Friday, December 4, 2015

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I think most people are familiar with this old fable about the tortoise and the hare. But in Tai Chi, it is never about the race or the win; it’s about the journey. And because it’s all about the journey, there’s no hurry. Just take your time, stay on the path, and enjoy what you see along the way.

Or put another way, slow and steady builds motor units.

Wait. What?

When most people think of Tai Chi, they envision senior citizens exercising slowly with beautiful and graceful movements. To most of the fast paced, instant-gratification Gen X and Gen Y population (and don’t worry, I fall just outside the brink of that range, so I am not completely immune to those behaviors), this nauseatingly slow movement doesn’t seem like exercise in the slightest. After all, only old people do it, right? It’s all they are capable of doing in their advanced age.

But there is a reason for the slow movement, and this is why Tai Chi is great for people of all ages. When we move with sudden bursts of energy, the muscles become tight and constricted. According to, the definition of constrict is “to slow or stop the natural course or development of.” But when we move slowly and continuously, we are relaxed; blood and energy flow naturally throughout our bodies. And where there is natural flow, there is an undeniable force. Think about rivers that flow unimpeded – no dams to block their rampant flow.  
Photo by Bob Brown
By moving slowly, we build a different kind of strength – strength for sustained movement. At a cellular level, we have an ongoing supply of motor units (nerve cells and muscle fibers) that are alternately resting and working for us, and we are building new motor units all the time to keep us strong into our old age. I realize that this may sound a bit too tech-heavy, so I’ll leave it at that. But for those who want to read a little more, check out this blog post.

I’m not saying that there is no place for activities with sudden bursts of energy. No, no, no! I think we need all kinds of energy to play with; they are all good and serve a purpose. I’m just saying not to underestimate the power of slow, continuous movement. I’m saying…give the tortoise a chance!

Photo from

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Motor Units Working for You

How can we move easily, comfortably, and without pain as we age? Of course, common sense tells us that we need to exercise regularly to make sure all the working parts keep working. But what is going on in our bodies at the cellular level? Aging gracefully may, in part, come down to our motor units. The information herein is based on an article written by Holly Sweeney, Director of the Montclair, New Jersey, Yang Cheng Fu Center, entitled “Looking Through the Lens of Science at the Ten Essentials of Tai Chi Chuan.” Her article was published in the Spring 2005 issue of the International Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan Association newsletter.

I hope to adequately summarize her very in-depth article of how these motor units work, and how we can use them wisely. A motor unit is one nerve cell (neuron) and all the muscle fibers which it activates. A group of motor units represent a muscle. When we move, or tell our bodies to move, we in effect are calling our motor units to action. By calling on our motor units, the nerves become excited and the connected muscle fibers are activated.

Okay, so what does this mean? When the motor units are not called into action, they don’t do much. But when they are, they sort of have this “all out war” attitude. They are basically either turned completely on, or turned completely off. In some situations, you may want this pedal-to-the-metal force. It’s great when short bursts of energy and power are needed, like sprinting. But what about endurance? What about long distance running?

How does our body sustain a movement? There are a couple ways to do this. You can send a continuous barrage of nerve impulses to the motor units to keep all the muscle fibers strong and activated, thus preventing them from weakening in between impulses. This is great for activities like sprinting or playing tennis. The only downside is that the muscle fibers eventually will get tired and you will have to rest before you can attempt the activity again.

Another way to sustain a movement is to change motor units that are activated at any given time. You make some motor units work while letting others take a break. We can accomplish this method with smooth, continuous movements. And the benefit of this method? Over time, our bodies end up activating and maintaining way more motor units then the other way of slam-dunking all the nerve impulses at once.

More motor units equal more strength and balance. And aside from being great for conditioning the body, ample amounts of motor units help us to age gracefully, too. With the normal aging process, cells die. And when motor unit nerve cells die, all the muscle fibers connected to them become useless. If those fibers do not reconnect with a new motor unit, they will atrophy. So what makes them want to reconnect? It all boils down to that old adage, “Use it or lose it.” New motor units will be created only if your body plans to use them.

So get off the couch and go build some motor units, for goodness sake!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Using Props When There's No One to Play With

My husband and I are big Jeopardy! fans, and we are enjoying the Tournament of Champions that is playing this week. As is customary, Alex Trebek talks to the contestants after the first break, giving the audience a peek into their lives and personality. He asked one of the contestants, the very deadpan Alex Jacob (former poker pro and now a currency trader in Chicago) about his unique way of practicing his buzzer skills. It was quite funny, creative, and apparently effective (since he won in the semi-final round): he was looking around  for a prop that had the same springiness as the Jeopardy! buzzer, and found that the perfect prop was the toilet paper holder!

(Okay, you Jeopardy! fans out there. You know you want to test this out for yourselves!)

This anecdote reminded me of our tai chi push hands, where we work with an opponent or partner. (I know, this is quite the segue, but just hear me out.) For many people, it's hard to practice push hands because there's no one to play with. Unless you have a built-in, live-in partner (and I'm lucky because my husband practices with me), you're left to practice with the air. And doing air push hands is much harder than playing air guitar, that's for sure!

So what's a tai chi enthusiast to do? There are few props that can help you to simulate working with another person. A short cylinder or tube works great, with the length being about the distance between the inside of your elbow to your wrist and the diameter a few inches wide. You can grab the length of the tube with both hands or place both palms on the ends of the tube to practice figure eight movements, etc. An empty paper towel roll (the cardboard tube) is about the right size, but will eventually lose its shape after repeated use. An empty wrapping paper roll might have a stronger, thicker cardboard tube that you can cut down to size. If you can find a really cheap foam pool noodle, those are great, too, if you don't mind cutting them down to size.

(Sorry, the toilet paper holder will be too small. However, the springiness factor would be interesting....)

Another great prop to use are balls. I currently use the balls in the Miracle Ball Method. They are soft and squishy and nice to work with, but they are a little small. When I stop procrastinating, I'm sure I can find another similar ball at the local toy store that's a little bigger.

I thought I'd check online to see what other ideas I could find for tai chi push hands props. I found this guy who thought about creating a push hands dummy.

(Steam Punk Robot. Photo from

What a great idea! I'll have to keep an eye on his blog to see if he actually makes it! From his blog, I also saw a comment that led me to a great tai chi ball video.

So what are your thoughts? Any other ideas for cool props to use for tai chi push hands?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Four Seasons - Yin and Yang

Today, I took a drive in the dreary, wet, and overcast weather to the grocery store. It was a short drive, maybe about five minutes or so, but I noticed that the trees were all in varying stages of transition. Some were still green, and some were partially green with red, orange, and yellow accents. Some had already fully turned into the fiery colors of autumn, and some had already lost all their leaves. Collectively, they were all beautiful as each tree was on its own time frame for change. There was no pressure by nearby surroundings to hurry up or slow down.

This transition of seasons reminds me of the many opposites in tai chi. In the tai chi form, we are empty and full, open and closed, focusing on the inner (mind) and outer (physical), coordinating upper and lower body. We are yin and yang – “the two energies present in everything. They are both opposite, but equal, and one cannot exist without the other.” (The Yin and Yang of Summer Solstice)

Summer is yin (the yin characteristic of being hot), and winter is yang (the yang characteristic of being cold).  At the height of summer, yin is at its peak and then begins to weaken as it transforms to yang. At the height of winter, yang is at its peak, and then begins to weaken as it transforms to yin. And just like the seasons, tai chi constantly flows from one extreme to a balance of yin and yang, to the other extreme. We flow from being closed to being open. We flow from being empty to being full. It is never-ending.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ranking Season, Part II

We had our ranking test yesterday, and I will tell you, I am so relieved it's over! All the blood, sweat, and tears paid off, and I can joyfully tell you that I passed!

Here are the highlights:

Judges: There were seven judges in all. One head judge, three scoring judges, and three form judges. The form judges watch you to make sure that you perform the correct postures in the correct order. The scoring judges watch you for how well you perform the postures.

Regarding the written test: This was a four-page written exam where we were tested on our knowledge of the Yang Family Tai Chi  history, theory, and principles. I studied like a fiend. I think I did well.
Regarding hand form: It took me about 20 minutes to do the entire form. I had sweat dripping down my face, but luckily nothing ran into my eyes. I felt I did reasonably well. My kicks were fairly stable, but one spin was a little shaky and I had to touch my foot down before I completed the turn. There should have been a slight point deduction for that, and anything else the judges found.

Regarding saber: I felt pretty good going into this one since we'd been practicing the form a lot in class over the last couple months and performed it at a tai chi festival a couple weeks ago. I think my nervousness turned into adrenaline, and I attacked the form with all the vigor I had. My husband, who was the organizing judge and was standing outside the testing room, said he thought I finished it in a minute and a half! (It usually takes about two minutes.) I was wondering part way if I was moving too fast, but God help me, I was on cruise control and there was no slowing down!
Regarding sword: That stupid tassel! The tassel on the end of the sword acts as a tail, and it's supposed to flow and whip around gracefully to show the proper energy. Unfortunately, I got it wrapped around my hand a couple times. You are NOT supposed to untangle it; you'll get point deductions if you do. So I had to make do with the tassel wrapped tightly around my hand. Aside from that, I let little demons into my head, and doubts and fears were clouding my brain. I did not feel confident, so I'm sure it showed in my form. I started to question if I would remember everything, and then I started to panic! I had to calm myself down, and tried to get rid of my rattled nerves by imagining I was stabbing and chopping them with my sword! So, it was not my best performance, but I remembered the form sequence and thankfully didn't make any flamboyant errors.
Regarding push hands (working with an opponent): In addition to the judges judging your form, there is push hand judge partner for you to do push hands with, and another judge that calls the moves you are to execute. I got most of the moves and transitions reasonably right, but near the end, I botched up the move from double-arm vertical circle into a figure eight (yeah, I know, technical terms), so I had to calmly, gracefully keep working the form until I could set us up for the figure eight. A little rough, but I had to give myself a pat on the back for not panicking and sticking with it (no pun intended!).