Back in March of 2015, on the first day in early spring when the sun actually warmed the air, I took a drive to Robert Moses State Park on Long Island. I wanted to video myself practicing the Yang Tai Chi Short Form (William C.C. Chen Sequence). The camera I used to video was a Rebel t3i on a tripod. Unfortunately, the camera automatically shuts off if you shoot a video for more than 10 -12 minutes.
Here is my attempt to try and complete my Tai Chi form before my Rebel t3i camera shuts off.
A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Chinatown in NYC for a late night snack. After a great meal at Wo Hop Chinese Food restaurant, I decided to browse some of the local tourist shops for a pair of Tai Chi Shoes. I wanted a pair of tai chi shoes I could use when I practice tai chi on a smooth wooden floor. I was looking to purchase a pair of the traditional tai chi shoes with the plastic sole. I walked into the first store I found that visibly carried tai chi shoes and asked the lady working in the store if they had a pair of shoes in my size. I told her my shoe size, the Tai Chi shoes she sold were sized with a much higher numbering system then we are used to in the US. The clerk opened a cabinet that contained a large amount of tai chi shoes. She rummaged through quite a few pairs of shoes for me to try on.
After a few tries, I found my size in the traditional plastic bottom sole tai chi shoe. I then noticed mixed into the pile of shoes she was digging through a pair with cotton bottoms. This pair of shoes looked to me to be a better quality tai chi shoe, they even had a slight cushion to the sole. It was relatively late at night and the clerk mentioned that the store would be closing in a few minutes. I had to make a quick decision so I purchased what was the seemingly better quality tai chi shoe with the cotton bottom and then headed home. I live a long distance from New York City.
The first thing the next morning I decided to try out my new Tai Chi Shoes. I put the shoes on and they felt very comfortable. When I began practicing my tai chi form it felt like my feet were sliding out from under me. The whole time I was practicing my form it felt like I was just trying not to slip. Maybe they just need some time to get used to it. In my opinion, these cotton bottom tai chi shoes were way too slippery to use on a smooth wooden surface.
*Update: On December 19, 2015, I took another trip to Chinatown NYC and visited the same store to buy a pair of plastic bottom Tai Chi shoes. I am size 10.5 US and fit into a size 45 comfortably. I ended up paying $12.00 for the pair. I knew I might be slightly overpaying for the new pair of Tai Chi shoes but it was late at night and I didn’t want to shop around.
I left the store and walked around Chinatown a little more, I found another store that sold Kung Fu and Martial Art supplies. I asked “Do you sell these Tai Chi shoes here?” the merchant replied, “Yes, they are $7.00 a pair.” I realized that if you shop around and browse a few stores you can get the best price.
The next morning I tried the shoes out and found the traditional flat plastic sole Tai Chi shoes were perfect for use on a hardwood floor. The plastic bottom Tai Chi shoes slide and grip the floor very well. I may have paid a little extra money but I am definitely happy with my choice. I have come to the conclusion that the cotton bottom Tai Chi shoes are best used on a carpet while the traditional Tai Chi plastic bottom shoe can be used for both carpeting and pavement.
Are you looking for online Tai Chi training? If so, I suggest you check out a website called Discover Taiji. A few months ago Discover Taiji promoted an online special through their social media Facebook page. The promotion was $1.00 for a one-month trial of online Tai Chi training with Sifu Adam Mizner. I have watched quite a few free videos from Sifu Adam Mizner on Youtube and I was intrigued to try his paid online training.
I signed up for Discover Taiji’s online Tai Chi training. The monthly fee gave me access to one video per week. I tried the training for one month and was impressed with the clear high-resolution quality of the videos. The Tai Chi knowledge that was transmitted was excellent. I would recommend this online Tai Chi training for anyone who doesn’t have access to a local teacher or someone who wants to enhance their current training.
Click here to Learn More.
This post was written by LK who is a guest blogger on Taichi-daily.com
For almost two years, I have been practicing Yang style tai chi form regularly by going over the whole form at least once a day. Congratulations to me on being consistent! This in itself is a wonderful accomplishment (pat myself on the back!) and a valid way to practice tai chi to reap multiple health benefits. However, there is a different kind of practice that is probably more important for making steady progress in my development as a tai chi practitioner. I am talking about deliberate practice, a concept pioneered by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor at Florida State University *. It involves a special kind of approach to learning a new skill, which is based on repetition. However, it is not rote mechanical repetition, but deliberate repetition with a goal to optimize the performance of that skill. The key point to deliberate practice is that it requires stopping and evaluating the performance from time to time and making corrections to your performance. This evaluation can be in the form of self-reflection or feedback from a teacher. This constant re-evaluation will inform the incremental changes and adjustments of the performance towards improvement.
How is this relevant to my tai chi training, you may ask? I see two general ways deliberate practice can be applied to tai chi: you can pick (1) a body part or (2) a particular move from the form you practice, and work on that in a great detail, paying close attention to the quality of your movement, body sensations, balance, breathing, tension patterns in your body, trajectory of your movement, etc. Work on each element repeatedly, intentionally trying different ways (even make deliberate mistakes!) and learn how they feel and look. Any tiny detail or aspect of your movement matters – the angle of your feet or hands, the position of your knees, the amplitude of a move, the plane in which the move is done, how and where the movement originates, how and where it propagates, etc., etc.
To give you an example of (1), I am currently working on teaching myself to relax the lumbar spine and keep the pelvis vertically aligned throughout the form. I am trying to prevent my back from shortening and stiffening (resulting in the arched back, something a lot of practitioners suffer from**). Before the opening move, I mentally give myself directions to re-align and extend my spine, putting it into the neutral position and lessening naturally occurring spinal curves. As I go through the Yang form, at the end of each move I mentally scan my back and, if my it is tense, I remind myself to exhale and “drop the tail bone”. The choice of words here is important: there is a qualitative difference in my movement if I direct myself to “tuck the pelvis in” (try it both ways and feel the difference for yourself). Although the final result of both movements may look similar from outside, “tucking in” entails an active movement by contracting certain muscles and generating an excess of muscle tension. However, “dropping the tailbone” results in a release of muscle tension and letting the gravity do its work to reposition the pelvis naturally and effortlessly.
In a separate session, you can work on the position of another body part – say, your head and neck, – in a similar way, while going over the whole form or just a segment of it. Direct your neck to release “up and slightly forward” and imagine your head suspended on a string attached to the crown of your head. This will naturally bring your head into the correct position. However, using the command “tuck your chin in” will call for an active muscle contraction on your part and will not be as beneficial. The difference between the two will affect the quality of your movement: the neck will be stiff, the position of your head, which is supposed to move freely during the form, will be fixed and the flow of your movement blocked.
The second method (2) of applying principles of deliberate practice to tai chi would entail picking a particular movement in the form – say, “snake creeps down” or “ward off left”, and repeatedly going over it very slowly, paying attention to the quality of your movement at each moment: note your balance, distribution and transfer of your weight, breathing, positioning of different body parts and joints (feet, knees, hips, pelvis, spine, shoulder girdle, head, etc.) relative to each other, and trajectory of each body part as it moves. Again, try it many times, slightly changing the move every time to find the correct and natural way to perform it. Of course, here one cannot emphasize enough the role a good tai chi teacher plays in finding that ultimately correct form. It’s critical to check with your teacher regularly to keep your self-directed practice on the right path. When practicing by yourself, use a mirror to gain an insight into your form and make adjustments to it.
I find that this kind of methodical practice requires considerable mental concentration to be able to bring the attention back to the minutiae of body movement over and over. It seems difficult (or even impossible at the beginning) to sustain that level of concentration for a long time and it is not inherently enjoyable. Thus, I was advised to start small, even if it is just for 2-3 minutes at a time, but do it consistently. And I was promised that it would bring about the desired long-term changes, however painstakingly small.
The deliberate practice is, of course, relevant to learning not only tai chi, but any new complex motor skill – dancing, playing a musical instrument, acting, singing, and athletic performance. It is not an exaggeration to say that learning any of these skills is first and foremost a cognitive task and should be approached as such by complementing physical training with this kind of reflective (self-) coaching, which is crucial to attaining high proficiency level in a chosen art form.
P.S. After a short discussion with my teacher, I would like to add a disclaimer. This is my current view and I don’t certainly have it all figured out myself; so, take all this with a grain (or three) of salt. I may change my opinion in the future, as I am in a constant learning mode. This is where I am right now in my very own journey to self-improvement. Where are you on your tai chi path and on what goals are you currently working?
* If you are in the mood for some scholarly reading, here is the link to Dr. Ericsson’s webpage that lists his publications, including the original 1993 paper that introduced the concept http://www.psy.fsu.edu/faculty/ericsson.dp.html
On a side note, this concept has been further popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and has become a basis for his widely cited “10,000-hour rule”: http://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930 However, it has been recently challenged by a study from Princeton University: http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S40/43/14C80/index.xml?section=topstories
** This is especially true for female practitioners, as far as I can tell (but don’t quote me on this, as this is my personal, purely non-scientific, observation). It may be those shoes with high heels that I myself love to wear and am not willing to give up, even for health benefit.
SIGHTSEEING IN NYC? TRY TAI CHI, HERE’S HOW
For six months I worked a 12 hour night shift in Manhattan (7 pm to 7 am) retouching photos for Quad Graphics, a large printing company. During this time, I retouched images used in popular magazines such as LIFE, FITNESS, FIELD AND STREAM, FAMILY CIRCLE, CHILD and many others. After work, I would drive downtown to Columbus Park in Chinatown NYC where I would practice the Yang 24 Tai Chi form before my hour-long commute home to Long Island. Six months later I was transferred to the day shift and this daily practice in Chinatown came to an end. Since I now live and work on Long Island, it’s been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to practice in Chinatown NYC.
Recently a reporter from MARIE CLAIRE magazine (Brazil) contacted me. She was working on an article about things to do while in New York City and wanted my input. Because she read my story on taichi-daily.com about practicing Tai Chi in Columbus Park, New York, she asked if I had any good photos of people practicing there. In addition, she was hoping for information for those who might be interested in watching Tai Chi or taking an early morning lesson in the park. I thought it would be a great idea to take some photos and post them on my blog. If I documented my experience, anyone who was interested could get some info that might make their sightseeing easier.
This morning I woke at 5:30 am and drove to Manhattan. On this sunny day, traffic moved well on the Long Island Expressway, but I ran into heavy traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. This delay caused me to arrive in Chinatown (via Manhattan Bridge) at about 7:30 am. I drove down Canal Street and made a left turn on Mott Street. There was plenty of metered parking available for $3.50 per hour. Although the meter is supposed to take credit cards, a message appeared saying it was unable to read mine. I was only able to scrape together $1.25 in quarters, which meant I had about twenty minutes to take pictures. Hurriedly, I parked near the end of Mott Street and walked up Mosco Street to the entrance of Columbus Park. I did not want to get a parking ticket and was pressed for time.
In the past, I remembered watching many skilled groups practicing Tai Chi and weapons. This morning I was disappointed not to see any familiar faces. Perhaps my late arrival was the reason. I think the majority of people get there to practice by 7 am or earlier. By the time I arrived it was 7:50, so most people had probably left to go to work. Even so, there were still quite a few people practicing, though not as many as I recalled. Scattered throughout the park were a few groups of ladies doing some exercises, two others doing fan forms. There were also Chi Kung practitioners and people doing Tai Chi sword. I did not see many practicing the popular Yang 24 form, Chen style or any other empty hand Tai Chi form, probably because of my late arrival.
Everyone seemed very friendly and most did not mind if I photographed them. Actually, only one lady waved to me that she didn’t want her photo taken.
If you are sightseeing in New York City, early morning Chinatown Tai Chi is definitely a worthwhile experience. Please enjoy the pictures I took. I hope that you can get a feel for this early morning ritual and one day make the trip into the city and experience it in person.
This post was written by LK who is a guest blogger on Taichi-daily.com
As I continue working on fine-tuning my Yang style short form, I am experiencing mild but annoying pain in my lower back after each tai chi practice. To relieve the back pain, I was advised to “relax at the end of each movement and let go of unnecessary muscle tension”. The big question is how to do it. We are often told to relax, but rarely are we taught any practical tips on how to accomplish it. Learning muscle relaxation as a general skill can transform our motor (and quite possibly, mental) function, improving our handling of everyday tasks, professional and creative performance, and all types of exercise, including tai chi form. Here is my attempt at outlining some practical steps towards mastering this essential skill.
The first step to getting rid of excess muscle tension is to become aware of it, for our proprioception can grossly misinform us (read: the brain) about the amount of background tension in our body. Unless we consciously practice the skill of recognizing this tension, we become so habituated to it that it feels “right” and natural. The chances are that right now (while reading this) you are unknowingly either clenching your jaws, or hunching your shoulder(s), or pulling your head back into your shoulders or doing all of the above and then some. If you do not perceive any tension anywhere in your body (and you are not an experienced yogi or tai chi master) this means that you are merely unaware of the muscle tension you habitually carry in your body. Additionally, in stressful situations, we tend to tense up even more, mostly in our shoulder and neck area, and hold our breath. This is the physical manifestation of a typical fear response that further exacerbates any existing background muscle tension. Thus, it is imperative to build a habit of mentally scanning your body for any excess muscle tension throughout your day and notice when and where in the body it appears.*
Once you recognize the habitual tension patterns in your body, the second step is to regularly practice conscious release of this tension. One of the ways of experiencing the feeling of relaxation and practicing it was described by JC in a previous post about floating in the water Click here to read the post.
There must be many different relaxation methods, but below are the few I have tried and adopted in my own practice:
– Diaphragmatic breathing. Breathe into your stomach by expanding your lower abdomen (not the thorax) and release muscle tension on the outbreath. After few breaths you will instantly feel more relaxed and grounded.
– Progressive muscular relaxation method is used by athletes and involves active contraction of groups of muscles with subsequent relaxation. When a muscle is tightened for 5-6 seconds and then relaxed, the muscle returns to a more relaxed state. Repeat this process for all parts of the body, starting from feet going up the trunk, arms/hands, neck and the head (facial muscles, jaws, and eyes).
– Mental imagery (visual, kinesthetic, or other) is achieved by thinking of images or sensations that evoke relaxation in your body. You may need to play with different images to find out which ones work specifically for you, as they are determined by your individual life experiences and memories. Here are some suggestions to get you started: trigger a sensation of warmth or heaviness in your extremities; imagine yourself floating in the water, or melting into a puddle on the ground, or being suspended from a string like a marionette; think of peaceful images or sounds of nature (ocean waves, forest in the morning, sound of raindrops on a rooftop, etc.). These exercises are usually done in the supine or semi-supine position (laying on your back on the floor or another firm surface).
– Give verbal directions to yourself to let go of muscle tension and lengthen and widen your whole body (this involves thinking about lengthening and widening without actually stretching or changing body position in space). As a start, you can try the classical verbal formula used in Alexander Technique**: “let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen”. Similar to the choice of images in the mental imagery, the choice of words in the verbal self-direction is important for its effectiveness.
And finally, realize that relaxation does not equal collapse. Most of the methods of relaxation described above are practiced in a static (laying on the back or seated) position and great for gaining an initial insight into the feel and the process of muscle release, but relaxation during dynamic movement requires us to deal with gravity and inertia. Quite often, when told to relax during continuous movement in the upright position, we collapse and break down our posture, letting our body become floppy and limp like a wilted flower. This is not the kind of relaxation we want! The essential aspect of relaxation during tai chi form is maintaining a sense of expansion (very often it is called “extension” by sport, fitness and dance instructors). What seems to work for me personally is trying to release muscle tension on the (diaphragmatic) outbreath, while simultaneously giving myself mental directions to lengthen and expand without actively engaging any skeletal musculature. Once a mental image of the desired movement (what’s called a “motor engram”) is created in your mind, your central nervous system will find the most efficient (both effective and economical) way of accomplishing it, provided you do not interfere with the process by tensing up or actively “doing” it.*** In other words, the relaxation we are trying to achieve in tai chi practice is not passive, lifeless and feeble, but mindful, energetic and alive. It is part of a larger Taoist concept of wu-wei. To quote Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia:
Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. ****
By regularly practicing the above-described sequence of (1) recognizing the muscle tension when it arises in my body, (2) inhibiting and/or releasing the tension, and (3) triggering the efficient and natural movement patterns by using mental imagery, I hope to get rid of the pesky backache, improve my tai chi practice and the overall physical and mental performance. I will keep you posted on my progress and would be curious to hear about the methods for releasing muscle tension that worked well for you in and outside of tai chi practice.
* Note that some amount of myofascial tone (residual contraction of muscle and fascia, controlled by spinal cord reflexes) is normal and necessary to counteract gravity and maintain upright posture; the problem starts when this tone develops into continuous excessive tension, often asymmetric, of the muscles unnecessary for the task at hand or for maintenance of resting position.
** The Alexander Technique (http://www.alexandertechnique.com) requires dedicated practice and willpower to learn, but once you get the first positive results, it is a very rewarding experience and an effective way of gaining more control over your physical and mental well-being. For some practical tips on AT, check out this blog http://www.freeyourneck.com/blog/alexander-technique-weekly-tip-33/
*** This is, of course, an oversimplification, but discussing the neurophysiology of motor behavior is beyond the scope of this post. You can learn more about mental imagery and how it is used in attaining better motor efficiency by reading about Franklin Method
**** Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
Maria Popova, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote a beautiful review of this book in her blog called Brainpickings
Recently I have been watching videos I found on youtube titled Learn Tai Chi Online with Jet Li’s Online Academy. These are a series of tai chi lessons that are very nicely done. They are clear and easily understood and very professional. I recommend them to a tai chi beginner as well as someone with many years of experience.
Through the years of studying tai chi and aikido I have often heard my teachers say things and wondered why they didn’t say that before. When I thought about it some more I realized they were saying the same thing over and over but I was not ready to hear it.
Many times while watching a martial art video, taking a lesson or watching a movie I have what we call an aha moment. It usually happens because of seeing or hearing something explained in a different way by someone other than your teacher. Or it may be because of daily practice you gain experience and you are ready to learn something new.
I think it is beneficial to learn from many different teachers. Luckily we have the internet to search for anything we want to learn. Check out Jet Li’s Taiji academy video lessons available online. You won’t be disappointed.
The discoveries I made during my first 2 years of practicing tai chi chuan
This post was written by LK who is a guest blogger on Taichi-daily.com
I came to tai chi chuan by chance and stayed because I loved exquisite beauty of its flowing movements and its calming effect that I felt right away. At the time, I saw it as an alternative to traditional sitting meditation (which I tried to master many times over many years and only ended up torturing myself), as well as one of somatic arts, a kinesthetically intelligent and beautiful movement system that could improve me as a dancer.
Only later I learned that it is an ancient martial art, complete with fighting and weapons applications. Admittedly, like many in the West and especially female practitioners, I am more interested in the health benefits of tai chi than its martial aspects. As a trained scientist, I am surprised to find numerous ongoing clinical studies of tai chi and qi gong exercise, reflecting growing interest of Western medicine in tai chi and traditional Chinese medical practices. But I will save this topic for another time.
What I want to share is how my tai chi practice changed over the course of two years since I started learning yang style short form under Joe Cavaliere and Rich Morrison. As I mentioned, at the beginning I resisted learning martial aspect of the art. I even used to say in class that I couldn’t care less about martial applications of a particular move or technique, driving my aikido and tai chi teachers crazy. The words “martial” and ‘fighting” evoked in my mind images of violence, physical pain and fear and blocked all learning taking place in my body and mind. I credit my teachers with patience and letting me practice the best I could until I slowly came to understand, in my own time, the importance of martial applications of tai chi chuan and how they determine direction of force and energy.
These days, I start and finish my day with 30 min of tai chi (I do two rounds of Cheng Man Ching’s Yang Short Form back-to-back) and am learning something new about myself every day. I am currently working with dedicated teachers on fine-tuning the form based on body biomechanics, and this is a long and gradual process. However, I would say, this is the easy part; what I am struggling with is grasping the concept of qi and energy flow that are central to the practice and are really the key to gaining ultimate health benefits, or so I am told. I am at the beginning of my journey and do not expect fast results, but can already feel the difference a regular tai chi chuan practice made in my life: I am more grounded (physically and mentally), my dancing improved significantly (ta-da!) although I am still struggling with keeping my balance during turns, and I am less anxious in facing my every day challenges. So, my friends, take up tai chi chuan and feel the difference it makes in your life!
“On the last Saturday of April each year at 10 am, tens of thousands in hundreds of cities, in over 70 nations come together… to breathe together… to provide a healing vision for our world. Be a part of World Tai Chi & Qigong Day on Long Island.
Shorefront Park in Patchogue Long Island is one of the many locations around the world to hold the World Tai Chi & Qigong Day annual event. This year the event had to be postponed due to rain. The new date was set for Saturday, May 3rd, 2014.
I arrived at Shorefront park at around 10 am and the weather was perfect. The sun was shining the sky was blue. The temperature was around 68 degrees. The park happens to be on the Patchogue shore and there was a slight breeze. There was quite a nice turn out of people this morning. Many took advantage of the free Tai Chi classes on Long Island. This year I brought my camera and took some photos, feel free to browse the World Tai Chi Day photos:
When I began my tai chi journey I would often use the image of the carnival water gun game as an analogy to understand how to form each tai chi posture. In the balloon water race game each person sits at a table pointing a water gun at a plastic clown head or other toy like figure. You aim the water gun at the mouth opening and when the bell rings shoot water into the mouth to inflate the balloon. The balloon is attached behind the toy head on a pipe. The first one to fill the balloon with air and pops the balloon wins the game. I was not thinking of the speed or winning the game, I was watching the balloon from the start to finish of the game. The balloon starts out hanging deflated attached to the pipe opening and as the game began the water would somehow force air into the balloon. The balloon would form and fill with air to its maximum and the winners balloon would expand and pop.
While practicing my Tai Chi form I would imagine water or air slowly entering my body at the bottom of my weighted foot to form each Tai Chi posture. I used the air/water visualization to help me to guide my chi. I remember my teacher telling me to be sure to release the chi and not contain it. The energy must be breathed in and released in all directions, out the top of the head, fingers, skin, palms, feet, back, front etc. To release the energy out and then allow new chi(energy) from above and around me to pass through the top of my head and released through my body down deep into the earth. There are many points to be aware of while releasing energy including breathing, relaxation, momentum, structure etc. Through the years this has always been something I have practiced. One recent revelation has been the importance of the eye lids.
Up until recently whenever I practiced my Tai Chi form I would close my eyes. It could be for one posture or several at a time. I have been doing this for years and it has helped me to internalize and enhance each movement. It was a way that helped me perform each posture by moving each joint separately. This has gone on for several years and has always been a part of my learning process. I was unable to feel what needed to be happening during my form unless I closed my eyes and internally visualized what needed to happen. Recently I had one of those ‘aha’ moments and realized the role the eyelids play in releasing energy. They must be open at all times throughout the form.
William C.C. Chen would say something like “When you breathe out and relax your body let your eyelids become very heavy, sleepy and relaxed. When you breathe in and your breath forms each posture let your eyelids become open and fully awake”. I have done this for quite some time but never realized the importance. I believe the eyelids play an integral part in releasing energy in tai chi and should always be active to receive the full health benefit of the art.