Archive for the ‘This Week’s Big Idea (TWBI)’ Category

What is Fajin?

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Loosely translated, Fajin means “to issue power”. There are lots of explanations for this phenomena, from relatively simple to rather mystical.

Practically speaking, Fajin is a way of generating power, more specifically short power for striking or grappling applications in the martial aspects of Taijiquan. Training Fajin can allow you to generate tremendous amounts of power over short distances, something first popularised by Bruce Lee’s one inch punch. If you’ve been studying Fajin for martial purposes for any length of time, you’ll probably have realised that that sort of power is your bread and butter power for martial Taijiquan.

This doesn’t mean to say that Fajin does not have its applications in the healing discipline within Taijiquan or any internal martial art. “Soft” Fajin is a way of practising Fajin that allows the body to experience gentle impact to stimulate the bones and allows the body’s Qi to circulate more freely. Practising Fajin is also a useful way for the Taijiquan practitioner to “self-diagnose” areas of tension or Qi blockage within his or her own body, as the wave of power will travel and stop at any points of tension or blockage. The practitioner can then practise to relax these areas in his normal Taijiquan form practise. Fajin for health is not often taught these days, and it is a point of interesting historical speculation as to why it was not emphasised in the modern teachings of Taijiquan.

Biomechanically, a Fajin is nothing more than a vigorous shake of the hips, allowing the wave of power to move up through the body and then out through the hands, much like the force travels through the hanging ball bearings on a Newton’s cradle. Whilst this principle is very easy to describe, the practise of it is slightly more tricky because the body has to be relaxed enough to allow the power to flow.

Much of the initial practise of Taijiquan is aimed at relaxing the body, because this relaxation is required for effective Fajin to take place. Once the body has achieved a baseline of relaxation, then meaningful Fajin practise can begin, and each posture of the Taijiquan form can be used as a short Fajin drill.

If Taijiquan is all about balance, the soft, slow movement of the form has to be balanced by quicker, harder movement, which we believe is the role that the practise of Fajin in the cultivation of health fulfils. In the next post, we’ll talk a bit more about why Fajin is so good for you.

The Power of Breathing Without Breathing

Monday, July 6th, 2009

The title of this post might sound a bit like a Zen koan, but it’s something one of my teachers asked me if I could do. In typically traditional and mystical fashion, he left me to figure out what it meant.

I spent quite a bit of time contemplating the question, pondering the nature of the breath, looking at different breathing techniques, observing the breath to see if I could shed light on the rather cryptic lesson. At the time I was at the height of my Taiji nerdity, and I systematically went through all the principles to see if they would shed any light on how to breathe without breathing. Reaching the answer took a few years.

In that typically clichéd Golden Harvest Kung Fu movie fashion, the answer came to me whilst I was reminiscing about my childhood in Malaysia. It’s one of my earliest memories, and I think I was about five. One day I became acutely aware that I was breathing. My chest was moving and air was entering my lungs before I emptied my lungs. I was concentrating on breathing in, filling my lungs, and breathing out, emptying them. It occurred to me that I was controlling my breath and then it all came crashing into my fragile 5-year old mind.

What happens if I stop trying to breathe?

Naturally, this really scared me. What would happen? Would I stop breathing and asphyxiate? Was it possible for me to survive without breathing? What’s Mum going to say when she realises I’m not breathing? Ahmagawd! I’ve not even done my chores! I couldn’t contemplate the consequences to the last question, but I knew they’d be worse than when I shaved my eyebrows off for a laugh.

You might be thinking that it’s all kinda obvious, that I’d have to have been breathing, but to my little 5-year old brain predisposed to missing the obvious, it posed a rather interesting and frightening problem.

This was the point when I realised that I’d got so caught up in the retribution I’d get for not doing my chores. I’d stopped trying to breathe, but a funny thing was happening. I was still breathing! I was not consciously trying to control my breath, and I was just letting my body breathe by itself as it wanted to. I was breathing, without breathing

Naturally I was relieved that this was the case. I’d be able to get my chores done, and all those images in my mind of being a zombie child vanished (The music video of Thriller was fresh in my mind). No life of being undead for me, I’d still be alive and breathing although I’d probably not stay that way for much longer if I didn’t get my chores done.

Now having worked it out, and put it into my practise, I have come to understand the wisdom of my teacher. Here are three ways breathing without breathing can help your Taijiquan:
- You won’t hold your breath – Your body is doing the breathing so it’ll always keep itself breathing, only pausing naturally between each breath. As you’re not holding your breath, you won’t hold tension, which leads me on to..
- You can explore deeper levels of relaxation: Now that you’re not unconsciously tensing yourself up by holding your breath, your body is free to relax even further, for free! You won’t have to concentrate on relaxing as your body will start to do it for you.
- You let your body do what it needs to: Your body will take in as much air as it needs at any given time, and the best thing to do is to just let it do this. You can trust it, it knows how hard, how fast and how deep it needs to breathe.

The last point is by far the most powerful one. We sigh to release tension, we breathe quicker and more deeply to feed our muscles oxygen, our body regulates our breathing for us to do whatever we need at the time, and we don’t even have to think about it.

It’s amazing if you think about it.

One of the fundamental steps in healing is to stop doing anything that’s going to make the situation worse, and letting the body breathe and regulate itself is one way of doing this.

Even if we have bad breathing habits, our body will, if we just let it, start to breathe appropriately for our state at the time. All we have to do is get out of the way.

So how do you learn to breathe without breathing?

The principle is easy to explain and is an extension of the technique explained in the post about breathing and form.

All you have to do is to become more aware of your breathing, observe and understand it, watch how it changes and what happens to it when you do various activities.

When you become aware of your breathing, you will then know when you are messing with it, i.e. deliberately breathing like I did when I was 5, or when you are letting your body breathe.

Deliberate breathing has a different feel altogether, like when you breathe in just before a sigh.

Natural breathing just happens. Stop your breath for an instant, and then just watch what happens next. Your body will just start breathing again, all by itself, and that feeling of your body just doing it, is what you need to get to.

This can be a bit scary, the conscious mind starts to think like me when I was 5. It’ll probably say

“WHAT!!! NOT BREATHING???!? ARE YOU NUTS!!?”

Yeah, big scary caps like that. Ignore your conscious mind. If my little story from when I was 5 proves, your body will simply start to breathe as nature intended it to.

Breathing in Form – Non Blue Face Edition

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

A question I get asked a lot in class is how to breathe whilst you’re doing your Taiji form. It’s difficult to answer it because how you go about learning breathing in your Taijiquan form isn’t intuitive. You can’t just give a student a pattern to breathe to as it’s a sure way to see someone go blue in the face as they try to do the form with the “correct” breathing.

You can always spot someone who’s trying to breathe to a pattern, because they’re usually the ones holding their breath. A posture that takes a bit longer than normal to complete means they’ll have to exhale for a lot longer, but because they’re not so good at it yet, they exhale almost completely by the time they’re 2/3 of the way through the posture and then hold their breath for the rest. This makes them hold tension and is a little self-defeating. They’re putting a lot of effort into relaxing themselves off, only to have their breathing pattern tense them up again.

Practising form for long periods breathing like this isn’t good because the body will, eventually pick up on that habit of holding the breath and start doing it, which means more tension.

Not good. It just ain’t Taiji as there’s no continuous change in the breath.

The other reason why you can’t just take a breathing pattern and shove it into the Taiji form is because your body varies quite a bit from day to day, and one day it might find it easy to breathe in the pattern you’ve been given, and the next it might struggle. This is something you don’t have conscious control over, because your body is different from day to day. That’s just the way it is.

One of the ways to get around this is to teach the body to coordinate breathing with movement. This way, whatever your internal state, your body will just start to regulate and synchronise whatever breathing pattern is most appropriate and most relaxing with your movement. It is, however somewhat unintuitive as it doesn’t use your conscious mind. Just try it out and see how it works, even if you don’t believe me.

Practise breathing with very natural movements, such as walking and eventually your body will get the idea, so that when you do start doing Taiji form, your body will automatically breathe to the movement, you won’t have to try to “fit” your breathing to the form.

So, the next time you’re walking along to get somewhere, breathe in for four steps, and out for four steps. As you walk along, gradually increase the length of the breath to ten steps in and ten steps out. Try not to hold your breath in or out at any point. If you’re trying to take ten steps and you run out of breath by eight, then that’s your limit for that moment in time. Don’t try to force it, we don’t want anyone going blue in the face. You need to practise long and short breaths, as there are long and short movements in the form. Go as high as you can without tensing up or holding your breath and do this often, try it out when you next walk to the shops or when you’re in the gym.

If you do this often enough, your body will get the idea of co-ordinating movement with breathing and it will automatically start do regulate your breathing during your form practise.

Good Breathing Habits – And How To Get Them

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Photo by karloswayne

This week’s Big Idea is Breathing

Breathing in Taiji is one of the big kahunas. It’s because breathing is a primary way we relax ourselves. Think about what you do when you sigh. It’s a way for us to relax and let go of tension.

Try it now, breathe in… and sigh…

Some part inside of you just lets go doesn’t it? It may not come as a surprise then that breathing affects us physiologically in a million different ways. It isn’t a coincidence that so many internal arts and qigong forms empahsise the importance of correct breathing to help the body heal itself.

If you hold your breath, you’re automatically going to hold tension in the body. It’s an unnatural state for your body to be in, stuck in some sort of limbo between breaths, because the body’s natural state is one of constant breathing, constant change. Try it, hold your breath for as long as you can and you’ll notice that there will come a point when your body starts to tense up. Holding the breath is stressful.

What happens when you’re stressed and thinking about a difficult issue? More often than not, you’ll be holding your breath. If you work in an office, watch someone who’s having a bad day. As they concentrate intently, they’ll inhale and hold their breath whilst they’re thinking or trying to do something, then instinctively exhale and sigh as if to try to relieve the stress. When you’re holding tension mentally, or emotionally, you’ll more than likely start to manifest it physically by holding your breath.

As another example, what happens when you get startled, or surprised? Say someone hides behind that tree and jumps out shouting “BOO!”. You get startled, and you breathe in sharply, and then you hold your breath

If you do any sort of martial art and have done some sparring, you’ll know that when you get hit or put under pressure you start to run out of energy quicker, unless you can stop the panic and clear your head. I’ll bet that it’s because you’ll be holding your breath at and the added pressure from your sparring partner just saps your strength quicker.

To handle the stress of childbirth both mentally and physically, pregnant women are taught to breathe. Soldiers in some forces are taught breathing techniques to handle the stress of combat. Just as our internal state can affect our breathing, so can our breathing affect the rest of our physiology.

If you can focus on your breathing and breathe in a more controlled manner, or better yet, just let your body do the breathing, it’ll start to let go of the tension that’s been collecting in the body. If we focus on calming the breath, the body and mind will follow.

This is why breathing is important in Taijiquan.

It’s not because breathing during Taijiquan practise will make our Taijiquan better, it’s because practising breathing correctly will make every part of our life better.

It’ll do that by making you a lot more relaxed for a start.

Once your body gets used to breathing correctly during Taijiquan practise, it’ll start to remember it when you’re in your everyday life. When you hit some turbulence, you’ll instinctively start to breathe more gently to relieve the pressure. You might even find it’s a conscious thing. When you start looking at a new problem at work, you might even catch yourself doing a “Deep breath… let’s go” sort of thing.

It’s the same idea that you’re re-programming the body to do something it does naturally. Just as we can have bad postural habits, we can have bad breathing habits, and practise of Taijiquan with the right breathing can really help us let go of these habits.

And that, can only be a good thing.

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How to Learn Movement: Watch Me, Follow Me, Show Me

Friday, June 12th, 2009

This little Taiji video clip was almost a blooper, but repeating the “Watch Me, Follow Me, Show Me” drives a good point home.  If you’re trying to learn Tai Chi online from our videos or from a DVD or other video, this little tip is something we think is going to really help you.

This model for learning movement is effective, and I have it on good authority that they use this method to teach Olympic gymnasts new moves.  As far as movement goes, gymnastics is pretty difficult, and to top it all off, you can’t break down a Geinger, Tkatchev into a straddle handstand and teach it by the count.  You kinda got to teach those things as complete movements.  Gymnasts can only watch, then try the whole movement, however complex it is, and it works for them.

So if this method can be used to teach gymnastics, it’ll be all the more powerful where you can break a movement down into a count, like in Tai Chi. Online videos on this site all have counts to them so it should make the process easier.

So we’ve structured this week’s lesson as a “Watch Me, Follow Me, Show Me” session, you can find it here.

If you already know this transition, I’d urge you to watch the lessons anyway to see for yourself how the method works, or you could check out some movement you don’t know and apply the principle to learn it :)

If anyone out there is following our videos and learning Tai Chi online, we’d love to hear from you! We’d love to see how you’re getting on.

Taijpedia Answers the Biggie – What is Chi?

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

This question came in from one of our students of Tai Chi online. They asked “What is Chi?”

Taijiquan, Bagua, Xingyi and all of the interal arts are riddled with references to “chi”, or qi, ki, prana and so on. Now, this esoteric and fiddly thing that everyone calls “Chi” is many things, it’s an energetic phenomenon, a concept of life-force amongst other things.

Chi is a big part of Tai Chi, online searches for this will give you lots of different answers for what it is, and this confusion is something we’re going to see if we can clear up for you here and now.

Tai Chi online resources will also have you believe that Chi is a bit like money, everyone wants more of it, it’s never clear how to get more and when you have more it’s never enough.  The other difference is that Chi has something of a mythical image within the Taijiquan and martial arts community.

Now, most people who practise Taijiquan for health aren’t interested in going through hours of research to figure out what this esoteric property of Taijiquan is.  So to cut a long story short, we’re going to tell you exactly what you need to know about Chi.

It’s all just a feeling

As you get more sensitive to the feelings within your body when you practise your Taijiquan, you will start to notice more and more about the way things work and some sensations are very much like flowing energy from one part of the body to another.  Well that’s your Chi working.  The good news is that you don’t need to figure out exactly what it is, knowing that it’s there is more than enough, and feeling it is even better. It’s something inside of you, so no definition of it in books or on resources for Tai Chi online will be able to show you what it really is or means.

Feeling – That Stuff That Makes Taijiquan Internal

Monday, June 8th, 2009

As promised, the link to Standing Meditation Lessons

The main thing that makes Taijiquan an “internal” (as opposed to external) pursuit is feeling.  As you practise, the feelings that you get within your body tell you whether you are doing it right, and more importantly, tell you if there is something within your body that needs to be healed (such as an injured back or dodgy knee).  This internal awareness isn’t just limited to the physical, it can also be emotional or mental (You’ll know what we mean if you’ve read the post about the infinite onion) and allowing yourself to feel these things being there is key to Taijiquan skill, healing and all those goodies we know and love.

If you’re at a bit of a loss as to how to go about starting to feel what’s going on inside your body, you can do standing meditation, or as another exercise, just take a look at your breath.  What does your breath feel like?  Is it tense, is it too fast, too slow, uncomfortable, does it feel restricted, is it even comfortable when you breathe?  It’s a great place to start,and once you get the idea of how to feel inside your body, you can start to develop it to feel what goes on when you’re practising Taiji, or when you’re just hanging out at home.

Relaxation Part 2 – The Infinite Onion Bit

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Photo by Delmonti

In my previous post, I made a promise I did not keep. I talked about our addiction to relaxation triggers, but..

I did not mention the infinite onion

In this post, I will rectify my transgression. I will deliver.

I’m going to tell you a really cool thing.

You may or may not have experienced it yet. If you haven’t don’t worry, it’s not like telling you how the Sixth Sense ends. I can’t possibly ruin it for you, because when it does happen to you, it’ll be something so cool that nothing I could say could possibly ruin it for you.

So… you’ll be practising your taijiquan form, or your standing meditation, you’re slipping into the zone, everything is becoming crystal clear, it’s all slowing down, and then…

Some part of you lets go

You’re not sure what’s let go, but you know something has, all by itself, has loosened its limpet grip on some other part of you.

And it feel soooo good

You’ll have passed through one level of tension, let go of it and moved down into the next, deeper level of tension where you’ll go through that really cool process all over again.

It’s like an onion you see. You have many layers of tension.

But here’s the nub of it. The miracle of nature that is you has more dimensions to it than simply the physical.

Tension manifests in the physical, mental and emotional

Bear with me, I’m not being deliberately metaphysical. To justify that statement, I have prepared a little case study.

You’ve had a hard day at work and you’re getting ready for bed.

Argh, my back’s stiff and so are my shoulders.

Yup, so many hours at the desk slaving away with the mouse in one hand has stiffened you up, all that not moving around and you’ve got a back that’s stiff and shoulders that won’t roll. It’s the stuff that we’re all familiar with all that physical tension of locked and tight muscles.

You get into bed anyway, turn out the light..

And lie awake blinking at the ceiling. Your brain is whizzing

That presentation wasn’t up to scratch, you were pissed off with the boss when you put it together. It was sub-par and he’s not going to be happy. Oh, and there’s the shopping list you need to make. Do we need more milk? Doesn’t the lawn that needs mowing and little Alice needs new shoes, and Byron has to be taken to swimming lessons tomorrow. Must take a look at that really cool Taijiquan site. What was it called? Something-pedia?

The brain, is still clinging to all that, and it’s creating mental tension, constant chatter in the head is the mind’s way of manifesting that tension. It’s not going to be a physical sensation.

No matter, sooner or later you’ll get so tired that you’ll fall asleep right?

OH MY GOD! That presentation I sent to the boss!

You were bored, upset and feeling undervalued, so for a laugh you replaced every instance of “Gross Domestic Product” with the childish and inane word “farting”.  You meant to change it back but forgot due to the unfair amount of stress and pressure.

You can already see your boss spitting venom, his portly frame resonating like a lava lamp to the sound of his baying for blood.

You’re feeling stressed.

That’s emotional tension getting its hooks into you. That “AAARRGHH!” emotional response is the beginnings of this tension, and anyone who is a chronic worrier, will know that it can go on for extended periods of time.

So.. if I’ve convinced you that tension can manifest in three dimensions, it’s time to introduce the “infinity” bit.

The human body is in a constant state of flux

Your body is constantly changing, physically, mentally and emotionally. With all these changes happening, you’re constantly letting go of tension, and building tension in these three dimensions.

So whenever you peel off one layer of tension, another will always await you beneath, because there are other ways you have been storing tension, and when you let go that bit, there’s the tension underneath that layer and so on. There are an infinite number of layers.

There you go.. relaxation is like an infinite onion

What regular practise of taijiquan helps you do is constantly let go of tension in whichever dimension you’re building it up on. Think about it as a maintenance on your tension valves. As tension builds up in the physical realm, you relieve it, and then if emotional tension builds up, you can help let go of that too.

Tension is Your Enemy And MUST Be Defeated!

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

First, an apology.. this was supposed to head up the video log posts on This Week’s Big Idea (It’s relaxation) and I got my knickers in a bit of a twist and posted the standing meditation one first.

No matter, tension is an ongoing problem in the practise of Taijiquan, and will probably continue to be so for your entire Taijiquan career.  If you’d like to know why, check out part 2 of why relaxation is an infinite onion.

In this post, we’ll give you some tips on ideas you can use for standing practise beyond the very simple (but still very effective) exercise that we’re going through in the Standing Meditation lessons.

Relaxation Part 1 – The Relaxation Trigger Habit and Infinite Onions.

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Photo by Caius

It’s been a bad day at work, your boss is being a jerk and it’s all gone wrong.

All you want to do is bang your head against a wall (repeating as necessary)

I need to relax, you might say.

So what you do is go home, have a stiff drink or go for that cigarette.  Maybe you stick some Vangelis on and run a hot bath.   All those aromatherapy oils and soothing music will work the tension out of your system.

They’re all relaxation triggers, and we’re addicted to them

We’re relaxation trigger junkies.  We depend on things external to ourselves to help us relax.  Problems always arise when things go to hell in a handbag and we don’t have access to them.  There will be no steamy bath with Vangelis and extract of jojoba with the boss dumping on you.  You can’t reach for that beer if you’re driving home after a difficult business meeting and believe you me, a cigarette will be the last thing on your mind if little Timmy’s just crawled out a 3rd floor window to retrieve his Action Man.

When these relaxation triggers aren’t there, we kinda go through a strange sort of cold turkey process where we turn into stress bunnies, lose the capacity for rational thinking.  Sometimes we lose it and have what the English quaintly call “a Benny”.  We’re dependent on our relaxation triggers, we need them to relax.

I’m here to tell you that it IS possible to kick the habit and learn how to relax

People have known this for hundreds of years, we just forgot it recently. If you think about it how else did our forefathers chill out in the ages before Vangelis and jojoba?

It’s by using things within us to help us relax.

If this is starting to sound a bit self-help, I’m not referring to anything metaphysical and I’m not going to say that within every stress bunny is a chilled out person waiting to get out.

No, it’s even simpler than that.

It’s as simple as breathing. Sigh, go on, I dare you. Sigh. The body’s got it’s own reflexive relaxation mechanism, and breathing is part of it. If you can learn to regulate your breathing, you can help yourself relax. In fact, some military schools teach their troops to breathe when under combat stress. As situations come they don’t get more stressful than bullets whizzing past your head.

But wait.. there’s another bit to it.

I want you to get back into the habit

Rather than being a relaxation-trigger junkie, I want you to become a relaxation junkie. Yeah, just take out the “trigger”.
Learning to relax is just like learning to ride a bike. Seriously, once you learn how to do it (without props) you’ll be able to do it wherever you are, or whatever you’re doing.

Now, the best way to learn how to relax, is to become aware of how it happens, and the best way to do that, is to do standing meditation. It’s simple, it’s easy and anyone can do it. Just 10 minutes a day is more than enough.  Once you know what it feels like to relax by yourself, you can then just do it whenever you need to.  Incidentally once you’re into the relaxation habit, you can do it just before you start your form.. and how much more relaxed will that form be?

And it really IS that simple

I appear to have waxed lyrical about being a relaxation trigger junkie, but have shamelessly omitted the bit about infinite onions (that’s why you were reading this in the first place right?).   That will be in part 2.. I promise.