Category Archives: Awareness

Cross Training (Supporting your Tai Chi Practice)

Reprinted from an annual retrospective, written for students of the Tai Chi Center of Chicago.

I was recently reflecting upon the significance of a thirty-year old memory. It was toward the end of a Tae Kwon Do class, and we had just completed free sparring and our instructor was taking us through some cool-down exercises. Wearing Jeet Kune Do gloves, he knelt down, placed his fists on the ground and went into a Yoga crow pose, and then pushed into a handstand.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were routinely cross training in other areas of fitness (yoga, sprints, plyometric exercise) to help get the most out of our martial practice.

Not surprisingly, our study of the internal arts at the Tai Chi Center of Chicago also benefits from supplementary exercises. Master Hsu continued to teach from his library of Kung Fu forms, which strengthened the legs for Tai Chi weapons practice. Elizabeth followed suit by creating her 50 lb. jacket, and later became an advocate for integrating Pilates to strengthen core muscle groups.

As each of us continue dig deeper into the study of Tai Chi, we will likely need to create (and evolve) our own personal cross training routines to supplement our practice. That said, consider what you would like to work on in the coming year, and how that change could be brought into reality. Perhaps some swimming for some low-impact body strengthening and joint rejuvenation? How about some Yoga (or a foam roller) to open tight muscle groups and improve balance?

Keep in mind that cross training for an internal art need not be about physical gain. You may want to take on a more in-depth study of meditation to develop better concentration or work on your breathing skills.

Tai Chi provides numerous benefits, and it only makes sense that we listen for ways to support our practice that could make our experience more profound. So take some time to find a point of focus, get creative (or feel free to ask an instructor for advice), and explore.

Finally, if you venture into some social spaces for group study (which is a good thing, especially during these winter months), be sure to share your experiences and invite others to try Tai Chi…!

Breathing Technique

For beginning Tai Chi practitioners, integration of the breath is introduced with a fairly general set of guidelines:

• Inhale while being receptive (or rising); exhale while being expressive (or sinking).
• Breathe slowly and fully, into the abdomen.

In short, one should try to match the pace of the breath to the slow, rhythmic movements that comprise Tai Chi Chuan.

The health benefits of synchronizing the breath with our movement cannot be overstated. Breathing slowly allows the parasympathetic system to get into full swing; the heart rate slows down and the digestive system becomes activated. Filling the lungs simultaneously maximizes oxygen exchange and allows the diaphragm to help the abdominal organs massage each other. This is good stuff.

Curiously enough, while most of us learned to abdominal breathing as infants, we can find it difficult as adults to slow the breath down and maintain a regulated pace. Here are a few tips and techniques that can help you get back to those good ol’ days: 

Breathing slowly (regulation). 
• Inhale and exhale through the nose.
• Gently engage the muscles of the glottis and nasopharynx (upper throat), just enough so that a slight seashell “ocean sound” is created in the windpipe.
• Slightly pressing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth may help maintain this control. 

Breathing fully (depth). Filling the lungs with air requires that you use the diaphragm to breathe.
• As an exercise, place your left hand on your abdomen, just below the navel; place your right hand on your chest. Now, try to breathe into the space beneath your left hand. The goal is to fill the abdomen before the hand on your chest begins to rise.
• If you are having trouble pulling the breath down, try this exercise that isolates the diaphragm. Lie on your back and place a book or two on your abdomen. Breathing slowly, try to lift it with your inhalation and lower it with the exhalation.

If this appears similar to ujjayi breathing, it is. By bringing this level of attention to your practice of Tai Chi Chuan, you will gradually begin to see how the movement and breath are linked and feel support each other.

World Tai Chi & Qigong Day

World Tai Chi & Qigong Day in Welles Park - ChicagoAfter reflecting upon last weekend’s World Tai Chi and Qigong Day, I would like to share why I believe it to be a event worthy of celebration (and perhaps some extra practice).

A long time ago, people left the wilds and their natural surroundings for the benefits of communal living. As the size of these communities grew into kingdoms, the walls that were designed to provide security and convenience also became a haven for stress and conflict. The citizens were becoming afflicted with disease, internal strife, and greed.

Some of the wiser people noticed that communities had strayed too far from the balancing forces of nature, and presented remedies to those who would listen. They called attention to the flowing rivers, which were teeming with more life than stagnant waters. They pointed out that it was the more pliable trees that could weather heavy winds and snow much better than the stronger ones. It was the creatures that lived simply and within their means, they said, that made it through the harshness of winter and enjoyed the next spring.

The place was ancient China, and these wise folk were Taoists, who looked to the elements of nature and the concepts of yin and yang to help them enjoy healthier lives.

Over the years, continued observation and refinement led to the development of systems that helped people live in harmony with the Tao. Tai Chi and Qigong of modern times are direct ancestors of those systems, powerful internal arts that are practiced to balance and maintain the body. It should come as no surprise, then, that the remedies proposed to restore order and harmony to kingdoms of old (flow, softness and sustainability) can just as effectively be applied to our practice:

What adjustments can I make to my alignment that will help with balance and flow? Where are there restrictions in my movement, and how can these be softened? Are there places where I am overextending?

For me, the annual celebration of World Tai Chi & Qigong Day begins with a reminder to look back and consider the roots of these internal systems. I finish the day with the encouragement to continue listening for ways to soften and refine for another year.