Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Breathing Technique

For beginning Tai Chi practitioners, integration of the breath is introduced with a fairly general set of guidelines:

• Inhale while being receptive (or rising); exhale while being expressive (or sinking). 
• Breathe slowly and fully, into the abdomen.

In short, one should try to match the pace of the breath to the slow, rhythmic movements that comprise Tai Chi Chuan.

The health benefits of synchronizing the breath with our movement cannot be overstated. Breathing slowly allows the parasympathetic system to get into full swing; the heart rate slows down and the digestive system becomes activated. Filling the lungs simultaneously maximizes oxygen exchange and allows the diaphragm to help the abdominal organs massage each other. This is good stuff.

Curiously enough, while most of us learned to breath abdominally as infants, we can find it difficult as adults to slow the breath down and maintain a regulated pace. Here are a few tips and techniques that can help you get back to those good ol' days: 

Breathing slowly (regulation).  
• Inhale and exhale through the nose.
• Gently contract the muscles of the glottis and nasopharynx (upper throat), just enough so that a slight seashell "ocean sound" is created in the windpipe.
• Slightly pressing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth may help maintain this control. 

Breathing fully (depth). Filling the lungs with air requires that you use the diaphragm to breathe.  
• As an exercise, place your left hand on your abdomen, just below the navel; place your right hand on your chest. Now, try to breathe into the space beneath your left hand. The goal is to fill the abdomen before the hand on your chest begins to rise. 
• If you are having trouble pulling the breath down, try this exercise that isolates the diaphragm. Lay on your back and place a book or two on your abdomen. Breathing slowly, try to lift it with the inhale and lower it with the exhale.

If this appears similar to ujjayi breathing, it is. By bringing this level of attention to your practice of Tai Chi Chuan, you will gradually begin to see how the movement and breath are linked and feel support each other. 

Practice often; you'll probably never get too tired to breathe anytime soon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Alignment 105: The Hands

So you've rooted the feet, used the legs to spring, directed that power with the waist and channeled that energy up the spine and down the shoulders... now it's time to express.

We want the forearms and hands to be awake yet soft enough to listen.

When a hand form requires activation with a wrist bend (sitting hand, cut, united fingertips, knuckle punch), balance the activation with the alignment. The activation of the wrist allows the energy to flow down one side of the forearm to reach the hand. However, twisting the wrist or making the joint too angular will block the flow. As a general rule, do not bend the joint so far as to create major flexion folds in the wrist.

If the hand form does not require activation in the wrist (jab, punch, back fist), keep that channel open down the forearm to the middle knuckle – straight as an arrow!

Finally, keep the fingers together. This simple action calls for a little bit of effort in the hand that keeps it alert. When writing a letter or painting, notice that your hand is not gripping the pen or brush too tightly; nor is the connection too loose. It's in a state somewhere in-between – a place that is strong to the point of being supportive, yet relaxed enough to receive direct feedback from its action. This is what the hands will do by connecting the fingers: they become the interface.

The next time you settle into the horse riding stance at the beginning of the form, listen to the hands activate. Next, continue to carry that sensation throughout the entire form.

Go play; express yourself.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Alignment 104: The Shoulders

When I started my investigation of Tai Chi Chuan, the shoulders seemed to be the most puzzling aspect of all. Even though I had "memorized" the form, I felt as though my shoulders were some sort of enigma: too tense to be sensitive, yet too loose to be structurally supportive. When my teacher demonstrated the deceptively simple action of properly aligned shoulders, I was always amazed. For years, I could not figure out how such subtle movements could deliver so much force. It took a long time to distill my experiences into a set of general concepts that I continue to apply to my practice:

1) Allow the waist to move the entire trunk as one unit. The spine should remain long and the shoulders should be aligned over the hip like hinge posts of a door. This is true whether the waist is opening (Roll Back) or closing (Parting the Wild Horse's Mane). By letting your legs do the macro-muscling, you free up your shoulders for sensitivity and the response.

2) Keep your shoulder blades in the neutral position. To find this position, stand up straight with your hands directly out to the sides at should height. Try to sense the position of your shoulder blades in the back and the chest muscles just above your armpit. Next, draw your hands further back. Notice how the blades begin to feel compressed and the upper chest muscles feel stretched. Now extend the hands toward the front slowly, until you no longer feel the compression or stretch (it should be a little bit forward of your original 'T' position). This is your spot; here your shoulders are connected with your spine and waist! Any further expression through your hands should not move your shoulders from this alignment.

3) Drop your elbows! Notice that as you lift your elbows to shoulder height, the shoulders want to rise as well. To keep your shoulders relaxed, visualize a small weight attached to your elbows, a reminder to keep that joint hanging gently between the shoulder and wrist.

4) Let the hands lead. It's good to keep this in mind when practicing the few postures that ask the hand to rise above the head (White Crane Spreads Wings, Fan Through the Back), but actually this rule can be applied to any posture. Imagine your hands being lifted and lowered by strings. Allow your elbows to follow along in a supportive manner, but notice how much easier it is to keep your shoulders in place.

Keeping the larger, outer muscles relaxed will result in improved blood flow and sensitivity. Gradually training the smaller, deeper muscles will finely tune the arms for a strong delivery.

Outside like cotton, inside like steel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Consider the Depth of the Source

During the earlier years of my study, I would browse through books on Tai Chi in the martial arts section of local bookstores. There I’d usually find about five to fifteen books on the subject and thumb through a number of them. To me, it was always difficult to know which one would best accompany my practice. Usually I walked out with one that spoke more to me through its writing style than illustrations or photos, and was sure to avoid anything that went on too much about immortality or eternal happiness. Call me practical (which is not necessarily the best approach).

Today there are quite a number of Tai Chi books available to anyone reading this blog right now. For example, at the time of this writing, can deliver almost twenty-four hundred different books on Tai Chi to your doorstep by the weekend. Pretty cool huh? And I don’t believe this includes the DVD content.
Knowing that, I just have to wonder how today’s beginner would go about making a choice (or two) on their own. I’m sure writing style is considered (thanks to the preview capabilities of some online stores), but ultimately how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? Which will deliver the most benefit?
I would suggest picking up Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and, like your practice, digest it very slowly. Considering that Tai Chi Chuan (Supreme Ultimate Fist or Form) is an investigation of movement based upon the nature of complementary opposites, no practitioner should be without this collection of esoteric writing.
As an exercise, take a chapter (draw it randomly, or choose one that speaks to you) and keep it in mind while you practice the form. Ask yourself how this applies to your practice. Try to soften and feel what is meant in a particular passage. Take a look at Chapter 40 (I’m using a translation by John C. H. Wu):
The movement of the Tao consists in Returning.
The use of the Tao consists in softness.
All things under heaven are born of the corporeal;
The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal.
Whoa. That’s deep.
If you don’t own a copy, pick one up (there are many translations, editions and flavors); you will not be disappointed.

Poetry in motion, indeed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Alignment 103: The Waist

The waist plays two roles when practicing Tai Chi. The first is that it transmits the energy generated by the legs up through the spine to the shoulders. It is also responsible for keeping the body in alignment as one body moves from posture to posture. This is why The Classics refer to the waist as the director.

One could probably fill a book with all the information the waist needs to know to be an effective director. But that would be silly because the waist can't read. Instead, I'll jotted some tips to keep in mind during your practice:

• The hips should remain at the same height throughout the form. If one hip becomes higher than another, the spine must compensate in an unnatural way to maintain balance. Try to visualize the waist as a bowl filled to the rim with water; don't spill a drop!
• The turning of the waist needs to be coordinated with the shifting of the weight. Generally speaking, in the Bow & Arrow Stance, the waist should begin to turn as the front knee begins to track over the ankle toward the toes.
• Be sure that the feet and legs give the waist enough room to operate. As mentioned in an earlier post, a foundation that is too short, long, wide or narrow will leave the waist little opportunity to keep the body balanced or move the energy.
• Be aware that turning waist too far can lead to tension in the hip and knee joints, or even uproot the feet. The direction of the navel should never point outside that of either foot.
• To achieve a solid connection between ground (earth) and the crown of the head (heaven), the abdomen should be slightly engaged throughout the form. By this I mean that the lower back is lengthened by activating the deeper muscle groups (most notably, the psoas muscles). This can take some time to find, but the reward is more than worth the effort. For example, when one's body begins to understand that it is the waist that directs the yin leg (whether that is to help close the back foot during a two hand push, or stepping into an Empty-Step Stance), one's practice will be so much more profound. 

Consider the role of the waist in your Tai Chi practice as being similar to the hub of a wheel. If the hub is off-center or does not keep a tight rein on the spokes, the wheel will be unbalanced and much less effective. However, when the hub is strong and properly aligned, the wheel should be able to carry its load with grace and finesse.

Be the hub.