Tag Archives: practice

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…!

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.

Alignment 103: The Waist

The Classics refer the to waist as the director, as it plays two key roles during the practice of Tai Chi. The first is that it transmits the energy generated by the legs up through the spine to the shoulders. It is also responsible for keeping the body in alignment as the body moves from posture to posture. This is why The Classics refer to the waist as the director.

There is a lot to know how to work from the waist and make it an effective director. Here are some tips to keep in mind during your practice:

• The hips should remain at the same height throughout the form. If one hip becomes higher than another, the spine must compensate in an unnatural way to maintain balance. Try to visualize the waist as a bowl filled with water to its rim; don’t spill a drop!

• The turning of the waist should be coordinated with the shifting of the weight. When gathering, the waist can be used to align an emptying foot for the next step. When shifting the weight forward in the Bow & Arrow Stance, the waist should begin to turn as the front knee tracks over the ankle toward the toes.

• Make sure that the feet and legs give the waist enough room to operate. As mentioned in an earlier post, a foundation that is too short, long, wide or narrow will leave the waist little opportunity to keep the body balanced or move the energy.

• Be aware that turning waist too far can lead to tension in the hip and knee joints, or even uproot the feet. The direction of the navel should never point outside the direction of either foot.

• To achieve a solid connection between ground (earth) and the crown of the head (heaven), the abdomen should be slightly engaged throughout the form. By this I mean that the lower back is slightly lengthened by the activation of deeper muscle groups (most notably, the psoas muscles). This can take some time to find, but the reward is more than worth the effort. For example, when one’s body begins to understand that it is the waist that directs the yin leg (whether that is to help close the back foot during a two hand push, or align an emptying foot for the next step), one’s practice will be so much more profound.

Consider the role of the waist in your Tai Chi practice as being similar to the hub of a wheel. If the hub is off-center or does not keep a tight rein on the spokes, the wheel will be unbalanced and much less effective. However, when the hub is strong and properly aligned, the wheel should be able to carry its load with grace and finesse.

Be the hub.