Welcome to Tai Chi!
POINTS TO REMEMBER
To get the most out of your Tai Chi practice and to let your chi flow smoothly and freely, pay attention to the following reminders:
- Always visualize the tension of the body dissolving as you work.
- Drop your shoulders, bend your knees and keep your spine straight.
- Always maintain some energy in your limbs - never go limp.
- Keep moving at all times - do not pose
- Make sure your hips are level.
- Keep your rate of breathing slow and rhythmic, but never forced.
Try therefore to set aside a little time for yourself each day ideally around 15 to 30 minutes if you can. Some people may protest that this is unfeasible, but really it only means getting out of bed a little earlier than usual or perhaps finding a space in the evening or at lunchtime when you would he doing other things anyway. Ultimately, it all comes down to weighing the advantages of different activities within your daily routine and then setting your own priorities. Will you benefit more for example, from watching the news on television again before you go to bed, or by relaxing your body and illuminating your mind a little by doing some Tai Chi?
When you practice, try to make sure you will not be disturbed. Naturally this may not always be easy if you are sharing space with others, but it is best not to he secretive. Tell people what you are doing even show them if they are curious - and don't be put off if their initial reaction is somewhat less than encouraging. People like to poke fun at others who are trying to improve themselves. They will soon get used to it, however, and once they start to notice the positive changes in you that Tai Chi can bring, it is more than likely that they will become thoroughly supportive.
In the West people tend to be rather reticent and wary of displaying themselves. And although outdoor practice is best, in the fresh air where there is an abundance of chi, beginners do not always feel confident enough to do Tai Chi outdoors - even in their own backyard! However, do try, once you feel reasonably proficient at the form to work outdoors. Early in the morning is best, since the parks and open spaces are often busy with people engaged in all manner of curious exercises anyway. Join the club! Get out in the fresh air and do some Tai Chi warm-ups. Then when you are satisfied that nobody is staring at you (but what does it matter if they are!); go on to do the form. Breathe! Open your lungs and enjoy the energy and freshness all around you! It really makes a world of difference in how you feel. Groups of Tai Chi enthusiasts often meet on prearranged dates in parks or even on beaches in order to practice together. Look out for these. They will usually be early in the morning and at the weekends. This is a good way of tracking down local teachers in your area if you have not already found one.
TAI CHI PRACTICE: WHERE, WHEN AND HOW
You will find that it is worth bearing in mind the following recommendations when you practice Tai Chi. These will help you to gain the maximum benefit from your practice.
- Mornings and evenings are best.
- Fresh air is preferable to being indoors.
- Never practice on a full stomach.
- Never practice when tired.
- Always warm up first.
- Always practice in loose comfortable, clean clothing.
- Keep the kidneys, throat, and feet warm and dry.
- Work for at least ten minutes at a time.
Dos and Don'ts
In order for the vital energy to flow unimpeded through the entire body, you need to keep your spine and limbs correctly aligned and your joints open and loose. The following advice will help you maintain this proper alignment during your Tai Chi practice. It is worth referring to this section occasionally, even when you feel you have learned the form thoroughly. In times of doubt or whenever you suspect your Tai Chi is not flowing smoothly, check you are not doing something fundamentally wrong to upset your equilibrium.
KEEP THE SPINE CENTERED
Traditionally when we learned Tai Chi we are told to imagine a point of suspension situated on the crown of the head. From this a golden thread goes, up to the heavens, so that we move as if suspended always vertical. Another way to think of this is to compare the base of the spine to the bob on the end of a plumb line. No matter whether the plumb line moves forward or back the string always remains upright.
NEVER TIGHTLY LOCK THE ELBOWS OR KNEES
This rule also goes for all the joints in the body. A useful analogy here is to think of water in a hose. When the hose has a twist in it or a tight bend, the water ceases to flow smoothly or may stop altogether; the same applies to the chi in the body. So try to maintain a relaxed and flexible look to the limbs without tension. This again enables the blood and other vital fluids of the body to flow easily and without obstruction.
MOVE FROM THE CENTER
Our vital energy center is situated in the abdomen - it is a point just below the naval called the Tan Tien. In Tai Chi all of the turns steps and rotations should be directed from here- like a searchlight guiding the movements of the limbs. We also try to direct our breathing down into that area: even though the air itself obviously goes into the lungs we imagine the essence of the breath sinking to the Tan Tien, a constant focus of attention. Try to retain this quality of self-awareness throughout your Tai Chi practice.
MAINTAIN A LOW CENTER OF GRAVITY
When you do your Tai Chi, always allow your weight to sink down. A slight bend to the knees helps to create the typical Tai Chi appearance, which is somewhat low slung and stealth like. This characteristic should be cultivated during all of your work so that the movements flow one into the other without bobbing up and down.
QUALITY OF MOVEMENT
- So what exactly causes things to go wrong? What are the factors that damage or inhibit the flow of chi in the body? Emotional pressures, lifestyle, poor diet and a general lack of rapport with the natural environment are all important influences. Also, the natural harmony between the internal family of organs can be upset by injury to the organs or even to the tissues, bones and muscles through which their channels flow. Conversely, tension, bad posture or habitually awkward movements affecting the channels can eventually be transferred back to the organs themselves.
- For instance those who work for long periods slumped over a desk or keyboard often develop a stagnation or deficiency of energy in the chest area, thereby weakening the lungs and making them susceptible to common respiratory diseases such as colds or flu. Those who stand for long periods may suffer from hip and back pain, again due to long term congestion of energy in those areas and within the kidneys as well. The repetitive strain of our daily working routine can place great demands on our health. Correct alignment of the body is essential, therefore, for the smooth flow of chi. Such alignment is a fundamental principle of Tai Chi practice.
- It is for this reason that other forms of exercise fall short of Tai Chi in terms of lasting results. Studies clearly show, for example, that Tai Chi is more effective than aerobics in reducing high blood pressure. In other words, it is the quality of movement, rather than the quantity of repetitions that counts in any given exercise session. And that is also why - for all its promise and rich potential - Tai Chi's benefits will only ever accrue if the movements themselves express this precise quality of relaxation and calm. To this end, once you have learned the mechanics of the form from Part One, you can start to focus on certain refinements. Begin by trying to be aware of what is going on in your body - for instance, really learning to relax those arms! Saying it is one thing, but achieving it is quite another. Always visualize the tension and rightness of the muscles and sinews melting away and dissolving as you work. This allows the chi to flow through the arms and hands. The importance of this principle cannot be overemphasized. Drop your shoulders! Let your hands float! Remind yourself to do this constantly, every day and every time you practice tai chi, and your movements will soon become smooth and graceful.
- However, do not forget that the pursuit of gracefulness is not at an end in itself. If taken to extremes, it can result in your Tai Chi becoming weak and monotonous, without any kind of energy at all. At its best, Tai Chi combines relaxation with movement - and this is what creates the energy. Stillness with tension on the other hand merely produces stagnation; and the form should never be done so slowly or ponderously that it leads to this kind of malaise.
- With this in mind it is essential that you keep moving. A common error among beginners is to pause or even in some cases to pose at the conclusion of each movement. This kind of Tai Chi often goes with an irregular stop-start kind of rhythm in which individual movements are rushed, only to result in "lifeless" pause at the finish of each one. Make sure you do not become a poser! Keep the movements gradual, smooth and, above all, fluent - like a floating cloud or a running stream, always in motion.
Learning the Form
Rhythm and tempo are in fact the keys to fluent Tai Chi technique. The rhythm is one we are all very familiar with: the rhythm of the breath or your own. When we are very relaxed and calm our breathing becomes long and regularly spaced: conversely when we are excited or angry our breathing becomes rapid and irregular. In Tai Chi we cultivate regular breathing coupled with slow carefully measured movements so that, in time, we become more internally balanced and harmonized with the natural world.
Following the Form
Once you are familiar with the basic stances and principles you are ready to begin learning the form itself. All the movements are clearly illustrated with photographs showing both the Yin phase (the "yielding" aspect that accompanies the in breath) and the yang phase (the "thrust" of the movement that accompanies the out-breath). The main thing is to feel relaxed with what you are doing, and bear in mind that extreme slowness can introduce more tension than it removes. Find your own pace and let this take you wherever you need to go.
Each movement is accompanied by instructions for breathing: do not force yourself to follow these if you feel at all uncomfortable. Begin by finding your own rhythm of inhalation and exhalation: you will gradually begin to tune into the breathing patterns given. Remember that in Tai Chi, the learning process should always be one of discovery and fun. Relax and enjoy it!
Tai Chi has a strong mental and even spiritual aspect. It is not essential for you to explore these areas in order to obtain the wonderful benefits that Tai Chi can bring in terms of physical health relaxation, but they will help you find satisfaction and enjoyment in what you are doing.
It all comes down to understanding the original concept of the universal "Tai Chi" the supreme ultimate energy often depicted as a circle divided by a graceful curve (the Tai Chi Tu the yin-yang symbol), suggesting movement and change. "Change" is the key word. The light half of the circle is yang, the dark half yin: these two forces the positive and negative forces of nature, balance and complement each other perfectly in a state of continual harmony. Each one nourishes and supports the other in a perpetual rhythm of change.
Translated into physical movement, this gives us the Tai Chi form, which alternates constantly between negative and positive forces, accompanied by the in-breath (yin) and the out-breath (yang), so that the changes take place at a very deep level.
For now be aware that your Tai Chi is a reflection and celebration of nature, of great universal forces and rhythms with which we can work in harmony to benefit ourselves, not only physically but mentally as well.
A Healthy Lifestyle
That daily practice of Tai Chi is good for us is beyond dispute. Even if the numerous statistical studies done in both China and the West are set aside, anyone who has ever done Tai Chi over any length of time will know how well they feel because of it. So how does it work? How can the simple practice of performing a set of slow-motion movements contribute so significantly to our health and well-being?
Consider the nature of Tai Chi movements: you work slowly and calmly with the spine upright encouraging the neck to sit in the correct position and reduce tension. Gradually, with the knees slightly bent, your body weight shifts to and fro, the leg muscles working to help pump blood up to the heart. The arms and shoulders are in constant motion, opening and closing in graceful rotational movements, helping to stimulate the lymphatic system and improve lung capacity. You maintain the central equilibrium around the area of the Tan Tien - the point just beneath the navel where so much of our natural energy is gathered. The concentration and mental focus that this entails produce clarity and stability, your breathing is relaxed and constant, your metabolic rate increases, and your digestive process improves.
With the upright posture there is room for the internal organs to "breathe" and function properly. Air and vital fluids circulate freely, and the mind becomes clearer - refreshed and able to soar contemplating the great universal forces of flow, light and shade. And you realize that if you can be centered and happy like this in your body, you can apply this newfound belief in yourself to everything else that you do.