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!

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!

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!)

Learning the Yang style Brush Knee movement

27 May 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly newsletter to past and present class members. The Brush Knee movement referred to is taught as part of the Tai Chi for Osteoporosis form put together by Dr Paul Lam and his colleagues.

 

Last week in both classes, we worked very hard on the brush knee movement. This is related to the brush knee twist step that many of you know better from Tai Chi for Arthritis, but there a couple of differences.

First, there’s no twist – instead of turning left or right through 90 degrees, we move straight forward.

Second, we join these movements together with the Yang weight shift.

The weight shift is strange at first. We move our weight deliberately forward from back foot to front with a powerful action of the arms. But then, instead of following up, we shift our weight backwards. The forward toe turns out a little and we step the back foot up to start the move on the opposite side.

This ‘rocking’ movement is characteristic of Yang, and takes a bit of getting used to.

Initially it can feel as though we keep interrupting ourselves just as we’re getting going. But that’s just what’s important about it – it asks us to pay attention to the detail of our movement, to know where our weight is at any time.

After a while, this interrupted, shifting, movement becomes ‘addictive’. You might find yourself doing it at odd moments, enjoying the feelings of control, balance and poise. This is when it starts to become naturally a part of you – and you become comfortable and graceful at this more demanding level.

The arm movements – particularly where the non-brushing arm does a graceful arc up and to one side before passing by your ear and then pressing forward – become smooth and relaxed.

Give yourself plenty of time to learn it, and be kind to yourself when your own capability comes and goes. You get it, and then it seems you haven’t… and then it’s there again.

This is simply a normal part of learning. Tricky, demanding skills don’t come all at once. You work at it, concentrating, trying to get it right. Then you seem to have grasped it – it all goes perfectly several times in a row. You start to relax, and then, disaster! you find yourself continually on the wrong foot.

What’s happened here is that you have got it – at the global level. You have a sense of the overall shape and rhythm. But there’s more to it. Of course.

At this point, you’re working to develop the details, and as these sort themselves out, it’s natural to make mistakes, lose the rhythm – and get a little frustrated.

Time, plus practice, persistence and patience will see you master the movement, better and more deeply than before.

As you develop more and more depth in your tai chi, this will happen over and over again. Something you thought you knew will become problematic. You’ll be uncertain about the exact shape, the  rhythm, the direction… it will seem awkward, where before you thought you knew it, or perhaps it had gone so smoothly you had never even thought about it.

Recognise this as a reassuring sign that you are learning! Give yourself time, practice, persistence and patience, and your skill will return, only deeper and better than before.

Enjoy your practice!

Any questions? Was this useful to you?

Tai chi results in 5 daily minutes

13 May 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly newsletter for past and present class members.

 

Many of you have told me that doing the class once a week, with no other practice at all, has excellent results. I’ve heard about better sleep, less back pain, better posture and body comfort, more energy…

And yet, if you do even 5 minutes a day, steadily, every day, you can expect even better and more results.

The reason is this: when you do your tai chi (or anything physical or mental), two things are happening.

First you get the results from the moment – in tai chi, your circulation improves for a while. Your breathing deepens and the extra oxygen helps growth and repair speed up in your body. Your mind calms, and that changes your nervous system from a stress response to a relaxation response – which feels great, and lets your body work as it is intended to.

This is pretty useful, isn’t it? But there’s more.

The second thing happening is that you’re training your body and mind. You’re training them to do these things – improve circulation, breathing and calm – and to do them more easily and more deeply. Every time you go through these experiences, you ‘groove’ them a little more into your brain and your body, into your neurology.

That means, every time you do your practice, you get a little bit of extra benefit on top.

How much extra benefit you get depends on how frequently you practice. Your mind and body like to learn fast – if I show you a new tai chi movement one month, and again the next month, and again 2 months later, you’ll probably find it hard to remember the details. If I show it to you one morning, and again that evening, and then twice more the next day, and again the next,… you’ll soon have it by heart, even if you never formally ‘learn’ it.

Practising your tai chi every day, even for a short while, gives your mind and body a real chance to groove the benefits in. And that means that the benefits get stronger and deeper. After a while, even thinking of your practice will set off a wonderful chain reaction. At this point, think of doing tai chi, and your circulation will be boosted, your breathing and mind will calm, you’ll be energised and ready for anything. Even in the middle of the most stressful day.

To start to reap these benefits, doing your tai chi for 5 minutes once a day is a good beginning. If you can do 5 minutes twice a day, you’ll see the difference. If you can find 20 minutes, so much the better.

And you probably can’t do too much. There are many stories from China in which people have recovered from terrible accidents, dangerous diseases and deep misfortune and unhappiness by doing tai chi and qigong for 2 – 6 hours a day.

When will you do your next practice?

The Owl Gaze – some notes and ideas for practising

28 April 2014 – This post was first sent as part of the weekly email for past and present class members.

People who have been doing tai chi for a while know that the direction and quality of your gaze is important. It’s just as important a part of the tai chi movements as the positioning of your limbs.

Really they’re all part of the same thing: your mind is learning to direct your body and your energy, and of course this has to include the way you use your eyes.

The eyes are special, though, because information is going both ways. They are part of how you direct your attention out into the world, and how you take in information about that world.

(Actually, it would be true to say that all of you is doing both, but it’s very easy to understand this about the eyes.)

Now, it’s tricky to learn the eye directions when you’re following along with me or with your classmates. The direction of your eyes is not entirely your own! I’ll say more about this another time.

But the other crucially important aspect is the quality of your gaze. This you can practise anywhere.

The tai chi gaze is soft, open and aware of everything in your environment. It’s a practice used in many different areas – martial arts, learning, meditation, woodsmanship… Let’s call it the Owl Gaze.

Try this for a moment – stare hard for 10 seconds at something roughly 6 – 10 feet away, narrowing your eyes a bit and really looking for as much detail as you can.

Then, carry on looking at whatever it was, while you soften and relax your gaze. Soften your attention and feel the muscles round your eyes relax, as you continue to look.

Notice that you can now choose to be aware of a widening volume of the space around you. From an intent stare at a small area, you open up to something approaching half a sphere in front of you – you can be aware of the space in front and above, below and to each side. If you hold your arms out to each side you can establish how wide your view is – just move your arms forward a little until you can pick up their movement.

So you have created a really large field of awareness. (Most people seem rarely to do this. We use our intent (foveal) gaze such a lot of the time.)

Keeping the Owl Gaze means continuing to be aware of this large field, noticing whatever happens within it, while remaining calm-minded, peaceful and unengaged. It’s fine to be interested, but your emotions are not involved.

Try the focused stare again, and then relax slowly into the Owl Gaze. This time, as you soften your gaze, notice how it affects the way you feel internally. Most people find that their whole body tends to relax, their mind and emotions tend to settle and calm, and there may be a general feeling of the mind brightening and the energy sinking at the same time.

This is perfect for tai chi – and, of course, for learning new things, for surviving in wild places, and for fighting off attacking ninja hordes!

If you’ve enjoyed doing this, then try the exercise of moving from highly focused to the Owl Gaze a few times each day, and then staying with the Owl for longer and longer periods.

This will transform your tai chi, and it’s very good for calming and de-stressing yourself. It’s also great for driving, especially at speed on motorways – a wide calm field of view that takes everything in – perfect. In fact, it’s a good way of doing many things (including writing this email).

And next time you’re in a coffee shop or at a party, when you’re not required to pay deep attention for a moment – just go into owl gaze and notice how much you can see, without focusing on anything in particular. You can often tell a lot about people’s mood and intentions, just by becoming gently aware of them against the backdrop of the whole scene. It’s an interesting exercise. Try it at your next tai chi lesson, too!

I would love your questions and feedback on these emails. Please let me know what you think!

Learning tai chi – not easy, but worthwhile

Learning can be a frustrating and confusing process.

In my tai chi classes, I watch people struggling with the unfamiliar forms. The Tai Chi for Health sets are easier to learn than the full long sets – the combination of carefully chosen movements and the Stepwise teaching method make a huge difference. But they are still challenging.

The shapes your body makes in doing tai chi and qigong are unfamiliar to most of us, brought up with Western exercises. Remembering the subtle choreography of a set takes time.

Confusingly, what you’ve learned seems to go in and out of focus. At the end of a class, we may congratulate ourselves on really getting to grips with ‘Moving Hands Like Clouds’, only to find at the next class that we have somehow lost any sense of it. It can happen like this with whole classes. Teaching, you find yourself going over the same ground several times, and you ponder how to teach it better.

But in reality this is what learning looks like, and it’s useful to remind ourselves of it. Too often, we think of learning as either/or – we either know something, or we don’t. Schools tend to work like this, and of course it’s the basis of most of our testing. Unfortunately it’s not true.

I have been working on learning the Sun 73 set. It is the full set from which the movements of most of the Tai Chi for Health forms are drawn. Learning it (especially from a DVD) is a salutary experience!

I knew a fair number of the movements from learning the Health sets, but the full set is something else. Many of the forms are complex and take place in a confusing space where it’s hard to tell if you should be stepping sideways or out at a 45 degree angle. As you watch the DVD over your shoulder, you don’t know whether to look at the feet, or the hands and arms, or attend to the turning of the waist. A single form may take you stepping in 4 directions, with complex hand movements for each. (I had endless trouble with ‘Fair Lady Working at the Shuttles’. In the end my partner took a series of stills of the screen, and I arrayed them in iPhoto in order – I was afraid that the slow motion control on the DVD player – and my patience – was going to break down. It took me roughly 3 hours to sort it out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of it is still wrong.)

I’ve had this sense of things coming in and out of focus over and over again as I learn. A form seems impenetrable: I watch in slow motion, trying to copy, trying to predict the next action. I get frustrated, break off for a sip of tea, go back to it.

After a while, I learned that it works for me to get a general idea of a tricky movement – the directions, the large shapes, the stepping. Then the best thing is probably to forget it for a few hours, maybe overnight. Later, I try again, without the DVD. Usually, it’s disastrous. But the renewed attempt often means that I’m asking the right questions when I look at the DVD again.

And sometimes, there is some miracle in which the body seems to learn by itself, without the interference of a conscious mind. When I come back the next day, the form is there, pretty much whole and properly shaped.

I see this in the participants in my classes. Sometimes, after some intense work on a new form, we all relax, shake off the absorbtion, and settle in to just let the forms happen. And I see them move effortlessly through some complex manoeuvre, surprising themselves. It may not happen again immediately, but some aspect of mind and body has been paying close attention. Things are going in and out of focus – learning is taking place.

As a teacher, it’s always good to be reminded of what it feels like to be learning something tough. As a human being, it’s one of the great pleasures of life – coming to grips with something worth knowing, wrestling with it, and eventually breaking through into a new place, where it is part of us, and we are just a little different.