Tag Archives: breath

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.

Remain Patient, Be Present, Get Playful

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

I’m always delighted to be writing for TC3 as we round the bend on another year, full circle. This is the first one that requires two hands to count out our anniversaries, and it just occurred to me that we have students who have been with the school for four, five or more years. Where does the time go?

I want to take this opportunity to share some personal insight here, because it was about that time in my study of Tai Chi that I felt as though I was hitting a plateau. I wasn’t feeling as refreshed by or engaged with my practice as compared to those first couple years. I was maintaining a regular schedule, and I knew that Tai Chi was good for my health and well being, yet restlessness and frustration continued to surface as I searched for something else that the form could teach me.

At best, it felt like treading water. At worst, a sense of stagnation began to settle in. And from a Tai Chi perspective, that’s just unacceptable, right?

If your practice is still rainbows and unicorns right now, that’s awesome. Move along to the next post; just remember to put a bookmark here should anything (dare I say it…?) change down the road. However, if this issue sounds remotely familiar, read on and we can look at nipping this thing in the bud together.

One remedy for boredom and frustration is to (perhaps not so) simply remain patient. Slow the form further, or try to soften more. Listen. Be more receptive, and soon you just might notice something that can carry you to that next level.

However, if your expectations and restlessness cannot be dissipated with patience alone, consider a more proactive approach. Choose one thing to observe, and give it your fullest attention for the duration of the form. This could be anything that will help you maintain a sense of playful engagement: Is my yang foot truly rooted with every step? Is there enough room in my foundation to adequately shift my weight? Are my shoulders as relaxed as possible? Can I follow my breath as I shift attention between my tan tien and the yang hand?

Keep at it, and you’ll find places in the form that are in need of more more attention. From there, you can dig deeper, either on your own or with the help of an instructor. The lesson here is to not look for what the practice holds for you, but rather consider bringing more exploration to the table. Get playful and mix it up; then do it again. Check in with an open mind on a regular basis. This is where the investigation becomes personal — and truly passionate.

So make the most of these last few Dragon days: get creative, and before too long you’ll have some nice juicy homework to keep you tuning and refining for the next year.