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Author: sprath

Using the 3 Dantiens to find Enthusiasm

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 DantiensQuick Overview of the 3 Dantiens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Situation

Negative Situation

Upper Dantien3 dantiens


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


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

Middle Dantien

3 dantiens


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


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

Lower Dantien

3 dantiens


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


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

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

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

Assessing Old Activities with the 3 Dantiens

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

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

Assessing New Activities with the 3 Dantiens

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

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

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

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

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

Adyashanti, in Emptiness Dancing


Our Obsession over How to Find Your Dan Tien

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

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

What to do?  What to do?

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

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

An ‘Anthropologist’s Dilemma’

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

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

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

Michael Tanner, a writer on Nietzsche explains it best:

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

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

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

Understanding How to Find the Dan Tien from Many Perspectives

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

The Physiological Dan Tien

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

The Metaphorical Dan Tien

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

how to find the dan tien

The Physical Dan Tien

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

The Sense-ational Dan Tien

how to find your dan tien

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

The Greatest Hang-up to our Collective Progress

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

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

To Summarize

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

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


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

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

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


So what to do?

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



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

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


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

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

What is qigong healing?

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

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



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


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

The body is the proof.

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

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

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

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

Our Culture Determines what we Think about Qi Gong Healing

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

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

Where the evidence is.

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

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

Otherwise just make the conscious choice to heal.

Further Reading:

The Science of Mindfulness

MBSR – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

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


Why Learning Qi Gong is Unbelievably Hard

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

Not so with Learning Qi Gong.

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

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

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

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

5 Reasons Why Learning Qi Gong is Difficult

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

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

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

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

  1. Qi Gong builds over time

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

  1. Qi Gong is often considered ancillary or secondary

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

  1. There is little opportunity to ask questions during development

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

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

  1. Chi development is extremely subtle and unrecognizable at first

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

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

In Summary:

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

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

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

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

Tai Chi Weapons – 6 Reasons to study arcane fighting techniques

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

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

Here are six reasons why you should study tai chi weapons

1) A weapon gives you tangible, reliable feedback

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

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

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

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

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

4) Weapons isolate individual energies

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

5) Weapons correctly transmit knowledge across time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should tai chi breathing take a back seat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Benefits of Correcting Posture

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of Correcting Posture

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

Improved Alertness

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

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

Improved Cognition

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

Increased Power

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

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

Relieve Pain

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

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

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

Improved breathing

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

Better mood

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

Reduced stress

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

What is Good Posture?

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

The importance of posture is now universally accepted

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

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

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


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

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.


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.


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