Archive for the ‘Tai Chi’ Category

Hand stand?

February 24th, 2011 No comments

I haven’t done Zhan Zhuang in a couple of months. As far as I can tell, these are the consequences I’ve noticed so far:

  • reduced body sensitivity
  • reduced level of energy
  • reduced ability to do Zhan Zhuang (well, that’s a no-brainer)

The first one became manifest in a small way at Mr. Rosenfeld’s Tai Chi workshop. During an exercise, he corrected my hands, saying that they were too tense and needed to be softened. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had forgotten the feedback mechanisms that I had developed (to some small extent) because of Zhan Zhuang. In other words, it was hard for me to tell whether my hands were soft or not. (This processing delay may explain the dumb look I gave Mr. Rosenfeld at the time.) I then attempted to implement the correction, but it felt very manual, deliberate and clunky. In contrast, a few months ago, if I had been given the correction at all, I probably would have recalled immediately what soft hands felt like and been able to return to that state by recalling the slightly tingling, open, “un-anchored” sensation of soft hands … as I’ve experienced it, anyway.

Guess I’ve got some work to do. More standing? More standing.

Categories: chi (qi), Tai Chi, Yiquan Tags:

Now that was a workshop.

February 22nd, 2011 No comments

I’ve just returned from a terrific weekend Tai Chi workshop with Arthur Rosenfeld, oft-quoted author, Chen Tai Chi master and really funny guy. In future posts I’ll relate my experiences from the workshop, how I was challenged, as well as what I think I learned and what I now know I don’t know.

… y’know.

Thanks to my good friend Sally Rich for arranging the whole thing.

Categories: Tai Chi Tags:

Effortless Effort

October 4th, 2010 No comments

You hear about “effortless effort” a lot in the martial arts.

Sure, it’s nice and poetic, but I think that poetry in instruction is only useful after the student has already grasped the term, as a sort of mnemonic. I’ve seen teachers who use terms like that, then merely repeat them when the student asks for clarification, and to perpetuate that teaching technique, I’ve seen students who’ve repeated the instruction as if the poetry of it makes the meaning and application clearer: “oh, I get it! Effortless effort!”

Here’s my attempt at clarifying “effortless effort”, for your consideration: “effective and efficient execution without unnecessary strain”. I’ll try to clarify the apparently contradictory meanings of “effort”: the teacher wants you to practice and pay attention (effort 1) but he/she also doesn’t want you to stress and strain (effort 2), using the wrong methods to achieve the desired result.

For example, in squash, our desired result is to swing the racquet naturally, without getting in our own way and messing up that natural swing by pushing the racquet or muscling the racquet (effort 2). Instead, we should relax and let the racquet swing. Of course, we still need to pay attention and practice (effort 1) in order to improve while in the training phase. This probably holds true for golf and baseball as well as just about any sport that involves a swing with the arm or leg. The result of this should be that we make the best shot we can, without (as previously mentioned), getting in our own way.

When we stress and strain, we get in the way of natural function by tensing muscles unnecessarily. Unfortunately, this is often the result of taking our training so seriously that we invoke feelings of fear or anger, essentially turning this into a life-or-death situation. This is where meditation comes in, to help calm us down, but more on that later.

Another meaning of the desired effort might be simply “doing”, or “action”. “Effortless effort” could mean “stress-free action”, in other words.

Does that make sense?

Girly weights exonerated!

September 27th, 2010 No comments

I’m going to try to access full-body strength with lighter weights in the gym this week. How convenient that someone pointed out this study from Science Daily.

Basically, the study found that you don’t have to use heavy weights to build muscle — light weights will do, but you have to fatigue yourself. Maybe that’s why the low-weight-high-reps technique hasn’t built muscle in the past: people haven’t done enough reps to get to fatigue …?

I also like the idea that weaker people can build muscle by lifting weights that they can handle.

Now, for you Tai Chi folks in the crowd, I view muscle as an invaluable part of the body structure — an equal partner with bones, tendons and fascia. I don’t want to focus on muscles in isolation, but I don’t want them to atrophy. By the way, when a Tai Chi teacher says “don’t use muscles”, he or she means “don’t use muscles exclusively” or “don’t use isolated muscles”. Cool?

Categories: East meets West, fitness, Tai Chi Tags:

A little martial philosophy

July 8th, 2010 No comments

Occasionally, I come across some martial philosophy that applies to more situations than an impending blow to the privates. For example, here’s a quote from Bruce Lee, who created the martial art Jeet Kune Do:

“Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.”

This next quote came from Bruce, Krishnamurti, the universal ether or was paraphrased from (or to) Twelve-Step programs:

“Research your experience, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless; add what is specifically your own.”

Finally, this comes from The Healing Art of Tai Chi:

“Relax, breathe, feel the ground, do nothing extra.”

The first quote was new to me, and I shall reflect upon it. The second quote has worked for me given my desire to learn from many sources and determine the elements common to those sources. As for the third quote, although I think it’s one of the best to recall while practicing Tai Chi, it often requires some reflection to determine what is … “extra”. However, after some practice, what is “extra” becomes easier to separate from what is essential, or of the essence.

Categories: philosophy, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Action and reaction

May 2nd, 2010 No comments

We were at Ikea the other day, attempting to buy a storage unit. (They have those?) Once we found the correct aisle/bin combination in the warehouse (not so hard) we rolled our nice flat cart right up to the bin so I could drag the incredibly heavy box out of the bin and onto the cart. I crouched down, since the package was low, and placed my body sideways to the bin. With visions of lower back pain looming large, I remembered to to use my whole body to pull the box out. So I just aligned myself, engaged the right stuff, and slid the box out, mostly feeling the load taken by the bottom of my feet. It took some effort, but it was no big deal. Before all this Chinese stuff, I might have twisted myself, or did something to my lower back.

I believe that some Tai Chi practitioners misunderstand the internal martial arts. The arts aren’t practiced to inflict pain or encourage aggression — you could do “mixed martial arts” for that. No, the Chinese internal martial arts (CIMA to some) are way too slow and boring for most of those guys. CIMA conditions our bodies and calms our minds, but more to the point, it helps us develop a full-body strength, using the entire body not just to resist an opponent/partner’s force, but any force we encounter in daily life. It can be applied to lifting boxes at Ikea or snow shoveling as well as resisting a partner in a class.

It’s not magical, it’s just aligning yourself and being sensitive enough to know when you’re aligned by feeling it from the inside.

(As for the Ikea unit, we plucked the wrong one from the bin, so I had to put it back. The one we wanted was out of stock.)

Categories: East meets West, Tai Chi, Yiquan Tags:

Got a grip?

January 25th, 2010 1 comment

I like it when East meets West. Or when squash meets Tai Chi.

Here’s a description of the squash grip, from Smart Squash, by Austin M. Francis: “My first squash coach used to quote one of the great French masters of the foil (as in fencing) who said he held his instrument like “un petit oiseau” — firmly enough so it couldn’t fly away but gently so he wouldn’t crush it The lesson my coach conveyed was how important it is to begin the point with a firm but relaxed connection between you and your racquet “.

And for the East, Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, in his book Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style writes: If the grip is too tight, you will lose flexibility and inhibit energy flow. If the grip is too loose, you will not be able to wield the sword swiftly … The sword should be held like an egg, neither broken nor dropped. The grip should be alive.”


Categories: East meets West, squash, Tai Chi Tags:

The sweet spot

November 4th, 2009 No comments

As I was bashing a little black squash ball about a big white room (not padded) I made a discovery.

As you all know, one gets more pleasure from an activity when one does it well. Although some activities can be pleasurable even when flailing about aimlessly. But enough nostalgia. Coach Barb had once told me that one of the ways to hit the ball well in squash is to feel the ball on the racquet — not to just get rid of it as soon as possible. Give it time to feel the percussion, feel the spring, make it last. When you feel it, you stroke it, you don’t whack it. And she was right (of course), on the odd occasion when I was able to make that happen.

But … that cue (to feel it) didn’t stick with me well enough to ensure consistent success. My fault. So, after many weeks of accidental whacking (don’t go there) I found the cue:

The Sound.

And there it was. Just as a musical instrument has a “center”, a place where you get the best sound out of it by blowing or plucking just right, so does a racquet. They call this the sweet spot, and though tennis pundits seem to spend more time on it than squash pundits, it exists nonetheless.

So, I made the Sound, and made the stroke as a result. Though not yet A-player-worthy (maybe E), a lot of other components of a decent stroke fell into place. Or at least they started to fall into place, since making the sound resonated (sorry) with me, allowing me to practice the other components of the stroke with less stress. If I faltered, I could always come back to the Sound. It was reminiscent of the Jedi mind trick which helped me play trumpet a little better.

What’s the point of this?

Well, there’s more than one way to teach something. Everyone has affinities (e.g. music, golf) which influence the ease with which certain cues resonate with them. For example: I was showing Caprice the Push posture in Tai Chi, which looks like you’re doing a calf stretch, or pushing down a wall. Pretty much. So she could feel the whole-body push, not just a triceps push, I asked her to “inflate her sacrum”. Immediately she got it — whole-body feeling with ease. Now she’s used to being body-conscious and knows what a sacrum is, but that was just the right cue for her. Other teachers might say “drop your tailbone”, “sink your ch’i”, “relax”, “expand”, but in this case, “inflate your sacrum” worked.

So if you’re working on something and having trouble internalizing it, try to find another cue — one that works for you. It could be focusing on a less-used body part (often the sacrum), imitating a marionette, imagining yourself in a fluid, or whatever applies to what you’re doing. Sure, try the existing imagery suggested by your teacher, but feel free to find another. We’re all different, and as adults, it behooves us to take an active interest in our education. Though we may have the best teachers and coaches, they can only go so far.

Categories: fitness, interdisciplinary, squash, Tai Chi Tags:

Fun with the sun

November 2nd, 2009 1 comment

This looks interesting. Stick a pole in the ground, measure the length of its shadow over the year, and plot it on a chart. Fun.

Categories: philosophy, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Mindfulness, part 2

October 14th, 2009 No comments

My squash coach, Barb Cooper, recently shed new light on the concept of mindfulness. She told me that on the court, it’s more important to be mindless, rather than mindful. Of course, she’s right, and this led me to refine my understanding of the two concepts:

1. There are different levels of mindfulness. Depending on the task at hand, too much mindfulness can be detrimental. For example, on the squash court, we need to mindful of the flow of the game, not tonight’s supper. However, in the midst of a point, being mindful of every little detail (stroke, breathing, posture, foot position) can lead to a lousy game. So we need to add a certain amount of mindlessness, or “no-mind”, which is described in Japanese as mushin, or loosely in Chinese as wu-wei (non-doing).

2. We do need to be mindful when training, or when programming new habits. In a coaching, training, or practice session, we can be mindful of a detail on which we are working, such as proper foot position. In a tai chi context, we could choose to be mindful (gently!) of our breath while practicing. Or, if we wanted to create a new walking habit, we would be mindful of walking with our feet slightly closer together to avoid moving from side to side when we walk. Once these habits are ingrained, we don’t need to be mindful of them.

3. I think the general idea is to be mindful of what you are doing at the time. Given that while walking to work, we may be seeing, listening, walking, breathing, holding a coffee, anticipating traffic and so on, we might want to define what it is we’re doing. If “walking to work” is the task at hand (not “thinking about lunch”), then we can choose to be mindful of the group of tasks which come under “walking to work”. This would mean that we would assign different levels of mindfulness to the individual tasks within that group, choosing one as a priority: presumably we can walk pretty well, so being mindful of the direction and surroundings might be assigned the higher level of mindfulness.

The challenge comes whenever we want to change a habit. All of a sudden, we are asking ourselves to focus on something that we haven’t given much thought over the years — such as walking. Recently I realized I needed to change a few things about the way I walked, and wasn’t looking forward to it. I have to change the way I walk? Many people would balk at this, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It takes more work to apply some attention to something habitual, but it’s paying off.

4. As I mentioned, mindlessness is also important. That’s where an action has been programmed into our subconscious to the point where it has become quite natural or reflexive. When we catch a ball, do we think about every detail of how each joint of our arm moves, or how each finger opens then closes? No, we catch the ball. Does a jungle cat think about the details of catching its prey, worrying about proper form? No, it probably thinks “prey there, go now”.

5. One key to aim for  a state of “no-mind” regarding a task is to imagine that you’ve already mastered it and relax. Of course, if you really want to master it, you need to be mindful of it on occasion, but if a detail is distracting you from the task at hand, imagine you’ve mastered that detail for now.

– train mindfully, execute with no-mind. Refine and Repeat.
– be mindful when changing a habit, eventually to perform in a state of no-mind.
– determine the key task at hand, be mindful of it, and enjoy the fruits of it.
– try imagining you’ve mastered a detail (for the time being) if it’s distracting you from the task at hand.

Categories: squash, Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags: