Tag Archives: Monkey steps

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…”

Wise old owl, T’ai Chi sage

I’m not claiming to be wise, old or a T’ai Chi sage – but something in me yesterday changed… and I felt strangely wiser than I did the day before. I have put this down to consciously reaching out to my T’ai Chi principles in a period of general overwhelm. I quite simply took a proper step back from what I was doing.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve heard people advise that taking a step back helps you to see the fuller picture; it gives you fresh a perspective… but what’s been different for me this time is that I have done this from a T’ai Chi perspective. I’ll explain.

Taking a step back in T’ai Chi

Taking a step back in T’ai Chi (and indeed in other martial arts) is a great technique for throwing your opponent off-balance. By “opponent” I mean any kind of “aggressive force” – either from the people around me, or from Life’s little knocks. In T’ai Chi we don’t meet force with force – instead, we keep momentum, moving in a continuous circular motion, which helps to deflect the opponent’s strikes.

I have mentioned before in this blog the Monkey Steps movement. Low into the legs, the T’ai Chi practitioner makes small, wide backwards steps very slowly, whilst pressing one palm away in front of the chest, and simultaneously drawing the other upward-facing palm back in towards the body. There is a feeling of complete balance and total co-ordination as the body moves in symmetry. The main point to make about the Monkey Steps, is that – as you retreat from the opponent, you are remaining strong in yourself – true to your self, and confident from within. It’s like saying to the world – ok, you’re throwing all this at me; but I’m still strong in myself and can deflect these strikes with calm, smooth movement. Importantly, I’m not suggesting I fight back with force.

The monkey in Chinese philosophy

In Chinese philosophy, the monkey represents human nature. They talk of “monkey thoughts” cropping up which distract you from your focus. In T’ai Chi, we learn to calm the mind and to bring the mind into the present moment. As a thought comes into the mind, we learn to just acknowledge it – and then dismiss it for another time. It’s quite liberating to meditate this way.

Taking a step back from overwhelm and issues beyond your control

So, in taking a step back from my overwhelm (and a few tricky bits to boot!), I felt reconnected with the confident Me. I felt strong; I felt a real sense of clarity. I was able to simplify issues and readdress them with a remarkable calmness and steely inner-confidence. I felt a weight had been lifted and that made me feel happy. I was grounded. My afternoon ran particularly smoothly. I was in control of the things I was doing; I’d let go of the areas I had no control over. In those instances, worrying about it wasn’t going to change anything, so I might as well not worry about it.

Wise old owl: tapping into T'ai Chi principles is powerful!

Wise old owl: tapping into T’ai Chi principles is powerful!

I shared all of this with my T’ai Chi students last night. We had a really interesting discussion and I’m hopeful I’ve helped others set about trying this out on their work issues too. I asked them “After feeling so wise about all of this today – do you think I’ll still feel like this tomorrow?” I really wanted to bottle that feeling of being champion and yet so calm, confident and clear about what I was doing. It’s not quite 9am as I’m writing this, and I really think I’ve cracked it! On the surface, I guess we’ve heard a lot of this before – but for me (and in the words of one of my students last night) – knowing something and believing it are two different things. So my tip for this week is – Take a step back…take a big step back and really assess the essence of what you’re doing. And do this away from your daily task list. Reconnect to your “why” and it will give you greater clarity. Getting such fresh perspective is really powerful!

I would love to hear what results you achieve!

Give up the quest for Perfectionism – “Go with the flow” instead

 

On Saturday I sponsored Tina Sederholm’s stunningly brilliant performance – “Evie and the Perfect Cupcake” at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. To deliver such wit; and insightful content all in a seamless 53-minute piece of poetry was breathtaking!

 

Helen Blantz (sponsor) meets Tina Sederholm (poet) at Chiplitfest, April 2013

Helen Blantz (sponsor) meets Tina Sederholm (poet) at Chiplitfest, April 2013

Tina very kindly thanked the festival team for hooking her up with the “perfect” sponsor(!); our messages do resonate extremely well. Here’s how I explained that in my guest blog post on the Chiplitfest blog (www.chiplitfest.com/blog/page/2/)

Evie and the Perfect Cupcake – sponsored by The T’ai Chi Room

“Perfectionism” – now there’s a can of worms to feast on (but maybe not literally; I think I’ll stick with cake!) I’m excited about the reviews I have read on the key messages in Tina Sederholm’s “Evie and the Perfect Cupcake.“ I’m delighted to have been asked to sponsor this performance because so much resonates with me:

I organise alternative spa days where I teach T’ai Chi. I am particularly interested in the idea of “letting go.” I am often looking to get the message across to busy, stressed students that not giving 110% effort in everything we do can actually be a whole lot more beneficial…

I feel a strong connection with the notion that striving to reach perfection is a goal of “empty calories,” if you’ll excuse the pun. There’s no “nutritional” value in this constant drive to get on the fast track. Striving all the time to reach perfection first of all burns us out. Secondly and somewhat ironically maybe, it reflects so many missed opportunities through such blinkered vision…

The alternative is to “ease off at the edges” and to “go with the flow” in life. Together with opening up your senses to what’s going on around you at any one time (mindfulness) – I call this winning combination “taking the scenic route.” It’s so liberating!

My final point can quite succinctly be expressed in a T’ai Chi movement called “Step back to repulse the monkey.” As you may or may not already know, T’ai Chi can have multiple benefits (it improves strength, balance, flexibility, general sense of wellbeing etc.) It can also have amazing impacts on stress, anxiety, depression and insecurities around self esteem. “You said you’d be succinct!” I hear you cry – so here’s the movement:

Stepping backwards slowly and mindfully, students deflect outside pressures/ problems/ external aggression/ self-criticisms with graceful “warding off” arm movements (dare I say “wax on/ wax off,” or am I now showing my age…?!)

The key point here is that the student remains low in the legs and strong from within. The student has not met force with force – he is much more open-hearted and generous-spirited than that… This is what builds confidence in who you are – so it doesn’t matter what life throws at you – you’re strong. Maybe not perfect – but beautiful and confident in who you are!

Poetry & performance: Chiplitfest, April 2013

Poetry & performance: Chiplitfest, April 2013

Looking forward to having cake with Tina Sederholm – I’m Helen Blantz, T’ai Chi Instructor at The T’ai Chi Room, and Organiser of Retreat Days, featuring T’ai Chi, Yoga & Pilates (www.thetaichiroom.co.uk/Retreat_Days.aspx).
Proud sponsor of “Evie and the Perfect Cupcakewww.chiplitfest.com

Not forgetting a shot of the cupcakes!

Sponsor provides some "not so perfect" (!) cupcakes for the audience to relax & enjoy!!

Sponsor provides some “not so perfect” (!) cupcakes for the audience to relax & enjoy!!