This blog post was originally published as a podcast in June 2009. Iā€™m slowly transcribing all of my podcasts, to share them with my readers who either cannot play podcasts on their computer, or who simply prefer reading instead of listening.

One of the reasons people choose to play T’ai Chi and learn it in Western cultures is also one of its major health benefits: it can improve your balance, and as you get older it can reduce the amount that your balance degrades and help prevent falls as you get on in life. Falls are quite dangerous as you get older in life, as your body just can’t cope with as much injury. [Don’t take my word for it – checkout all of the third-party studies and testimonials for yourself – Ed].

In our form, one of the moves is called the Lotus Sweep. You can view this on the YouTube video that I have of the form [it’s towards the end of the Part 2 video – Ed]. This move really challenges your balance, especially for a beginner. What you have to do is go into cat stance, weight is in the left, and you sweep in with the right leg and you then sweep out once and then twice in a big circle before placing the feet heels in line to finish.

When I play this move, my right knee (the leg that is doing the sweeping) the right knee comes up to hip height as I sweep in and out. It’s quite natural for beginners to want to try and copy that shape, because as a beginner you are learning the shapes. But what happens as you play the form with the knee up when you don’t yet have Single Weight and when you don’t yet have Relax The Hips and you don’t yet have the uprightness that comes from Head And Body Moves As One Unit … what happens to the beginner is that the sweep in and the sweep out cause the body to wobble left and right quite substantially.

It’s not unusual for beginners to fall over at this point, because they are trying to stand on one foot but don’t yet have the balance to achieve it.

I saw a great thing in tonight’s class where one of my students made a choice. Instead of bringing the knee up high, he chose to preserve his balance and his uprightness by playing the sweep low to the floor instead. He brought the right foot up just enough to clear the floor so that he could sweep in once and sweep out twice and keep his uprightness.

I must point this out as being a great choice that he made, and a great tip for everyone who is beginning to try and find their balance.

One of the reasons T’ai Chi teaches balance is that it is teaching the body to understand what it feels like and what it means to be upright. This is part of the mindfulness side of T’ai Chi. But, as a beginner, if you are wobbling left and right all the time, as beginners are want to do, and as I did too when I was a beginner, what are you teaching the body there? You’re not. You’re continuing to confuse the body by lurching from one side and back to the other. By smoothing these things out, by focusing and saying “right, being upright is the most important thing, and my form will have to grow around that core pillar,” over time it improves your balance far quicker and far better than throwing yourself from left to right.

That’s a great little tip from tonight’s class.

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Elbows Low Exercise

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 21st, 2010 in Podcast, Principles, Technique.

This blog post was originally published as a podcast in June 2009. Iā€™m slowly transcribing all of my podcasts, to share them with my readers who either cannot play podcasts on their computer, or who simply prefer reading instead of listening.

We’ve just done the Tuesday night class – the Improvers’ class – and tonight we did a recap of the principle of Elbows Low, which was highly entertaining for everybody, and quite informative too I hope.

The main thing we were looking at with Elbows Low tonight was the idea that, in order to keep your elbows low, it’s all about relaxing the shoulders as much as possible; getting the tension out of the shoulders. This results in the elbow naturally falling by your side [in much the same way that your hips naturally tilt forward if you eliminate the tension in the lower back – Ed].

We also looked at situations where the elbow is raised up. There’s a great exercise for this to let you feel the difference between what we’re looking for with Elbows Low and what to avoid. The question always is: if your elbow is not held at your side, but is deliberately held up in the air, how can that possibly be Elbows Low? The exercise, very simply, is to hold your right arm out in front of you, turn the right hand out, so that wrist and elbow are at the same height forming a bar facing to your right. From that position, raise the wrist a little bit to ensure your wrist is higher than your elbow. Take a moment to feel what that’s like at the shoulder. That doesn’t feel too bad I hope, unless you’ve had shoulder surgery or you’ve got a damaged shoulder, at which point you’ve got to learn to work within your own particular limits.

To compare and contrast this, instead of raising the wrist to be higher than the elbow, raise the elbow to be higher than the wrist. Can you feel the extra tension that has now entered the shoulder? That tension limits the mobility of the shoulder. It unbalances you as well because your shoulder has had to rise in order to bring the elbow higher than the wrist and, I’m willing to bet, that for a lot of people listening to this podcast, if someone was to stand in front of you and look at you, they’d see that you’re now leaning to one side because of the raised shoulder. It’s very disruptive to your bio-mechanical structure, just by making the elbow too high.

That’s just a little exercise we did tonight in the class to show how Elbows Low works.

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My Weight Disappears

Posted by Stuart Herbert on September 29th, 2009 in Principles, Technique.

We (my Improvers group and I) were half-way through our second stab at playing the form tonight, and the weirdest thing happened. There was a shift in my single weight, and for a few moments, all I could feel was the contact I was making with the floor (which I’m normally aware of) … and nothing else.

My single weight’s not bad normally (it certainly stands up to scrutiny during class, which is a good start), but this was different. This was a connection with the ground that I’ve not come to before. I don’t know what it was, or how really to describe it, but I’m going to be looking out for it in future and seeing if I can achieve it again and study it further.

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Exercises To Improve Your Tone

Posted by Stuart Herbert on January 21st, 2009 in Technique.

It’s been a while since I’ve published an article on here. Work has been manic to say the least. But an article in today’s Guardian has prompted me to write something šŸ™‚

In “Intimate Secrets of Sarkozy’s fitness regime“, Guardian feature writer Jon Henley describes how pelvic floor exercises have helped the French President Nicholas Sarkozy lose weight and girth. Jon seems to think this sort of exercise is “innovative”. Pregnant women everywhere, pilates devotees and Tai Chi players know better šŸ™‚

This exercise, known as pelvic floors, is designed to tone your core muscles, not just the perineum as suggested by Jon in his article. It improves the strength of your muscles around your centre of gravity, reduces (and often completely prevents) incontinence as you get older, and has a ‘corseting’ effect in narrowing the waist (provided you get rid of the love handles layered on top!). And, although it’s not something one normally talks about, it really does improve the sex lives of both sexes too.

In our school of Tai Chi, we do these exercises in three ways:

  1. After lowering the centre of gravity, but before starting the Salute, we do 15 reps of the pelvic floor exercises. For each rep, we breath in (down into the belly) and relax, and then breath out and pull up at the same time. With each rep, we move from one point of the microcosmic orbit to the next.
  2. During the form, we pull up the entire time.
  3. After finishing the closing Salute, we do 15 more reps of the pelvic floor exercise. For each rep, we breath in (into the top of the chest) and pull up, and then breath out and relax at the same time. With each rep, we move from one point of the microcosmic orbit to the next.

Sadly, the Guardian’s article doesn’t have comments enabled, but with a bit of luck Jon has a Google Alert set up to track the propagation of his work around the ‘net, and will find this article eventually šŸ™‚

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Taoist Internal Alchemy

Posted by Stuart Herbert on October 26th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

At the start of our form, we give the following instructions:

Set your feet shoulder width apart, and in your own time, lower your centre of gravity. Tension below the belly button, relaxed above the belly button. Eyes looking forward, and the tongue up to the roof of the mouth. Attention on tan tien. Deep breathing in and out, contraction and expansion of your belly.

In the beginner’s class on Thursday, I was asked about the purpose of the tan tien. I normally give the following explanations:

  1. It is a little bit below the belly button, and a little bit inside.
  2. According to Western science, it is the centre of gravity for the human body.
  3. According to Eastern philosophy, it is an important part of taoist internal alchemy.

But what exactly is taoist internal alchemy? That was an excellent follow-up question šŸ™‚

I don’t practice taoist internal alchemy myself, as it’s something that isn’t part of the system handed down to me by my teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher didn’t believe in chi and its cultivation per se, it was simply the case that my teacher rightly believed that we have no place teaching things we cannot demonstrate and put to the test. As a result, my knowledge on the subject is simply theoretical, and I have no formal teaching in it myself.

Taoism is one of the oldest surviving philosophies in the world, best known through the great work the Tao te Ching attributed to Lao-tzu. At the core is the concept of The Way (the do in Japanese martial arts such as akido, iaido, judo and kendo) and how we can all find our own harmony with The Way. Practitioners of taoism are known as taoists. As a way of living, it has a lot to offer us Westerners, and it is said to be the underlying philosophy that Tai Chi is based on. (More on that in a later article!)

Man everywhere is obsessed with his own immortality, and taoists it turns out are not immune to this desire šŸ™‚ The difference I guess is that some taoists believe that real immortality is not only possible, has actually been achieved in the past (by such as Cheng San-feng, the legendary creator of Tai Chi). Just as western alchemists attempted to turn base metals such as lead into pure gold, so taoist internal alchemy is concerned with practices to turn the base energy into a refined spirit.

One of the practices of taoist internal alchemy is to turn ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy), and then to turn the chi into shen (spiritual energy). The area we call tan tien in our class is actually the lowest placed of three separate tan tiens (the second is at the solar plexus, and the third between the eyebrows). The lower tan tien is used to refine ching (generative energy) into chi (vital energy); very appropriate from a western point of view given its location at our centre of gravity, at the place in Tai Chi where all our movement is controlled from.

This is a gross and decidedly ill-informed over-simplification of the subject, I must stress! Anyone interested in learning more should seek out a qualified instructor on the matter, or failing that start with reading Eva Wong’s translation of Cultivating Stillness.

I freely admit that I’m not all that comfortable talking about my own experiences with the mystical side of Tai Chi. Part of it comes from my teacher’s own understandable feelings on the subject, and part of it comes from my own training as a scientist and qualification as an engineer. There’s also the important matter that, if we tell our students what feelings to expect, the mind has a funny way of manifesting those feelings whether or not the work has been done to make them real! And, as if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure that there are some in our community who exploit students’ interest in and (dare I say) desire for such experiences. I do not want to become one of them, even unwittingly.

But what it comes down to is this. At the end of the day, how can you share your experiences with someone else? You can’t, not without a common frame of reference (a teaching tool I need to write a lot more about!) As teachers, it must be our role to direct our students through a programme of learning that will result in our students having these experiences for themselves. How to achieve that is perhaps the ultimate question of teaching, and it was the last question my teacher and I discussed before he left us.

And, as I experienced on Tuesday night watching my Improvers’ students explore the principle of Relax the Waist, on those rare occasions when we pull it off, there are few pleasures in life more satisfying šŸ™‚

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Shanghai Camp 2007 Videos

Posted by Stuart Herbert on June 24th, 2008 in Technique, Video.

Over on the Qi Gong Videos blog, you can currently find some Tai Chi footage from Double Dragon Alliance 2007 Shanghai Camp, Masters Exhibition:

Well worth a look, to get an idea of how different Tai Chi styles look, especially for my students, as our style has quite a few differences that you should be able to spot šŸ™‚

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I know I promised a different topic for this (much delayed) post, but I think it’s worth looking a bit more about why we possibly cross hands the way we do. And now that my camcorder has arrived, hopefully the accompanying video will help with the explanations and the questions. This is the first Tai Chi video that I’ve ever uploaded, and it’s also the first time in years that I’ve videoed myself, so be gentle šŸ˜‰

Cross Hands – A Popular Move

Here’s a short video I’ve uploaded to YouTube demonstrating the different places where we cross hands in our form:

  1. Cross Hands after Shoulder Press
  2. Cross Hands after Box Ears (which is repeated again at the end of our form)
  3. Cross Hands Low after Golden Pheasant Stands on One Leg, immediately followed by Cross Hands after Golden Pheasant Stands On One Leg (repeated twice, but not properly shown on the video)
  4. Crossed Guard in Fair Ladies corner #1
  5. Crossed Guard in Fair Ladies corner #2
  6. Crossed Hands in Fair Ladies corner #4
  7. Cross Hands Travelling Low after the Second Squatting Single Whip, immediately followed by Step Up To Seven Stars

In most of these moves, we’re in motion as we play Cross Hands. Normally we’re moving off to the side, which is consistent with the idea of using Cross Hands to bridge with an opponent before taking control of their energy and using it against them. But there are a couple of cases where this clearly isn’t happening in our version of the form, and I find that interesting.

Cross Hands As A Block

What’s going on with the Cross Hands Low immediately after Golden Pheasant Stands On One Leg, the third example in the video? Take another look at it. With my current understanding of Tai Chi, that looks like a two-handed block against a kick, in a very static position, followed by a block against a follow-up strike or punch.

This is where I had a better understanding of the fighting side of our art, for sure. The immediate question I have about this is one of practicality. Would the Cross Hands Low be strong enough to block a kick, and what is the likelihood of the kick causing serious damage to the hands and wrists in the process?

It stands out for me as something to investigate further because it seems quite the anomaly …

The Crossed Guard In Fair Ladies

In the first two corners of Fair Ladies Weaves Shuttles To The Four Corners, we almost cross hands but not quite. The left hand falls and the right hand rises, but they pass left hand inside right, as if guarding the right side of the head and body as one zone from attack. Lacking a better name for this move, I’ve started calling it Crossed Guard.

It shares one of the major characteristics of Cross Hands – the arm attached to the leading shoulder is on the outside of the move. Indeed, in corner #4, we actually play Cross Hands, which immediately separates out into a head guard and a body guard.

So my first question to investigate is whether or not we should Cross Hands in corners #1 and #2 before immediately transitioning into Crossed Guard (artistically, possibly, but from a martial perspective, I have doubts). And my second question? Where should the emphasis and explanation be for folks who are in it for the health benefits rather than the martial aspect?

Summing Up

Hopefully my video doesn’t suck too badly (I’m pretty sure my performance does!) and it gives you an idea of the different ways we play Cross Hands in the Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi form that I study and teach.

The video shows two areas – Cross Hands Low and Fair Ladies corners #1 and #2 – where we play Cross Hands differently, and where I currently have questions about both form and function.

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Treasure Hunt

Posted by Stuart Herbert on May 28th, 2008 in Technique.

How well do you know your form? How well does your form, and indeed your practice, relate to the Tai Chi Classics? Can you find all of the Thirteen Postures in your form?

And, for my students, a treasure hunt … can you spot which of the Thirteen Postures appears where in Grasp Sparrows Tail? Especially the one I haven’t mentioned yet in my class? šŸ™‚

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Why We Cross Hands The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on April 5th, 2008 in Technique.

Do you keep a training diary?

I haven’t, until today. That’s over eight years of experience with no reliable record – only the neurones of my brain as an unreliable witness. How much have I learned and forgotten, and how many questions have I come across that I no longer recall?

In my experience, practising Tai Chi is a series of personal revelations. No progress is made, sometimes for months, and then WHAM – the pieces fall into place and my understanding takes a tiny step forward. The progress comes not through answers, but by finding the questions. When you find the right questions, the answers don’t provide the information – they simply show you what you’ve already come to understand.

For example, take one of the most basic hand movements in Tai Chi – cross hands. For the first eight years of my training, all the questions (from myself, and from fellow students) were about “what is it for?” or “how does it work?” They’re important questions; the student needs to know that cross hands is used to block kicks and punches, and they need to know how the timing and distancing works. If the student is more interested in health than martial, then the answers need to be couched in those terms instead.

But I no longer think that they’re the right questions, not with the outlook on the question as progress. The right question is “why is it that so-and-so arm is on the outside?” The answer to that ensures that form and function falls into place as a result.

In our form (Ng Family Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan), it is always the arm attached to the leading shoulder that sits on the outside of cross hands. We move left, and it is the left arm on the outside. We move right, and it is the right arm on the outside. Every time. Without fail. We’re always looking to move into a block, and we’re always looking to snag an arm or a leg and take it with us.

We’re always in continuous motion (one of the ten important principles from Yang Chen’fu), and cross hands appears deliberately designed to ensure that the move maximises the benefits of being in motion.

It also gives me new questions (well, new to me anyway!) about the old saying of the needle in the cotton, which I’ll look at next time.

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Why We Do Things The Way We Do

Posted by Stuart Herbert on February 20th, 2008 in Teaching, Technique.

This week was week 16 (out of 30) for my beginners’ class. It’s the first week back after half term, and it’s bloody freezing (well, for the UK anyway) outside by 6pm on an evening. It would be more than understandable for folks to drop out … but they haven’t. In fact, they’ve been spreading the word about the class, and our numbers went up again this week. If our new beginners come back next week, that brings the class up to 15 regular students on a Tuesday night. I’m really grateful to my students this year; this is my first year of teaching a public class on my own, and they continue to be fantastically supportive as I get to grips with things.

I think I’m going to need a bigger hall for next September, if I’m going to run the Year 2 class alongside next year’s beginners’ class!

Robert often told me that one of appeals of Tai Chi is that beginners stuff is the advanced stuff. If you’ve been playing the form for years, or its your first night in a class, what you’re learning is the same stuff. It really helps with a mixed ability class, because you can do something like a walking drill and everyone benefits. Walking drills are the first thing I teach anyone joining the class, and even those who have been with us for a couple of years now need a refresher and some pointers for improvement šŸ™‚

We did a walking drill last night, and I broke the class up into three groups.

  • Those enjoying their first night with us were simply concentrating on the three main stances that we teach (cat stance, back stance and front stance).
  • The rest of the beginners were asked to ensure that they stepped toe to heel and shoulder width apart at each step. (“Ensure” is a gross over-simplification; I must remember to elaborate on that in a future blog post).
  • My intermediate group were also asked to ensure that they picked up their legs to waist height with each step.

The usual explanation for picking up the leg to waist height is that you’re stepping over the fallen foe that you’ve just dispatched (well, it is a martial art after all :), and for those uncomfortable with the martial aspects of the art, there’s always the explanation that picking up the leg is good for your health and range of movement (the use it or lose it principle).

They’re good reasons, but they’re not really why we do it.

The group has walked down one end of the hall, and they’ve turned around and are making their way back towards me, when Leon comes to a halt. Although he’s in the middle group, he’s been doing the waist-high stepping as he walks. It’s one of those lightbulb moments, and they’re the reason anyone who teaches loves their vocation. Excitedly, he catches my eye, and the ear of everyone around him, and explains what he’s just discovered.

The reason we lift our leg to waist height is because, when we put our foot back down on the floor, the foot goes into the right place every time.

It’s simplicity itself. We standardise our movements so that we get consistent results. We measure our movements against our own physical dimensions, because that works for everyone. And we internalise the movement (pick up the leg to waist height) because it’s much less effort / workload to execute consistently than externalising it (step over the corpse in front of us).

These points apply to everything we do in our daily practice, which is far easier to say than it is to actually do šŸ™‚

As teachers, we can’t always tell our students points like these. We have to do our best to create the right circumstances for the students to experience the rule for themselves. As Robert told me just before Christmas, a rule has to be felt for it to be truly understood. Wise words indeed.

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