Saturday, August 31, 2013

Build Strength by Ken Gullette

Ken Gullette offers good instruction on how T'ai Chi helps you build, and use, strength.  

As a martial art, T'ai Chi belongs to the internal school (or Nèijiā), and as such it focuses on mind (i), energy (chi) and spirit (shen), rather than muscle, tension or force.  Focusing on the internal doesn't mean you neglect the external, that is, your body, the ground, or objects.  It's a matter of principle or priority.  

In fact, what Gullette teaches is this:
  • In T'ai Chi, proper body mechanics, rooting to the ground, and mind-redirection are all part of how you respond to, and neutralize, attacks.
  • You receive the opponents force (push), redirect it through your legs, and release it into the ground.
  • In practice, you become more skilled and stronger at such a response, when you work with a teacher or classmate who literally pushes us and helps you learn and develop.
  • But it's the daily practice of the solo movements - following T'ai Chi principles, such as relaxation, continuity, and energy - which helps you build internal (and external) strength.
The notion of an iron fist, wrapped in cotton, is how T'ai Chi develops your body over years of practice:  steel-hard on the inside, but cotton-soft on the outside. 

T'ai Chi philosophy says, Soft defeats hard.  

If you're primarily used to the physical arts, this may be difficult to believe or conceptualize.  But think about water or wind.  Yes, a tsunami or tornado can definitely create destruction.  But even the gentle flow of a river and the easy passing of the wind can carve astounding landscapes like the Grand Canyon in the southwest US.  

It may take time, and it may not be anything we notice, but water and wind can definitely move mountains.        

It was Bruce Lee who said, 'Be like water, my friend.'  

Friday, August 30, 2013

Keep our Sword Sheathed

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In T'ai Chi we may greet each other like so.

First, it's a gesture of peace to keep our sword sheathed.  But just as it's our sign of respect for others, others must reciprocate with the same gesture.  

Second, it's a reminder that it's still a sword, so others never lose track of that.  A samurai can unsheathe his sword at a moment's notice.

We Are Nature

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The Tao Te Ching coaxes us to follow the way of nature.  T'ai Chi is essentially that - following the way of nature. 

The Person Doing It

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I have heard that Pa Kua masters can practice their martial art on the rim of a basket like this.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Self Defense Lessons #2, by Robert Agar-Hutton

When Robert Agar-Hutton deflects the oncoming attack upward, steps inside, we call it 'Entering your opponent's face.'  As he shows, this inside position gives him options for striking his opponent: 
  • On the nose with the heel of his palm
  • On the neck with the blades of his hands
Remember, your opponent is rushing or lunging at you, so you don't have to strike with much force to be effective in neutralizing him.  In T'ai Chi, it's about using your opponent's own energy (i.e., momentum) against him.

Self defense in T'ai Chi may be step-aside-and-evade, too.  We want to avoid getting ourselves hurt and also avoid hurting the opponent.  So if a simple evasion works, as we see in the video, then all the better.  You can run, and call for help.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Self Defense Lessons #1, by Robert Agar-Hutton

Robert Agar-Hutton offers really sound lessons on the self defense applications of T'ai Chi.

T'ai Chi is an art of simplicity.  You want to do the least possible to get the most result.
The challenge for beginners is to learn the principles and movements, so they practice the form correctly.  But for them to apply the form for self-defense, they must be able to do two seemingly contradictory things:
  1. Through conscientious, daily practice, the form ought to be come second nature.  That is, they don't think, they don't deliberate.  They simply do the form naturally, and let the mind - or i - command the chi.  They become at one with the flow of their chi and the energy of the Universal around them.  
  2. Through even more conscientious, daily practice, advanced practitioners know to let the situation dictate how they ought to apply what they've learned.  You see, the form is only a means to a end, which is strengthening body, mind and spirit.  Then, it becomes a platform for departure or variation.  That is, the form is modified according to the threatening situation, and even discarded if necessary.
It was Bruce Lee who talked about the form of no-form.  It wasn't formless per se.  Rather, in brief, it was anything goes - strategy, technique or ploy - when it's a life-or-death matter and you must defend yourself.

Relaxation in T'ai Chi, by Ting Kuo-Piao

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To be relaxed means to release tension, but not to let go of substance.  There is a quality in-between stiff and loose which is stable, yet flexible, that has fullness without being rigid, that is calm in motion yet conveys a vigorous presence. For lack of an equivalent English word, I refer to this concept as flowing within firmness, firmness within flowing. Flowing and firmness do not gain support from a rigid skeletal posture or strength from muscular tension. Rather, their integrity comes from expansion. Expansion is the ability to spread out in all directions. This is the key to relaxing without collapsing.
Reference:  "Understanding Flowing and Firmness," by Ting Kuo-Piao.

This is the thing about shoong:  It does not mean that we make our bodies flaccid (e.g., like a wet noodle, as some say).  There are forces in nature - for example, gravitational and atomic - that are essential for keeping things intact or in place.  Rather, we use whatever force we may need to sit down, stand up, and move about, and shoong requires us to let go of any unnecessary tension.

At one point, I learned about “extending in all directions.”  Shoong is about nurturing, circulating and extending chi.

Ting Kuo-Piao speaks to the yin-yang of relaxation:  hard within soft, soft within hard.


Michael Garofalo culled information, quotes and references on relaxation - Relaxed - and I am grateful for his effort.  Over several days in July 2011, I meditated over each one of these quotes and made notes in my T'ai Chi journal:

Not just to be really, really, but truly to be completely and absolutely shoong.  I would like to imagine that in the future, I can be completely impervious to some people's craziness and shenanigans, by being absolutely shoong.

Going forward I will post regularly on relaxation, with more quotes and notes.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Practice T'ai Chi Everyday

The masters are said to have practiced T'ai Chi twice daily.

One instructor encouraged his students to do T'ai Chi 24 hours/7 days a week.

In response to the T'ai Chi Ch'uan Classic principle of moving continuously, an old friend and classmate quipped, "I can't.  I have to sleep sometime."

Therein lie the standard, aspiration and humor for practitioners.

What you practice, and where or when, depends on you.  Your preferences, schedule and commitment around T'ai Chi determine what you actually do.  If it is important to you, and you see its value and benefits, then like any good discipline you have to put in time and effort.

Of course, if it is not important to you, then dispense with it and focus on other things that are.  It is the nature of T'ai Chi - and the Tao, that is, the way of nature - not to force into anything at all.

That said, I believe in doing something that is sustainable.  Big efforts are more difficult as far as that is concerned.  But smaller efforts, pointed in the direction where you want to go, can be made everyday:
  • Practice your form daily.  Perhaps focus on new movements you've learned.
  • Even if all you have is five minutes, then practice well for five minutes - with full attention and commitment.
  • Decide whether it makes sense for you (a) to schedule practice at a set time everyday or (b) to allow yourself the flexibility to see how you feel and determine which time each day to practice.  
  • T'ai Chi is modest, economic and convenient.  So you can practice it wherever you may be, whatever you may be wearing, and whenever you wish.
With this more modest effort, perhaps you can do it twice a day.  

After years and years of practice, you may have assimilated the essence of T'ai Chi in your mind, body and spirit so deeply that anything and everything you do is T'ai Chi.  Then, you are doing it 24/7.

The fact is, even when we sleep, our life force - chi - is very much flowing through us.  So we can revel in knowing that we can move continuously.  And mindfully so.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Benefits of Meditation

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Finding peace and stillness within yourself is CRUCIAL to your body's health. 90% of all diseases and illnesses are either caused or aggravated by stress, and meditation is a great way to restore balance in your body. The benefits of meditation are literally endless, but here are just some. Did you know that meditation is scientifically proven to: 
- Overcome stress (University of Massachusetts Medical School, 2003)
- Boost your creativity (ScienceDaily, 2010)
- Improve your sex life and increase your libido (The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2009)
- Cultivate healthy habits that lead to weight loss (Journal Emotion, 2007)
- Improve digestion and lower blood pressure (Harvard Medical School)
- Decrease your risk of heart attack (The Stroke Journal, 2009)
- Help overcome anxiety, depression, anger and confusion (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2009)
- Decrease perception of pain and improve cognitive processing (Wake Forest University School of Medicine, 2010)
- Increase your focus and attention (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2007)
- Increase the size of your most important organ – your brain! (Harvard University Gazette, 2006) 
 Reference:  Spirit Science and Metaphysics.

Health Benefits of T'ai Chi and Qigong

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T'ai Chi and Qigong are two mind-body practices that originated in ancient China. Practiced widely in China for thousands of years, both T'ai Chi and Qigong have become popular in the West. This might be because people of almost any age or condition can learn them.
Large, clinical studies on the health benefits of T'ai Chi and Qigong are lacking. But many who practice T'ai Chi and Qigong report heightened feelings of well-being along with a variety of other health benefits. A few studies are beginning to support some of these claims.
Reference:  Health Benefits of T'ai Chi and Qigong.
  • Improved balance and strength
  • Less pain and stiffness from osthearthritis
  • Better sleep quality
  • Greater immunity against shingles
Qigong (also spelled Chi Kung) is a wide range of exercises that specifically develop and circulate qi (also spelled chi) - our life energy.  If T'ai Chi were the game, then Qigong is the calisthenics.  It comprises of repetitive movements, done in sequence, but not necessarily part of an integrated form.
As with T'ai Chi, a variety of benefits have been linked to Qigong. They include:
  • Greater stamina and vitality
  • Reduced stress
  • Enhanced immune system
  • Improved cardiovascular, respiratory, circulatory, lymphatic, and digestive function
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less risk of falling

Saturday, August 24, 2013

T'ai Chi Strengthens Mind and Body

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In T'ai Chi, both the mind and the body are constantly challenged. It is hard to say which benefits more, say experts. 
''Initially, benefits are physical,'' says [Warren] Conner. ''For learning purposes, you start with the body. You learn a set series of movements, all in the same order, and you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you purchase awareness.'' 
''T'ai Chi (and Qigong) demonstrate how inextricably interwoven the mental and physical body is,'' says [Bill] Douglas...  ''Your mood, your emotional states, and your physical states are all beginning to improve at the same time.''
Reference:  T'ai Chi Exercises both Mind and Body.

Strong as a Plow

Chinese symbol for strength
The symbol used for depicting strength has a shape that is somewhat like a plow. The symbol is pronounced as 'li' in Chinese. The top portion of the symbol looks like a plow handle while the lower part resembles a plowshare. It requires a substantial amount of strength for using a plow. Thus, the plow symbol must have got its meaning from the fact that it requires strength to pull this tool. 
Reference:  Buzzle

Boy with an Umbrella

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Dry spell became a drought, and the drought went on.  People in the village began to suffer more noticeably.  Harvest looked meager.  So they decided to pray for rain.  On the day of the gathering, only one - a boy - brought an umbrella.

Music of "The Gentle Energy"

According to the YouTuber who uploaded this, it's is called "The Gentle Energy."  It's from the album "T'ai Chi - Eternal Chi," by Harvey Summers.    

Do you listen to music when you meditate or practice T'ai Chi?  If so, what music?  

Friday, August 23, 2013

Relaxation in T'ai Chi, by Waysun Liao

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Relaxation in T'ai Chi comes with many names.  Song.  Sung.  Shoong.

I imagine it is as difficult to translate the Chinese character into an English word, as it is to define what it actually means.  What I remembered most, from my early studies, was its apparent literal translation:  "hairy pine tree."
Shoong means "to relax, "to loose, "to give up," "to yield." It is a term that has been adapted and incorporated into the specialized terminology traditionally used by T'ai Chi masters. It is said that when the famous T'ai Chi master Yang, Chen-fu was training the late master Cheng Man-c'hing, Master Yang reminded his student daily to "be shoong, be really, really shoong." "If you are not shoong, " Master Yang would say, "even just a little bit not shoong, you are not in the stage of shoong.
Reference:  "The Essence of T'ai Chi," by Waysun Liao.


Michael Garofalo culled information, quotes and references on relaxation - Relaxed - and I am grateful for his effort.  Over several days in July 2011, I meditated over each one of these quotes and made notes in my T'ai Chi journal:

Not just to be really, really, but truly to be completely and absolutely shoong.  I would like to imagine that in the future, I can be completely impervious to some people's craziness and shenanigans, by being absolutely shoong.

Going forward I will post regularly on relaxation, with more quotes and notes.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Martial Arts as a Way of Life

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Take Time to Do Nothing

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T'ai Chi is No Pain. Period.

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However you may call it - "meditation in motion" or "medication in motion" - there is a growing body of research about The Health Benefits of T'ai Chi.   From strength and flexibility, to balance and conditioning, this ancient Chinese exercise does us a world of good.

'No pain, no gain' still seems to be the mantra in American fitness.  But T'ai Chi begs to differ.  You may be stretching, or meditating, or practicing, but here we don't glorify pain and we certainly don't position it as a prerequisite for getting healthier or stronger.

No, T'ai Chi is gentle, graceful and natural.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Applying T'ai Chi Self Defense

Marshall Ho'o taught us a lesson on martial arts, during a T'ai Chi class in Snowmass, CO, which I have always remembered and taken to heart:  Martial arts is putting yourself in a position of advantage.   That was more than 30 years ago.

A simple story.

During graduate school in Chicago, I often had to work late, and arrived at my train stop - Howard Station - after 12 midnight.  My wife and I lived in an Evanston apartment a mile away, and at that late hour the buses came too infrequently.  So I'd walk, instead.

The walk along Howard Street is not the most pleasant, safest route in the city.  It wasn't bad, relatively speaking, but I had to be alert and careful:

  • Everything was in my shoulder bag, and I had it positioned evenly on my shoulders.  So my hands were entirely free.  
  • I walked confidently, and looked straight ahead.  I walked with an air of 'Don't fuck with me' (pardon my language).
  • My breathing was calm, and I kept my mind as still and empty as I could.  T'ai Chi mind is a meditative mind.

I'd often see clusters of men on the sidewalk, by certain shops, and I'd walk on peacefully by.  Once or twice, however, my inner antennae sensed the possibility of danger.  So I'd cross the street, and walk along the sidewalk, opposite to where some men were.  Once past them, I'd cross the street back.  

The complement to Marshall Ho'o lesson was:  Avoid putting yourself in a position of disadvantage.  In either case, I applied his lesson.      

That's T'ai Chi self defense.

Push Hands is Two-Person T'ai Chi

Cheng Man Ching, on the left, pushing hands (Tui Shou)
I offered the following comment on a post on the Facebook Internal Martial Arts group:

At first, Push Hands felt like a curious exercise for me. I like your emphasis, Richard: That it's another way to understand and apply T'ai Chi principles, in collaboration with another practitioner. What made it curious was that it was more like dance to me, at first, and a scripted one at that. When we learned moving Push Hands, then it was really like that tango! 

But over some years, it helped us build our sensing energy and our sticking energy, and our Push Hands became less scripted and more free style. More like sparring, and more like Bruce Lee's notion of the form of no-form. 

But even as our knowledge and skills developed, the one constant was that Push Hands was not about fighting or winning. Using my sensing energy, for example, I was better able to find my partner's center and jar his root (just so). But my doing so wasn't to knock him down or win over him, but to help him sink his center more and strengthen his root.

There is great confidence gained, when we know we can topple someone but we choose not to.  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meditation Anywhere You May Be

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Sitting in Full Lotus position is not necessary for meditation. You can sit, lay down or even kneel as shown in this picture. The idea is to be comfortable, with your back straight and in a position that does not cause you pain. Focusing on your breath and having some quiet time to yourself is the main objective!
Reference:  Meditation Techniques.

This is well-said.  Personally I am not comfortable sitting on the floor, even when I was younger and was more limber.  Instead, I prefer to sit on a chair, when I meditate.

In time, after years of practice, you can meditate anywhere you may be and whatever you may be doing:  walking in the park, attending a meeting, or even driving a car.  Of course you keep your eyes open in this case (smile).  But keep your back straight, raise your head, and quietly take a deep breath or two.

That calmness of spirit and alertness of mind, borne from repeated meditation sessions, are things you can apply and carry into your day to day life.

Self Defense Applications from Jesse Tsao

T'ai Chi is a martial art, in its essence.  It may or may not be your purpose for studying or practicing it, but it's important to recognize this point and understand its applications.

Yang 108 Lessons from Jesse Tsao

Master Jesse Tsao offers good lessons on some movements of the Yang 108 Form.  I practice two distinct variations of the 108, but the principles are the same:
  • Distinguish yang (weight) and yin (weightless) legs.    
  • Move from the waist, so your arms and legs do not move independently from your core.
  • Keep back straight, and your head as though hung from a string above.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

TT Liang Introduces me to T'ai Chi

My introduction to T'ai Chi was happenstance.  Then again perhaps it was fated, instead.

I was weight training throughout high school, in order to get stronger for the sports I played - hockey, football and wrestling - and to stay fit in general.  I read about a bodybuilder who used chi strength to lift heavier weights, so I headed off to the bookstore to see what I could find out about this curious technique.  Without hesitation, the lady there walked me to an aisle and pointed me to this book:

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The book obviously had nothing to do with weight training, but I found it rather intriguing after thumbing through it.  So I bought it.  Less than two weeks later, I saw a poster for T'ai Chi Ch'uan classes, not too far from Northwestern University where I was finishing my freshman year.  That was in May 1978, and I've been studying and practicing this ancient Chinese martial art since.

I must've read this book a hundred times, and referenced it ten thousand times.  So to say that TT Liang formed the underpinning of my T'ai Chi is an understatement.  He was my influence and inspiration.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Developing Spiritual Muscle

Oprah Winfrey

Developing Spiritual Muscle is an article Oprah Winfrey wrote for Huff Post.

I'm like Oprah.  My mind was, and often is, full of thoughts and ideas or worries and annoyances.  It was fruitless to try to empty my mind, for example, for the designated 20 minutes I used to set aside for my sitting meditation. 

So over the years, I learned (a) not to force the emptying process.  I simply sat quietly and still, and like a murky pond, my mind slowly emptied and cleared.  Not perfectly.  Not totally.  But clearer.  I learned (b) to do mini-meditation sessions during the day, lasting as briefly as one or two deep breaths.  Finally, I learned (c) to appreciate the very nature of my mind. 

I love to think.  It's very relaxing and grounding, and in this sense, thinking is positively meditative for me!
My life is better when I get still regularly. Call it meditation or call it quiet time -- doesn't matter. The benefits are the same. If you stay with the practice, it's like developing spiritual muscle. I promise you will become less stressed, more focused.

Monday, August 12, 2013

T'ai Chi Prevents Falls among Elderly

Juneau small boat harbor

For centuries, practitioners have known that T'ai Chi strengthens the body, improves balance and coordination, and enhances alertness.  There is more than ample proof now that elderly people, for example, can benefit from such exercise, and agencies like the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services fund T'ai Chi programs for them.
The T'ai Chi system of exercise has been shown to prevent falls in older adults. Tai Chi began as a Chinese martial art and evolved into a series of fluid movements that relax and stimulate the body and mind. Research suggests that Tai Chi may offer many health benefits that include reduced stress, anxiety and depression; improved flexibility, strength, balance and coordination that lead to fewer falls; improved sleep; reduced bone loss; lower blood pressure; better cardiovascular fitness; relief of chronic pain and stiffness; and higher immunity to shingles. T'ai Chi can help with conditions of osteoporosis, fibromyalgia symptoms, osteoarthritis, and arthritis. Tai Chi helps improve awareness, calmness and one’s overall sense of well being.
If you live in the Juneau area, and are at least 60 years old, there is a free class offered by the Juneau Senior Center, beginning one week from today on August 19th.  Please call Carol Comolli at (907) 463-6175.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

T'ai Chi as a Way to Confidence

When you believe you can do what you want or need to do, confidence comes.  Moreover, when you know, from experience, that you can do it well, you reinforce your confidence.

We may have been schooled to dream big, aim high, and set BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals).  That's fine.  That's up to you.

But just as teams cannot win any game with one effort or one play, we cannot climb to the top of the tree with just one step.

So focus on taking a good small step at a time.  A good step is a reasonable, readily doable one, in line with what you may be aiming for.  In line with your purpose for T'ai Chi.  

The key is to take these small steps on a regular, even daily basis.  This may seem difficult, and for sure it takes time, discipline and patience.  But if you have set out to take a reasonable step, then such a step should be sustainable over time.  

Confidence is forged in these ordinary steps.  Not everything goes well all the time, of course.  We may have to settle for a lower hanging fruit, instead of a higher one.  That's fine.

A Harvard Business School professor found that staff members become confident and motivated to perform, when their manager helps them gain small successes along the way.

From Murky to Clear Waters

Whether you're sitting, standing or going about your day, keep your mind calm.

Suppose your mind were a murky pond.  Be still, keep its waters calm.  In time the natural murkiness settles down, and waters become clear.

In T'ai Chi meditation, we do not aim to keep thoughts away or even push thoughts out.  Rather, we simply are.  We simply let our minds be.  Once again, be still.

The T'ai Chi Classics say, In stillness, be like a great mountain peak.  (In movement, be like the current of a great river.)

As thoughts come in and go out, observe them dispassionately.  That is, without wish, expectation or interest.  Like murky waters in a still pond, these thoughts settle over time and your mind clears.