- Leslie Deems LAc.
Consider Tai Chi Chuan: Part Two
How Breathing is expressed through Tai Chi
The breathing that accompanies Tai Chi is belly breathing, or breathing into the Tan T’ien. It can also be referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, post-natal breathing, or abdominal breathing. One should focus the breathing in the lower abdomen, drawing the breath in, as the diaphragm descends, allowing more oxygen to fill the lungs, and exhaling the breath, allowing the diaphragm to ascend, releasing the air from the lungs. This “sinking of the breath” opens the pelvis and muscles in the lower area of the body. It massages internal organs and relieves congested blood and qui. It also promotes relaxation. When performing breathing exercises with Tai Chi Chuan you must inhale as you raise your hands, exhale as you extend your fingers, inhale as you bring your hands toward your torso, and exhale as the hands float down.
During Tai Chi, the individual focuses on the breath, becoming aware of each inhalation and exhalation. This allows the mind to calm itself. Each movement is matched with the breath, inhalation as the arms go up, for example, exhalation as the arms go down. The long, deep, gentle, breaths open up the abdominal cavity allowing for long fluid movements and for chi to flow to the mind.
When breathing one uses the image of a bubbling well in which all the tension is stored. Upon breathing one releases the bubbling tension, drawing the energy up from the Earth, into the bottom of the feet and all the way up through a glass tube that passes through the body. The rhythmic cycle of breathing mirrors the relationship we have with the universe. Inhalation and exhalation symbolizes one’s giving and receiving, our connection with others, the ups and downs or peaks and valleys of life, as well as taking things in, learning, being receptive, and letting go, releasing fear and tension.
Lungs- enlarges and narrows the lung space with the rise and fall of the diaphragm.
Blood- the abdominal breathing allows for more fresh air, promoting oxygenation of the body.Through oxygenation the body is nourished.Whether the body has absorbed enough oxygen or not directly influences the function of the body.Blood circulation in the arteries and veins of the thoracic cavity, especially blood return in the inferior vena cava, is aided.
Brain- the brain needs continual oxygen.Through breathing correctly the nerves of the brain are nourished, allowing for better functioning of the brain, for example better concentration, or balancing of the polarities of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.
Internal Organs- with proper breathing the internal organs are fully nourished and massaged with each rise and fall of the breath.
Peristalsis-regulation of breathing also allows for proper elimination of waste products.
My Experience with Breathing in Tai Chi:
After performing breathing in Tai Chi I feel more grounded, more connected to the Earth, and therefore, more in touch with my own feminine energies. I leave class feeling lighter on my feet and less stressed. I feel as though I have filled my head and body with more air, almost as though I am a helium balloon floating in air.
How Tai Chi Promotes Awareness
Being aware is essentially being conscious of what is going on around you and inside you. Awareness is a form of concentration, if you will, a paying attention, in order to find and maintain a center. Awareness supports the organization and internalization of the body’s energy and directs consciousness through the body. In Tai Chi we focus the awareness on breathing into the Dan T’ien allowing our movements of the form to flow freely. We are aware of the process that is unfolding in ourselves through each movement.
During the practice of Tai Chi, one is taught to focus attention and avoid distraction, improving awareness and lowering stress. One’s ability to focus on one single task in the present moment is encouraged. It helps to build will power along with helping individuals to overcome lethargy.
Awareness represents wisdom and knowledge. Through Tai Chi we are taught to cultivate appropriate action. A wise person is open to what is going on around them.
Brain- counters over stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, calms the mind by relaxing the cerebral cortex (slower brain waves are recorded), promotes wholeness by uniting mind and body, helps to lessen anxiety and mild to moderate depression.
Blood- promotes freely circulating blood and energy
Lowers the rate of breathing and the heart rate, therefore helping to treat hypertension
Helps to eliminate insomnia, infertility, chronic pain, and helps in the treatment of symptoms associated with cancer and AIDS
My Experience with Awareness in Tai Chi:
I have noticed that after my Tai Chi class I feel as though things bother me less. While driving home, I am less likely to react impulsively when cut off on the road. I acknowledge what has happened, but am unmoved by it, either negatively or positively. I am simple aware that someone has cut me off but am not attached to any particular feelings I might have. I feel I am cultivating appropriate action. Why waste energy on getting upset at such a thing.
Relaxation here means using the body in the most efficient manner, applying just enough strength to do certain movements or tasks without straining or tensing muscles unnecessarily. It does not mean laziness, lethargy, or lack of movement. On the contrary, relaxation is achieved in Tai Chi through movement. Such relaxation allows us to conserve energy and have greater stamina, consistency, and effectiveness. This promotes good health by increasing the effectiveness of the central nervous system in regulating all the vital systems in the body.
Tai Chi helps to produce a state of relaxed awareness and tranquility so that we act and don’t react. It helps us in dealing with stress in our daily lives and in avoiding stressful situations altogether. Through the form we calm the mind, the physical, and emotional state. In other words, we feel better and are more effective when we are relaxed because the energy moves more naturally and spontaneously in a relaxed body. With a relaxed body and mind we have the best potential for health.
When we relax we are our true selves. Tai Chi allows us to be grounded, our selves arising from the background of the Tao.
Helps to reduce the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and adrenals.From this we experience relief from anxiety and emotional stress as well as fine nervous control of bodily functions
Increases memory, concentration, and sensory awareness, and vitality
Improved balance, agility, physical strength and coordination
It sharpens our reflective and instinctual behavior
Increases heart rate, lowers blood pressure and breath rate
Helps the body to conserve energy
Relief from muscular tension and pain
Natural self-regulation of all physical systems
My Experience with Relaxation in Tai Chi:
In performing Tai Chi I feel more naturally relaxed. The ups and downs of my day just seem to roll over me. I am more flexible and calm. I go with the flow, whatever that may be. I sleep better because my mind is not overly active. I am able to enjoy the process of my life, watching it unfold in front of me. With a relaxed mind and a calm heart I get more out of life, feeling my way through life, without needing distraction.
Maintaining straight posture is vitally important in Tai Chi, as in our lives as well. A straight spine allows for the spinal cord fluid to move freely through the spine, nourishing all the organs, meridians, and systems in the body. It is essential in Tai Chi to have alignment of the head, shoulder, hip, and heel. The hands need to be lower than the shoulders. We sink the elbows and relax the deltoids. The heel in front is empty, the foot in back is full. “The form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit.” The Shen, or Spirit, like that of a cat ready to catch a rat.” If we are mechanically distorted then everything is off. When we have poor posture there is not enough energy flowing through the body. The energy is, therefore, not as accessible for use and is essentially wasted.
Tai Chi promotes good posture by envisioning the head suspended like that of a puppet. The back is pulled upwards and the tailbone erect. When the lowest vertebrae is erect, the Spirit reaches to the top of the head.
Upright, erect posture allows for a direct beam of light from the Heavens to filter down through the top of the head, down through the center, or the body’s core, to the Earth. The position of our bodies can be a metaphor for our position in life. Posture reflects our mental attitude or stance in life. If we have an open body we are more able to let go of past misgivings.
Strengthens the brain by allowing the proper energy flow and connecting it with spiritual energy
Alleviates muscular strain and pressure in the entire body by promoting proper alignment with shoulder and pelvis
Calms the nervous system, making it easier to relax
With a straight vertebrae one can breath better, filling the air with lungs, exercising fuller use of the diaphragm, so more oxygen gets into the blood and to the brain.
If the back is erect, then the body is at ease, optimally aligned with the force of gravity.
Connects the upper and lower parts of the body
Enables one to be comfortable and alert, well balanced, and ready to respond in any direction.
Alleviates numerous conditions involving the vital organs that are regulated by nerves stemming from the spinal column.
My Experience with Proper Posture:
When I stand more erect, with my head held high, I feel more self-assured. I feel calmer and taller. I approach life with sure footedness and ease. I have less back pain and am able to breath fuller and deeper. I, therefore, have a clearer head and a stronger ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. When I walk with good posture I have the impression that I am gliding, not stumbling along through life. Good posture gives the impression that I am confident even on a bad day when I might be feeling small.
The motion is rooted in the feet. It comes up through the bubbling well, is released through the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested in the fingers. One develops a total body synchronization in which all parts of the body move as one. The classics refer to this movement as “a pearl moving through nine passages,” or “moving like a string of pearls.” The nine passages refer to nine joints of the body: ankle, knee, hip, lumbar spine, thoracic spine, cervical spine, shoulder, elbow, and wrist. When moving like a “string of pearls,” all movements flow in a wavelike fashion through the feet up through the torso to the upper extremities, with the mind concentrating on relaxing these nine joints in sequence.
When doing Tai Chi one has total synchronization of the body. It’s as if the body moves like a string of pearls. With proper movement, the energy flows through the joints and from the upper torso to the extremities. The energy starts in the ankle, moves to the knee, hip, spine, elbow, wrist, and fingertips. “Tai Chi Chuan flows like a mighty river flowing on increasingly.” Tai Chi uses stillness to control movement. Although one moves, there is also stillness.
Movement is a metaphor for how we move through life. We flow through problems or obstacles as they arise. We use our energy to flow with all situations, acting instead of reaction. Move everything or move nothing. Move it or lose it. The chi in the body is like a wheel, and the whole body must mutually coordinate.
Promotes proper dilation and restriction of blood vessels, therefore increasing circulation
The nervous system is more balanced with rhythmic motion
Moves blood to the joints allowing for increased flexibility
Upper body movement promotes heart activity
Promotes correct use of the body and relaxed rhythmic movement
Strengthens and adds bulk to lower body
Strengthens the connective tissue of the upper body so that there is less wear and tear
Opens meridians allowing for a balance of the movement of Qi in the body
Lowers the degeneration process of the joints and spine
Helps us to use all major muscle groups
Relieves tension, improving muscle tone
My Experience with Movement:
In carefully observing the movements of Tai Chi I feel as though I am firmly rooted to the Earth. My body feels strong and stable yet flexible and supple. I move with ease and grace, flowing with the movement of the form.
Yin and Yang
Tai Chi reflects and manifests the essential life principle of Yin and Yang. It is an interaction of the polarities of Yin and Yang. Through the practicing of the form there is a delicate balance between contraction and expansion, movement and stillness, strength and passivity, upward and downward, top to bottom, and progressive and relaxed. There is a united opposition allowing for the formation of one intricate unit. The balance between these two forces is always changing. In Tai Chi one moves from one move right into another, it is a constant flow.
Tai Chi allows the individual to experience reality in terms of Yin and Yang. The continuous and orderly flow of exercises leads to the unification of Yin and Yang in the body and the orderly oxygenation of the internal organs. It causes orderly relations between excitement and inhibition of nerves, dilation and constriction of blood vessels with consequent effect on the related internal organs. The result is full energy and the active function of every part of the body.
Through the form, one experiences the inter-relatedness of the yin and the Yang. Each movement in the form interacts with the next, influencing each other, and infiltrating each other. Performing Tai Chi creates an integral whole within the body and the body’s relation to the universe.
Regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
Regulates things in the body and with Yin and Yang
Regulates things in the body and between the body and the environment
Coordinates the upper body with the lower body
Works with balance and coordination
Dilation and constriction of blood vessels
Excitement and inhibition of nerves
Connects the spirit with the body
My Experience with Yin and Yang in Tai Chi:
My personal experience with Tai Chi has allowed me to feel much more connected to the Yin and Yang aspects of myself. During class I can feel myself full of energy wanting to push forward with the movements, rushing through with delight. This is representative of my more Yang side. I also feel calm, quiet, and inward with Tai Chi, which is the Yin side showing through. After class I always feel more balanced and centered, assured that the Yin and Yang within my own body are no longer competing but working in unison creating a warm sense of peace in my bones.