Why Practice Tai Chi and Pa Kua?
“THE SHORTEST WAY TO DO MANY THINGS IS TO DO ONLY ONE THING AT ONCE” RICHARD CECIL
Tai-chi is a set of slow movements based on the ancient Chinese principles of Yin and Yang, the opposing forces in the universe that explain all natural phenomena and establish harmony and equilibrium. Tai chi is practiced for physical conditioning, discipline, mental focus and martial arts applications. It is the longest time-tested therapy for body, mind, spirit and can be used for physical and psychic self-defense. Doing tai chi establishes a dialogue between you and your mind and between you and another person. When practiced on a regular basis it develops core strength, balance, and agility, reduces stress and leads to better health. In China It is not uncommon to see people in their 80s and even 90s doing tai chi.
Pa Kua (or Ba Gua) is an internal Chinese martial art based on Daoist principles, combining Tai Chi with the ancient spiritual practice of circle walking. Circle walking develops body posture and structure, teaches us to focus the mind, body and spirit and is an excellent form of meditation. Pa Kua is characterized by changing directions while holding various static postures with the upper body and executing various “palm changes” done in a smooth and flowing manner likened to a “Dragon soaring in the clouds”. Each part of the body coordinates with every other, generating the maximum amount of power available relative to the individual's size and weight. The twisting movements in Ba Gua are particularly effective in exercising the joints, tendons and muscle groups. The unique “mud” walking technique combined with the twisting and turning motions quickly develop balance and dexterity. The constant directional changes also develop ambidexterity.
“Only when you can be extremely pliable and soft can you be extremely hard and strong.”
Classes are offered at the BORP Fitness Studio, first floor, Ed Roberts Center, 3075 Adeline St. Berkeley (across from Ashby BART). Cost is $11 per class or 10-classes for $100. Seniors 55 or older and veterans pay $8 per class or $70 for a 10-class pass and $300 for unlimited class attendance. Passes can be used for any BORP sponsored classes
Classes in Tai Chi and Ba Gua are offered at the BORP Fitness Studio, first floor, Ed Roberts Center, 3075 Adeline St. Berkeley (across from Ashby BART). Cost is $40 per hour by appointment
HOW FORCE IS GENERATED IN CHINESE INTERNAL MARTIAL ARTS
"Let the Force Be With You"
All the Chinese internal martial arts, including Tai Chi, Pa Kua and Xingyi generate force
through the gathering of energy and then releasing it through rotations involving the arms and
hands around the waist or the Dantian area. If we look closely we notice that each movement
in tai chi is circular in nature. The rotations can be subtle or bold, in the same or different
planes and in the clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. For example, in Grasping Bird’s
Tail, when done correctly, the practitioner reaches out with a subtle circular movement in the
horizontal plane and then draws the arms and hands back and up in another circular motion
following subtle rotations of the waist. The rotations start from an uncoiled yin posture, build
and terminate in a coiled yang posture. The uncoiled position is “neutral” and the coiled
position, “charged”. The potential energy stored in the yang posture is released through an
uncoiling motion in the opposite direction returning to the yin energy state. The greater the
difference in potential energy between the uncoiled (yin) and coiled (yang) postures, the greater
the force applied by any body part that will perform the task. The direction and accuracy of the
force is controlled by the mind and requires precise alignments of all body parts.
The classic Slinky toy exemplifies this concept of releasing energy through yin and yang state
cycling. The Slinky is neutral in the uncoiled yin state. The Slinky is energized into the yang
state by turning one end of its coil over 180 degrees. Letting go of that end results in an
uncoiling motion returning to the yin state and generating a force proportional to the resistance
inherent in the bands. This process will cycle continuously with the assistance of gravity, if for
example a staircase is introduced.
The power generated from an uncoiling motion is appreciated by observing the behavior of a
snake. In the stretched out, neutral (yin) posture the snake is weak and vulnerable but after
coiled up in a yang posture it can subsequently release a formidable amount of energy instantly
and with remarkable precision.
The ancient yin/yang symbol is the perfect metaphoric gateway for this cycling energy process.
Starting at “12 o’clock” on the symbol, the lowest energy state (full yin) and moving counter
clockwise, the energy steadily increases reaching its highest potential (full yang) 180 degrees at
the “6 oclock” position on the symbol. Another 180 degree rotation collapses the energy
potential back to the full yin (neutral) position, releasing all the energy accumulated at the full
Most of us who practice tai chi aren’t particularly interested in applying it to generate a force in
combat, however appreciation of the principle of yin and yang coiling and uncoiling postures
helps improve our form in addition to empowering and vitalizing our experience. The next time
you perform a movement that incorporates circular arm motions, imagine that your waist is
directing the motion and not your arms and feel the energy flow!
THE BREATH IN CHINESE INTERNAL MARTIAL ARTS
"Quiet your mind to come home to your body and to take care of yourself. Stop talking. Stop thinking. Come back to your breathing. Listen with all your being". Thich Nhat Hanh
The three Chinese Internal martial arts, Tai Chi, Pa Kua and Xingyi consist of four elements; movement, body structure (or posture), breathing technique and mental attitude. In many respects, breathing is the most difficult of these areas to master. At first, the emphasis should be on simply learning the basic movements. Absorbing new content may feel overwhelming at first, so the practice of proper breathing at this stage should not be emphasized. After you become comfortable with the basic movements, learning and practicing the breathing techniques will advance your form and enhance your energy level.
Most of us use “Unnatural Breathing” which means using only the upper thoracic region. This leads to a chronic lowering of oxygen tension in the bloodstream which is exacerbated if hyperventilating when experiencing anxiety, pain or panic.
There are different breathing techniques used in Chinese martial arts and all seem to be derived from the ancient practice of Qi Gong. The two you should be concerned with right now are “Natural Breathing” and somewhat later on “Dantian Breathing”.
In “Natural Breathing” one inhales imagining that the air is taken into the area just below the navel by expanding the abdomen. One exhales by then contracting the abdomen. This is the natural form of breathing observed in infants. During development we “unlearn” this natural state and unfortunately become conditioned to hold the breath and restrict it to the chest region. Natural Breathing is more efficient than thoracic breathing because more air is taken in. It also massages the internal organs and strengthens the abdominal muscles. This may explain why Tai Chi grand masters have very tight abdomens regardless of their girth.
Natural Breathing should be slow, smooth, regular, soft and deep. You should inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. The tongue should lightly rest on the roof of your mouth. At the peak of inhalation you should not hold your breath but instead, smoothy transition to the exhalation stage. At peak exhalation you should pause for a moment before inhaling again.
Dantian Breathing is identical to Natural Breathing except that the breath is absorbed even more deeply so that the muscles in the lower back also expand when inhaling and exhaling.
STANDING MEDITATION (ZHANZHUANG)
“All it takes to evoke the relaxation response—the gateway to all forms of meditation—is to focus exclusively on a repetitive stimulus or movement to break the stream of ordinary thought”.
James Kingsland, "Siddhartha, the Scientist”
Standing Meditation is a valuable addition to your practice for enhancing balance, stamina, alignment, core strength, body awareness and tranquility.
Standing Meditation offers distinct advantages over sitting meditation because it requires a higher degree of alertness so that a lapse of awareness causing losing one’s balance can be immediately corrected. With Standing Meditation the blood also circulates more effectively making it easier to stay mindful of the body experience. Standing Meditation connects the mind, body and soul, revealing our strengths and weaknesses, thus opening ourselves up to positive change.
The Posture in Standing Meditation: Stand relaxed with your feet parallel and shoulder length apart, knees bent slightly, pelvis pushed forward and chin tucked in so that the back is in a straight line. Imagine that your head is being held up by a flexible silk thread. Distribute your weight equally over both feet and centered to establish a solid connection to the ground, like a deep-rooted tree.
The arms and hands are held chest high with the arms forming a circle, like holding a large beach ball. The back and shoulders are relaxed and rounded, the elbows sunk and the chest is hollowed.
The fingers are spread apart creating a hollow “cup” in the center of the palm.
The eyes are relaxed, peering over the hands into the distance without focusing on any one object (“Eagle Vision”).
The Breath is natural (controlled by the abdomen…moving in and out) and it is regular, slow, deep, and soft.
Concentration in Standing Meditation: Mentally scan your body and your breath, noting areas of strength, weakness, pain or discomfort, avoiding self criticism. Don't get “stuck” on any one thought and if your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Keep your thoughts focused on the “here and now” and not on the past or the future. Try to engender the feeling of “stillness”. If you feel any discomfort, check your body to determine its origin and then make subtle corrections in your posture or breathing until it dissipates.
Practice Standing Meditation 5 minutes each day, gradually increasing the time to 10 minutes and if possible, 20 minutes.
MOVEMENT IN TAI CHI AND PA KUA EXPLAINED
"Each step may seem to take forever, but no matter how uninspired you feel, continue to follow your practice schedule precisely and consistently. This is how we can use our greatest enemy, habit, against itself".
—Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, “Tortoise Steps”
Tai Chi and Pa Kua (or Ba Gua) share the same 4 basic elements: That of movement, body structure, breathing and mental “alignment”. The rules for the last three of these are remarkably similar for both disciplines. For example, stand upright with knees slightly bent, focus on the horizon, breathe “naturally” (i.e., inhale and exhale from the abdomen or the Dantien), mentally focus on the body, relax or “Song” the joints, and move “intentionally”. How one moves in Tai Chi and Pa Kua, however are quite different.
In Tai chi, one “defends” a position from the center of an imaginary circle, outward in 8 directions: sideways (1,2), forward and back (3,4) and to the diagonals (5-8). There are actually 2 other dimensions if one considers defense against vertical threats from either above and below. In Tai Chi one moves sideways by lifting a leg, touching down on that toe and then lowering the heel to the ground. One moves forward by planting the heel first, followed by lowering the toes and the reverse when retreating backwards.
In Pa Kua, one “defends” from a position on the perimeter of an imaginary circle while walking in both clockwise and counterclockwise directions while performing deft, twisting, serpentine-like movements. Turns toward or away from the center of the circle are accomplished using a “hook “ step technique and walking the circle involves a method figuratively called “Mud Walking”. Here, the back foot is pulled up imagining that it is stuck in mud, then thrust forward close to the ground and finally lands neither toe first nor heel first, like in Tai Chi, but flat-footed. Furthermore, the outside foot lands on the circle and the inside foot lands with the heel on the circle toes toes inside the circle.
Although Tai Chi and Ba Gua stepping techniques are different, both are exquisitely fine-tuned to accomplish the same result, that of optimizing your connection with the ground achieving maximum stability while maneuvering under challenging conditions, whether it be an adversary or environmental threat in our complex daily routines.
Move well and be safe!
TAI CHI BASICS
"Mastery is the understanding of the essence of things. The mind body connection is at the heart of tai chi practice".
There are 4 intimately connected elements in Tai Chi: Body Movement, Body Alignment, Breathing and Mental Alignment. If any one of these is weak or underdeveloped then your Tai Chi experience won’t fully deliver its many benefits, including freedom from pain and illness, stress reduction, loosening the joints, stretching the tendons, strengthening the muscles and increasing bone density.
The moves are done slowly and intentionally with one movement flowing effortlessly into the next. Maintain the same pace throughout the set.
Step with intention, that is, be conscious of where you place your feet. Pay particular attention to this because it is your connection to the ground.
Stepping forward, lift the heel and land with the heel, followed by slowly extending the toe down. Sink down slightly and shift your weight and body up over that foot and then bring the other foot forward, in next to the other foot balancing on the toe if necessary for stability.
Stepping backward, reverse this process; lift the toe balancing on the heel, step back landing toe first, then gently drop the heel.
Stepping sideways, lift the heel and step, landing with the toe, then drop the heel. Lift the other heel, sink shifting the weight over the weighted leg placing toe down next to that leg followed by the heel. So…the pattern is “lift heel, move leg, plant toe then heel.“Grip” the ground with your feet settling into the “sweet spot” which is the area just in front of the heel.
Turn from the waist. The power generated in TC, as in the other Chinese martial arts (Xingyi and Pa Kwa), or “Chi”, is propagated through circular coiling and uncoiling motions originating from the waist or core, also known as the “Dantien”.
2. Body Alignment:
Keep your body upright, head up, chin in and your back vertical. Imagine that your torso is held up by a flexible “silk” thread from the sky.
Relax your shoulders, arms, hands, joints and eyes. Center your weight evenly over your torso with your legs slightly bent, feet shoulder length feet apart.
Pelvis is tucked in. Arms are slightly bent at the elbows and fingers are slightly flexed. Knees are slightly bent with the feet aligned parallel to the knees so as not to be pronated or off center.
Relax, but not completely (note: Some yin is always present in yang and visa versa; there is no pure yin and yang). Relaxation in tai chi means balanced, not soft.
The tongue rests lightly on the roof of the mouth (acupuncture point).
- Be conscious of your breathing. Breathe naturally from your belly, in and out.
- Breathe in during coiling or retreating motions and breathe out during uncoiling or advancing motions.
- Try not to breathe too quickly or hold your breath. Match your breath to the pace of your movements.
4. Mental Alignment:
- Look into the distance. Avoid looking down at your feet or focusing on nearby objects. This is referred to as “eagle vision”; bringing your surroundings into your awareness without focusing (“getting stuck”) on any one thing.
- Eyes generally follow hand movements, right to left or left to right but never up and down.
Reflect on the fundamental Yin and Yang principles of “change”; soft flowing into hard, neutral into charged, uncoiled into coiled.
Clear your mind of all thoughts. Be present and “in the moment”. If you have a thought, gently let it go. You are attempting to align your mind with your body and so thoughts are a distraction.
Imagine you are pushing or pulling against a slight resistance as if you are moving in a swimming pool. This “isometric” quality of TC done in an upright position with the knees slightly bent is the key to increasing strength and bone mass.