Archive for February, 2009

What about Qi?

February 26th, 2009 1 comment

I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to the idea that Qi (ch’i) or Qigong (ch’i kung) is magic. I think that something as old as Qigong, or as natural as Qi, is no more magical than life itself. Now it’s nice to be in awe of life and nature, but I find it more useful to be grateful and respectful.  To me, something real can be magical only as long as it’s a novelty. Yes, childbirth is a miracle, magical, but you might get two different opinions from a first-time pregnant mom-to-be and a mother giving birth to her seventh child.

Also, being in awe of something distances us from it. Along those lines, a friend of mine once referred to specific artists and writers as “gods”. Given that my friend is extremely intelligent, dynamic and creative, I felt that he was selling himself short, and if I recall, I told him so. As long as he thinks of these men as gods, he’ll never be as good as them. However, if he sees that they are just men, possessing talent and perseverance in some measure, he’ll see that their accomplishments are possible, given an adequate mix of talent, perseverance and luck.

If you’ve ever gained new abilities such as those that derive from an increased level of fitness, you’ve found that tasks that might have seemed beyond your reach are now possible, or even trivial. You probably don’t feel like a super-being — things are just easier, as if that ability were always there. Those stairs don’t seem so high. The walk seems shorter.

And Qi is like that. If we think it’s magic, we might never embrace it, and if we do encounter Qi, we might not believe it. If we think it’s a natural part of life, we’re more likely to embrace it and learn to use it. And it will seem quite natural, as if it were always there.

So what do I think Qi is?

I think it’s the thing that drives natural processes, such as blood circulation or muscular movement. We see it by studying those processes, not unlike the way we study wind forces by measuring the movement of air.

(In fact, I’d venture to say that we never measure the forces of the universe, we only measure their effects. Then we calculate the forces.  Physicists, please feel free to comment.)

The Chinese say that the Yi leads the Qi. This means that by concentrating the mind (Yi), we can increase the amount of energy (Qi) in a part of the body. It is the mind that moves the limbs, but also the mind that makes us sick or dizzy. Imagine your greatest fear, and check in with your physical response. Me, I imagine standing on the edge of a great precipice, and my body often reacts the same way whether I’m there or not.

Now … can we send Qi across a room? Does it flow down streets and stagnate in a bathroom with bad Feng Shui? I don’t know. One thing at a time. If, under favorable conditions, I can turn my hands pink by concentrating my mind, I’m happy for now.

Categories: Lok Hup, Tai Chi, Yiquan, Zen-like stuff Tags:

Spread ’em!

February 20th, 2009 1 comment

My stiff right ankle is preventing me from sinking on my right leg in Tai Chi. Since I like approaching problems from different angles, I asked our Wednesday morning trainer, Caprice, to help me with flexibility there. We worked on some foot exercises such as “doming” the foot (raising the arch) and curling the toes under, which seemed to go all right. However, when she asked me to spread my big toe away from the others, there was nothing there. I had no idea of what to engage or how to engage it. It was a very strange feeling, and though I’m lucky enough to have never been in an accident, maybe this is a glimpse of what it feels like to have to learn how to walk. Of course, I can only guess at the challenges accident victims face.

So I can lift the big toe, press it down, and do the same with the other four as a group. But no side-to-side. Caprice asked me to be patient and keep working on it. So yesterday, I sat down, brought the foot up on my other knee, and started exploring with my fingers lightly touching the muscle that’s supposed to make the toe move to get some feedback. The habitual tendency was to try to move the toe by turning the whole foot, so I had to suppress that urge and quiet things down. At times like this, a calm mind is necessary to listen and hear what’s really happening inside.

After bending toes, relaxing, bending less, relaxing, I finally got some action in that muscle by spreading all toes apart a little bit. It’s a start. Spread, relax, spread less, relax, calm, and so on. I’m now at the point where I can get a tiny bit of movement from the big toe without bringing everything in the neighborhood into play. But it feels weird. And maybe it’s not reproducible. In fact, I’ve lost it now.

But it’ll be back, as long as I keep at it. In terms of refine and repeat, the refining seems to lie in calming the mind, listening, and trying smaller actions. Which might even work with tai chi.

Categories: interdisciplinary, repetition Tags:

Tai Chi and … squash?

February 14th, 2009 No comments

Yin and Yang are everywhere. The push and pull, give and take  can be found in nature, relationships, negotiations, traffic flow and Tai Chi, of course. But squash?

When I took up squash (seriously) to burn calories and keep potential diabetes at bay, I thought it would complement my Tai Chi by adding something hard and fast to something soft and slow. I also wanted to see what would happen if I brought a Tai Chi player’s perspective to a game generally played by Type A executives.

Then something happened. Barbara Cooper happened. Barb is the Pro at Mayfair Lakeshore club, and The Squash Coach. Not just at the club level, but at the National and World level. We’re damn lucky to have her.  I took a lesson with Barb a few months ago, and aside from the gems she shared with me (in that lesson) that have taken six months (it seems) to gradually incorporate into my game, she showed me a very important thing when stroking the ball:

How to relax.

It was stunning. Instead of tightening up, I should relax into the shot. Drop into it. Use gravity.

Sound familiar?

For anyone who swings a bat, racquet or club for fun, this should come as no surprise. Swing it, don’t push it. Relax. Then comes power. When I relax and stroke the ball, it feels bloody therapeutic. There’s a smooth flow to it. I feel the ball on the strings as it sits there just a little longer, and I get to know the ball. And to have that kind of power without excessive tension … what a revelation.

One more thing. The best position to be on the court is in the center, on a spot called the “T”, because the lines on the court make a “T” there. Naturally, both players want to be there, but they can’t be there at the same time. As a result, they perform a complex dance as they make a shot, retreat to the T, avoid the opponent, make a shot, and so on. When viewing two expert players doing this from above, they remind me of …

… a fluid, dynamic yin/yang symbol.


Categories: interdisciplinary, squash, Tai Chi Tags:

Too good to be true?

February 13th, 2009 No comments

Here’s another case for media literacy. Did any of us really think that just because dark chocolate contains antioxidants, it’s now a “health food”? Companies and websites promoting chocolate consumption sure would like us to believe it, and newspaper articles seem to focus on the drama and wish-fulfillment of it all. Well, in spite of that, we should read this article (from The Globe and Mail) all the way to the bottom, where we’ll find:

“Although dark chocolate contains flavonoids that may help lower bad cholesterol, it’s also loaded with fat and sugar. Treating it as anything more than an occasional indulgence, even if it’s loaded with vitamins and high amounts of flavonoids, could aggravate or create health problems, Prof. Blumberg said.”

It was a tasty treat, and it’s still a tasty treat. Practically speaking (and that’s all that matters to this blog), it’s nothing more. If we need the benefits of the flavonoids without the fat & sugar, we should talk to our doctor or a nutritionist about options.

(By the way, I’m neither a nutritionist or a doctor, nor do I play either on TV.)

Categories: nutrition Tags:

Relax harder?

February 12th, 2009 2 comments

I’ve been made aware of a student who seems to be taking a “no prisoners” approach to learning Tai Chi, uttering phrases such as “I’ll learn this if it kills me!”

This brings to mind one of those little master-student stories. The student travels a great distance to learn Tai Chi from the master. He is granted an audience, approaches the master and with great enthusiasm, says: “Master, I desire to learn Tai Chi. I will work very, very hard at it. Tell me, how long will it take to master the art?” The Master replies, “ten years”. The student desperately pleads “but Master, what if I put my heart and soul into it, concentrating as hard as possible, infusing Tai Chi into my very being with great effort?” The Master replies, “twenty years”.

I’ll bet you’ve never heard that one before. The point is, Tai Chi is about yin and yang. Making things happen and letting things happen. If the student is all about harder, harder, harder, that’s all yang yang, yang. How will the student know soft? How will the student know yin?

The way to practice is practice often, practice with awareness and intention, but practice gently in order to keep our mind open, able to accept new things, things we didn’t expect to find. If we’re bogged down with expectations, we will only find what we expect to find.

Enough talk. Let’s practice.

Categories: Tai Chi, Zen-like stuff Tags:

A Special Kind of Pain

February 6th, 2009 No comments

Zhan Zhuang posture 1On Friday nights we play host to Sifu William Chau, who is kind enough to teach us the inner workings of the martial art known as Yiquan (yee-chwan) or Dachengquan (Dah-chung-chwan). It’s a 20th-century art founded by Wang Xiangzhai, of whom Chau Sifu is a second-generation disciple.

An important part of our study is Zhan Zhuang (“jam jong” in Cantonese), which can be translated as “standing like a post”. As the name suggests, we stand motionless, not unlike a post. For most of the classes that I’ve attended, we’ve stood in four poses with our arms in front or at our sides, holding each pose for 15 minutes.

Yes, it’s hard.

At first, you sort of dive into it thinking this can’t be so hard. Pretty soon it’s oh, man, this hurts. Then Sifu comes around and you think oh, good, he’s going to put my arms down, then he just gently adjusts your hands to a new position. Noooooo! Then you start playing mind games to make it seem shorter. I used to count down from 150. Finally , after the last pose, Sifu asks us to place our wrists on our kidneys. Blessed Nirvana! It’s over!

Some people don’t come back. Some get woozy and have to sit down. Big muscular guys often have trouble, on some occasions feeling their strength drain out of them.

So why do we come back?

Part of it is faith. We hear the stories of our fellow students, read up on Yiquan, and we start to believe that there’s something in this, but we just haven’t felt it yet. Speaking for myself, there’s also a certain Yoda-machismo about being able to stand for an hour and outlast the “tough guys”. 

But then you start to feel something. Maybe your hands tingle. Maybe they feel fat. After some more sessions, you figure out how to make it hurt less. You learn which body parts to relax. You find a balanced way to stand. You learn to let your arms hang out there like a lined suit jacket on a contoured hanger, instead of holding them up with your shoulder muscles. After that, maybe your arms tingle, your face tingles, or you get a strange humming feeling if you lightly hold your jaw closed. Or you feel a strange turning motion or vibration not of your doing. I’ve felt all of that. Tonight I felt the turning and vibration, if only for a brief interval. And then, eventually, you relax and feel amazing. 

So what’s going on? 

Well, to begin with, some call this standing meditation. In my opinion, it’s not meditation until you get to a point where this is actually comfortable. Until that  point (and afterwards, actually) it’s physiotherapy. Imagine all the junk we do to our bodies during the day. We sit on one hip, we hunch over, we tighten up our necks and our shoulders, and we even sleep in funny positions. But what if we could stop for an hour, straighten out the kinks, and let our body do what it does best …

… heal itself?

Now of course, you can’t grow back an arm (yet), but you can heal a cut, a sprain, a bruise and all sorts of little indignities. The body isn’t static, it’s quite busy — trying to undo the daily damage we inflict upon it. So here we are in zhan zhuang, using our (slow-twitch stabilizer) muscles, ligaments and tendons to stand in a way that is actually neutral, trying to spread the task of standing to the optimum number of bodily agents, so each of them does as little work as possible. At the same time, we are stretching the parts we normally compress, but in a calm, gentle manner.

It’s not entirely passive, though. Speaking for myself at this stage, I’m also creating a mental inventory of the body, checking to see where I’m holding tension, then releasing that tension. It’s surprising to see how much tension we can release and still keep the pose. Check the neck, the shoulders, the hands, the lower back, the quads, the calves, the stomach … or check whatever zone is calling at that moment. Relax it, hang out for a while, check again … this is one way to avoid boredom in zhan zhuang.

So why do this? Well, it’s well-known in the “internal” martial arts community that standing practice can add a lot of power to the regular skills. It can benefit all martial artists. Maybe it’s the healing, bringing us closer to our uninjured potential. If you believe in Qi (ch’i), zhan zhuang frees up the blockages allowing qi to flow more smoothly. Personally, I’ve found that I can pull all-nighters without losing the rest of the week (I’m almost 49), I haven’t been sick in years, I have a generally higher level of energy compared to ten years ago, and my squash game is really picking up.

And there’s something addictive about the feeling you get when the standing gets easier. Right near the end of one session, I moved my back a particular way, and all of a sudden, it was as if it didn’t exist. It felt cool — all the heat in it dispersed. All the parts of it were as one, no tight upper back, no tight lower back, nothing needed to be relaxed … just one big hollow trunk-thing. Wild. I guess the tension had gone away … 

… until next time.

Categories: Class Notes, Yiquan Tags:

The stages of Tai Chi progress

February 2nd, 2009 No comments

Most students go through a series of stages as they progress in their Tai Chi practice. This is my current impression of the order of the stages, which may be revised at any time. The order of the stages is also fluid, with students flowing in and out of a stage at different points in their progress.

Stage 1: gentle movement. At this stage, the students go through the motions pretty much like a slow-motion dance. At first, they may feel awkward, but eventually become accustomed to their own interpretation of the motions and postures of the set. 

Stage 2: relaxation. Once the students have an idea of which moves come next and how they want to perform the moves, they begin to actually enjoy doing the set and begin to relax as they do the slow-motion dance. It would be great if the student started practicing on his/her own at this point.

Stave 3: correction of structure. If the students continue to attend class, they will no doubt receive some correction from the instructor regarding their movements and postures. This is not meant to bring the appearance of the student’s performance closer to that of a particular master, but to help the student feel more connected while practicing. Usually these corrections teach the student to move from his/her core, to connect body parts through roundness and to remove extraneous motions.

Stage 4: internal sensitivity. Given that how the students feel is more important than how they look, at this point they need to evaluate their own postures and movements through increasing proprioception, or internal sensitivity. The students learn to better sense where their weight is, to sense whether they are moving limbs in isolation or in concert with the body core, or to sense where they are keeping tension in their body.

More advanced stages will be covered in a future post.

Categories: Tai Chi Tags: , ,

Welcome to the blog!

February 2nd, 2009 No comments

Greetings, all and thanks for coming. I expect to write about Tai Chi, Lok Hup, proprioception, connectedness, relaxation, energy, health, fitness as well as things related and unrelated. 

It’s a work in progress here, so please bear with me as I discover the ins and outs of blogging with WordPress.


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