Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Tai Chi is an ancient martial art and all movements are rooted in original fighting application. Many schools still teach Tai Chi as a fighting system, using energy and strong rooting to imbalance an opponent, much like the japanese Aikido.

Our main purpose in Tai Chi is health improvement

Personally I put more focus on the health aspects of Tai Chi. I studied Karate for a long time and am pretty sure I would go back to those techniques if I ever needed to defend myself. I studied Tai Chi over the same duration so it’s not about new versus old habits. Plus if you want to be able to defend yourself effectively with a short learning ramp you should buy pepper spray anyways.

Most people who come to our classes follow the same goals (I know, it’s selection bias). They want to learn Tai Chi for health, for balance, as an antidote for stressful jobs and to improve their mindfulness. They know the movements originate in martial arts and we often show potential applications to more fully explain the movement.

However, one wonders if Tai Chi would actually create the right reflexes that are needed to defend oneself if ever needed. Especially if a student focuses on the form, precision in movement, flow and the typical slow, deliberate execution. We practice Yang style, so we don’t have the explosive techniques in-between that the Chen style teaches.

Muscle memory – polish, polish, polish

I think Tai Chi, even when practicing the form, builds up those reflexes over time. You won’t become a hand to hand combat strategist or skilled offensive attacker, but your muscles will learn self-defense movements and those will turn into muscle memory and eventually reflexes.

Don’t focus on the application, your body will react through reflexes anyway. Focus on the proper execution of a movement and the other pieces will fall into place.

“Wax on, wax off.”
Mr. Myagi in Karate Kid

Of course it will take years but then again, that’s not why we are doing Tai Chi to begin with and we hope to never use those skills anyway. If you are looking for a quick solution, buy pepper spray.

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

In my personal opinion, I also don’t think one must try to execute movements fast. One should try to execute them correctly, with minimal waste through unnecessary movements, keeping all muscles relaxed and as smoothly as possible, flowing from one movement into the other without interruption.

As you build up energy flow and smooth out blockers, you will build up speed and force. Water breaks the rock. Remember the old saying:

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

If your movement is fluid it will be fast when it needs to.

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Have Fun and Enjoy the Ride

Don’t take it (and yourself) too serious

We talked a lot about principles and how we learn in Tai Chi, martial arts and beyond. Now here’s my most important lesson: Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy what you’re doing! Don’t take yourself and the art that you’re practicing too serious.

TaiChi Peking Form December 2007 520

This is not your work. You choose to come every single time you go to class or practice on your own. You invest a lot of time and energy. You might as well enjoy it and have fun.

Take it easy, there is no one who judges you – unless you let them. This is not your work. There is no goal that you need to achieve, there is no deadline. Relax, let go, open your mind for what presents itself and enjoy the ride!

Laugh about yourself as often as you can. And if you have a teacher who is deadly serious and cannot laugh about (or admit) his own mistakes – run as fast as you can.

“This is not your work. You might as well smile and enjoy what you’re doing!”
Alfons’ regular reminder in class

Send a silent smile to yourself

When you practice Tai Chi, don’t just go through the motions of the form. Use Tai Chi to generate and direct positive energy to yourself and the people training with you.

Hakutsuru 1541

Smile and then send that smile to yourself and to the different parts of your body that you are working with. Send a smile to your lungs as you inhale and be mindful of the air streaming into your lungs. Send a smile to your heart and your inner organs. Send a smile to your skin as you brush over it. Be mindful in what you do and then engage your mind for healing.

Always be gentle and nice to yourself. In Tai Chi we don’t forcefully push our limits. We discover our boundaries and then gently tap against them. Over time they will widen and become limitless. We don’t need to break our body on the way.

Gently stretch. Ask your mind and your awareness to follow what your body is doing. Send a smile to your heart, your lungs and your inner organs and thank them from the work they are doing for you!

“Send a silent smile to your heart!”
Marlene Fuchs

Open your Lao Ghong and Yong Quan Points

Open your Lao Gong and Yong Quan points – Open and close your hands deliberately. Control and observe the energy flow. Don’t trap the energy when you want to push.

Lao gong point

We often talk in class about “opening your hands to collect energy” and “cupping the hands to push energy down into our bodies”.

What we are really doing is stimulating our Lao Gong (勞宮) points in the middle of the palm of our hands. As we spread out and open up our fingers, we’re opening the gate through the Lao Gong points.

Think of your arms as a water hose

Think of it as a water hose. You cup your hands a little, bringing the fingers together to keep the energy in, like pinching a water hose. Then when you let go of the pinch, when you spread out your fingers to open the Lao Gong points, you open up to let the water (energy) flow.

Become a big energy pump

Now extend that picture and think of your Yong Quan (涌泉) points, in the middle of your feet, as another end of the water hose. Think about pulling water (energy) in through your Lao Gong and Yong Quan points as you inhale, and pushing it out through those four points as you exhale.

Turn yourself into a big energy pump for the universe, connecting Heaven and Earth through yourself (Human).

Transmit your energy

When you push in a movement, think about how you are pushing out energy through your Lao Gong points as you exhale and move your Qi Bai point forward. At the same time push out and connect to the ground through your Yong Quan points.

For example, when you do the double hand pull and push sequence, imagine how you are pulling in water through Lao Gong and Yong Quan when you pull back and inhale. Then reverse and visualize pushing out a sparkling stream of water through those four points as you exhale and push your whole body forward.

“In Tai Chi we don’t keep energy selfishly. We just borrow it for a moment and then give it back to the universe.
We connect heaven and earth through ourselves (human).”
Hilmar Fuchs

 

Empty and Full

Empty and full – Distinguish between empty and full. Have two containers and pump the water between them.

Hakutsuru 1433

As we discussed earlier, we put a lot of care in how we move, in order to protect our knees and avoid any tilt or torque on the joints (and with that possible injuries down the road). We move our weight off a foot before we turn it and back on when it’s oriented in the right direction and we’re ready to push our Qi Hai (氣海) point forward.

Think of your legs as two big buckets of water

A good way of reminding ourselves of that shifting of weight is by thinking of it as ‘shifting between empty and full’. Think of your feet and lower legs as big buckets holding water.

Now when you shift your weight back on your back leg, you envision how that water gets pumped out fo your front leg and into the back leg. Your front leg become ’empty’ and your back leg become ‘full’.

After you turned your hip and with that your foot, you reverse the process, imagining how you pump water through your legs and hips from your back leg into your front leg. Once the back leg is empty you can lift it and make a step.

Keep the water moving

As you make Tai Chi movements, you constantly shift between empty and full and various degrees between. Of course as you are lifting and moving one leg, the other one is 100% full in that moment. When you are in a bow stance, the front leg is 70% full and the back leg is 30% full. When you are standing in two sides of a line, your front leg will hold 10% of the water while your back leg will hold 90%.

As with everything in Tai Chi you don’t hold those static stances, you constantly shift and move, pumping the water, and with that your energy, around. You flow from Yin to Yang and back with all stages in between.

It All Starts With Your Feet

In martial arts and Tai Chi we try to learn making the most effective use of our strength and energy. We learn how to efficiently turn our muscle power into movement and kinetic energy.

Build from the ground up

The basic physics law of action and reaction applies to Tai Chi just as well. If we want to exert energy in a given direction, we must also be able to absorb the counter reaction. So if we want to push forward, we need to be firmly rooted in the ground in order to absorb the push back and not just be thrown backwards ourselves.

With that in mind, it all starts from our feet. If we don’t have firm grounding in our stance, everything else falls apart. Be rooted first.

We build up from there, the next link in our chain are the legs and knees, then the hips, our upper body and finally our arms. We need to build up in that sequence or our movement will not unfold its full potential.

Think of a tree, if the roots are weak the tree will die. If the trunk is flimsy it will not be able to withstand the wind. If the branches are too small, the weight of the fruit will have them break down.

Slow muscles first, fast muscles will catch up

A principle of movement in martial arts is to start with the strong and slow muscles first (our legs and our core muscles) and then engage the weaker but faster muscles (our arms and finally hands). That way we allow all movement to end at the same climactic point – the faster arms and hands will catch up with your legs easily. It won’t work the other way around though.

You can think of it like a rocket with its boosters. The huge thrusters engage first to get the rocket off the ground. Then the following smaller and more agile rocket engines will kick in as stage after stage gets engaged. They will further increase the speed of the rocket while making necessary adjustments to the trajectory as needed.

Your breathing controls the movement

Lets stay with the image of the rocket for a moment. The sequencing of the different stages is carefully controlled by the mission control center. What’s the mission control center in your body? Of course it’s the brain, but there is another way to think about it. In martial arts and Tai Chi your breath can help you control and orchestrate the movement.

That’s why we pay so much attention to our breath. If we smoothly exhale all the way from the beginning of a movement to its end, it is much easier to make it a smooth movement than if we stop our exhale somewhere along the way or have it disconnected from the movement altogether.

Same if we start our exhale before or after we start the movement or finish before or after we finish the movement. In that case there is a good chance that we will have stops and breaks in our movement and the different muscles will not coordinate as smoothly as they could. Use your breathing to control your movement.

Tai Chi is meditation in motion. Watch your breathing. Be mindful and delierate about how your movements build up.

Tuck in Your Tailbone

Tuck in your tailbone – Lower your hips and tilt them forward. Tuck in your tailbone. Pretend that you are starting to sit down and then stop halfway into the movement.

Tug in your tailbone

The teacher says “tuck in your tailbone”. That’s helpful right?

Tuck in your tailbone

What we mean with that is that you bend your knees a little and slightly tilt your hip forward. You contract the muscles on the front of your lower abdomen and let your lower back gently stretch.

We are often over pronouncing the s-curve in our back (hyperlordosis or hollow back) or in the other extreme hunching over. Contracting the muscles around our lower hip and ‘tucking in our tailbone’ helps to avoid both.

When you’re asked to tuck in your tailbone, you follow the example from your puppy when he is actually tucking in his tail and visualize that movement. Imagine how you would need to move your hips if you actually wanted (and could) tuck in your tail.

Pretend to start sitting on a chair

The other way to ‘tuck in your tailbone’ and achieve the proper posture is to imagine that you’re starting to sit down on a high chair.

You bend your knees, lower you hip and tilt it a little bit forward in order to get ready to sit on your behind. Go a little down but stop way before you would actually sit down.

It’s as if you are to sit down and then don’t.

Learn From Heart to Heart

2017-06-04 Tai Chi in the Park 001

 

In martial arts we teach and learn ‘from heart to heart’, and ‘from skin to skin’.

Many of the deeper principles in martial arts and Tai Chi are hard to explain and hard to understand from just a verbal description. While the intellect might grasp them on a logical level, it’s an entire different thing for the body to be able to execute them in a natural way (what we like to call ‘feeling the movement’).

We can use books and videos to remind ourselves of sequences in a form, or principles that were taught and explained in class, but it’s almost impossible to learn new content from them in the beginning years. It’s also impossible to spot all the details that are important in a video, and no video or DVD is long enough to allow the narrator to explain them all.

Observe and engage

While later on we extend your knowledge by reading from masters, it is important to learn in class and from a teacher in the beginning. Only with a teacher can we observe all the little details and subconsciously pick up the things, and the energy, that a DVD cannot give us. Only a teacher will be able to spot where we miss important details and correct us before they become hard to change habits.

You learn in martial arts by observing your teacher. Not just through class but also by observing how she thinks about life and behaves when interacting with others. In the dojo and outside. By observing a real teacher, you will understand how the art taught her to live her life, which will unveil many of the underlying principles and patterns to you. Videos can only get you so far.

Open your mind to what’s behind it

In the old days, masters used to have Uchideshi (内弟子), inside students, and Soto-deshi (外弟子), outside students.

Soto-deshis were the students that excelled the most at the techniques and the forms. They would win the competitions. They would often be the ones who represented the school and style to the outside world and built up the large organizations. They were also the ones who’s understanding often remained shallow and who missed the hidden core of the teachings.

Uchi-deshis lived with their teachers. They weren’t usually the best with physical techniques, but they spent a lot of time being with their teachers and observing them. They eventually understood what was under the obvious surface of their art and as a result got taught more of the lesser known underlying ideas and principles.

While we all have busy lives today, try to be more of an Ushi-Deshi than a Soto-deshi. Try to observe and understand the principles and drivers rather than the flashy movements. Observe your teacher as often as you can, not just when she performs the form. Good teachers will show the same principles and respect in outside life as they teach in class. If your teacher doesn’t, then run away as quickly as you can.

In martial arts we learn from observing and practicing. Try to learn from heart to heart and from skin to skin.

“Don’t listen to what I say. Watch what I do.”
Alfons’ typical classroom advice

Open and Close

Open and close – Open and close your body and movement like a flower in the morning and evening. Give out to the universe and focus back in on your core.

Open and close

Yin and yang

In Tai Chi we try to constantly flow and change between Yin and Yang. We borrow some energy from the universe, work with it and give it back again. We don’t want to keep it, else it would become stale and harmful.

We switch from moment to moment between strong and stable and then flexible and agile, between expanding out into the universe and then sinking back deep into our core. In the ‘walk of the hero’ we switch from proud to humble to confident within just a few movements.

Your mind follows your body

It takes a long time to develop that state of mind, to feel the flow between the different opposing states and to finally achieve the merging of them. A way to practice is by letting our body express those states and then just watch, listen and learn how that feels.

“Your body follows your mind. Your mind follows your body.”
Hilmar Fuchs

When practicing your movements, try to make a distinction between opening and closing. Between embracing the universe, giving out all the energy you have and then sinking into your center, retracting and storing the energy for a moment.

Imagine to be a flower

Turn yourself into a huge energy pump for the universe. Turn your body into a flower, that opens its petals in the morning, showing all its beauty to the world and soaking in the sunlight and then goes back and closes for the night to recharge and preserve energy.

Make your movements big and open, contract your back muscles and open your chest and then reverse, bring your movements back to your center, contract your chest muscles and stretch your back.

Practicing open and close will help you to gradually understand the flow between Yin and Yang. It will open your eyes to our role as big energy pumps in the universe (not energy hoarders or energy drains) and it will gently loosen and stretch your torso and limbs.

Take Notes

Our ultimate goal in class is to give students the foundation, structure and principles to set them on a path where they can advance their own learning and discovery (Shu Ha Ri – How We Learn). In order to do that, a student needs to get to the state where she doesn’t need to see and copy the teacher to perform a form or to remind her of a principle.

So there is a lot of stuff that you eventually need to remember as a student.

In my experience the most effective way to do that is through active learning. Personally I cannot remember a new form from doing it two or three times in class once a week. So I take notes after each class. I often only remember one new sequence, but I will write down how I get into that sequence, how the transitions work and anything that seemed counter intuitive to me at first (i.e. I won’t remember it at home). Over a few weeks those sequences will add up to the whole form.

That active learning also helps me to process and with that solidify the lesson that I have learned. I make it ‘my own’ and reinvent the technique or principle in my own mind rather than just letting the teacher entertain me.

Learning requires active engagement with the content. It is hard work (Why Aren’t More People Practicing Tai Chi?), but making the content your own is so much more fun and rewarding.

“Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your own before you move on.”
Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido

Cut the Strings

Cut the strings – There is only one string left at the Bai Hui point (crown point), everything else drops. Everything above your neck rises, everything below drops.

Cut the strings

When we practice Tai Chi we want to relax and lower ourselves down into the center of our body. How do we achieve that?

Puppet on a string

One way is to imagine that we are puppets on a string.

Visualize all the strings that pull you up. The strings on your shoulders, elbows, hands, neck, everywhere… Feel how that pulls and tightens up all the wrong places.

Now imagine how you cut those strings one by one. Cut the strings on your hands and feel how your hands relax and drop. Cut the strings on your elbows and shoulder and feel how you let them relax and allow gravity to pull them down to a natural tension less state.

Cut all the strings except for one last string that remains: the string from your Bai Hui (百會) point or crown point on the top of your head. This one last string, or golden thread, pulls your head up and keeps your spine and body straight.

Let your head rise, let your body drop

The other way of visualizing the same principle is to think about an imaginary horizontal plane that sits at the level of your neck.

Now let everything that is above that plane (your head) rise up, while you imagine everything below that plane becoming heavy and relaxed and dropping down like water drops or like heavy weights falling off your body.

Straighten your spine, open your joints

Both visualizations help us to relax our muscles by visualizing how everything drops down, straighten our spine by having the golden thread pull up our Bai Hui point and ‘open up our joints’ by creating tiny spaces between the bones in our joints.

All of that greatly improves our relaxation, agility and energy flow.