Author Archives: Helen Blantz

Everything’s Connected

The leg bone’s connected to the knee bone, The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…” as the song goes – it’s all connected. And if we maximise what’s going on at the “whole body” level, it will improve our T’ai Chi practice, and bolster the benefits we get from T’ai Chi.

Benefits of moving your body as a whole

T'ai Chi: moving the body as a whole

T’ai Chi: moving the body as a whole

  • improved co-ordination
  • improved balance
  • shifts any energy blockages
  • helps the body know where to move next in the T’ai Chi sequence
  • improved mobility
  • boosts feelings of relaxation and letting go
  • increased sense of wellbeing and sense of calm

Some practice points

Just as the body is connected, so are all the T’ai Chi principles. Here’s how those interconnect with the “everything’s connected” concept.

Connect/ co-ordinate with the breath

In a natural way, the T’ai Chi moves need to follow the breath. In the reminders at the beginning of our warm-up, students are asked to take deep belly breaths, however it is important these are still natural breaths and not sharp gulps of air. Sometimes during the Form, you may find that a particular movement takes one cycle of breath, but another week you may be feeling more relaxed and can take two cycles. It’s an interesting one to watch (and think about jotting some notes in a T’ai Chi diary!!)

Yin/Yang and opposites

Yin & Yang in T'ai Chi: constant movement / moving the body as a whole / opposites interconnect

Yin & Yang in T’ai Chi: constant movement / moving the body as a whole / opposites interconnect

Once you tune into this idea of “wholeness in movement” you can start to appreciate – in the periphery – how opposites are at work in T’ai Chi. For example, expansive/ contracting postures; movements in which your energy rises and falls; connections between left arm and right leg, and vice versa; and the rolling of weight between right and left as we develop the full and empty leg.

Letting go

There are a few key points I want to make here, each showing T’ai Chi on different levels. First, letting go frees you up. You let go of your chattering mind as you enter class, which gives you the capacity to tap into T’ai Chis amazing benefits. You let go of any tension in the body and relax into the joints. You aim to let go of the idea that you “should” nail every single movement in T’ai Chi – instead try and go with the flow on that, and the whole process becomes much more pleasureable (not forgetting the fact that you’ll “get there quicker” via the scenic route). Letting go gets you out of your headspace, and instead you can live in the moment/ movement.

Let go of your drive for Perfection Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Let go of your drive for Perfection
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

State of mind: T’ai Chi is a meditative movement. Completely zoning out, however, is not the aim. So whilst you’re looking to let go, don’t let that impact your presence.

Preparing the body for T’ai Chi

Use the warm-up to connect everything. You can re-check how your doing at the end of our meditative walking section, when you are invited to “rest into the stillness.”

Some exercises

Circle everything

Exercise: circling the arms

Exercise: circling the arms

Bring your fingertips together and start with small circling of the wrists. Gradually increase the circles until they are at their biggest (don’t overstretch). Then cup the hands at the bottom and revers the movement, bringing down the arms in smaller circles. For the legs, bring your weight into the left so you have a full left leg. Lift the empty right and circle the lower leg slowly. Beneath the knee only. Reverse the movement and then swap legs.

Meditative walking

Again slowly and with full and empty leg. As the right leg is full, lift the right arm in front, then draw the right arm down slowly as the left leg takes a small step, rolling the weight gradually into the left leg.

Windows / Fair Lady Weaves the Shuttle

For Intermediates, practice the Windows sequence without paying too much attention to any one bit. Just go for it, by which I mean move everything together as a whole without focussing on which arm circles. If you circle the wrong arm and you’re concentrating on everything moving as a whole, chances are it will feel wrong and you’ll know.

A final thought

Your T’ai Chi practice is connected to your willingness to let go… to your ability to realise that you might not have the perfect gym-sized living room but that a little bit of practice is better than none… to your reading around T’ai Chi and its principles.

Enjoy your practice, no matter how imperfect ;)

T'ai chi practice: enjoy your practice, no matter how imperfect ;)

T’ai chi practice: enjoy your practice, no matter how imperfect ;)

Practice makes… practising more fun!

Practice won’t ever make your T’ai Chi perfect. Unfortunately. It’s not something you can “achieve” as such, because we’re always learning. But regular T’ai Chi practice is something which can bring huge benefits to us, if we focus instead on simply letting go and relaxing into the experience.

So let’s agree to give up on any dreams of “Perfection.”

Just let them go.

Let go of your drive for Perfection Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Let go of your drive for Perfection
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Now, we can look to tap into all those wonderful benefits of T’ai Chi – which presumably are the reason we were drawn to T’ai Chi in the first place!

How does T’ai Chi improve wellbeing?

It’s great to remind ourselves what these benefits are. Here’s a few which students mentioned in class this week:

  • improved balance in the body
  • getting to “that place” of complete relaxation of mind
  • increased mobility & flexibility
  • improved posture, and awareness of posture
  • an opening of the senses
  • confidence to “let go” and just “be” in the movement
T'ai Chi gets you to "that place" of relaxation Photo by Luisa Rusche on Unsplash

T’ai Chi gets you to “that place” of relaxation
Photo by Luisa Rusche on Unsplash

Track your sense of wellbeing

Notice I’ve not called it “progress”! Consider running a T’ai Chi diary. Even if it’s 3 sentences – just something to capture how the T’ai Chi felt both during the exercise and then the benefits you felt afterwards. You can then build a picture of how you are building on that experience week by week.

Capture how you feel at the end of T'ai Chi Photo by Lesly B. Juarez on Unsplash

Capture how you feel at the end of T’ai Chi
Photo by Lesly B. Juarez on Unsplash

Your practice this week

Consider practising in smaller chunks. Break it down – in between classes we shouldn’t let pressures on our time, and the size of our coffee table stop us from tapping into all the loveliness which is T’ai Chi. Consider setting your sights a little lower, and practice just Cloud Arms for five minutes!

Or just do the Monkey Steps for one minute!

Don’t rush – do it mindfully, and enjoy it : )

Mindfulness & T’ai Chi for Good Mental Health

Today I’ve been watching this short video on mindfulness for mental health by psychologist
Mark Epstein – bit.ly/1NYGFeO.

I thought I’d capture some key points and bring in some T’ai Chi context.

Mindfulness: not reacting to emotional stimulus

Mindfulness: not reacting to emotional stimulus

What is mindfulness: outcomes

Mindfulness helps us not to cling to everything which is pleasant and not to condemn everything which is unpleasant. Mark Epstein explains that mindfulness allows us to distinguish an unpleasant stimulus from your emotional reaction to that stimulus.

We have a choice!

I say this all the time to my children in fact – “you can choose to be happy!!” I say. I hope one day in the fullness of time, they will embrace this gem ;) It’s a great starting point, and I find a very useful coping mechanism for overwhelm and for those days which just aren’t going my way. So, by choosing to not react to that unpleasant stimulus and instead just noticing its passing, the moment is over. And it’s unlikely that reacting to it would have given any meaningful benefit. To bring in the T’ai Chi context now – in classes, I often remind ourselves that if after attempts to stop our minds from chattering thoughts do come into our heads – we should acknowledge those and then dismiss them for another time. In practising T’ai Chi, we are learning to let go; we don’t meet force with force; we deflect aggression.

 

What is mindfulness: two distinct types

It’s interesting to note that Mark Epstein put mindfulness into two distinct types: for beginners, there is concentration practice where you keep your focus on something neutral, like your breath. If the mind wanders, you simply return your attentions to the breath, – and this without judgement(!)

A second more advanced practice allows the attention to go with the mind. You thereby become aware of your thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, worries, joy, anger etc. In conclusion, Mark Epstein explains that in this way, mindfulness allows you to appreciate that everything is changing (think the T’ai Chi symbol and concept of Yin & Yang), and that you become more aware of that as a process rather than paying attention to the content. (Bear this in mind for the “hello you” comment coming up!)

Where does T’ai Chi fit?

T’ai Chi is sometimes referred to as “meditation in movement.” Mindful practice encourages the inner voice to quieten, and rather than emptying the mind of all thoughts and entering a trance-like state, T’ai Chi practitioners are looking to bring their mind into their movements (i.e. away from their heads), and to acknowledge thoughts which do come to mind – but then to dismiss those for another time. So, an awareness of feelings which come and go, and a concentration on being in the moment – i.e. focus on the T’ai Chi practice.

The brain is plastic: it's possible to make changes to the brain's architecture

The brain is plastic: it’s possible to make changes to the brain’s architecture

Mindfulness for good mental heath

Mark Epstein explains in this film that the brain is “plastic” and capable of being reconditioned. He talks about mindfulness helping to make changes to the brain’s architecture and developing certain areas of the brain, e.g. altruism.

At this point, I’d like to refer to a wonderful blogpost I read and tweeted about a while ago. Here’s my tweet – and note my reference to the “hello you” comment – I’ll come back to that shortly – http://bit.ly/1ToL5aR

In her blogpost, author Barbara Graham, reveals quite a personal story of her lifelong struggle with anxiety, and how she went in search of ways to manage the condition.

On her journey, Barbara Graham was excited about research relating to the prefrontal cortex down-regulating the amygdala [i.e., it’s less aroused] – thereby causing any anxiety to be reduced. Barbara goes on to ask herself –

‘How do we form those new neural pathways we hear so much about?’

In answer to that, Barbara lists: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has shown great promise in regulating mood states. So has Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). She also includes positive impacts from psychotherapy, medication, aerobic exercise, as well as changes in diet and behavior.

On Barbara’s journey to find some relief from her anxiety, and search for some peace of mind, she attended a workshop by Lee Lipp, Ph. D. and David Zimmerman. Their commentary on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness included this, which Barbara quotes –

‘[With mindfulness practice] we see that our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations come and go like bubbles in a pot of boiling water.’

So as represented in the T’ai Chi symbol – everything is in a constant state of flux – feelings & negative thoughts come and go. And since we are learning through mindfulness that this is the case, we can tune ourselves into that coming and going as a process (as per Mark Epstein’s short film), rather than engaging with every piece of content (i.e. the negative thoughts and emotions).

Mindfulness encourages appreciation that everything is in a constant state of flux

Mindfulness encourages appreciation that everything is in a constant state of flux

I thought Barbara’s piece concluded brilliantly – she talks about her anxiety manifesting itself as “uninvited companions” – one of whom she describes as a “sleeping tiger”

‘My uninvited but faithful companions who demand to be seen and heard. “Oh, it’s you again,” I say now more often than not when they start banging at my door. “It’s only you.”’

In this simple analogy, Barbara’s taken control back brilliantly!

And as for the tiger – my T’ai Chi predecessor, the late Gerda Geddes wrote about the symbolism of the tiger* -

‘[I]t can be either yin or yang. When it is yang the tiger depicts authority, courage, bodily strength and military prowess. […] When the tiger is in conflict with the yang celestial dragon it becomes Yin, the quality of earth. To the T’ai Chi performer, the tiger represents all forms of energy.’

And Gerda advises –

‘[I]t is with these energies that we have to learn to deal. We have to direct our energy in such a way that the natural healing process of the body can be enhanced. We have to use it with intelligence, not allowing it to become totally depleted but always retaining a reserve.’

Managing our energy: we have a few choices

Managing our energy: we have a few choices

8 choices for improved mental health

So, as I see it – we have a few choices:
• to use mindfulness to bring our experience of life back into the present moment
• to embrace feelings, emotions, thoughts etc. – but to view those as something which is in a constant state of flux (we often refer to feelings coming in “waves”) – they come AND they go
• to understand more about the process of feelings coming and going – thereby liberating us from anxieties
• to not cling to all pleasant emotions
• to not condemn all unpleasant emotions as negative
• to choose not to react to unpleasant stimuli
• to learn to deal with our energies (not depleting; always maintaining a reserve)
• to choose to be happy!

Mindfulness for a sense of balance, perspective & wellbeing

Mindfulness for a sense of balance, perspective & wellbeing

Full acknowledgements

Mark Epstein’s film can be viewed at http://bit.ly/1NYGFeO

My tweets on Mark Epstein’s film at http://bit.ly/24tm7T9

Barbara Graham’s blogpost at http://bit.ly/1PTXwjj

Gerda Geddes excerpt from: chapter “Discovery of the symbols” from Looking for The Golden Needle

Yin & Yang in T’ai Chi practice

Often called the “T’ai Chi symbol,” the Yin/Yang symbol is made up of two fish-like shapes; one in black, the other in white. Each contains a small circle of the opposing colour.  This represents the two opposing, yet complementary forces. Together, these two fish-like shapes make up a circle, representing the balanced whole.

The Yin & Yang symbol: also called the T'ai Chi symbol

The Yin & Yang symbol: also called the T’ai Chi symbol

Simply, in T’ai Chi terms, it is the interface between Yin and Yang which underlies T’ai Chi practice. Given that the lines in the Yin/Yang circle are “never ending’ – so in T’ai Chi movement, students are looking to flow one posture seamlessly into the next. With this in mind, students should aim for their T’ai Chi practice to be performed as one slow, continuous movement. It is easy for beginners to move in a staccato fashion as they grapple with co-ordination, as they try to remember arm and leg movements. This gives way to a kind of “bouncing” from one posture to the next, particularly as students feel “I know this bit!” The trick is to use warm-up time to generate a calmer sense of purpose; slow down; and the during the T’ai Chi Form, to experiment with “flow” at the cusp of one movement and its development into the next.

There are no straight lines in the T’ai Chi symbol; the symbol flows in curved lines. During practice this means that we need to ensure that we maintain soft curves to the arms; not locking into either elbows or knees – in T’ai Chi we don’t “lock” into any joints.

Soft curve into the elbows

Soft curve into the elbows

If we take the interface between Yin and Yang (visually, this is the black against white); opposing forces enable movement, flow and change to happen, as each “becomes” the other. As weight creeps slowly into the right leg, there is a point at which the right leg becomes “full.”  In T’ai Chi it is only with the full leg that we can lift the “empty” left leg, and at the point of fullness, according the the Yin/Yang symbol, it already contains in it the seed of its opposite. As in the symbol, in T’ai Chi the movement between left and right; open and closed postures; the in- and the out-breath – all of these are in a state of constant change. This concept also includes the changes of the seasons; night follows day; the cycle of Life.

Full & empty legs; each contains the seed of its opposite

Full & empty legs; each contains the seed of its opposite

Yin & Yang qualities

YIN                              YANG

Female                        Male

Passive                       Active

Dark                            Light

Earth                          Sky

Wet                             Dry

Stillness                      Movement

Soft                             Hard

Cold                            Heat

Inward                       Outward

Smooth                       Rough

Receiving                    Giving

Yielding                      Solid

Descending                Rising

Listening                    Speaking

Slow                            Rapid

It is worth clarifying that all Yin and Yang qualities are defined by their relation to their opposing force;  and neither is able to exist on its own in isolation.

Balancing Yin & Yang: Chinese medicine

From traditional Chinese medicine, we learn that where the balance between Yin and Yang become out of kilter (excess of Yang / excess of Yin / deficiency of Yang/ deficiency of Yin), the body becomes compromised, giving rise to illness or disease.

T'ai chi practice: boost to wellbeing

T’ai chi practice: boost to wellbeing

T’ai Chi practice supports Yin & Yang balance; it aims to bring a sense of balance, harmony and wellbeing.

Top tips for stress-busting your life… the T’ai Chi way Tip #2

Building a strong sense of confidence from within can help reduce stress and anxieties: even at its most basic level, when we feel confident, it really shows in our posture/ body language; our shoulders are back; we lift up and out from the diaphragm, thus helping us to breathe more fully, which in turn means our bodies are better oxygenated… and we feel better.

Building confidence from within sets new perspectives on life, life’s challenges and aggressors. As your inner confidence grows, so you are able to view life’s stresses for what they are. This series of tips is about reducing the impact of stress – problems I’m afraid are still there – but you don’t have to feel the overwhelm of their impact on you/ your wellbeing/ your health. I guess I’m saying that practising T’ai Chi can provide a bit of a buffer.

But how?

#2 Building confidence from within

When my students arrive in class, I do encourage them to leave to one side any particular stresses/ over-active thinking which may have preoccupied people as they arrive. Sometimes we’ve been talking about a recent life event of one of our group, and on more than one occasion we have been berating some quite discourteous behaviour from local van drivers. That’s a great example of where building that place of confidence inside us simply over-shadows any rude aggressive behaviour towards us.

So, in class we quieten the mind; we stop it from its chattering. We practise T’ai Chi in a meditative state of mind. But importantly, we’re not doing any soul-searching – we just allow ourselves to “be.”

T’ai Chi is an internal exercise, which looks to build energy from within. Gentle movements ensure that our internal energy, “qi” (pronounced “chee”) can flow freely thorough our body, through energy channels called meridiens. Students are encouraged to build a relaxed awareness of the area in Chinese medicine called the “lower dandien.” This can be located just beneath the navel, around a third of the way in from front to back. This takes some practice to be able to tune into; it shouldn’t be forced, hence the “relaxed awareness.”

So T’ai Chi practice enables energy building and works towards ensuring that energy is flowing and not stagnating. Since in T’ai Chi we don’t over-stretch at all, and we take care not to tense into the muscles, this is a very open, free-flowing, tension-free exercise. Postures enjoy a slight bend in the elbows, wrists and knees – there are no “kinks” – just gentle curves (as per the T’ai Chi yin/yang symbol).

I have mentioned generating energy; the unencumbered flow of energy through meridiens; and the energy centre at the lower dandien (there are other centres which I could mention, but for the sake of simplicity I have left those out of this post). The final point I want to make about building confidence (“the T’ai Chi way”) relates more to the martial art/ combat element to T’ai Chi. In this I’m not looking to drum up a fighting spirit against the root causes of your stresses… but I would like to point out that in T’ai Chi we yield and deflect as you might in combat.

I often mention the Monkey Steps movement in my blogposts – I like their symbolism. This is a slow graceful movement, low and strong into the legs. The movement is in fact backwards as the arms deflect – one palm pulls towards the body as the other simultaneously pushes away. In this way, the T’ai Chi practitioner is both yielding and deflecting, whilst remaining strong within himself. If we bring to mind our aim of reducing stress through building confidence from within – in this movement we see life’s aggressions (problems/ frustrations/ obstructions/ stresses) being quite simply brushed aside without further action.

and most importantly, without a reaction!!

Rather than retaliation with one’s own aggression (whether that be in thought or in deed) – we simply let that aggression (problem/ frustration etc.) pass without challenge. We continue moving backwards, yielding, yet strong within ourselves. Confident. And with clarity.

Exercise

Stand with your feet hip-with apart, bend very slightly into the knees, pulling up at the crown. Place one palm on your navel, then the other palm on top. Breathe fully into your belly, without taking a big deep breath – just breathe naturally but fully.

Bring a relaxed awareness to the lower dantien (just beneath the navel, a third of the way in from front to back).

Relax in this position for around a minute and a half.

Exercise: "...then your hands go up over your head..."

Exercise: “…then your hands go up over your head…”

Then stand with the backs of your hands together in front of you, hands down at 6 o’clock; your palms are facing left and right. With a wonderful deep (but natural) belly breath – a long breath – lift your hands up in front of you (your elbows are high), then your hands go up over your head as your arms open to each side, making a circle, and returning to your start (6 o’clock) position. Continue another 5 times, one long breath per circle – breathing in as the arms come up and out as they move down.

Exercise: "...as your arms open to each side..."

Exercise: “…as your arms open to each side…”

On the 6th circle, cup the hands at the bottom, then reverse the action – so arms go out to the sides first. You are collecting the energy from around you, then pull it down slowly in front of you. After 6 repetitions, allow the hands to rest loosely at your sides, and relax into the stillness for a few moments before bringing your attentions back to your surroundings.

Exercise: "...collect energy from around you, and pull it down slowly in front of you..."

Exercise: “…collect energy from around you, and pull it down slowly in front of you…”

Top tips for stress busting your life… the T’ai Chi way: Tip #1

Here’s how the conversation goes –

“So, how was your summer break? Did you get away anywhere nice?”

“Yes, thanks – we spent two glorious weeks doing X,Y & Z and enjoying the break from A, B & C… seems like a LIFETIME ago now, though. Everything has overwhelmed me now we’re back at the daily grind. It’s like we’ve never been away!”

Recognise this? Well, read on and I’ll arm you with the first in my series of top tips for stress busting your life the T’ai Chi way.

Allow yourself to let it go

Allow yourself to let it go

#1 Just “let it go!”

We all hold onto stresses which we can quite easily do without. I’ve in fact had this discussion with a number of good friends over the summer. It’s easy I guess to tell people not to worry about something – but what I’m encouraging, is to really weigh up whether the worrying and associated stress are in fact helpful. Isn’t it better that you find an appropriate time and method for working through your problems (mindfully, constructively etc.) – and then to allow yourself to let go of those worries. By doing this, we are separating the source of the problem from the stresses and anxieties which they create. This stress-busting tip won’t make the problem go away; but it will equip you with the resilience, strength, energy, clarity of thinking and fresh perspectives which will allow you to reduce and manage the stress. It’s also helpful to give your subconscious mind a chance to work things through “offline” for a bit.

In T’ai Chi everything is in a state of constant flux; nothing stays the same. Your energy needs to flow. We embrace this. It’s healthy to move on and not to dwell so much on things which may not be possible to change.

In my T’ai Chi classes, I encourage students to bring their mind into what they are doing in the present moment; to acknowledge any thoughts which come to them in class – and then to dismiss those for another time. The very act of practising T’ai Chi for that hour or so means that you give your mind a “holiday” from its constant re-running of what I call “same-loop thinking.”

That’s how T’ai Chi is so relaxing, and refreshing.

In previous posts I have explained that T’ai Chi doesn’t meet force with force. Instead, we build energy/ confidence from within and simply deflect any aggression without engaging with it. We can tell ourselves that an aggression doesn’t need to be our reality. We don’t need to accept it. We can smile and let that aggression go :)

Let any aggression pass you by: you don't need to own that

Let any aggression pass you by: you don’t need to own that

Exercise

Choose a quiet moment (it need only be one minute, and can even be at your desk). Say to yourself that you “give up” some of your thoughts for a while. Label those; be specific. Allow yourself to operate completely free from the thoughts which have been particularly bothering you. You can set the timeframe – but make it a longer timeframe than you’re used to in terms of that same-loop thinking coming back to you for its next repetition. Having labelled the thoughts you are about to give up, also make a committment to plan in a short time to run through your worries in a mindful, engaged fashion (e.g. plan a call with a friend, or designate a section of your dog walk in which you can “thrash it out.”)

Find the serenity you deserve

Find the serenity you deserve

I’m aware that this is much easier said than done. It’s only talking to friends on this, that I have come to realise quite how much I bring T’ai Chi principles into my own life every day – and how beneficial these are in managing my stresses. It has taken years of practice – but the baby steps have been very worthwhile.

Mindful notion for a mindful nation

Pssst! Have you heard of the new mindfulness agenda gathering pace? I’m excited to see how the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness will develop its thoughts & actions around “mindfulness” – and the wider remit of improved “wellbeing” for all. It’s quite a task, that’s for sure! But very much a worthy one…

Towards a mindful nation

The APPG is looking to create a “mindful nation,” by including mindfulness in future policy-making. Policy areas could include –

  • mindfulness in schools to improve classroom behaviour, attention and focus, as a strategy to raise educational standards and supporting social mobility, and to develop young people’s tools for lifelong well-being
  • expanding the provision of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy within the NHS as a treatment for depression and other mental and physical health problems
  • mindfulness as a way to reduce stress and improve care, attentiveness and compassion amongst healthcare workers
  • mindfulness as a way to improve resilience, reduce stress and anxiety, and develop creativity in the workplace
  • mindfulness as a way to tackle depression, anxiety and stress in the criminal justice system (both staff and those in custody)
  • mindfulness as a way to cultivate overall health and well-being

(These from the aims of the The Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of the Mindfulness Centres at Oxford, Exeter and Bangor Universities, which supports the APPG.)
Source: http://oxfordmindfulness.org/all-party-parliamentary-launch

So there’s a move towards using mindfulness to boost mental wellbeing, reduce stress, anxieties and depression; and increase an overall sense of improved health & wellbeing – in everyone. The notion of including mindfulness and wellbeing in policy-making – what’s not to like?!

And I’d like to go one step further – and say that as individuals, we should be:

  • applying mindfulness techniques
  • looking after our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of those around us)

in everything we do!

T’ai Chi as a mindful exercise

My interest obviously stems from the fact that I teach T’ai Chi, which is a mindful exercise, often described as an “internal exercise.” This is because in T’ai Chi practice, we generate the internal energy of the body, know as “chi” – or life force. It’s this internal/meditative element to the exercise which can bring students some incredibly uplifting benefits.

I talk a lot to students about the fact that T’ai Chi is more than just a dance. I’m aware that students are drawn to T’ai Chi for different reasons; but to ignore the meditative/mindfulness elements seems to me to be completely missing the point. Practising T’ai Chi encourages students to really examine for themselves their own connection between body, mind and spirit. And insodoing, the end result can be powerfully uplifting.

T’ai Chi’s contribution to the mindfulness agenda

Here are a few of my thoughts around how T’ai Chi contributes to this new and growing “mindfulness” agenda:

  1. Practising T’ai Chi and applying its principles to everyday life (and work) enables us to become more open-hearted and compassionate humanbeings.
  2. In T’ai Chi we are encouraged to feel “grounded.” This sense of “just being” in the present moment means that we have a better ability to see what’s here and now, and to appreciate what we already have
  3. Being grounded helps alleviate the incessant “drive;” yearning for the “next” thing / striving all the time for something better
  4. In a sense, being in the present moment takes away the focus of great expectations of the future: being mindful and present means you can assess and manage your expectations. That’s what Happiness is made from 
  5. Over the years, I have seen the big difference T’ai Chi has made to my students who are caring for partners/elderly relatives. Practising this mindful exercise affords carers a break from their everyday “loops” of thinking: this is a very welcome break, and a nurturing experience
  6. I’d like to refer to “like-mindedness” – connecting with like-minded people who come to T’ai Chi classes creates its own energy; this is difficult to describe, not least because in class we’re not talking to each other – but there is a definite sense of accepting others for who they are and how they are. And feeling accepted brings a warmth to the soul.
  7. In T’ai Chi we “yield” and flow with our weight, with our slow graceful movements. This yielding brings a certain sense of letting go… of altered perspective. We’re not pressing back; instead we are quite passive, but at the same time strong and rooted. Confident. Resilient. My students often share with me that this element helps them to cope with workplace stresses (or other situations of conflict). It’s a new developed mindset.
  8. T’ai Chi movements are deliberately slow. For beginners this is one of the major challenges – to fully believe it’s ok to slow down. Yet once in that mindset of “accepting” (in class) – the experience of accepting is “one to bottle!” When we are accepting, we feel less stressed and more fulfilled.
  9. Given that T’ai Chi practice leaves me feeling relaxed yet alert, agile and with a certain clarity of thought, its benefits definitely include better access to The Creative Me. That’s come through lots of practice – but it’s the meditative, mindful element which brings that creativity to fruition.
  10. “Easing off” at the edges and “going with the flow” are principles I often refer to in class; but which also have a place in managing everyday Life. I talk about “taking the scenic route” and not pressing with 100% effort. This then encourages a wider awareness, and it’s this wider awareness which provides both creativity and a sense of opportunity.

This latter point brings me neatly onto a quote from Lord Richard Layard, Member of Legatum Commission, who said:

Treating the goal of education as being to ‘get ahead’ is an inherently zero sum game: a society can make no progress this way.”

So over the coming summer hols, I’ll be practising some mindfulness techniques/activities with my children. We’re going to “do” less, and spend more of our time “just being.”

I’m looking forward to developing in them a notion of mindfulness and wellbeing in all that we do.

For an update on how we’re getting on, watch this space…

Chip Lit Fest 2014 – Meet the New Generation Poets!

The T’ai Chi Room is again sponsoring one of the performance poetry events at this year’s Chiplitfest (Thursday 24 April – Sunday 27 April 2014). Prepare to be “utterly wowed” by three incredible performance poets  -

Dan Holloway

‘It is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed.’ – Dan Holloway

On closer inspection, Dan’s a self-confessed “butterfly,” yet I would warrant that this has served him well in his quest to promote self-publishing and to be a strong advocate for what he describes as “the more avant garde side of literature.”

Dan even has his own manifesto – so I’m sensing more focus than he’d give himself credit for…

Dan’s a contributor to the Guardian’s Books Blog, amongst other writing publications. He runs his own literary events and has written a variety of novels – for which he’s used a variety of formats. This guy really likes to break the mould – in fact, I’ll bet if I ever said that to him, he’d fire back a witty quip about his not requiring a mould, because life’s better without the confines of such structure!

I’ll have to pick up with Dan on that at the performance poetry night : )

Onto Vanessa Kisuule -

Vanessa Kisuule

Vanessa is renowned for delivering evocative, incisive verse, with humour and vivacity. In fact, Dan says of Vanessa’s talents:

‘… [her] verse is deeply political, deeply lyrical, and deeply moving, with far less rant and far more power, far less easy rhyme and far more depth than pretty much anyone else on the poetry slam circuit.’

Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Finally, Kiran Millwood Hargrave is an accomplished writer, who last year undertook a Literary Arts Residency at the Banff Centre in Canada, where she worked on Splitfish, Kiran’s third collection of poems -

‘It’s a poetry you feel and taste, embodied and emboldened by painterly detail, the precise, tactile verb. Millwood Hargrave weaves together the Imagist and the Romantic impulse with her own 21st century vision. It’s an assured, beautiful collection and a voice you’ll want to spend a lot of time with.’ – Luke Kennard

Kiran is President of Oxford University Poetry Society and Barbican Young Poet.

Performance Poetry evening

It’s probably safe to say that Friday evening’s performance poetry event promises to push boundaries. Saying any more than that would be just my guesswork – but I’m very excited about being challenged, being stunned by the unquestionable talents of our New Generation Performance Poets!

Here’s a little teaser of the nitty-gritty Dan, Vanessa and Kiran have told me they’ll be covering –

"An evening with a New Generation" - sponsored by The T'ai Chi Room

“An evening with a New Generation” – sponsored by The T’ai Chi Room

An Evening with a New Generation takes place at The Chequers pub at 6 – 7pm on Friday, 24 April 2014.

Competition!

I’d love to know what words you would include in a Word Cloud to describe your experience of the Chiplitfest 2014. No need to make the Word Cloud – simply submit up to 20 “word cloud” words by clicking on “leave a reply” at the top of this post.

The winner will receive a copy of my T’ai Chi DVD (being filmed in June 2014). Please supply an email or twitter handle in your entry. entries by midnight, Wednesday 30 April, please; the winner will be announced on Thursday 1 May 2014.

It’s good to share!

Please tweet –

Competition to share your #chiplitfest best bits! Enter your 20 “word cloud” words for chance to win new Tai Chi DVD! bit.ly/1bIKf93.

Have a great Festival!

T’ai Chi, energy cultivation & re-energising

Spring, Easter & Passover are upon us, so it seems a good time to think a little bit differently about how we can re-energise ourselves for the benefit of ourselves and everyone around us (including those we are caring for – elderly parents; young children; older children who can be just as demanding of our energies).

Re-energising is so important if we are going to achieve our highest goals and not flake out somewhere along the way (!)

There’s lots of self-help advice out there; but I wanted to share this video footage with you by Eben Pagan (http://bit.ly/1jLyFvE), and to add my own thoughts on how T’ai Chi informs the re-jeuvenation process.

T’ai Chi, energy cultivation & re-energising

In T’ai Chi, we very much recognise life’s cycles; it’s interesting that Eben Pagan refers to our individual “wave patterns” of energy, since recognising those can be really incisive if we tune into our bodies and their natural cycles. On many occasions in the T’ai Chi Form, we make a posture called “Holding the Circle,” which encourages us to think about our energies, and to cultivate our internal energy. In this way, T’ai Chi gives us an opportunity to become aware of our energy & our energy flow; I think it’s for this reason that T’ai Chi never feels exactly the same – it’s very dependent upon how we are feeling at that particular point in time.

Eben’s video footage is largely about “how successful people re-charge” and he hones in on our rest resistence/ rest anxiety (how we may continue to feel agitated when we try to rest, because we’ve not allowed ourselves fully to switch off – and grant ourselves that permission to fully relax). Here’s where T’ai Chi practitioners can look back over the months/years they have been practising and really appreciate a deep sense of achievement – since this is one of the main goals of T’ai Chi, I think.

Letting go; let it be

I say to my students that they should relax, let go of any matters which they have been concerning themselves with before the class; not to worry about what needs to happen after the class – the hour or so in practice is an hour just for them… just to “be.” Some students may nod; but it’s those students who believe this is ok who will benefit the most. There’s a “test” movement I like my fellow T’ai Chi practitioners to experience at the end of our warm-up. We call it “lifting of air.” The palms are facing upwards, feet hip-width apart and the lower arms to the elbows are gently lifted – and slowly; then the lower arms are allowed to fall back to the sides of the thighs (again slowly and under control), as the weight sinks into the legs. The test is to do this movement really quite slowly and to believe it’s ok – it’s called “living in the moment.” If students are forcefully holding themselves back, desperately straining to slow the movement down, then it doesn’t feel right – in fact, it feels pretty silly to be doing it! It’s only once students have fully grasped the notion that “just being” is ok, that any of the slow movements in T’ai Chi feel “right.”

Wired to win??

I sound very wise – but there’s still a big part of me which is “wired to win” – that persistent drive to press on, to give more, to put in yet more effort. However, such drive has its place; and that’s not all of the time; we can’t keep delivering if we’re running on “flat-out” all the time – we need this time to rest and refresh.

Monkey Steps

It would be remiss of me not to mention our wonderful “Monkey Steps” movements in T’ai Chi – Eban Page talks about the “monkey thoughts” which come and interrupt our peace. In T’ai Chi we deflect these monkey thoughts in true martial arts style – walking backwards we yield, and deflect such approaches with the arms, remaining strong and dignified in ourselves – confident in who we are and what we are about. So, we need to recognise our “monkey thoughts” – acknowledge them as such, and then dismiss them since they don’t serve us in our quest for rest & rejuvenation.

Resolve to rejuvenate!

I hope you get to see Eban’s 16-minute video – it’s full of great ideas to make rest a daily habit, and to build in a proper weekend, and take scheduled time away from our all-consuming businesses every quarter. In these small chunks, that’s very do-able – and YES! – it’s ok to be offline every once in a while :)

T’ai Chi – is it really something for everyone?

I love week 5. New beginners are really start to “find their feet” both literally and metaphorically, relaxing into their new-found Groove. And those who have perhaps kept a brief T’ai Chi diary can start to see the progress they have already made since their first class.

So what does progress look like? What have students learned in just 4 weeks? What have been the tangible benefits of learning from scratch this ancient Chinese form of exercise?

What is T’ai Chi and how will it benefit me?

T’ai Chi is many things – it has been described as a form of meditation, a martial art, a means of relaxation for body and spirit, as well as a system for developing good posture, physical balance and co-ordination. This means that each student’s experience will be unique to them.

T’ai Chi: an ancient exercise form

If taken as a “pure” exercise form, T’ai Chi helps to strengthen legs and arms. The easy postures, when practised correctly, help to build strength and tone muscles. When coupled with being mindful of supporting full and empty legs, this also improves balance. In some, the improvements to balance are remarkable.

T’ai Chi: develops good posture

As a posture-corrector, T’ai Chi first starts with encouraging an awareness of the body, and concentrates on the body’s alignment. In class, students are now used to running through their posture mentally, and making small corrections throughout the warm-up and meditative walking sections of the class. In T’ai Chi, we tune into the position of our weight, and then progress into concentrating on flow of our weight between right and left, (full and empty) legs. It’s this flow which directs next moves; and focussing on weight and flow of weight provides the meditative element to T’ai Chi practice.

T’ai Chi: getting the body to move as a whole

As a whole-body movement, students start to match movements with their breath. Deeper belly breaths mean that the body is well oxygenated, which leaves students feeling revived, relaxed and rejuvenated. The range of movements is particularly good for improving flexibility in older people, and since in T’ai Chi we only ever move/ stretch within the limits of our own bodies, this doesn’t cause the body any undue stress; T’ai Chi is a gentle exercise system which can be practised well into our senior years. I have even practised (and taught) T’ai Chi throughout my three pregnancies.

T’ai Chi energises and revives
In terms of energy, over the weeks, students are able to generate good energy flow for optimum wellbeing. This starts in the early weeks as a warming sensation, particularly through the palms. Co-ordinating the breath contributes to this feeling of being energised.  Students will also benefit from improved circulation.

T’ai Chi relaxer

In terms of relaxation, T’ai Chi is an amazing stress-buster. So often in the early days, beginners arrive “ruffled” by their day, especially those suffering from stress at work, or those caring for relatives. It takes a few weeks to really “get” the point that we are in the class to really switch off and slow down. Slowing down in fact feels quite unnatural at first, especially when we are learning the meditative walking. (I do smile to myself when I remember a previous beginners’ class in which I was actually overtaken by a student. I can’t remember who it was, and I’m pleased I’ve not “stored” that piece of information – instead – and in a very T’ai Chi fashion, I have simply let that go…)

T’ai Chi: learning how to really let go & unwind

Relaxation also comes from the fact that, concentrating on the class, we leave any preoccupations at the door as we arrive. Any thoughts which do come to the fore during the class we learn to acknowledge and then dismiss for another time. This takes practice and discipline; but it’s worth persevering; it’s such a beautiful sanctuary to know that there is a time in your week when all problems and life’s little challenges are simply suspended. But it’s up to us to allow ourselves to really let go. And in fully letting go, we will find our T’ai Chi practice comes to us much more easily.

This is why T’ai Chi is such a good stress buster and mood enhancer. Students always leave the class smiling.

T’ai Chi: different benefits for each; but something for everyone

So, there’s something in T’ai Chi for everyone. It’s rich in symbolism, which is something I encourage students to explore for themselves – it definitely benefits their T’ai Chi practice to see this ancient exercise form in fresh contexts. In class we cover the principles of T’ai Chi, which are the areas I feel benefit me above and beyond just the exercise. I tap into these principles in both my personal and business life on a daily basis and will be sharing those experiences in this blog… Watch this space!