, reverse breathing is a completely normal process that is normally undertaken by the autonomic system and the subconscious.  Here are three examples:

Emotional Reactions

When your emotional mind is amped up your body switches your breathing so that you can flee, scream, or attack.  Think of someone jumping out from behind a door to scare you.  Your whole upper body is tense and your stomach remains taut but you still manage to rapidly inhale deeply to scream.    Belly laughter is also reverse breathing.  Crying is typically fast reverse breathing with your belly expanding on the exhales.

reverse breathingYawning

Did this picture make you yawn?   When we yawn we inhale profoundly and slowly while controlling our core muscles.

Pushing a car

You would not try to push a car while regular breathing or you would injure your back.  Assume a pushing posture and imagine a heavy object you are about to move.  What happened to your abdominal muscles?  They automatically tensed to employ the stable force of the ground.

We can actively engage this natural breathing process for health and martial benefits.

Reverse Breathing Benefits

Mindful breathing is central to all internal practices.  According to internal practices such as tai chi, qi gong, or yoga, when we inhale we are bringing healthy energy (qi) into the body and when we are exhaling we are expelling used or toxic energy outward.

Reverse breathing is the basis for leading qi to injuries to enable healing.  When we inhale we place our attention on the joint.  When we exhale, we bring the breath out to the surface of the skin.

Reverse breathing benefits us by allowing highly oxygenated breath to permeate the body.  Decreased oxygen intake correlates with most health issues:
reverse breathing

  • Weakness from illness
  • Weakness from muscle loss due to age
  • Weight gain realigning intercostal muscles and putting pressure on the chest.
  • Exposure to allergens and toxins (emphysema , asthma, pollen allergies, etc.)
  • Postures related to fear
  • Postures during poor sitting

In the winter we inhale longer than we exhale to retain energy and close the pores of the skin.  Summertime brings the opposite reaction as we exhale longer to lead heat out of the body.

How to practice reverse breathing

Reverse breathing is most easily practiced by thinking about two body parts.  We need to maintain the 1) abdominal muscles and elevate and relax the perineum (Huiyin Cavity).  This Dummies webpage has a really good description of the perineum if this is new for you.

Before we start, it is important to note that we are manipulating the abdomen and the perineum as we respond to the breath.  We are not forcefully moving the body parts to cause ourselves to breath differently.

Secondly, the pressure and pushing involved in reverse breathing is extremely gentle.  Hard Qi Gong styles ramp it up here but this is not what we are discussing.  It is a slow, light, meditative sensation that we are after.
reverse breathing 2

The abdomen

Breathe deeply and maintain the ab muscles as they are.  It will feel as though your breath is actually sliding down your back and filling the abdominal cavity with pressure.  Exhale and relax your stomach.  No one is watching. Embrace your inner Buddha and let the belly out.

The Perineum

The Huiyin (literally: meeting of Yin) Cavity is considered the gate and meeting point of the 4 Yin Vessels.  As you inhale you gently pull up on the anus from the inside.  No puckering or tilting your pelvis.  As you exhale you let the perineum drop and the anus relax.

Know that this process is awkward at first and takes practice.  Newcomers often unintentionally create tension in the abdomen which causes us to hold our breath.  Start small with shorter breathes and in a seated position.  Concentrate on practicing the breathing in isolation before trying to (re-) incorporate the breathing into qi gong, yoga, or martial movements.   Frequent short practices are best.  I first got the hang of it by practicing when caught at red lights!

References:

Reverse BreathingBack Pain Relief: Simple Qigong Exercises for Healing & Prevention:  Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
Qi in Taijiquan is an Intention Wave:  Tai Chi Magazine.  Vol 39, No. 2.