Tag Archives: T’ai Chi principles

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 ;)

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…

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!

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

 

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!!

Simplicity, a spring clean & a shredder!

I’m slowly progressing to a simpler way of life. A life with less complexity… at least I have a drive for a less complex existence. It makes me feel free! It makes me happier. It lets me see the wood for the trees.  In a work sense it undoubtedly makes me more efficient – when you simplify projects, tasks & process, you identify proper purpose and you can then get back on track pretty quickly.  What’s not to like?

Here are a few examples of how striving for a simpler existence has cropped up in my life within the last month:

  1. I have recently finished a large chunk of work – I called it a “sustained peak” (it lasted a while!) When I surfaced the other side I was overwhelmed by all the tasks I had dropped (quite rightly I had prioritised and these seemingly lowly tasks simply didn’t make the “cut”!) Too conscientious for my own good, I had planned to just “dig a little bit deeper” and trawl through it all; but the task was so immense I simply couldn’t tackle it that way. Without giving it too much thought at the time, I simply created a 2013 archive folder in email and moved entire inboxes into their new home.  I have visited a couple of times – but how liberating to just start again!  I also unsubscribed to all emails relating to shopping (did you know most sites actually email you daily? Exactly how often did I think I would need to be buying snow outfits?!!)
  2. I felt so good simplifying my Outlook on life, if you’ll excuse the pun – that I gave my documents the same treatment. Wow, on a roll…!
  3. Next – old (paper) work projects – ALL of them – had to warrant their very existence. That’s where the shredder came in. Actually this is still an ongoing process – the more I do, the more I realise – I just don’t need all the clutter!
  4. Taking “simplicity” in its wider sense – I was planning a day out with grandparents today - we had a couple of ideas and then found ourselves adding to it – “while we’re in the area” – in fact “over-designing” our trip. My children are fortunate enough to get lots of days out – for them it would be much more beneficial to slow down, do less rushing around and spend time just chatting to their grandparents – much simpler! And a much more enriching experience!
  5. I have recently joined Lucy Eckley (marketing extrordinaire) in her Marketing MeetUps. It’s a small group of local sole owners who choose a marketing project they have been meaning to get around to implementing but for whatever reason haven’t yet started.  It’s amazing what some external accountability and a monthly deadline can do for you, ha ha! I’m so grateful to Lucy and fellow punter, Jo – for both giving me the prompt to get on and start this blog (“Thank you”!) I want to relate that to my thoughts on simplicity – there have only been a couple of MeetUps so far and I thought I knew the exact steps I wanted to deliver; however, when I pared back – simplified & clarified – I drew some quite surprising conclusions!

So, here’s my challenge to you this week -

Try and simplify everything for a week – see how much time and effort it saves you.  Also see what you missed in terms of your “old ways” (I’ll bet it’s not much!)

 1392434_99783354 water drop

Here’s what I’ve found since making moves to simplify:

  • I ate better
  • Some tasks didn’t actually need doing (result!)
  • A colleague complimented my clear approach to an email she had been struggling to draft to clients – she actually recognised that her “overload” at the time was clouding her ability to communicate in simple terms (“I’d like to be more like you” was her response – what a compliment!)
  • I started again on some tasks – and did a much better job
  • I have recognised that under (immense) pressure I default to relying on process – quite natural and definitely adviseable to use a “checklist” approach when under pressure – but sometimes a step back, simplifying the task – can get you there quicker.
  • Some things don’t need doing straight away (my priorities may differ from those around me)
  • Saying “no” really isn’t that bad
  • Simplifying things somehow makes me more confident; my capacity for doing “just the right things” has grown

…And just like T’ai Chi’s principles around perspective, confidence & living life in the moment - life’s little concerns just got smaller… and the detail of the simple things just got more important. Simplifying things has left me feeling re-aligned. I have more time for people; I am more connected.  Life’s a whole heap more fulfilling!

What do you think? I would love to hear from you

Warm wishes,

Helen

How would you define wellbeing?

What does “wellbeing” mean to you?

What exactly are we looking to achieve when we say we’d like to feel an improved sense of wellbeing?

The new economics foundation (nef) has developed “five key ways to wellbeing” at
http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being

The question of how to define wellbeing has really sparked me. In answering this seemingly superficial question, I have unearthed something of a “window” into all the things which are important to me and my values; what my real drivers are; and from all of this I can map a clearer direction. (Note how I have left actions out at this stage – there’s a reason for that, which I’ll come to later.)

To me, wellbeing is…
1. being “at peace” with myself
2. being “in harmony” with all those around me – family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, community
3. feeling free from overload & clutter
4. being in good health & pain free
5. feeling physically fit, active, exhilarated & loving life
6. feeling close to nature
7. feeling properly connected to those closest to me
8. engaging my “community spirit”
9. feeling able to be “me”
10. feeling able to stop and just “be”
11. feeling equipped and confident so that I can cope with life’s little knocks
12. feeling a wide sense of justice

As someone who has worked from home for the past seven years, it’s no surprise then that getting up at 6.30am on the bank holiday to help out at the Scout Group car boot sale actually gave me such a boost! It was the social interaction/ community spirit “tick” which gave me such a buzz. I already know that when I’m feeling overloaded at work and taking too much time away from the family, one of the simplest “fixes” for me to feel that reconnection, is to have a game of badminton in the garden with my nine-year old boy. Sometimes it’s the simplest things…

T'ai Chi: boosts your wellbeing

T’ai Chi: boosts your wellbeing

Practising T’ai Chi pretty much covers all of my twelve points above. I don’t know how much impact it has on the 12th; but T’ai Chi at least gives me an incredible clarity of thought and a balanced perspective as a darned good starting point for tackling the big things like issues of injustice!

I wanted to share with you how T’ai Chi boosts my wellbeing:
1. At the end of my T’ai Chi practice, I am at my happiest; I feel relaxed and peaceful (I always have the best sleep at the end of my day of teaching)
2. If anything has riled me earlier in the day, after practice it no longer seems important; I can readily shrug it off
3. After practice, I feel strong in myself; I have reconnected within and feel confident in myself
4. I have had a very welcome break from all matters concerning overload & clutter and it feels amazing!
5. I believe that the exercise; breathing and energy flow help to keep my body healthy – the stress-busting, meditative elements undoubtedly help sustain good mental health and practising throughout my three pregnancies helped me to retain a good residual fitness
6. I feel calm, yet very alert after practice; upbeat but relaxed
7. T’ai Chi’s wider principles very much incorporate nature (As Legend would have it – Chinese Taoist priest Chang San-feng witnessed a fight between a crane and a snake and was struck by their movements; how the snake avoided the crane by its flowing, yielding, adapting movements; the crane used too much energy with its linear, aggressive attacks. This is the reason Chang San-feng developed movements to mimic nature and many of the T’ai Chi postures reflect the attributes of different animals.)
8. Some of T’ai Chi’s specific movements build confidence, increase self esteem, deflect inbound negative experiences (“Monkey Steps” are a favourite amongst those of my students who going through particularly difficult /aggressive situations at work. In this movement, students move backwards very slowly and in a controlled fashion “ward off” any external aggressions. Powerful stuff!)
9. Practising T’ai Chi helps to “open your heart” to those around you – forgiveness & compassion are both so beneficial to your inner wellbeing.
10. T’ai Chi’s principles teach the ability to slow down – and to believe that it’s ok not to always put in 120%… not to always run around at a hundred miles an hour
11. On a physical level – T’ai Chi builds strength, flexibility, mobility & balance; and improves posture, breathing, digestion & circulation
12. T’ai Chi is teaching me balance in all things

For this post you might notice that I haven’t provided my list of things you could do to improve your wellbeing – I have perhaps alluded to my T’ai Chi practice, and larking around in the garden with my children – but there’s a good reason for my not providing a lengthy list at this stage. For now, I really wanted to CHALLENGE you to open up to what YOU see is important for your wellbeing. I’ve got so much out of writing this post today, I would love for you to share with me -

What defines wellbeing for you?

And how do you go about nurturing your wellbeing?

Do you:
a) Not give this much attention really (you’re too busy)?
b) Know what you really like to do – but aren’t quite getting around to it?
c) Have a list (either consciously or unconsciously) of things you do to give your wellbeing a boost (shopping trip, night out, weekend away, buy some flowers, book a retreat?)
d) Ever look at those things you might do for a “lift” – and evaluate them?
e) Find that you reach for the “right” fix, or sometimes for an “empty fix”?

I would love to hear from you…

Warm wishes,

Helen