Dr. Ron's Blog

Find the Flow

Why I Do Taiji

Why I Do Taiji

“Now step forward, and lift your arms like a crane spreading its wings”. This movement got me hooked on taijiquan. Wayne Gorski introduced me to this internal martial art in 1986. As a Buddhist he explained how to use taiji in conflict resolution without causing harm. Redirection of incoming energy was more effective than trying to stop it with countering moves. I thought that was cool so I stuck with his teaching. Over the years I also learned from other teachers with similar thoughts. None of them ever said that taiji would be good for my back. But it was.

There was a period of my life that was very physically demanding. As a farrier I shod the hooves of fifteen hundred pound horses. As a cowboy I spent long days in the saddle over rough country. I loved it, but it took its toll. Once a horse broke loose the fastened end of a ten foot chain, swung around and hit me in the face nearly tearing out my left eye. Another time a rogue appaloosa reared up just as I bent over to pick up its foot and came pawing down onto my bent over body breaking two vertebrae in my neck and upper back. This was in 1978. After time, the wear and tear of shoeing horses eventually herniated discs in my lower back causing relentless pain and neurologic deficits, like not being able to pick up my foot. I was only thirty years old.

A person never fully recovers from this much trauma. There is always some degree of pain. Chiropractic care was the only thing that really helped with the neck pain, numbness of hands and legs, and constant low back spasms. But once the spine is broken the body goes into maintenance mode. Degeneration leads to arthritis, muscle spasm leads to asymmetry of movement, and it feels like you are always clenching your teeth. To this day I can expect a troubling headache several times a week from the aftermath of a fractured neck.

In those early years chiropractic care was the only thing that really helped me keep going. But I kept going too much. One day Dr. Marvin Harris of Great Falls, told me that if I didn’t change my ways in two years I would be crippled. Hard work and hard play had caught up to me. I did an about face, went back to school, became a Doctor of Chiropractic and opened the Bozeman Chiropractic and Acupuncture Clinic in 1985. I met Wayne the next year.

I’ve tried out a lot of exercise programs and rehabilitation systems over the years to manage my condition and enable me to work. Strength training helps hold my body together but I have to be careful of form and not over doing it. I can’t ride a bike or jog because they cause neck pain. Cross country skiing is great but it doesn’t snow year round. Stretching and yoga are good up to a point but seem to lack something essential. I found what was missing in taiji.

I’ve been doing taiji for more than thirty years. I can truly say it is the only type of exercise that seems to bring it all together for me. Taiji practice is multifaceted. It’s more than just a series of slow movements. There are also conditioning exercises, qigong exercises, and partner exercises. Taiji is similar to xc skiing in that they are based on symmetrical coordinated movements that are low impact. They use most of the muscles and joints without pounding on them.

Taiji is unique in that there is a practical purpose to the movements beyond the physical benefits. I know the martial intent of each posture can be transferred to nonphysical interaction with people. Sounds mysterious but it’s very applicable. My taiji practice helps me engage all facets of my life with a calm, kind, and open-minded attitude. The idea of maintaining alert relaxation in every activity carries enormous benefits for a healthy body and mind.

After I do the taiji form for ten minutes I get the feeling my body has lightened up and my mind has settled down. There’s no heavy breathing but breathing is much deeper. My muscles aren’t gorged with blood but they feel stronger. My neck and lower back are open, loose and happy. I feel rooted to the ground yet ready to get stuff done. It’s really hard to explain, but it might be how a crane feels when spreading it’s wings in the morning sun.

 

 

 

Four Reasons Why Taiji Is Exceptional

Four Reasons Why Taiji Is Exceptional

If, like most people, you would like to have a strong stable body, a calm relaxed mind, and a genuine sense of well being in your daily life then learning Taiji is right for you.

STRUCTURAL INTEGRATION
One of the principle reasons Taiji (aka Tai Chi) is so therapeutic is that it is an effective form of physical exercise. Seamlessly blended into the slow meditative movements is a sophisticated physical workout that includes moderate aerobic, strength, and flexibility training. According to Dr. Peter Wayne in "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi", extensive research has shown that Taiji definitely improves balance and lower body strength; increases joint range of motion in the legs, spine, chest and arms; and has the same aerobic benefits of moderately fast walking at three miles an hour.

Constant motion is the essential ingredient of Taiji (pronounced tie gee ) as expressed in the well know description “meditation in motion”. The smooth, mindful, circular movements call upon the entire system of locomotion – brain, nerves, muscles, joints and bones – to function together in a harmonious and deeply satisfying activity.

Motion analysis studies show that the slowness of Taiji movements, the slightly flexed stances, and postures of standing on one leg, can produce significant strength and stability. The mindful movements of the upper body also improve strength and flexibility. When your arms are slowly and fully extended in the various postures it activates more muscle fibers than if the arms were quickly moved. Same mechanism is at work for slowly lifting the legs and mindfully shifting weight from one leg to the other.

Breathing is the most important thing you do from moment to moment. Full relaxed breathing is a key aspect of Taiji. The coordination of inhaling and exhaling while performing the moving steps of the Form and using mental intention is perhaps the single best way to improve respiratory function.

Your brain is another important component of structural integration. The Taiji form is a choreographed series of steps and movements that must be memorized. This surprises some new students who thought it was similar to learning the postures of yoga. Memorization comes from repetition which means you have to practice. Dedicated practice builds self confidence and a pleasant feeling of accomplishment in learning something new.

This necessary memorization becomes ideal training for cognitive thinking. Cognition is the process by which we acquire knowledge through experience, thought, and sensory input. Cognitive skills are used to comprehend, process, remember and apply incoming information. Learning Taiji is an effective way to increase your ability to pay attention, memorize and perform any activity.

ALERT RELAXATION
The #1 principle in Taiji is “Sung” (pronounced “soong”) because it is so vital to the full appreciation of this internal art. Often translated as “alert relaxation”, this state of calm physical and mental readiness is the optimal attitude for your entire lifestyle. The stance of sung has your spine comfortably erect, shoulders relaxed, and your breath coming from the lower abdomen. When you are in the state of sung, your body has the energy of a pine bough when it is weighted down by snow. You are patiently strong, not rigid, not collapsed. The energy – Qi – is sunk to the core of your structure. When the snow slides off, the bough returns to its original position without effort.

Mentally the state of sung is like a well trained martial artist who patiently waits through the opponents aggressive behavior for the right opportunity to make a statement. He or she is acutely but calmly aware of the other’s intentions, energy output, and vulnerabilities. Then they can have an appropriate response which is action born from the combined awareness of rational thinking, emotional connection, and penetrating insight. Taiji training guides us toward kindness and harmonious interaction with friends, family, coworkers and strangers.

Taiji players understand that well being can only be attained when we consciously cultivate the natural interplay of yin and yang within ourselves and throughout the community. The series of movements in the 24 Step Form are coupled expressions of yin and yang energies. Yin is receptive, protective, and gathering. Yang is projecting, opening, and dispersing. This is the foundation of Chinese medicine. When we perform this “internal martial art” with the intention of flowing between yin and yang we are creating the best possible opportunity for excellent physical and mental health.

 

AWARENESS
The unique process underlying Taiji is awareness of body and mind moving together. Our sense of proprioception tells us where we are in space. The Form is a series of coordinated movements that utilize the full range of biomechanical function. New students often are surprised to find that, while the movements appear harmonious and beautiful, they depend on acute self-awareness of where the feet, legs, arms, and hands are in space. To maintain this sense of moving through space in a coordinated manner, the Taiji player develops total mindfulness of every sensation passing through their body and mind. This use of proprioception is very good for learning to focus the mind in moment to moment reality for every activity you do.

In addition to learning the steps of the Taiji Form, players also develop the communication skills of listening, projecting and receiving in a physical and energetic training method called Push Hands. This two-person nonverbal interaction often takes the player to a deeper level of awareness. Push Hands uses a close, soft and sensitive physical touch as the two bodies slowly move from a very grounded stance. The two players detect, through touch, the subtle interplay of yin and yang energy that happens between their self and their partner. For those students who choose to play Push Hands the experience is often the most fun part of Taiji training. The principles of nonverbal communication can easily be applied to everyday interactions with others.

 

INTENTION
The names of some Taiji postures are metaphors for embodied states of mind. “White Crane Spreads Its Wings” is an expansive posture that carries a sense of sharply focused attention. “Snake Creeps Down Through The Grass” brings the body close to earth with smoothly projected intentions. When a Taiji player does “Cloud Hands” there is a wonderful sense of floating through space with ease and power.

These images guide a person toward certain emotional and kinesthetic states of mind not usually accessed in conventional exercise. This adds to the therapeutic effects of Taiji because it activates the healing power of your imagination. Dr. Jeanne Achterberg writes in Imagery and Healing, “Imagery has always played a key role in medicine. It is the communication mechanism between perception, emotion, and bodily change. The image is the world’s oldest and greatest healing source.”

Intention is a major part of Taiji training. Every movement is based on a martial application of offense or defense which gives a practical reason for the various steps. When a player knows why, for example, one hand goes out while the other goes down it adds meaning to the movement. The energy used in Taiji movement is much more than muscular force, it is the very source of your vitality. Most people learn Taiji as an exercise system rather than a martial art because they want to improve their conditioning and well being. Physical vitality and mental clarity are absolutely dependent on your innate energy – the Qi.

When the Taiji Form is done slowly it allows the Qi to move through the body and beyond. Your energy field is bigger that your physical frame. The movement and breathing in Taiji practice cultivates Qi through the interaction of yin and yang postures. Then that enhanced energy is further developed with the intention that characterizes each step of the Form.

Intention sets the tone of what you do, say, and think every day. It guides your existence from this moment forward. Learning the intention of the Taiji postures is a wonderful way to activate and enrich those areas of the brain responsible for processing all the intentions that color your life. When we do Taiji with mindful intentions we are exercising our abilities to receive whatever comes our way with a strong relaxed body and a kind perceptive mind that understands the interplay of yin and yang.

These four features of Taiji practice are what makes this ancient exercise system so remarkably effective for today’s lifestyle. The unique combination of an alertly relaxed mind and a smoothly coordinated body helps us meet the stresses and demands of daily living. Taiji may be the best exercise for the rest of your life.