3 Interesting Articles on Tai Chi
Chen Style Tai Chi body requirement
During the recent 2014 International Tai Chi Symposium, Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei shared the secrets of authentic Chen style Tai Chi (Taiji) by describing the detailed body requirements
Grandmaster Chen is a 19th Generation Chen Family descendent and 11th Generation Chen Style Tai Chi Lineage Holder. He was sanctioned as the 9th Duan by the Chinese Martial Art Association that means he reached the highest level in the martial arts. He was selected as one of the Top Ten Martial Art Masters in China for his superb Tai Chi skills and in-depth knowledge. He has authored a complete set of books on Chen Style Tai Chi bare hand forms and weapons, which have been translated into dozens of languages.
During the symposium, Grandmaster Chen divided a body into three (San) sections (Jies) to discuss the Tai Chi fundamentals: the top, the middle and the lower sections.
The top section includes the head and the neck. Grandmaster Chen said that it is essential to keep the head suspended or lifted without tilting it forward, backward or sideways during any movement. The head turns only as the body turns. It is imperative to keep the head naturally hung without stiffening it. It is called “Xu Ling Ding Jing” because the pressure point Baihui near the top of the head is the confluence of all energy pathways and only through the head suspension the Qi can flow smoothly to Baihui. Chen cautioned beginners against using muscle strength to push the head up, which will cause stiffness in the neck and block Qi from traveling.
In general, the eyes look straight ahead and move according to the head movement with the peripheral vision focusing on the leading hand. A common mistake is a practitioner bobbing his head up and down or circling it simply because his eyes are fixating on the leading hand as the latter moves.
The middle section includes the trunk and two arms. The trunk area is comprised of the shoulders, the arms, the hands, the collarbones, the chest, the waist, the hips and the buttocks. It houses our vital organs. It is essential to pay attention to this section for health and self-defense purposes. Grandmaster Chen mentioned if a practitioner cannot correctly execute the middle section requirements, he is really not doing Tai Chi chuan.
The fundamentals of proper body alignment (Sheng Fa) include keeping the spine upright but with a slight natural curve, tucking the chest, relaxing the waist, loosening the shoulders and sinking the elbows. Chen declared that Tai Chi is scientific and its movements follow the human body’s physique and kinetics. Beginners tend to raise the shoulders, lean sideways, bend forward at the waist, push the backside out, or lift the elbows above the shoulders. Chen warned practitioners not to stick the chest out or pull back the shoulder blades too much. In Chinese, “Han Xiong ” means tucking the chest; but some misunderstand the meaning and bring the shoulders forward too much, forcing the chest to be concave and putting unnecessary pressure on the lungs and the heart. “Ba Bei” means pulling the back; again some misinterpret it as pulling the back out instead of up. He also mentioned that tilting forward pelvis is wrong. During the arm movement, he cautioned practitioners to make any linear movement. The spiraling techniques of Silk Reeling should be applied to hand rotation and arm movement to create the maximum health benefits as well as self-defense mechanism.
Chen stated that if the lower section movements are not clearly executed, it would cause the instability of the entire body. The lower section includes the Kuas (hip joints), the groin area, the knees and the feet. Precise footwork and stances are critical to ensure flexibility and agility in a Tai Chi form. Relaxing or sinking Kaos is similar to sitting on a hair stool. Pivoting the empty foot inward can help to form a rounded groin area, which makes body movement flexible and powerful.
It does not matter if a Tai Chi stance is high or low especially when one is practicing the art for a health purpose. What matters is that all stances have a solid foot and an empty foot clearly distinguished; the body weight needs to be distributed unevenly and transferred from one foot to another smoothly during the movement in an arc fashion or S line as the center line of the Tai Chi symbol.
For knee protection and greater martial art power, it is crucial to align the knee with the direction of the toes. Unlike the external martial art styles, Chen Style Tai Chi always keeps the knees bent and never locked even in a bow stance. Bent knees also facilitate the groin area to be rounded and provide extra protection of the legs for self-defense. He alerted practitioners not to let their knees surpass the toes. He advised people to start with a high stance and gradually lower it as the leg muscles developed further.
Here is a statement that needs to be intrinsically understood to progress in Tai Chi: Internal energy building and circulation, balance, and martial abilities are dependent on posture. For those of you that are one step ahead of me, you are seeing the potential bang-for-your-buck by focusing on posture over other more trivial matters.Posture is the tai chi version of the Pareto Principle which states that 20% of your activities realize 80% of the results and vise-versa. Small postural improvements have huge impact on your health, sitting at your desk, your taichi form, balance, pushhands prowess, etc.
How do we evaluate our posture and make corrections?
We could have proper instruction, do chiropractic work or even Rolfing. But thankfully, Tai Chi also has a blueprint to evaluate yourself and make corrections in real time.
The Six Harmonies – History
Dai Long Bang was a master of the internal martial arts who lived in the 18th Century. His family cultivated and developed Xing Yi Quan, one of the two other major internal martial arts. During his life he recorded a great deal of tactical points of martial arts and wrote “The Six Harmonies Fists.” It’s from this work that the Six Harmonies are taken.
What are the Six Harmonies?
The Six Harmonies refer to coordination between three external joints (6 total, 3 per side) and the coordination of three internal processes that align emotion and intention. “Harmony” does not only mean “moving together” despite this being a good start. It also connotes a connection between the movements.
1) The hands harmonize with the feet.
2) The hips harmonize with the shoulders.
3) The elbows harmonize with the knees.
Internal Harmonies (san nei he)
1) The heart harmonizes with the intention.
2) The intention harmonizes with the Chi.
3) The Chi harmonizes with the movement.
Coordination of the Harmonies
“Coordination” or “Harmonizing” includes good posture and the body parts moving in unison. It does not mean you move like a robot or that your body parts aren’t moving in different directions at times. Harmony can also refer to the angles of the joints being the same or the body parts moving in the same direction. An example of this last point could be your hand traveling forward and your toes pointing in that direction.
Coordination of the External Harmonies
Coordination of the external harmonies is a straightforward alignment of pairs of joints. In tai chi we are initially concerned with the hip and shoulder alignment because the other two harmonies will be dependent on this primary structural alignment. This can easily be studied by looking in the mirror and making concrete adjustments. Let’s take a look:
The hands harmonize with the feet: the toes are pointed in the direction that the hand is traveling and the step and strike/grab arrive at the same time. Proper alignment of hands and feet leads to heavy pushes or strikes where the support of the ground is felt rather than arm strength.
The hips harmonize with the shoulders: the shoulders are aligned over the hips. The hip joint (kua) and armpit are not collapsed. Rotational power is generated by the hips and carried out though the torso. You can accomplish this harmony by turning your whole torso as you move rather than just your arm and by keeping an upright posture as though you are sitting on an invisible chair.
The elbows harmonize with the knees: The elbows shrink and expand in unison. A great example is shooting a free throw in basketball. The player crouches down, springs up, and the hands are over his head releasing the ball at the second that the entire body has expanded.
Coordination of the Internal Harmonies
Internal coordination, harmony, is dependent on external coordination. So if you have not checked your posture throughout different parts of the tai chi form, external coordination is the low hanging fruit.
Coordinating the internal harmonies is putting the intention and will (the brains and heart) behind the movement. Yes you can just step forward and grab a doorknob. This would be more akin to focusing on the doorknob, reading your body, and consciously reaching for and seizing the doorknob.
The heart harmonizes with the intention: The heart is the emotional that sets the motivational fires burning. Back to the doorknob for practicality and humor’s sake. Imagine being mad at the doorknob and grabbing it. Imagine that it is elusive and if you don’t grab it at the right second it will disappear. When I first wrapped my mind around this I woke up to the fact of how unintentional I move about throughout the day.
The intention harmonizes with the Chi: Your degree of intention will determine your degree of concentration. Walking by a tai chi class you would just see someone taking a step. The person however would be concentrating on the accuracy of this step and setting it in motion.
The Chi harmonizes with the movement: Now it is time to act. Your posture is good you are focused and choose to move. The brain makes all movements happen. Once your intention is set you fire off nerve impulses and off you go.
We began talking about simple movements and end the same way. I hope this article provides 1) a way for us to self-monitor and make adjustments and 2) dramatically see the difference between a typical step and the movements of tai chi.
Betty Edwards in Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain described it the best when she talked about getting lost and forgetting about time when you incorporate intention and balance in the creative process. If I get nothing else out of tai chi class, I at least get a break from the continual ramble of thoughts (grocery lists, where did I put my…) that usually accompanies my day.
Why Study Tai Chi? Adaptation
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:
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.
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
Tai 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?
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.”