Skip to Content

author

Author: sprath

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.  Here is what he shared.

 

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.

Science Relating Tai Chi and Happiness:  Movement

The relationship between tai chi and happiness is now being verified by scientific study. A great intelligence can be found in the sequence and movements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the second article in a two part series on happiness.  Check out Science Behind Why Tai Chi Increases Happiness:  Facial Expression for the first installment.

Newcomers to martial arts ride the initial wave of excitement when they begin studying and attend class judiciously.  However, that initial excitement always wears off and we need facts to create the buy-in to keep practicing until results are felt.

Secondly, beginner students follow an instructor’s commands on blind faith entrusting the instructor to lead them through murky progress.  Blind faith will only get you so far though an understanding of why you are doing an activity which needs to be gained to create the stick-to-itiveness that results in tangible progress.[hr]

Unfortunately, we can’t begin practicing tai chi and feel dramatic effects the next day.  It is more an elixir then a drug.  So how do we practice or teach tai chi long enough (I am talking 2 months here) to begin to benefit and stay motivated along the way?

We educate ourselves with solid, reliable research so that we know that we are benefiting from continual practice.

Research on Tai Chi and Happiness

These two research studies addressed the relationship between happiness and movement.  A discerning eye can see this knowledge embedded in the tai chi form.
tai chi and happiness

Study # 1:  Walking

A study at Florida Atlantic University discovered that the way people walk influences their mood and perceived level of happiness.  Psychologist Sara Snodgrass led a group to believe that they were taking part in an experiment on heart rate and physical activity.  Participants were divided into two groups:

Group 1: A 3 minute walk with long strides, head held high and arms swinging.  Think proud.

Group 2: A 3 minute walk shuffling along and watching their feet.  Think depressed.

Participants in Group 1 rated themselves as significantly happier.

How this applies to tai chi and happiness

tai chi and happinessIn tai chi walking and movements we work towards expansion and maintenance of our “gates.”

Let’s pause to talk about maintaining an open posture for a minute.  I am using gates to describe the joints of the body.  When we do tai chi we aim to maintain open joints  and appendages that stay rounded.  We stand as though we have two racquetballs in our armpits.  Our inguinal crease is not collapsed (more on stances) as we step forward, and we are actively pulling up with the crown of the head and down on the tailbone to elongate all of those nifty spaces between our discs.  Describing it even makes me feel better.

The “proud” walk that Snodgrass describes enables increased oxygen uptake to all regions of the body, lifts us into a fearless posture, and orients the crown of our head (Bahui) to the sky.  Internal energy studies postulate that the Bahui/crown is the door to clean chi that is entering from the atmosphere.

tai chi and happinessStudy #2:  Round Movements

An experiment on the psychology of dance undertaken by S. Koch at the University of Heidelberg indicated that rounded movements increased happiness and linear movements stifled a person’s disposition.  Koch conducted an experiment where subjects moved in linear routines or rounded, more flowing routines and then subjectively rated their level of happiness.  The fluid movement produced a higher rating of happiness.

How this applies to tai chi and happiness

In tai chi we learn a pattern in a linear fashion but as soon as the choreography is understood, we round it off.  A good example is Cloud Hands.   Imagine painting a 4X4 foot square in front of you with your hand.  Now shift your weight to paint the square and keep the hand steady in relationship to your body.  Finally, round the corners of the box off and you have a single-handed silk reeling movement.  The straight lines are needed to get the weight shift correct but then they are abandoned.

There is an intelligence embedded in the tai chi forms that is the accumulated knowledge of over 10 generations.  Each new group of students-come-masters learns tai chi, enhances it, and passes it along to the next generation.  It is truly a living art and only now is science able to take single snapshots of portions of its immense complexity.  You benefit from doing the form and the world benefits from you doing the form. 

Resources:

tai chi and happinessThe As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman.

This is a really interesting book that highlights William James and his original thoughts on “movement causes emotional response” that lead to physiology-driven research.  It is a fun and digestible read.  Two tablespoons of interesting, hold the stuffiness.

Koch, Sabine C. (2011).  Basic body rhythms and embodied intercorporality: From individual to interpersonal movement feedback.  In W. Tshacher & C. Bergomi (Eds.)  The implications of Embodiment: Cognition and Communication (pp. 151-171).  Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Koch, Sabine C. “Testing Fuchs’ taxonomy of body memory A content analysis of interview data.” Body memory, metaphor and movement 84 (2012): 171.
Snodgrass, S. E., Higgins, J. G., & Todisco, L. (1986).  The Effects of Walking Behavior on Mood.  Paper presented at the American Psychological Association convention.

The Science Behind One Way that Tai Chi Increases Happiness:  Facial Expression

Doing Qi Gong and Tai Chi Increases Happiness.  That’s just a fact.  But so do funny movies.  So what can be occurring during internal practice that leads to happiness?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My aim in writing these articles is to increase the number of people who benefit from the internal arts and to deepen the rewards experienced by those who have already begun.

In this essay I will:

  1. Provide research related to your facial composition  and how tai chi increases happiness
  2. Show how one additional focus during and outside of practice will enrich your life

The Inner Smile – A part of History

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

Dating back hundreds of years we have been instructed on the on the importance of making facial expressions. Statues, texts, and instructions on how to hold our face have accompanied meditative practices throughout the millennia.

The term “Inner Smile” is used in specific meditations where the practitioner smiles and then moves his intention to internal processes such as organs, the digestive system, and the spine.  Basically, “smiling down” into the body.  This is not an active mental process used during the tai chi form but the benefits of a relaxed “happier” face helping to improve your emotional state.  I use the term “inner smile” loosely in this article to separate a smile with internal, restful concentration from just a regular unintentional smile.

How do I properly smile?

tai chi increases happiness

Instructions are simple and practice makes it a habit.  When practicing, we don’t want to adopt an overzealous look of sheer bliss unless you crave solitude.  You don’t want to be “that guy” in the park. Simply:

Relax the forehead, specifically the brow point which constricts when angry or concentrating, soften the eyes, and retract your cheeks back as though they are heading towards a smile.

Tai Chi Increases HappinessConcentrate on trying to hear a sound that is right behind your head.  There you have it, your inner smile.

Detailed instructions can be found in Mantak Chia’s book: Awaken Healing Energy Through The Tao: The Taoist Secret of Circulating Internal Power

Modern Research Supporting the Power of the Smile

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

James Laird , a researcher in the 1960s, produced research to answer the question of whether we were happy because we smiled or smiled because we were happy.  An emotional chicken-or-the-egg paradigm.  Volunteers were led to believe that they were participating in a study about electrical activity in the face.  Fake electrodes were placed on the foreheads and cheeks.  Participants were asked to move the electrodes on the forehead together and on the cheeks down (frown) or electrodes on the cheeks back (smile). They then rated their emotions.  Volunteers tricked into smiling were significantly happier.  Several more studies came about that corroborated Laird’s results:

  1. A study at the University of Michigan used photography as a cover story taking pictures of people saying “ee” or “ooo” to exemplify cheer or disgust.  Those who said “ee” (cheese) were happier.
  2. Psychologists at Washington University attached golf tees to participants eyebrows and asked them to move them down and together (unhappy) or keep them neutral. The neutral group rated itself as happier.
  3. German researchers told groups that they were studying responsiveness and attentiveness of people who had to manipulate objects with their mouths because they could not use their hands.  Group 1 held a pencil between their teeth with their cheeks and lips pulled back.  Group 2 held the pencil with their lips constricting the face.  They then rated cartoons for how funny they were.  Guess who found the cartoons more funny?  Constricting your face decreases your enjoyment. 

In each instance, James Laird’s results were proven genuine.  Ratings of happiness or emotional state after each exercise always favored the smile.  Physically manipulating your face into a happy expression caused happiness. Basically, actively producing a smile creates an inner smile.

How the Inner Smile Affects your Life.

Tai Chi Increases Happiness

Tai chi should be respected for both its simplicity and complex nature.  Every small aspect of performing the form has dramatic results.

Our goal is to excel at the tai chi form or whatever internal work we do.  We do also want the benefits gained during practice to generalize outward and positively affect our life.   Practicing a smile during the form, or during your meditation, or in your car makes it a conscious habit.  This keeps us happier more frequently and gives our body a learned emotional state that matches a learned physical posture.  By smiling when you really need it, you will be more quickly returned to the emotional state that you desire.

References

tai chi increases happinessHere is a really interesting book that highlights William James and his original thoughts on “movement causes emotional response” that lead to physiology driven research.  It is a fun and digestible read.  Two tablespoons of interesting, hold the stuffiness.    The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life by Richard Wiseman

Koch, Sabine C. (2011).  Basic body rhythms and embodied intercorporality: From individual to interpersonal movement feedback.  In W. Tshacher & C. Bergomi (Eds.)  The implications of Embodiment: Cognition and Communication (pp. 151-171).  Exeter: Imprint Academic.

The benefits of the tai chi long form over the short form

The tai chi long form takes physical and mental dexterity to learn and practice.  New research shows that the extra effort has dramatic effects.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most tai chi styles offer at least 2 forms:  long and short.  Some styles like Yang have categorized them into a multitude of sizes 18 – 24 – 48 – 83 – Tall – Grande – Venti…

tai chi long formLet’s talk about the values of the different sizes of the forms.  In this article I am going to commend you for learning a short version of the form but also supply some physiological research as to why eventually pursuing the long form is a great idea.

Depending on how  long it takes to do your short form you might be just short of a threshold of time that will result in greater gains.

Benefits of the tai chi short form

  • Easy teachable
  • Increased retention of new students
  • Easily to accomplish in 1 month (fast) to 3-4 months (average)
  • Most of the main movements are contained in a short form and merely repeated in the long form
  • Can improve your movement and balance with minimal investment of time
  • Fun

tai chi long formBenefits of the tai chi long form

  • Traditionally you are partaking in something great that expands across the centuries
  • A physical workout
  • Increased focus.  Your mind can’t wander during the long form or you forget where you are.
  • Thorough stretching of all ligaments and sinews
  • Greater repetition of important movements which results in greater facility
  • AND NOW! there is on body of science that inadvertently defends/proves why the long form is superior

Modern research supporting the practice of the tai chi long form

Recent scientific breakthroughs are demonstrating that mind-body movement strategies can actually “switch off” or “switch on” gene activity associated with health and disease.  Everyone is familiar with the “Fight or Flight Response” but researcher Richard Benson asked a very significant and unique question:

If your body can ramp you up to respond to physiological needs, can it also ramp down?

The answer is yes.  People can reduce heart rate, stress, and biological markers present during trauma and tension.   So how did they do it?

tai chi long formThe Relaxation Revolution

Can a human alter their health through relaxation techniques? Yes.

Benson’s studies began by employing experts in meditation and eastern practice to see if 1) their emotional states differed from the norm and if 2) they could actively change their states as measured by biological markers upon request.  Yes: experienced meditators had healthier states and could alter biological markers such as mental states, breathing, sweat, and hear rate.

Can novice practitioners alter their health? Yes.

After proving that biological markers could be moved, he created experiments to test un-experienced people. In these studies they used progressive relaxation techniques where a recording (the Olivia Recordings) led a person to concentrate on successive body parts.   The goal was to arrive at a state which mirrors the relaxed state that we experience upon waking or is actively obtained by accomplished meditators.  Novice practitioners achieved this state in 12-15 minutes and then were free to concentrate on whichever aspect of health they wanted to improve.

How does Benson suggest that we replicate the results?

In Benson’s book he goes on to say that you do not need to use the Olivia recording but recommends it if you don’t have another practice.  Practitioners of yoga, eastern practices, and meditation all equally acquire this state.  What was the constant in each set of studies was the time:  12-15 minutes were needed to achieve the healing state.

clock 15So how long does it take to complete the tai chi long form?

You guessed it:  12-18 minutes.  Just enough time to incite the relaxation response.  Secondly, styles like Chen Tai Chi routinely do the long form two times back-to-back.  Yep, about the same amount of time that Benson found was necessary to fully engage the relaxation response and then promote creativity or healing.

One reason that I love tai chi and the eastern arts is that I will undertake an activity because “I am told to” or “because that is the way it has been done for X-hundred of years.”  So often these assertions are millenia ahead of the science that prove it beneficial.

But can I just do the tai chi short form twice and get to 12 minutes?

Definitely.  You have put a of time into learning a form and can immediately benefit from Benson’s research by pushing yourself into the 12 -15 minute window.  And of course, if you meditate or do yoga, apply this to your practice.  It is the window of time that is important.

Why would I learn the tai chi long form then?

The long form takes physical and mental dexterity to learn and practice.  There is a higher education embedded in the longer sequence that we are only on the cusp of understanding.  Movements are repeated but sequences vary in a specific way.  Finishing the long form feels like having received a gently but intelligent massage of the entire body.   Additionally, if you suffer from a racing mind or difficulty concentrating then the long form is for you.  Giving something physical your full attention for 15 minutes enables one to focus throughout the day more easily.

Full Reference and Further Reading

This is a (very) summarized version.   To read about the complete study I invite you to read Benson’s Relaxation Revolution.  If you do venture into the book, at least know that Benson is a serious researcher and his results are verified.  Here is a bit about him:

tai chi long formHerbert Benson (born 1935), is an American medical doctor, cardiologist, and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute atMassachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is Mind/Body Medicine Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is Founding Trustee of The American Institute of Stress. He has contributed more than 190 scientific publications and 12 books.

O