Incremental Performance Expansion

Incremental Growth

Much of the power of Tai Chi lies in its ability to enhance and expand our performance incrementally, over a period of months and years. Unlike so many of our daily efforts the slow, smooth, continuous, and correct movements of a given Tai Chi form build upon each other and enable you to do more and more, approaching but never quite reaching perfection.  But despite of today’s shortfalls, you continue building strength and simplicity into a form that begins crudely and with many hesitations.

First you learn the individual moves into and out of a pattern, such as Chen-style The Golden Guard Stamps the Ground. At the initial stage it’s all about positioning of hands and feet with weight distribution and balance demanding secondary but constant consideration. Over time this and all the following moves each crystalize into proper patterns and patterns flow one into another.”

Eventually you come to the point where you tell yourself: “I now know at a deep muscle and relaxed mind level how to do this form.” Now you are ready for the life-long learning aspect of Tai Chi. You are invited to compare your run-through of the form with other sources: fellow students, instructors, videos, texts — most of whom and which you have relied on previously.

You inevitably discover some misdirection (left not right, or up not down) or missing partial movements you somehow forgot and need to reinsert into the flow. But these slight adjustments all build on a solid foundation you have gradually established as natural to you body and style. These continuous micro-adjustments lead to a sense of constant growth that supports your overall enjoyment of the practice, extending your life and health.

 

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Energy in Surges Across Moves

surges

As you practice some favorite form repeatedly over the months and years, a deep imprinting occurs throughout your muscular systems whereby each part anticipates what comes next and no longer asks you for head-based direction. This surge effect — as if the core of the patterns you are entering seizes control and provides a surge of energy to assure the unfolding of the whole pattern in time and space: feet and legs gliding into proper position and alignments; hands, wrists, and arms countering or continuing leg motions to just the right degree — is a natural outcome from continuous and deeply relaxed practice of a given form in all its complexity. It is as if the core of the next position reaches back to seize its share of the emerging energy wave and carries forward into the next pattern’s full expression.

One way to experience a surge directly is to try to halt the flow of this energy mid stream at the end of any pattern for only a split second and savor the pent-up energy pausing much like a tiger poised to spring. This energy momentum is much like the outward ripples of a single raindrop impacting still water. They are there for the moment ready to help you surge forward, each move embedded within the energy of the prior moves, serpentine in its uncoiling.

The surge effect can not only be anticipated but also cultivated by letting deep  breaths weave in and out of the patterns, synching to the flowing shift of your weight from foot to foot. This living, shifting, breathing momentum can be the essence of your Tai Chi practice and a constant companion force in the challenges of your daily life.

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Primal Tai Chi :: No Tech and the “Obinviz”

invisibility

One aspect of Tai Chi is truly striking and qualifies this sport and fitness approach as being primal: no technology. Unlike any other sport, Tai Chi defies the need for ANY equipment. Yoga has mats, pillows, and straps. Most martial arts have boxing gloves, face masks, and belts. Most sports are defined by the equipment they use and the fields on which they are played. Tai Chi has none of this. Even in the case of the silk reeling exercise with a Tai Chi ruler, that ruler is typically invisible, imaginary. That is not to say Tai Chi is not equally effective in achieving its health and fitness goals. To these goals you can add in longevity.

I use the term “obvious invisibilities” (shorted to “obinviz”) to describe these primal aspects of Tai Chi, such as we have been discussing recently. To summarize and reminds us all what these invisible principles underlying effective Tai Chi movements, they are:

  • two footed
  • earth-bound
  • all out
  • being taller
  • no tech

Paradoxically, these motion principles, when properly applied as in Tai Chi are more than obvious to any observer. They become the basis for the fascination of watching Tai Chi moves unfolding, unfurling, flowing, and flying before your very eyes. These principles are both obvious and invisible. This in itself is quite amazing.

 

 

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Primal Tai Chi :: Being Taller

tall

Of all the physical fitness or therapy approaches I’m aware of, and especially among the martial arts — Tai Chi is unique in it’s emphasis on standing and moving with the back vertical and stretched up to make you as tall as possible. The constant reminder is to stand and move as if you are hanging from a silk thread attached to hot air balloon hovering not far above your head. The net effect is to transfer moving energy down to the base of the spine, meeting two stream of rising energy up from the earth and soles of the feet. These three energy streams then feed your internal storage battery 3″ down from the navel — the Dan Tien.

I constantly instruct my class participants to imagine your spine stretched out like a string of pearls that is 1/2″ longer for the entire practice time, making you, at least for now 1/2″ taller. The more you can walk away in your daily life with the extra 1/2 Tai Chi bonus inches, the better.

Most ofter in trying to become fit or fitter we get bogged down in tiresome “thou shalt” words: here the demeaning and demanding term is “posture.” Ugh. But it’s essential to smooth and glorious Tai Chi forms.

Good posture (defined as ground-based upright body positioning) is vital for athletic performance , health and well-being. In everything we do whether it’s standing, sitting, walking to the shops or lifting a heavy weight, we must be mindful of good posture. A whole range of unwanted injuries and medical conditions can befall us if we constantly re -enforce bad posture.

 

This principle, in conjunction with the others is critical to your success in walking, running, lifting, throwing and otherwise moving your body through space is a symphony of muscular contractions occurring largely without us recognizing it happening. Good posture goes well beyond working your ‘core’ and includes exercises for your entire spine and the joints that directly attach to it.

Best, Ken (2013-05-12). Wild Strength (The Wild Athlete Plan) (Kindle Locations 406-413). . Kindle Edition.

As a short check-list on how really well are you today, ask yourself:

  • Am I in good balance at all time, front to back and side to side?
  • Are my breaths deep and complete down to the belly (in through the nose and out through the mouth)?
  • Am I standing, sitting, and moving while staying as tall as I have ever been?
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Rebounding :: Tai Chi for Recovery

reboundingr

My family and I have been through the ups and downs of a short ocean cruise (up) and a protracted viral chest cold with lots of congestion (down). Not much Tai Chi in all that.

I think when you’ve been sick and just sitting around for many days, then finally the desire to move around again comes slowly to your body, that Tai Chi can form the perfect pathway back to energy and action. If ever there’s a time when you try to stay “out of your body” (why bother with it? — stay in your mind, it’s safer), then it’s when you’re “sick dog down.”

Starting back into your body and real life again, you’re not going to run down to the gym and pump iron. You might (and should) try Qi Gong stretches followed up with at least part of your best Tai Chi form. Each day add more. Build a new basis for energy, step by step. What’s the alternative? Just sit around (more days) and wait for some eventual return of you energy? Internal energy attracts external energy like a magnet, but you have to “stoke the stove.” Let Tai Chi speed that stoaking along through its fundamentally slow gentle, grounded, circular movements that are an ideal pathway towards full recovery.

What sort of things might we look for during our Tai Chi rebounding? For me — I’m a universe of one — these aspects have come immediately to mind in my recent rebound experience with Tai Chi:

  • balance
  • breath
  • broadening of perspective

These aspects are of major significance during a rebound.

Balance is everything underlying normal physical and mental life. In deep sickness you tend to lose your balance, for me literally. By selecting first one short form to test myself on I could gradually begin approach restored balance to a fine level. First 20 minute sessions (10 Qi Gong stretches, then 10 minutes of a short Sun forms). Within days I added three more short forms (2 Chen, 1 Sun, 1 Yang) to reach 40 minutes.

Breath is what I was really after. Extended sickness equals extended shallow breathing. Tai Chi embeds proper deep breathing in every move. All the extended oxygen can only speed healing and recover across the board. To say nothing of thought clarity. Move to breath deeply.

Broadening of Perspective on Tai Chi is a major result of this recent experience. I must say I have not been “really sick” in the last four years thinking that Tai Chi might be a background basis for this healthy span of time. I’ve had lots of major (life threatening) experience in my 72 years (and not a perfect lifestyle). Now after 10 days of deep viral lung congestion I was sort of caught off guard. Now I have discovered that Tai Chi provides a sort of practical heal baseline for each of us, customized to our own bodies. Using Tai Chi to rebound, you can test EVERY body system as to to normal functionality and in cases of some short falls continue your Tai Chi practice with even more determination to restore all systems. Expectations and effort are a powerful healing combination.

With your Tai Chi health baseline well in mind (selected form(s) performed slow, smooth, continuously, and correctly, you now can move boldly forward in to new territories of energy and aliveness.

Go!

 

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Tai Chi as a Habit of Excellence

habits

In the practice of Tai chi, excellence in every aspect of the ongoing form flowing seamlessly between  various positions is not an accidental outcome. It’s instead the very purpose of the practice. Of course, no particular run-through of a form is every perfect, but that is the very way in which you move toward perfection: noticing the slight slip ups and resolving to reduce or eliminate the mistakes in future run-throughs.

This endless repetition, far from being boring, is instead the heart of joy in Tai Chi.

So what can we do to make our Tai Chi practice habitual?

Research physiologists are probing into every aspect of habituation, while claiming the a full 40% of our daily actions are wired deep into the lower brain and brain-stem (through endless repetition) and are in fact habits in little need of conscious supervision (upper brain).

They have focused in on three elements in a cycle:

  • cue
  • routine
  • reward
 To understand the power of cravings in creating physical fitness habits, consider how exercise habits emerge.   In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State University wanted to understand why people habitually exercise. They studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time, or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives. However, the reason they continued – why it became a habit – was because of a specific reward they started to crave.

 

In one group 92% of the people said they habitually exercised because it made them “feel good” – they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group 67% of people said it gave them a sense of “accomplishment” – they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performance, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.

 

If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast)… and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog).

 

But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when you brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

·        Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Random House, 2012, page 51.

 

What can become a cue of your Tai Chi practice?

  1. A specific time and place for your practice
  2. Sunrise
  3. Certain slow, alpha-generating music (meditation)
  4. Facing open water
  5. Other dedicated Tai Chi players (instructor and practitioners)

And what rewards should we be seeking from our practice

  1. Gradual improvements in balance, flow, and elegance of form
  2. Overall feeling of growth and wellness
  3. Intensifying performance generating spontaneous practitioner insights

The net effect of Tai Chi as a habit of excellence is that your body may gradually lead you away from a strick copying of the instructor’s moves. You will be enriching your own interpretation of the form led from within by your own body and shifting of the center of gravity. You will, at least in your own eyes, glimpse “Mastery” from time to time, and that discovery will pull you forward, probably for the rest of your lengthening life time.

 

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Primal Tai Chi :: All Out

effort

In Tai Chi practice we are often reminded that to move a little finger is to engage every muscle in the entire body. How is this possible? Let’s take a look at the Sun or Chen style Single Whip. The two hands are held up before the face and then while one stands steady, the other drifts away, letting that little finger lead. The head and eyes shift to follow the motion of the departing hand, so the neck and shoulders also turn. That leads to a weight shift including the chest, belly, and pelvis, and thighs pivoting in the same direction as the hand. Finally when all the weight has shifted over the to the foot on the side where the hand and moving finger (remember the finger?) the lagging empty leg drifts along to follow after the extended hand. Every muscle in the body has cooperated in effecting apparently simple move.

As with all Tai Chi forms, the motion is both all out and effortless.

What’s the primal principle here?

The strength activities ancient and modern hunter-gatherers do every day involve their whole bodies. When they hunt, swim, fish, labor, dance and fight they use every part of their bodies as a coordinated whole to get the jobs done. Likewise, our bodies work in unison to create movement and perform work. Our strength training programs should reflect this.Any strength or conditioning activities that neglect large parts of your body are only half as effective as full-body endeavors. And they’re no good for training other attributes of co-ordination, agility and speed. Too many modern programs are largely made up of exercises and equipment that neglect a significant portion of your body such as the arms, posterior chain (gluteus and hamstring group) and torso (otherwise known as core).

  • Best, Ken (2013-05-12). Wild Strength (The Wild Athlete Plan) (Kindle Locations 398-404). . Kindle Edition.

Tai Chi is built up from a series of primal moves. More to the point these moves are all “obinviz” — obviously invisible. To the one making the moves, they are all natural and somewhat beyond thinking about. To the observer, the overall flow of action is obvious and elegant, now snake-like, now panther-like, now crane-like, now monkey-like, now bear-like, now deer-like.

Natural, primal, powerful.

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Primal Tai Chi :: Earth-bound

gravity

Welcome to the Earth, where we practice Tai Chi to maintain our own form in proper order by practicing Tai Chi forms in proper order: slow, smooth, continuous, and correct — dancing with, when not defying Earth’s pesky but persistent gravity.

This principle is as plain as day but often forgotten or ignored by the mainstream fitness media. An amazing array of exercise equipment is being designed and marketed to ignore or counteract the presence of gravity in our lives.Things have gotten so weird that companies are creating anti-gravity exercise equipment in order to cash in on the ‘latest craze’ idea.I expose the hype about the so-called benefits of anti-gravity training and the equipment flooding the market these days for what it really is – garbage. Our muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints grow thicker and stronger from the force of gravity acting on them and through modes of resistance that magnify that force.

  • Best, Ken (2013-05-12). Wild Strength (The Wild Athlete Plan) (Kindle Locations 392-396). . Kindle Edition.

Gravity literally “informs” all Tai Chi movements, constraining them into graceful and ofter counter balancing positions, similar in visual effect to down-hill skiing. Tai Chi is, in fact, whenever practiced in a low stance, a close sibling of downhill skiing and of equal benefits to over all body health (without the risks of wipe-outs and major collisions, to say nothing of frost bite).

To appreciate better how dependent Tai Chi moves are to the full force of gravity, try your favoring form standing chest deep in water. Or again on the center beam fore or aft of a major cruise ship in mid ocean.

The “center of gravity” or Dan Tien of the body serves as a load-stone attracting all the gravitational force into the body. Move originating by moves of the Dan Tien, as a heavy pendulum would swing side to side or back and forth, are powerful — commanding every muscle of the body to cooperate and resulting in a nearly unstoppable delivery of force — Fa Jing.

In a world of increased gravity, Tai Chi would still prove effective over time and with practice. You muscles, bones, tendons, and circulatory systems would greatly strengthen, yet your movements would not become sluggish or ponderous. You would again learn how to move: slow, smooth, continuous, and correct.

 

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Primal Tai Chi :: Two-Footed

two footed

This is the most important principle in the whole program. Bipedal motion, i.e. moving around on two legs, is so fundamental to the human mechanism that all fitness and strength programs should give it more than a fleeting reference. But in our modern age of technological advancements many trainees forget they even have two legs let alone how important they are and how much they influence our health and well-being. 

I can’t emphasize enough how important bipedalism is when programming strength and fitness plans. Athlete training programs are only now attempting to address this issue by focusing on ground-based movements, which is a step in the right direction. But there’s so much more to this principle than the average personal trainer gives it credit.

 

  • Best, Ken (2013-05-12). Wild Strength (The Wild Athlete Plan) (Kindle Locations 382-389).  . Kindle Edition. 

But wait, Ken. Tai Chi (through Qi Gong) has been primarily focused on two-footed efficient and elegant moves for upwards of 2500 years! Every Tai Chi move is a deliberate study of feet positioning (vis-a-vis each other) front and back, side to side, with subtle weight shifting prescribed for each movement. When you speak of Tai Chi, it’s all about two-footedness or bipedalism.

Even when we get to single leg stances (the so-called empty stances) where 100% of the weight is balanced and concentrated over one foot, the other empty (weightless) foot serves as a counter balance along with the positioning of the hands. A great and beautiful example is the Playing the Lute stance found in several Tai Chi forms. And in the lute’s case, this is a masterful defense stance preparatory to a devastating (groin) kick.

On the two-footed principle along Tai Chi ranks high as a primal fitness practice.

 

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Primal Tai Chi :: 5 Obvious Invisibilities

hunter gatherer

If some of the Qi Gong movements date back perhaps 2500 years in ancient China (they do), then if these moves in turn draw from primal sources such as native hunter gatherers in that vast region, Qi Gong more primal movements linked together in dance-like patterns replicating ancient warrior combat must also commemorate primal moves that are universal to humankind.

So, what would be the “general characteristics” of primal movements?

Wild strength is based on five important principles or philosophies. These principles apply to every person regardless of race, background or location and explain why the program works so well to forge athletes. Some are so fundamental to the human form they influence not only the way we move and exercise, but our very existence on this planet. 

Human beings are the most intelligent living species on Earth, and this is possible because of our large brains and our ability to be self-aware. Our physical attributes help develop our brains and the many wondrous functions they perform.

 

The five principles I describe here are important reminders of how we move and how we should train to facilitate movement. They are inter-related; they work together and ignoring or downplaying any one of them will quickly unravel your progress in your quest for peak strength, resilience and health.

 

Best, Ken (2013-05-12). Wild Strength (The Wild Athlete Plan) (Kindle Locations 369-378). . Kindle Edition.

What a re the 5 principles Ken Best is describing for primal (or wild) strength, stamina, and survival skills? And would they apply to Tai Chi as practiced today in 2015?

First the principles:

  • Two-footed
  • Earth-bound
  • All out
  • Tall
  • Zero tech

Those will take some further explanations in later posts, I’ll grant that. But first, let me explain that they have the fascinating property — all of them — of being “obviously invisible.” That means simply that these movements are so natural and instinctive that we hardly notice them while constantly applying them in every effective action. When we ignore any of them our resulting motions and actions tend to become less effective.

Paradoxically, the same motion principles, when properly applied (as in Tai Chi) are more than obvious to any observer. They become the basis for the fascination of watching Tai Chi moves unfolding, unfurling, flowing, and flying before your very eyes.

For the explanatory posts to follow this year, I’ll coin the phrase:

obinviz

and explain each principle from the above list in terms of how it becomes obinviz.

 

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