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Tai chi breathing for health, peace and comfort – a simple practice

Tai chi breathing for health, peace and comfort – a simple practice

It’s been a strange summer – the Olympics and Brexit, long sunny days and driving rain. With even more change around us than usual, it’s time for some deep, comfortable breathing!

Actually, it’s nearly always time for some deep comfortable breathing. We are a culture of chronic shallow breathing and holding our breath. Once you start to pay attention to your own breathing, you might notice you’re holding your breath more than you realised.

Many people, for example, hold their breath when they’re thinking hard, or when something unexpected happens, when they get up from a deep chair, turn over in bed and so on…

Does it matter?

Well, yes. For one thing, you have more reserves of strength and stamina than you probably realise, and breathing fully can help you access them when you need them – climbing a steep hill, getting through a busy day, or dealing with a sudden emergency.

Deep rhythmic breathing oxygenates your blood better, so that even if your circulation isn’t great, your tissues get more of the oxygen they need for operation, growth and repair.

It opens your lungs. (Did you know that the bottoms of your lungs can actually get ‘stagnant’ if badly underused? That makes disease and damage more likely, and who wants to have lungs like a pond anyway?)

It massages your abdominal organs, rhythmically pressing and releasing (you see your belly pushing out and in), helping them in their work, and keeping everything easy and free-moving. Great for the digestion!

Best of all, perhaps, deep comfortable breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the opposite of the stress-response, flight or fight system. This is where the feelings of peace and comfort come from. As your mind calms and relaxes, your body can get on with resting, digesting, healing and repair.

So I hope you’re convinced enough to do some easy, enjoyable practice! I’d suggest spending 2-5 minutes a day on the simple process below to start with.

As you settle into it, try extending your time, or doing a couple of short sessions. It’s a lovely way to start and end your day, particularly if combined with some gentle tai chi movements.

As ever with these tai chi-related things, taking it easy and staying well within your comfort zone will give you great benefits.
A Simple Breathing Practice

Think of a baby lying on its back fast asleep.

As you watch from the side, its belly rises and falls a surprising amount, in a gentle natural rhythm – that’s what we’re aiming for for ourselves.

If you have time and inclination, you can do what is now being done in some primary schools – the children lie down and put a stuffed toy on their tummies. Then they simply breathe so that Teddy moves up and down comfortably. Schools doing this for a few minutes a day report that the children are calmer and happier – and the teachers probably are too!

Our basic tai chi breathing practice is simply an adult version of this – although no lying on the floor or teddy is required.

The Tripod

Sit towards the front of a firm chair, with your knees apart and centred over your feet. Check that you can feel your ‘sitting bones’ resting comfortably against the chair seat. (Which means that your buttocks are mostly behind you rather than under you – much better for your back!)

Let your spine ‘grow’ comfortably up towards the sky – feel a very gentle stretch as the golden cord from heaven attaches to the crown of your head and suspends it. The tops of your ears are now reaching up gently to heaven, while your shoulders are comfortably heavy, descending towards the earth.

This is the ‘tripod’ position, which makes an excellent foundation for breathing practices, seated tai chi and sitting generally.

If your lower back is currently weak, you may find that it is tiring to do after a short time. Keep practising (with the breathing) in odd moments, and you’ll find your back strengthening too. This makes everything – standing, sitting, bending – easier!

Breathe:

1. Let yourself become aware of your breathing. Don’t change anything, just breathe and notice how you’re breathing, and how it feels.
2. Continue breathing, letting yourself start to slow down, relaxing your lower ribs and belly, and feeling how that changes things. (You might find yourself sighing or yawning. This is fine whenever it happens.)
3. Continue breathing, relaxing more and more, letting the relaxation spread to your whole body. It’s common for your hands, feet and face to feel heavy and ‘quiet’ – it’s all good.
4. Let yourself enjoy ‘feeling into’ your body. We spend a lot of time dealing with what’s outside us. This is a time to enjoy simply being a quiet relaxing body, breathing gently and increasingly slowly and deeply.
5. When you’re ready, open your eyes, and take a moment to re-orient yourself before leaping up and getting on with your day!

Frequently-asked questions

Should my eyes be open or closed?         Either is fine. Just check that the little muscles around them and your mouth and jaw are soft and relaxed.

My mind keeps racing.         That’s absolutely normal. No need to worry or berate yourself. (Some people do!). Just gently bring your thoughts back to what you are actually feeling, now, in your body. It can help to say, inside, “in…” and “out…” or somesuch as you breathe – as long as you say it in a warm, relaxed, sleepy sort of internal voice.

Like many good things, this skill takes a little practice – but it’s worth it. After a while, you can find your peaceful breath even under stressful circumstances.

Start with a little, and feel free to do it as often as you feel like it. Noticing and simply deepening your breathing can be done anytime and anywhere – but taking time a couple of times a day to deliberately notice, slow and deepen your breath is a great refresher and stress reliever.

Let me know how you get on!

China’s Moon Festival

Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

Have you noticed the moon the last few nights/mornings?

Chinese people all over the world have been celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival. Traditionally it’s the time for “moon-viewing” with family and friends, eating moon cakes, drinking wine and thinking of loved ones far away.

A famous poem by Li Bai says:

Moonlight shining through the window
Seems like hoarfrost on the floor
Looking up to see the moon
Looking down I miss my hometown

China is a huge country, and people have always had to leave homes, families and friends for long periods as they travelled for work, to see the country, or in the past, as a result of war, famine or flood.

The moon then becomes a way of holding on to these precious ties of affection. It helps to know that the people you care about are looking up at the same moon, though they are far away. Or to know that the same moon is shining on your hometown somewhere in the distance. All way beyond your sight but very present.

The moon is a popular subject for poetry, and if you’re interested you can find many poems online – or let me know, and I’ll send you some more.

Mooncakes are a bit of an acquired taste and Western friends don’t always like them, at least the traditional types with their preserved egg yolks, but they do seem to enjoy the wine-drinking!

 

Spring in your feet

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Maybe it’s not quite yet time to run barefoot on summer lawns, but it’s possible that you’re not reaching for your slippers the moment you put a foot out of bed in the mornings…

So let’s consider our feet as they emerge out of their winter confinement.

Helping my mother find a pair of shoes in the hall cupboard, I was struck (again) by how un-foot-shaped shoes are.

In my 20s to 40s, like many women, I spent a lot of time in high-heeled shoes. I still have the squashed in little toes to prove it! We all know how bad they are for you – changing your posture, throwing your weight forward and so on. But they can be irresistible.

However, the real issue in the long term might just be that they help us lose touch with our feet. And that’s true with any over-tight shoe, boot or even sock.

When our feet are held still and our toes are compressed, they lose sensation and we become less aware of them. Then we walk (run, hop, march, dawdle) on very hard surfaces almost all the time. The confinement and stillness of the feet mean that they get little stimulation, and so they send only small signals to our awareness.

Most of us hardly notice our feet unless we get a blister, turn an ankle, or just have a general ache. And when they do hurt – we tend to avoid thinking about it – a quick rub, a plaster, and then on with other things.

And for many of us, our feet seem a long way away! Perhaps when we were young we could fold ourselves into a pretzel and examine our toes closely, but it’s probably harder now.

But if we want good and improving balance as we age, which is entirely possible, then we need to love our feet!

Good balance is a complex interplay of sensors and signals in our body – a network that tells us our position and movement in space, then sends out instructions to muscles about the next movement and monitors the effects. Even sitting here on my sofa writing this, my balance system is constantly at work, checking that my head is upright and helping me sip my tea.

Your foot is a complex and beautiful architecture of bones, muscle, connective tissue and nerves…it will tell you what kind of surface you’re moving on, its surface texture, angle of slope, and ‘give’.

When it can, it will absorb and cushion your weight as you move and then send back some of that stored energy to make the next step easier. It will share and ease the impact of walking, running and other movements on your knees and hips, and help you gauge the orientation of your entire body.

Losing touch with your feet compromises your balance and mobility. But it also deprives you of the great foot pleasures that you enjoyed as a child. The sheer enjoyment of walking on different surfaces – the different textures of carpet, matting, lino and vinyl. The way people’s lawns can feel so extraordinarily different underfoot – some dry, hard and unyielding, some lush and springy. (On that note, my mother’s lawn, heavily shaded by trees, is almost completely moss these days – that feels wonderful, apart from the little twigs and bits of beech mast that keep you lively!)

 With all this, a few suggestions for your feet, now that it’s a bit warmer (safety reminders below):

  • whenever you can, try wearing thinner-soled shoes, just socks or even going barefoot from time to time
  • put your attention in your feet as you move in this easier-to-feel-through footgear – flex your feet deliberately and gently, roll through from heel to toe as you step forward, noticing how the sensations change – in your soles, your foot, ankle and leg
  • try moving as slowly as possible – like a chameleon stalking a praying mantis in a nature programme! It’s interesting to put the ball of your foot down really really slowly, trying to feel exactly which part of it touches down first, and how it feels as it takes the increasing weight
  • do your tai chi in the lightest (safe) footwear you can – go through your set with your mind in your feet, really feeling the weight shifts as you make them. Notice how this tends to make your movements very stable and comfortable. People often focus on their arm movements in tai chi, but the feet are even more important.
  • enjoy your feet in the shower or bath – give them special attention, really look at them and check their condition – I have to wear my glasses to do this, since I’m very short sighted, but it’s a chance to scrub them! My feet like having the shower directed at them, rather than just getting the overflow from the top. I’ve been known to sit on the floor and play the water jet over them, changing temperatures a bit to give them a treat. I have friends who have a little stool to sit on in their shower and do this sitting. You can see how unusual it is, because shower hoses are not generally quite long enough to make it easy to do!
  • get a foot rub, massage, reflexology treatment or something along those lines – or, if you’re limber enough, do it yourself
  • if you can, take your shoes off at intervals during the day, and gently flex and wriggle your ankles, mid-foots and toes. Try to separate your toes a little and move them more independently
  • build awareness of your feet by seeing how much detail you can feel. You can probably feel your heel separately from the ball of your foot. But what about the left side of the ball of your foot and the right? Can you put your mind in your big toe? little one? what about the 3 in between? Can you feel the tip of your big toe, its ‘knuckle’ joint, and then the intermediate joints? Explore a little while every now and then, and more and more detail will come into focus.

And finally, foot baths:

My Chinese friends are always recommending soaking your feet before bed – I’m not qualified to say whether it’s medically recommended, you’d have to check with your health professional. And people make all kinds of claims about toxins and things that I know nothing about.

But I have to say it feels wonderful.

I use a washing up bowl (dedicated for the purpose, not our everyday one!), and water as hot as I can stand. Sometimes I add a drop of lavender essential oil, though people tell me that Epsom salts are good, and I imagine there are lots of things you could use. Sitting there, gently swishing your feet and trying to not to make too much mess, you can feel any stresses left over from the day dissolving in the water.

While your feet are in there, don’t abandon them, even if there’s something good on the tv! (I tend to have mine in the evening, watching telly or reading a book.) Wriggle your toes, swish your feet gently – feel the water moving across your skin. Try to identify (without looking) the exact place on your ankles or lower legs that the water stops – surprisingly hard!

Try swishing water between your toes – unless you’re a lot more mobile in the toes than me, you’ll probably find that tricky too. Most of us have quite deformed feet with the little toe pushed inward toward the big one. We’re so used to this that it seems normal. But a healthy foot that hasn’t worn tight shoes is actually more triangular – with the little toe pointing slightly away from the big one, and the strength and  flexibility to create space between the toes.

This doesn’t mean that there is anything very wrong with our feet – it just reminds us that taking them out of their shoes, giving them an airing, paying attention to what they are telling us, and taking care of their needs  – is a good thing to do from time to time.

Thanking them is good too! You don’t need to do it aloud when there are other people around, and footpath time is a good opportunity.

I have a flask nearby to top up, but it’s not necessary. Bring your feet out while you’re still properly warm (don’t let the water cool too much), and give your feet a thorough drying – it’s a great time to check them over, do some gentle massage, and if you’re that way inclined – thank them for their fine service to you.

(I’ve been talking to people about sleeping better recently – there are lots of things you can do.  Along with having a simple enjoyable routine that slides you down a gentle slope to unconsciousness, footbaths are one of the things I recommend most.)

As with most things, the more you investigate and practice, the more there is to notice and feel. If your feet have been locked away all winter, this would be a wonderful time to let them out, show them you appreciate them, and let them help you improve your movement, balance and of course, tai chi.

Safety reminders

(Of course you really need no reminding, but just for completeness’ sake):

Barefoot/thin sole walking:
    •    Choose safe places and keep your eyes open for unexpected hazards
    •    Check your feet carefully afterwards, especially there’s a chance you might have cut your feet or picked something up
    •    Keep your barefoot/thin soled sessions short to begin with – not having a thickish shoe sole shifts your weight and movement pattern, so give yourself time to adapt – it’s an interesting process, so enjoy noticing how adaptable you are!
    •    Don’t let your feet get cold, especially if your circulation is not good. Our changeable British weather can go from sunny to chilly in a moment – keep socks nearby!

Foot baths are great for gently helping your circulation and, taken in the evening, they improve sleep. Stay safe, though:
    •    check that the water is at a safe temperature for you. If you have poor circulation, diabetes, etc, it may be worth checking with a thermometer to be certain.
    •    Take care topping up from a flask – the water temperature can change surprisingly fast.

If you have any doubts at all about trying something, check with your health professionals first – stay comfortable and stay safe!

The unexpected benefits of Walking Backwards

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We’ve seen that practising a backwards weight shift is good for improving balance as well strengthening the stabilisers in hips, knees and ankles.

In China, people say that walking backwards is good for your health generally. Early in the morning or after the day’s work is done, it’s quite normal to see people walking briskly backwards along the pavement. They’re probably also clapping their hands first in front, then behind them, in time to their steps.

My husband says that the first time he saw this, he automatically looked around to see who was looking after this person – obviously in need of care! But the man smiled at him and waved, and was clearly friendly, so he just smiled and waved back. After that he noticed more and more people doing it – it’s a long established health practice.

Research in the West seems to be backing this up, indicating a number of benefits.

Physical benefits

First, walking backwards has less impact on joints, because the physical action is different.

When you walk forward, the combination of hard surfaces and the ‘falling forward’ approach used by many people means that the ball of the heel suffers repeated heavy impacts. These are transmitted to the other joints in the legs and can lead to problems. Going backwards, you reach back with your toe, and roll the foot down from toe to heel. This protects joints and keeps feet alive and active.

Second, the range of motion is more limited when you go backwards, which can help keep your knees comfortable. In fact, the literature suggests that tendons and ligaments may be stretched in more gentle ways.

Walking backwards also uses different muscles from going forwards – if you try the simple exercise below, you’ll notice the effects quite quickly! It also uses more energy and makes your heart work a little harder. Try feeling the muscles to each side of your spine as you move back, and notice them working hard too.

As discussed in previous emails, it improves your balance and the working of the various stabilising muscles, tendons and ligaments in your hips and legs. We tend to assume that balance deteriorates with age, but it seems that much of the damage is caused by another mechanism (see *below).

So, practised safely, there are all kinds of good effects.

Increased awareness of the environment

There is another important benefit – it helps increase your awareness of your body and its environment.

In ordinary life, a lot of our attention is focused directly in front of us. Think of our habits of sitting at desks, in armchairs and on sofas, of watching tv or working on a computer for long periods…

In our tai chi classes, we practice de-focusing our awareness, letting it spread out around us – and it turns out we are really good at this. (Biologically, as both predator and prey, it makes sense for us to be aware in all directions – including upwards and downwards.)

Walking backwards is another great opportunity to develop awareness skills. Like the Cape exercise, it naturally draws our attention to our back and the area just behind us, waking us up to part of the world we often ignore.

It can also encourage fluid movement of the neck, and with keeping the back flexible and easing discomfort there. But remember to take it very gently, staying well within your comfort zone and never using more than 70% of your comfortable range of motion.

Of course you already know how to walk backwards! But if you decide to add some drills, here are some suggestions:

Basic movement

First, check that you’re in a safe area, clear the floor and make sure there are no low coffee tables etc. It can help to walk along the edge of a kitchen work surface or bed, so there is something to reach out for if you need it.

Start by moving slowly and taking just a few steps.

Begin with good posture, relaxing your head, neck and shoulders. (Tensing is common, but defeats your purpose.)

Reach one toe behind you, just a little way, and shift back. Then the other foot.You may want to turn your head a little, so you can use your peripheral vision to check behind you. Then turn back to the front and take another step.

Repeat, speeding up as you get used to it. It can feel strange at first to take several consecutive backwards steps, but it quickly becomes familiar.

Going further

If you are fit and comfortable with it and have the space, you can walk backwards as far as you like. Bear in mind, though, that it is more tiring than it might seem. You are likely also to find unusual muscles protesting if you do too much too soon.

Backwards and forwards

Here’s a more domestically-sized drill that is very helpful:

Start as above, standing comfortably tall, and relaxing your head and shoulders.

Take 5 steps backwards, then balance on that last foot.

Let the other leg swing back as if you were going to take another step… but instead let it swing forward again and walk forwards 5 steps.

At the far end, balance again, and swing the moving foot forward and then back, and walk 5 steps backwards again and repeat as many times as you like.

Moving like this takes a lot less space and still gives you excellent backwards and balance practice. It is a good general rehab drill too after illness or problems with the lower limbs.

Yang style Repulse Monkey

Another powerful exercise is the backwards stepping from Repulse Monkey Yang style, if you know it. Leave out the arms for the time being, and just enjoy stepping backwards, moving back and forth across that ribbon!

Safety, safety, safety

Walking backwards is definitely good for you! But take it gently, watch out for obstacles, and go at a slow pace to start with. Maybe then one of these days, it will be you walking backwards along a pavement, clapping your hands in front and behind as you go!

*A bonus rant about ageing – is it really age, or just disuse?

Our bodies are constantly adapting to the work we ask of them, and it’s a case of use it or lose it! Unused muscles waste away, as the body reroutes resources to parts of the body still in use. Astronauts have a big problem with this: the lack of gravity means their muscles and bones are not sufficiently stressed to keep their normal size and strength. Returning spacemen can find it hard to walk, despite on-board workout regimes.

All this suggests that the real change we seem to experience from our 40s or so onward, is that we use our bodies less overall, and in more stereotyped ways than before. For example, it’s uncommon for someone in their 60s to wave their hands wildly over their heads like a teenager – not only when out with friends, or on the street, but at all. Little by little, without our noticing, the range and speed of our movements begins to shrink…

We are still wonderful at lifting mugs of tea! But suddenly reaching out for that ball racing past our heads, or running flat out for a bus… maybe not. And the help offered us by younger friends and relatives may actually make things worse, by limiting our movements even further.

All of this has a slow and subtle knock on effect.

When we do come to chase a ball round a field, cycle for the first time in a year or two, need to balance on one foot to reach an awkward high shelf, we recognise the weakness we feel. At this point, we are all too prone to say, well I suppose it’s my age… I’m slowing down… it comes to us all… and so forth.

However, as we can tell from looking at contemporaries who have continued to move freely, in many different directions, and at different speeds, age seems to affect people very differently.

I’m not suggesting that age does not have an effect, and conditions like arthritis can have big impacts. At the same time, when we attribute an increasing weakness to age, we tend to forget to look at what we’ve been asking our body to do recently. Our bodies are extremely effective, energy-husbanding systems – if we don’t use muscles, they will weaken. If we rarely exercise high-level balance skills, our capabilities weaken.

(Funny how pianists who’ve not played for a while say, oh, I’m out of practice! Rather than oh, I’m old!)

Of course, this has its wonderful upside. If we start to use our bodies in new ways, our bodies will adapt and support us.

Recent research suggests that, if you’ve ever in your life had reasonable muscles, you should be able to redevelop them right into old age. (It is probably possible even if you haven’t, but it would take more work and time.) It’s as if the template is still there, stored up, even though much of the muscle tissue itself is long gone for reuse.

It’s the same with balance – it’s entirely possible to have better balance in your 60s and 70s than in your 40s. Falling might still be more damaging later than when you were younger, but since your balance is going to be better, you’ll fall far less often!

River Dragon is still balancing – Balance part 2

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Last time I suggested some simple balance-improving practices you can do anywhere. You can noticeably improve your balance in just a couple of minutes a day.

Here are a couple more – equally simple, but a little more demanding in terms of strength and focus.

Before we start, a quick reminder:  Maintain relaxed awareness… with your focus down the stable leg deep into the earth…

Whichever exercises you choose, keep your awareness on what is happening in your body, and relax as much as you can all the way through.

Look out calmly into the distance with a soft open gaze (the owl gaze I’ve written about before), and let the back of your mind think itself deep into the earth, down the stable leg. As you keep your awareness here, raise your ‘free’ leg and let it do whatever it wants…

(In fact, if you’re doing a kick, or generally wiggling the free leg around in space, it’s interesting to try moving your attention from that ‘downwards’ focus in your stable leg to the free one. Most people find that their balance instantly deteriorates – there’s something about trying to keep the focus in the moving leg that makes it much harder to keep solid balance.)

Shifting forward and back – the advanced version

In the last post, we started to look at how balance works when we shift forward (or backward) before lifting the unweighted foot.

We can be surprisingly awkward doing this sometimes, especially when the size of our step is unexpected. Think of a busy shopping street – some people striding out, others drifting along, heavy shopping bags, people in twos and threes taking up the whole pavement… Anyone who is actually awake (most people seem to be in trance!) finds themself constantly dodging and sidestepping so as not to bump into people.

If you watch this process from the sidelines (great excuse for a coffee in a pavement cafe), you will notice that many people find these sidestepping movements quite difficult. It’s not only that they weren’t paying attention, it’s also that you need good balance to change the speed and direction of your movements in the middle of making them.

Start as before with your feet only a foot or so apart, maybe less. Balance, and shift one foot – empty – forward by say 6 inches in the first instance. Put it down and shift your weight fully into it, relaxing all the way. Think down through your forward foot into the ground, and when you’re ready, lift your back foot off the ground…

Forwards and back – basic weight shift

It’s good to spend a little while simply shifting your weight forward and back. When you’ve completely emptied out a foot and found your balance on the other one… gently lift up the empty one and move it around… before putting it back down and shifting the weight back into it.

Then change feet, so that the other foot is forward and try a few back and forth moves on this side.

Walking

When you’re ready, walk forward very very slowly, emptying and balancing each time. Your eyes should be gazing calmly and gently straight out into the distance (this makes more difference than you would expect). Your attention is internal, and part of it is deep in the earth through the stable leg.

If you’re finding the movement difficult at first, try making the distance between your feet a little smaller or larger, and take a smaller forward step.

Bending your knees

Now bend your knees a little.

Notice that bending your knees can change the mechanics of this move. In general, it takes more strength to shift weight on well-bent knees, but if you’re strong enough, this position gives you more stability and springiness.

When you’re finding the basic shift comfortable and familiar, it’s worth working on bending your knees just a little more than you are currently doing. (This assumes you are not already quite low. However, most people start with their knees pretty much straight.)

Bend your knees to your usual position, then add in a tiny additional bend – just enough that you can feel the difference in your leg muscles. Now check that you are as relaxed as possible – your legs in particular, but all over. This is important, as it is easy to add tension as well as a deeper bend!

Taking things very slowly and gently, move through some of your practice in the new position, coming back to your normal position, or to a straight-legged (but not locked) position to rest whenever you want to rest.

When you’re ready, try walking backwards. Start with a gentle bend, and shift backwards… Notice that this is hard work in a different way. You are actually using a different set of muscles from those that carry you forwards.

Regularly walking forwards and backwards with bent knees will develop strength and confidence faster than you expect. It’s a great way of strengthening your legs and the stabilisers in your hips and knees. Don’t overdo it, though. A couple of minutes will probably be enough at the start – otherwise you’ll really feel it in your leg muscles a day or two later!

This practice will also help you get rid of ‘tai chi bounce’ – a common problem in which people dip down in the middle of their moves, but ‘pop up’ at the end of each one. Ideally, in Sun and Yang style, the top of your head will stay at the same level throughout your whole tai chi routine (except for things like kicks) – but it is surprisingly hard to do.

A mirror can help you check. Stand sideways on to a conveniently placed mirror (or your reflection in a window). Practise once or twice without looking. Then when you have found your current pattern, check your reflection and make any adjustments needed.

You can also use your mirror regularly to check that your spine is straight and vertical – the top of your head pointing to heaven – and that you are sitting back a little and keeping your shins relatively vertical, rather than pushing your knees forward as you bend them.

Balance – and a straightforward way to improve it

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One of tai chi’s great selling points in the West is the way it improves your balance.

In the lovely ’Tai Chi for Osteoporosis’ set from Dr Paul Lam, we spend a lot of time learning to walk backwards, confidently and under control. As we turn from side to side with flowing arm movements, we deliberately set down our feet behind us exactly where we want them, and shift our weight back.

It’s the perfect move for backing away from armed enemies – or for learning to balance gracefully and confidently on rough ground, even when you can’t see it behind you.

Back in everyday life, it’s rare to see people using good balance. Watch people walking down the street. A few people stand upright, their moving foot goes down ‘empty’ and then fills with their weight as they shift forward.

Yet most people use a ‘controlled fall’. They tend to be leaning forward, looking down. As they walk, their weight shifts forward before the foot touches down. They fall for a moment, then the foot reaches the ground and stops the fall.

Well, it works. At least on smooth pavements, with no slippery bits. There’s a bit more impact on the joints, it’s less graceful…

But the real problem is that there’s a lot less control.

Once you’ve started that momentary fall, there’s nothing you can do until your foot hits the ground – if you see that you’re walking into something you don’t like, whether it’s a puddle or a patch of ice – you just step into it anyway.

If on the other hand you are using your balance, you have longer to decide to change things, and the strength and skill to do it…

Exploring and improving balance – some ideas to try out this autumn

Here’s a drill that you may recognise from class, but can be done anywhere – waiting for a bus or a kettle to boil…

Start by standing with your feet a foot or so apart, your weight evenly balanced. Keep your spine comfortably straight and vertical, look out into the distance with a gentle gaze. Take a moment to feel the whole of the soles of your feet, and to let your weight rest and sink through them into the ground.

Now, without moving your feet, slowly shift your weight completely to one side, so that the other foot is ‘empty’.

Send your mind down along the stable weighted leg, deep into the earth. Let it linger there… (Some people think tree roots, or pipes, or make their leg really long… you might find yourself imagining worms and deep things, others just send their minds down… whatever works for you.)

Relax your whole body.

Keep that feeling and lift the empty leg… and balance effortlessly! Feel free to move your free leg about – while your keep your attention deep in the ground, even while the free leg is in motion.

Here’s a short version:

Think of it in 3 parts: get into position, then:

first, move your body (but not feet) to the new balance position

second, send your mind (or energy) down the stable leg deep into the ground

while third, relaxing and loosening everything downwards…

Now do whatever you were going to do –  practice your heel kicks, put on your trousers, tap that cupboard door shut with your lifted knee.

It takes a while to settle into this, but do it a few times a day for a few days, and your body will start to do it automatically, improving your everyday balance as well as your tai chi.

Some variations:

When you have a good sense of the exercise, try it at different speeds, and notice how that changes the exercise.

Gradually speeding up gives you the chance to practice the kind of balance you need in everyday life.

This is great for not quite standing on the tail that the cat carelessly left under your foot! It’s also really good for this time of year, as the leaves pile up and become slippery.

When you slow down, you train the muscles, ligaments, tendons in your knees, thighs and hips – these are your stabilisers. You strengthen them and make them more responsive to small changes in your position and intention. Try moving very very slowly, and notice how much work it takes. Don’t assume that the only progress is to get faster.

Experiment with separating the feet We started with our feet quite close together as this makes finding the true balance point easier. As you improve, try putting your feet further apart.

Notice it not only takes longer to shift to the true balance point, but that point is also harder to find – perhaps partly because it requires more strength in your legs, and the muscles that stabilise your hips. It’s harder physical work too, so add a little extra space between your feet from time to time.

(Working with feet widely separated will quickly strengthen your stabilisers – but be careful not to overdo it in the early stages. It’s one of those exercises that you really only feel the next day.)

Shifting forward and back You can also experiment with shifting your balance forward from one foot to the other – this is something we do a lot in tai chi, and your practice will be valuable there as well as in everyday life.

As before, keep a fairly small space between your feet to start with – control is more important than the size of your step. You can use Single Whip, if you know it, to practise your weight shift, noticing how the flow of your movement increases as you work, even with just a few repetitions.

Above all, whichever variations you are doing, don’t forget to think down into the ground and relax – these will keep you balanced and confident.

Autumn Tai Chi

The autumn probably means less barefoot walking on the lawn (though if it’s sunny and safe, go for it!)  but it’s a wonderful time to be doing tai chi.

As is often said, tai chi is about harmony with yourself and with nature.

In our busy, over-stimulated world it can seem as if the seasons change in a flash – one moment it’s full summer, and the next, the leaves have already changed colour and started to fall… That sense that things are changing almost behind our backs – and going much too fast – is disquieting.

Tai chi can slow us down to an awareness of what actually exists at this particular moment. In our own kitchens or living rooms, it can help us recognise what we are actually feeling and experiencing – that slight soreness in a joint, the headache we’ve been ignoring for a while, a small sadness… As we relax our bodies and minds and feel our experience – rather than our plans, fears, anticipations –  we can loosen our discomforts and let them ease away, at least a little.

In our gardens, in a park or under a tree, tai chi can tune us in to what is happening in the natural environment around us, and let us tune ourselves in body at the same time.

Try finding a quiet spot and slowly and gently doing a few postures – whatever you remember is perfect, and it doesn’t need to be ‘right’ or complete. Relaxation, awareness, smooth slow motion are all that is needed.

(By now, I’ve got over the embarrassment of doing tai chi in public places – but when I started a few years ago, I felt extraordinarily conspicuous. However, tai chi out of doors is a different experience and one you owe yourself. And no-one ever complains – people smile, ask questions, or simply pay no attention.)

It’s normal to begin with your head full of chatter, self-consciousness, to feel physically awkward and stiff.

Keep going, and as you move, let your gaze slowly soften. Let yourself gradually become more and more aware of what is around you – trees, perhaps, bird and animal sounds, distant traffic, the sky, the texture of the ground beneath your feet.

Internally, allow yourself to become quieter and quieter… Mind and body relax together as you become part of everything happening around you.

And if you’re not sure about actually moving in public yet, try standing or sitting quietly, and doing some tai chi in your head. Maybe just one arm to start with – relax it, feel its weight, and gently let it lift in your mind… When you’re ready, bring in the other arm…

Some people find this easy, others take more time to fall into the way of it. It’s a skill worth developing.

Enjoy your autumn tai chi out of doors as much as possible!

Repulse Monkey – the arm movements

Practising the complications of Repulse Monkey…

You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago, I gave some pointers on the torso movements and the legs for this great movement.

Before we get into details, let me suggest that you continue to practise the torso, arm and leg movements separately for a while, as well as putting them together.

In the early stages, it is pretty much impossible to get all the details right while doing the complete movement. And if you only practise the full thing now, you’re likely to ‘squish’ some of the details out of shape – which makes for a more frustrating experience in the end. “Man man lai,” say the Chinese – which means, take it slowly.

So practise turning your torso from side to side with the pelvis powering the movement…

Practise walking backwards with small steps back and forth across your ribbon…

And practise your arm movements…

Repulse Monkey – the arm movements…

Right arm

First, with your knees slightly bent and your right hand in prayer position, turn your pelvis right and notice what happens to your right hand – most of the movement out to the side is actually done by your pelvis, not your shoulder and arm.

When you’ve reminded yourself of this, add just a little shoulder movement in, so that your arm swings out in a gentle curve ending up to the right of your starting position, with the hand about shoulder height, palm half up… You’re looking at your palm.

Your arm is swinging – which gives the feel and shape of it – but it’s going slowly. No ballistic movements here!

Now, begin to turn your torso back towards the front, leaving your hand where it is momentarily. As you do this, you’ll find it’s natural to let the elbow bend, and bring your hand directly back towards your head. However, you’re turning your torso and face back towards the front. So, by the time your hand gets there, it’s moving towards your ear.

Let the C made by the thumb and index finger of your hand go past your ear (don’t they fit nicely?), and begin to move forward…

Start to turn your pelvis just a little to the left – which gives your right hand and arm room to descend in front of your right shoulder and begin to press forward in front of your body – palm out.

And of course, all this with great relaxation and gentleness, and well-bent elbows!

Left arm

Now give your right arm a rest, and start with the left hand in prayer position.

Begin the rightwards turn of your pelvis, and let your left forearm float straight down to become roughly parallel with floor, turning your palm half up as you go. This synchronises with the outward movement of your right arm and hand.

Then, as the pelvis begins to return to the front, let the left arm stretch out a little, so that it reaches a little further forward but in the same place, and turn it palm up. This synchronises with the right hand returning to the head.

Lastly, for this round of Repulse Monkey, the elbow strike. Bring your bent arm back by your side, leading with the elbow, as if striking someone just behind you and to one side smartly in the kidneys. However, keep your elbow by your side, rather than sending it far back. This move synchronises with the forward movement of the right palm.

Both together

Now put these two arm movements together. it’s worth practising the synchrony of each section a few times, until it begins to seem natural. While complicated, the movements have a ‘body logic’ that really works.

In particular, the slow rotation of the pelvis – first right, then back to the front, then left, then back to the front again – is what drives the whole movement and gives it its rhythm. If you find yourself concentrating on the arm movements and losing this connection to the pelvis, then just take a little time doing each part separately for a while, before bringing them back together.

One more point – in the third part of this arm movement, the right hand and arm are pressing forward as the left elbow moves backwards. There are different interpretations of this as a martial move, but I think it can help to think of the right hand ‘wiping’ an opponent’s handhold off your left forearm.

There’s no need for the right arm actually to move above the left – it’s fine for them to run side by side – but it’s a good way of synchronising the movements and making them powerful.

Consolidation and learning new forms

it’s nice to take the time to consolidate the movements – there is always a little tension between moving on to new things (exciting) and staying with the things we’re learning until they feel comfortable and “bedded in”. The balance will be different for each person.

In formal education in schools and colleges, I think we often move on too fast: the pressure to follow someone else’s schedule can be heavy. As a student, you may just begin to feel that you’re making headway when it’s time to do something else. For many students, the whole school experience must feel like a long struggle to keep up. Never given the time to relax, consolidate and enjoy their mastery of the material.

In tai chi, in principle, there’s no time pressure at all. Traditionally, you might study the same form of perhaps 50-100 postures for a lifetime. The ultimate spiral curiculum – every time you look again at some element, you find more to ponder and develop in your practice.

The Yang Repulse Monkey – a few points for practising

The Yang style Repulse Monkey appears in the Yang 24 Form, and also in Dr Paul Lam’s Tai Chi for Osteoporosis.

Here are a few suggestions to bear in mind as you learn this intriguing movement.

Give yourself time to build up this movement gently. Learn the separate parts and practise enough that they begin to become natural and smooth. Then start to put them together.

Coordinating the movements is the hardest part. It takes a while to settle down, and you may – like me – find yourself revisiting the coordination for a long time to come. It’s a fascinating movement though, and all your effort will repay you.

Over time, you’ll not only develop an elegant comfortable shape to it, which will be unique to you, but you’ll also be awakening additional brain plasticity – the holy grail of anti-ageing for brains!

We’ve divided the movement into 3 main parts:

First practise turning torso from side to side – as with all tai chi movements, this comes from the pelvis, not the shoulders, and is worth practising by itself. If you have a mirror handy, use that to check yourself. Your whole torso is smoothly and gently turning from facing straight forward to about 45 degrees right, and then coming back to face front. Then turning equally smoothly and gently left. Keep this movement to this size for the time being.

As you become comfortable with it, check that you’re relaxing throughout the move and that your eyes are (for now) tracking with your torso. (The eye movement is slightly more complex than this, but this is a great start.)

The second part is our arm movement – more on this another time.

And the third is the backwards stepping.

The main thing to remember is to keep your feet comfortably separated – if they come close together, it’s harder to keep your balance.

A good way is to imagine a brightly coloured wide ribbon stretching from between your feet and away behind you. Make the width about the length of your foot, so your feet are about shoulder width apart. As you step back, place your leading foot on its side of the ribbon. The following foot will actually touch down on the ribbon on its toes, but the ribbon won’t mind. Use it to keep the overall movement wide and stable – and demanding.

This is fantastic for your balance, but it takes practice. Make your steps small and comfortably within reach to start with. You will naturally make them larger over time, and there’s no need to rush.

The 5 minute daily tai chi practice – a new course

This post formed part of the 10 June email to students of River Dragon Tai Chi:

4    The 5 min daily practice – a new course is on its way

Doing tai chi/qigong daily is a good thing! Some people find it easy to make it a habit, others find it harder. (I am one of the latter.)

I’ve been chatting with a few people who like the idea of having a little help with ensuring they do something every day. It’s particularly important for the over-stressed among us, since stress actually makes it harder for us to set up habits.

I’m currently developing a little course to help with this.  In its current form, it would run over 6-8 weeks. Each week, you would receive 2 or 3 short audios.

Starting with a first 5 minute audio, you simply decide when you want to do your practice (after brushing your teeth? after breakfast? after your 11 o’clock coffee?)

Press play, and follow the instructions. You don’t need anything but a square metre or so of space, maybe even less.

Over the weeks, the audios build from just 5 minutes up to around 20 or 30. You’re talked through aligning yourself physically, feeling your body, sinking the qi, running through the Foundation Practice (the “warm up”) and possibly other things, depending on demand and feedback. Emphasis is on using the movements not only to improve body coordination and health, but de-stressing too.

I am designing the audios so that you can pick and mix – according to what you most like, but also what you feel you need at any particular time. For example, on a busy day, you might choose to do 10 minutes mostly focusing on de-stressing, calming and aligning body and mind. That evening though, you might prefer to run through the whole Foundation Practice, and follow it with a quiet sinking the qi session before bed…

So, bit by bit you both build up your practice time (and reap the benefits), and build yourself a little library of easy to use audios that you can adjust to suit yourself.

What do you think? Might this be useful to people? I’d love to hear your ideas and feedback! Just hit reply…

Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound like you, you absolutely don’t need it to continue to come to class – it’s intended for people who can’t get to one of the classes (I’ll be making it available online), and people who want a bit more practice.

(However, if you think you might be interested in joining in, do let me know as soon as possible – I’d love a few more beta testers!)