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.