This is my second post containing knowledge I have gained from my Tai Chi study and Practice. I hope this information helps you to understand the teachings better and improve your own Practice of Tai Chi.
I have seen several different warm-up routines in my study of Tai Chi but the purpose of all of them is to help you stretch and warm up your body, relax your mind and body, get your chi flowing, and sink your mind into your Tan Tien. The last part is all feeling and can take time to fully understand. Tai Chi requires daily Practice whether you feel like it or not. I will explain why later on in this post.* Many teachers use proper Chi Kung exercises and they are excellent. My routine is very simple:
Stretching: Done in basic Horse Stance.
1. Arms over the head with palms up and fingers interlocked if possible. I can not do the fingers but do the best I can.
2. Arms over the head and stretch to each side.
3. Arms straight out to sides and pull back to stretch the chest muscles.
4. Arms straight in front. Keep lower spine stationary while arching upper spine forwards for stretching between the shoulder blades.
5. Bend at waist, knees slightly bent, touch floor to stretch lower spine.
6. Arms straight out to sides and do relaxed arm rotations. Begin in a small circle and gradually expand the circle until arms go over the head and circle down to the sides. Return to the beginning position gradually from large circle to small. Do in both directions.
Get Your Chi Flowing
In a relaxed Horse Stance with knees slightly bent, tongue resting gently against palate to connect Yin and Yang. relax mind, sink your energy, and begin standard deep-breathing. You will notice increased salivation when you are obeying All of the Principles. This is a good indicator that you are moving and “Being” properly.
1. Swing relaxed arms at your sides to shoulder height straight out in front of you and back to sides for about 5 minutes staying mindful of your breath as you sink it down into your Tan Tien.
2. Arms hanging relaxed at sides, swing them by turning your waist left and then right as you slightly shift your weight side to side. Keep your body aligned and move only the waist as you shift your Center of balance from left side to right and back. This is called the Rag Doll Exercise because All movement originates from your Tan Tien and your arms are completely relaxed swinging loosely like a rag doll. An 83 year old Tai Chi Master showed me this simple movement many years ago. I have also seen it demonstrated on a video of the Yang Style Long Form by a Master from China.
3. Stand in regular Horse Stance and relax into proper body alignment. Put the palms of your hands on your Tan Tien so you can feel the abdomen expand. There are different schools of Practice pertaining to the proper positioning of the hands. I use the Zen Practice of the Right Hand on top of the Left Hand. In my sitting meditation, I do the same with my Right Hand on bottom holding my Left Hand. In both instances, the thumbs should be lightly touching at all times. Now, just let your energy flow down into your Tan Tien. As you inhale, imagine energy, chi, being drawn up from the earth through the Soles of your Feet into your Tan Tien. On exhale, sink your chi down into your Tan Tien and feel it flow down between your legs, up your lower back, up to the crown of your head, and back to the Tan Tien. This is the direction of chi flow in the Small Circulation using Taoist Reverse Breathing. The Grand Circulation is beyond the scope of this essay and should be explained by a qualified teacher or preferably, a true Master. You are now ready to begin your Practice.
Here are some videos that show you how to do many different stretches and warm-up exercises:
I will not spend time on the actual form because you should already be studying and Practicing this Daily. I will add a few things here that may help you though:
Relaxing in Tai Chi is far beyond what most people consider “relaxed”. For the Master, it is his chi, his internal strength, that holds him up not his muscles. This takes a lot of Practice and real Faith. You can not fall down from being too relaxed as long as you are conscious and fully aware. This requires the Faith to trust and let go of your fear. You will realize eventually that this is just the beginning of the kind of Faith I am referring to. Your relaxed body and mind are in fact far, far more powerful than the person with the largest muscles. Here is a little demonstration you can use to see for yourself. It makes for a cool party “trick” too. Have a friend hold their arm straight out and tell them to try and stop you from bending it at the elbow. Grab their forearm, push it up hard as you press down hard on their bicep by the bend at their elbow. Nothing to it! Now, tell them to try it on you -once you are ready. Extend your arm towards a corner of the room at the ceiling; relax completely including your slightly bent arm; imagine it is a fire hose spraying a powerful stream of water putting out a fire in that corner. Focus on the fire as you feel the power of the water course through your arm. You are now ready for him to try to bend your arm. He can not do it! Wow, look how strong you are! This is called “Extending your Chi”. It is Not a trick. A true Master can literally extend his chi into a wooden cane, for example, and make it as strong as steel or make his body impenetrable such as in the “Iron Shirt”. When you Practice Tai Chi, you are constantly extending your chi by extending your mind. Remember: the mind leads the chi which leads the body. In martial arts, there is a saying, “It is already done before you do it”. Something to contemplate.
Note: Stay mindful of any tension in your body so you can stay relaxed. Muscles can tense up when you get distracted especially the shoulders. To relieve tension in the shoulders, shake your relaxed arms downward like you are shaking water off of your hands. This can be done with the legs too to help relieve tension in the hips. Maintain this awareness.
I will not attempt to explain coordinating your breathing with the Practice of your form because it is beyond an essay of this length. I will, however, tell you a few things I have learned:
1. All breathing is done through the nose. The face and jaw are relaxed with only the tip of the tongue resting on the palate behind the front teeth. Be mindful that the back of your tongue is very relaxed too. This allows the air to flow to the back of the throat and smoothly into the lungs.
2. As with “Extending the Chi”, you use Imagery to feel the air being drawn into the bottom of your lungs through your Tan Tien and filling them up. When you exhale, you Imagine the air sinking into and putting pressure on your Tan Tien compressing it as your lungs empty. This compresses your chi and creates incredible Power.
3. In time, you will “feel” the air fill your entire body as if it was hollow. Of course, like with imaging the air being pulled in by your Tan Tien, this is not really happening. This is your chi filling your body with intrinsic strength creating a wholeness or an Integrity of Being. This Oneness is Power! Eventually you will feel your breath enter your body through the soles of your feet with each inhale as if you are breathing in the earth itself. As you exhale, you sink your breath down into the Tan Tien where it compresses, then expands and moves through the Small Circulation, and into the rest of your body. This all happens in an instant. Now, imagine the breath on exhale sinking into the ground through your feet. In time this whole process will have
you feeling as if you are inhaling through the soles of your feet, filling up you entire body, and then exhaling back into the earth. You will feel a wonderful tingling sensation and a Fullness throughout your body. Later on you will feel like a ball of energy – strong, powerful, and wonderful!
Movement is at the core of Tai Chi and it draws in the energy as you shift your weight from one leg to the other. All of the Principles are involved here. Posture, Balance, Breathing, Relaxing, Sinking your Chi or Grounding*, and Extending your Chi. As you do your Daily Practice, you will eventually feel how the body naturally moves. It moves as a single entity with a single purpose. Every cell, every atom, in your body is supposed to work as One. Few people ever realize this, much less do it, however, it Is how we are supposed to work. We should flow effortlessly like water, ever so gentle yet ever so Powerful! This Oneness extends beyond this body too and those who realize that this is a Way of Life, will know the incredible Wonder and Bliss of our True Nature. You get a little bit closer to realizing your Oneness with every Practice too. You realize that the shoulder moves with the hip; the elbow with the knee, etc, and everything originates from the Tan Tien directed by the Mind. I could never box because I naturally punched and kicked at the same time. My boxing friends suffered greatly until they decided it was best not to box me. No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop. I “accidentally” knocked out a good friend of mine when I reacted instinctively while play-fighting. I was just 16 years old and it scared the hell out of me. I thought I had killed him because it took awhile to revive him. I never would play fight again. When I got into Kenpo, my Sensei said I was a natural. It took awhile for me to understand what he meant but it was the way I moved – Naturally.
One last tip about movement and your Practice that I learned from my teacher. He said from the very beginning to always walk awhile after every Practice while maintaining the relaxed focused on your Tan Tien. I have done this from day one and realize that he was showing me how to go through my day, my life, in the Calm and Blissful state that you achieve from dedicated Practice. I call it, “carrying my mind in my belly”. It is very difficult indeed to maintain this wonderful state of Being but I get a little better as time goes by. I highly recommend that you incorporate this “walking meditation” into your Daily Practice too. This is where I first felt energy being drawn into me through the soles of my feet with every inhale. I first felt my entire body breathing in this energy as if it was an empty vessel during this slow, mindful walk too.
Tai Chi has been a true blessing to me and still is to this day. After my terrible trauma many years ago, I finally found this tool in 1990. It is a tool used to master your self so you can experience who you really are, your True Nature. There are many “tools” available too. The founder of Zen, the great Indian monk, Bodhidarma, said in his teachings that there are many paths to Enlightenment and Nirvana but in the end, there are only two Paths – Reason and Practice. Unless you have already overcome this world, you Must find an appropriate “tool”, or Practice, and dedicate yourself to mastering yourself with it. Every true teacher of the One Truth like Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tse, Chuang-tse, and many others in every culture since the beginning of time have taught the same thing. This Wisdom is everywhere including within everyone of us. Only the “out of control” Ego and the Karma It has created separates us from this Wisdom and our True Nature. It is up to each of us to find our Way. No one can do it for you. Kenpo saved my life 35 years ago and now, Tai Chi is my “tool”, my Practice, my Path with Heart, that is helping me to get back Home to the Bliss of Nirvana, Heaven, God, Self, et al – my True Nature.
Important: You are learning to live in the Present and it is the hardest thing a person can do. The Ego can not interfere with the Peace, Love, and Joy that is Always awaiting you in the Present. You will learn to Be more and more with constant Practice. As you Practice, it is very Important to remember that when you get a thought, lose your balance, or anything else that removes you from the Present, just acknowledge the event and calmly return to your Practice. Mastery is achieved One Moment at a Time so never make a small interruption into anything more than it is by getting frustrated, angry, etc. You Will “fall down” a million and one times. Everyone does! You are slowly taking “control” away from your Ego and “It” will fight you every inch of the way. This is where the anger, frustration, etc, is coming from so just calmly accept any and all mistakes. Always Be Kind to Yourself! There is Always this Moment you can make perfect and gain the benefit.
*The reason it is so important to stay true to your Daily Practice is because you are very slowly restructuring your mind with your Tai Chi. This is called neural plasticity, a recently discovered characteristic of the brain-mind. This explains how the body can do repetitive things perfectly even if we are not paying attention. I am sure everyone has experienced this. If you miss one Practice, though, it is like missing a week’s worth and it will take you longer just to get back to where you were. The ancient Masters knew this because I have read it in one of their manuscripts. You too will understand some day.
* This is referred to as “rooting” in Tai Chi. It is tied to relaxing and sinking your mind and chi down the legs and into the ground. When mastered, it is said, 6 men can not move you. This has been demonstrated countless times too. I have read about “Water Drop Energy” as described by a Tai Chi Grand Master in China. I have tried to describe this in a previous post but a diagram would work so much better. If I can create one, I will come back and insert it into this post. For now, just understand that it involves sinking your root into the earth where you become unmovable.