Most people think of Tai Chi as a wonderful relaxing exercise performed in parks throughout China, in the early morning. This is true to some extent. Tai Chi is relaxing, but it also strengthens the body, improves circulation and is an effective form of self-defense. To learn the form is to merely scratch the surface.
As an exercise it can strengthen you both mentally and physically by improving your levels of relaxation and teaching you about correct body alignment. As self-defense it works on redirection of incoming force rather than rigid blocking. This overcomes the need for brawn usually associated with martial arts. The holistic nature of this ancient martial art makes it suitable for people of all ages and levels of fitness as it adapts itself to suit your abilities. The term Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) literally means ‘supreme ultimate boxing’, and is more commonly referred to as Tai Chi.
The Origins of Tai Chi
There are many different stories concerning its origins and creation. The most popular legend, which has little factual substantiation, is that of ZHANG SAN FENG, a Daoist who, already having mastered Shaolin boxing, caught sight of a crane fighting a snake. Intrigued by the yielding, smooth evasion and darting counter-attacks of both creatures, he was inspired to develop a form of boxing, which would embody the natural philosophy of the Dao.
Legend aside, in the middle of the eighteenth century a soft boxing was being taught in the village of Chenjiakou, in Henan province. This soft boxing was finally popularised by YANG LUCHAN (1780 - 1873), who, through diligent effort, learnt the Chen family boxing, and then went to Beijing, where he taught the art, in a modified form to the Manchu court. This YANG school of boxing was destined to become the most popular form of TAIJIQUAN (TAI CHI CH’UAN), with the help of YANG CHENG FU, the most widely known descendent of Yang Luchan. It is characterised by large, smooth, flowing movements with an unbroken even tempo, avoiding strenuous over-exertion.
Tai Chi for health
As an exercise for health, Tai Chi has been proven to help with stress relief, poor circulation, joint damage and respiratory and digestive disorders.
From a Western physiological approach, it improves your balance, posture and general awareness. The abdominal/diaphragm breathing taught increases oxygenation of the blood, which in turn aids the function of the internal organs and the brain. The slow graceful movements settle both the mind and body. The Eastern approach is based on the flow of Chi through the meridian pathways of the body. Each posture is said to affect specific organs and functions.
Tai Chi as a Martial Art
Tai Chi works on relaxation rather than muscular strength and as such is not limited by age or brawn. It works on the use of intrinsic energy (chi) and proper body alignment. Although this may sound a little mystical, it is perfectly obtainable by all who are willing to persevere. On a more accessible level, Tai Chi is a close-quarter system, which incorporates the use of locks, throws and in-fighting techniques, making it a most realistic form of self-defense. It is a reactive system rather than an aggressive one; the classics say, "They move first but you arrive first".
Qigong literally translates as 'breath exercise' and is included in general classes as well as specific workshops. It focuses on controlling your movement and awareness with relaxed breathing. This improves the efficiency of your respiratory system and oxygenising of the blood.
It is said that correct breathing is the miracle, which calls back in a flash our dispersed mind and restores it to wholeness so that we can live each moment of life.
Tai Chi is not..
Tai Chi is neither an instant health cure nor a ten-week self-defense course. It is an art, and like all arts, it takes time and diligent practice to perfect. For those willing to persevere, the benefits are amazing, and are not diminished by the constraints of old age; in fact there are many practitioners around the world in their 80’s and still teaching.
Why learn Tai Chi?
When asked by a student "What is the most important reason to study Tai Chi Chuan?"
Master Cheng Man Ching replied, "The most important reason is that when you finally reach the place where you understand what life is about, you'll have the health to enjoy it."
The above is background information to help you with this training course and as a reference for future questions from students etc. I will detail a series of points below as triggers to help with your future practice/teaching but it is essential you expand on these in your own notes.
Dying from the feet up
The Chinese believe you die from the feet up and that your legs are your second heart. A physiological explanation for this would be that the constant weight changing during your Taiji practice generates a pumping action that improves circulation, lymph drainage and assists the heart. A psychological example might be that when you become immobile, you lose your zest for life.
Why do children and the elderly over-balance?
Have you ever stopped and watched either? Children have two main reasons, one which applies when very young: When born the head is larger than the body to aid delivery and the body takes a time to catch up therefore making a child initially top heavy which allows them to easily be outside their field of balance. Secondly, and this one applied to the elderly or those recovering from strokes etc. as well - THEY OFTEN DON'T LOOK OR FEEL WHERE THEY ARE GOING. After watching many elderly frail with walking-frames, literally bulldozing their way through rooms, tripping over carpets, snagging themselves on chairs, banging into other people.I feel that this a representation of their need to be independent, not ask for help, show that they can still manage alone.
This stalwart trait is very understandable, but can leave them at great risk of unsure footing loss of balance and ultimately falls.Another aspects is how we walk; we fall forward and hope our legs keep up unhindered. This is equivalent to dropping a plate full of dinner then pushing a table underneath to catch it, hoping it will get there in time.
In Tai Chi we learn to not commit body weight until we know the leg is definitely their first; this way we avoid trips and develop a strong stable base. Research in to planter pressure during Tai Chi practice highlights the effects of tai chi's approach to positioning and function. A natural bi-product of Tai Chi movement is strengthening of the vastus medialis obliquus (VMO). The VMO muscle is not effectively used during normal walking or running; in fact runners quite often suffer from knee pain due to weakness of the VMO. Research comparing normal walking with Tai Chi showed a greater degree of muscle activation.
Children breathe with the abdomen before they are taught to ‘hold in their stomach and stand tall’. We later learn that breathing with our chest alone reduces the depth of the breath thereby increasing the need for more breaths. Consider how you feel when anxious or tight chested if you have asthma and you will easily see the detrimental effect chest breathing has. By breathing with your abdomen your will draw down your diaphragm and learn to use more of your lung capacity. This improves oxygenisation to the blood, calms the mind/body and lowers the centre of gravity.
Function of Dorsiflexors and heal strike
The dorsiflexors are what allow you to work your car pedals or tap your foot to music. When they weaken it becomes hard to lift your foot without the toes dropping. This causes the foot to drag when walking and increases the risk of falls. Taiji teaches you to place your heal down first and to clearly define your steps. Poor definition is classified as poor heal strike and gives the impression the person is attempting to climb stairs as they lift their leg higher than would normally be necessary. The heal/toe exercise is designed to help but eventually the use of high ankle supportive footwear or ankle bracing may be needed. A bi-product of this is that the calf muscles shorten due to imbalance of use, which leads to the person leaning forwards and thereby increasing the risk of imbalance due to over-toppling.
One of the clear benefits of Taiji is improved space awareness. The steady, clearly defined movements, the walking exercises and concept of ‘aligning with gravity’, all add to an improved awareness of being. Exercises are designed to increase awareness of your range of balance and the need to move within that range. You learn to listen to your body and appreciate/understand what affects your balance. You learn to be aware of the ground beneath your feet…..
Learn to do less and understand body connection
A key phrase I use in my own classes is ‘learn to do less’. We think we need to do much more than we actually do to achieve the result we want. Consider your car: when driven hard it burns more fuel wares out sooner and doesn’t necessarily get you there any sooner; your body is no different. Through correct body connection your will move more efficiently, generate a greater result from less effort and have more energy to spare for when it is really needed. When you get up in the morning, your start with a certain amount of energy and as you go trough the day this is used up. Would it not be wonderful if by the end of the working day you had some energy left for yourself? Segmenting the body as we move causes a great deal of wastage and strain, so look how the body is constructed and feel the connections: hips to shoulders, knees to elbows, hands to feet. When you are weighted in your front leg is you ankle, knee and hip aligned? Is your shoulder aligned with your hip? Can you feel your weight falling through your body easily and uninterrupted? Does your whole foot feel connected to and pressing the ground?
Fallen arches, diminishing nerve response, stroke numbness etc all affect your feeling of connection, but slow steady practice will improve your awareness and understanding of your body connection.
Why stand when we can sit and rest…?
Sitting allows muscles to rest but can, in time also weaken them. Sitting exercises are OK for those who cannot stand, but are not meant to replace standing practice. Sitting does not work the specific muscles and ligaments that control your balance. Sitting can diminish your feeling of connection to the ground. These types of exercises can be taken as part of a whole program but must lead to standing and moving practice. In turn static standing exercises do not work your range of balance. Taiji’s rotational movements working on single weighted stances increase your range of balance.
The importance of correctly sitting and standing
Have you ever stood up quickly and gone light headed? A sudden drop in your blood pressure, which affects your balance centres, causes this. Now if you were already weakened from old age, poor blood pressure, stroke, illness etc, can you see how easy it would be to fall and possibly injure yourself? It is essential that correct methods of standing and sitting be taught. These should be steady and use each joint in a scissor action to ensure correct body movement is considered. By leaning too far forwards when standing or sitting, it is easy to topple forwards and over balance; by leaning too far back it is easy to fall into or over the chair and land with a thud which can jar and cause quite serious damage.
The key to everything in Tai Chi can be summed up in the Zen concept of living in the here and now, of being aware and paying attention to the moment. It is in the attention to detail, of listening to our bodies.
This helps us to help our patients and keep them on the road to recovery.