Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Transforming Tai Chi into a Powerful Health Practice

Okay, the title might seem like a bit of an oxymoron - you've been told that Tai Chi in itself is already a powerful health-creating practice.  In fact, that's not quite true...

You see, Tai Chi Chuan or "Grand Ultimate Fist" was developed primarily as a martial art and has long been considered one of the two or three most dangerous martial arts ever devised.  Of course, its health benefits have not been lost on the people who've practiced it down through the centuries.  The catch is this - to make Tai Chi work for you as a health practice, there are some things you need to know.  Otherwise, you risk spending a lot of time just waving your arms and, yes, probably feeling a bit calmer for it all, but leaving a lot of "health profit" on the table.

I'm often asked if practicing Qi Gong is "better than" practicing Tai Chi or vice versa.  While there's no simple answer to that question, I can tell you this:

You can used Tai Chi itself as a world class Qi Gong system in itself... if you know how.  And only a small percentage of Tai Chi instructors have any idea how to do that. 

Styles of Tai Chi:

While nobody can prove much about the real origins of Tai Chi, many say the original style comes from the Chen village in Hunan province.  Chen is certainly an amazing style - it's characterized by both spherical and helix movements, a sophisticated use of energy and changes in tempo punctuated by sudden explosions of power.

I admit Chen is far and away my favorite style, and I've studied it and Yang style intensively, and Wu style to some extent.  Here's a quick look at a Chen style form - note however, this is an advanced form and you can use Chen as a powerful health practice without any of the more difficult moves:

Later on came the Yang family style, derived directly from Chen.  And the original Yang style, which is pretty hard to find these days, did look an awful lot like Chen, whereas the modern Yang style - the most popular style worldwide - looks quite different.  Full of soft, circular movements that are less complex than those of Chen, this style is characterized by an even pace and moves a bit more slowly.  Here's a quick look:

Later still you get the Wu and Sun styles, both derived from Yang.  I freely admit I don't like Wu very much - I find its postures a bit weird and impractical.  Just don't tell my Tai Chi partner - he's a Wu style man and loves it!  Sun is the most recent style and quite beautiful to watch.  Unfortunately, I've never had a chance to experience it personally.  

How to Practice Tai Chi for Incredible Health:

Granted, this could easily be the subject of a book rather than this short blog post!  That said, I hope to give you some indications you can use right away if you already know any Tai Chi form or even part of one.  

First, a word about "forms" or routines.  A form is a series of movements strung together, and that's what you see people doing when they're practicing Tai Chi.  Typically, each Tai Chi style has a "slow" form - the  one you learn first - and a "fast" form that tends to be more combat oriented.  

Chen's traditional slow form is 88 movements, while Yang's is 108.  Now there are shorter ones available and I'd highly recommend learning a shorter form to start with, especially if your goal is health and not martial skill.  After all, it takes about 30-40 minutes to do the Yang slow form, and about half that long to do the Chen slow form, if you're using the longest version in each case.  For health purposes, you don't necessarily need that.

So how do you transform your Tai Chi into a super health-creation machine?  Here are the basics:

  1. Keep in mind that Tai Chi is SO sophisticated that you can only focus your mind on one element of practice as you go through the form.  This fact will actually help you a whole lot!
  2. Practice the form once through, focusing only on performing the movements as smoothly as possible.  Don't obsess about whether each movement is perfect and correct - some of the precision is only necessary for martial applications.  For now, just focus on making your practice smooth, harmonious and calm.
  3. Now go through the form again, but this time make sure that each movement begins in and issues from your lower Dantian, just below your navel.  You'll want to really slow things down for this!
  4. Then, next time you practice, focus on matching the movements to your breathing.  Typically, you inhale on movements the rise or move toward your body and exhale when going the other direction.  Obviously, it's intended that you exhale when doing striking movements.  You'll need to breathe abdominally, of course, though it doesn't matter if you use Normal Abdominal Breathing or Reverse Abdominal Breathing.
  5. After that, go through the form again, but this time make sure it's your spine that originates each movement.  Link your mental attention to your spine so you can "watch" and feel each movement as your vertebrae open, close and rotate.
  6. This time, stay acutely aware of your lower Dantian and of packing energy into it as you go through the form.  You may feel like you're a giant ball of energy by the time you're done.  Every time you inhale, feel the breath sink into your Dantian and every time you exhale, feel that same energy push out from the Dantian in all directions, forming a sphere of energy around you.
  7. Finally, this time you'll focus on nothing but "rooting".  Rooting is like sinking into the ground, it's what keeps you stable and, for martial purposes, it's what lets you upset your opponent's balance while keeping your own.  Rooting has health advantages in that it drains tension and excess energy from your torso down into your lower body, leaving you calmer, more centered and less stressed.  So with each step, feel as if that foot is sinking right into the ground and carefully observe each time you transfer your weight from one leg to the other.
Do this regularly and you'll be amazed not only at how great you feel, but at what your practice is revealing to you.  Tai Chi is like a vast ocean - you can swim in it all your life and still learn something new every time.

In conclusion, here's a wonderful video on Tai Chi at the Chen village today, where many people from all over the world gather and even live in order to be "close to the source":

Have you practiced Tai Chi before?  Please share your comments here!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


1 comment:

  1. Great Job Dr. Symeon. Love it, Chen style is what I practice!