Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Inhale, Exhale

While I have been running around being busy and not blogging for the past month, there is one thing that I have tried to remember to do, and that’s breathe.

When we are stressed, concentrating, absorbed, and so on, sometimes the first thing to go is breathing. I remember last year, after performing with others at World Tai Chi Day, a bunch of us went out for lunch. Our teacher asked one of her senior students, who had been sitting in the audience, to offer a critique of what she noticed. Her comment about me was that during my weapon performances, I would hold my breath. Really? I hadn’t realized I was doing that. So afterwards, I began paying more attention to my breath, and sure enough, she was right. The more I concentrated on what I was doing, the less I breathed.

So for starters, there are different ways to breathe, depending on what you’re doing. Sometimes there is a rhythm to breathing when exercising, say, when running or doing stomach crunches or reps with weights at the gym. Yoga, external martial arts, and other disciplines also have their own prescribed methods for how and when to inhale and exhale. All these different methods help to facilitate the type of exercise you’re doing.

For tai chi, the emphasis is on breathing naturally. There is no rhythm that you must follow; you don’t need to coordinate your breathing with your movements. Breathe naturally while practicing tai chi and never force or hold your breath. Keep the mouth closed, and inhale and exhale through the nose while resting the tongue gently on the roof of the mouth. As you inhale, breathe all the way down into the abdomen, expanding the abdomen. As you exhale, contract the abdomen.

If you have only been inhaling into your chest (where the chest expands and the abdomen contracts), breathing into your abdomen may feel very unnatural at first. You may even feel like your abdomen is not expanding at all. A good way to get accustomed to this way of breathing is to lie down and place a light object on your stomach. As you inhale into your abdomen, you can see the object rise. As you exhale, you can see it fall.

As you breathe naturally and fully, your body becomes calm. When you are calm, your chi (life force or universal energy) sinks to your center. As your chi sinks, your lower body becomes solid and strong, enabling your upper body to be light.

This method of breathing is great not just for tai chi, but also in every day life. How many times have you been busy, stressed, or concentrating and had to take a giant breath or sigh heavily? We breathe automatically to live, but we need to remember to breathe to reduce stress.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tai Chi – Not Like Riding a Bicycle

It’s getting more intense as we get nearer to World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, which is this Saturday. I remember when my husband and I went to our first WTCQD back in 2008. We had just started learning Section 1 of the Traditional Yang Style hand form. Still wet behind the ears, I was so excited that I asked my teacher if I could participate with the group going out to perform Section 1.

She hesitated ever so briefly, and said yes, putting me in the back row. My husband, the more cautious of the two of us, decided to watch from the stands. In retrospect, he was definitely the smarter one.

I don’t know what I was thinking. Just caught up in all the hoopla, I suppose. I even got another new student to go out there with me. But there I was, in the back row, happily doing Section 1 with all these students who were far more advanced than I. That is, until I reached the end of what I knew (which wasn’t much), and then I had to put on my best acting face as I flailed along helplessly, doing my best to follow the others. When we were done, I turned to look at the other new student, only to find that she had stealthily sneaked off when I wasn’t looking.

Obviously, I bit off more than I could chew, but I watched the rest of the demonstrations with my husband in total awe. Everyone was so graceful and fluid, and I wanted to be graceful and fluid, too.

So here it is, six years later, and my husband and I are still practicing tai chi. (Although, we’re still not as graceful and fluid as we would like to be!) This weekend, we have several demonstrations that we will be participating in. And the hazard of having accumulated a little knowledge in different forms through the years is that our teacher expects us to perform what we know, even if it’s been a long time since we’ve done them. During the few weeks before the big day, we start scrambling to run through forms that have been locked away in remote, dusty regions of our brains.

The lesson to be learned here, or at least a reminder – is that we cannot take what we’ve learned for granted. Even though we’ve spent months, even years, learning a form, if we set it aside for awhile, it does NOT come roaring back to us immediately, like riding a bicycle. And I’m not just talking about remembering the sequence of the form; I’m also talking about how to execute the form. Where to step, when to shift your weight, how far to extend – all these things that we had practiced over and over and thought we had ingrained in our heads are now figments of our imagination.

Thankfully, though, with each re-introduction to a form, we remember more than we did the last time. And with the tai chi hand form as our steady companion, the one form that we’ve practiced longer than any other weapon and that we practice the most consistently, the fundamentals we continue to learn there do permeate our weapons practice.

So, we will continue to work through everything we know this week, to prepare for this Saturday’s performance. I pray that we remember all the forms, pray that we get a spot in the back row for those forms we’re the shakiest on, and pray that all weapons (especially that slippery fan!) stay in our grip. If you’re in town, please come and join us. Admission is free!

World Tai Chi and Qigong Day
Saturday, April 26, 2014 @ 10:00am – noon
Keller Elementary School
1505 N. Campbell Road (south of 12 Mile)
Royal Oak, MI

Monday, March 17, 2014

Back from the Busyness of Tai Chi Life

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! We've had a rough, intense winter here in the Midwest, but Mother Nature is doing her best to bring on Spring. This week promises to be nicer and warmer - we'll actually be the the 40's. Woohoo!

So, I've been thinking about writing again for some time. I looked in my old blog files, and I was appalled to see that it's been almost four years since I've spoken up. Life has been very busy, but mostly good stuff. To sum things up, here's what's been happening in my tai chi world since my last post:

Weapons: Tai chi is an internal martial art that also includes weapons. With the hand form, we learn how to send out energy from our root (feet), up through the legs, waist, and out through the arms and hands. With a weapon, we learn how to extend the energy out past the hand to the end of the weapon's striking point. So, over the past few years, I have been learning how to use various tai chi weapons, including single fan (there is also a two-fan routine called mulan fan that I haven't tried yet), short staff (both single and two-person), sword, and saber.

Push hands (tui shou): Push hands is a two-person hand technique where we learn to feel and work with another person's energy, using the basics from the solo tai chi hand form. It explores the martial arts aspect of tai chi. I found push hands to be quite challenging, so after awhile, I told myself that I wasn't ready and decided to temporarily put it on the back burner to work on other aspects of my tai chi practice. However, I'm at the point where I would like to work on push hands again, hopefully this summer.

Ranking: 2011 was the year that I decided to enter the ranking system. The Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Ranking System has nine ranking levels:

Eagle levels - copper, silver, gold
Tiger levels - copper, silver, gold 
Dragon levels - copper, silver, gold

We are not required to rank, and it certainly isn't necessary to rank to enjoy practicing tai chi. But I really wanted to work on my tai chi skills, and the best way for me to grow was to set ranking goals for myself. Most people need to set goals to push themselves to excel, and I certainly am no different. The ranking test covers both a written exam on the history, theory, and philosophy of tai chi as well as a demonstration of the tai chi hand form in front of a panel of nine judges. As you attain higher levels, more is expected of you, regarding your knowledge of tai chi theory, proficiency in executing the form, and proficiency in using two tai chi weapons, the sword and saber. I currently have a gold eagle ranking.

More seminars: Every chance I get, I like to learn from the Masters. Master Yang Jun returns to our neck of the woods every couple of years or so to give seminars, which are intense, eye-opening, and informative. I have also attended a seminar by Master Chen Xiaowang in 2011 to learn more about silk reeling, or spiral energy.

More performances: Our Michigan Tai Chi Center performs annually for World Tai Chi and Qigong Day. This is a worldwide event that is held on the last Saturday of April at 10:00am local time. As each country/area reaches 10:00am, tai chi demonstrations begin, so that there is a full day of tai chi energy emanating around the globe. If you have never been to this event (preferably in your local time zone!), it's well worth attending. I remember going to my first WTCQD in 2008, right after we first started taking tai chi classes, and I was in awe of all the demonstrations in Yang and Chen style hand form and weapons as well as push hands. It was then that I became hooked.

China: Ah, I've saved the best for last. The International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association has a tournament in Shanxi, China about every five years for both competition and ranking. People from all over the world attend. My husband and I went for the first time in 2012, and it was an exciting experience. We met people from all over the U.S. as well as other countries - France, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, Madagascar, Malaysia, Romania, etc. Although we were not there to compete (too many people there that have been practicing tai chi for far longer than we have!), we did participate in the opening ceremonies, tested for ranking, and cheered our friends on as they tested for ranking, too. We also were there to celebrate Grandmaster Yang Zhen Duo's 87th birthday. (Grandmaster Yang Zhen Duo is the Fourth Lineage Holder of the traditional Yang-style tai chi chuan.) The Chinese sure know how to party!

So as you can see, VERY busy. But now, I hope to spare some time to share more thoughts on my tai chi journey. So much has happened, and so much more is yet to happen! I don’t want another four years to go by silently.