Sifu's Training Insights

Tai Chi in Daily Life
Tai Chi Class

When are you "doing" Tai Chi?

Do you think you are doing Tai Chi only when you are performing the Tai Chi Form, or any of the other related Tai Chi exercises? If so, you have not yet truly integrated Tai Chi into your life and are missing out on many of the wonderful benefits of this amazing art.

Tai Chi is not only "Grasp The Sparrow's Tail" or "Snake Creeping Down The Mountain." Tai Chi is a holistic set of concepts and principles based on Taoist philosophy. An exploration of Taoist philosophy will greatly enhance your appreciation of Tai Chi. If you haven't yet, be sure to read carefully Lao Tzu's Tao Te King, considered to be the basic text of Taoist philosophy. Note that many passages that appear to be arcane become quite clear when read with a background in Tai Chi. Some references are related to meditation practices, others deal with Taoist breathing techniques. If after reading these passages, the connection to Tai Chi is still obscure, feel free to ask your Sifu for clarification.

One of the most important concepts in Tai Chi is the theory of yin and yang. In fact, if I were asked what is Tai Chi, I would answer "Tai Chi is about the transformation of yin to yang and back again." Obviously, this is an extremely broad statement that can be interpreted many ways. In the Tai Chi exercises we understand that yin and yang occurs as a constant cycle of change in the amount of muscle tone present at any point of our body. If the movements are performed smoothly and evenly then we should see a gradual transition between yin and yang This is more obvious in the Yang style of Tai Chi. Other styles of Tai Chi may have changes in speed and power within the same form, as in some of the Chen style forms.)

Taoism believes that everything in nature can be described as a combination of yin and yang in balance. Do not mistake balance to mean equal value. Examine a typical 24 hour day. Is this time divided equally into day and night? Not usually. In fact, the length of the day will vary according to the location on the earth and the season of the year. We find that the length of the day is actually constantly changing. Yet, it would be rather unusual to call a day "out of balance" because of this fluctuation.

When we fail to acknowledge natural change and adjust, we are the ones who are out of balance. Adapting to change is our main resource in battling stress. When we try not to change we are fighting nature and that is certainly going to create or increase our stress.

Whereas the above deals more with the use of the philosophy of Tai Chi, what about something more simple, such as the physical changes we have gained through our exercises?

Physically, Tai Chi teaches us to use minimum effort in all our actions. Any movement, or posture can be accomplished with minimum effort. However, the minimum required will vary according to the circumstances.

It obviously takes a stronger effort to lift 100 lbs. than it takes to lift 1 lb. (I usually use minimum effort by getting someone else to do the lifting!) Many times new students will remark to me that their Tai Chi training is "giving" them more energy. I explain that in most cases they have not "created" more energy doing Tai Chi. Instead they have noticed the difference in being more efficient and not wasting their energy to begin with.Most of their energy had been wasted in maintaining tension in muscles when it was totally unnecessary, such as in keeping the shoulders extremely tight.

Throughout the day, try to be aware if you are using the minimum effort in whatever you are doing. You will notice that the minimum effort is a value that will continue to decrease as you become more relaxed and achieve a stronger mind body connection.

Have you ever wondered how tenors can project their voices to fill huge opera houses-without microphones? Or how actors can make soft words audible even in the last row of a theater? The secret is simply diaphragmatic breathing coupled with good posture. Ring a bell? Well, that's how we are taught to breath in Tai Chi meditation, Chi Kung or Tai Chi Form, Self Defense, etc. If we continue to use diaphragmatic breathing in all our activities we will have more strength, use less energy and feel more relaxed. That's just what you should feel when you're doing your Tai Chi exercises as well.

In my school we teach a very specific breathing pattern which is performed in coordination to the Tai Chi form and is designed to recycle and build up our Chi. If you have not learned such a pattern, your Tai Chi teacher may teach it only at the more advanced levels. This is common when the teacher places more emphasis on relaxation or other factors in the beginning of a student's training. It is also common that, for various reasons, some Tai Chi teachers prefer not to teach any specific breathing pattern with the form. This is usually the case when the teacher feels that learning such a pattern would cause the student to remain, or become, tense.

Another physical habit we try to create in our Tai Chi exercises is keeping our shoulders loose and down. How many times have you heard that reminder from your teacher? I know I'm constantly telling my students "Shoulders down!" The repetition is not because teachers like to nag, but because we are working to eliminate a bad habit which probably has existed for many years. The only way to do that is with a great deal of reinforcement.

There are very few daily actions where it is necessary to raise your shoulders. Identify those times when you are needlessly using the trapezious muscles on the top of your shoulder and you feel your neck becoming tight. How are you sitting when you work at your computer? While driving? While reading a book? etc. Don't lift your shoulders out of habit and you'll find yourself relaxing more and feeling more energy.

There are many more ways that Tai Chi should be a part of your everyday life. I'll continue this discussion in a future article. Feel free email me with your comments or questions.