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TAI-CHI HEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS

The modern idea of healing is to cure a disease or injury when it occurs. Tai-chi represents an older, more traditional approach to healing and that is to keep the body healthy so that it can resist disease and injury.

The idea that your body must deteriorate as you age is a modern idea. Those who practice Tai-chi know that you continue to strengthen as you have more years to practice Tai-chi. It is common to see people practicing extreme Tai-chi forms well into their ‘90s.

Tai-chi Tiger Form

If you read this blog you know that Tai-chi training consists of a variety of exercises (forms, chi-gung and push hands) and healing practices (massage, herbal medicine and acupuncture). There are simple principles to all of these practices and they are expressed in the teaching of “the elements”. This set of principles is common throughout the world. A version of “the elements” can be found in Native American, ancient European and other cultures.

There is great variety in how the elements are explained but in the following description I hope to specifically convey the principles of healing.

Earth
Earth is the physical world. It represents how we need to make sense of the world around us by trying to create a coherent story of who we are and what is going on around us. Our society provides this story to us. Within that story we can find ideas that limit us and ideas that free us. The social movements throughout human history are an effort to change the story of the society about who we are and where we came from. They attempt to fashion a story that frees our creativity and allows us to fulfill our potential as human beings.

Earth also represents simplicity. We are encumbered by fears, patterns of habits and tensions, regrets as well as by “stuff” (junk that we buy and don’t need). By simplifying our lives we can remove the ball and chains we are dragging behind us. We can also learn to let go of negative people who are pulling us down and have no intention of really helping themselves to heal.

Earth is also the food that we put inside of our bodies. That food is sacred. When we shovel pre-made, chemically infused who-knows-what into our bodies, we not only injure our health but break the bond between us and the earth. Simply growing some food that you eat repairs that bond. Eating organically, healthy food helps to repair your body.

Earth is the center as our bodies are the center of our consciousness.

We could go on much further about earth, but let us continue to metal.

Metal
Metal is transformation. It is creativity, the ability to allow yourself to change and to see things differently. We take base ore and melt it in heat to extract the metal. In the same way, you (base ore) go through the fire of life and of your training to become the shining pure gold that you are capable of becoming.

And then this metal is turned into useful implements, swords for example. Do you just live your life to take up space or is your life being used to help the world around you? To help heal our world, you must first become transformed in the smelting process and then become fashioned into a healer of some sort. Simply by having been healed, your presence, by example, can help to heal those around you.

Metal is also the element of “animal consciousness”, or the natural “body-mind”. This mind is contrasted to the “clever mind” of modern times. Not that there’s anything wrong with the clever mind – it has produced technology. But the natural mind is the common sense and sensitivity to the natural world that lies at the base of our consciousness. It becomes aware of imbalances in our lives and pushes our behavior to correct those imbalances. In contrast, the “modern mind” seeks the extremes.

When you wake up in the forest and breathe in the beautiful scents, your natural awareness is awakened. Metal is associated with the lungs in Chinese medicine.

Wood
Wood is the element of life itself. It is the way nature unfolds and provides energy to all its creatures to promote the consciousness of metal. It is wood that provides the fuel to transform the metal ore.

Wood is the tree whose branches and leaves reach towards the sun to absorb energy and whose roots reach deep into the soil to absorb water and nutrients. It is an example of the balance of “heaven and earth”.

If you are not rooted well, the events of your life will throw you over easily. To be rooted in an understanding of your personal history and the history of humankind is essential to really know who you are. To be rooted in a love of the natural world and therefore a love of your own health will strengthen your body and soul. To be rooted in your family and community will balance and empower you.

“Heaven” does not refer to the mythological place we go to when we die (if we are good). It refers to yielding to the forces of nature around you so that your life can be lived in harmony with the promotion of the living world. It means accepting that you can become greater than you are now and yielding to teachings of all kinds so you can continue to grow (towards sources of “light” which means knowledge). Wood allows you to become transformed for the better (as it is burned to transform metal ore) while remaining rooted in the real world (earth) so you don’t become an air-head.

A tree provides a home for birds, monkeys, insects and others. It provides food for everyone. It provides the raw material for homes and furniture. It holds the soil to prevent erosion. Wood takes care of the basic needs of life to make our lives easier. Is your life like a tree?

Fire
Fire is the energy of enthusiasm. When you let go of the encumbrances of life, the bitterness, resentments, self-righteousness and anger and learn to appreciate the simple, sacred beauty of the world around you (natural and human), they you can be enthusiastic about life. That enthusiasm goes a long way to healing you and it can be considered to be the result of healing.

Fire is what gets you up in the morning because you love your life and want to live it. It is the heat in relationships that makes you want to interact with other people. Yet it is earth that moderates that heat so you don’t become too aggressive. In this way the elements balance each other and the job of the healer is to find out which element is too strong or too weak. It is the balance that leads to health.

Fire gets you involved in practices like Tai-chi because you appreciate the beauty of the teaching. In this way it transforms you as fire transforms metal ore. Fire is the movement of the exercises, like the dancing flames of the campfire or fireplace.

Fire is the energy flowing through your body when you release the blockages to the flow of chi or when you let go of sorrow. When your muscles let go of their tension through Tai-chi Massage, you feel energy flowing through your body. While you feel very relaxed, you also feel cleansed and energized. Fire has burned up the fear stored in the muscles and released the energy.

Water
Water connects. It is love and compassion. It is the end of the feeling of isolation so that your spirit can “enter the world” and become part of it. Yet it is balanced with earth, which establishes clear distinctions and boundaries, so that we don’t lose our individual identity.

In any relationship there is the fear of losing oneself, yet the desire to lose oneself in the relationship. The balance of water and earth allows both to happen.

Water cleanses. When you release sorrow or physical tension and feel a rush of energy through your body, the element of water then cleans out the debris (like tears cleaning out sorrow). The body is mostly made of water. The lymph cleans out lactic acid and carbon dioxide from cellular metabolism. The intercellular fluid transfers nutrients and oxygen from the blood vessels to the cells.

Yet these fluids have no pump other than the movements of the body. Each muscle of the body must be used, in fluid movement, in order to move the lymph and intercellular fluid. Otherwise the nutrients and oxygen won’t get to the cells to be metabolized and the cells will be bathed in waste. Your food will wind up as fat and you will be tired because your cells are not metabolizing well.

Water conforms to the shape of the container. It is what allows us to be “invisible” during push hands or fighting because we flow with the movements of our partner. It is the principle of not opposing force but flowing around it to continue to come in and accomplish our task.

Water is strategy as it is so adaptable. It allows us to “shed” our fixed patterns and become more creative. This is called “shape shifting” in some cultures. We identify more with our creativity than with our fixed patterns of behavior and thought.

Meaning of the Elements
This is just a hint of the levels of meaning of the elements, their interactions and use in Chinese Traditional Medical Theory. It is a holistic approach in that it considers the body, mind and spirit and the relationship of all aspects of our lives. Each element is associated with a season, a direction, a color, an organ-system, etc.

And so you can discuss the elements in diagnosing an ailment as well as in how you live your life. It is a set of principles based on balance that is useful in every aspect of your life. The way that most people start to learn this system is through Tai-chi practice. The teacher explains how the elements are used to explain aspects of the movements of your Tai-chi form, chi-gung exercises, push hands, massage and, if you go further, the self defense.

This training strengthens each individual from the inside out. It strengthens not only their bodies but their lives as well, allowing them to live full, productive, long and fulfilling lives.

EMOTIONS AND PHYSICAL HEALTH

Zookinesis posture - Bob Klein

There is a battle going on inside of us for control of the body’s posture. Our instincts urge us to posture our bodies for maximum efficiency and health. Our emotions try to express themselves through the body’s posture.

So if we try to push in the push hands exercise, our emotions tell us to expand the upper body and rise up so as to express power as we would imagine a muscle bound weight lifter to have power. Yet that is not an efficient posture for pushing because we would be top heavy and tense.

When I correct a posture in a Tai-chi form I have to take into account all the emotional expressions that control the body. Each part of the body is in an emotional relationship with all the other parts and as a whole, the body expresses very complex emotions.

If I were to correct only one part of the body the student would feel very awkward because he is used to a particular configuration of expression and now, one element of that expression is in the “wrong” position. So at the beginning the student doesn’t appreciate the corrections because he is still judging his posture by how well it expresses his emotions.

I have to correct as much of the emotional control of the body as possible to give the student an appreciation of how beautifully the body is designed and how good it feels to be in the natural, “neutral” postural position.

I taught a group of physical therapy students a few days ago. This workshop that I give every year gives the students a different perspective of how to bring a patient’s body back to a healthy state. While a physical therapist only works on the physical level, they have to deal with all the emotions of their patients as well. Sometimes that is the greatest challenge.

My ending point in that workshop is that in order to be effective in dealing with the patients, the therapist has to be comfortable in his or her own body. If your mind, body and emotions are not connected, balanced and centered, then your patients will certainly not feel comfortable with you and you will not be able to connect with them. Learning something like Tai-chi or Zookinesis can be a very valuable aid in working with physical therapy patients.

We also discuss how the way be breathe, walk and do other everyday activities can either help our physical condition or deteriorate our bodies. By understanding Tai-chi principles, you can make suggestions to improve these everyday activities to strengthen the patient in general. In this way you will not only be helping the particular condition they came in with but help to prevent other problems in the future.

Unfortunately, most physical therapy practices only give ten or fifteen minutes to each patient, certainly not really as much time as they need. But due to economic considerations, many practices just try to get as many people through the door each day as possible.
A good physical therapist would suggest that a patient get involved in a more thorough practice of exercise once their physical therapy sessions are over. This is why some schools of physical therapy expose their students to several exercise modalities so they can make intelligent suggestions to their patients once they are in their own practice.

The physical therapist may not directly address all the dynamics of a patient’s condition because they are only licensed to correct a physical problem in a physical way. But in a Tai-chi class (or Yoga or Pilates or Zookinesis class), it is more informal. You can work on many levels at the same time and explain how a human being works on all these levels in an integrated way. Tai-chi practice is not limited by law to only fixing a physical problem in a physical way.

I believe that our modern day culture makes us a foreigner to our own bodies and disrupts the integration of body, mind and emotions. It makes sense that we fix the fundamental problem with our health and not just patch up the symptoms as they pop up as in the “whack a mole” game. Many people get involved in Tai-chi practice because of health problems. They know that Tai-chi can improve general health and put them back on a path of general health recovery.

HOW DOES TAI CHI WORK?

Zookinesis and Tai chi promote health.

We hear that Tai chi exercise is much more healing than other types of exercise. It strengthens the internal organs, makes you more flexible, improves the flow of blood, lymph and intercellular fluid, improves the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, sharpens your attention and strengthens your immune system. How can a simple exercise do all that?

We hear that it has something to do with improving the flow of “chi” energy but for most of us, that means little. The idea of chi is not part of Western culture and we don’t have a feel for what it means. In the almost 40 years of teaching Tai chi and Zookinesis (a type of chi-gung exercise) I have found ways to explain how these exercises work beyond the benefits of other exercises and offer an explanation below:

We modern people pride ourselves in being somehow superior to animals. We think great thoughts. Our behavior is not controlled by instinct. We feel that our superiority is demonstrated by our technology. We have advanced drugs and surgery that save lives.

Yet our general health and feeling of well-being may not be superior to people of older times. In fact our world is filled with emotional stress and chemicals, which stress the body biologically. Heart attacks and other heart disease strikes earlier and earlier in life and the rate of cancer has greatly increased.

How does Tai-chi strengthen the body’s health and calm our emotions so we are resistant to stress? I have proposed in my writings and classes a simple theory that can make the logic behind Tai chi and Zookinesis more understandable.

In our modern world our basic instincts are almost irrelevant. We don’t live in natural surroundings for the most part and our instincts have been molded by natural environments. So we now rely on our minds, which tell us how to work our devices and how to tell time so we won’t show up for work late. This requires a subduing of natural instinct which hasn’t had time to evolve to function in the world of computers, cars and cell phones.

Yet our bodies still have to function biologically. The molecules and cells within our bodies aren’t controlled by computers. In fact, the entire body is a sort of biological computer, with its trillions of molecules all containing a kind of information as to how to function and adapt to varying situations within the body.

If the thinking mind imposes its patterns on the body’s functioning, there is a conflict. The body has to function one way in order to be healthy but the mind is sending signals into the body to behave quite differently.

With instinct the information in the biological computer moves upwards to control the organism and make it behave in order to achieve maximum health. With the thinking mind the control moves downwards to subdue the body and even its biochemical activity.

When we practice Tai chi, especially in the push hands exercise, we have to yield our attention to the body. We train each muscle and joint to respond with ease, precision and intention. At the beginning this requires the thinking mind (to learn our forms or the principles of push hands, for example). But then our minds have to let the body go and the movement of attention must be from the body’s individual body parts upward to the organism as a whole. The thinking mind could not possibly process all this information in real time.

We get to such a degree of precision that the decisions of movement are not made by a muscle as a whole, but rather, each nerve energizing a part of the muscle must act independently so that the muscle contracts in a wave. The smaller and smaller you can get in this precision the better. But even more importantly, you need to allow each tiny part to “make its own decisions”. If you are still making those decisions in your head, you counteract the precision of the body.

But, you might ask, if the thinking mind is not controlling all these precise movements, then what is? Now we get to the question of “chi”. The experience of chi is that of a communications system other than the thinking mind, nervous or endocrine system, that coordinates all this activity.

The real secret of chi is that it is a conscious energy that works from the level of the very small, upward into the body as a whole. Unless we cultivate this “chi consciousness” (known as “Body-Mind”), the body loses its precision – not just in practicing a form, but in staying healthy in general. The movement of consciousness from the tiny to the large must not be dampened by the movement of consciousness from the large (the mind, the feeling of ourselves as an identity) to the small.

To allow the movement of consciousness in both directions allows us to remain intelligent and also healthy. Each movement of the Tai chi forms or the Zookinesis exercises and each principle of movement of push hands, promotes this upward movement of consciousness, that is, of course, if it is done correctly.

Simply memorizing a Tai-chi form or pushing someone will not have this beneficial effect. Only a legitimate teacher can explain and teach you how to practice Tai-chi in the proper way that promotes this healing effect. This is why even teachers keep learning from other teachers to understand the best ways to practice their Tai chi to promote this effect.

Few people in modern times have experienced the upward movement of consciousness emanating from within each part of the body, let alone how this movement of consciousness is completely connected to the natural environment. When you live in a simple and natural way you soon can feel how the cycles of nature promote similar cycles within your body, which then promotes adaptive behavior on the chemical level and on the level of how you live your life day to day. You feel very connected to your environment.

The disconnected way we live our lives now leads not only to poor health, but also to a feeling of isolation, which then reverberates into the fabric of our society. We do not feel as connected to other people or other living things. That disconnection leads us to order our society in such a way that we can easily ignore the suffering of others or of the earth.

Tai chi practice has the potential of transforming our society, our health and our happiness by restoring the natural flow of consciousness that rejoins us to the earth.

IMPORTANCE OF FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT

Tai-chi and Zookinesis training emphasize the ability to move every part of the body freely. Why is this important in everyday life?

Most of the people who first come to Tai-chi classes cannot move very well. Their joints and muscles are so frozen that simple things like walking are an effort. They wear their bodies out quickly. The lungs don’t fill completely with air because they don’t fill the lungs from the bottom up. Their abdominal area is tight and the ribs have lost their flexibility so they only breathe into their upper chest. If you don’t breathe fully, your body doesn’t function efficiently and you lose energy quickly.

Physical tightness also affects the emotions, making you more rigid as a person. The emotions reflect the physical state vice versa. If you are physically unsure of yourself, if your body feels it cannot function well, then you become emotionally unsure as well. By becoming fluid and skilled physically, this gives you emotional confidence as well. You feel more comfortable in your body and so you are more comfortable around other people.

Going through life tight and rigid is like being in your self-made prison. You can release yourself from this prison by learning Tai-chi and Zookinesis Exercise.

DON’T FEEL AWKWARD

One of the greatest difficulties in learning Tai-chi is that very few people can control their muscles and joints on a fine level. Most people are awkward and are often worried about showing their awkwardness in front of other people. No worries. Everyone else is awkward too.

In order to regain a complete connection between your attention and every muscle and joint of the body, we begin with Chi-gung exercises. In the case of my school, we practice “Zookinesis” (animal exercises). There is no point in learning Tai-chi forms, let alone push hands, if you are not connected to your own body.

The result of this complete connection to your body is that you are able to feel the flow of momentum through your body and can make your movements smooth. You can feel the flow of internal energy (chi) through your body and let go of the ways you block that energy. This results in being able to feel life more intensely and being able to feel more joy.

Then when you practice forms or push hands, you can see how your habits of tension and fear freeze parts of your body so they can’t participate in the exercise. For example in push hands, the pelvis should be relaxed so that it feels like a piece of wood floating in the ocean, bobbing with the waves. The upper body should move with the action of your partner so you don’t resist his actions.

While the hips and upper body work together to neutralize your partner’s pushes, they cannot lock together. Each works in its own way and has its own qualities and yet they also work together. In fact each muscle and joint should be independent and work in its own way and yet all work together for a common goal (of neutralizing and pushing the partner).

If I can get your hips to lock together with the upper body and get your upper body to lock together with your fears and habits, then I can control your movements. So you see that the ultimate goal of push hands is to free you from your fears and habits so that your body and mind can work effortlessly and efficiently.

The result is that each part of your body becomes conscious and can experience joy and your life is much more fulfilling.

We had a wonderful weekend at the Tai-chi Park (successor to the Tai-chi Farm). There were many workshops on Chi-gung, forms and push hands. This is a 30 years old plus tradition started by Master Jou, Tsung, Hwa. The present incarnation is a 23 acre park in the woods with a beautiful stream running through the property, in Northern New Jersey.

It’s like a Tai-chi family reunion. Many teachers only meet each other once a year on this weekend. We are hoping to start our own traditions on Long Island with Tai-chi in local parks and the first annual Tai-chi workshop at our school (the Long Island School of Tai-chi-Chuan in Sound Beach) on Sat. Sept. 22nd. Maybe we can develop a closer Tai-chi community here.

I am also making plans to give workshops at other teachers schools. Hopefully the teachers can all visit each others schools and bring fresh ideas to our students. If you have similar Tai-chi get togethers in your area, please let me know (631 744-5999).

MY MOTHER’S INSPIRATION

My mother always wanted to be independent. She lived nearby in an apartment and called my brother and me each day so we could sure she was all right. At about 85 years old, she started falling a lot. Luckily she never broke any bones, but she usually fell in a way that she couldn’t reach the life alert button hanging around her neck.

As she got weaker, she made the painful decision to move to a nearby nursing home; one our family could visit regularly. I also began to adapt a system of chi-gung exercises for her to practice, one known as “animal exercises” or what I now call, “zookinesis”. But I didn’t have enough time before her death to bring back her strength and health.

I continued adapting these exercises for the chair to provide for other elderly people to regain their strength and health, producing instructional dvds and teaching in senior centers and nursing homes.

When I first begin teaching a group of seniors, at first they are not sure what to think and just a few participate. Within a couple of month all are participating and soon they ask me to upgrade the level of the exercises. It always amazes me how quickly seniors take to the zookinesis exercises and enjoy them.

As I teach I always think of my mother who first inspired me to teach exercise to seniors and now I myself am entering that phase of life. I hope the seniors of today have greater expectations of their continued abilities and demand to have exercise as a vital part of their nursing home programs. It is as important medicine as drugs, and I feel perhaps more important because if seniors can remain healthy, they might need a lot less drugs than they take today.

My doctor told me that almost all seniors nowadays take drugs for various ailments. He is surprised that I don’t take any. For me, zookinesis is my substitute for drugs. Basically it is just moving every part of the body in every way to get the “juices” flowing.

WHAT IF THE WORLD WERE FLUID?

One of the most important lessons I have learned from my training is that the condition of your mind and emotions greatly affect how you perceive your physical environment. Your senses don’t simply tell you what’s “out there”. The senses are in a fluid relationship with what is going on inside of you.

My wife Jean used to teach a class in the “foam roller”, a four foot long, eight inch thick piece of sturdy foam. At the beginning of the class you lie on the floor and notice how your back feels on the floor. Of course, the floor feels very hard.

After rolling on your back on the foam in various ways, you lie on the floor again and the floor feels as soft as a soft mattress. How you feel the floor depends to a large degree on the condition of your back – tense or relaxed.

After a push hands class, students feel very different than before. Push Hands requires you to relax and to be connected to your partner. Your attention must fill his body so that you know what is going on inside of him. In this way you will know if he is preparing to push you. Your attention must be “released” into the partner as well as into the ground, so that you are “grounded” or “rooted”. If you are rooted you are much harder to push over.

After class your state of connected attention is still with you. As you move in your surroundings, you seem much more connected to them, less isolated and more aware of what is going on around you. The world around you seems much more vivid. It seems to be part of your flesh and much more alive.

Now imaging feeling this way all the time. You would have to live in a “softer” (more natural) environment to be able to exist constantly in this state. Otherwise the “harsh” world would wear you down quickly.

And that is why we tense up and withdraw our energy from the environment. Our modern environment is not “biologically friendly”. It is friendly to machines. And so we must become like a machine and become dead to the relationship between our inner state and our perceptions. Our state becomes frozen so that we can feel comfortable in a frozen environment.

ZOOKINESIS EXERCISE FOR INCREASED ENERGY

This exercise will increase the flow of blood and lymph in the body, improve breathing, increase energy levels and make your body more flexible.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and the knees slightly bent.  Imagine a line connecting your right shoulder to your left hip.  Relax the right shoulder so that it sinks towards the left hip along that diagonal line. 

As the shoulder sinks in this way, breathe out.  Then stretch the shoulder back up to its original position and a little beyond as you breathe in.  Do the same with the left shoulder and the right hip.  Four repetitions each would be fine.

Next, sink your lower ribs into your lower back as if the front of the lower ribs were sitting on the lower back, and breathe out.  Then raise your lower ribs forward and up as you breathe in.  Again, use four repetitions.

Sink the sternum into the mid back as if it was sitting in an old chair and breathe out.  Lift the sternum forward and up as you breathe in.  Four repetitions.

Lift the left side of the ribs to the left  and then up as your body bends slightly to the right and you breathe in.  Then let the ribs settle back to the center as you breathe out.  Do the same for the right side.  Four repetitions per side. 

Stretch your neck forward (breathe in) and then relax (breathe out).  Stretch your neck to the rear and then relax.  Stretch your neck to the left and then relax.  Stretch your neck to the right and then relax (with the same breathing each time).  Do forward, back, left and right and repeat the sequence four times.

This is a basic Zookinesis series.  Zookinesis (animal exercises) is a system of chi-gung.

This sequence can be done once per day or as needed.  In just a few days you should feel a whole lot more relaxed and have steadier energy throughout the day.  Feel free to comment on your results in the comments section.

“EASY EXERCISES FOR AN ATHLETIC BODY”

Our newest dvd includes the zookinesis exercises, “Crane Greets the Sun” and “Waking Eagle”.  They are designed for people involved in martial arts, dance, sports and as a great general exercise.  Each is based on the stretching and warming up movements of these birds after waking up in the morning.

They combine toning, flexibility, fine motor coordination, mild aerobic movements and stress reduction and they are fun to do.  ($19.95 – 55 minutes).  Available from our online store (link on the right side of this blog).