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Taiji: the challenge of moving slow.

Taijiquan, also known as tai chi chuan, tai chi, or taiji, is an ancient exercise that encompasses health, physical fitness, and sell-defense. Few are skilled in its martial system. However, in recent years, scientists and medical doctors have been conducting research on taiji for its therapeutic and health benefits. Taiji has proven to help those suffering from certain types of arthritis, it improves balance, helps to ease some of the effects of chemotherapy, helps diabetes, improves the quality of life for those living with cancer, etc. (1) The list goes on. The American Aerobics Association suggested taiji be studied for its aerobic capacity, (2) This is impressive considering that taiji is low impact, and can be practiced by a wide variety of people at different health and fitness levels, while having no harmful side effects.

How can practicing one seemingly simple exercise generate so many benefits? Some say the practice is simple--all one has to do is relax--others say it takes rigorous effort. Actually both are required. This may seem paradoxical, but the balance of opposing forces is a recurring theme one encounters in the course of taiji practice. In breathing, our need to inhale leads to the desire to exhale, which leads to another intake of breath. Gravity pulls us down but we still stand up. When one relaxes they will get stronger. Softness is more powerful than rigidness. Calming and focusing the mind internally invigorates the body. This list goes on.

Taiji is not just casually and gracefully moving the body through different positions as if dancing slowly. Many people make this mistake when they start taiji. Taiji practice adheres to specific internal principals and requires a lot of internal mental attention within the movements. Practicing according to these principals is what sets taiji apart from other types of exercise. Following these principals is one of the difficulties of taiji practice, but also what develops some of the benefits. Most of us are constantly focusing on what we want or what we are doing on the outside with little or no attention inside. Pulling the mind inside is not easy, yet is essential in taiji practice!

One of the principals of taiji is to completely relax the body, without collapsing. This loosens the joints, which allows the blood, lymphatic and other systems to flow with greater ease through out the body. This allows the body to more effectively feed itself and take away waste material. One principle encourages us to focus the mind on the body's center. The Taiji Classics say, "Where the mind goes the chi follows." (3) This traditional teaching encourages focusing the mind on the dandien to increase the chi flow throughout the body. The dandien (translated as "sea of chi") point is the body's center and is likened to the oceans. The oceans contain the majority of the water on this planet. But that water is constantly being circulated onto the land where it rejuvenates life, then inevitably flows back to the ocean. In taiji theory, this happens in the body with chi. From the dandien, chi flows out to the rest of the body to nourish it and then returns to "its ocean," the dandien, which again reinforces the cyclical circulation of chi.

Another principle encourages us to directly oppose gravity in the upper body relative to the feet and the ground. The more vertical a person is, the less effort they will use to hold themselves up. Relieving pressure on the spine and disks is a result of vertical alignment. This allows one to conserve muscular energy that in turn can be used for other activities. Taiji practice develops a quiet mental focus and awareness, a strong yet supple body, a quick agility in both mind and body. It develops tuner health which, in turn, seeps to the outer body. Taiji does this and more, but benefits don't occur magically. It takes persistent effort and practice. Improvement is gradual It is an art, and one can continually refine and improve the essence of their practice for an entire lifetime. This discourages some people when they first start practicing taiji. Others give up when they don't get immediate results. If you are a perfectionist, taiji will be very hard on you. Some of the most highly skilled masters said they had only attained sixty

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Get to know your Dandie

Mind/body coordination is one aspect of taiji practice. This exercise can be done standing, sitting, or lying down. If done standing, the knees should be straight, not locked and not bent. Feet approximately shoulder width apart. The body is erect and the head should feel as if it is suspended from above. If sitting, feet should be flat on the floor, about shoulder width apart.

The back should be straight, not leaning. If you need some support, support only the lower back. if done lying down, lie flat on your back, feet about shoulder width apart. In all positions, the elbows will be a little to the front of the body. The forearms start parallel, approximately shoulder width apart, wrists straight, hands open with the middle finger making a straight line to the elbow. The mind is focused on the dandien (the dandien is about one inch below the belly button and about sevententh's of the way towards the spine) and stays there through out the exercise. This can help to calm the mind. The eyes can be dosed or open. If open, just let them gaze out, but not looking at anything. Keep the focus internal Let the body's weight sink towards the ground.

Try to find a quiet place where you won't he disturbed. Relax the body as much as possible, without collapsing.

Now to start, let the body exhale. Then us the natural inhale begins, start to move the forearms apart slightly, slowly as If there is some resistance. Do not consciously make any resistance, only as if it is there. Let the breath sink into the dandien. Do not try to control the breath, only observe it and guide it to the dandien. The forearms move only about an inch in total. As the natural exhale starts, start moving the forearms back towards each other. Again only about an inch, and as if there is some resistance, back to parallel and shoulder width. As the body starts to inhale again, repeat the movement. Remember, do not try to control the breath, only observe it. Don't try to fill your lungs to capacity or blow all the air out of the lungs. Breathe like a little baby. This may seem very simple. But keeping the mind quiet and focused, body relaxed, almost completely still, is much easier said than done. The exercise should be done for ten to twenty minutes. If the mind wanders, refocus it in the dantien and continue.

Done regularly, this simple exercise is highly effective in helping to coordinate the mind and body. The internal focus also starts developing body awareness. Again the taiji classics say "Where the mind goes the chi follows." Focus the mind in the dandien and the chi will gather there, filling the dandien and helping to improve chi circulation in the body. percent of what taiji had to offer. That may not seem like much, but after seeing a master bounce someone ten to fifteen feet away from them with ease, one can see sixty percent is a lot.

One thing is certain, one day's effort generates one day's benefit. After a month of practice there may not be much to look at, but persevering for a few years will show substantial physical and mental improvement. Everyone learns according to their own ability. If you start practicing taiji, don't compare your progress to the progress of others. Compare yourself to yourself: Did I get sick fewer times this year than last? Do I feel more relaxed? Do I feel less stressed about things? Does my mind seem calmer?

Taiji is considered an internal exercise. Taiji and other internal Chinese arts have a long history of martial application, stress relief, and health maintenance. Practiced regularly, ten to fifteen minutes can make great strides in helping one maintain health while dealing with the day-to-day stress of our fast-paced world. Taiji's capacity for overall health improvement and maintenance makes it an ideal life long exercise program. As a health exercise, taiji is hard to beat when practiced ten to fifteen minutes a day. Physical and C/R fitness require substantially more time, thirty to sixty minutes. Developing the martial skills requires even more practice. If you have little time in your busy schedule, the small amount of time required for taiji practice may make it the perfect exercise for you.

Brent Neely began his martial art training with karate in 1968, eventually achieving a 2nd degree black belt. He started both aikido and taiji in 1976, and, after experiencing tremendous therapeutic benefit from taiji practice decided to make it a life long study. Contact him at bhannormal@charter.net.

(1) Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter: Jan. 2004

(2) Emory Univ. Study on taiji and balance

(3) Essence Of Tai Chi Chuan: The Literary Tradition; Lo/Inn/Amacker/Foe
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Title Annotation:breathe in
Author:Neely, Brent
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1536
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