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WILL TAI-CHI SURVIVE?

Bob Klein

Tai-chi teachers who actually expect their students to learn Tai-chi fear that they will lose students. Tai-chi is a very exacting practice and requires awareness of each muscle and joint of the body, restoring full function. While many people would love to learn Tai-chi, few are ready to do the work.

So the teacher must decide how much he or she asks of the students. The less he asks, the more students he has. The more he asks, the higher quality of students he has. Sometimes the decision rests on how many bills he has to pay each month, unless he has a “real job”.

To the degree that the decision is based just on paying the bills, the students get a “make-believe” version of Tai-chi and that version is passed down, as that teacher’s students themselves become teachers, believing that they are really practicing Tai-chi. That teacher may defend himself by saying, “If I didn’t dilute Tai-chi, these students wouldn’t come to class. At least they are moving. That has to help them a little”.

These are the issues in the back of each teacher’s mind. I bring this issue up now because I have been hearing the same issue raised in the field of Pilates exercise. Some Pilates teachers say that they don’t mind if a teacher changes the training as long as they don’t call it Pilates.

My choice is to require that my students learn Tai-chi. They sometimes complain that I keep teaching new principles and they can’t keep up with the pace of learning. Yet I am teaching the same thing all the time even though I may explain it differently. They may ask, “Why didn’t you ever say that before” even though I say it all the time. When you are presenting the deeper aspects of Tai-chi training, the body of the student has to learn. The brain may feel that it is not “getting it”, but the brain doesn’t have to get it. The body learns and the student has to become comfortable with and learn to perceive that level of learning. Yet the brain always feels that if it hasn’t learned something then it hasn’t been learned.

When you really teach Tai-chi you bring the student through a transformation in the learning process. The student learns about his body and attention (how they work), then learns from the body and attention and then body, attention and the world around him all become connected.

Make-believe Tai-chi, of course, is just memorizing as many forms as you can and learning to say spiritual clichés. This may seem like a cynical attitude but the schools that emphasize this approach really irk sincere teachers. While the students of these schools certainly enjoy their classes, the downside is that the reputation of Tai-chi as transforming peoples’ lives just comes down to parroting phrases and movements.

Is there a danger that Tai-chi will become a cartoon of itself? If this is happening to other disciplines as well, are we all simply slipping into cartoon lives?

I have heard the argument that during most times in history, a few people really practiced each art and the rest practiced a shallower version and yet these arts survive. These times are no different from any other. I hope that is true. What do you think?

TAI CHI TRAINING TIPS

Bob Klein

These training tips for Tai-chi practice are the result of over 45 years of training and teaching. My students at the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan in Sound Beach, N. Y. have told me these are the tips that are the most useful.

1. The first thing you are taught is to relax. Relaxation though, is not as easy as it sounds. After many years of being tense most people have not only forgotten how to relax, they have forgotten that they are tense. The key is to understand that to relax any part of the body, there needs to be “space” under that part of the body to sink into. If your chest and ribs are tense and you try to relax your shoulders, the shoulders have no place to sink into. First relax the muscles of the feet so they sink into the earth like wet clay. Then relax the knees, hips, ribs, etc. Allow each part of the body to sink like sand sinks into a hole you dig in the beach. The sand sinks into the hole from the bottom up.

2. When you shift weight from one foot into another, don’t push yourself into the front with your back foot. Allow the weight to sink into the front foot as though sand was sinking into the front foot from the back foot. This releases the back leg, making it “empty”.

3. When you step, don’t use the muscles of the stepping leg. Use your sinking and turning to move out the stepping leg. You can slightly straighten out the stepping foot to make the heel land first. Keeping the stepping leg off the ground is done by relaxing the rear of the pelvis so that it tilts slightly forward, slightly raising the stepping leg.

4. Keep the eyes gazing forward or at a slightly raised angle. Never look down. Imagine you are a waterfall and the water comes towards you, flowing down your eyes into your belly and then your root. You are receiving energy and NOT grabbing with the eyes.

5. Each movement starts from your center and NOT from the top of the body, head, arms or legs. Make sure that at the beginning of each movement, the middle moves first as if someone were pulling your belt. Then each joint of the body follows in sequence.

6. “Whole body movement” does not mean you keep all your joints locked. Even if you move your whole, stiff body smoothly, this is still not Tai-chi. Each joint should move, in sequence, from the bottom up and each should relax in sequence from the bottom up. Watch the way animals move. We have joints for a reason.

7. When you breathe in, your diaphragm pulls downward. So the initiation of an in-breath feels like breathing down into the ground. The bottom of the belly (below the navel) expands downwards. When the maximum downward breathing pressure is reached, then the breath expands forward and the upper belly expands (above the navel). Finally the breath then fills the upper lungs. So breathing in also begins at the bottom (at the root). When you breathe out, you relax the bottom of the lungs first, then middle and upper lungs.

8. The arms, legs and head move as a result of the breathing and the sequential expansion and relaxation of the joints. They don’t move by their own muscular power. But of course, you have to hold the arms and legs in particular positions according to your postures. You use the minimum energy possible to hold the arms in their positions, just enough so that if you used just a little less, the arms would fall down.

9. If your front expands, the back relaxes. If the right expands, the left relaxes. If the bottom energizes downwards, the top floats upwards. Each part of the body counter-balances its other side. This gives rise to the expression “power is a directed relaxation”. This means that relaxing releases power, but that power does not just dissipate. The breath directs the power. If you breathe downward and forward, for example, the power roots and from that root, moves forward. If you breathe into the right side of your lungs, the energy moves right. But if you first breath into the upper part of the lungs, the energy pulls you up out of your root.

10. Imagine you are sitting on a diner stool with wheels. You can move forward and back, left and right, but you are still sitting on the stool. To stand up you press your foot down, energizing your Achilles tendon and quadriceps, relax your back and breathe in. Try sitting down and standing up in a chair and keep your chest and back straight. Don’t bend forward. This requires that you stand up from the bottom up and you don’t pull yourself up from the top.

I will provide more if these tips in the future if you are interested. Hundreds of such ideas are in the dvd series “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” available at:

http://store.movementsofmagic.com/belevi.html

IS TAI-CHI DYING?

Is Tai-chi dying? Are there still teachers teaching the intricate mechanics, the physics, the dynamics of mind and energy that underlies the beautiful movements? Or are we playing “Simple Simon”? Simple Simon says, “do this”; simple Simon says “do that”.

Are we, as teachers, worried that if we actually ask students to learn the principles that they will leave our classes and switch to a simpler form of exercise? Has Tai-chi become a collection of “techniques” or is it still a transformative experience?

These are the questions I ask as I look around at the practice of Tai-chi as it is today. I see push hands players standing in tense, misaligned positions and knocking their arms around. I see people doing forms with all their energy bound up in their heads and upper backs, with locked hips.

I hesitate to bring this up because each Tai-chi teacher feels he or she is doing Tai-chi the “right way”. It is just those other people over there who are doing it wrong. We should be open minded and allow for variations of practice, I am told.

In this post, I am asking other Tai-chi teachers this question, to answer just within yourself. Do you feel that you are aware of, feel and practice the internal practice? Is your mind connected to each muscle and joint? Is your mind evenly distributed throughout your body or can you pay attention to the body only from the head? Is each part of the body independently conscious and is it in a creative relationship with each other part of the body or is this question meaningless to you?

Tai-chi is a practice designed to lead you to an experience of, and healing of your internal state which then affects your relationship to the rest of the world. Has it been that for you and have you found ways of transmitting that experience to your students so they actually feel it?

What do you feel is the state of Tai-chi practice today?

WHY I TEACH TAI-CHI


Imagine if liquid cement dripped onto your body every day and then dried. Every day the cement gets thicker until you can barely move. Tai-chi is the solvent that dissolves your casing of cement, allowing you to move. It dissolves the rigidity of every muscle and joint in the body until you regain your natural flow of movement and the joy of movement of a child.

This is why I teach Tai-chi. I spent twenty years as a zoologist, working with hundreds of species of animals, one-on-one. In order to work with them I had to move like them and even think like them. I couldn’t afford to become rigid. From the perspective of the degree of fluidity of animals, modern humans seem made of stone.

I believe that much of our modern health problems come from this rigidity. But another result of this problem is that we feel trapped in our bodies and disconnected from the rest of the world. The result, in some people, is anger and even violence.

I created a system of fluid movement that can be used along with Tai-chi training or by itself that dissolves the rigidity of the body. You no longer feel trapped and actually feel very comfortable within your own “skin”. You feel connected to the natural world.

These movements are called, “zookinesis” meaning “animal exercises”. It is a combination of chi-gung and movements derived from over 30 years of working with animals.

It is fulfilling to see students of zookinesis and Tai-chi discovering how they can simply let go of that rigidity and become fluid and once again feel the joy within their own bodies. Modern adults have lost that joy to a large extent.

Every piece of cement that falls from one of my students is exciting. It means another step on the path to freedom. It means more joy and less anger. It means greater health and less stress.

One day I hope rigidity will be only a distant memory in our culture. I teach Tai-chi and zookinesis to help achieve that future.

Bob Klein
www.movementsofmagic.com

HOW TAI-CHI CAN SAVE THE WORLD

Demonstration of Chen Style Tai-chi

How can the ancient Chinese exercise of Tai-chi save the world? It transforms individuals, improving their health, eliminating stress, helps them let go of self destructive behaviors and feel more connected to their community. By transforming individual people in this way, the world can be transformed.

HEALTH

Tai-chi strengthens each cell of the body. The movements promote the movement of intercellular fluid, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the cells and removes their waste. Without the type of intricate movement you get with Tai-chi, the cells receive little nutrients and oxygen, food is stored as fat and cellular waste is not removed. The cells metabolize poorly and degenerate quickly, which leads to early aging. Tai-chi prevents these problems.

Tai-chi keeps the connective tissue flexible. This tissue surrounds all the organs, muscles body cavities and bones and forms ligaments and tendons. It tends to shrink and lose elasticity with age, which condenses the body. It is as if each part of the body is slowly being crushed. Tai-chi movements keep you young by keeping you flexible and maintaining full range of motion of the joints. You are also able to breathe more easily.

The National Institutes of Health lists many research papers showing that Tai-chi helps with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and other conditions as well as improving balance. If we can be healthier as a society, then we will need less medical intervention and the cost of health care will be less. Our productivity will increase because we will be more energized and spend less time being sick.

COMMUNITY

Our lives are becoming more disconnected. We interact through our cell phones and computers and less through face-to-face interaction. We don’t see our food being grown but purchase prepared, chemically enhanced, nutrient poor food, and just warm it up. We need body skills less and less, except for our thumbs for texting and so we live in our minds, considering our bodies to be “down there”. Our floors and streets are perfectly flat so we don’t even need to be mindful of how our feet interact with the ground.

Tai-chi works by first connecting our minds and bodies. We become aware of how every muscle and joint works in an intricate and beautiful harmony. Our awareness is in every part of our bodies, not just in our heads. When we step, or breathe or smile, it is with full awareness and full participation of every part of us, connected and alive. When we speak with another person, we learn how to really listen, rather than just argue. The Push Hands exercise teaches us to be completely aware of what is going on inside of another person so that we understand their behavior. This allows us to be comfortable with them and appreciate their individual spirit. Can you imagine if everyone felt like this?

We learn to move slowly and smoothly so that our attention flows like water. Rather than our minds ordering our bodies what to do, both mind and body flow together and work together. The mind doesn’t sit on its throne in the head. Each part of the body becomes conscious and consciously participates in the movements. This eliminates the master/slave relationship of the mind and body. It is said that the relationship between the mind and body is the basis of our relationships with other people. Isn’t it the mind, sitting on its throne, which argues that my way is right and yours is wrong?

Yet that very mind has been filled with attitudes and behaviors from outside influences, with their own agendas. What we take to be our identity is to a large extent, pushed into us. It is as if we were forced to wear a suicide vest as we go through life. When we practice Push Hands we have to let go of these attitudes and programmed behaviors, because that is what our Push Hands partner uses to push us off balance. Instead, we have to resort to our creativity and sharpness of attention. We learn that many of our patterns of tension just set us up to get pushed and so we learn to let them go. Letting go is a large part of the training. We even let go of fear itself by examining what fear feels like and understanding that it is just a pattern of tension.

What would the world be like if everyone could let go of self destructive behaviors? What if our identity was no longer based on our intellectual differences and fears but on realizing that the consciousness that flows inside of me is the same energy as that which flows inside of you? We may each be creative with that energy in a different way, but we are all “swimming in the same water” of consciousness. We learn this in Tai-chi.

ENDING CONFLICT

We even learn this lesson in Tai-chi-Chuan (the fighting training of this art). At the beginning we may see sparring as two opponents each trying to win. But the result of proper training in this martial art is to flow with the “opponent” so that there is only one flow. While there is action, your goal is to take control of the interaction so there is no opposition. You are always in a position of power but with no anger. This allows you to feel confident, yet not aggressive, not only in sparring, but in any interaction in everyday life. You are no longer battling your way through life as if you were always on the outside of it. Creativity takes the place of battling.

We say that we cannot take control of the sparring partner’s body – only his mind. If your mind is free and creative, as it is through Tai-chi training, it can never be trapped. As an example, if someone is grabbed, they usually tense up. This just makes it easier for the grabber to control his victim. But if you are loose you can easily slip out of the grab. And so sparring teaches you how to avoid getting trapped in life.

While most people do not learn the martial aspect of Tai-chi training, each part of the training teaches all the principles. You can learn slow forms (movements), aerobic forms, chi-gung (simple exercises), Push Hands – just learning as much as you like. You can also learn healing (Tai-chi Body-work). There is something for everyone in this system of exercise and healing.

HEALING

There are several types of healing that are connected with Tai-chi practice such as acupuncture, acupressure, Tai-chi Bodywork, herbal medicine and more. This type of healing is based on the idea that the body is an ecological community of many types of cells and organs that work best when kept in balance. There is a biological energy that flows through the body called “chi”. When chi flows evenly through every cell and organ of the body, the body is in the best health.

The healing principle “The inside and outside reflect each other” means that we are part of the ecology of the planet. When we heal ourselves we are healing part of the planet. Since each part of the planet is connected to each other part, healing our self really helps to heal the whole living planet.

Tai-chi helps to heal the “chi” that flows through all of us and through all living things, heals the relationships among people and heals us as individuals. What would happen if everyone did Tai-chi?

JOY

When we were little we found joy in movement, singing and in other simple things. We don’t do much of that anymore. Tai-chi reminds us how simple movements can bring the feeling of joy back into our lives. Some types of chi-gung are based on the movements of animals and are great fun (“Zookinesis” is one such series of animal exercises).

By eliminating habits of tension and worry and making each part of the body more aware and sensitive, Tai chi allows us to experience more joy. We can feel the beautiful things around us – art, nature and the human spirit – more intensely. The movements of Tai-chi are an art that weaves the beauty of our biological nature and human spirit into a life of joy that can be shared.

We learn to become connected to the earth, to other people, to our own spirit and body and to a great history of teachers who passed this training down through thousands of years. While originating in China, Tai-chi is not just about one kind of people or one religion or one political party. It is about how we are all part of the same consciousness and the same system of nature. It is about becoming healthy and comfortable with the great variety of life. It is about letting go of the fear that holds us back from joy.

What would it be like if everyone did Tai-chi?

THE TAI-CHI MIND

Tai-chi has a powerful effect on the way our minds work. We are used to using our minds linearly, as you would when reading words in a book, one word after the other. We are trained to use our minds in this way and cannot stop even in our everyday lives.

So when we practice Tai-chi it is very difficult to allow all our joints and muscles to move at the same time. We can only concentrate on one thing, then the next, etc. You may see Tai-chi forms in which the body is held stiffly but the arms and legs move gracefully. This shows the limitation of how many things the student can pay attention to at once.

The goal of Tai-chi practice of course, is to have no such limitations but to allow each part of the body to pay attention to itself, in coordination with all the other joints and muscles. This requires our thinking mind, delegating authority to the body. Yet the thinking mind thinks it is the only thing that can perceive and react to things. It can barely conceive that the body is intelligent.

The Gnostics tell a story of Sofia (representing the seeking for wisdom) trying to find God. During her journey she gave birth to the demiurge (lesser God) and then continued on her journey. The demiurge looked around and realized he was the only one there and thought he was God.

This is a way of saying that the thinking mind is not the King – that each part of the body is a center of intelligence. Tai-chi allows us to achieve this decentralized attention so that we can be better coordinated, healthier and have better relationships with other people.

If our attention is isolated in our heads, as if in a box, then all perception is related to the head. We feel isolated in that box and perceive other people as being boxes. Each of us wants to be a bigger box, or a more powerful, or smarter or braver box. Our identity is related to our isolation.

With decentralized attention, our identity is related to our connections – to other people, to nature, of the mind and the body, etc. We don’t feel opposed to others but connected to them, part of them.

Imagine if everyone in the world had a mind like this. Their very identity would depend on their connection to everyone else and every other living thing. How would the world be different? When a Tai-chi teacher teaches, he or she not only tries to improve his students’ health, but is laying the groundwork for a more peaceful world.

The body requires an even distribution of attention in order to maintain its health. When attention is locked up in the head, the body is starved of the energy of attention. Notice how you feel after finishing a Tai-chi class. Your body feels empowered and connected, relieved of stress. You feel more open to other people and to nature.

You are helping to heal the world every time you take a Tai-chi class or spend time practicing. Remember the principle: “The inside and the outside reflect each other.”

TAI-CHI LESSONS FROM OUR MONTHLY WORKSHOP

The smallest changes in how we use our bodies can lead to much greater health, physical skill and longevity. In our last monthly Tai-chi workshop we learned important lessons that will help in our Tai-chi practice and any other sport.

Rotation of the joints: We often mistake moving a joint around in space for moving the joint itself. For example if we wanted to push we might thrust our hip forward rather than rotating it in place. The sequential movement of the joints within the body, along with the even expansion of the breath, leads to greater force than just throwing your joint at the object you want to push.

But it is hard to feel the difference between these two actions, let alone to sequentially move the joints in the proper order to perform the task. This issue is at the heart of learning any sport or activity. The human body is designed to be very powerful in the intricacy of its movement. We tend to substitute brute physical force for the lack of fine motor coordination.

Your attention needs to be within the joint itself to move it properly. To often we think of a joint as “over there” because our attention is in our head. Human beings are capable of moving the center of our attention within a part of the body to make it function properly. This is an essential part of Tai-chi training.

Movement of the low back: I call the low back the “control panel” because its flexibility is essential in initiating any movement. Even the sacrum, whose bones are fused, should be flexible and the coccyx bone (last bone of the spine) should be very active in your movements. But most people have frozen hips and low backs. All their attention to movement is in the upper body.

In Tai-chi movement begins at the center of the body and then emanates out into the rest of the torso, legs, arms and head. It is like dropping a pebble into a calm lake. Waves then ripple out in all directions. This keeps the movements centered and the body stable. We pay attention to the central area of the body first, especially the low back and create the movement there so that this part of the body moves first.

Our chi-gung system, “zookinesis”, is very effective for developing awareness of and flexibility of the center of the body. There are many exercises that create specific patterns of movement or vibration at the center, which you then allow to flow out through the rest of the body.

Relax the abdomens: The degree of relaxation and tension of the abdomens is vital for proper movement. As an example, when you begin to step, the abdomens (on the side of the stepping leg) relax at an even pace. This relaxation helps to extend the leg. You do not extend the leg by using the muscles of that leg. Stepping is a result of the rotation and relaxation of the opposite hip and the relaxation of the abdomens on the same side as the leg.

Pelvis as shovel: When you shift from back to front the pelvis acts as a shovel. It first circles back as you shift back, then digs in towards the ground as you begin to shift forward (breathing out). Then it lifts as you finish the shift (breathing in) as if you were throwing the dirt from the shovel on a pile in front of you. This rotation of the pelvis during shifting energizes the center of the body and provides grounding in push hands.
It also allows the energy from the torso and legs to interact so your efforts are more efficient. Even walking becomes easier.

We learned much more but you will need to come to the workshops to get the full depth of training.

YANG STYLE WORKSHOP – FEBRUARY 2014

We explored how the plane of motion changes in the form and how to make smooth transitions into the new plane of motion within each joint. We also practiced how the hips rock in a figure “8” motion with weight shifts in the legs, as if the hips were a piece of wood floating in the ocean. This requires mobility in the low spine, especially in the sacrum.

Then we practiced how the motions in the hips result in waves of motion up the spine, stretching and turning it. The spine then moves in a spiraling motion, both in its stretching and relaxing, where the wave of motion returns to the hips and root.

Next we explored how to keep the attention balanced through the movements by concentrating attention in the opposite direction of movement. This makes sure that we don’t bunch up (condense) our attention in only one direction and we maintain a spherical balance of attention. This balance is also maintained between the area above the ground and in an equal area in the root.

March’s workshop will be on the 30th (Sunday) 10:15am to 12:15pm. We will begin Saturday classes in Yang form in April (10:15am to 11:15am).

CAN YOU DETERMINE YOUR FUTURE?

Imagining a bright future

Our future is becoming clearer – faster pace of life, increasing distance between people, less healthy food choices and increased stress. It’s now more important than ever to understand how choosing the future of your personal life can be different than going along with the future destined for you by our society.

Recently an Australian farmer’s crops were infected by pollen from a nearby genetically modified organism (gmo) farm. This farmer’s organic status was revoked and he went bankrupt. He is now trying to sue the gmo farm.

I watched an episode of “Dangerous Grounds” yesterday. In this reality show a coffee grower visits dangerous areas to buy gourmet types of coffee beans. In one area of Brazil the farmers have to keep 24-hour guard around their villages to protect themselves against agribusiness. The farmers claim that thugs from agribusiness keep trying to sneak into their villages to shoot them to take away their land.

In many ways our food, and the earth in general, is a battleground of people who wish to live simple, healthy lives and those who want to rape the earth. We can certainly help to protect the earth by joining ecological groups but we also must protect the earth in another way.

Our bodies are part of the earth and part of the web of life. We can protect our bodies and our minds from a sort of rape by the violent patterns within our culture. We can make sure that destructive patterns, which may have invaded us (like the gmo pollen), are rooted out and discarded. The fears that make us distance ourselves from other people and groups can be recognized and the power of those fears over our behavior, dissolved.

This is what Tai-chi and Zookinesis practice do. They give us the tools to bring our original organic consciousness back. The teacher explains what has happened to us internally and guides you back to being human. The Tai-chi Bodywork quickly melts away years of tension, fear, trauma and self-destructive patterns to free you to live a better and more enjoyable life.

Learning and practicing these exercises is just as important to protecting the earth as working politically. They teach you to control your own personal future so you can better contribute to a better future for everyone.

LESSONS FROM OUR JANUARY YANG FORM WORKSHOP

1. The tan-tien should feel as if it is a marble moving within the pelvic bowl. The Tan-tien is a spot about one and a half inches below the navel in the center of the body. Once it pops up above the pelvic bowl, you are disconnected from your root. If it moves beyond the pelvic bowl you are off balance.

2. As you move, each part of the body rotates, sending a wave upward and outward. The next movement begins from the ground, not from the spot the wave moved into. In this way each change of movement creates a new wave. When the wave reaches its furthermost point, let it go. Don’t let the wave pull your body out of its root.

3. The center of the body (hips, abdominal area and low back) is like a ball that can rotate in many planes of movement. In the form, these planes are changing from one movement to the next. The form takes place in this central “ball” with the movements of the arms, legs and head a result of the ball’s movement. Each action of the ball is like a pebble, dropping into a still lake that sends out ripples into the surrounding water.

4. Some Tai-chi teachers tell you to let your eyes follow your hands. This is just an exercise to allow your head to move along with the momentum of the body. You don’t really watch your hands in your form. If your neck is stiff and your head doesn’t flow, then your form will be stiff.

5. One problem students may have is that they may only use the horizontal plane of movement or only the vertical. Each movement of each joint should have a balance of vertical and horizontal movement.

6. Turn by using the hip. Don’t turn from the shoulders. The hip goes first and the rest of the joints follow in turn. Turning from the shoulders means that your attention is in your head. It should be evenly distributed throughout your body. The steps are naturally carried by the movement of the hips. You do not use the muscles of the leg to step.