Tag Archives: T’ai Chi practice

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.

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…

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!

Getting into “best” mindset for T’ai Chi

For beginners at T’ai Chi, or those coming to the Retreat Day with no previous experience of T’ai Chi…

With the children now in their second week back at school, I’m finding myself talking to them about doing their best.  It has cropped up quite a bit – not a Brownie visit can go by it would seem without my feeling the insuppressible urge to yet again deliver my polished “Remember to do your best” speech.

However, as I prepare to start the new T’ai Chi year (weekly classes are starting next week; and I’m also preparing for the Retreat Day which is on Saturday 5th October)… I’ve noticed that I have developed a completely different standpoint. I wanted to share this particularly with beginners – both new beginners to T’ai Chi and to those who are continuing beginners  – because taking this alternative standpoint could make all the difference in breaking down some tricky barriers to learning.

Hard toil: giving 100% isn't always the best option

Hard toil: giving 100% isn’t always the best option

We all like to know we’ve done our best (don’t we…??)  But when it comes to learning T’ai Chi – putting in your best efforts as we know those to be in our Westen culture – is not going to net you the same rich rewards as simply applying yourself in a more relaxed, laissez-faire fashion.

That’s a difficult concept to someone who has been everything from a Brownie through to Duke of Edinburgh  Gold Award-winner!!  For those who like and constantly crave the “tick” of knowing something – and knowing it in its mouth-watering entirety – this is a radical new approach. And one which doesn’t sit so naturally if you’ve been wired to give everything 110%.

Despite the fact that I consider myself wired to hit everything with top effort, Isomehow find myself, in fact, able quite capably I think, to operate in both “worlds,” in both mindsets.  As my day-job is quite an academic one (I research technical conferences and develop conference agendas, finding suitable global experts in their field to share their views and what’s current in their niche industry) – I’m used to being able to deal in detail – it’s so relevant in the world of events.  In Left/Right brain terms, throughout that conference agenda-developing process, my brain is equally able to tap into the Right side of the brain, which is so good at delivering the overview under which all that lovely “Left brain” detail hangs. 

Already I’m discovering that for such a Left brain dominated task such as agenda writing, I’m still sensibly tapping into the more intuitive Right side of the brain.  I’m concluding that I approach the agenda-setting task from both ends of this spectrum.  My Right brain is allowed to “hang loose” and provides the more general connections I need up until such time as my Left brain can deliver particular pieces of finer detail.  Both sides of my thinking brain inform each other, as I constantly re-categorise the whole gamut of information I have across my conference and seminar programmes.

solar panelLet’s take the topic “solar panels” since that’s something I know about.  I should share with you at this point that I know:

  • there are different types of solar panels (some produce electricity, others produce heat) This is high-level, more general knowledge
  • there are right and wrong ways of mounting solar panels I have heard presentations on brackets used for mounting solar panels – this is fine detail
  • there are developments in producing solar PVT (combination of solar PV and solar thermal) Quite general understanding, which turns more specific as I talk to the experts about the pros and cons of amalgamating these two technologies – so this is both general and specific
  •  there are incredible developments in building-integrated solar products General list of developments; but also some very niche specifics of the use of graphene in solar cells
  • the Government recently reduced the feed-in-tariff which producers can earn from producing their own electricity At the time, I read in some depth the industry’s responses to this particular change in policy

At all times I am developing my own understanding of solar panels from both general and very specific angles.  And my brain is completely at ease with doing this simultaneously. As I come across a new concept, my brain finds a suitable place to store that information and then sets to work over time in establishing its connections to my information repository.  It starts off as either a very specific piece of technical information for which I need to work out a context – or it’s a very loose topic heading which I need to find more information about in order to embed it into the rest of my knowledge base.

If we then apply this to our T’ai Chi learning, it can allow us to learn about the wider benefits of T’ai Chi; its principles and rich history; its connections with Chinese philosophy; whilst at the same time learning some very specific moves.

Zen garden: T'ai Chi learning allows for some structure, and for the rest to "hang loose" about the edges

Zen garden: T’ai Chi learning allows for some structure, and for the rest to “hang loose” about the edges

However, if we come to T’ai Chi classes just to learn the movements without allowing the Right side of our brain to provide the wider framework, we’ll miss out on the intuitive part of our brains, which are so good at providing very loose connections and contexts in the background – and we’re left alone in a room trying to learn a soulless dance with a Left brain telling us to “do our best.”  That not only spells disaster; but insodoing, you’ll miss “the journey,” you’ll miss the joy of learning in an open relaxed way; you’ll miss the Eureka jumps your brain is able to take when you relax and let go.  In fact, if you approach your T’ai Chi learning with a 100% effort-is-best approach, you’ll find that T’ai Chi won’t make so much sense and won’t come to you so easily.

So my advice to beginners and to those looking to deepen their understanding – is to consider these clichés and just see where they take you:

  • Go with the flow
  • Ease off at the edges
  • Relax and enjoy the ride
  • Less is more
  • KISS (keep it simple stupid)
T'ai Chi: takes a lifetime to learn, so relax and enjoy the journey

T’ai Chi: takes a lifetime to learn, so relax and enjoy the journey

T’ai Chi takes a lifetime to learn; this is one of those occasions when the detail can be filled in later.  For now, just concentrate on the wider concepts and you’ll find that you’ll reach your “goal” much quicker.  :)

I’m looking forward to welcoming lots of new faces to T’ai Chi this term and would recommend that students keep a brief T’ai Chi diary, which helps enormously with appreciating at the end of the course (or, in the case of the Retreat Day – at the end of the day) just how much progress you’ve been able to make – beyond “just” the movements!

 As with all my posts, I would very much welcome your thoughts and comments.

Emptiness: reconnecting with the inner you

Fabulous discussion at last night’s class around the impact of “emptiness” on T’ai Chi practice. I’m touched that students shared so much of themselves on this – so a warm “thank you” to all.

Emptiness is uplifting: reaching the inner you

Emptiness is uplifting: reaching the inner you

 

I wanted to distil a few key points – there are some quite profound lessons in life to be drawn from looking at emptiness and T’ai Chi practice. (I’m always drawing lessons from T’ai Chi!)

The concept of emptiness and inner stillness has its roots in Chinese philosophy. I’d like to refer to Buddhism and Taoism, which both have close links with T’ai Chi. Lau Tzu (possibly an older contemporary of Confucius) also talked about emptying your mind of all things in the old T’ai Chi classic The Tao te Ching. I need just to say that there are many idiosyncracies of the Buddhist and Taoist views of emptiness, which go way beyond this post(!) – but I have pulled out a few points which resonate with T’ai Chi practice.

 

Meditative aspects of T'ai Chi encourage a state of "emptiness"

Meditative aspects of T’ai Chi encourage a state of “emptiness”

T’ai Chi, meditation & emptiness

T’ai Chi is a meditative exercise and it’s the meditative state of mind which “emptiness” brings. Emptiness is a state of mind in T’ai Chi. Last night we each shared some examples of how we can use this relaxed state of mind in our everyday lives – when tricky situations arise which we find stressful, it is possible to condition ourselves to respond to a trigger – and tap into this “empty” state of mind – even without the movements. It’s like finding from within a cosy, safe place where there are no worries. We are protected from outside negative forces.

Enjoying the absence of wanting etc.

Within this space we’re calling emptiness, we feel without attachment, without desire, without dissatisfaction, greed, stress, anxiety or frustration… even if this is just for a short period.  T’ai Chi practice is a great opportunity just to let go.  With some time away from this collection of “wants” – through “emptiness” in T’ai Chi practice, we can gain a certain clarity of thought.

 

T'ai Chi symbol

T’ai Chi symbol

T’ai Chi symbol: what’s it telling us about our practice?

The T’ai chi symbol represents the constant flux of change. From this you can infer that everything is impermanent, and the argument, when played out in full, goes that problems come and go; feelings come and go; perceptions come and go. It becomes futile to worry about something which will change. One example from a student last night was that often she will be worrying about something – and without action (i.e. emptiness) – it somehow rights itself on its own. Inaction isn’t always a good idea – but it does have its place in our toolbox of “alternative perspectives.”

So the T’ai Chi symbol with its continuous curved lines, shows constant change. For T’ai Chi practitioners, we should note that the T’ai Chi Form (sequence of slow, graceful movements which lasts around 20 minutes from start to finish) needs to be practised as one continuous movement. We should think about there being no beginning and no end to the moves; one posture flows directly into the next, just like the curved lines in the symbol. More advanced students will start to “remember” the sequence by their continual flow of weight – something of a “Eureka” moment when you can predict what comes next just by the fact that, for instance, you have your weight fully in the right leg.

Enjoying emptiness in practice

Emptiness in T’ai Chi provides a quiet stillness. For me, I’m not taking this as an exercise to fully “check in” with how I’m feeling – I don’t converse in that way – it’s more of an awareness. In T’ai Chi we are encouraged to empty our minds of all thoughts; if a thought does crop up, we are to acknowledge it, and dismiss it… for the present moment at least.

After the end of the walking exercise in class, I will always invite students to “rest into the stillness” – that’s your stillness, whatever it means to you.

Last night students kindly shared with the group what they felt stillness meant to them in practice.  Here are the many benefits it brings:

  • A general awareness of our bodies & breathing
  • A calming influence (both in practice and as a “space” we can learn to tap into without even requiring the movements)
  • A state of mind where nothing matters (for that moment; we are in constant flux, remember)
  • A place to reconnect with yourself
  • Tuning into a general sense of who we are, and our interface with the world
  • An awareness of our inner strength & resources
  • A place in which to build confidence
  • An understanding of what we offer to the world

For me, the idea of connecting not only with myself; but also viewing my T’ai Chi practice as my interface with the world was an important one.  Not everyone felt the same about this, although one student came up with exactly the same example of this as me: there is a movement in which we collect energy in our palms and then turn the palms to release the energy. At this precise point, we both have the feeling of sharing what we have to offer with the room (in my student’s case) – and with the world in my case.

I use T’ai Chi’s principles to help tackle life’s little obstacles. Understanding this place we’re calling “emptiness” somehow strengthens those skills.

Ironically for me, it’s through this meditative movement that I am able finally to learn how to stop!

 

Retreat Day: Let your inner self blossom

Retreat Day: Let your inner self blossom

Retreat Days: reconnect to the inner you & feel nourished with time just to “be”

Retreat Days cater well for those just wanting to “stop” for a while – to empty your mind and tap into the inner you. It’s a great opportunity to have a proper break away from whatever is keeping you on the move all the time – away from your busyness.

Kind to body, mind & spirit – the Retreat Day allows you to “zone out” for a while; breathe deeply; stretch; relax & rejuvenate.

Places still available for the Retreat Day, featuring T’ai Chi, Yoga & Pilates:

  • Saturday 22 June 2013
  • Full day of relaxation & gentle exercises
  • Including meditation, breathing, stretching
  • Health & wellbeing talks
  • Nutritious two-course light lunch
  • Relaxing holistic massage/ beauty treatment
  • www.thetaichiroom.co.uk/Retreat_Days.aspx
  • Or call me on 01993 822725
  • Works well with a few close friends (the day is programmed so you will see each other!)
  • Takes place at Middle Aston House, Bicester, Oxfordshire (accommodation available)

Now I have some questions for you. Please share:

1. What’s keeping you busy just now?

2. How do you nurture your inner self?

3. What are your techniques for achieving some stillness in your daily/weekly routine?

4. How do you find clarity of mind – when you really need to take a step back and “see the wood for the trees”…?

Looking forward to hearing your strategies…

Warm wishes,

Helen, T’ai Chi Instructor and Organiser of Retreat Days, featuring T’ai Chi, Yoga & Pilates.

www.thetaichiroom.co.uk/Retreat_Days.aspx