Your First Tai Chi Class

When you come out for your first tai chi class, you might wonder what to expect. Common questions people ask me about their first classes are:
  • what should I wear?
  • what if I've never tried tai chi before?
  • what if I can't do the moves right away?
The easiest question is the first one. Tai chi requires your body to bend and stretch, so your clothes should likewise be able to bend and stretch. Stretchy workout pants and a t-shirt are great tai chi clothes. Bring a sweatshirt or sweater to class to put on at the end so you don't get chilled. Believe it or not, tai chi can really make you sweat!

You shouldn't worry about coming in as a beginner. Everyone who now looks fabulous and confident doing tai chi was a beginner at one time. Everyone struggles to some extent to get their tai chi just right. There's no need to feel anxious or worried that you can't do the exercises perfectly right away.

You also need to bear in mind that a lot depends on your body, and on your body awareness--the term we use to talk about how well your mind and body are integrated together. Some people have naturally great balance and coordination. Others struggle to convince their foot to step forward while their hands go into holding the ball position.

Even if your body awareness is excellent, it will take you time to learn tai chi. The way a tai chi practitioner moves her body is quite unusual in the world of exercise. It requires flexibility, a strong mental focus, and really strong legs--believe it or not. Even if you're in great shape, building the kind of strength required for tai chi takes time.

Questions I wish people would ask me:
  • What is appropriate class etiquette?
  • What do I do when I get frustrated?
  • What's the best attitude to take when beginning to learn tai chi?
I can't speak for other instructors, but etiquette in my classes is casual, but nonetheless an important part of interacting with me and other students. I don't care if you're late for class, if you have to leave early, or if you're flustered when you come in and you need to take a moment to settle in as we begin a work out.

I do care that once we've begun, you put as much of your focus as you can into the workout. That's what matters, and that's what's going to give you maximum results.

Ultimately, tai chi is about freeing your inner warrior. If that means you get sassy, or we laugh a lot, or you want to share a thought or a joke, then I've done my job.

To take the second question, frustration has to be one of the most enormous blocks to progress in tai chi. It is something that happens to most of us on the tai chi path. When it rears its ugly head, frustration can pass quickly, or it can linger with you, slowly making you more and more bitter that you aren't "getting it" faster, sooner--now!

Frustration is really just emotion--and that emotion is anger. You decide that you should be better at tai chi than you are. You're mad about the difference between where you're at and where you think you should be. Soon, instead of feeling happier, more peaceful, and energized, you just feel put out.

The answer to frustration is more practice. The only way to get out of the loop of beating yourself up is to get better. And the only way to see real progress is to do it over and over again. Pick a section of the tai chi set you kind of know, and repeat it until you could do it in your sleep. This kind of repetition is the only way to learn tai chi. It is the source of all breakthroughs. When you're in the depths of frustration, the comfort you can take is that the breakthroughs will come, because you are practicing.

The best attitude you can take when you start tai chi is that this is like nothing you've done before. Tai chi isn't something you learn in a weekend seminar. You can't pick it up overnight. It isn't rewarding at all if you merely dabble in it. It's something that you'll have to work at for the rest of your life--or as long as you want to continue to reap the benefits.

Tai chi master Benjamin Lo, in an interview on the website of the Wuwei Tai Chi Club, has this to say about tai chi and attitude:

I tell people when they learn Tai Chi Ch'uan that patience is not enough because people always lose patience. So I tell people you have to have perseverance. We have never heard of people losing perseverance.

Patience is good but it is not enough. After five years you can quit. I have seen people practice 20 years and quit. If you have 20 years patience, it is pretty good, but if you have it a lifetime, then we call it perseverance.
If you're attracted to the idea of tai chi, chances are it's something you should try. In my experience, most people either know it's not for them right away, or they have a sense that this is something that they can really groove on. If you know you want to keep going, develop perseverance. Practice as much as you can. Keep going, through the times when you really want to practice and the times when you don't. Through the times when you feel great and the times when your body feels creaky and stiff. Persevere, and you will reap the rewards.

Tai Chi Classes in the New Year

Registration is open for the Introduction to Tai Chi course in the New Year! Join us for five weeks of lessons for beginners.


Wednesday, January 25, 5:30-6:30pm

Saturday, February 11, 2-3pm

Friday, March 9, 1:10-2:10pm

More details in the sidebar on the right.

While you're waiting for classes to begin, please feel free to browse through the contents of this site for more information. If you are looking for basic information about tai chi, I recommend beginning with this brief introductory series of articles on tai chi:

What is Tai Chi?
Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Who Can Benefit from Tai Chi?
History of Tai Chi
What You Can Expect from Classes With Melissa

Further Reading
Can I Do Tai Chi Even If....?
Your First Tai Chi Class
The Tai Chi Learning Spiral

Symptoms of Inner Peace

By Saskia Davis, ©1984

Via the Flylady.
1. Tendency to think and act spontaneously, rather than from fears based on past experiences.

2. An unmistakeable ability to enjoy each moment.

3. Loss of interest in judging self.

4. Loss of interest in judging others.

5. Loss of interest in conflict and one-upmanship.

6. Loss of interest in interpreting actions of worry.

7. Loss of ability to worry (This is a SERIOUS symptom!).

8. Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.

9. Feelings of contentment and connectedness with others and with Nature.

10. Frequent attacks of smiling.

11. Increased susceptibility to love and to "passing it forward."

12. Increased tendency to let things happen rather than make things happen.

NOTE: If you have all or even most of the above symptoms, your condition of Inner Peace may be so far advanced as to be untreatable!

Psssst: Learn more about Symptoms of Inner Peace and buy a lovely poster version at Saskia's website.

Begin Your Tai Chi Journey This Fall in Hamilton, Ontario

Welcome! If you haven't visited before, this site contains articles and information about tai chi, and about classes offered at the Regent Health & Chiropractic Centre on Locke Street South in Hamilton, Ontario. If you are interested in learning tai chi from me, Dr. Melissa Smith, please consult the sidebar for further information. I welcome all inquiries from people who want to begin or continue their tai chi journey.

Contact me at or 905 521 0043.

If you are brand new to tai chi, and you want to sample a few classes, I recommend that you sign up for my 5-week Introduction to Tai Chi course. The next session begins 1 October 2011. The course will run on Saturday afternoons from 2-3 pm. Enrollment is limited. Details at the top of the sidebar to the right of this message.

Further information on our ongoing classes and workshops is also contained in the sidebar.

I do offer corporate and private lessons. Please contact me for details and rates.

In the meantime, please feel free to browse through the contents of this site for more information. If you are looking for basic information about tai chi, I recommend beginning with this brief introductory series of articles on tai chi:

What is Tai Chi?
Health Benefits of Tai Chi
Who Can Benefit from Tai Chi?
History of Tai Chi
What You Can Expect from Classes With Melissa

Further Reading
Can I Do Tai Chi Even If....?
Your First Tai Chi Class
The Tai Chi Learning Spiral

Thanks for stopping by!

Request from Masuru Emoto: Water Prayer for Fukushima Reactor

A request appeared in my email inbox this morning via Ann Reeves, a wonderful sound therapist whose crystal singing bowl workshop I experienced last year. She passes on a request from Masuru Emoto, who works with the energies of water to help bring peace and healing to the planet. We all know at this point that energy follows thought, right? Here's an example from Dr. Emoto's Peace Project website, so you can check this out for yourself.

Today, Dr. Emoto's Peace Project team asks that those who are willing work together to send positive thoughts and love to the waters of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in order to help offset the negative impact of the leaks that have now developed in the Fukushima facility.

I know this may seem a little bit extra woo. I would ask that you open your minds, and even if you don't believe or you don't see this by noon, do the prayer anyway. It couldn't hurt, right?

From Take Action for Japan: Emoto Peace Project: To All People Around the World: Please Send Your Prayers of Love and Gratitude to Water at the Nuclear Plants in Fukushima, Japan!

(Explanation and instructions below taken from Dr. Emoto's site - continue reading or go here.)

By the massive earthquakes of Magnitude 9 and surreal massive tsunamis, more than 10,000 people are still missing…even now… It has been 16 days already since the disaster happened. What makes it worse is that water at the reactors of Fukushima Nuclear Plants started to leak, and it’s contaminating the ocean, air and water molecule of surrounding areas. 

Human wisdom has not been able to do much to solve the problem, but we are only trying to cool down the anger of radioactive materials in the reactors by discharging water to them.

Is there really nothing else to do?

I think there is. During over twenty year research of hado measuring and water crystal photographic technology, I have been witnessing that water can turn positive when it receives pure vibration of human prayer no matter how far away it is.
Energy formula of Albert Einstein, E=MC2 really means that Energy = number of people and the square of people’s consciousness.

Now is the time to understand the true meaning. Let us all join the prayer ceremony as fellow citizens of the planet earth.   I would like to ask all people, not just in Japan, but all around the world to please help us to find a way out the crisis of this planet!!
The prayer procedure is as follows.

Name of ceremony:
“Let’s send our thoughts of love and gratitude to all water in the nuclear plants in Fukushima

Day and Time:
March 31st, 2011 (Thursday)
12:00 noon in each time zone

Please say the following phrase:
“The water of Fukushima Nuclear Plant, 
we are sorry to make you suffer. 

Please forgive us.  We thank you, and we love you.” 

Please say it aloud or in your mind. Repeat it three times as you put your hands together in a prayer position. Please offer your sincere prayer. 

Thank you very much from my heart.

With love and gratitude,
Masaru Emoto 
Messenger of Water

Quick Question: Why Do My Bones Crack When I Do Tai Chi?

Once you start to get into tai chi, you will probably find that snap, crackle and pop are not just part of a nutritious breakfast - they are sounds that accompany almost every workout. Where do these sounds come from? And is it okay to be snapping, crackling and popping?

Before I answer the question, I just want to caution you that cracking, snapping, and popping in your joints is not okay if it is accompanied by sharp pain - or any kind of pain, really. Ask your teacher for help if you ever experience any kind of pain during tai chi. If the popping is painless, then you are experiencing something totally normal and even great. 

According to a rather old article published at Scientific American online, cracking sounds can relate to one of two causes: a release of gas from the fluid that naturally cushions your joints, or a snapping of tendons and ligaments back into their correct places as you move the joint. I tend to think that the snapping and crackling you get during tai chi is much more likely to be the latter rather than the former. 

The thing to understand about your joints is that over time, the ligaments that connect bone to bone in your skeleton and the tendons that connect your muscles to your bones become tighter. A small degree of tightening over time can be the result of aging, but it is more usually related to sedentary behaviour. When you don't acheive a full range of motion in each joint on a regular basis, the ligaments and tendons naturally get shorter. Reason number one million that your body is a use it or lose it proposition.

To get an idea of what I'm talking about, take a look at this x-ray of a healthy human hand:

See the black spaces between the joints of the fingers?  Those aren't empty: they are occupied by cartilage, which doesn't tend to show up on an x-ray. This spaciousness between the joints is what you want. With that cushion of cartilage in place, your bones won't rub on each other, and chances are the joint will remain healthy and pain-free. 

When your tendons and ligaments get tight, they draw the two ends of the bones together. Eventually, what you get is compression of the joint. The cartilage thins, and you end up with rubbing between the ends of the bones. 

This is an x-ray of the finger of a person with osteoarthritis

The official word on osteoarthritis to date suggests that it is of mysterious origin, but I've been taught that the major cause is the drawing together of the joints because of tendon and ligament tightening.

When it comes to the spine, this tightening can be quite dramatic. Here's a normal cervical spine - aka neck. Look at the spaces between the vertebrae. Each of those spaces contains a cushion of cartilage that contains fluid to ease the impact of any jarring that occurs to the spine. These cushions are also called "discs."

You've probably heard of "herniated" or "slipped" discs. These occur when the spaces between the vertebrae become narrow, and the disc is squished out of place, or tears and the fluid leaks out. This is an MRI image of a herniated disc (source).

See that bulge? That's the edge of the disk squishing up against the spinal cord. Yikes, right? This kind of squishing occurs because the tendons and ligaments along the spine become tight over time. The medical community will tell you that this is a consequence of aging, but more properly it is a consequence of a lifetime of not moving enough.

The whole point here is that if you stretch the tendons and ligaments, you can increase the space between the joints. Tai chi is great for all your joints - I've used it to stay pain free despite some extremely serious joint injuries. It is especially wonderful for achieving increased range of motion through the hips and shoulders, and for stretching out the spine. I'd be willing to bet that the bone cracking you experience during tai chi is most intense in the shoulders, hips, back and neck.

That cracking is the tendons and ligaments popping back into place as you elongate your joints. It can also be the bones themselves popping back into correct alignment - the tendons and ligaments can pull them out of place when they are tight. 

At first, these noises can be a bit disturbing. Over time, though, you'll come to look forward to them. Hey, people pay a lot of money to chiropractors to achieve the same effect! Once you get the hang of stretching in tai chi, you can put yourself back in alignment fairly reliably. If your back or neck feels out of whack, a quick tai chi set will usually remedy it.

Your joints will thank you.

Tai Chi and Taoism

Somebody recently found my blog by searching for the answer to the question, "How does tai chi utilize Taoist philosophy and teachings?" It's a good question, and one that deserves at least an attempt at an answer. (Whoever you were, I hope you find your way back here at some point!)

I should preface this post by saying that I have not done a great deal of intellectual study of Taoism. I took a University course in it once, with a professor from China. It was a wonderful experience, but in retrospect one of the worst possible ways to learn about Taoism. For many years, I resisted reading about Taoism actively because I felt I was learning so much about it by practicing tai chi. The understandings I'm sharing in this post are based much more on my experiences as a tai chi practitioner (studying, for what it's worth, under a Taoist monk) as they are on anything I might have read.

The short (and smartass) answer to the question, "How does tai chi utilize Taoist philosophy and teachings?" is to say that tai chi is a Taoist teaching.  But I don't think this answers the spirit of the question.

The long answer:

Taoism is a complex and multifaceted philosophy or - more properly - spiritual path that encompasses an amazing number of different practices. (Herbalism, physical exercises, meditation, sexual practices - the list goes on and on.) Some of these involve increasing longevity. Some of these involve achieving union or harmony with the universe. You could argue that in Taoism, long life and union with the Tao are sort of the same goal.

You might be thinking, "but what is the Tao?"  The idea here is that there is an innate original source ("Tao") that underlies all of reality as we understand it. All beings - from gods to rocks - are an effect of this original source. All follow patterns and paths that can work in harmony with this original Tao.

Working in harmony with the Tao is a great thing to do. Working against it invites strife, upset, indigestion, global catastrophes - the list goes on and on.

The natural world is innately aligned with Tao. This is why the masters copied animals when they devised many of their meditation and exercise techniques. A tree grows in harmony with its environment, and even in harmony with the pressures placed upon it. It doesn't struggle and complain and wish it was somewhere else, or a different type of tree. It naturally conforms to its role.

As human beings, we have a unique form of consciousness that allows us to really mess up adhering to what is most natural. And yet, that same unique form of consciousness can, if we allow it to, transcend the perception of everyday reality and merge with the Tao. Here are a few examples of things that can interfere with your ability to do what's natural and to perceive Tao:

Physical Issues

  • urban living
  • pollution
  • junk food
  • staying indoors, climate-controlled environments
  • artificial electromagnetic charges (from anything that plugs in or uses batteries)
  • exposure to chemicals 
  • prolonged periods of inactivity; sitting for hours at a time
  • habitual physical tension
  • addictions
  • illness
  • injury
This is not to say that you should avoid all of these things at all costs. Chances are you are not in a position to avoid any of these things at all times in your life; if you're lucky, you can avoid one or two.

Mental / Emotional Issues

  • stress (from all of the above and more)
  • intense analytical thought
  • mental and emotional habits your parents taught you
  • mental and emotional habits your culture has taught you
  • exposure to commercialism / consumer culture
  • exposure to repetitive / bland / destructive ideas 
  • compulsions
  • emotional overreactions
  • exposure to emotional triggers
  • an intense focus on the material / commonly acknowledged "reality"
  • a habit of pessimism
  • mental / emotional illness
Again, it's almost impossible for any of us to escape most of the items on this second list at all times. Like the many heads of the hydra, these tend to crop up at the precise moment when you think you've defeated them all. 

The fact is, we live in difficult times. Never have there been so many shiny traps for consciousness, reaching out to us at every turn. But the thing is, we also live in amazing times. I believe that never have there been so many brilliant teachers and techniques available to us to break through those traps. Even if you can't quit your day job and you like urban living and you had a crappy childhood or bad experiences or all too human emotional issues, tools like tai chi are available to help you scrub away the negative effects of all this modern living. And among the plethora of spiritual and physical practices available today, tai chi is, I think, a uniquely powerful way of allowing us to effectively achieve the breakthroughs we might be craving.

But back to these two lists. 

All of the items on these lists work, in different ways, to keep you in a superficial perceptual mode that does not allow you to open to the wide, generous and expansive reality of the Tao. Let's take a couple of examples from the first list. You get up in the morning in your house. You stumble around, jar yourself awake with a hot shower or maybe a cup of coffee. You get into your car before you're ready to greet the day, and the next thing you know, you're at your work desk, a computer monitor two feet away from your face, and a phone cradled on your shoulder. By the time you get home, you're feeling both tired and wired. Tired wins out, and you spend the evening on the couch in front of the television, where you face an endless round of commercials telling you what you should desire.

Your shoulder hurts, your upper back is hunched, your neck is tight, and your soul is crying in a corner. 

Because it is a physical practice, tai chi can help release the tensions that you build up during the day. The stretching and increased range of motion you achieve through tai chi helps undo some of purely physical aspect of those tensions. More than that, tai chi helps to correct your energy. Throughout the day, you draw chi or vital life energy up into your head and neck, especially if your work is sedentary or based on analytical / mental tasks. Because you work your legs in tai chi, you draw those energies back down into the rest of your body, where they belong, and you reconnect with the energies of the earth. Through tai chi, you can feel like you are fully merged with your physical body, instead of floating slightly above it like you might feel you are at the end of a hard day of work.

Returning your physical equilibrium is a part of returning to a more natural state of being. In this more relaxed, more connected state, you are more in touch with Tao.

If you have any chronic illness or pain from injuries, over time, tai chi can help release them. 

Similarly, think about what happened the last time you were really upset about something or someone. Your mind probably would not stop thinking about it. On a physical level, you probably felt terrible: maybe you had bad digestion, or tightness in your chest. Perhaps your breathing felt laboured. Maybe you got a headache. We are always disconnected from what's natural when we are in this frenzied state.

In a background way, most of us carry emotional tensions that we don't even recognize. Worry, concern, anger, frustration, and despair are all examples of emotional habits that can sit with us, like devils on our shoulders, for years. These old friends worm themselves into our lives so completely that we think of low level emotional upset as totally normal. This type of emotional habit is insidious, since it is very difficult to let go, and if we do manage to loosen its stranglehold, we can feel that we are losing ourselves.

And yet, these emotional habits keep us from recognizing the true nature of reality. We see through a filter - and chances are it isn't rose-coloured. 

When you perform tai chi, you aren't just moving your body: you are also engaging your mind. By focusing your thoughts on the here and now as you step, push from the feet, and move the whole body all together, you give space to yourself to simply be. As you move the body, the mind learns the habit of calming down. What was flying through your thoughts and disturbing your emotions when you start a tai chi workout is often a non-issue by the time you're done. The more you practice, the more you are creating new mental and emotional habits. You learn that you don't have to feel upset all the time - not even in a background way. You learn that you can change the terms on which you meet the world. There are no rules except the ones you've created, or adopted from others.

In this way, you leave room for the expansiveness you need in order to meet the Tao. 

And what does it feel like, to touch the creative force behind the entire universe?

Allow me to get down off my flying dragon long enough to tell you.

(Just kidding.)

Obviously no one who is here on earth has truly achieved this goal 100% - or else they would have transcended this earthly plane. But I can say that I think most people meet the Tao in tiny increments, and doing tai chi can take you a very long way down the path. I can say that in meditation and in tai chi, I regularly feel surrounded by a warm, benevolent, and occasionally downright mischievous force that invites me to relax, be sharp and alert in my mind and body, and always, always softer than I am. To meet the Tao in even a limited way is to feel better, not in a sedated, shut down way, but in a way that is open, generous, compassionate, strong, and aware. Tai chi allows you to move closer to being loose like a jungle cat; powerful like an ocean wave; as constant as the movements of the planets; steadfast as an oak. 

Filters off, and tensions released, we can start to gain insight into the true nature of reality. That is how tai chi helps you get closer to the Tao. That is how tai chi is part of Taoist practice and philosophy.

Can I Learn Tai Chi from a DVD?

There are so many fitness DVDs out there. They seem to offer all the benefits of a gym in the comfort of your home and with ultimate convenience. Just pop in a DVD and you're on your way to learning pilates, yoga, a new kind of strength training, or the latest, most innovative aerobic technique.

The question seems inevitable: can you learn tai chi from a DVD?

The short answer to this question is no, you can't, and it's not a good idea to try.

Why is that?

There is more - much more - to tai chi than what you can see on the surface, especially if you've never had instruction before. What goes on inside the body of a tai chi practitioner is much more complex than you would think. With each movement, the spine turns and stretches, the organs shift, and the feet connect with the ground in a much more profound way than most people ever experience. On the outside, you might see the practitioner turning his or her hand so that the palm faces outward. On the inside, there is a whole series of techniques at work to make that turning happen. The hand is connected to the spine and foot, and nothing moves independently.

In order to begin to see the connections - and most importantly, to feel them for yourself - you need an instructor who can see what you're doing and tell you how to deepen it. You need someone to explain it to you.

An instructor is also there to help make sure that you don't injure yourself as you learn tai chi. Every body is different, and everyone has a different set of physical limitations. It is easy to injure yourself, especially in the beginning, by doing the movements incorrectly.

I'll say that again: it is easy to injure yourself if you are doing tai chi incorrectly. Many people think that tai chi is "gentle" and "simple." But if you really go for it, it can be a wonderfully challenging workout. And a movement that's just a few degrees off of correct can result in muscle strains and tears.

Even a small difference in a movement can translate into an injury. An instructor will answer your questions about any discomfort you may experience, will watch to make sure you're not doing anything that will hurt you, and will show you the correct way to perform each step in the tai chi set.

When you find a good teacher, you have an invaluable resource for information and help as you learn tai chi. You have someone who cares about your wellbeing, and will work with you to make sure you reach your goals. You'll need that as you continue down the tai chi path, which is, after all, a path of self-discovery. That's much more than a DVD can offer.

Chai Tea for Tai Chi and Everyone

Image from Wikimedia Commons
One of my friends' grandmothers simply couldn't say "tai chi." She had developed a fondness for East Indian spiced tea, more commonly known in the West as "chai tea." So every time she tried to talk about tai chi practice, she always said "chai tea." 

It's a bit of a funny name - "chai" simply translates as "tea", so technically you're saying "tea tea" when you say "chai tea." Masala chai - tea with a spice blend, usually prepared with warm milk - is a more correct way of calling this drink, as far as I understand it. 

I'm thinking of chai tea because we're in the coldest nadir of winter here in Ontario. It's bitter outside, and that means that you want to add more warming spices to your diet. You can buy chai tea bags and enjoy a warming spicy drink with a black tea or green tea kick. Even better, you can purchase chai masala - the spices that go into the tea - as a separate blend, independent of the tea. I'm sure fancier versions are available in Indian specialty stores, but my local grocery chain carries a perfectly decent blend. Look for a package that says "chai masala" on the label, or "chai spice blend" next to the garlic powder and dried basil and oregano and chili peppers.

The main components of chai spice are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and black pepper. Some blends include fennel. Almost all of these spices warm your body from the inside out. This is especially important for this time of year, when it's easy to get deeply chilled on the inside. Cold insides can leave you open to infection and generalized misery. 

When your internal energies are colder, it's also much harder to practice your tai chi. Everything inside becomes stale and stagnant, and you will find it harder to maintain the flow of your movements. You can become stiffer than usual and find it difficult to stretch out your muscles because everything contracts inside. Eating warming foods can help.

You can use a chai masala blend to flavour tea, but I tend to use it all over the place: in baking, in any warm drink, to enhance herbal teas as well as black teas, and (my personal favourite) on hot cereal grains, like brown rice or steel cut oats for breakfast. I don't hold back at all: I'll put a good tablespoon of spice into a bowl of oats. Add a few almonds or cashews, and you've got a breakfast that will enhance your energy and stick to your ribs. 

Animal Forms

Legend has it that when Chang San Feng, creator of tai chi, witnessed a snake and crane fighting, he decided that the key to developing superior martial skills resided in copying the soft and coiling techniques of animals.

As far as I understand it, however, the concept of emulating animals goes back thousands of years prior to the advent of tai chi in the 12th century AD. The ancient arts of qigong and hsing-i - the way of the mind and will - both use animal forms to stimulate healing in each of the body's organ systems and take advantage of a unique style of movement in order to develop devastating attacks and defenses. If you're curious about the kinds of animals involved, you need look no further than the Chinese horoscope, which lists them: rat; ox; tiger; rabbit; dragon; snake; horse; sheep; monkey; rooster; dog; pig.

It's well worth studying which animal signs are compatible with others, and which signs clash according to the horoscope, since those correspondences and oppositions will tell you just about everything you need to know about which animal fighting forms oppose which. For example, my Chinese sign is dog. I'm not supposed to get along with dragons, according to most Chinese astrologers. Not coincidentally, when sparring, the coiling, sinuous dragon movements can be counteracted by the downward strikes of dog.

It's well worth turning to animals to observe how they move. I learned how to fight like a dog by playing a version of push hands with my own dog. Watching how rapidly and effectively he knocks my hands down taught me a lot, as did his tenacity.

Note that some of the horoscope signs correspond to more than one animal. Dog is bear in some systems, while cat and rabbit share a category. (Both of these animals do tend to try to gouge with their back paws, so I guess there is some similarity.)

For inspiration, check out this slow motion video of a kitten playing with a feather toy and sparring with a human hand. Watch the position of his forelegs, the stretch in his paws, and the way his spine moves supply as he attacks the toy and tries to grab it. You could do far worse than cultivate a similarly stretched out paw / hand and loose spine!

The Year of the Rabbit: Basic Tips and Tricks

Chinese New Year falls on the second full moon after the winter solstice, which means it is February 3rd in 2011. We're finishing up with the up-and-down, tumultuous Tiger year, and entering the year of the Rabbit or Hare. People are saying that this Rabbit year will be a bit of a continuation of the tumultuousness of 2010. But what does this mean for you, and what can you do to make it a smoother ride?

If you're interested in reading some predictions about how the Rabbit year will interact with and influence your Chinese Horoscope sign, you might check out Nathaniel's monthly Chinese Horoscope column at Horoscope magazine online. Each month, Nathaniel explains the significance of the lunar month to come, and offers a write-up of the influence of the month's energies on each Chinese horoscope sign. That Chinese Horoscope link will take you to a landing page that will allow you to figure out your Chinese sign, if you don't know it, or you can use this handy Chinese Zodiac Sign Calculator.

With each new year we enter in the Chinese calendar, there is a shift in the relationship between the earth and a number of energetic influences that are out there in the larger solar system. We're all under these influences, which is why, according to this philosophy, some years are better than others for some people. You know yourself that certain situations get you all stoked and empowered, while others drive you into the dirt. This is equally true of planetary energies. Some Chinese feng shui schools argue that different planetary and star influences inevitably affect your health, wealth, and luck.

It's good to be aware of the positive and negative energies that are shifting at this time, and specifically, where they are located. Becoming more aware of where these energies sit can help you minimize negative influences in your life and maximize positive ones.

The Grand Duke or Tai Sui
This is the big one: the Grand Duke, aka the planet Jupiter, aka Tai Sui. Basically, the Grand Duke is an energy that you should strive to avoid disturbing or upsetting. It's considered a bad idea to sit facing the Grand Duke's location.

In 2011, the Grand Duke is located in the East.

If your desk faces East, shift it. If you sleep with your head pointing to the East, change your bed's orientation.  A good cure for the Grand Duke is to get a laughing buddha statue. Place him so he faces East - between 82.5 and 97.5 degrees East, to be precise, which is the exact location of the Grand Duke in 2011.

Avoid doing any renovations in the Eastern sector of your home this year.

Three Killings
Three killings represent bad luck - illness, financial loss, and accident. This year they reside in the West. Unlike the Grand Duke, it's best to face the three killings if you can, but avoid doing renovations or disturbing these energies.  Some feng shui consultants recommend using two guardian lions to fend off the energies of the three killings.

Robbery Star
This is getting into the nitty gritty of feng shui a little bit, but the robbery star is located in the centre in 2011. The robbery star represents pretty much what you would imagine: robbery, deception, theft, gossip and back stabbing. This means that hallway in the middle of your house, or, in my case, my dining room, is the area under influence here. Some consultants recommend placing water in the centre to balance this energy and removing anything red or that represents fire (e.g., candles). Personally, I'm planning to get that goldfish I've wanted for a while now, and place him and his bowl of water on my dining room table for the coming year.

Further Reading:
Annual Feng Shui for the Year of the Rabbit (2011)
Feng Shui Articles & Resources: Three Killings & Grand Duke

Energy, the Emotions, and Tai Chi

In the 15 years I've been doing tai chi, I've changed my mind about how I see the world in many different ways, some subtle, some not so subtle. One of the most earth-crashingly huge changes in my point of view has concerned the traditional Eastern view of the emotions, how they factor into health and wellbeing, and the ways in which we interact with each other.

My starting point was the same as most people's in the West. Growing up, I viewed myself as an emotional island. My emotions were contained within my own mind. I might ride them up and down like a wave, but they were mine and mine alone. Whatever I felt, it was a product of my personality, the way that I perceived and experienced the world, and background causes, like the way I was raised, and my expectations. 

Occasionally I would think that I had some insight into the emotional states of others. If I asked someone, "Are you mad at me?" "You like him, don't you?" or "I can see that you're sad today," he or she could confirm or deny. More often than not, my perceptions would be denied. I would be told I was imagining things. (People don't generally like it when you perceive how they feel.) Over time, I learned not to trust my gut instincts about people. I blamed myself when I was told I had misperceived the situation.

Through my arts and humanities education, I learned the origins of these two philosophical positions. The idea that we are individual, separate, minds, irrevocably distinct from one another, and essentially cut off from each other by our individual fleshy containers comes from Rene Descartes. Yes, that Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." The Cartesian notion of the containerized individual stuck in his or her body, of immaterial mind lodged behind the walls of the flesh, is one of the most predominant influences in Western ideas of the self. 

Sigmund Freud is the other huge influence on how we think about ourselves. Freud's legacy includes the idea that once we're through childhood and our neuroses have been all finalized, our emotional reactions are largely the product of upbringing. When you look at another person and think you can perceive his or her emotions, according to Freud, you're doing what he called "projection" - ascribing your own thoughts, feelings and desires to the outside world.

Together, the Cartesian and Freudian ideas of how we work mentally and emotionally have led our culture into the collective understanding of ourselves as separate entities, forever closed off to each other, and experiencing separate inner worlds that are up to us to tend as we will.

I bought into this view until I really got into tai chi.

As I slowly came to appreciate the idea of chi or energy, I started to get a clue that what I'd previously imagined were the borders of my personal being were wrong. As I began to become more aware of my own energy bubble (aura, electromagnetic field - call it what you like), I began to clue in that we have subtle layers attached to us that we carry around at all times. Learning to expand and contract this bubble is a core part of learning tai chi. Simply practicing tai chi, even as a beginner, will open up your field substantially. The more you do tai chi, the more you feel this bubble all around you.

The more you can tune in to your own field, and the more centered you are in yourself, the more you become aware of the fact that others around you are affecting you. When you start out your day knowing that you're in a good mood and you feel good in your body, and that suddenly takes a swerve, that is your first clue that your emotional world has more impacting it than just your own internal thoughts and feelings.

At the time that I was really getting into tai chi, I was often leading classes at the university. I began to notice that I was dreading the days when I had to hand back papers. I would spend the entire class feeling nervous and jumpy. At the end, when I handed everything back, I couldn't wait to get out of there.

There was no reason for me to feel nervous. I wasn't being evaluated. But my students were jumping out of their skins to see their marks. This was one of my first lessons in picking up the emotions of others.

More lessons would follow. When I had to meet with a particularly angry student about the mark I'd given him on an assignment, I tried to observe objectively how the discussion made me feel. I noticed my stomach churning and a sensation of tension all over the surface of my skin. I wasn't upset about the meeting, but he was ranting about the low grade. Thanks to tai chi,  I also knew that the thing to do with all this emotion was  to drop inside and to allow the emotion to be sent back to him. I focused, relaxed, and allowed myself to sink down into the centre of the earth. The student immediately grew calm, stopped in his tracks as his temper tantrum no longer had a place to take hold.

Here's the thing: as tai chi artists, we learn to project chi in an emotionally neutral way. But we're not alone in this ability. People project chi all the time quite naturally. We fling it around like a bunch of angry apes. And we do it through strong, overwhelming emotions. Anger is among the most common. The next time someone is in your face about something, sit back and take notice of how it feels.

Or, if you don't have people in your life who like to get in your face (and good on you if you don't!), simply be aware of how you feel around different people. Do you feel tired and draggy after spending time with that one, slightly pesky friend? Do you feel energized by certain people? Is there someone in your life who always makes you feel like you're receiving a warm, friendly hug? When you walk into a room, does your stomach drop like you're in a fast moving elevator? Who is there? What do you think they are thinking about?

These are just some of the effects that others can have on us. We are not islands unto ourselves. We are part of a rich, interactive web of energies. One of the key ways we experience these energies is through emotions and feelings.

Tai chi can teach you how to participate in this web more effectively in a number of ways. First, you get to know your body and its habitual tensions really well. The more you learn to release those tensions, the more you learn to regulate your emotions. You don't go up and down as much as you used to, so if and when you're faced with a tricky situation or person, it is much more obvious.

Tai chi practice also develops your body's natural defense system. Your radar becomes more sensitive, and your resilience grows. You can feel the effects of the emotions of others without getting carried away by them. Once you're able to distinguish between the emotions that are yours and those that come from the outside, you have a rich source of information available to you at all times.

This is not to say that you don't have to work on yourself, and that everyone else is to blame for what you're feeling right now - not at all. Through overwork, stress, expectations, ego, joys, worries, everyday circumstances, and tensions that we carry with us at all times, we are a constantly circulating soup of emotions. Whatever you carry with you - and I guarantee you, it's more chaotic than you think - is always adding its own flavour to how you experience the world.

I'm sure you can think of a time when you experienced a strong emotion, whether it was joy, anger, grief, worry, fear, guilt, or what have you. Remember how everything you encountered that day was coloured by the emotion? You could probably barely think about anything else. While this is obviously true about the big emotions, those minor, background emotions you carry with you on a daily basis add their own tint to your experiences, too.

Any given interaction between two people is going to be a mixture of the perceptions, vulnerabilities, aggressions and intentions of each. It's only when you've learned to stay steady on your feet and just go with the flow of any situation that you can be sure you're getting accurate information from your surroundings.

Tai chi is a wonderful way to learn to hold your own emotional centre, no matter what is happening around you.  

Tai Chi and Men

As a followup to yesterday's post on tai chi and women, I thought I would address some of the particular challenges facing men as they approach learning tai chi.

Although tai chi practice is, generally speaking, harder on women from an emotional perspective, men face a number of physical challenges in performing tai chi correctly.

Stories of male tai chi masters, like this article from Paradigm Publications, on "The Old Men of T'ai Chi," often emphasize the mystery and paradox of becoming a male tai chi practitioner in the way they describe the bodies of the masters. Of Professor Huo, a tai chi master, the author writes,

He was soft and gentle, yet something about his body gave the appearance of being carved from stone. 

Of another master, the "Dragon of Morse Avenue Park," the author writes,

I saw an old Chinese man with a cane and a straw hat approaching. He looked very frail and the hair in his nostrils and his two front teeth gave the appearance of an old dragon that had lost his fire. I wondered how this could possibly be a T'ai Chi Master. This old man looked as if he had trouble standing and I was sure that if the wind came in too briskly off Lake Michigan, he'd be blown across the park. 

Later, the writer gets the chance to practice tai chi alongside this man:

I stood behind him, knowing we were to begin doing the form. As he prepared, this frail old man began to expand and as he expanded he got straighter and straighter and smiled more and more. Everything about him brightened, and then he began to move. To this day I have never seen anyone move as smoothly, softly, or beautifully. This old man moved as if he had no bones. 
After we finished the form, he laughed and beckoned me to do "push hands" with him. Now, push hands is a T'ai Chi exercise usually done with two people. I was amazed. His skin was as soft as a baby's, his muscles were completely relaxed and his fingertips glowed fire-red and his eyes glimmered. We touched hands. I felt something I had never experienced before, no bones.... He seemed to disappear from my touch. All of a sudden, in the midst of a very slow circling movement, I lost my balance and was lifted up slightly off the ground. As I went back, I thought I'd try and see if I could get the old man. I didn't. To this day, I never have.  

I'll let you read the rest of that story yourself, so you can see how it turns out. It's interesting!

One way to think of this strength-with-no-bones is to think of a cat. Most cats have an amazing amount of flexibility. If you pick one up, he might feel a little bit like a large, furry noodle in your hands. But when it comes time to fight, cats can strike incredibly hard. There is a lot of power behind those little paws!

So, how to do you go from being Joe Regular to developing no-bones softness and chi power?

It isn't easy. My point here is that men beginning their tai chi practice have a lot of bodily habits to change, discard, and consider. Most men, even if they are not actively training their muscles through activities like weight lifting, carry a lot of tension in their muscles. Almost inevitably, this muscular tension reflects inner tension.

When it comes to performing the movements of tai chi, men often try to "muscle through" techniques at first. While both men and women can have trouble grasping the idea of using the natural structures of the body rather than muscular strength to perform movements, I find that men often struggle more with relaxing the muscles. This is especially true when learning how to apply movements. When presented with resistance, men are more likely to resort to hard muscular tension than to rely on correctly performing the move to get them through.

Tai chi can also give men trouble in the area of flexibility. Many of the movements of tai chi require quite a large degree of flexibility in the hips and pelvis. I'm talking about the kind of deep sitting that Paul Carlos of the Sacred Spiral school in New Zealand demonstrates in this video.

While movements like snake creeps low and the deep sitting (what we call dan yu) Carlos performs here very obviously require flexibility, it might surprise you to know that each and every movement of the tai chi set involves a similar opening of the pelvic floor, turning and opening of the hip joints, and dropping in the low spine. For most men, because of the conformation of the pelvis and the relatively tight nature of the tendons and muscles, especially in this area, building this kind of flexibility is much more challenging than it is for most women.

At the same time, stretching and opening the pelvic floor and hips is of the utmost importance for men's health, and will help protect prostate, reproductive, and urinary tract health by increasing circulation throughout the pelvis.

The key to this aspect of practice is understanding how to stretch and open these areas without straining, and how to release tension through movement rather than create it. Once you understand how to begin the opening and stretching process, diligent practice will help enormously in helping you create a softer, yet stronger and healthier body, at the same time as you learn to release stress as it arises. Unfortunately there is no short cut through the hard work you'll have to do to achieve softness and flexibility, but the more you practice, the better and better you'll feel.

Tai Chi and Women

Like just about every other male-established institution in the west, the martial arts world has yet to decide whether it's totally comfortable with women participants. Of course, individual schools and teachers vary widely in terms of how accepting they are of women students, how willing they are to train them, how far they'll allow them to go, and whether they'll train them equally alongside male students.

I know this topic is a bit of a can of worms. For every woman who has suspected that her male sparring partners go too easy on her, there's another who suspects that she's getting put through the ringer a little extra hard. For every woman who is treated like a freak because she likes to fight, or wants to train, or desires, more than anything else, to experience the profound depths of meditation, there's another who is given nothing but respect for these pursuits. There might be a few of you, men and women alike, reading this and thinking, "Wait a second - isn't feminism over? Didn't we already go through this? Of course men and women can both do martial arts." More than likely there are a bunch of you also thinking, "But women just aren't as strong as men. They can't fight as hard or train as hard. Full stop."

Because I train in tai chi, where the main rule of sparring is, the softer you are, the better you fight, you would think that women would dominate the field. And it is true that if you go into any tai chi class in North America, you'll probably see many more women students than you will men. Because most women don't have the same upper body strength as men, are more open in the hips and pelvis, and have softer muscles in general, you would think we would be naturals when it comes to tai chi, which requires you to use the naturally strong structures of your musculo-skeletal system to apply techniques, rather than using sheer muscle power.

Even so, in the group I train in, even though women far outnumber men in the class as a whole, if you look at people who have achieved an advanced level of training, men are very well represented. Our group has also seen quite a few women who were on the path to excellence suddenly drop out, or choose to step back their training, or decide to switch to a less intense class with less knowledgeable instructors.

But I'm not the first one to notice this phenomenon. Chris M. at the awesomely comprehensive, hilarious, and amazing Martial Development, asks the question, "Why Are Female Martial Arts Masters So Rare?" He observes:

I have attended classes where men outnumber women 10-to-1, and I have attended classes where women outnumber men; in both environments, the average female student seemed to absorb and master new material faster than the average male.

But he later notes:

Despite all this, the male gender holds a trump card: willingness to expend overwhelming effort towards mastery of an impractical skill. Am I right, ladies and gentlemen?

This is a good question, and I suppose there's some truth to his proposed solution to this conundrum. There are a lot of other factors that could be at play here.

Privilege is the most obvious one. Omnia vanitas, one of the commentators on Chris's post, pretty much nails this point to the wall, and I couldn't say it any better:

I just want to say that the reason there are so few female martial arts masters is the same reason there are so few black philosophers or politicians. Bigotry. A history of bigotry. Women under the oppressive conditions of male supremacist patriarchy are valued more for their sex appeal–for how they can please men–than for who they are as a human being or for their skills. It’s total bullshit, but there you have it. If you don’t believe me, go ahead, google “female ninja” and see what images come up. Or go to youtube and search “amazing female athletes.” It’s propaganda and it’s time it stopped.

There's another reason why women can hit a wall, especially with a soft martial art like tai chi, beyond institutionalized sexism and its ravages. It has to do with the energy composition of men and women, and what happens when you begin to work on projecting energy from the inside out, especially if you're working with yang energy.

Men and women are composed differently on an energetic level. While both genders (like every single object in the material world) contain yin and yang energy, men carry their yang energy on the outside, while their yin energy is on the inside. Women are the opposite: yin on the outside, yang on the inside.

Women are like a steel rod inside a pillow; men are like marshmallow in a steel drum.

What this means is that when it comes to certain techniques, like learning how to apply an effective strike with yang energy, women have to move the energy from the inside out. You know what you tend to hide on the deepest innermost levels of your being: the dirtiest secrets, the nastiest memories, and the deepest, most profound shame and self-doubt. These stale, stagnant emotional energies are inevitably intertwined with the yang energy you're trying to conjure in order to perform techniques. To advance in tai chi, you have to confront all this crap.

Every single woman I know, including myself, who has trained intensively in tai chi, has hit an emotional wall. For a lot of us, that wall meant anxiety symptoms, profound emotional upset, panic attacks, and generalized horrible feelings every time we practiced.

How did we get through it? Sheer perseverance. I cried it out, and then kept practicing. Other women who I've taught or who were learning alongside me and my peers had the benefit of knowing those of us who had hit the wall and gotten through it.

Once you're on the other side, you've faced your demons and sent them packing. You're on much more stable ground, and you know you can move forward. That's when you can really begin to kick major boot. Getting to the other side is a matter of being gentle with yourself and knowing it will pass.

So, for those women out there who are contemplating quitting tai chi because you're hitting the wall, or you're wondering about why so few women in your class truly excel, or you want to know what the tai chi path holds for you, I say:

Keep going. Keep training. Be soft, be focused, and push through. Whatever comes up that's negative, project through it, and let it go. The wonderful thing about tai chi is that it's not therapy: you don't have to comb through every negative emotion in order to get rid of it. You can just allow it to pass through.

What lies on the other side is so, so good.

To any male instructors or students who are watching female students or peers slip away: remember that, while tai chi may be much harder for men in terms of developing flexibility and performing techniques correctly, generally speaking it is harder on women emotionally. Understand where your female students or peers are coming from, and respect that their journey may be different from yours. If you let them train, and help them continue to move through the angst, you'll be gaining powerful allies as you walk the path together.