Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More methods for training the basic walk of Classical Tai Chi

I am very grateful to my teacher for the work he did in making this video.  Over the years of practice and training students I have discovered a few other methods and observations that can be used for the training. In Classical Tai Chi the basic walk is done with the knees slightly bent and remaining so. When practicing the first lesson of Classical Tai Chi Walk one should first look to stretching the neck up.  Students should also check that they are not watching the ground to see if their feet are correct.  Check the position of the feet  in one of the exercise methods we outline below wherein the student will stand in one spot. The position of the legs can also be checked in this “one spot” method, thus making sure that the thighs line up when the student sits back, or the knee does not go over the front toe when the student leans to the front.  As the student progresses they should find they are automatically stretching the head up and looking forward as well.  This is an important part of the “lean” forward posture where unless checked a student will watch their feet. When one “sits” back, the body should be vertical and perpendicular to the floor

As training progresses, the student will keep the body weight back when they are dropping the foot.  It is a sign of a perpetual beginner to have the body weight lurch when the foot takes a step. The foot pushes down until it is completely flat on the ground then used either to pull the body forward or back.  Until the foot plants firmly the body does not move and hence the body moves in a pulling from one weight shift to another.  One wants to learn to recognize,then end, any kind of rocking action with either lead foot as the weight shifts.  I show this “rocking” in my class by students pulling me  by the arm AS my  lead foot is being planted, then pull me  AFTER my lead foot plants.  This also holds for stepping backward and plant the foot by actually touching the heel to the floor first.  Eliminate the rocking action that occurs with stepping onto the ball of the foot. I will also have them do the same comparative movement.  They readily see the instability of rocking the foot as one is shifting the weight vs. “planting” the foot.

Students who do the basic walk for a while will not stand up when they lift the leg to take a step.  By “standing up”,  I mean that the weight bearing leg does not flex and straighten itself.  This type of flexion will result in the student bobbing up and down as they walk.  Or what might be called a kind of duck walking .  To do the walk correctly, the bend of the standing knee will not change as you lift the other leg,  whether moving forward or backward.  I have my students lightly touch a wall as they move, so lightly that the fingers gently slide as they walk.  I tell them that if they are aware enough, they will actually feel the hand move up and down if the “standing” leg is bobbing up and down as they walk.  Another technique I recommend is to put a piece of tape on a mirror at the level of one’s head as they stand with knees bent. Students   watch   the top of the head as one walks toward it.  Do not bob up and down and  keep looking forward while not watching the ground.  The top of the head should not rise above the tape as the student moves.

Another use for a wall, post, kitchen counter, etc.,   is to isolate the walking practice into a few basic walking steps.  The first advantage of this method is that one does not have to worry about their balance.   In the beginning,  students will inevitably be overly concerned with balance and not able to concentrate on the real movement itself.  With holding on to the wall or post, at least the balance problem takes care of itself so one can give full attention to the actual practice and training of movement.   In a first step, the full planting of the foot while holding the pole will make it less likely that the body lurches forward.  Additionally, the student can check their posture in either lean or sit back positions because they can take an extended pause with no concern for maintaining balance.  Is the rear end tucked in, is the neck stretched up, is there a continuous stretch from top of head to bottom of heel, etc.  ?  In this one position, one should just slowly deliberately shift the weight from front to back while pausing to do the self - check in each posture.

Another method one can use for these exercises is to do numerous continuous walking steps while sliding the hand along a wall.  This method  is slightly different from my teachers which as I iterated involves  holding  a support without moving the hand.  I teach students to practice different exercises while using both methods. The “holding” onto a support is very useful for lessons that involve the training of core movement to move the body.  Students doing this can do many repetitions where they can contract the lower abdomen or tan tien area to move the body either front  or back and shift the weight by pulling.  Eventually, one learns to feel the contractions of the abdomen engage the lower back, buttocks, legs and feet, etc.   I tell students who struggle with feeling the contractions engage with other muscle groups to simply “pull” with the legs. Or as Mike Fittipaldi who is also a teacher put it, to “pull with the knee”.  That is the way that I started out as I gradually began to learn not only to contract the abdominal muscles but also to learn where they contract, how it felt and how to engage the other parts of the body.

One other method I use for “core contraction” training is to have students simply sit in a straight back chair with one foot slightly in front of the other.  I then tell the student to contract the muscles of the lower abdomen while leaning the upper body slightly forward.  From the “lean” position, I then tell students to contact the lower abdomen while pulling the body back to a straight and perpendicular sitting position.  Like the “holding” onto a support while one stands, this sitting in a chair method can generate many, many repetitions to train such core contractions and body movement.  The student thinks and feels what sensations are happening and to look for such things as engagement with the feet to coincide with the pulling action. One can also gradually learn to detect engaged muscle groups such as the back, buttocks, etc. 

Another component or method for training the walking is to hold the support, take a couple of steps either forward or backward and pause at each juncture.  Of particular significance at each “pause” is to check head stretched up, and a stretch from top of head to bottom of heel.  However, an additional check is made on how well the rear end is “tucked” in with both the forward lean and sit back postures.  For the forward lean one still has to try and tuck in the buttocks.  For the sit back posture, one also has to tuck in the buttocks.  In the lean of course, one will not fully tuck under the buttocks as much as one can when sitting back.  I frequently point out to beginners how important the tuck is.  To illustrate this I have them move to touching a wall with the backs of their body.  With their legs straight and not bent at all they see they can run their hand through the curve in their lower back between the back and wall.  Then I have them bend the knees and tuck in the behind while feeling the same area of the lower back.  With their back to the walls I can also have them practice the “one step” method of shifting the body back and forth numerous times.  When they pull back, I urge them to see which part of the back will touch the wall first.  If the shoulders or even the head touches the wall first, the obvious correction is to tuck in the buttocks fully.  The lower back near the sacrum should be touching the wall with no other portion of the back in contact. These types of additional practices besides breaking down the various components of walking thus enable students to practice the most difficult portions of the walking.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The point is not the "benefits" but how one gets the benefits

The march to publish more books, start more classes, develop more styles of Tai Chi is on the increase.  In these videos about Tai Chi at the Mayo clinic for instance there is talk of Tai Chi being "an internal martial art".  However, I find that I am  left to my own definition of what an "internal martial art" is and how to "get internal" is not made clear. Clinic says "Internal" Tai Chi is good for what ails you but what is the path to "Internal" Tai Chi?

The  Clinic states that: " it  incorporates Tai Chi into physical medicine and rehabilitation and it does this because it has several components such as meditation so called Chi Kung where you cultivate your energy, second component is a memorized sequence of slowly, mindfully performed movements that are a way of practicing self defense movements, then thirdly brings this all together in push hands, a sort of slow moving  dance that you do with another person to practice the movements that you have learned in situations where you might have your balance being challenged".  Essentially, it was introduced because studies suggest it is  good for what ails you because it does not raise heart rate.  Patients ask what they can do for health and Mayo suggests Tai Chi because it is holistic and might be applicable in a number of areas.  Meditative aspects can help with cultivating equanimity under stress.   How does it do this "internally", how can I learn to "internally" achieve this?

One has to think that the Tai Chi must affect our physiology in order to accomplish all these wonderful claims. When I hear "physiology" I think, ah, my blood is pumping.  Well, this is fine, but what goes on "inside", "internally" when I do  Tai Chi? My blood is pumping, my nerves connect with each other, isn't it amazing how my nerves connect back with my brain.  However, with no understanding of how this complexity does this, it is  as if to say:  "Well, I'm standing and moving with another person in this "internal" martial art called push hands with my balance being challenged, so all you nerves you need to boost up my brains understanding so I do not lose my balance".  

Media, as you know, has a byline for everything ever said or that will be said about Tai Chi.  "For hundreds of years people have practiced the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi for its many health benefits. Researchers who study Tai Chi say it can help reduce blood pressure, decrease anxiety, improve flexibility and much more. For these reasons, some doctors at Mayo Clinic have embraced Tai Chi and are teaching it to their patients."

Remember we are still talking about "internal" martial art. The "Doctor" says "very slow motion", the patient says "just the relaxation helps with aches and pains" and phrases it like a question.  The "reporter" says "Yin and Yang, it brings opposites into balance". What does that statement mean in terms of how I can learn to do that, internally?  "Balance is found through meditation, and pushing against one another." The Doctor says "what you are learning to do is to maintain central equilibrium, that center of gravity, that sense of yourself in the world and your environment". What is the significance of this in terms of how to achieve "internal"?  In addition to bringing about balance, Tai Chi can improve your health in many ways, how does one learn to  do this "internally"?  If the famous clinic is telling us of all the benefits, then are we to accept this "internal" at face value?  It seems to me that there is a complexity here about "internal" that is not being talked about.  In such complexity,  any scientific  institution or individual for that matter who talks of potential benefits should not only  explain the elements of the "internal" discipline but also explain the elements in terms of how to "internally"  achieve the benefits.  As science, what are the "rules" that each element follows?  What is the logical structure that the rules follow?  Finally, what is the calculated scientific reasoning behind the logical structure?