Tag Archives: qi

Making a Connection in Taiji & Qigong – Sinking Qi

When you first begin tai chi and qigong, you spend most of your time trying to remember the positions of arms and legs in the various postures, and then which posture follows the previous one.
Gradually you begin to know a repertoire of postures, one following another; in other words – the tai chi ‘form’, or a qigong ‘set’ of exercises.

yang-cheng-fuAt first this ends up as though you are physically reproducing a series of photographs; you move the body into the position of one photo, then another, until you’ve got to the end.
You’ve now learnt the shape of the form – the equivalent of a musician learning which note follows which, but without any great fluency, interpretation, or subtlety.

Then there’s all that talk about ‘flow’… ‘flowing’ from one position to another. How do you do it?  How do you smoothly transition between one movement and another?
This could be referred to as the ‘connection’.

Connecting the moves.
Connection is relaxation and continuation.  It is understanding what the energy of a movement is doing and how to convert it into something new.

In fact, we are continuously using this skill in many varied situations.

  • If friends are upset, we listen to them so as to help them convert their discomfort and see them through the problem.
  • If you’re driving your car around a 90 degree bend, you ease off on the corner in order to make the transition.
  • If you want to jump on a bus that’s passing you, you run alongside the bus before jumping on, rather than grabbing the handrail as it passes.

What takes place in all instances is a ‘listening’ to the first action in order to change it into the second action.  By doing so, you blend one action into another.

In taiji and qigong …
stance-bowstance-emptystance-bow

Let’s say you are starting in a left or right Bow stance (one leg ahead of the other, with the weight on the front leg – graphic 1, above); you are going to sit back on to your back leg (graphic 2), and then go forwards again into the same Bow stance that you started in (graphic 3).  You can ignore the hand positions.
Having sat back (graphic 2), the energy which has been going backwards needs to reverse, but without going directly forwards along the same ‘line’ that you sat back on.  If you do this, there will, in effect, be a ‘break’ in the movement, i.e. at the exact point where you finish sitting back prior to going forward again.  Trying to do that is like reaching your 90 degree bend in the road and attempting to do an abrupt right angle turn, i.e. missing out the curve of the bend.  The car would roll over.

  • As you start to sit backwards, the back knee gradually bends.  Be stance-bow-with-arrowaware that the direction of ‘flow’ is backwards (in this case), and that movement mustn’t stop – although it might change direction.  You are gradually tilting your pelvis (draw in your abdomen).
  • As you get near to the end of sitting back, think of relaxing the leg you’ve sat back on; you are actually relaxing the hip joint, but it’s easier to think of relaxing the leg.  (This is the right leg in graphic 2). Your pelvis is continuously tilting and ‘tucking under’.stance-empty-with-arrow
  • Soften your shoulders, elbows, (and hips) so that the ‘backwards’ energy/movement drops.
  • Make sure that you are breathing either in or out, it doesn’t matter which.  When you hold your breath the body can only partially relax; apart from anything else, the muscles don’t get the oxygen they need to stay elastic.
  • As you begin to reach the maximum amount that your bent rear knee can comfortably support you, your pelvis has tilted to its full amount.  Then begin to move forwards again.

What is now happening is that the body/centre is no longer moving backwards and forwards along the same horizontal line, it is now creating a circle.

Using Qi to produce Movement.

You breathe (hopefully).  Maybe you breathe efficiently, maybe you don’t, but in order to live you obviously need both an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ breath; you must have both.  One breath cannot exist without the other.
You feel the end of an in-breath, and you convert it seamlessly to an out-breath.
But when moving, many people don’t do so in the way that they breathe; they often move as though they’re continuously breathing either out or in.
Breathing is yin and yang. It’s expansion and contraction. It’s tension and relaxation.  It’s the opposites that make our lives function efficiently.  It’s creative.  It’s one of our main connections to the planet and reflects everything that happens on the planet.

Exercise 1a:  Jumping.
1. Bend your knees and then STOP.
2. Without bending your knees any further, not even a millimetre lower, jump in the air.

Impossible?

Exercise 1b:  Jumping.
Now do exactly the same as (1) above, but this time when you do (2) you can allow the knees to bend further in order to leap off the ground.

What did your body do?
During that last small knee bend, prior to jumping, a number of things might have taken place:
1. You dropped a little lower, and then the second before your feet detached from the ground, you might have done an extra tiny knee bend.
2. You probably relaxed your body more.
3. You might also have taken an in-breath.
4. Your shoulders sunk.
5. You probably relaxed your neck.

In fact, this happened:

The ball is you.
And that’s exactly how your body should feel inside when you drop to jump off the floor.  The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.
Your body is elastic, it can contract/expand, compress/release, it’s flexible, and your nervous system has an infinite capacity for experiencing these aspects.
You are experiencing gravity, and, just before you leap in the air, if only one muscle holds on, you are no longer fully experiencing it, and the body has lost its pliability.
1Ball 22Ball 33Ball 4

This (slightly worrying!) video shows Sumo wrestlers grounding themselves.  Watch what happens to the bodies they ground themselves:

Now watch closely when this high jump video gets to any of the following places:
0:12-0:13, 1:02, 1:18, 1:33, and a good one at 1:55.
The body compresses just before the jump (look at the shoulders), and then see how the body expands – just like the ball did, where the top of the ball extends upwards as it left the ground:

Timing.
The jump exercise above (Exercise 1b) is a matter of ‘timing’.
You experience gravity like the Sumo wrestler, who doesn’t want to become ungrounded, but you ‘catch’ the sensation and make use of it like the high jumper, who does want to become ungrounded.
4Ball 55Ball 66Ball 7

APPLYING IT in TAIJI & QIGONG.

Exercise 2:  Without a step.
A tai chi and qigong move such as the one at the beginning of many tai chi forms is useful to feel the first part of the bouncy ball effect, i.e. when you sit down having just raised the hands.
All you have to do is to experience you body as though it actually is the sinking ball.  In other words, as you bend your knees, every cell of your body should feel as the ball might feel when it hits the ground – if it were sentient, that is; i.e.

  • Empty every cell – not just in your legs, but throughout the entire body.  Feel gravity.
  • Soften your entire body, everything becoming pliable.
  • Stop holding on.
  • Feel the weight of your body.   You can’t feel if you’re holding on.

Exercise 3:  With a step.
The basics are:-

  • Feet together.
  • Bend both knees.
  • Keeping all the weight on one foot, place only the heel of the other foot slightly ahead.

This is the same concept as the first exercise.  It is important that you remember that slight ‘extra’ sinking of the body that you did in the micro-second before leaping off the floor.  This is the moment for the step.  To put it another way, the sinking feel includes the extension of the heel (with no weight on it), and you shouldn’t move the foot ahead until you’ve felt the sinking.
Therefore, the heel moving outwards is the end of the compression of the body; the final moment of the ball spreading over the floor; the conclusion of the sinking.

And finally…
Ball 5After the compression comes the release.

Once again, this is a ‘feeling’ in the body; it’s an internal release, initially in the neck, but then through the spine and passing down through the body.  It’s this release that frees the body for movement.

This is NOT to say that you are going to do taiji and qigong as though you’re on a Pogo stick, bouncing up and down like the ball does.
To repeat what I said above, “The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.”

Energy, Flow, & Learning

Energy
Energy is flow; without flow there is no energy.  A shortage of energy is therefore partly about a lack of flow … i.e. partial stagnation.

The energy industryLucozade
We are  constantly bombarded by energy foods, energy drinks, energy supplements, energy this and that, and exercises and methods to improve our energy.
More often than not, this seems to make the assumption that it’s okay to continue our lifestyle exactly as before, but, by just doing something new, by including a few additional healthy foods or activities, or by simply changing where we live, we can enhance our energy levels.
So, bearing in mind that our bodies are constructed entirely of what we eat and breathe, it might be worthwhile looking at how to reduce one’s supply of energy!

How do you reduce your energy levels?
Apart from the obvious, i.e. stop eating and drinking entirely, try using or cultivating any or all of the following:

  • Food, drinks, and any other substances that the body finds either hard to break down, hard to assimilate, or toxic
  • An excess of absolutely anything and everything (this includes an excess of exercise)
  • Suppression of elimination (e.g. discharge of toxins via sweating, excretion, etc.)
  • Emotional excess or suppression
  • Musculature that lacks tone, yet requires mobilisation
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor breathing habits
  • Air quality that causes the lungs to search for oxygen
  • Excess stress
  • Poor quality sleep (due to any of the above)
  • Extreme climatic conditions
  • Fixed attitudes

I realise that there’s a degree of overlap between most of these, and that we hear a lot about most of them, but I’m particularly interested in the last one.  How many times a day do we encounter that cause of stress? Hundreds? Thousands?

Fixed attitudes; inability to change
It’s that second when you find yourself thinking, “I don’t like that!”, or “That can’t be right; it’s not how I’ve done it before”, or “Why did he say that?”, or “That’s no way to behave”, or “What is that person on?”…
This is a major, if not the major, cause of stress.  When we resist something, not only does it persist, itKirlian apple holds us back like an anchor, stopping us from moving on.
I see this happening in myself all the time; I have a fixed idea of how something should be done, and, being instantly biased because I’m judging through a previously accepted set of criteria, find it very difficult to see outside the box.  The very fact that I initially have an opinion makes being open-minded very difficult.

Fixed attitudes & learning
I watch this happen when I’m learning tai chi.
Because I’ve been doing it for 40+ years means that I have a great many pre-conceived ideas of how I should be moving.  I have to consciously switch off what I think I know, so that I can attempt to view with new eyes.  It’s like trying to chew one’s own teeth; you’re using your mind to switch off your mind, whilst simultaneously standing outside yourself to become an observer.
The challenge for me is to catch this moment of lack of acceptance – the moment when I am not being completely open to the new.
If I’m able to catch it, I can see how it solidifies or hardens my attitude, blocking me.
By trying to operate through pre-conceived ideas, I’ve created in myself an energetic dam; I’ve stopped flowing; my inter-meshing with life is compromised; I’ve set myself against my current situation; my ego has got in the way; I’ve stopped learning.

How does this affect tai chi & qigong?
In the martial arts this is referred to as ‘blocking qi’, although this term is usually used to mean a raised shoulder, a tightened pelvis, a locked hip joint, or other problems such as a collapsed neck.
From the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medical) perspective, this blocking of qi causes an imbalance amongst the organs, initially causing loss of energy, and progressing over time to dis-ease, i.e. a lack of ease within the body.

I encounter this all the time, not only when learning, but also when teaching.
I’ve seen some of my students find this very hard, some of them actually leaving.
One student, I particularly remember, left after I’d taught High Pat on Horse slightly differently (as a result of my own lesson with my teacher) saying, “You never used to teach it like that, you’ve changed it.”
She was right; the basic shape of the move was identical, but, not only did it differ in the way that it connected to the moves before and after it, my interpretation of the actual movement had altered to become more circular, more flowing, and more connected to my centre. This was too much for her.
I used to be exactly the same! I wanted it all set in stone – a nice formula, a recipe, so that I ‘knew’ tai chi.

Perspective
To learn though, we have to base learning on something.  I’m not saying that all learning should start from the point of view of a clean slate; it must be built on what we’ve already learnt.
What I am saying is that we should be aware that our perspective on what we have previously learnt will alter, and we shouldn’t be too attached to the ‘old’ perspective.

So why does a ‘fixed attitude’ reduce your energy?
Energy & hose pipes
When teaching, in order to explain how energy functions in the body, I use the analogy of a garden hose pipe.
If, having attached your hose pipe to the tap, you lay it down the length of the garden and then turn the tap on, you get a free flow of water from the end of the pipe.
Hosepipe bentHowever, if there is a bend or kink in the pipe, the flow of water is restricted, and possibly even stopped.

Energy (blood & qi) works in exactly the same in the body; the bend or Muscular spasmkink is tension, whether physical or mental; where there is tension, the flow is restricted.  This could be the acupuncture channels, it could be the blood or nerve supplies, or it could be an ingrained attitude.  Nothing can grow without flow.
The qi is blocked, the water cannot flow in the pipe, the resistance to change (or something different or new) causes tension, and as a result our energy is compromised.

Qigong… Why bother?

In the majority of my classes I teach some qigong as a warm-up.
I do this for a number of reasons:-

  • to introduce the various different types of movement (expanding the palate),
  • to loosen the joints (flexibility),
  • to give people some understanding of their internal organs (if only to locate where they are), and
  • to stretch people both metaphorically and physically in ways that they probably don’t usually stretch.

When used as a warm-up, you can’t really go much beyond that.

Qigong isn’t as popular as tai chi at the moment, but it’s starting to go that way.  Tai chi has had plenty of press over the last couple of years to the extent that I have found that more and more doctors and specialists are recommending that their patients take it up.  This is no longer only among the older age groups, it’s spreading to younger age groups, and doctors now appear to be recommending not only tai chi but also qigong.

Why do qigong?
You can get to the same place by doing tai chi alone, but it just takes longer.
You could say that there is qigong in tai chi, but there isn’t necessarily tai chi in qigong.

153b Man exercisingQigong works on the core of what you are trying to do in tai chi.  Some people would say that qigong is easier than tai chi, and in some ways that’s true – often there is less movement involved (although that does depend on the type of qigong you’re doing).

Because there can be less outwardly-obvious movement, qigong works more consciously and immediately on the use of the core (e.g. the lower ‘dantian’, but this could be any of the ‘dantians’), and the spine.
In the case of the lower dantian, movement is initiated here, and all outward movement (the extremities… arms and legs) are a manifestation of that.

This is true for tai chi also, but when people do tai chi, they become involved with where the various limbs are going… ‘left hand up, right hand down’, ‘right foot is turning inwards by 45 degrees, whilst the left elbow is sinking’, or ‘the weight shifting from right foot to left foot and back to right foot…’, and so on.
This is all fine – after all, you’re trying to learn the shape of a set of movements.  Unfortunately and inevitably, it’s very ‘external’, the outside movements are distracting – catching the eye more than the internal movements which are far less obvious, but ultimately far more important.

So in Qigong, we predominantly focus on what’s going on inside, right from the start, and this is the real reason that qigong is taught in a tai chi class… the internal movement should educate the external movement.

Why qigong without tai chi?
When you do qigong as more than just a warm-up, you can go into it in a little more depth. Some of the reasons for learning qigong on its own are:-

  • so that people can experience how the combination of stretch, together with both twisting the sinews, and with breathing, can have a huge impact on both one’s mobility,
  • to increase energy,
  • to improve mental health (relieve stress),
  • to improve circulation,
  • to show how every movement comes from the centre, so that every action, however small, involves (and unifies) the entire body,
  • to feel the concept of ‘Peng’, and how to balance the body,
  • to explain the Eastern concept of medicine and health, how TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has a different perspective on health to the West, and how this more holistic approach operates in terms of the interconnection and interdependence of the organs in the body, and
  • to explain something about acupuncture points.

Energy
I mentioned the words ‘increase energy’ above.  I think that this applies to all types of qigong, but particularly to Zhan Zhuang Qigong – static qigong, sometimes known as Standing Pole, or Standing like a Tree.
155b Man exercisingThis is perhaps the most demanding type of qigong that I’ve come across, not only physically but mentally.  It requires that you position the body with bent knees and raised arms (not necessarily very high) and simply hold that posture (see the photos above).  Whilst in this posture (and many other similar postures), you relax the body.
When relaxation occurs, it is as though ‘pockets’ of energy, previously trapped, are released, as though the pipelines of the energy plumbing system suddenly become unblocked.
When this happens, it’s as though the energy release is self-perpetuating; it doesn’t simply stop once the system has become balanced, it continues to increase.

Whilst practising this exercise, the mind comes up with the most astonishing number of reasons to stop doing the exercise – too many other things to do, a slight itch that needs scratching, perhaps going for a walk might be better exercise, a remarkable desire to do some cleaning…. anything!
The exercise is starting to sort out the nervous system; it feels very uncomfortable, and the mind will try anything to get out of it.
Click here for further information about ‘Standing Qigong’ (Zhan Zhuang), and other qigong exercises for the organs.

And finally…
It also has an effect on one’s longevity… but finding out about that can be a bit of a wait!


James Drewe runs Qigong classes in both London & Kent.
For details click here, or go to http://www.taiji.co.uk/#!classes/c1jxp


 

2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (4)

Continuing … the next point from Blog 1

What’s the point of 2-person work?

  • To understand our own stability is obvious when we’re standing on one leg, it’s simply a case of ‘balance’; but it’s less easy to understand when we’re on two legs, with someone pushing us.
  • Working with a partner gives you the opportunity to understand and learn how to sink your qi.

Change & Testing
This is about stability, muscular interconnection (Peng), and sinking qi,
Generally people find it hard to understand their what they are trying to do when in the role of tester (rather than the person being tested).
James & M.Wang (4)To take an example: You are in the posture of Play the Lute, or Brush Knee, and your partner is holding one or both of your arms and pushing towards you in a specific direction.
When beginners first do this pushing (testing), they often push very suddenly, or very hard, or jerkily, or at the wrong angle – or a mixture of all of these!
But in fact the sensitivity of the tester is equally as important as the sensitivity of the person being tested. It is not a competition, and both parties can learn from the other.
The challenge for the one being tested is to remain comfortable and relaxed, muscularly interconnected (Peng), with the qi sunk, and without collapsing the body.
The challenge for the tester is to ‘help’ his partner.  Both parties should try to feel where the tested person’s disconnection is, where the qi is ‘wasted’, or where the ‘peng’ is dysfunctional… Obvious examples of this are when the shoulders of the tested partner are raised, the chest hasn’t relaxed, or the pelvis hasn’t tucked under.

… Continued in the final blog on “2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (5)”.

Testing Postures in Taiji & Qigong – Making Sure the World is Round (Peng Energy)

Balancing the body
When performing tai chi and qigong, you need to organise your body so that it feels as though all aspects of the body (i.e. left/right, front/back, and up/down) are supported; in other words the left is supported by the right, the front by the back, the up by the down, etc..
Because of this, the body therefore has 100% awareness of all angles, and all directions, all the time.

This is the same idea as an architect designing a building that will withstand the elements from any direction.  In order that the building stays standing, it must have a solid foundation, and the proportions must be self-balancing.
A further example is the method of construction of a stone arch, where the pressure of the stones on one side of the arch needs to equal the pressure on the other sidSphere 2 (radius) for WordPresse.

Peng energy
In taiji, you need to have this same idea of balance in the body.  In other words if someone were to gently push, or pull you from any angle when you were in a tai chi posture, you would feel as though you were stable and able to withstand the push or pull (within reason).
This is ‘Peng’ energy – a feeling of being inside a balloon, and when ‘testing a posture’ is what you are aiming to generate.

As an example of this, when you are doing a double-handed push, moving from an Empty stance with your weight starting on the rear leg to a Bow stance with your weight finishing on the front foot:

  • Qi in the back: If you do the movement described above with no qi in your back, anyone standing in front of you, who catches hold of your wrists, would easily be able to pull you forwards.
    In this instance your world isn’t round – in Chinese terms, there is no qi in the back.  The upper spine is, in effect, collapsing; the world is round at the front (qi pushing forward), but you are weak at the back (no qi, no feeling of expansion in the same way that there is at the front).
  • Testing the legs: If you were again using the same pushing movement, and if a partner were then to stand beside you and push your front or back knee sideways (e.g. inwards), you should feel stable; both knees would have a very slight sensation (certainly without making it obvious) of expanding outwards.  It wouldn’t be enough to only have one knee expanding, because then again your world wouldn’t be round.
  • Qi up and down: If your partner were to push down on the top of your head, you should be able to feel yourself pushing from the floor (i.e. downwards), up through the crown; yet again, qi in both directions.

The function of 2-person taiji
This concept should be applied not only to taiji but also to qigong.  It is precisely the reason why solo tai chi is sometimes not enough to allow you to understand and feel the structure of a posture; occasionally we need a little help.
This is where 2-person exercises and forms come in; you need someone else to act as a ‘gauge’ so that you can feel your own vulnerability.

Sphere (radius) for WordPress Becoming 3-dimensional
Because of its shape, a sphere is self-supporting; the pressure from its core to anywhere on its circumference is equal.  The world might not be a perfect sphere (apparently it’s an oblate spheroid), but it’s certainly round, and when doing tai chi and qigong we should feel as though our body, acting from its core, behaves in the same way.

Sinking to Move (2) – Connecting the Upper Body

Sinking to Move (1) was about sinking the qi from the waist downwards. Sinking to Move (2) is about connecting the upper body to the lower body.
DSCF9001
How NOT to sink a weight

If you sink only from the waist downwards, but leave the shoulders and torso tense, this is like throwing a stone into a pond with a balloon attached, and wondering why the stone doesn’t sink.

Two examples from the Yang 24-Step Form of using the limbs to help sinking

1) Play the Lute.  When you move from the 3rd Brush Knee & Twist Step into Play the Lute, the left palm plays an important role in helping the qi to sink in the upper body. When the rear foot (the right foot) is about to come off the floor for the half-step forwards, push the heel of the left palm downwards (the left shoulder also relaxing and dropping).
As the right toes start to lift from the floor, transfer the press in the left hand from the heel of the palm, via the metacarpophalangeal joints (the joints where the palm meets the fingers), to the tips of the fingers… in other words the fingers will end up pointing at the floor.  There is a continuous sensation of pushing downwards, but with increasing softness as the energy reaches the tips of the fingers – as though the energy is dissipating.
This connects the upper body to the lower.

2) Repulse Monkey. At the moment of 172 Taiji Parkreleasing the front foot from the floor (in order to step backwards), feel the elbow of the forward arm (which is rotating downwards) connect (metaphorically) to the opposite knee.  This is a brief connection because, after that, the left elbow works with the left hip.
So, for example, if you start from Play the Lute (Strum the Pippa), you open the arms to the right, and the left elbow will (again, metaphorically) connect to the the right knee as you lift your left foot from the floor in order to step backwards.
If you do this, all of a sudden, your elbow start to work with the hips.

Using the upper body to create free movement
If you are attempting to sink the qi to create ‘free’ movement (i.e. movement that is unrestricted and uncompromised by other parts of the body), the upper body needs to join in with the sinking.
The problems are almost always caused by the shoulders being ‘held up’.  When this happens, the upper limbs can no longer function effectively.  Once the shoulders have stopped ‘holding on,’ the qi is no longer held in the upper body when you need it to sink; the balloon bursts and the stone can drop to the bottom of the pond.
Then the sense of cross-body connection can function (e.g.) from right elbow to left knee, or from right shoulder to left hip, etc.