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Iron Wrapped in Cotton - the Tai Chi of Mental and Physical Well-Being

Radishad One of the most interesting magazine articles I've ever read is in the June, 2009 issue of the Atlantic. The article explores a 72-year study, following young Harvard students from the 1930s until now, an amazing study of the changes that people go through in their lives, trying to ask the question -- what makes us happy, and what factors create a happy and well-adjusted life.

Some young men who were apparently well-adjusted and happy ended up killing themselves as adults. Others, who were immature or pessimistic as young men, changed over time and became better adjusted.

If you reach age 50, there are factors that seem to play a part in whether you will be happy or even alive at age 80. A man with at least 5 of the following traits was more likely to be "happy/well" at age 80 -- education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, exercise, healthy weight, and the ability to make mature adaptations to life's events.

Men who had 3 or fewer of these traits were much more likely to be "sad/sick" at age 80 -- or dead.

The relationships you have with people seem to be a major factor in longevity and happiness. Those with poor relationships are in trouble.

Of those who were diagnosed as "depressed" by age 50, 70% of them were dead or chronically ill by age 63.

What does this have to do with Tai Chi? Plenty, in my opinion, especially if Chi Kung (qigong) is included as part of your personal practice and lifestyle.

Tai Chi has been described as "iron wrapped in cotton." The movements appear very relaxed, and yet because of the establishment and manipulation of the ground path and peng jin in the body structure, there is great strength beneath the appearance of relaxation and flexibility.

Through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung--exercises that help you calm the mind and body and "center" yourself--you learn to maintain mental and physical balance. In my view, and in my experience, this balance and understanding of the nature of things can give you an emotional iron wrapped in the cotton of a happy or relaxed demeanor.

I'm 56 years old. In my life, I have struggled to make a living; I have lost a daughter; I have been bankrupt; I have lost jobs (as recently as last year); I have made bad decisions on who to marry, resulting in terrible heartbreak--and yet I feel as optimistic and happy today as I was when I was 20 years old and felt that anything was possible.

Through all of these events, I have learned and attained skill in the internal arts (my passion); I have achieved a wonderful marriage with a loving wife (Nancy); I have raised two daughters who are smart and funny and loving; I have grandchildren that I adore; I have made a positive impact in the lives of young broadcasters who I hired and coached to be successful; I've made a positive impact in the lives of kung-fu students; I've overcome financial hardship and forged a media relations career that earned a decent salary; and currently, after losing my last job due to the economy, I have launched my online internal arts school and have never been happier in any previous job in my life. I absolutely love waking up each morning to work on this.

I believe you can achieve emotional iron wrapped in cotton through the practice of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Through the Eastern philosophies that I've studied since the early Seventies, you realize that there is no one to blame when things go wrong. Bad events and good events are part of the yin/yang of life. You must accept hard times if you accept good times. When things are very good, you can bet that something will go wrong at some point, or a tragedy might happen. Likewise, when things are very bad, you can get through it by understanding the yin/yang of nature--that sooner or later, the wheel turns and the positive returns if you just hang in there and don't give up.

When I first began practicing Chi Kung, I calmed the mind and body, put part of my mind on my dan t'ien, and mentally detached. One of my favorite things is to stand outside and do Chi Kung, feeling the wind, listening to the birds, as I detach from the day-to-day and try to feel myself a part of nature--of all the sounds and energy around me. I am part of the same energy that made the stars, the planets. the black holes, the wind and snow, and the warm sunlight.

There is a peace and comfort in this feeling, and there have been moments of enlightenment during these Chi Kung experiences that give me a deeper insight into the nature of things. Most of us are self-centered. When bad things happen, we ask, "Why me?" We take it all very personally, and for some people, that produces emotional reactions that are unhealthy. Sometimes we blame invisible beings -- blaming God for bad things that happen to us.

We all have the ability to guide our lives. The decisions we make have consequences. We can choose the right path or the more destructive path. We can choose to love people and do good deeds, or we can be selfish. We can choose to create laughter in others or we can turn an angry or intense face to the world. We can look at things as having an impact on only us, or we can try to create win-win situations and see that we are connected to everyone and everything.

But despite all of our best intentions and decisions, bad things will happen. Someone we love will develop a fatal illness. Someone we love will die. We will lose a job through no fault of our own. We may find ourselves in financial difficulty. We may put our trust in a partner or spouse who betrays us. There are things that happen outside of our control, and it requires emotional iron to ride out the storm.

A lot of uncertainty and unhealthy feelings can happen when we look at ourselves as the center of the universe. A different feeling happens when you contemplate your part in the universe and how connected you are to everything and everyone. You are part of it, not the center of it.

There is another recent post on this blog that describes how to begin your Chi Kung training. Relaxing the mind and body, putting part of your mind on your dan t'ien, and detaching your mind from your daily problems and activities--that's the first step. From there, you train yourself to recapture this feeling when you face a crisis, a problem, or a tragedy. This understanding and ability helps you build the emotional iron that you need to cope with the unexpected events that life throws at you.

Last year, a week before I lost my job, I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation -- a heart problem created by too much electrical activity in the heart. Instead of beating normally, my heart often raced and fluttered, setting up a dangerous condition that could lead to stroke.

On top of the job loss, this came as a shock. I had always been the picture of good health. So I decided not to worry about it. My goal was to return to normal. I underwent three heart surgeries last year and had my heart problem fixed. During the last surgery, I aspirated something from my stomach into my lungs and developed a horrible pneumonia that I'm still trying to overcome.

During all this, I launched my online school, created more than 300 video lessons, e-books, and other material, I've produced 7 new instructional DVDs, and I've continued to practice and improve my skills.

The job loss and the heart problems were temporary things that I would outlast, I decided. Hanging in there, waiting for the yang part of the circle to cycle back around, and continuing to be positive about the future--it has become a natural reaction to events.

Life can throw anything it wants at me. It can't damage the iron beneath this cotton. We are born and we die, and in between those two events, there is a journey that includes tremendous highs and horrible lows. Accepting that fact is step one in living a well-adjusted and healthy life. I learned this through the study of philosophy and the practice of Chi Kung and Tai Chi.


Chi Kung - Five Minutes that Can Balance Your Mind, Body, and Life

A lot of mythology has developed about chi kung (also spelled qigong). "Chi kung" literally means "energy work," and it consists of a series of exercises to calm the mind, calm the body, and focus on breathing.

Chi kung and its medical theories were developed thousands of years ago, by the same people who believed you could tell the future from the cracked shells of turtles. Despite this dubious past, and many of the dubious claims made by people who believe whole-heartedly in miraculous claims of healing related to chi kung, it remains an outstanding way to control stress and ride the ups and downs of a turbulent life.

But it's all in your mind, and it takes practice. The good news is--five minutes a day can lead to remarkable changes in your health and your relationships. It can lead to a healthier body and a more balanced life.

You Can Learn to Center Yourself

In 1988, after I had been studying and practicing chi kung for over a year under Sifu Phillip Starr in Omaha, I was working as a news producer at KMTV. A wall cloud was moving past the station, threatening to drop a tornado at any moment on the city. The storm was raging and people were running through the newsroom screaming and frantically rolling cameras outside to broadcast the wall cloud live. I sat at my desk pounding away on my typewriter. My newscast was a little over an hour away.

Suddenly, I heard someone laughing through all the noise. I turned and Jon Kelley, a sports writer, was sitting at his desk grinning at me.

"What?" I asked.

"Doctor Chill," he said. "Everyone is running around screaming and you're just sitting there getting the job done."

The comment surprised me, but it made me realize that I had been centered--literally the calm in the center of the storm--because of the chi kung practice I had been doing. It was working, and it felt good.

Over the next couple of decades, I used the principles of chi kung to center myself during tense moments at work, during times of unemployment, and to deal with difficult people at work and at home.

The ability to harness the power of chi kung is not something mystical. It doesn't rely on some invisible energy. It relies on the power of your mind, and your ability to practice simple techniques and then recapture them in times of tension and crisis.

The photos in this post can help illustrate simple ways of beginning the process.

The Dan T'ien -- Your "Center" 

Your dan t'ien (pronounced "dahn tyen") is located a couple of inches below the navel and a couple of inches inside the body. You can press your fingers there to get an idea of where it is. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is where your energy (chi) gathers and begins to circulate through the body along pathways, or "meridians."

ChiKung-DanTien1 In this photo, I'm placing my hands over my dan t'ien. I'm standing in a relaxed way, knees slightly bent, and not leaning backward or forward (most of us lean backward when we stand and we don't realize it). Traditional chi kung theory says that men should put their left hand on the bottom and right hand over the left, and vice versa for women. I don't believe in those superstitions so don't worry about that sort of thing if you hear it.

My goal here is to relax and calm the mind and body. Let all the muscles of the body relax. Start with the top of the head and slowly work your way down, focusing on the total relaxation of every muscle.

At the same time, imagine when you inhale that energy is coming into your body and collecting at your dan t'ien. Visualize "chi" energy collecting there and building, growing warmer each time you inhale. Imagine as you relax your muscles that a yellow glow of energy is growing warmer at your "center" (dan t'ien).

Don't think about your To-Do list--don't think about bills--don't think about any problems--just relax your body and calm your mind. If you begin thinking of what you need to do today or any other intrusive thought, don't worry about it, just put your mind back on your breathing and focus on the energy growing warmer at your dan t'ien. And relax your body.

We don't often allow ourselves to relax like this unless we're lying in bed trying to sleep. During the day, we carry tension in our bodies that we don't even realize. Learning to calm the mind and body while doing other things isn't natural for us, and it takes practice.

This can also be done sitting. If you're on a subway, riding in a car (not driving), sitting somewhere during a boring speech--you can practice this. Just clasp your hands on your lap, calm the mind and body, and focus on energy coming in and growing warmer in your center.

ChiKung-Soccer The next photo shows me holding my hands in front of me, as if holding a soccer ball against my dan t'ien. I imagine the energy in my dan t'ien glowing and growing out, pressing against my hands. When I inhale, I imagine energy coming in and collecting at the dan t'ien. When I exhale, I feel the energy pushing out against my hands. This may take you several weeks, but you eventually will be able to feel it. Reminder--this doesn't necessarily mean that chi is coming out of your body. This is a mental visualization tool, but the mind is powerful and it can feel anything you want it to feel.

If you have any particular ailments, you can imagine--as you exhale--energy traveling to that area of the body. You can imagine the energy attacking and growing warmer in the area where you need healing. The mind is a powerful tool, and this certainly can't hurt you. In fact, I've had students who have used the technique to manage the pain of cancer and other problems, and they swear by it. By detaching the mind and focusing on something other than your normal thoughts, you're able to achieve interesting and beneficial results. There have been studies that show a link between the results of meditation and the results of a good rest.

After five minutes of this meditation, you can stop. You may feel as if you've just taken a nap. You should definitely feel more relaxed. If you don't the first few times you do this, keep at it. It does take practice. Eventually, you'll see your ability to calm the mind and body improve dramatically.

Using Chi Kung in Daily Life

Stress is a killer. Medical studies have never proven the existence of chi, but they have proven that stress can trigger many conditions that result in death.

Stress can also ruin your relationships, both at work and at home. How you react to stress can send a ripple of negativity through everything you do, like throwing a pebble into a pond.

Chi kung can help you manage stress.

The reason you are doing the chi kung exercises is this: you want to recapture the calm feeling in your mind and body when you find yourself in a stressful situation--when someone cuts you off on the highway, when your boss treats you badly, when you're handed an assignment with an impossible deadline, when your spouse or significant other approaches you in anger--even when you encounter death and tragedy.

When these things happen, calm the mind and relax the body. Put part of your mind on your dan t'ien, just as you've done during chi kung practice. Put part of your mind on the problem at hand. Rise above the tension, let it melt as you calm the mind and body. Then deal with the problem. Over time, you'll see that you can do it much more effectively than before.

This technique can be used in the dentist chair or when someone approaches you to fight. When I was in the hospital last year for heart procedures, I used it each time they jammed a needle into my arm. I centered myself, put my mind on my dan t'ien, and breathed. It certainly helped.

As you can see from reading this, chi kung is not mysterious and it's not mystical. It's a mind-body connection that you need to exercise just as you need to practice any good habit before it can become part of your life. Try to ignore the people who want this to seem like something supernatural. They have psychological needs for power that you'll never be able to solve for them. Just be aware that it's an effective technique that can ease stress and turn your body back into the incredible healing machine that it truly is. The body is designed to heal itself. Stress prevents that--or certainly can slow it down. You can help it along, but it isn't easy. It takes practice. That's why they call it "energy work."

In the end, we practice the internal arts to balance ourselves mentally and physically. Chi kung is an important part of this. Just five minutes of practice a day, and the ability to recapture the calm feelings in your mind and body during times of stress or crisis, can help you remain balanced when life wants to knock you down.

There are several chi kung routines on videos in my online school, and an instructional chi kung DVD that can teach you the basics of chi kung that can put your life and body in balance.

Martial Artists - Are You Making This Mistake with Your Body Mechanics?

Martial artists with any experience at all believe they're generating a lot of power with their movements. In my first kung-fu class as a student--way back in September, 1973--we stood and punched, snapping our hips with the punch to add power to the technique.

As I've studied and taught the internal arts, I had to learn body mechanics that are very different from the other kung-fu, taekwondo, and boxing instruction I had received in the past.

ConnectBody1 A little over a week ago, I held a workshop for all martial artists on the fighting applications of the Chen Tai Chi 38 form. Attendees included students and teachers from a wide variety of arts, from Shaolin and taekwondo to a Yang style teacher. There were white belt students and very high-ranking black belts.

And almost every one of them made one mistake. I knew they would, because everywhere I go--every martial artist I meet--makes this mistake.

Their movements are not connected from the ground through the body.


ConnectBody2Here are some photos that illustrate--taken at the workshop. In the first one, I'm working with a student who has one arm around my shoulder, preparing to take me to the ground.

I tell him, "Okay, turn the waist and take me to the ground."

In the second photo, you can see that his waist has turned, but he hasn't connected it with his arm. The arm lags behind, and I'm not going anywhere. This is the mistake everyone makes when I put them in this position and tell them to take me down. If I tell them to turn the waist, the waist turns but the arm stays behind.


ConnectBody3Remember, "when one part moves, all parts move." Power must be connected from the ground, through the legs, guided by the dan t'ien, through the hands.

In the third picture, he's more successful because I told him to connect the arm with the waist and turn it all together. Suddenly, he creates more power and finds it very easy to take me to the ground.

In Chen Tai Chi, there is a saying: "It has to be shown." There are concepts we read in ancient texts and in translated works, in magazines and books, and it's impossible to understand them properly until you are shown--in a physical way--what they mean. This is why so many martial artists interpret these concepts in mystical ways, and focus on "cultivating chi" and other nonsense (which should be a side benefit rather than the focus of the internal arts) rather than working on the physical skills they need to do the art properly.

The workshop was taped and will be part of the new Chen 38 DVD that will be released in early June. I like to work with real students on my DVDs to show mistakes they  make, corrections and coaching being made, so viewers can see the mistakes they're probably making. The video is already showing up as lessons on the online school for members to study.

Check yourself by doing the technique above. When you try to take your partner to the ground, turn everything together--arm, waist--and connect it to the ground through your rear foot. Let the strength flow through the body as you move. And stay relaxed.

I would tell you to include peng and silk-reeling, and close the kua, but again, those are concepts that have to be shown. If you don't know how to do those, there are DVDs available through this blog that can teach you.

The workshop was gratifying, and it was a lot of fun for me for two reasons -- I was able to show a mixed group of martial artists about the relaxed power of authentic Tai Chi, and I enjoyed seeing their eyes light up with the realization that "this really makes sense."

May Issue of "Internal Fighting Arts" E-Zine Ready to Download

It's been a busy month, and the May issue of my monthly e-zine is ready for downloading.

Download InternalFightingArts-Issue4 -- click the link to download the pdf file. After it appears, you can print it out or save it to your hard drive.

Feel free to forward the e-zine to anyone you know with an interest in the internal arts. 

Next month, the newsletter will become more interactive, with actual video and audio along with photos.

If you have ideas for articles, please send me an email. I appreciate contributed articles. You won't get paid, but you'll get publicity and I'll include a link to your website or blog if your article is approved for publication. Articles should also have photos.


The Biggest Problem Facing the Martial Art of Tai Chi

Tai_chi_magazine I stopped into a Border's bookstore the other day and looked for the latest issues of my favorite martial arts magazines.

There in the Sports section, I found Black Belt and Kung Fu Tai Chi among the MMA and wrestling and karate and TKD magazines. I thumbed through the magazines to find the latest issue of T'ai Chi magazine but it was nowhere to be found. 

And then I had an idea. I went to a different part of the magazine section where all the psychic, spiritual, religious and strange publications are. Sure enough, mixed in with all of this stuff was T'ai Chi magazine.

And there you have it -- the biggest problem facing the art of Tai Chi Chuan. Even a bookstore chain doesn't recognize it as a martial art, and places it with in its mystical and supernatural section.

I'm going to begin a little campaign to get Border's to put the magazine where it belongs -- in the martial art section. You can help by talking with the manager at each store you visit and request that it be moved.

Tai Chi is an amazing and powerful martial art. When practiced properly, it trains you to deliver relaxed powerful in an explosive way over a short distance. But because it was watered down when Yang Lu Chan started teaching the Imperial family in Beijing, and because it has spread around the world by far too many "teachers" as a way to "cultivate chi," with a focus on the mystical and the silly myth of supernatural abilities, it has been relegated to the supernatural bin on the Border's magazine stands.

Last week at the workshop I gave on the fighting applications of the Chen 38 form, a high-ranking TKD black belt was working with one of my students. He was obviously amazed at the body mechanics, and after taking down my student, made a comment that "Our one-steps don't always seem to work, but I could do this."

If you're one of those teachers who make your students believe that Tai Chi is mainly for health and meditation, and that if they just try long enough, their chi will reach great power, you're part of the problem with Tai Chi. This art produces no health benefits that other exercise can't also produce. When elderly people move their bodies, it's a healthy thing. Just because they do Tai Chi in slow motion and see benefits does not make this a mystical or health-based art. They could also dance very slowly and get the same benefits.

If your teacher does not teach--with a heavy emphasis--the fighting applications of Tai Chi, your teacher is part of the problem. Fire the teacher and find someone who will teach you the real art.

And if you read or see Tai Chi "masters" claiming to be able to do supernatural feats and you don't call them on it, you're part of the problem.

It's a little embarrassing to see Tai Chi lumped in with reincarnation and psychic publications. We should work harder to get people to see this art for what it is -- a martial art as powerful as any other.

Link to Sifu Gullette on Twitter

Good Article about Chen Xiaowang in Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine

Cov2009_3I was pleasantly surprised to see Chen Xiaowang on the cover of "KungFu Tai Chi" magazine on the magazine stand at Border's yesterday. I bought a copy and found it to be a good article. You can read the article online here.

Grandmaster Chen, at age 64, says he has fully recovered from knee surgery in 2001 and last year, felt his abilities jump a level. He now practices forms for 2 1/2 hours each morning, able to go through the long forms 10-20 times without a break. His injury caused him to explore ways of using less strength to achieve more -- something he has worked to achieve for decades.

Grandmaster Chen is the great-great-great-grandson of Chen Changxing (1771-1853), who taught Yang Lu Chan, the founder of Yang Tai Chi. I was interested in the comments Grandmaster Chen makes in the article about Yang tai chi and fajin, about how fajin was lost when Yang Lu Chan taught the art to the Imperial family in Beijing, where the people were lazy and it was slowed down and guided more toward a health rather than a martial pursuit.

There are also good photos of Grandmaster Chen doing jajin. Anyone who has seen him do this in person knows just how powerful it feels, just standing across the room as he does it.

The article is written by Gene Ching and Gigi Oh. 

Tai Chi Self-Defense Applications Workshop was a Lot of Fun!

Workshop5-16-09 At least 17 people showed up for my workshop yesterday at John Morrow's Academy in downtown Moline, Illinois. Martial artists from all styles were there -- TKD, karate, another tai chi instructor (Yang style), Shaolin students -- it was a great group of very nice people.

Two members of the online school drove in from Dixon, Illinois and another member, Wally, drove in from Chicago.

We went over fighting applications from the Chen 38 form. Each of the participants will receive a DVD -- Nancy videotaped it for the Chen 38 DVD that's due out in the next two weeks.

I knew I was going to enjoy showing internal body mechanics to a variety of martial artists. It was a blast showing them fighting applications from tai chi, and the relaxed power you can generate from the proper body mechanics.

One of the hallmarks of "external" styles is the twisting of the hips. Many martial artists twist their hips too much when they move, and they kink their posture and put themselves into vulnerable positions. In tai chi, the waist (dan t'ien) turns more than the hips. That was one of the most common things I pointed out to people yesterday.

Also, most martial artists use arm and shoulder muscle and really don't use whole-body movement. They'll pull with the arms while the waist doesn't do much, or they'll turn the hips but the arms lag behind. I showed many of the participants how to connect it through the body, and how relaxed you can be when you knock someone down just because you're connecting the power from the ground through the body. All of this will be demonstrated on the DVD.

In the end, I was glad to educate people about tai chi. So many believe it's a "soft" art that is primarily moving meditation -- it was gratifying to show that there's nothing really soft about tai chi, especially when you put the "iron" in the cotton by using proper body mechanics.

In a 3-hour workshop, you can't show nearly enough, so I look forward to more workshops in the future.


Getting Back to the Basics of Internal Strength

Last night at practice, some students and I went over basic ground strength exercises from the Internal Strength DVD. These are among the first things that my students learn, both in my classes and in the online school.

It was good to revisit these exercises. If you're doing the internal arts such as Tai Chi, Bagua, or Hsing-I, and you haven't been taught how to establish and maintain the ground path and peng jin throughout all of your movements--even while walking--then you're not really doing the internal arts, you're just moving in a way that looks like the internal arts. Unfortunately, most of the tai chi folks I meet around the country are just moving around. When you push on them they collapse. It's easy to see that there is no peng, no ground, no silk-reeling going on in their movement.

Internal Exercise 13-AThe development of internal strength gives you the iron inside the cotton, but it takes practice and someone to show you how it's done.

In the photos here, I show one of the exercises that we practiced last night. In the first photo, Tom is pushing on my chest. It isn't a hard push, just enough for me to establish the ground path to my rear leg.

In the second photo, Tom changes the angle of his push and I have to adjust the ground to stay with him. This is step one in learning to adapt to another person's energy as it's coming to you. Manipulating the ground and peng jin are Internal Exercise 13-Bcrucial, and they must both be working at all times, throughout all tai chi movements (and bagua and hsing-I).

Sometimes, depending upon how much he changes the angle, it only takes some micro-adjustments in the dan t'ien and through the body to maintain ground. Sometimes it requires more adjustment, such as moving the feet or pivoting.

We didn't make it through all 25 exercises in the DVD, but we worked on quite a few, and at the end of the class one of the students, who has had a hard time learning how to maintain ground and peng and whole-body connection, did the stepping forward three steps movement from the Chen 38 and he looked a lot better because he was focusing on maintaining ground and peng as he walked.

Tomorrow, I'm putting on a workshop in Moline, Illinois on the fighting applications of the Chen 38 form. We'll tape it for a DVD, which is coming out on May 30. It will be fun to see some of the "external" students trying to use relaxed strength and whole-body movement to produce power. In the meantime, my core group of students here in the Quad Cities will probably work more on the basic ground exercises on Monday.