Slowness training, or more accurately, ‘not rushing’, in Tai Chi

Rushing is probably the cause of most of our problems. That time you didn’t notice the uneven paving stone and tripped? You were probably rushing. That time you shouted at the kids because they couldn’t get their shoes on fast enough while leaving the house? You were rushing. That time you accidentally emailed a picture of yourself drunk to everybody in the company? You were definitely rushing then.

In nature, wild animals can move a lot faster than we do, but do they ever look like they’re rushing? A rabbit sprinting for its life to avoid a fox still moves with poise, dignity and grace. Compare that to the embarrassment of the average human running for a bus, an act in which the stakes are considerably lower! Even a cat, an animal known for incredible bursts of speeds pauses for a second before it makes that leap onto a table, so it can be aware of the entirety of the situation.

But how can we learn to stop rushing all the time and regain this poise which animals seem to naturally have? One answer is Tai Chi.

If you’ve been doing Tai Chi for a while, a good number of years, then you’ll know the form inside out. It’s no longer a fresh, new and exciting thing. In fact, your mind is probably bored with it. Here we go again, this same old moves. Sigh. Stand for a moment before you do the form and you’ll notice feelings of impatience start to creep in. Part of you will want to start rushing, to get it over with as quickly as possible

This is where your slowness training is useful. Do the form slowly, at an even pace and just keep doing it. Resist the call the start speeding up and rushing sections. Treat all parts with equal importance. Even the linking moves between the classic postures. Notice your breathing. Keep your awareness on what you’re doing. Don’t let the mind wander off – keep it in the body and keep bringing it back. If you do notice that it’s wandered off completely then stop and start the form again, no matter how far you’ve got. Slowly, day after day you build a kind of mental strength, and if you’re lucky you’ll find it seeps over into the rest of your life, and you’ll be less prone to rushing than you were before.

Stop rushing and you no longer slip up,

Stay in the moment and strains are no longer felt,

When strains and no longer felt, stresses start to disappear,

Once stresses disappear, you can walk lightly.

Walking lightly, smiling brightly.

Photo by S Migaj on Pexels.com

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Facing adversity

Why do we exercise? It may be that we have been told we must by a doctor because we are facing some sort of health crisis, for which the most obvious solution is to take up more regular exercise. Usually these problems are related to being overweight and the multitude of health problem this can exacerbate, or indeed cause. But sometimes it can be something more subtle, like just not feeling comfortable in our body. We know when our body feels weak, soft, stiff or unused and needs exercise. The sense that we need to move, to stretch or to run is always there within us, if we choose to listen to that inner voice.

The Stoics were very big on the idea of accepting “voluntary hardships” as a kind of “shortcut to virtue”. Like the Cynics before them, or the holy men of India at the time of the Buddha, they would often become beggars, or live like poor people for extended periods of time to refocus on what was important in life, or to simply stop themselves from getting too soft. In life we generally try and avoid pain and discomfort in all areas, and this can lead us into tremendous difficulties in the long run. By seeking to avoid pain we let small problems fester until they become big problems.

Photo by Kelvin Valerio on Pexels.com

“although most people don’t like pain and discomfort, we generally accept that learning to endure it within reason can potentially toughen us up.  That’s what most physical exercise is about, to some extent.  It improves our fitness but also teaches us to endure pain and fatigue.”

Donald Robertston

Which brings me on to Tai Chi. Generally motivating yourself to get out of bed, or off the couch, to practice Tai Chi involves the same mental toughening up process that is involved in motivating yourself to do any other form of exercise. There’s no difference there, but the difference is in the type of exercise.

Tai Chi is a slow burn. It requires a different type of resilience. You need to develop the resilience to work slowly and patiently at something when your mind is telling you that you’re bored now and you should really be doing something much more exciting or intense.

To some extent you can turn your mind off during sets of star jumps, squats and push ups and just blast through them, maybe while listening to pumping music to help keep you going. In contrast, the first thing you are asked to do in Tai Chi is to stand still and connect with your breath before you even lift a finger. Then you are expected to keep your mind on the job throughout.

But if you try it, you’ll find that this “getting in touch with yourself” first before exercising can lead to a different kind of experience. It’s the gateway to marvels. Maybe you won’t burn as many calories as you do down the gym with your mind on autopilot, but your body will feel better for it, reconnecting with the living spirit of nature that flows through you, and (if Obi-Wan Kenobi is to be believed) all things.

It starts with the breath. Become aware of the breath. Don’t interfere with it, just watch it rise and fall. Once you do that you’ll find that facing minor adversity doesn’t feel like such a big problem anymore, and you can just do it.

Sinking the Qi to the Dantien

Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.

What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )

My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.

I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.

The Most Important KATA in Karate 🥋

Let the Qi sink to the Dantien

split level photography of man underwater

That sinking feeling. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

I’ve been doing some work with the Tai Chi Classics lately, which has thrown up an interesting point. There’s only one time the Tai Chi Classics mention the “dantien” by name, which is the admonition to  “Let the qi sink to the dantien”.

Instead, it uses the term “waist”, a lot.

I’ve been wondering why this is.

It’s not like the Tai Chi Classics don’t utilise archaic Chinese language – they do. They mention Chi, Jin, Xin, Shen and Yi all the time. But only that one line about the Dantien.

One of the most quotable lines in the classics is:

“The jin should be
rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
expressed through the fingers.”

Again, it says waist here, not dantien.

I wonder if it’s because “waist” gets across the idea that it’s the whole area of the abdomen that you need to utilise, including the front, sides and back.

The idea of sinking the qi to the dantien is another of those lines from the classics that is often stated and little understood. You’ll find a hundred different interpretations from a hundred different practitioners. So, I might as well add my own.

To me it’s not a particularly esoteric subject. It’s a practical consideration.

It simply means relaxing the upper body enough that your weight seems to settle in your lower body. Your breathing also lowers, as it relaxes, and becomes diaphragmatic breathing, so the abdomen expands and contracts as you breathe. There should be almost no expansion of the chest when you breathe like this.

With your breathing and weight settled around the dantien area you can sense a kind of fullness, or heaviness. Thus your “qi” is sunk to the your “dantien”. It should also help you feel calm. If you notice when you get stressed or anxious, your breathing quickens and raises up in the body. Sinking your qi to the dantien is the opposite of this.

In terms of martial technique, it helps you stay rooted. You’re using your mind to overcome a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Of course, as soon as you engage with an opponent, the temptation is to react too physically with your arms and shoulders – this would be ‘letting the qi rise’ and the wrong thing to do from a Tai Chi perspective. Instead, you should maintain the sinking feeling in the lower body and try and stay calm and move from the dantien.

Sinking the qi to the dantien will always improve your technique, regardless of what it is, when dealing with an opponent.

two men practicing aikido

Sink your qi to enhance your technique. Photo by Anton Belitskiy on Pexels.com

 

 

 

Tai Chi: What moving from the dantien actually means

white ferris wheel under cloudy sky

“Stand like a perfectly balanced scale 
move like a turning wheel.” Photo by Paweu0142 L. on Pexels.com

Uber-malcontent Oliver Gerets, is back in my comments section, this time complaining that my statements are still oversimplified and misleading.” Which I think probably just means that he hasn’t bothered to read much of my blog before, as everything I said in the post he’s referring to on whole-body movement is pretty well explained in previous posts, if you want to look for it.

His issue is that I said the following were the 3 movement principles of Tai Chi, without further explanation:

1) moving from the dantien

2) power up from the ground (jin) – rooted in the feet, expressed by the fingers.

3) coiling and spiraling actions from the dantien out to the extremities and back.

He’s right – I did exactly that and moved on because I didn’t want to get sidetracked on them and get onto the main point I was discussing.  You see, I’ve gone over those points before, but we might as well use this as a springboard to discuss these ideas again and un-simplify everything. Just like Al Pacino in the Godfather – just when I thought I’d got out, but he pulled me right back in.

Let’s deal with Oliver’s first complaint.

1. There is no generally accepted definition what the dantien is amongst Taijiquan practitioners. Not even in Chen style. “Moving from the dantien” is a hollow phrase with very little practical meaning.”

I don’t know what he means with the “not even in Chen style” comment, so let’s ignore that.

I’d agree that there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst Taijiquan practitioners of what the dantien is, but there are no accepted definitions of anything amongst the practitioners. They’re a strange bunch of people ranging from weekend dabblers to full-on fanatics who have very differing views on everything under the sun, but the people at the top of the family trees tend to disagree much less. They all know what they mean.

I also think most Tai Chi people do know what the dantien is. For clarity, let me add my own definition:

The dantien I’m referring to is simply the lower abdomen area of the body. It encompasses the front, sides and back of the body. It’s a general area, rather than a specific point. When I’m talking about “moving from the dantien” I’m talking about movement originating in this area of the body. You could call this area the waist, if you like, so long as you understand that it’s not a line, like a waistline is. 

out of order text on persons belly

I’ve got no idea why she’s written “out of order”, but there’s a photo of the dantien area for you. Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

I’m not sure what more explanation I can give of that – it’s fairly simple.

The how of the matter is not so simple. Anybody can move that area of their body without any connection to the rest of their body – the limbs and head, for example. Dancers do it all the time. What’s hard is making it connect to everything else.

In Tai Chi you need a tangible connection between the dantien area and the extremities so that once you move the dantien area, the extremities are also moved as a consequence. This connection is formed by what the Chinese called the muscle/tendon channels in antiquity. These then formed the basis of the meridian system over time.

Mammals usually have muscle/tendon channels on the front and back of the body.  Yin channels on the front and yang channels on the back. They consist of muscle, tendon, ligaments, fascia and skin and can be affected by abdominal breathing (which is also centered on the dantien area).

If you can hold the body in a neutral position (the classic Zhan Zhuang posture “hold the ball” is good for this) then you can keep an equal tension on the front and back muscle-tendon channels. You can then use your breath to create a small pull on these channels when you breathe in and out. The connection starts off as very weak, but grows stronger over time.

So, Zhan Zhuang, Tao Yin and Qigong exercises strengthen this connection over time. Eventually, the connections get strong enough that you can affect the movement of the limbs with small changes in the dantien area, like rotating it left and right, or up and down, all in coordination with the breathing.

tiger stretching over brown trunk during daytime

A Tiger showing a stretch along the yin channels on the belly and a corresponding contraction on the yang channels along the back. Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

In Taijiquan, (which deals with humans standing upright, not tigers), the dantien, legs and feet must form a connection and drive the power of the rest of the body:

From the Tai Chi classics:

“The feet, legs, and waist should act together
as an integrated whole,
so that while advancing or withdrawing
one can grasp the opportunity of favorable timing
and advantageous position.”

“The principle of adjusting the legs and waist
applies for moving in all directions;
upward or downward,
advancing or withdrawing,
left or right.”

Movement originating in the dantien, therefore, becomes a real, physical phenomina, rather than an abstract idea.

This is what I mean, Oliver.

The best exercise I’ve seen to help you develop this skill is a single-arm wave from Chen style silk reeling. In my original post I linked to a video showing the basic single arm wave. I’ll link to it again here.

In future posts I’ll address Oliver’s next 2 complaints.

 

 

Stand still, breathe better

underwater photography of woman

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.

I just read a great article that talks about the correct mechanics of breathing, which I’ll quote:

Here’s how breathing is supposed to work, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
  • Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
  • Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
  • The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.

 

Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.

So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.

One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.

One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.

Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.

Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Tao Te Ching – chapter 15

 

Tucking the tailbone in Tai Chi Chuan

women s white top and orange floral skirt

Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

There’s a lot of debate about “tucking the tailbone” in Tai Chi. Some people are big exponents of ‘tucking’ or centring the pelvis, which removes the curve of the lumbar spine. Other people prefer a more ‘natural’ lower back which has more of an inward arc.

For me, it’s not that either of these positions are wrong in Tai Chi, it’s that the idea of holding your spine in a fixed position that is wrong.

If I see anybody practising Tai Chi with a fixed, ‘held’, lower back shape I think it’s just time to sigh and move on.

The lower back is part of the dantien area. This area must be relaxed and free to move.

By far the most common way people hold the spine in this position with tension is with an inward curve. If you see a curved-in back then this area is not relaxed. It might be more aesthetically pleasing but there is no way to connect the power of the ground and legs through the dantien area like this – it’s essentially cut off from that power.

Sure, you can generate power in other ways, but unless you relax the lower back power can’t be transferred from the ground.

Xing Yi is the oldest of the ‘internal’ martial arts. If you look at videos of a precursor art to Xing Yi, called Dai family Xin Yi Lie He, you can see their art has an exercise called squatting monkey as its foundation practice. Look at how it bows and unbows the spine. There’s a lot of flexibility being trained here.

These exercises are like basic, large frame, training exercises for conditioning the muscles and tendons of that area, and the movement can become a lot smaller in usage.

If you’re a Tai Chi practitioner you don’t need to start doing Squatting Monkey practice. I’m not saying that, but you do need to start paying attention to your lower back as you do whatever exercises you are doing – form, Pa Tuan Chin, Silk Reeling, Chi Kung, etc…

Ask yourself what your lower back is doing. Am I holding tension in it? (Here’s a big clue – you are!) and how should I release it? How about when walking around town, or pushing a trolley in Sainsbury’s? You’ll be surprised by how often we hold tension in this area.

Next think about the role of breathing and how it relates to the lower back. If we are doing deep diaphragmatic breathing (which makes the abdomen swell) then it should also be expanding at the back of the abdomen too.  Ask yourself, do you have any flexibility here when you breathe in?

If not, then you know what to do.

 

Zhan Zhuang tips – standing like a tree

two brown trees

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

In the internal arts, Zhan Zhuang is one of the practices that gives you the most immediate benefits. It’s a practice that (initially) involves nothing more than standing and relaxing, yet this simple practice can produce a feeling of deep calm in the body and mind, and even give you the feeling of having more energy throughout the day.

How is this achieved? I’d warrant that it’s something to do with the effect of the calming action on your nervous system, plus standing for prolonged periods with your arms held away from the body is actually pretty physically challenging, so there are a lot of the benefits you experience from cardio-vascular exercise, but without you getting out of breath.

At more advanced levels of pratice, Zhan Zhuang a great way to practice Jin in different directions.

I came across a very good article recently written by Tony Dove full of good tips for starting a standing practice. Here it is.

Some good quotes:

“Use the breath as your focal point. Whenever your mind begins to wander, gently ask yourself, “Am I breathing? How am I breathing?” Bring your attention back to your breathing. Physiological awareness brings self-awareness. The mind becomes silently attentive to the subtleties of what is happening in the here and now, rather than thinking about the past, the future, or abstractions disconnected with the present.”

and

“Discomfort reveals places of dysfunction and should be welcomed as an opportunity for improvement.”

and

“Build gradually to a minimum of twenty minutes daily Standing, and a maximum of forty minutes. This is a small investment of time considering that you will probably have more energy during the day and need less sleep at night.”

Master Lam Kam Chuen’s TV series of how to begin your own standing practice is on YouTube, and a great way to get started:

Week 4 – breathing. Half way through my 8-week Tai Chi course.

Here’s part 4 of the course. This week we focus on breathing. I cover the topics of normal and reverse breathing, then show a couple of different exercises that will get you on the right track for applying the breathing methods to the movement we are working on. Finally, we integrate the breathing into the movement, preserving all the progress we have made so far. Once you get the hang of it those breathing exercises I show are not required anymore, as you should be integrating it into your main exercise.

This week is more subtle than work showed previously. An inner focus will be required. Good luck! I’m happy to answer any questions you have.