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How to Use Tai Chi for Meditation - Mindfulness in Motion

Mindfulness-WaterTai Chi is a martial art, but in the past hundred or so years, the image of Tai Chi has become linked to the concept of "moving meditation," geared toward adults and seniors who want a relaxed way to exercise and improve their health, balance, flexibility, etc.

Those of us who see Tai Chi as a vigorous, athletic martial art are sometimes at odds with those who preach the art as something that will make you "One with the Universe" or will help you "cultivate chi."

I am a chi skeptic. I do not think chi is a scientific reality. After all these centuries, after scientific discoveries that include atoms and quarks and relativity, no one has ever been able to prove that chi is real.

But recently, interviews I have done for my Internal Fighting Arts podcast, and studying I have done on Mindfulness, made me realize there is a happy medium where focusing on the proper body mechanics when performing a Tai Chi form -- the body mechanics that make it martial -- can be combined with Mindfulness to produce the benefits of meditation.

A few months ago, I had a negative encounter with someone (I no longer remember who it was or what the disagreement was about) and I was troubled and had an unsettled feeling all morning. I drove to practice with some students, my mind scattered by the negative emotions of the disagreement.

When I began practicing, I focused on my movements and my teaching, and was mentally present the entire 90-minute practice. I gave no thought to outside events. I was mindful and immersed in my internal arts.

After practice was over, I was walking to the car and realized how good I felt, how clear my mind was, and it dawned on me how much more unsettled and stressed I felt before I focused my mind and let the other thoughts go.

Dr. Mark Muesse teaches Mindfulness and was a guest on my podcast a few weeks ago (listen to or download the Mindfulness episode here). Mindfulness is a form of meditation where you put your mind completely on what you are doing, and in doing so -- in being mindful -- your mind and body experience the health benefits of meditation. 

A lack of mindfulness causes a lot of distress, whether it is a feeling your spouse gets when you just don't seem to be paying attention, or if you are constantly sending and receiving messages on your cell phone or computer, or if you are in a meeting at work, allowing your mind to wander rather than focusing on what is being said. All of these things and more scatter your energy and produce stress.

By focusing the mind and being here now, in the moment, time goes faster and you gain clarity. Stress levels drop, your anxiety and stress ease, and your body is more calm. Your health improves. Clinical studies have confirmed this.

Dr. Muesse and some Tai Chi instructors I have talked with agree that the best way to use Tai Chi for meditation could simply be a matter of focusing your mind as you do your form. If you practice as I do, working on martial body mechanics as you do your form, that will be just as beneficial as focusing on "cultivating chi" from a meditation perspective as long as I am in the moment, concentrating on my movement, without a dozen other thoughts going through my mind. 

And so it makes logical sense that if you practice Tai Chi to "cultivate chi," and you focus your mind on that and practice mindfully, it will also have health benefits that you may attribute (inaccurately) to chi, when in fact it is the psychological and physical benefit of Mindfulness.

Try it the next time you practice any martial art. Calm your mind and try to "be here now." Don't worry about what you are having for dinner tonight, what bills need to be paid, what deadlines you have at work, or what tension there may be in some of your relationships.

Simply pay attention to what you are doing, without judging, and if you find your mind wandering, don't be critical of yourself, simply steer it back to focus on what you are doing. At the end of your practice, you might feel mentally refreshed and relaxed, and what can be healthier than that?

Rules and Rituals in the Martial Arts -- Is It Respect or Superstition?

BowI belonged to an internal arts school that had some rules that were carved in stone. Here are some of them:

**Each time you approach the training floor, you stop and bow to the floor. Each time you leave the floor, you bow to the floor before stepping off.

**Street shoes are NOT allowed on the training floor.

**At the beginning of each class, there is a moment of meditation and a bow to the shrine at the front of the room, designed to honor past masters.

**Only instructors are allowed to touch objects on the shrine.

**If you drop your sash to the floor, you must kiss both ends before putting it back on to show that you intend no disrespect to yourself.

**Men wear the knot on their sash on the right side and women wear it on the left. Once you reach Master level that reverses -- men wear the knot on the left side and women on the right.

**The sash is never washed because according to tradition, washing your sash will wash away your strength.

**When we perform techniques, we count in Chinese. "Yi....Er....San...., etc."

**You had to change your underwear every half hour, and you had to wear your underwear on the outside so the instructor could check.

Okay, I made up the last one about the underwear. I was just making sure you were still reading.

Respect is an important tradition in the martial arts, but sometimes it goes a little too far, and it begins to feel like superstition and religion. The older I have grown, the less inclined I am to uphold this type of rule. I can respect the arts without sacrificing my own culture and without teetering on the edge of worshiping something that is not worthy of worship. The concept of worshiping inanimate objects seems counter to the concept of harmony, where we become one with the universe, part of all things. 

For many years, I followed all these rules without questioning, like a lot of martial artists. Then one day, something a Chen Taiji instructor said snapped me out of it.

The instructor came to my school in Bettendorf, Iowa to teach a workshop on the Chen 19 form. One of my top students, Rich Coulter, stopped and bowed before he stepped out onto the training floor. The instructor saw him.

"You bow to the floor?" the instructor asked.

"Yes," Rich said.

The instructor replied, "How Japanese."

At the time, Rich was shocked, but when he told me about it a few days later, I nearly fell down laughing.

It was a true moment of enlightenment. Only two words -- "How Japanese" -- but they hit me like a two-by-four and I realized the silliness of carrying on Japanese traditions in my Chinese gongfu school. I realized that I had learned most of these rules from an instructor who was heavily rooted in the Japanese arts.

I am a 21st Century, college educated American. I adapt to new information. It was not long before I began making sweeping changes to our rules, including:

**No more bowing to the training floor. I do not worship a floor. In China, where you go outside and practice in alleys, in courtyards, or anyplace you can find enough room, there is nothing special about a training floor. I simply use it, and in doing so, I am respecting the art. A floor is not going to be upset if you do not bow.

From a philosophical perspective, if a mouse finds its way into your martial arts school and sneaks out onto the training floor, it does not feel the need to bow. Why should you? The floor is special? Drop it and go outside to practice on the grass.

**As an American, if I need to count, I count in English. I cannot imagine Chinese boxers practicing a Western art and feeling the need to count in English just because they are practicing a jab, cross, and uppercut. Why we feel compelled to count in foreign languages is beyond me.

If Chen Xiaoxing begins to count in Mandarin during a workshop, I enjoy it. But if Chen Xiaowang begins to count in English, I also enjoy it. 

**Shoes are a part of Chinese gongfu. Karate is practiced barefoot, taekwondo is practiced barefoot, but Kung-Fu is practiced with shoes. In China, where people have always just worn their normal clothes to practice, including shoes, this is not a big deal.

If you are attacked on the street, the last thing you will want to do is stop and remove your shoes. Practicing without shoes is quite silly. If all you have to wear are street shoes, wear them. The training floor is not offended, I assure you.

**I do not worship my sash. I do not wear a sash most of the time, although there are sashes in the old "system" that I taught. But a sash is relatively meaningless. If I am clumsy and it falls to the floor, I pick it up and hang it up (or put it on) without attaching anything mystical or superstitious to it. If I spill something, I can use my sash to wipe it up. The sash is not offended.

**My sash got very dirty once, so I brushed it off with detergent and water. It did not voice a complaint. As far as I could tell, my muscles did not wither. Until they come up with a clinical trial at Mayo Clinic showing that washing a sash will wash away my strength, I will assume that this is malarkey, like Trickle Down Economics.

You can go down the list, to one rule after another. I have never had a shrine in my schools. I honor past masters by carrying on the art. That is enough.

I do not believe that my sword has a personality or a spirit living within. I treat it carefully, but it is merely a tool, like a hammer.

I do not believe women should be treated differently than men. Asking them to wear the knots of their sashes on the other side -- I mean, seriously? 

I do not believe that the number eight is lucky. It is simply the number after seven.

Respect is an important part of martial arts -- respect for yourself, respect for other people, and respect for all things, which you should feel as you build your sense of "connection" with all things through the study of the internal arts.

But human beings tend to make rules and then create rituals, usually carrying them to an extreme that ends up bordering on religion. Do you want to see human ritual running amok? Attend a Catholic mass.

Many of the rules and rituals attached to martial arts practice are simply not necessary and, when we take them beyond simple respect for ourselves and for other people, it can quickly degenerate into something unhealthy.

Many of the rules and rituals attached to martial arts -- in my opinion, we should "drop it," walk on, and practice.

Important Internal Body Mechanics Come Together in Silk-Reeling Exercises for Tai Chi

SRE Workshop 2
Leading a workshop on Silk-Reeling Energy March 7, 2015.

When I had my first class in Tai Chi as a student, I had been involved in martial arts for 15 years. Tai Chi was different. For more than a decade, I studied Yang style, and I was taught that I should be relaxing and "cultivating chi." Then I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna, my first Chen style teachers, and I realized within an hour that I had to start over.

The body mechanics of real Tai Chi are very different than other "hard" martial arts that I had studied. I had been a student of Shaolin, Taekwondo, Wushu (Tien Shan Pai), and I had practiced karate on my own. I had also studied Xingyi, Bagua, and, as I mentioned above, Yang Tai Chi.

Nothing prepared me for the nuances and subtlety of Chen family Taijiquan. Over time, as I learned from Jim and Angela, the late Mark Wasson, and masters such as

SRE Workshop 1
Explaining how to establish the ground path with John Morrow and Ron Frye.

Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, Ren Guangyi and others, I began to isolate six crucial body mechanics that you should know to get started. Another major influence was Mike Sigman and the knowledge about ground path and peng jin that he was spreading, in workshops, videos and online writings.

There are many skills to learn as you study Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi, but over a period of 20 years, as I was learning and teaching, these six body mechanics rose to the top, in my mind, as the most important for internal movement:

  • Establishing and maintaining the ground path
  • Maintaining Peng Jin at all times
  • Whole-Body Movement
  • Silk-Reeling (spiraling movement through the body)
  • Dan T'ien Rotation
  • Opening and closing the Kua

These six body mechanics are explained and demonstrated on my membership website and on my Internal Strength DVD, which I am revising and updating this week. If you have not been taught this information, you should learn it before trying to move forward in your practice. There are many internal students, especially Yang style students in the world who have no idea of the body mechanics required by Tai Chi.

SRE Workshop 6
Silk-Reeling exercises, like all movements in Tai Chi, have self-defense applications.

On Saturday, I taught a workshop on Silk-Reeling Exercises, giving participants a glimpse of each of the body mechanics and how they come together in these exercises. The video from the workshop will also be on my website.

Silk-Reeling Energy is also called "San Ssu Jin" or San Ssu Chin." But do not be fooled by the word "energy." The way the word is used in the internal arts, it does not mean some mystical energy coursing through your body -- "energy" is a method of dealing with force. There are many "jins" or energies in Taiji and Bagua. Each of those jins is a different method of dealing with your opponent's force. They are physical skills that anyone can learn with proper instruction and a lot of practice.

There are many physical things to work on when practicing the internal arts, such as keeping the head up, keeping the shoulders and hips level, the internal and external harmonies, remaining relaxed but ready -- but your internal arts cannot have quality unless you understand these six body mechanics.

I was lucky to receive very good instruction from my Chen style teachers, but as I started teaching with this new information that I learned about body mechanics through Chen Taiji, I wanted to break it down in a way that made sense to me and to new students, isolating these body mechanics and looking at each of them in every movement. It still takes many years to develop skill. I am still trying to get better at all of it.

In the next couple of weeks, in a series of blog posts, I will revisit each of the individual body mechanics and discuss them. Subscribe to this blog to receive them as they are published. If you are in a hurry, check out the Internal Strength and Silk-Reeling DVDs (links above) or try two weeks free in my membership site to explore videos and ebooks on these mechanics and principles.


Seattle Taiji Instructor Kim Ivy Talks About Her Personal Journey in the Internal Arts

Kim Ivy
Kim Ivy, Chen Taiji instructor in Seattle.

Kim Ivy, instructor of Taiji and Qigong at her Seattle school called Embrace the Moon, is the first female instructor to be featured on my Internal Fighting Arts podcast.

Kim is a disciple of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang and has trained with him and extensively with Chen Xiaoxing (and other members of the Chen family). Her Seattle school is celebrating its 20th anniversary, a great achievement. 

In the newest edition of the podcast, she talks about her journey, starting with Judo and Aikido, and how she sees Taiji and Qigong as effective arts for personal cultivation and how it benefits everyone, including students with illnesses and disabilities.

The interview will appear in two parts. Download or listen to Part 1 of Kim Ivy on the Internal Fighting Arts podcast by following this link. It is also available on iTunes.