How Tai Chi Improves Sports Performance - Part II

In an earlier blog, we talked about how real power comes from being relaxed while in motion. In Tai Chi, we learn to let the force come from the earth below, up through our bodies and into the push, pull, throw or swing. This is known as moving the body as a unit, or whole body movement. The true force of the movement comes from the DanTian or center of gravity. Tai Chi also improves your proprioception—awareness of your body in space—which will help you more quickly and efficiently.

Now, let’s look at how we can accomplish this based on classic Tai Chi teachings:

  • Hold your head upright naturally, without stiffness.

  • Lengthen your spine, which will help you breathe more deeply by using the diaphragm, instead of the lungs.

  • Roll the hips by dropping the tailbone slightly without moving the legs, both of which should rotate independently of the hips.

  • Shift your center of gravity from one foot to the other, which helps you distinguish where your weight is.

  • Keep your shoulders and elbows down, relaxed and open to help achieve and maintain relaxation.

  • Coordinate the upper and lower parts of the body so that they move simultaneously, with the eyes following along.

  • Keeps movements circular and continuous.

  • Release any unnecessary tension and keep the mind open to harmonize the internal and external flow.

  • Move slowly at first, gradually increasing your speed once you are able to turn lightly without using external strength.

These classic Tai Chi teachings will bring you to a state where your posture is aligned, your body and mind are open and relaxed, and your movements are continuous. The more you practice, the more it will gel and you will able to return to this state more easily. Let stillness control your movements and enhance your performance. You may also find that you will go through your day with a relaxed mind and body!

Bottom line: you can’t force internal power. It’s not a no pain, no gain in Tai Chi.

Finding the Right Tai Chi Instructor - Part I

At all levels of learning Tai Chi, having a good experience is about finding the right instructor.

Because it affects your health and well-being, your search is almost as important as finding the right doctor or dentist. It takes time and energy, and it’s difficult to even know where to start.

First, you need to understand what your goals are, and what you hope to accomplish by learning Tai Chi. Do you want to learn the martial aspects? Do you want to learn Tai Chi to compete? Or are you looking for a way to improve your health, flexibility, balance and peace of mind?

It also helps to understand something about the various styles and forms available, as well as the lineages and nuances within each. Some styles are more athletic, and may not be appropriate for all ages and/or physical conditions. Others are more adaptable and can be performed sitting, in a wheelchair or even in bed. Be sure to consider your body and physical condition as well as your goal when you choose. For a good overview, check out Which Tai Chi Form is Best for Me.

What about your learning style? Do you learn best by hearing, watching or doing? Or do you learn best in another manner? Also, keep in mind there are many styles of teaching. Teaching can be done silently, with the student emulating the instructor. In other cases, a student works with a junior instructor until they reach a certain level, at which point they are eligible to learn from a more senior or master-level instructor. Some instructors are more hands-on and teach form by breaking down the movements into smaller segments. You will want to choose an instructor whose style you are most comfortable with.

Finally, you can narrow your search by location, time and cost. Depending on where you live, you may find a Tai Chi school. Otherwise, look for classes at community education centers, exercise facilities and senior centers. If you live in a rural area, your choice of instructors and/or classes will likely be more limited. You always have the option of learning online or from a DVD, but keep in mind that it takes a great deal of body awareness to ensure that your alignment and movements are done correctly and safely. For this reason, some instructors offer online classes along with face-to-face time via a program such as Skype.

Though it may seem overwhelming, finding the right instructor and class will be worth your time, especially when you find the form that feels like a good fit.

Watch for Part II of Find the Right Tai Chi Instructor, where we’ll take a deeper look at instructor qualities, personality and training.

How Tai Chi Improves Sports Performance

Professional and amateur athletes are under pressure to deliver and maintain a high level of performance. This often leads to them pushing themselves to their physical limits, resulting in increased stress and anxiety. Many turn to cross-training, which at times causes their body and mind even more stress. Some athletes have plateaued, some are stuck in a rut, while others are recovering from injury and looking for new, less strenuous methods of training.

Given what you already know, it shouldn’t be surprising that Tai Chi can help improve athletic performance. And no special equipment is required.

Tai Chi accomplishes this in multiple ways. It teaches us how to relax through correct alignment of the body. It also teaches us how to use motion with little to no effort. This is important, because real power comes from relaxed motion, while true force comes from rooting into the earth and up through our relaxed bodies. The hands express what is happening in the Dan Tian. The Tai Chi Classics state that “the motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers.” The eyes follow the hand movements as all parts move together. Sounds a lot like how baseball great Curt Schilling described throwing the perfect pitch.

When even one part of the body doesn’t follow the others, the body does not move as a unit. When you use the Tai Chi principles of body-alignment and movement, you can move with more power instead of wasting energy by holding in excess tension. Using effortless power refines your movements and releases any tension that you are holding, and the slow movements allow you to recognize where you have extra tension that is negatively affecting your movements and performance.

Tai Chi also improves focus, mental flexibility and awareness of your body in space, and thus improves our mind-body response time. Every swing, push or pull becomes a whole body movement, because the force is coming from our Dan Tian, or center of gravity. The result is quick and efficient reaction.

Looking for real-world examples? How about Tiger Woods, who practiced qigong early in life and still practices swinging from his Dan Tian? Or NBA great Robert Parish, who believed Tai Chi extended his career by helping him integrate the mind-body connection. Regular practice develops new neuromuscular pathways, which increase internal and external balance.

Whether you are a professional, semi-professional or even a weekend warrior, Tai Chi can help you achieve even greater athletic performance! You have nothing to lose and much to gain, so give it a try.

Can Tai Chi Relieve Hip Pain?

There’s an excellent chance that Tai Chi can help your hip pain!

First let’s see what we know about the hip joint. Unlike the knees or elbows, which don’t have a wide range of movement, the hip joints are ball and socket joints. They allow the legs to move relative to the body and enable a wide variety of complex rotations.

Now, let’s look at some common causes of hip pain:

  • Fractures

  • Bursitis

  • Tendonitis

  • Cancer

  • Muscle strain

  • Arthritis

  • Sedentary lifestyle

As we age, the fluid within the joint capsule decreases, which causes friction within the joint. Some exercises, such as running and weightlifting, can also squeeze the fluid out. The good news is that when your practice Tai Chi regularly and correctly, the rotation of the hip socket restores fluid in the joint capsule.

Hip movements should always be initiated by the legs. In other words, the hips remain receptive and passive. We allow them to rotate, but do not force them. Any tension or clenching will prevent clean and smooth rotation, which in turn will cause the body to become tense, the breathing to become shallow and the movement to be stifled or superficial.

According to Sam Masich, a Canadian Tai Chi competitor, the weight of the body passes through a well-positioned hip and directly into the thighs. Without correct hip position, the body will distribute its weight, not into the thighs, but into various other muscles. This also puts stress on the knees.

What about Tai Chi and total hip replacements? After surgery, you need to adhere to the Tai Chi principles of relaxing, keeping the body upright and turning from the hips, within reasonable limits. Pair these principles with clear differentiation between full and empty steps. According to Dr. Carl Hendel, certain movements must be avoided or modified. Be sure to talk to your physician before starting or returning to Tai Chi. Also keep your Tai Chi instructor informed, as correctly practicing Tai Chi will strengthen the tissues and decrease the likelihood of problems.

Our hips are responsible for mobility, power and stability, so go hit that practice floor!

Ouch! My Aching Knee! Will Tai Chi Help?

According to the 2008 study by the CDC and the University of Carolina, the risk of having symptomatic knee osteoarthritis is nearly 45%. Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, Faculty Editor of Harvard Health Publishing, states more than 700,000 knee replacements are performed annually in the United States. According to Dr. Shmerling, if the usual treatments of weight loss, exercise, pain relievers, anti-inflammatories and physical therapy worked well, there would be fewer knee replacements.

And yes, studies have found that Tai Chi can help ease osteoarthritis knee pain.

In 2009, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, researchers led by Dr. Chenchen Wang, studied 40 individuals with symptomatic tibiofemoral osteoarthritis. Chosen randomly, one group performed 12 weeks of Tai Chi twice a week, while the control group received the same amount of wellness education and stretching. The Tai Chi group scored higher on pain relief, physical function, quality of life and decreased depression. The researchers repeated the study at 24 and 48 weeks and concluded that Tai Chi reduces pain and improves physical function, self-efficacy, depression and quality of life for individuals with knee osteoarthritis.

In 2016, Boston researchers conducted a 12-week study comparing physical therapy with Tai Chi in 204 adults with painful knee arthritis Chosen randomly, both groups had significant improvement in pain, which lasted a full year. However, the Tai Chi group did better on decreased depression and improved quality of life. The researchers also compared Tai Chi instructors to determine if there was a difference in their personalities, charisma, experience and none was found. Of course, we know that Tai Chi has many more benefits than just pain relief.

The knee is a weight transferring joint, not a weight bearing joint. Body weight should only pass through the back of the knees, as there is no support in the front of the knee, only a “floating kneecap.” To bend the knees, bend at the hips (or Kua), like sitting back on a stool. Focus your attention on the back of the knee, moving gravity down through the center of the hip into the center of the back of the knee. Then into the foot. Then the ground. In other words, let the weight travel straight down the leg(s).

Knees should never bend inward, bow outward or go too far forward. You should be able to see your toes over you knee. Never rotate the knees, as they don’t handle wrenching or twisting well. There is little to no reason to bend knees deeply when practicing Tai Chi. You will still derive the same benefits with a slight knee bend, and without the risk.

And always remember, if you experience a sharp or deep pain: STOP.

In a previous blog, we discussed Tai Chi walking or stepping. The way you walk affects the knees. Be sure you are stable before taking that first step, maintain good posture, and be mindful of what you are doing. You may want to go back and re-read the Tai Chi Walking blog.

If you have had a knee replacement, you still need to find an exercise that provides range of motion, flexibility and muscle strength to improve, not only your quality of life, but the longevity of your new knee. Tai Chi is gentle on your knees and can provide all that, in addition to helping with weight loss and gait retraining. Tai Chi also improves your sense of your body’s position and movement (known as proprioception) more than swimming, running, and, of course, being sedentary.

Many students do Tai Chi well into their 90s because it is very low impact and provides many health benefits. Always check with your physician before starting a Tai Chi exercise program, and make sure your Tai Chi instructor is certified and knows how to teach correctly. He or she should understand how the body works. When done incorrectly, even Tai Chi can hurt more than help your natural or replacement knee. And if you have any questions or experience pain during or after class, talk to your instructor.

Your knees are depending on you!

Why Tai Chi Helps to Improve Balance!

"For many years my family and I visited Willow River State Park in Hudson, Wi. At that park is a fantastic tiered waterfall that folks love to walk and splash all over. I loved to follow my two kids around and play, but I was always shaky and unsure on the smooth rocks and flowing water. I spend more time stumbling than having fun. This year it was different, I have a new found sense of balance and sure-footedness. I haven't had that much fun at the falls in years."

The above is from Jerry, one of my students who has been practicing Tai Chi for several months.

No matter what age or physical condition, everyone needs better balance and muscle control. According to Stanwood Chang, a Tai Chi instructor at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, “In just 12 weeks, I’ve seen people improve their balance and stability and walk faster and farther.”

Tai Chi works the glutes and quadriceps, the largest muscle groups in the body, which are the first to atrophy as we age. These muscles are very important to balance. As you move from one pose to another, gradually shifting weight and extending your legs, you challenge your balance. You also become more familiar with balance in a number of different positions. This brings more awareness to the soles of the feet, ankles and weight distribution. Bone density and joint stability also improve as you stretch and strengthen your muscles at the same time.

Tai Chi improves balance in healthy adults, those with neurological conditions and conditions or disorders that cause balance issues. A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found the program to be effective for Parkinson’s disease. Other studies found that improvement in balance equated to improvement in the quality of life for those recovering from stroke, patients with multiple sclerosis and those with other related conditions.

Tai Chi is more dynamic than it looks. According to Dr. Peter Wayne, research director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, depending on intensity, Tai Chi is equivalent aerobically to a brisk walk and similar to more rigorous forms of weight training.

In other words, Tai Chi targets all physical components needed to stay upright: leg strength, range of motion, flexibility and reflexes, all of which decline as we age. Tai Chi also makes you more aware of your body and the external world. However, it is not just for the older population. Younger, more fit students will find that it can be quite demanding and invigorating. It all depends on the form being practiced. You might be surprised to find that even elite athletes practice Tai Chi for better balance and muscle control. Elite athlete or not, practicing Tai Chi has many physical and mental benefits.

Check out the class list and find the one that fits for you!

What (If Any) Part Can Tai Chi Play in Addiction Recovery?

You would have to live in under a rock to be unaware of the opioid epidemic. Believe it or not, opiods are the #1 cause of drug overdose in the US today. And it’s not just opioids. What about alcohol addiction? Other drug addictions? Sex addiction? Gambling addiction?

List goes on and on…

Obviously, there are an endless variety of addictions, and an endless number of causes behind them. But regardless of the addiction, just about everyone is looking for a more effective, non-pharmacologic method of treatment.

Let’s focus on chemical (drug and alcohol) addiction. Here’s are some typical consequences of chemical addiction:

  • The ability to manage stress and tension is compromised

  • There is an increase in depression, negative outlook, cravings and impulsivity

  • There is a decrease in energy, clarity and sense of well-being

  • From a biological perspective, toxic debris lodges in the tissues, affecting both physical and mental wellness

  • Coping mechanisms become more impaired as the duration of addiction increases

Because Tai Chi combines movements, visualization, breathing and meditation, it creates a powerful complementary therapy for many addictions. Hence, the reason it is employed in many recovery and treatment centers. Not only is Tai Chi a tool that can be used to keep addiction at bay for the rest of your life, but when combined with traditional treatment, it literally becomes a mind-body flow to recovery.

So, you’re asking, how does Tai Chi help? Consider that regular Tai Chi practice:

  • releases stress, anxiety, tension and restlessness

  • helps you keep your emotions in balance

  • improves blood and lymph flow, which speeds up removal of debris and toxins

  • strengthens coping mechanisms, resulting in lower relapse rates

  • reduces cravings and impulsivity, and decreases depression

  • improves strength, flexibility, clarity and mindfulness

Opioid abuse and misuse in the military has been the focus of the Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management. This task force, designated as a Defense Department Center of Excellence, has stated that they now have good evidence for the use of non-pharmacologic, non-opioid treatment and endorse the use of alternative modalities, such as Tai Chi, qigong and yoga.

At one time or another, we all (addicts and non-addicts) experience stress, cravings, pain, or lack of clarity. Try doing five to ten minutes of Tai Chi or even qigong. You may find out that you feel so much better, that ten minutes will stretch into twenty or more. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What Does the Yin Yang Symbol Mean?

Have you noticed that very little of the answers to these questions are straightforward or simple?

The Yin Yang symbol, also know as “Taiji” or Taijitu”, dates back to ancient China before the 3rd century BCE and represents the unity and duality of nature. The complementary forces interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Neither is static, and their interactions are thought to maintain the harmony and balance of the universe and to influence everything within it. It is a central concept in Chinese philosophy, science, medicine, and martial arts.

260px-Yin_yang.svg.png

Consider these details:

  • The circle is equally divided into black/white sections to represent the interaction of energy found in all things

  • The S-like shape signifies the dependence of both sides on one another as they yield to and push into each other

  • The black area contains has small white circle, while the white area contains a small black circle, indicating that within each opposing force, there is a small part of the other

Think about similar real world examples such as life/death, heaven/earth, male/female, black/white, night/day and dark/light

The color black represents “Yin,” or female energy, which is characterized by:

  • Restiveness/receptiveness/passiveness

  • Intuition ~ sense of understanding life and its nuances resides in Yin energy

  • Creativity ~ builds up and bursts forth motivating Yang energy into action

  • Submissiveness ~ balance against aggressive Yang energy

  • Softness ~ flexible, capable of bending and giving

The color white represents “Yang,” or male energy, which is characterized by:

  • Power

  • Logic

  • Enlightenment ~motivates and inspires to understand and reach enlightenment

  • Dominance ~ dominates in its strength and massive force

  • Hardness ~ unbending, hard energy

The height of Yin influence is during the Winter Solstice, while Yang’s influence is greatest during the Summer Solstice. Linguistically, the Chinese Yin is the “shady side of the mountain” and the Yang is the “sunny side of the mountain.”

But it is the same mountain.

Confucianism focuses on Yang and Taoism focuses on Yin. Though both are necessary, under Confucianism, the belief was that Yang was superior which led to justification for China’s patriarchal history and also led to the persecution and extinction of Asian sun goddess cults outside of Korea and Japan.

The Yin Yang symbol is an excellent interpretation of life and how each action, characteristic, and aspect has an opposite effect and one cannot exist without the other. Balance is created when they work in unison.

Something to keep in mind when we are practicing Tai Chi!

Are Tai Chi and Qigong the Same Thing?

Although they have some similarities, Tai Chi and qigong are not the same.

The Chinese believed that proper flow of qi would result in a fit body, long life, and self-defense and that unbalanced qi led to diseases. Therefore, they developed qigong and Tai Chi to restore qi. Both work with qi energy, often in very different ways, but with similar benefits.

Let’s look how they are alike:

  • mind-body practices that offer many health benefits

  • done in slow motion

  • safe

  • emphasis is qi or energy

  • use visualization, body movements, meditation, and breathing to guide flow of qi

  • goal to improve flexibility, strength, and balance

  • challenging, energy-boosting techniques

Now let’s look at how they differ:

Qigong                                                                            Tai Chi

3,000 to 5,000 years old                                             800 years old

Hundreds of styles                                                       Five major schools with many forms in each

Means “cultivation of energy”                                  Means “internal martial arts”, “supreme ultimate fist”

A series of exercises done over and over            A set of exercises done a few times and then moves on

Quicker to learn, simple movements                    Takes longer to learn, more complex movements

Based on traditional Chinese way of life               Based on martial arts, focus on internal energy

Can sometimes involve no movement                  Focus on form, series of movements, posture alignment

  only breathing or meditation                                    and body mechanics

Free form, less rigid                                                     Disciplined, specific principles to follow

Considered an element of daily living                   Promotes strength, health, fitness, good posture,

 and traditional Chinese medicine                           increases mental focus and stress management

Health, healing, meditation focus                           Can also be applied for self-defense as well as the above

Anti-aging emphasis                                                   Emphasis on movements, energy flow, resilience

Most people prefer Tai Chi because the flow of movements are interesting and relaxing; essentially an exercise for the whole body combined with meditation. Tai Chi practices always include concepts and theories and usually include qigong. However, qigong won’t necessarily include Tai Chi. Keep in mind that you can combine both in order to reap more benefits.

How do you decide which one to choose? It depends on you and your situation and how much interest you have. Also, the amount of time are you willing to commit. Can you try one now and change your mind later? Absolutely. Many community education classes have 6-8 week blocks. This is a chance for you to see if that is the path you want to follow.

Can you combine both? Absolutely. Some Tai Chi forms such as TCA 1 and 2 and Tai Chi for Energy (Tai Chi for Health Institute) combine both. Is one better than another? It depends on whom you ask. Each practitioner will tell you their art is the best.

Only you can decide what feels right for you!

What Are the Benefits of Tai Chi Walking?

There are many benefits and variations of Tai Chi walking. As long as you transfer your weight from one foot to the other and stay in your personal comfort zone, it is safe and effective. Some people equate it to walking like a cat; taking light quiet steps. Some like to meditate while they walk. If you want or need, it can also be your bridge to meditation. Combining meditation and physical activity is the emerging foundation of integrative medicine, mind body medicine, holistic health care, wellness, fitness and disease prevention.

Benefits of Tai Chi walking:

  • Improves balance

  • Calms and relaxes

  • Sinks the qi

  • Decreases the incidence of falls

  • It’s safe, inexpensive, effective

  • Can be done inside or outdoors

If you are new to Tai Chi (or just wish to improve your form) Tai Chi walking is a great exercise to practice. To do Tai Chi correctly one must practice proper body alignment, while moving the joints and the body as a unit. It is important to focus on the principles of rooting, grounding and weight shifting, whether Tai Chi walking or doing form.

The head is large and heavy, which causes people to lead with the upper body when moving forward. If you doubt that, take a look at someone with a cellphone in their hand as they walk! With our body upright and weight correctly shifting from one foot to the other, all body movements are directed by the Dantian which transfers power from the lower to the upper body. Yes, you read this correctly! The waist (Dantian) directs the rooting power from the Earth and the legs to the upper body as the torso turns from side to side. If another part of the body directs the movement, the energy (qi) and power are greatly diminished, and full health benefits are lost.

How to start:

  • Place the feet together, knees soft or slightly bent and weight distributed evenly on both feet.

  • Transfer all the weight to one leg and slowly lift the heel of the unweighted foot. Now lift the unweighted foot and take a natural step forward (shorter is better here). Place the heel down, then lower the foot without weight, at about a 45 degree angle outward. Now slowly transfer the full weight to the front foot. The back foot is now unweighted. Both heels should be on the floor.

  • Repeat by lifting the heel of the unweighted foot, lift the foot and take a natural step forward (do not overstep), placing the heel down, then the foot at about a 45 degree angle outward without weight. Now transfer the full weight to the front foot.

  • Repeat until you are comfortable, out of room, or out of time.

When walking, look straight ahead, breathe normally and focus on the bottom of the feet. Sinking is subtle and relies on being relaxed and going slowly to create a smooth, even gait.

Did you notice that your eyes look straight ahead, rather than down at a cell phone or ipod? And the best part about Tai Chi walking? It can be done anywhere, within reason. The park. The mall. Target, Macy’s, Nordstrom – do you see where I’m going with this? What’s not to love?

What is the Tai Chi Principle of Chen (Or Sinking Your Qi)?

The principle “Chen” is not the same as the Chen style of Tai Chi.

Chen (pronounced “chuen”) means sinking. When you sink, you integrate the external and the internal body, enhancing your stability and improving balance. Focusing on your Dantian strengthens your internal structures and spine, and improves your coordination.

Many Tai Chi masters believe sinking the qi is absolutely necessary. Not sinking the qi causes the qi to rise, and results in illnesses, insomnia, tension and many other physical and mental problems. When the body relaxes and the qi sinks below the Dantian, qi and blood flow freely. This promotes health and healing, and results in a centered mind.

Qi is very important for good health and we would die without it and its flow. A big part of sinking the qi is developing song and jing. Sinking allows the skeleton to effortlessly hold the weight of the body, and lets the mind soak deeper and deeper into the body. Nothing should be forced.

The main reason that we perform the form with naturally bent legs is so the conscious mind can feel the pressure in the thighs and tell the subconscious mind that we are sinking. In other words, sinking physically will cause the qi to sink to the Dantian. Move from the Dantian and the body will move in accordance with each posture, activating the qi in the particular meridian(s). It also promotes blood and energy flow throughout the body, and removes chronic damaging tension from your daily movements. 

Sinking the qi will allow the practitioner to achieve all the benefits that internal systems can offer. 

To practice, breathe in and out slowly and gently. Hold your head correctly and relaxed without tension in the neck or shoulders. Lower your elbows to relax the shoulders without overextending the arms. Keep your armpits slightly open and arms slightly bent in a curve. Upright alignment allows Qi to flow from the upper to the lower body.  Focus your mind on the lower Dantian, just below the navel, when exhaling. Allow the body to sink effortlessly using focus instead of force. Relax your Dantian as you lower your abdomen and pelvis bones, and allow your body to settle. Loosen and open your hip joints and waist with your knees bent naturally. When transferring your weight from one leg to the other, relax your body weight down into the weight-bearing leg and allow the heavy feeling to move through you without weighing you down. Visualize your spine elongating and the energy flowing down through your leg, into the earth. This will improve your balance, and your moves will become more effortless. You will feel lighter and more open.

These principles, not the forms and choreography, are the foundation of Tai Chi. However, once you are familiar with the choreography, break down the movements in detail and work on the underlying principles which make Tai Chi “Tai Chi,” rather than just moving our arms and legs. Remember to focus, relax and sink your qi when you practice. You may be surprised at the difference it will make!  

Does Tai Chi Have Any Effect on Depression?

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is one of the most prevalent mental illnesses in America. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 300 million individuals with MDD in the world. It is estimated that 16.2 million US citizens aged 18 or above had at least one major depressive episode in 2016 (6.7% of all American adults). Late-life depression (LLD) is also common and debilitating, with less frequent remission and more frequent recurrence after first-line antidepressant treatments than depression experienced earlier in life.

With the population aging rapidly, there is an increased need to identify the factors that will increase resilience to developing depression. Psychological resilience in LDD is defined as “the capacity to maintain or regain, psychological well-being in the face of challenge.” However, in MDD, it refers to the net effect of a variety of psychosocial and biological variables, which decrease the risk of onset or relapse, severity of illness, or recovery speed.

Usual treatments are psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy. However, current treatments are unsatisfactory due to high non-response rates, high drop out rates, high relapse rates, undesirable side effects and low remission rates. Because of the drawbacks of current treatments, alternative and complementary therapies are needed to treat MDD. Evidence indicates that Tai Chi (also called movement Qigong) can significantly regulate emotion and relieve symptoms of mood disorders. Recent studies also show that it may reduce stress and modulate inflammation.

Tai Chi, Qigong, and Yoga (meditative movements) are recognized as complementary approaches to relieving musculoskeletal pain, improving sleep, and reducing blood pressure, but not much focus has been on their effect on MDD. In 2018, a group of researchers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of random controlled studies on the effect of meditative movements on MDD. Meta-analysis showed a significant benefit on depression severity and significantly improved remission rates when compared to non-meditative exercises. Movement-based interventions (especially Tai Chi) have been shown to “outperform convention physical exercise” regarding mood, cognitive functioning and depressive symptoms.

When doing Tai Chi, attention is focused on body, posture, movement, and breathing. Focus is taken away from stressors, and repeating movements in a mindful way can change the attention and relieve the depressive symptoms. It can also modulate brain structures in the area related to mood regulation through safe and easily accessible lessons.

Clinicians may consider recommending meditative movements for symptomatic management of patients with MDD. One concern is that some Tai Chi movements are complex and don’t work well for clinical intervention, therefore, some researchers feel that there is a need to develop a simplified Tai Chi protocol tailored specifically for depression. Others feel that more randomized controlled trials are warranted. The good news is that Tai Chi (and other meditative movements exercises) may provide a useful alternative to, or augment existing mainstream treatments for MDD without significant adverse effects.

Yet another reason to continue your Tai Chi journey!

What Do We Mean by the Tai Chi Principle of "Jing?"

The Tai Chi principle of jing (sometimes spelled “jin”) can be very confusing. There are numerous meanings and interpretations of jing. I will cover a few of them.

Jing has been described as the Chinese word for mental quietness. This definition refers to putting your mind in “quiet mode.” Remember “jing” as a key word when your mind wanders, as it will help bring you back to a quiet mental state. This is quite different from other interpretations or definitions I encountered in my research.

One interpretation is that jing energy is chi/qi that is directed by the mind. There are 36 basic types of jing energy and even more methods, combinations and expressions of energy, both physical and energetic. No wonder it is so hard to pin down a single definition.

Some authors assert there are two major definitions of jing energy.. The spiritual definition is an energy that is created by your essence. Medically, jing relates to a biochemical characteristic found in our fluids which originates from our center. Poor lifestyles deplete jing, while healthy lifestyles increase and strengthen jing.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), there are three types of energy (also called jewels or treasures) which sustain human life. These are jing, qi/chi and shen. You are born with a fixed amount of jing (or essence). Jing is considered the nutritive essence, carried in sperm and blood, and stored in the kidneys. We consume it throughout our lives, and when we are depleted, we die.

Jing forms the essence of who and what we are. Life’s primal energy, so to speak. It is this energy that determines your vitality, and the quality/quantity of your lifespan. Jing is believed to be the “supreme ultimate treasure to be nourished, protected and preserved in the Taoist tradition.”

By now you probably realize that jing is extremely hard to define. It can be referred to as resilience, sensitivity or internal power. In fact, jing can be expressed without any physical movement on the part of the advanced practitioner

Many definitions of jing are related to Tai Chi as a “fighting art”. The Gin Soon Tai Chi Chuan Federation recognizes four different types of jing: listening, doing, yielding and fa jing (an explosive strike). Jing is  the key to victory and mastery in Tai Chi as a martial art. Accordingly, a practitioner’s understanding of jing is key to controlling the opponent or being controlled. Without jing, your Tai Chi is an ineffective method of self protection.

Along with a healthy lifestyle, Tai Chi and qigong will help you develop jing energy.  However, building a large quantity, of high quality jing takes a lot of time and work. You don’t want to deplete it because it does sound like your life depends on it, doesn’t it? 

Time to practice, practice, practice!

Why Slow is the Best Way to Practice Tai Chi

Performing Tai Chi movements slowly seems to be a challenge for the majority of students. To be honest, at times, it’s a challenge for instructors as well. We know that according to the Tai Chi principles , we should move slowly.

But why?

Is it because the circular movements take longer to perform? Or is it so that we pay more attention to the actual movement? Does it have to do with building internal power? Or is it because it is better for our bodies and mental well being? The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes!

It is hard to separate the physical from the mental benefits of Tai Chi because they are so entwined. Tai Chi is often referred to as moving meditation because the movements are mindful and promote relaxation. They also allow you to relax the mind and notice more depth in the movement. Through the slow, circular movements, our focus follows and directs the positioning of our hands and feet, which improves our balance and coordination, while helping us to reconnect our mind with our body. Grounding, rooting and centering are enhanced when we go slowly. The result is an improvement in our nervous system as we become more aware of our body and let go of the fight/flight tendencies caused by the stress of the modern world.

We know that Tai Chi provides excellent exercise for the muscles and joints. Faster movements result in using momentum rather than strength. The slow movements slowly stretch and relax our muscles which promotes blood circulation throughout our entire body without vigorous exertion. Neck and back pain are reduced as we gently turn and twist the spine. Through practice, we learn to relax tense muscles which contribute to chronic pain and discomfort. Slow movements also build “slow twitch” muscles which support joints. Slow motion and dynamic stretching allow connective tissue (a type of tissue that provides internal support and cohesion in the body) to slide and maintain the proper form of the body.

Slow movement also allows the joints to align properly for safe movement and better blood flow. Flexibility is improved. Safety is enhanced as you step in a mindful manner while transferring your weight. You become more aware of your posture and alignment. You begin to notice the places where your movements are not smooth and fluid. Areas that you need to focus on while practicing.

How about our breathing? Our breathing will also become slow and deep as we move slowly, making it easier to integrate our breath with our movements. The diaphragm mobilizes and causes the rise and fall in pressure of the abdominal and chest cavities. Our body functions are enhanced as the rising and falling pressure massages the organs and glands. The flow of lymph (which returns fluid from the tissues back into the central venous system) in the entire body is also activated.

What about qi, or our internal energy? Qi flows like water. Going too fast doesn’t allow it to flow properly. Slow, focused movements allow the Tai Chi practitioner to develop inner strength, or internal power, which is much more powerful than the brute strength of hard martial arts. In addition, Tai Chi practice develops greater accuracy, speed (when necessary), coordination and heightened opponent awareness. According to the Gin Soon Tai Chi Chuan Federation, Tai Chi is efficient at developing internal power. The Federation believes that intent is the commander of all movement. Slow movements focus on the Yin and fast movements focus on the Yang. Harmony is achieved!

I also want to mention heart health. Harvard Medical School researchers state “regular practice for as little as 12 weeks could help give you a ‘healthy body, strong heart, and sharp mind.’”

Last, but not least, practicing Tai Chi slowly is enjoyable. So why would we want to rush through it?

Is There a Relationship Between Aging and Hand-Eye Coordination?

We know that Tai Chi improves our balance and coordination as we learn to move our body as a unit. Did you ever wonder whether Tai Chi improves hand-eye coordination? You might be surprised to learn that it does! For purposes of this blog, let’s shorten hand-eye coordination to “HEC.” That saves me from typing it repeatedly.

HEC helps us translate stimulus from our eyes into our body movements and action. The benefits are wide spread and include:

  • Improving our central and peripheral vision

  • Training the eye and brain to pick up details and recognize changes

  • Making it easier to switch between near and far distances and depth

  • Mitigating clumsiness and making us more surefooted

  • Improving mobility and flexibility

  • Making complicated and simple tasks easier

Most people don’t think much about HEC until they begin having problems with it. Now the bad news: age is one of most common causes of HEC decline. As performance accuracy and speed decline, so do dexterity and reaction time. The last two are very important in HEC. Studies have shown that perceptual motor skills decline as a person ages, and we now know that changes in the brain affect our motor skills and thus our HEC.

Age-related visual changes, decline in neuromuscular communication and neurological disorders occur as we age. This is why most younger people interpret and react to “near-body space” in a very different way than older adults. The good news is that HEC can be improved through exercises such as swimming, Tai Chi, juggling and catching, as well as any activity that combines eye tracking and hand movement.

Research on Tai Chi has already shown marked improvements in fall reduction, balance and flexibility, but few studies had been done on motor control in the upper extremities. A 2008 study of motor control and HEC coordination in Tai Chi practitioners tested two groups of elderly subjects. One group practiced Tai Chi for more than three years, while the control group were active, healthy adults who had never practiced Tai Chi. The subjects were asked to stroke target sensors in a device with computer recording. The practitioners of Tai Chi demonstrated better results on both the “precise motor control of hand and eye hand coordination tests” than the group that did not practice Tai Chi.

Research has shown that quality of life is closely related to physical fitness. However, not all exercises are suitable for older persons due to the effects of aging on joints, eyesight and balance. Tai Chi, however, is suitable for most ages and physical conditions. Tai Chi movements, such as cloud hands, consist of diaphragmatic breathing and focused movements with the eyes following the graceful movements of the upper extremities. Tai Chi’s deliberate and controlled movements improve HEC.

In Tai Chi, we understand that practice, practice and more practice is important for keeping the body flexible, strong and healthy. By using both arms and legs, and bending while keeping our movements smooth, we not only stretch tight muscles, but improve HEC. Mindfulness (or focus) is also essential to building full-body coordination. Interestingly, some virtual reality (VR) programs incorporate Tai Chi movements to improve HEC.

So what can you do? Keep practicing your Tai Chi, swim, juggle and maybe even try virtual reality. And don’t forget to get regular eye examinations.

And don’t forget, having better HEC will help you reach for that glass of Moscato at happy hour without spilling a single drop!

What Does Song Mean in Tai Chi?

Improving your Tai Chi is like climbing a mountain.  The four “directions” to help you reach the summit are jing, song, chen, and huo. In this article “song” will be our focus for reaching the summit. 

Song is frequently defined as relaxation.  However, in Chinese, it means “loosening and stretching out” the joints from within. To get to song: visualize and loosen the upper limbs, elbows, wrists, fingers by gently stretching them open. Stretch your spine by lengthening vertically. Hips and knee joints gently stretch outwards.  Opening in this fashion removes tension and results in controlled relaxation, improved flexibility, and flow of qi.

Song is not the “limp, collapsed, let-go feeling you get from flopping on to the couch after a long day.” In Tai Chi, even when you have achieved song, you continue to be “energized and alert.” Louis Swaim, in his translator’s introduction to “Mastering Yang Style Taijiquan”, warns that we should not confuse song with total relaxation.  Song is “the partial contraction of the musculature, which allows one to maintain equilibrium and upright posture.” Imagine being “suspended” from the crown of the head.

“Feng Song” or loosening of the body by relaxing the joints is one of the most important skills of a beginning Tai Chi student. Mr. Jun uses both “Feng” and “Fang”.  He feels it is the “first, most basic skill in taijiquan(sic).” The five skills (more discussion on the others in future articles) are the foundation to learning and training. These skills are learned slowly. Regular practice leads to more progress. Mr. Jun states that the body should be like a “solid piece of rubber, strong but not stiff.”

According to Mr. Jun, feng/fang translates to remaining under control, while song translates to “put something down, away from you.” Song is about moving all the joints without stiffness. He states that most adults and children are more stiff than they realize. Stiffness is hard to recognize but the effects are easy to see. A loose joint is “free to rotate or turn without hindrance or resistance.” Unless a joint can rotate freely, skill in taijiquan(sic) will suffer. Mr. Jun states that “Many people get the basic idea in their mind but do not practice enough to realise(sic) it in their body.”

When an instructor looks at a student and says “relax” and the student thinks “I am.” Taoist thinking means releasing “tension on a mental, emotional, and physical level.” Tension zaps our clarity of thought, feeling of calm, and energy. When our bodies truly are in a state of “song”, we don’t feel sleepy but “truly right”. Once we understand and learn how to achieve song, we not only do it through the practice of Tai Chi, but we can conjure it up throughout the day.  

Our first step is concentrating on our breathing and letting our lungs and abdomen fill with air. Being aware of our breath moving in and out will begin the process. We separate the upper and lower body and loosen the lower back while elongating the spine. Scott recommends sinking “one inch lower as you pull up the top of your head.”

Have we worked on song in our classes? If not, let’s do it. Try to be conscious of song before and during our session. And you may not realize it, but we are working on it at the end of our classes during our cool down, when we tense and then relax.  If done consciously, we have achieved song! 

What is Taoism and How Does it Relate to Tai Chi?

Although you can find tons of information on the internet, some of Taoism’s (also known as Daoism) concepts are obscure and hard to understand.  I will try to simplify and condense it as best I can. Consider this the Cliff’s Notes version. Taoists never let personal desires or emotions rule their actions. However, to get a true understanding of Taoism (not my purpose here) you might need to become a student of a Taoist Master as many of the practices are passed by word-of-mouth and not documented.

 Taoism is a philosophy (some also consider it a religion - I will not speak to that) which began in approximately 500 to 300 BCE (Before the Christian Era). Tao means “path” or “way” which can also be interpreted as the road, channel, etc. Taoism relates to harmony, unity, complementary forces (Yin and Yang) and also emphasizes naturalness, simplicity, lack of selfishness, and often “detachment from desires.” It has also been called the “flow of the universe” with the goal of having your “will in harmony with the natural universe.”

 Some believe that Tai Chi is rooted in Taoism. Others that the “Taoist philosophy is the guiding principle behind T’ai Chi” and that Tai Chi was created by observing Nature in action. Are Tai Chi movements an “attempt to mirror her ways?”  Let’s consider that. Slow, flowing movements certainly look effortless, as does water moving in a stream. Water can, however, wear down riverbanks, rocks, and stones over time. This is a good example of Yin and Yang – soft and hard.  Soft can often overcome hard by slow and consistent effort, with little to no obvious force. 

 Tai Chi draws upon the Taoist principles of yielding, softness, slowness, balance, and rootedness in its movements in both the health and martial applications. The names of many movements depict the principles and the appreciation of Nature. Taoists were interested in astronomy and astrology and many of the posture’s names represent these interests. You will find most of these names in the Chen or Yang Family forms and less so in SUN.

 Taoism always seeks harmony and believes that everything is made of energy. What we consider “qi”. They believe that the energy needs to move constantly and that blocked qi causes illness. Tai Chi moves and unblocks the qi and moves it around the body. The result being better health, both internal and external.

 There is actually a form called Taoist Tai Chi taught by the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. This is a modified Yang form developed by Moy Lin-shin (a Taoist monk) in Ontario, Canada. Moy incorporated other internal arts as well to increase the health benefits of the form. The belief is that “people are innately good but that the nature of society causes people to become self-centered and to acquire bad habits.”  The aim is to eliminate those weaknesses using the Taoist Tai Chi set consisting of 108 movements plus exercises called “the jongs”.

 If you are seriously interested in learning more about Taoism, the principles and beliefs can be found in the “Tao Te Ching”, which is considered the most influential and ritualistic Taoist text. There are many versions. The original author was believed to be Lao Tzu (also spelled Laozi) a 6th century BCE sage. However, some scholars debate this. Some parts are thought to be older and some more recent. Either way, throughout the years and reincarnations of the book, many authors have also incorporated their ideas and beliefs. It is an interesting read.

 If you would rather read a lighter book about Taoism, there is an entertaining book called The Tao of Pooh, written in 1982 by Benjamin Hoff.  This is one of my favorite books, a so-called “Taoism for Westerners” using an amusing, delightful story to introduce the principles of Taoism. Most bookstores and libraries probably have a copy.  Otherwise, check EBay or Amazon.

 “The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard - one that thinks too much.”
Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

How Can Tai Chi Help Back Pain Sufferers?

Ouch, my aching back! 

How many times have you said that in the past? Do you think back pain and age are related?  Although, it is typical to have your first “attack” between the age of 30 and 50, low back pain does become more common as we age.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, 80 percent of adults will experience low back pain during their lifetime. Low back pain frequently leads to lost work days, and is the most common job-related disability. A sedentary lifestyle can be a major contributor, however, there are many possible causes and risk factors for low back pain, just as there are multitudes of treatments, both conventional and non-conventional.

A 2011 study investigated the effect of Dr. Lam’s Tai Chi for Back Pain Program in 160 subjects between the age of 16 and 70 with a diagnosis of “persistent nonspecific low back pain.”  Half of the subjects underwent eighteen 40-minute group sessions of Tai Chi, while the other half continued their current treatment. After 10 weeks, 75% of the Tai Chi participants showed significant improvement in their pain and disability.

In a June 2017 article, Teresa Carr reported a Consumer Reports survey sent to 3562 individuals with back pain found people working with yoga or Tai Chi instructors, massage therapists, chiropractors or physical therapists felt they received greater pain relief compared to those seen by doctors. In addition, the American College of Physicians issued new guidelines for back pain in February 2017, stating that “nondrug measures” should be the first line of defense.

Ms. Carr cautions that you should be sure your Tai Chi and/or Yoga instructor is certified, and advises individuals to seek out gentle classes, rather than the more strenuous ones. According to Linda Huang, director of the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association in Herndon, Virginia, you need to practice and learn the movements and breathing in order to truly benefit from your practice. 

In the November 2018 Consumer Reports article “Natural Cures Your A-Z Guide”, Hallie Levine states that research suggests that Tai Chi “cuts the risk of falls in older adults, helps with chronic pain, and may ease symptoms of dementia, depression, osteoarthritis and Parkinson’s disease.”  She also recommends attending classes to learn to position your body correctly.  As we all know, Tai Chi increases flexibility and strengthens low back muscles. 

So, there you have it!  And don’t forget what Ms. Huang said about practice.  Learning the sequence and the movements are not enough to get the full benefit.  It’s just the beginning.  Regular practice is the key