Improve Your Balance

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Don’t lose you balance

One of the big longterm benefits of Tai Chi is that it helps us improve our balance. Especially as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to maintain good balance and if we don’t deliberately focus on improving it, we will lose it. That leads to a higher rate of falls which, together with lower bone density, leads to more fractures and secondary health risks.

Improving balance in Tai Chi is not about standing on one leg and kicking – although we occasionally do that as well. Much more than that, it is about building a stable base on the ground from which all other movements originate, whether we are practicing a form or just going about our daily lives.

Push into the ground

To improve the balance of our stance, we start by getting rooted. Rather than struggling to balance the upper parts or our body, we try to push our feet into the ground. We remember the eight points and we try to sink them into the ground as deeply as we can and get ‘rooted’.

An extreme example of this is when we try to balance on one leg. Try focusing on your upper body and balancing that, and you will find it pretty hard. Then try to forget about your upper body and instead focus solely on pushing your standing leg down as much as you can (while lowering your hips) and you will find balancing a lot easier.

If you want to go up, you need to put your focus in pushing down!

Like a pyramid

Once you have laid the foundation through rooting, the second important piece is to build a strong base to stand on.

Make sure that your knees are in a straight line with your toes at any time. You can visually check this as you practice. Your knees need to be pointing straight to your toes or just be covering them visually.

Now make also sure, that you have a little outward tension on your knees. Don’t let them drop inside. Feel like you have little rubber bands that pull your knees outward. You want to feel like a pyramid, that has a pointy top and then consistently grows outward and larger towards the bottom.

Think of tent lines. The first step in pitching a tent is to firmly lock it to the ground with the base tent nails. That still doesn’t provide maximum stability though. In the second step you now need to take the lines on the tent skin and pull them outwards where you fix them in the ground to maintain proper tension.

Be a tent that has proper tension. Don’t be a soggy tent without stabilizing lines that will fall apart at the first blow of wind or leak as the raindrops fall.

Keeping your knees in line with your toes is essential for stability, but it is also critical to keep your knees healthy and avoid injury. Remember: avoid torque or tilt on your knees!

 

 

Stability creates confidence. Confidence creates calmness.
Alfons

Strengthen Your Core

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The Chinese say that if you practice Tai Chi correctly and regularly, you will gain the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack and the peace of mind of a sage.

In Tai Chi we are not pushing weights and we are not focusing on pumping up our biceps or shoulders. However we constantly move our body. We shift and twist, we stretch and bend.

In order to do so, we leverage proper posture to support our body without the need for excessive muscle support. However, we constantly engage our core muscles to stabilize and center ourselves.

Tai Chi is a great exercise to learn the proper body mechanics and postures that are self-supported and keep us pain-free without tiring. It’s also a gentle, yet effective way to train the core muscles that support our body.

Our arms are just extensions in Tai Chi forms. Power and energy are created from our feet, our legs, up through our core and only as a last step through our arms. If you want to be really strong and unmovable, you need a strong foundation and core.

Gain the pliability of a child, the health of a lumberjack and the peace of mind of a sage through the practice of Tai Chi.

Loosen Your Joints

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The Yang style is expansive. We try to reach out into the universe, and then come back to our core (open and close).

Create space between your joints

One of the things we try to do, is to create a little space between our joints. Imagine that you are opening up, let’s say when creating a big circle with your arms. Now imagine that you pull your bones apart a tiny bit further, so that you create a little space between your joints.

As you come back, you compress that space again. Think about your cartilage tissue and your discs like sponges. You compress them, and then you release them again.

We do this with all our joints as well as with our spine as we stretch out and then come back again. That movement squeezes and extends our discs and cartilages. It twists and compresses. We create movement and activate energy and drive out staleness. By squeezing and twisting we pump fluids through discs and cartilages and nurture them.

Squeeze like a sponge

It really is like a sponge. If you want to clean it, you need to squeeze and release it and then rinse and repeat.

Like for a clogged pipe, we remove blockages by twisting, pressing, pulling and shaking. We release blockages and get our energy flow unstuck.

The same effect works on our inner organs as we stretch, twist and bend our body. Tai Chi movements provide and gentle massage and vitalization for our inner organs, discs and cartilages.

Stretch Gently

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Contrary to many other sports, we are trying to not ‘try too hard’ in Tai Chi. That sounds funny, doesn’t it?

What I mean by that is that we give ourselves time to develop balance, flexibility and strength. We don’t go to the point where we think we achieved something because our body hurts.

I’m not saying there is no value in cardio and strength training that pushes and expands the limits of our body. What I’m saying is that this is not how we do Tai Chi or what we want to achieve with Tai Chi. Having a different approach to how we exercise is also the main reason why we can practice Tai Chi and gain health benefits from it, no matter our age or abilities.

In Tai Chi we don’t push too hard. Rather we discover our boundaries and gently and slowly push against them. We gently stretch and make sure we don’t strain any muscles by trying too hard. We slowly lower our stance over time, making sure that we are not harming our joints by trying to go too deep too quickly, before our muscles had a chance to develop properly. We are gentle and soft instead of hard and inflexible.

Every time I show in class what pushing too hard means, even for basic exercises like connecting heaven and earth, I come home with some strained muscles in my back. Some day I will learn to just not show wrong execution any more…

Think of the flower fists. We’re not making a board-breaking fist, but rather imagine that we hold a precious rose in our hand and we certainly don’t want to squish it.

In Tai Chi we gently push our limits. We develop new abilities slowly but consistently, without interruptions by strained muscles or unwanted knee surgery. We’re in for the long run and for lifelong practice.

The next time you feel frustrated because you can not stretch as much as the person next to you, you can not lower you center as easily as your teacher, or your balance is wobblier that everyone elses – let go! Practice Tai Chi within your own limits and abilities. No one else matters. Don’t push it too hard but give yourself the time your body needs to develop.

The constant flow of water breaks the rock over time.

Our book now on Amazon

We moved our book to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and used the opportunity to update our title and cover.

Go here to get the paperback and Kindle version. Let us know what you think and leave a review if you liked it.

“To find and to understand the principles means to find the heart.”
Hilmar Fuchs.

 

 

 

Uli and I have been practicing various forms of martial arts for over 25 years. We learned Karate, Kobudo and Tai Chi from our teacherHilmar Fuchs. We studied Aikido for a while with a friend. We explored Jodo with one of the leading experts in North America. We spent some time learning the Yang family style teachings in the school of a direct decedent of the Yang family and current leader of the style. We learned how defensive shooting techniques and empty hand fighting can be combined into a coherent system.

In my day job, I studied physics and learned the importance and effectiveness of understanding first principles and describing the world from there. At the same time, I worked high responsibility and high-stress executive leadership jobs at Microsoft and Amazon for almost as long as I studied martial arts, making it critical for me to understand the balance and flow between focus and relaxation.

Uli is a Medical doctor and by trade has always been very focused on healthy living and nurturing our bodies and minds. She also worked in high-stress environments and has painful firsthand experience as to what that can do to your wellbeing.

All of these experiences come together in this book. We did not want to write a book about how to perform a specific technique or form in a specific style. Rather we wanted to talk about and explain underlying principles that hold true across styles and will lead you, so we hope, to deeper understanding and a richer path through your martial arts journey.

Most of the principles and thoughts in this book come from what we have learned over the years from our teacher Hilmar Fuchs. Some were inspired by other leaders in martial arts and outside of that realm. And yet another set was driven and inspired by questions from students in our classes. Occasionally we had some insights on our own.

My spirit animal is the horse, which, together with the love of Uli and our daughter for horses, inspired the name of our school, Kicking Horse TaiChi (Keru Uma Budo). It also reflects my need for freedom and finding my own way, which you can probably spot in a few of the thoughts and recommendations we’re giving. We truly believe that you need to develop strong roots but then find your own way.

Uli’s spirit animal is the mouse. Like a mouse, she is curious and looks into all corners of a problem to come back up with an unexpected insight that she found. Like a mouse, she also likes to be grounded and stay out of the limelight. Uli is a passionate artist and art teacher at our kid’s school. Being a visual person, she loves using imagination and pictures to support her teaching. Look for her thoughts on visualization and imagination throughout this book.

With that, we hope you will enjoy the book, find a few things that make sense to you and maybe enrich your own practice. We cannot teach universal truths, but we aim to offer ideas for your own explorations.

Have fun, practice, reflect and enjoy every day!

“In western cultures, we often look at martial arts more as a form of acrobatics. Few people look at what is behind the outer shell. To find and to understand the principles (the essence) means to find the heart.

Furthermore, those principles are the basis for a life of morality, humanity, justice, acceptance, and wisdom. This book tries to offer those principles as a foundation for the student who embarks on the journey to discover the art on a deeper layer. Understanding the essence will provide a solid foundation to further develop the technical movements of the art of Tai Chi. 

Alfons and Uli have found their path and shared their personal emotions, sensations, and thoughts in this well-written book.”

Hilmar Fuchs, 2018

 

Your Posture Defines Your Mental State

Tai Chi can help you shape your posture and with that also re-define your mindset.

When we try to be centered, we are not only influencing the physical structure of our body but also our mindset. When we try to be relaxed, we impact our body, but also our mind. When we try to exert energy, we not only push with our muscles, but we also develop our focus and intent.

Your mind reflects on your posture, your posture reflects on your mind

Another one of the early lessons our teacher Hilmar Fuchs taught us is, how the communication between body and mind is bi-directional.

If our mind is sluggish, our techniques are weak. If we feel depressed or just tired, we have a tendency to hunch down instead of having the golden thread pull up our crown point. Is we feel strong and confident, we will make bigger movements, embracing the universe and conquering the world.

But it also goes the other way. If we start Tai Chi tired, but focus on finding our center of gravity, focus on opening and on wide movements, we will feel how our energy and confidence increases. If we are all stirred up and restless when we start practice, but focus on our breathing and the slow but fluid movements, we will observe how our mind calms down and finds its own center.

How we feel influences how we hold and move our body. But more importantly, it also goes the other way: by controlling our postures and movements, we can control and shape our mental state and how we feel. This is a powerful tool (and much better than any drugs)!

Your mind reflects on your body. Your body reflects on your mind.
Hilmar Fuchs

While this connection has been long known in martial arts and eastern health systems, it has recently been shown by western science as well. If you want to do some further reading on the scientific background for this, I would recommend to check out Amy Cuddy’s book ‘Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges‘.

Walk of the hero

One of the best exercises to feel this direct connection between body and mind is the ‘Walk of the hero’.

The point of this exercise is to shift from proud and bold to small and humble and then to centered and calm. From reaching out, externally focused, Yang-heavy to coming back to your core, inside oriented, Yin-heavy, to then finding the perfect balance between the two.

Observe your mind and feeling before you do this exercise. Then do it for a few minutes and see if anything has changed. You will be surprised!

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How Many Arts Should You Explore

How many different (martial) arts should you explore? Pick one and practice it over your lifetime to become the expert of experts? Switch frequently and try as many as you can to have the broadest possible perspective? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

If you only ever study one art, chances are you will not fully understand it. If you get distracted by trying to do too many, then most likely you will not get anywhere with either one.

Avoid tunnel vision

While I strongly believe that you need to spend a lot of time on one art to really understand it, and maybe eventually even master it to some degree, it also limits your perspective to a problem and its solution to only one single angle.

I often noticed, that I would understand things on a deeper level, when they were presented to me from different angles. Sometimes the Karate explanation made more sense to me, sometimes it was the Tai Chi approach and sometimes I would finally understand a difficult principle while trying to practice an Aikido move or Jodo strike.

Don’t miss the tree for the forest

On the flip side you need deep and enduring exposure to a certain framework of thinking or philosophy, to understand it on a natural level, to feel it. To “make it yours” (Morihei Ueshiba).

So if you try to learn too many different things at the same time, it will distract you more than it will help. It’s hard to combine teachings from external arts like Karate with internal systems like Tai Chi if you didn’t get to the level of seeing the principles yet. It will all just seem like a big mess of disconnected contradictions.

Know your core and expand from there

Start by picking one martial art. Practice it. Practice some more. Keep practicing until you reach a level where the underlying principles start revealing themselves and until you don’t have to ‘think’ about the movements anymore.

Then go and add small doses of other styles and arts to it. Observe what that teaches you. See what new angles and perspectives open up for problems that you already worked on (and maybe struggled with). Be open to understand moves that you have already practiced from a new and different angle. Don’t rip and replace, rather add to your knowledge.

You might shift your primary art over time as your interests change, but always have a primary art that you go deep on and see others as supplements.

If you experiment with other arts, I would recommend to seek significantly different perspectives. If you do Shotokan Karate, don’t do Wado Ryu. It will  teach you a master’s preferences, but only few new insights. Add something different like Aikido or Tai Chi. If your focus is an external martial art (like Karate, Kung fu, Tae Kwon do, etc) then add an internal art (like Aikido, Tai Chi, etc) and vice versa.

Dip your toes into something new. Try it out long enough to get a good sense for the ideas and principles underneath, but know your home base. Know your core and expand from there.

Yin and Yang – Keep Flowing

Yin and Yang – Keep moving, keep shifting. Never stop, never stagnate. Celebrate the black and white instead of perpetual grey.

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Everyone talks about Yin and Yang. It’s become mainstream folklore to the degree where I was wondering if I should talk about it at all. Then I decided that I needed to because it’s too fundamental and important to not call out a few of its core ideas and implications.

The concept of Yin and Yang could fill a whole book on its own (and has done so for many). However here are the aspects I find most important for our Tai Chi practice.

Celebrate the black and white instead of perpetual grey

On the simplest level Yin and Yang represents the duality of things in life. Light and darkness, hard and soft, asserting and relenting, open and close, male and female – and we could go on forever. Yin (阴) represents the female and passive, Yang (阳) stands for the male and active.

The first important lesson from Yin and Yang is that we need to actively seek and celebrate the black and white instead of coasting along in perpetual grey.

It is easy to let things drift by, to have one day be just like the other and get dulled in our routines. But if we do so, we miss out on life big time. Rather, we should cherish the ups and downs, the cold and the hot days, the sunshine and the pouring rain for what they are. There is no light without darkness.

In Tai Chi we focus on developing and feeling those differences. As we progress, we move from executing movements mechanically with the same energy level throughout, to developing, feeling and expressing the dualities within. We push and pull, we open and close, we inhale and exhale, we are proud and humble, we are strong and flexible.

As we learn to differentiate and shift between those states of black and white, we experience and enjoy our Tai Chi on a much more intense and rewarding level.

There is Yin in every Yang – and vice versa

The second important lesson somewhat contradicts the first one. It reminds us that there is Yin in every Yang and vice versa.

Even if we are strong, we need to be flexible to some degree. A little less but still. If we are only strong at a particular moment, we become stiff and will break like a frozen twig. If we are only flexible at a given moment, we will be floppy and lack impact, like a soaked sheet of paper.

Now be careful, this does not mean to become grey again. It does not mean to be 80% or 90% strong for example. It means to be 100% strong but to discover the smaller parts within that still stay 100% flexible at the same time.

This is a difficult concept to think about initially and a hard one to implement. Think about it. Think some more and then try it in your practice. Meditate on the small black circle within the larger white area and try to discover what it might mean for your training and life.

Like a wave – never stop, never freeze

The last important lesson, and here is where I differ with some Tai Chi schools, most importantly the Yang family style itself, is that we need to keep moving and shifting between both states. We need to learn to fluidly go from one into the other without ever stopping.

 

Tai Chi is not Karate, where we learn to focus all energy in one point and the lock the whole body as we deliver that energy for maximum rigidity and impact. It’s also not about delivering the final theater-worthy blow and then stopping and letting the viewer see the dramatic impact as the bad guy crumbles on the floor (Jean-Claude Van Damme does that famously and uselessly in his movies).

In Tai Chi we want to develop our internal energies and get them flowing first and foremost. We also want to develop a flexible mind, which never gets attached and stuck to a singular thing. In order to do so, we need to train ourselves to keep everything flowing, to remove all the breaks and stops.

Think of your Tai Chi as a wave. It never stops, it never breaks, there is focus, there is climax and anticlimax, but there is not even a single split-second where the moving ever stops. Make your Tai Chi a wave. Go from Yin to Yang and back again. Open and close, inhale and exhale, push and pull – but never stop, never halt. Flow from one into the other fluidly.

Like the water atoms in a wave, everything moves at the same time. Everything reaches the peak at the same time. And in every forward movement, there is a backward movement of some part of your body, like the undercurrent of the wave.

The Answer Lies in the Small Details

We don’t need to learn many forms to understand and master the art we’re practicing. In fact, trying to learn many different forms often distracts us from understanding the true teachings and underlying principles of our art.

I like to tell students, that we could practice ‘stroking the mane of the horse’ for the rest of our life and we would be able to find, practice and perfect all Tai Chi principles within that one movement. In Yang style it is said that ‘grasping the birds tail’ is the fundamental movement that represents the essence of the style. Almost every style has such a movement or essential form, that represents the core of its founders ideas (like Kanku Dai for Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi and Sanchin for Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi).

The small component contains the whole

‘Stroking the mane of the horse’ or ‘grasping the bird’s tail’ seem to be very basic movements, but in fact all of Tai Chi (and martial arts) is contained in them. As you practice, pay attention to the details and try to find those principles in the simple form.

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In science we learned just fairly recently that all of nature follows a similar rule. The smallest component represents and holds the structure and the principles of the whole. Nature follows the rules of Chaos theory (or System theory in more scientific terms) and is fundamentally of fractal nature. You might know the beautiful and famous pictures of fractals, popularized by Benoit Mandelbrot, which visualize mathematical formulas that describe how our universe is built. If you zoom in, you see the same patterns and rules that you see when you zoom way out. It’s the same with Tai Chi, if you zoom all the way in (e.g. how you move your fingers), you apply and understand the same principles as if you zoom all the way out (e.g. performing the Form of 108).

Focus on the details

It also means, that you don’t have to hold yourself back from practicing on your own just because you don’t yet remember the form. If you remember ‘stroking the mane of the horse’, you have everything you need to practice and understand the principles and details. In fact you have a higher chance to understand the deeper levels of what you are doing, than when you get stuck on remembering the sequences of the form.

“The master finds the answers in studying the small details.”
Hilmar Fuchs

So why do we learn multiple forms after all? For the same reason why many systems have graduation levels: to keep the student engaged and interested (in the case of graduation systems also to make more money). If we would practice only one technique for years, most students would get bored and run away. So we switch combinations of techniques and forms to keep everyone mentally engaged.

How we teach today

In modern times we are forced to trade avoiding boredom with depth of understanding. In the old days you would actually have worked on a single form for three to five years, before moving on to the next. For instance in Karate you would train a form of similar length as the Form of 24 for at least 3 years before your teacher would let you move on to the next one.

Our modern teaching style allows more students to tag along and get benefits, but it requires those who want to really understand their art to go the extra mile and spend the extra effort to go deeper and explore further in their own time. The upside of this approach is that it creates benefits for more people as the arts become more accessible. The downside is that it puts more ownership on students who want to go deeper and understand their art more completely. But then again, maybe that’s actually good. No pain, no gain.

The good news is that you get all the tools (principles) in class. Your job is to apply them to your practice. Take individual movements and polish them, using the principles you learned. Follow the principles of ‘deliberate practice’ (for further reading check out: ‘Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise’ by Anders Ericsson).

 

Learn and Forget

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Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.
Morihei Ueshiba

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, once said “Learn and forget. Make the technique a part of your body before you move on.” It’s one of the key principles I followed in my studies and well as in my life. Partly because I have poor memory for details, partly because it makes a lot of sense.

Why we want to forget

Learn and forget. How does that make sense and what do we mean by that?

The idea is not, to not pay attention at all or to be a lazy student. Rather the opposite. The idea is to practice a technique, a movement or a form until you can repeat it correctly. By that time you understand the representation and interpretation that was shown to you by your teacher.

At that point, you are either stuck or you can move on to the next level. In order to move on, you need to free yourself from the representation and interpretation you were shown and you have to recognize and understand the essence of what you’re doing. You then have to rediscover its representation within your own framework of experiences, philosophies and physical abilities.

You ‘forget’ what you were taught and you rediscover the underlying essence within your own framework. You make the technique ‘yours’.

Repeat a hundred times to make it stick

Before we can forget and rediscover in our own framework, we first have to sufficiently understand (and remember) what we’re doing, so that we have a basis to understand the core and evolve our understanding from there.

That is where we have to repeat a hundred times to make it stick. We need to take notes after class, to reflect on principles and new learnings and make the sit. We need to embrace active learning, asking questions and repeating what we learned within 48 hours to commit it to longterm memory. Ideally we teach what we learned to another person to test and solidify our understanding.

Learn and forget – rediscover the teachings for yourself, with your own abilities and constraints.