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Tai chi and Buddhism – Limitations of Having a Teacher

“Not for one moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal…  You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings.  To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teaching what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment…”

Siddhartha’s conversation with Gotama- the Buddha when he decides to go alone. (Siddhartha, p.33-34, 1971 edition)

What I am about to share will either cause utter frustration or liberation.  For those that have pondered how they progress in the martial arts, you know the answer is both.

Anyone who has made substantial progress in their internal or martial development spends a lot of time working alone.

Tai chi and BuddhismThere is Ueshiba, Bodhidharma, Itosu, Chen Faké,  Otávio Mitsuyo Maeda, etc.  Never  Great Teacher + _____.  Maybe Laurel & Hardy, but that is the one exception to greatness.

Yes you can argue that Carlos Gracie learned from Maeda and went on to teach his brothers.  Or that Chen- Xiaowang, -Zhenglei, -Wang Xi’an, and –Tiancai were collectively pupils of Chen Zhaopi.  But, each independently transform the art they were practicing in profound ways.

Why this should make you happy

  • You, yes you, are capable of making great progress in tai chi and buddhism.
  • You do not need to live in a martial arts mecca to achieve great results.
  • Your progress depends on incorporating your abilities into your life, not undertaking an independent hobby.

Why this may make you sad

  • You love the community you are in and respect your teacher.
  • It is easier to think that you can be told what to do and follow that path.
  • It is a lonely pursuit to be working out and meditating alone.

How to make progress more rapidly in tai chi and Buddhism

Tai chi and Buddhism

1.  Seek short, highly technical instruction followed by ample time to practice.

Technology and travel allow all of us to make tangible progress that is greater and faster than we think.   I believe that conferences and workshops offer this perfect type of environment.  We are now in an era where many highly skilled individuals are traveling or presenting webinars.  Also, members of your community are willing to mix it up with you or have you attend an infrequent class.   There is a cost associated with this style of learning but the payoff in catapulting people forward is huge.  Workshops can cost $150-$300 for a full weekend (16 hours).  That’s $25/hour for top level instruction.  The most successful people attend with a buddy and commit to practicing what was presented afterwards.

2.   Interact with peers outside of your specific group.

We need to interact with people who have the same desires as us and are near or above our ability.  This causes comradery and we see people similar to us make gains.  This is possible in a class but we need to interact with others who drink different Kool-Aid.

 For Students what does this look like?

Tai chi and BuddhismThis does not mean that you abandon your school or your community (It might though).  Eastern Pursuits (all internal studies and martial arts) are intended to have a meaningful impact on your life and eventually pervade everything else you do.

  • Your yoga breathing techniques should kick in during that stressful meeting
  • Your increase in flexibility allows for more outdoors time with your grandchild
  • Your hours on the mat without injury give you insight into how to talk to your cross-fit friend about better posture.

What this means to students

Your teacher is more skilled than you and has a lot to share.  But understand that accepting a teacher represents a false ceiling being placed on your own progress.  You connect greatness with their current level of development, not your own potential.

For Teachers what does this look like?

Taichi and BuddhismAs teachers we keep on teaching.  But what percentage of your students only practice when they are in your dojo or classroom?  Are you encouraging them to take up study outside of class?

Studies* have shown that people are most successful:

1.  When they come up with what they think is doable and then cut it in half.

Think about dieting or working out.  People are highly motivated at the beginning of a change.  So they begin working out or eating in a way every day that is not sustainable.  One party or skipped day and the progress begins to unravel.  Instead, ask them for something meager such as 3 minutes of standing meditation, 2x/week.  Increase the amount only after their schedule has become accustomed to this.

2)  When they can sustain the change for 30 days.

Consistency has to occur for a long enough period for a habit to form.   A person needs to practice sustaining the new behavior throughout every life scenario (bills, a party, sickness, lack of sleep) and a month presents us with most of the average challenges.  *(Duhigg, C., The Power of Habit).

Examples for what to share with students

Note these are intentionally small and not always physical:

  • “Do these 5 movements of the form each day.  Let me time you.  Ok, that was 22 seconds.  Can you do that every day for seven days?”
  • Read this passage before next class
  • Stand (Zhan Zhong) for 3 minutes 5 days this week while your coffee is brewing or while you are waiting for the bus.
  • Watch this video before next class.
  • Walk outside at lunch once this week without speaking.

The Solution

As students and teachers, we need to learn from each other and those with greater abilities but remember that they too are developing on their path.  Seek others who are also developing.

As teachers we need to speak in terms such as “where we are at this point in our development,”  not absolutes.  We need to engage with our community, encourage our students to do so,  and not be afraid to have students attend “other” martial events.  This takes a dose of courage, faith in yourself, and humility.

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.  One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it…in every truth the opposite is equally true…Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it lacks totality, completeness, unity.” …”

(Hesse H. Siddhartha, p.141-142, 1971 edition).

Resources mentioned in this post:

power of habit book - Copy sidhartha book - Copy

Tai Chi and Healing – the other 80% of the story

Every time that I begin to talk about tai chi and healing I feel like I should be on a TV sales program.  “It slices, it dices…” as though I am promising the world and asking you for a small commitment (of just 3 installments of $19.99).

But there is some truth to this.  In this essay let’s talk about the 80% of us who are not suffering from severe ailments (thankfully) and can keep it that way.

The  Status Quo

 Problem #1:

Most media and stories revolve around people who have a severe diagnosis and arrived at tai chi’s door because western medicine has given up on them.  Here is a great example of a Canadian woman who was initially unsuccessful at recovering from an ankle/foot fracture:  Tai Chi and Healing

Great I say and true I say, but this is taking an extreme case to make a point.  How about just feeling outstanding all the time?  Anyone up for powerful sleep, stress-less navigation of work problems, and great digestion?  These are the unsung heroes of health.

Problem #2:

Tai Chi and HealingHealing is seen from a western perspective.  I do this thing (eat too much, get injured, get old) and am now focused on re-engineering the consequences.  Great I say again and very proactive. However, what if you could get to state where the bad stuff doesn’t happen or is minimized?  Well dear viewer, I am here to tell you just how it happens!

 

The Process

#1  The body heals itself, not you, sorry

The body makes a continual assessment of your health and creates or removes chemicals to keep you in a healthy state.  If you injure yourself it sends messengers to the cut and begins the healing process.  If you are sick it turns up your body temperature to burn off what it does not want and does not allow you to eat and screw up the chemistry it is mixing up in your belly.  Health is achieved by creating the best state for your body to operate from.

Side note for marital arts  fanatics:  Does this sound a bit like the fighting aspect of tai chi?  You bet your sweet bippy.  We cannot control what is coming at us.  We can however create a body that can swiftly react to and recover from whatever we encounter.

 

 #2  Heath can be attributed to the body functioning normally.

Healthiness is all we are asking for.  This depends on elimination of toxins, hydration, sleep, and controlled stress.  Silk reeling, tai chi, and chi gong, wring the toxins out of the muscles and tissue and apply pressure to the organs to encourage proper function.   These exercises also expand our breath and supply clean oxygen to tissues.  Tai chi reduces the oscillation of our brain waves moving us in the calm direction of sleep.  This simultaneously reduces our stress and lets us sleep better because we are closer to the delta state where sleep takes place.  Read this for more on the four brain states.

Tai Chi and HealingThe elementary school campus is a perfect example.  Have any of you been to one lately?  It is an absolute petri dish of American virology.  Yet, some professionals skate in and out of these settings, booger clad, but not suffering the side effects.  I am one such professional.  Maybe I am a 40-year-old with amazing genes and immunity.  Or…..maybe… I do tai chi.  Tai Chi and healing go hand in hand.  I do not catch colds, the flu, coughs, or the like.  I take no vitamins or aids such as Airborne except an occasional Emergen-C packet usually coinciding with a work out.

What is the opposite of Antidote?

Tai Chi and HealingI am not trying to be clever here.  If you know please write to me and tell me.  I was looking for a word to describe the eastern process of healing and couldn’t find the opposite of antidote in our language.  Only synonyms; remedy, countermeasure, solution to a problem, cure…

We lack the vocabulary and theoretical understanding of preventative medicine.  Tai chi and Qi gong allows the body to determine what is needed to heal and send those chemicals to the right place.  However, we need to be in a receptive state with a fully charged battery to allow this process to take place.  “How do I do that?” you ask!  Eighteen moves, 4 minutes, frequently (no money down! As seen on TV! Now in your grocer’s freezer!)

Why Study Tai Chi?  Adaptation

“Our ability to adapt is amazing.  Our ability to change isn’t quite as spectacular.”  Lisa Lutz

 

 

 

 

 

It is the perennial question:  “Why study tai chi?  There are a host of obvious answers such as fitness, health, community, interest, or culture.  But the truth is that any number of sports or hobbies can deliver on these promises.  Some are even better.  Here is one idea where tai chi truly stands out:

Adaptation

Tai chi is a systematic rewiring of your movements and breathing.  You breathe and move just fine last time you checked right?  Movements are based on habit and responding to stimuli.  At its extreme; an alarm goes off, you jump, and your pulse quickens.  More commonly; the email you dread arrives, you clench your teeth, hunch your shoulders, and slump in your chair.  Or, your son takes his first step, your spine straightens, you smile and gasp.

Why Study Tai Chi Why Study Tai Chi

 

 

 

 

 

 

We react to what is presented to us.

Without focusing on how our body, mind, and emotions respond to a stimuli we are left with letting our body choose.  In negative situations this will result in heightened stress and negative emotion.

But wouldn’t it be better if we could insert a thought before we react?  Maybe even give us a choice as to how we react?  Definitely, but our autonomic and emotional system rarely give us that option.  What we can do is preplace the reaction that our body chooses with a much more esteemed, adaptive response.

Adaptive Change takes less time than you think

Why Study Tai ChiTai chi is not a quick fix but rewiring old patterns does not take a lifetime.  Research on learning music (The Talent Code, Effortless Mastery) and Kinesiology (Alexander Technique) both indicate that 4-6 weeks of slow movement practice can reprogram fine and gross activities and physiological responses.

How Does Tai Chi change our response to stressors?

Why study tai chi?  Tai chi provides series of slow repetitive movements where you are observing your surroundings and concentrating on our breath.  Your “reaction” to a stimuli includes 1) concentration on relaxed muscles and 2) an elongated breath.  Therefore, when a stressor occurs your first inclination is relax the shoulders and breath into the belly.  A far cry from the tensing impulse that is typical.

Example from Tai Chi

Someone 1) pushes on you, 2) your body tenses, 3) you think “crap, I am supposed to be relaxed.” You relax your shoulders and breath deep.   The body’s reaction always precedes the thought.  However, after hundreds of simulated pushes your body accepts this immediate relaxation as the normal first response to a stressor.

Example from Life

I hate leaving an essay in an esoteric cloud so I will also share a real life examples of adaptation.  In my work I am often brought problems which I am asked my opinion on or asked to solve.  I would traditionally “respond” to an issue with incredulity (on a good day) or outrage (on a bad).  My emotion was obvious and my opinion or ideas hastily shared.

After incorporating awareness that I built in tai chi and qi gong into my job, an amazing thing began to happen.  I sat there.  Just for a split second.  I sat there uncommitted to an opinion or emotion.  This created a large enough space in the conversation to allow my colleagues to offer a solution.  They honestly know more about the situation than me and their opinion is probably more valuable.  M y colleagues still come with the problem but now they bring solutions. They say, “here is the problem, we can do this or that.”

 

 

How the Buddha’s Teachings Relate to Tai Chi

Buddhist references or quotes are thrown around loosely, and why not, the Buddhism and Buddha’s Teachings are attributed to millions of quotes that pertain to life and tai chi.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Is Tai Chi Intended to be Spiritual or Religious?

Tai chi can be as spiritual or non-spiritual as a practitioner makes it.  It has a heavy sense of good will and absolutely has a sacred feel.   Quotes and references abound about the similarities between tai chi and Buddhism/Daoism/Confucianism.   Some go as far as to say that Tai Chi is based on Daoism or that it runs parallel to the teachings of the I Ching (Book of Changes).

On the other hand, most of the tai chi masters and practitioners from China that I have met have not shared their religious beliefs feelings and tendencies.  They practice, meditate, talk about tai chi endlessly, but never enter into a conversation about God or religion.

I recently returned from China and this distinction was readily apparent.  You could spend a day visiting Buddhist temples and then next day hammering through exhaustive workouts with no apparent relationship between the two.  Yet, at the end of both days you felt the same groundedness and well-being.  I did some research to come to terms with this simultaneous difference/similarity.

Buddha’s Teachings

Buddha’s 18 Attendant Warriors (Pounds Mortar)

Disclaimer

This essay is going to stray from the practical to hopefully offer insight for those with spiritual interest.  That being said, let’s not get too fluffy.   Buddhist references or quotes are thrown around loosely, and why not, the Buddha and Buddhism are attributed to millions of quotes that pertain to life and tai chi.  Buddhism offers us some concrete concepts to explain in certain terms how taichi and religion/spirituality have a relationship.

Buddha’s TeachingsThe Dharma Seals

There are three criteria to measure whether something is authentically a Buddhist teaching.  No wiggle room here.   Thich Nhat Hahn in his book you are here. Does a beautiful job explaining the relationship between Buddhism and life.  Let’s lean on his explanation and tie it back to tai chi.

  1. Impermanence

Buddha’s teachings

When you look at the nature of all things you discover that they are impermanent. Everything is constantly changing.  This is not a negative thing.  “If things were not impermanent, growth would not be possible, and manifestation would not be possible.  Impermanence is what puts an end to dictatorship.  It’s what puts an end to hatred and suffering.  We need impermanence to transform them…We must train ourselves to see things as they are.”

Tai Chi

We are made of elements called form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.  These things are very real but we cannot find any permanence in them.  As you progress in tai chi, it is all too easy to get down on yourself and feel as though you are progressing from a position of sucking to sucking less.  But this misses one of the most important points that tai chi teaches.

Each time you are practicing you are producing the very best form that you are capable of based on your current state and level of experience. 

If you can wrap your mind around this idea it becomes continual joy.  The implications for work and life are incredible.  This  doesn’t mean you don’t get frustrated or don’t want to do better.  But every work presentation or new recipe you try for your wife at the very least provides you with satisfaction.

  1. Non-Self

  “I am large, I contain multitudes.”   Walt Witman

Buddha’s teachings

Buddha’s TeachingsThick Nhat Hahn uses a beautiful flower metaphor to explain Non-Self.  “When we look deeply at a flower, we see all the non-flower elements there, such as earth, sun, minerals, the gardener, and so on…The flower does not need to become the sun, it is the sun.  When you achieve this insight, you stop suffering.  We suffer because we want to deny ourselves.   We want to become something else, and  so we never stop running.”

Tai Chi

By studying tai chi you are not becoming something else or gaining something new.  You are returning to something that is more natural by waking up to what is inherently yours.   This is the best part of the Dharma seals I feel.  Tai Chi can be performed knowing that you are receiving benefits from the set without having to specifically identify what is going on .  This means that newcomers and old-comers can simply do the form without having to concentrate on the specifics.

For teachers out there, sometimes tai chi is a hard sell because it doesn’t have the LOUD feedback that other activities do.  You run, you are tired.  You do Crossfit, you are sore.  Tai chi’s differences are more profound from a health standpoint but definitely more subtle.  I have taken to guiding my classes to note the changes.  At the beginning of an evening class I ask everyone to rate their perceived level of fatigue.  Most people have worked all day and it is now 7 PM.  At the end I have them do it again and they are usually more awake.  I ask them to question if their sleep is different on practice nights.  Before 3 minute standing (zhan zhuang – pole standing in a deep posture)  I ask them to rate their body temperature.  Without exception it skyrockets after 180 seconds and people are perspiring.  Pretty powerful stuff for the amount of perceived effort.

  1. Nirvana

Buddha’s teachings

The term Nirvana means extinction.  The extinction of all concepts and the pain that concepts cause.  Back to Thich Nhat Hahn’s flower metaphor:  “The flower is full of all of the elements.  It has everything in it and is devoid of only one thing: separate existence.”

Tai Chi

Everything that you want to learn from tai chi is already in you.  You do not need to gain it from a teacher or reading books.  They can guide you back but they are not giving you anything.  Tai chi directs you towards natural balance, posture, and health that already exists in you and your body craves.  Qi Gong and breathing exercises re-introduce you to autonomic processes and internal energy that moves through your body.  Tai chi builds this energy and increases your sensitivity to it but it is already there in everyone.

 The Dharma Seals – Taichi style

Buddha’s TeachingsIn one of my first encounters with a Chen Tai Chi master visiting the United States I was participating in a private lesson to have my form corrected.  As is typical, I was asked to perform a portion of the form.  It is nerve-racking but not meant as a challenge.  They just want to ascertain what level you are beginning at that day so they know how to best help you.  After completing my routine the interpreter shared my review.

“You are not doing tai chi. That is not tai chi,”  he said.  I was dumb founded.

About a year of practice and I wasn’t even doing  the art?  “What was it then?”  I asked.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “Dancing?  Choreography?”  Wow.  The Chinese don’t pull punches.  I was ready to quit.  Anecdotally, I have heard the same tai chi masters look at a picture or watch live music and say: “That is Tai Chi.”  There is some sort of criteria or coming together that they are bearing witness to.

Buddha’s TeachingsWhat I didn’t realize at the time is that I had my first encounter with what I think is Tai Chi’s version of the Dharma Seals.  Tai Chi has its own rules for what constitutes Tai Chi.  It is integrated, powered by the center; balanced.  I should not have been so offended.  I was being complimented for having taken the time to learn the sequence of movements but my movements were not integrated and I was not using the correct energy to power my movements.  Eventually as a practitioner one develops true precepts that inherently feel right and also allow you to help correct someone else that is just beginning.  It can be as simple as an incorrect weight shift or correction of poor poster.

 

Tai Chi is a playground, a practice, for getting this inherent spiritual or ethical sense right so that you can translate it to other parts of your life.

Here is the book I mentioned.

you are here

 

 

4 Easy Steps and 1 Great Reason to make Tai Chi Practice a part of your Life

I recently received this feedback below from a long time practitioner about the content of this website.

“…knowing everything about T’ai Chi is a lot different than making Tai Chi practice a part of our life… This is something I rarely see in any of the educational media.  It is just assumed that the student will develop a practice but the reality is most students do most of their T’ai Chi in class.

The most important thing is to do it, to make it your own.  An elementary practice will affect our lives profoundly.  Erudition will leave us looking for more.”

Well said.

No one would argue with the fact that adding physical activity or meditation would improve your life.  The problem comes with the execution.  Here are four easy steps taken from research and positive-change gurus.  Additionally, tai chi has one thing up on many of the positive changes that you would make to your life:  The improvements are cumulative, and you receive benefits back in a ratio that is greater than the efforts it takes to perform the form.

1. Don’t Add, Replace

tai chi practiceDo you have time to add something new to your schedule?  Who does?  But you have to be interested in change or improvement or you wouldn’t be reading this post.   Get twice the bang for your buck by reducing a less-than-positive activity with tai chi practice.

Darren Hardy says it best in his book: The Compound Effect.

“The sum total of all the actions that you take each day lead to greater success.”   Life  is a big calculator and at the end of the day your sum total of actions either moves you in the direction you want to go, you stay neutral, or you move backwards.

Hardy has a beautiful Habit Assessment  that helps us quantify how much time we are actually putting towards activities like accessing news, watching TV, or shooting the bull.  It is a good wake-up call and way to see where 15 minutes can be culled away from.

2.  Wake up 15 Minutes Earlier

tai chi practiceYou have heard this one before but I am going to put some eastern knowledge behind it.  The Daoists divide the day into tal. Each tal is 20 minutes so each hour has three tal.  They then assign an animal to each 2 hour segment and describe which activity is most suited for each segment.  The Rabbit time falls roughly between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. and is considered sacred due to your clarity of thought, acuteness, and relaxed state.  They talk in terms of “protecting” this time and not wasting it.

Too fluffy you say?  Let’s hit the science.  The brain produces 5 wave frequencies (Alpha, Beta, Theta, Delta, and Gamma) that are measured in cycles per seconds (Hz).  Alpha waves are present during deep relaxation and allows your mind to be successful at heightened concentration.  They are present during light sleep but can be accessed through meditation (see Silva Method).  Guess when it is easiest to access and experience an Alpha state?  You got it! When you wake and are transitioning between deep sleep (delta) and waking hours (beta).
tai chi practice

3.  Lean on the Power of Habit

Research suggests that if you can do something for 21 -40 days (higher number of days needed for motor tasks) then you are more likely to sustain it for a longer period.  I love this suggestion and you see it cropping up in all sorts of positive changes.   Why?  Three weeks seems do-able.

4.  Get a buddy

tai chi practiceWe have all started something new with a friend or spouse and found tremendous excitement or commitment at the onset.  Accountability is motivating.  If you are fortunate enough to know someone who is also interested in tai chi, practice with them and agree to meet regularly.  What if you are attending class alone?  Something else I have seen to be successful is to make a friend at class and commit to showing up 15 minutes early to review the tai chi form or material.  You want to show up with a clear conscious and not a clear mind.  And what if you didn’t practice?  Who cares?  That 15 minutes will make your absorption of that class’s material even easier.

It all adds up.

the ompound effect book

click to read more

Tai chi Practice is Cumulative

You just need a little structure in place to get you practicing so you can benefit from your efforts.  Then the novel, pleasant experiences begin.  No amount of words (or essays!) can explain the hair-raising sense that overcomes you when chi starts to independently move through your body.  No amount of surprise can describe the first time you don’t react with anger or irritation when a child or coworker frustrates you.  A reaction that would have been typical.   The word gratitude is too small of a word to describe the first time you are thankful for rush hour because otherwise you would have missed that song/news story / sunset.

 “Success is built by taking small consistent steps over time. While these steps in the moment don’t feel significant, the results over time are massive.”  Darren Hardy

 

How Tai Chi Influences our Life – Jumping Outside of the Form

Oh, you get so many hunches

That you don’t know ever quite

If the right hunch is a wrong hunch!

Then the wrong hunch might be right!

Dr. Seuss:  Hunches in Bunches

how tai chi influences our livesThere is this general idea that tai chi influences our lives positively after a while.  You practice the form diligently and somehow the tranquility and understanding that ensues flows like water out of your backyard and pervades all aspects of your life.  Aaaahhh.

Malarkey you scream!   Way too touchy feely.

Like every good tai chi concept, the answer is yes and no.  My non-tai chi life has benefited immensely from my practice.  Let’s use this essay to describe how the benefits of tai chi make the leap from practicing the form to improving your life.  We will do this by studying:  The Hunch.

The nuts and bolts of how tai chi influences our lives

The thing I love to hear from a student is: “something is not right here.”  What this tells me is that something feels awkward and they are becoming more highly perceptible to inconsistencies.  Basically, their body is sending an uncomfortable signal that they are paying attention to and trying to correct.  In normal life, this signal usually comes at the heightened experience of pain but in tai chi we are catching it at an early level and learning to tune into it.

How does tai chi teach heightened sensitivity?

The tai chi form is series of movement laws we can say.  If you move in one way, you are said to have good tai chi.  It is reintroducing us to movements and breathing that are innate to all animals.  I say re-introducing because all young toddlers walk and breathe correctly until life teachers them otherwise.

Here are some examples.

Body alignment – Walk across the room.  Chances are your right foot and left hand traveled forward together.   Now step right and push forward with your right hand (same side), and left with left.  This is tai chi.  You do this in the form and if you switch back to moving with an opposite gait (left hand/right foot moving forward at the same time) your brain fires a signal noting a difference.

Weight shifts – Grab a door knob. Chances are your weight fell on the front foot at the point that you grabbed the knob.  Now keep your weight back as you grab the knob.  Chances are that you were quieter, and that your hand sent back a tactile message from the knob –it’s cold, it’s hard.  Because your hand’s nerve endings weren’t employed to balance or hold your weight, it could undertake remedial processes.   Poor or opposing weight shifts can stop your body from sending back messages during the form.

The heightened sensitivity that tai chi develops is akin to what we call a “hunch.”

Tai Chi Influences our LifeDeveloping your hunch.

The tai chi form gives a you a small window of time where everything is perfect. Your body likes this experience and if you listen to it, you will increasingly sense when something is not to your liking.  To me it occurs in the gut.  It is the proverbial “hunch.”  As you acquaint yourself with this feeling, acknowledge that something is wrong and act on it, the gut feeling grows and becomes more pronounced.  Think back to the countless metaphors

An example of a hunch.

I often go to a great Greek restaurant and one day I was on the other side of town and stopped at a second location. When I opened the door I mildly smelled cleaning solution and my gut dropped and I felt anxious.  I blew it off thinking “I am already here, I am hungry, I only have 20 minutes to eat.”  I didn’t make it back to work and you can guess which small room of my house I spent the afternoon in.

Malarkey you scream again!   Happenstance!

I can’t out-rightly convince you through text that this is empirically true.  However, if you start listening to your hunch, bad things happen less and there always seem to be consequences for ignoring them. What you can measure is that practitioners who “listen” to their movements are the ones who make dramatic leaps forward in their practice.

The science behind the hunch.

tai chi Influences our Life90% of the human brain is said to be run by the subconscious mind while 10% is accredited to the knowing mind.  This makes complete sense and we wouldn’t want it any other way or we would be overrun but the processes that run the body and having to actually think about everything that our senses are taking in.

The hunch is actually listening to this 90%.  It is giving an audience to your library of experiences and all of your sensory activity.  Normally we only listen when the signal is ratcheted up (pain/danger) but we can access it more intimately.

The physiology of the hunch.

tai chi influences our livesWhat is it that we are tuning in to?  When there is a change in our environment that may require immediate action or body changes our 1) rate of blood flow, 2) breathing, and 3) or endocrine system re-employs chemicals away from autonomic processes (digestion) and into awaiting muscles (limbs).

The hunch is physical and we feel better for paying attention.

The hunch is physical.  Think about the millions of metaphors used to capture this sense (sense, get it?). “I had a gut feeling about that.”  “That breaks my heart.”  You sweat. You hold your breath.  And yet, we conceptualize the hunch as being mental.  It is not mental.  The mental process is the reaction to the physical change.  This is what tai chi is trying to attune us to and how tai chi influences our lives.  If you listen to it you “feel” better regardless of the outcome.

Resources:
In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable

Tie-dyed Tai Chi – Why tai chi suffers under the weight of its own reputation

Chi is a real, scientifically measurable energy that can have quick, dramatic implications for your wellbeing. 

You have seen him.  The tie-dyed-shirt wearing gentleman with the fanny pouch at the last conference.  Or the woman ordained with endlessly flowing scarves on a 100 degree day.  At a conference I attended in Austin, Texas an attendee relaxed between sessions by playing a didgeridoo.   At a summer camp I participated in in Oregon, an attendee entertained Chen Zhenglei and his wife with juggling and hacky sacks.

These are our peeps.  As eccentric as they are, they make up a representational and interesting percentage of practitioners.  I wouldn’t dream of practicing an art that wasn’t as accepting as tai chi and find dullness a far more unacceptable sin.  However, this laissez-faire reputation of tai chi can slow down the progress of new students.

tie dye shirt2Here are the risks:

Chi is a real, scientifically measurable energy that can have quick, dramatic implications for your wellbeing.

If you stray too far down the metaphysical path you can begin to see chi as supernatural or theoretical and unobtainable by “mere mortals.”

Posture and a sense of fullness  are what gets the energy flowing through your body and ultimately gives you the sensation and control of moving chi.

Flowing muse-like dancing does not give you the proper structure and open blood flow.   Yes, tai chi is beautiful, but understand that there is real substance to the movements.  It is a fullness where your entire body is engaged.   By doing the form correctly you are giving your body a 1-8 minute window where you are aligned and your meridians are open.  Eventually an internal sensitivity arises that lets you “feel” chi.

Martial applications put your body in the proper position to ensure meridian alignment.

Tai chi is both martial and health.  When asked which was more important, Chen Youze replied by saying: “Go after health and get the health.  Go after martial and get the martial and the health.”  You do not need to fight.  However, the mechanics, posture, and intent of pushhands is how the proper alignment of taichi has been successfully passed down across millennia.

So where did the tie-dyed tai-chi stereotype come from?

Tai chi has equal parts martial, health, spirit, and history.  One could spend a lifetime studying different aspects of the art and not scratch the surface.  So how did the spiritual aspects of taichi get over emphasized?  Let’s take a quick historical look at the popularity of martial arts in America.

tai dye 3History

Most Americans who initially undertook martial arts practice largely fell into two camps.  They served in a war in Asia and were exposed to  the martial aspects of an art.  Or, they were introduced to tai chi through the hippie movement of the 1960s.

U.S. veterans were taught martial arts as part of their wartime training.  Pilots were taught Judo in Japan.  Marines were taught Karate in Okinawa and stick fighting in the Philippines. Solders continue to bring back Tai Kwon Do from Korea.  As you can imagine, while I am making an argument for exploring the practical and martial aspects of tai chi, practitioners of the external martial arts are revisiting the soft side of their disciplines.

Tai chi arrived in America at a time when American’s were ready to think with a more open mind – i.e. the 1960s.  Most Chinese immigrants to America came from Beijing or Hong Kong which have a large concentration of Yang tai chi practitioners.  This was perfect timing as Yang Style has a greater focus on the health and metaphysical.

Politics

We have had standing relationships with Japan, Korea, and the Philippines  for the last half century.  These have been the countries that have provided us with what we traditionally consider the hard, external martial arts.  Basically, many Americans served in these countries learned martial arts there, and brought them back to the U.S.  Based on their own exposure and interest, the martial application of these arts became the focus and internal aspects took a back seat.

Conversely, China began opening its doors in the 80s.  While this was already 30 years ago, their marital arts were more closely linked to religion and China kept a tight leash on information sharing.  It was not until the last decade that we have seen more travel visas for teachers, more travel visas awarded to Americans, and the Chinese discovery of YouTube.

paisley t-shirtTie-dyed Tai Chi

Love tai chi for its global peaceful message.  However, understand that the spiritual aspects of tai chi are just a portion of the art.  If you crave the spiritual-metaphysical energy that chi promises, know that it is dependent on you being healthy, aligned, and balanced.  If you crave the power of internal strength easily demonstrated by dozens of Chinese teachers, know that they got their by pursuing relaxation and balance.  Don’t just be Yin or Yang.  (I think that would effectively make you paisley?).

Martial Progress in Tai Chi: Using Yin Yang Theory to Gauge our Development

Learning to “relax” can be charged with frustration and is a suggestion that is often seen as a criticism.  It is time to view it in its intended light:  your relaxation charts your progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we’re starting out practicing tai chi we often think we are soft and relaxed when we’re actually pretty far from it.  This can be frustrating on a number of levels.  First of all, who am I (or your teacher) to tell you that you are not relaxed when your body is giving you every indication that you are?  Secondly, what is the value of a teacher pointing out this error continually which seems to undermine progress?

 Fact 1:   Your body and mind can tell you two different things.

The idea of being told to do something when you thought you already were, can be seen in many areas of taichi.  You are standing in a posture, in relaxed la-la land and your instructor tells you to relax.  What did he think you were doing!  You are performing a move slowly, i.e. Matrix style, and your instructor tells you to slow down.  You tell a student to hold a “deep” horse stance for 90 seconds and counsel them to stop rising up.  They look perturbed.  You place them back in a horse stance under a shelf and they bonk their head.  They are stupefied that they were moving.  How are these diametrically opposed situations possible?  Because emotions such as performance anxiety or the pain from the deep stance sends messages to the brain to improve the situation, while not letting you in on the process.  This is a good thing.  This function is inhibited in depressed people.

And now we start to see some of the efficient beauty of taichi.  Tai chi allows us to step outside of our body’s box and wake up to autonomic processes so that we can actively control them.  By waking up to this trickery we can make minute changes and begin to enjoy progress.

 Fact 2:  Progress has to be from hard to soft

We need to stop beating ourselves up for not being “relaxed.”  It is not a normal state for nearly everyone.   Even if you are that laidback person you dream you are, taichi is building a relaxation that is not achievable without training.  This is the magical relaxation that stumps doctors because it heals.  This is the relaxation that is normally only found on vacation.  However, in this case it is free and can happen in your backyard.

Yin Yang Theory and Monitoring Progress in Tai Chi

Here is an older article from Chen XiaowangYin Yang Theory that covers the progress made from continual practice.  But first, let me say that it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the progression is going to be from hard to soft.  From “external” to “internal.”  Yin Yang Theory gives us a paradigm where we can gave our progress incrementally.  First 90/10, then 80/20 etc. until we become more balanced in power and form.  This is the classical way in taichi and it’s probably just a reality.

 Level 1

They may not have mastered the application but by knowing how to mislead his opponent the student may occasionally be able to throw off his opponent.  Even then, he may be unable to maintain his own balance. Such a situation is thus termed “the 10% yin and 90% yang; top heavy staff”.

Level 2

One may be able to move and ward off an attack but may easily commit errors like throwing-off or collapsing and over-exerting or confronting force. Because of these, during push-hands, one cannot move according to the sequence of warding-off, grabbing, pressing and pushing down. A person with this level of skill is described as ‘20% yin, 80% yang: an undisciplined new hand.’

Level 3

Even in leading-in and expelling-out the opponent, one [may] feel stiff and much effort is required. As such the skill at this stage is described as ‘30% yin, 70% yang, still on the hard side.’

Level 4

On contact with the opponent, one can immediately change one’s action and thus dissolve the on-coming force with ease, exhibiting the special characteristics of going along with the movements of the opponent but yet changing one’s own actions all the time to counteract the opponent’s action, exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately. Therefore, a person attaining this level of kung fu is described as ‘40% yin, 60% yang; akin to a good practitioner.’

Yin Yang TheoryLevel 5

As regarding the martial skill, at this level the gang (hard) should complement the rou (soft), it (the form) should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively. Every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taichi principle, as are the movements of the whole body. This means that every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react when the need arises. So much so that every part of the body can act as a fist to attack whenever is in contact with the opponent’s body. There should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force and the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides.

The description for this level of kung fu is that it is the ‘only one that plays with 50% yin and 50% yang, without any bias towards yin or yang, and the person who can do this is termed a good master. A good master makes every move according to the taichi principles which demands that every move be invisible.’

Here is the take-home message

At the uppermost level of development we land at and even 50/50 split between hard and soft.  On one hand this illustrates how hard (yang/unrelaxed) we all probably are at the beginning of training.  On the other hand, it defines what soft really means.  Softness is the ability to conceal and maintain the potential of a significant force.   It is not the weak, flabby softness out on the end of the soft-to-hard spectrum.

By continual work on softness and relaxation we are simultaneously achieving the health and mental benefits from “relaxation” and building up true internal power.   Any time that we find a singular focus that results in multiple benefits we know we are participating in a great and natural process.

The Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Anyone who has made tangible progress in the martial arts has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a conversation with a friend who is a long time practitioner of Japanese martial arts I was envious at the structure that was imbued into the different levels of progress.  They have very defined levels which are defined by specific curriculum, vocabulary, knowledge, performance expectations, and even visible uniform upgrades.  What do the Chinese systems have? (crickets).  There are some schools that have tried to implement belt-systems or sashes or name walls but none of this has gotten any traction and often just looks gimmicky.

Development in Tai ChiI am not advocating that the Chinese systems codify their progress here.  The Chinese-stylist would defend their structure (or lack of) in the following way: By putting a structure in place or by identifying a single, all-talented teacher, you immediately put a ceiling on your progress.  Anyone who has achieved a level of development in tai chi has learned a set of movements and then made discoveries by working independently. This is not an indictment on the Japanese or Korean systems.  They have their own lineage of tinkering and making gains.  When I cross-train with individuals I find that many have dabbled in multiple martial arts and have landed in their art of choice largely due to availability and personality.

So yes I feel that there are distinct advantages to progressing by being in a non-codified system.  However, that doesn’t mean that a new or old person couldn’t benefit from seeing the long road so that they know which direction they are traveling.

In the Chinese systems, the path you are taking is largely due to what you defining.

The beauty of Tai Chi is that it is 1) attractive to people with different interests such as health, martial arts, or history and 2) on the same token allows you to study the same thing for multiple decades as your interests change.

Development in Tai ChiHere is an example:  B.K. Frantzis writes prolifically on the use of Tai Chi in martial development.  So when asked “What are the stages of learning tai chi?”  Here is his answer taken from this EnergyArts.com article.

Stage 1:  Form Work (Long or Short Form)

Stage 2: Taichi Pushhands or Tui Shou

Stage 3:  Transition Methods between Push Hands and Sparing

Stage 4:  Sparing and Actual Sparring

It is decidedly slanted toward martial attainment.  It is a very nice article if you are interested in a full explanation of each stage.

Five Levels of Development in Tai Chi

Learning taijiquan is in principle similar to educating oneself; progressing from primary to university level, where one gradually gathers more and more knowledge. Without the foundation from primary and secondary education, one will not be able to follow the courses at university level.  Chen Xiao Wang

There is a tangible sequence to understand and truly follow to make progress in Tai Chi.   5 levels have been laid out for us that can be applied to any finite or global pursuit.  This means that B.K. Frantzis’s explanation above incorporates these ideas and that we can take these ideas and apply them to our own interests.  I will use an article translated for Chen Xiao Wang (CXW) and boil the principles down.  Understand that micro-actions, even 2 minutes of practice or standing each day, bring profound understanding of progress.  Just thinking about this intellectually can only get you so far.

The First Level: Requirements on the different parts of the body

The purpose: allows one’s energy to sink to the dan tien
This level is super easy to understand to execute.  CXW estimates that these basics can be achieved in 6 months.  For the novice this is encouragement to work steadily and for the avid practitioner this is motivation to reinvest some time in some weak points and get on our way. Here is your job:

Development in Tai Chi

  • keeping a straight body
  • keeping the head and neck erect with mindfulness
  • relaxing the shoulders and sinking the elbows
  • relaxing the chest and waist letting them sink down
  • relaxing the crotch and bending the knees
  • breathe naturally

Here is a breath of fresh air:  CXW says that a beginner at this level can be: “…not well coordinated and systematic…postures may not be correct…the force or jin produced may be stiff, broken, lax or on the other hand too strong.”  Sounds great! Let’s get the form down, let’s allow ourselves to stink at what we think is important because it is not yet important.

What Level 1 taught me:  Real life terms.

I never want these essays to be solely theoretical so let me share how taichi has positively affected my life.  At work I was super behind.  I had 7 products partially started and none were complete.  Psychologically I was beating myself up for not being done, them being imperfect.  What did I do?  I hammered through all 7 in 10 days, during working hours.  How different do you think my completed version was from a perfect version?  My boss was ecstatic and I was able to pass them off to colleagues to inject new motivation and put on the final touches.  4 months of cowering put to rest in 10 days!

The Second Level: Feel the movement of internal energy

The purpose: to ensure that the internal energy/qi will move systematically in the body in accordance with the requirements of each movement.

Ok, deep breath.  You started this tai chi thing to feel this internal energy.  Oh but it is illusive.  Oh but I can’t feel it.  Bull.  Chances are you couldn’t sense it because you weren’t aligned or attune.  You just took care of that by learning the form.  You can only concentrate on specific movements because you are not overwhelmed by remembering the choreography.

At this level trust that things are flowing and that by making small improvements to the form you will increase the energy to the level that you can sense it.  Here is your job:

  • external closing/union of movement: closing of hands with legs, elbows with knees, shoulders with hips
  • relaxing shoulders and elbows, chest and waist as well as crotch and knees
  • use the waist as a pivot to move every part of the body
  • breathe naturally

What Level 2 taught me:  Real life terms.

I had been studying guitar for a while and could “play” a couple songs.  It is merely for fun and am not about to quit my day job so I hadn’t thought about refining a song past just learning the notes.  Then my teacher asked if I wanted to play at a Student Showcase Performance.  I agreed, the fear kicked in, and holy cow was I focused on improving the song I already knew.  I had a blast bringing the song up to performance level, played in front of a completely sympathetic crowd, and for the first time had someone say “Oh you play the guitar?” And for the first time I answered “yes.”  When I was fear-stricken on stage my body was acting before my mind (which was frozen) could.  “Oh you study tai chi?”  Focus on improvements and answer them “yes.”

The Third Level: Mastering the internal and external requirements

Purpose: improve the strength of internal qi and begin the coordination between muscle movements and the functioning of the internal organs

Here is your job:

  • synchronize actions with breathing quite precisely
  • be able to command the actions with more ease, not muscle
  • practice push-hands and weapons as an out-of-the-box experiment to practice your balance, posture, and force
  • check on the quality and quantity of the internal force.  Is their visible blood flow to your hands? Can you break into a sweat from standing meditation?  Can you feel heat in your palms?  If not, seek specific corrections on standing and qi gong.

What Level 3 taught me:  Real life terms.

Much of the focus of the third level has to do with dissolving conflict.  There is a third way that tai chi has taught me and it is simply to not respond.  So many times at work or with the kids, someone is in a bad mood or is acting clearly out of their own motivations.  I always contemplated my response as being for or against them or a choice between appeasing them or aggravating them further.   But what about doing nothing?  By putting some time between me and worker who “needed to talk” or a child that “needed” something, by the time I approached them on the subject they were completely confused because they had forgotten all about it, had moved on, or were embarrassed.

The Fourth Level: Expressing force

Purpose: exerting the right force, adjusting internally, predicting the opponent’s intention, subduing one’s own actions, and expressing precise force and hitting the target accurately.

Here is your job:

  • practice each movement as though you were confronting the opponent
  • each part of the body must move in a linked and continuous manner so that the whole body moves in unison.
  • Movements of the upper and lower body are related
  • there should be a continuous flow between movements

What Level 4 taught me:  Real life terms.

Force does not come from the buildup of strength or clout.  Each year my profession attends a conference and has a booth with varying degrees of success.  This last year was the most successful.  It was not because of the products we were selling or because of who was attending.  We worked hard to strip away everything that was non-essential and therefore had extremely positive engaging employees attend who focused on three applicable products.  It was a success because we aligned our force to have the greatest impact and left the conference feeling elated rather than exhausted.

The Fifth level:  Coordination and special relationships

Purpose: work hard day by day until the body is very flexible and adaptable to multi-faceted changes

The beauty of the fifth level is that it is very real to life.  We can never be sure of what will be thrown at us.  To conclude with the Japanese-Chinese metaphor that began this essay:  Tai chi is more about focusing on abilities that would hold up against the majority of attacks (internal strength, groundedness, awareness, posture) rather than practicing against precise attacks (punch with your right hand).  Here is your job:

  • the form should be relaxed, dynamic, springy and lively.
  • every move and every motionless instant is in accordance with taiji principle
  • every part of the body should be very sensitive and quick to react
  • there should also be constant interchange between expressing and conserving of force
  • the stance should be firm as though supported from all sides

 Summary:

As you can see, development is a natural progress from external to internal or from hard to soft.  That being said, we need to know that we cannot beat ourselves up along the way for being too external or hard.  That is the point.  We are too external and realizing this is probably what led us to study tai chi.

 

Why People Practice Tai Chi

Understanding why people practice tai chi is extremely important to our own development and to the development of classmates and students.

We posted a survey here for two months and collected information about why people practice tai chi.  There were many responses that were expected but there were tons more that were not.  The combined results create a unique picture of the many reasons why people practice tai chi.  For instructors, it is valuable information in what to include in curriculum to keep interest high.

What interests you most about studying Tai Chi?

As opposite as it would seem, learning martial applications and learning about meditative aspects were cited as being the most interesting to people studying tai chi.  Learning the tai chi form came in second which is good to highlight as an obtainable goal for new students.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I am studying taichi or would like to because of which benefits?

Hands-down people are coming to tai chi because of its reputed health benefits.  Tai chi definitely can improve on most health issues especially those that are self-induced such as work related stressors and injuries.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I found out about taichi because…

The internet and through friends are the chief way that people are finding tai chi classes.  We certainly see it on this website as people search for “ta chi + CITY.”     A lot of people come to tai chi with a friend but they almost always stop coming as pairs too.  This data is making us question how to alleviate people of their initial nervousness but identify their individual interests to keep them studying long enough to gain the benefits of tai chi. That inevitably is what keeps most people around.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

I practice/would like to practice taichi to…

This last graph in some ways is the most interesting as people were allowed to choose from a list or add their own ideas.  Here we see the wide variety of reasons why people practice tai chi.  Work/life improvements and healing of old injuries appear to be the top reasons cited.

Why People Practice Tai Chi

Want more information on why people practice tai chi?

Check out these links:

Basics – Tai Chi for Health

Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress – Mayo Clinic

The health benefits of tai chi – Harvard Health