Let’s Go Flying

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No, I am not talking about levitation. Let your imagination soar and go fly!

Kung Fu, Karate, other martial arts and yes, also Tai Chi Ch’uan have origins showing the spirit of different animals. Think about the Form of 24: Stroke the horse’s mane, spread your wings, repulse the monkey, stroke the sparrows tail, etc. You get the idea.

To go fly, let’s choose the crane.

Imagine a great blue heron standing in our wetlands, stalking the fish, patiently waiting and then suddenly picking one out of the water. Or standing there balancing on one leg, maybe sleeping or just being and breathing.

The best example for this is the crane form, Hakutsuru, which is admittedly not Yang style. It originates from Okinawa Karate and before that Kung Fu. Check out the Komatsu-Ha style for it!

But you can find the same feeling in a Yang style form. Open your arms wide, open your fingers like the tips of your wing feathers and play with the opening and closing of your fingers while doing the form. Imagine being a crane, moving through your practice.

Our inner emotions and anxieties often show on our outside. But the opposite is also true. How we present ourselves on the outside can also reflect on our inner well-being. Someone said to me:

“Fake it until you make it!”

One perfect way to feel this is to play with our soaring. Open up your wings and soar in the sky! You could even play with the opposites. Walk through one form rather subdued and then follow it up with a crane flying form. How do you feel?

Let’s fly!

You Are Never Too Old

There is no right or wrong way

I might not be mainstream with this, but one of the things I love about Tai Chi is the possibility to adjust it to your own body, to your own abilities and restrictions.

And yes, you can and should adjust Tai Chi as needed. Even feel encouraged to do so!

There are enough studies nowadays, showing that Tai Chi helps with Balance, Breathing, Osteoporosis, Fibromyalgia and all kinds of other maladies, but how can it affect all those different areas of your life and body, when we all do exactly the same? We are all different with our bodies and we all start at a different level of ability with our Tai Chi journey. So just feel free to adjust it in any way necessary.

Yes, of course we look at all those older Chinese people in the park practicing their Tai Chi and admire their flexibility, fluidity and low stance, but is that really necessary?

I do not think so.

To reap in the benefits of Tai Chi, we have to start somewhere and cannot and should not try to do what others do. We have to use the principles we are learning and just move! It does not matter if the form looks perfect or not, it is important to move and breath and focus. It is not important that your hand is in that specific angle, or your foot has to be 45 degrees and your stance has to be this low.

We all have our specific abilities and restrictions and we have to work with those. So feel your own body, follow your gut feeling. If something does not work for you, don’t do it. Change it in a way, which won’t hurt and start working on it. The journey always starts with the first step. So if at first you are not able to lift your arms, start with minimal movement. If your body prohibits bending down, just start with moving your spine. Round it, tug in your tailbone, round your shoulders. In the end we want to work on our flexibility, slowly improving it, but not forcing it.

If balance is an issue, sit down. Slowly start with short periods of standing up and holding on to the chair. You might not be able to practice a form, but use the principles to move.

Adjust what you’re doing to your abilities. Think about principles, not perfectionism. Start with those and over time, your body will follow.

 

The Three Legs of a Stool

Why do we learn and practice Tai Chi? Everyone has a different motivation,  but essentially Tai Chi spans three big areas: physical health, mental well-being and martial arts.

Physical health

Chinese people have known and enjoyed the health benefits of Tai Chi for centuries. Recently western medicine picked up on it as well and by now there are countless studies that show the long-term health benefits of Tai Chi.

While Tai Chi can not replace medical treatment for illnesses, it can certainly help with recovery or ease the pains of various diseases and ailments. Tai Chi also helps us to age more gracefully and healthy.

Tai Chi is a holistic and gentle exercise system. Where western medicine focused on isolated sub-systems for a long time, eastern health practitioners always looked at the whole human being holistically. Tai Chi reflects that approach.

By practicing Tai Chi, we slowly extend the capabilities of our bodies and over time build up resilience, strength and flexibility.

Mental well-being

Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’. We pay close attention to our movements, our gaze and our breathing. We are aware of every little detail as well as how they connect together to the bigger whole.

That focus and awareness helps us calm our minds and tame the random thoughts that usually chase us through the day. We take a break from the hectic of the day and reconnect with our inner selves.

With that, Tai Chi is an excellence counterbalance to stress and helps us to step back and take a broader perspective. Our minds calm down and many things that had upset us before class appear in a different light afterwards and seem less daunting than they did before.

We also learn that everything come in waves. Everything is Yin and Yang. The same is true in life. There is stress and there is relaxation (if we are willing to allow us to find it), there is frustration and there is joy.

Tai Chi is a great metaphor for the flooding and ebbing of life and by examining and understanding Tai Chi we can develop a greater understanding of life itself.

Martial arts

Tai Chi originated from a martial art. Today different schools put different emphasis on Tai Chi as a martial art versus Tai Chi for health. In our school we focus on the health aspect, but we also personally have our roots in the martial arts and have always been fond of exploring possible applications. We just don’t believe that the martial aspect is the most valuable thing we can get out of Tai Chi practice.

With that I mean, that as you progress you should try to understand possible applications to more deeply understand the form and Tai Chi itself. However, I don’t think that the ultimate goal is to be unbeatable in push-hands. If pure self-defense is your goal, go and buy some pepper spray or a gun, it’s a way easier and faster path.

Unlike what some folks on the Internet will tell you, Tai Chi is not a secret martial art that gives you magic powers to control others without even touching them. You will not be unbeatable since real combat is way different from what you experience in the training hall, with friends pretending to attack you. Real street thugs are vicious and unless you train for that scenario specifically, you will not be prepared. It’s more dangerous to fool yourself into a wrong sense of control, than to be aware of your gaps and conscious of your surroundings.

 

However, Tai Chi has originated from, and still is, an internal martial art, and if you study it for a LONG time, the movements will become natural and turn into reflexes. You will be more aware of your surroundings and might be able to use some reflexive moves for initial self-defense. After creating that short opening,  you run and dial 911!

Likewise, if you are practicing another external martial art, Tai Chi will for sure improve your grasp of that art and make it more effective. The slow movements and principled approach of Tai Chi will allow you to grasp underlying principles of body mechanics as well as martial applications. Tai Chi will greatly enhance your understanding of your original art, like it did for our own Karate understanding. Eventually it will all blend together to the system that works for your specific body and background.

Whatever reason brings you to Tai Chi, make sure you also experience the other aspects. Don’t become an one-legged stool, they are rather useless.

“Learn Tai Chi Ch’uan, and you will become agile like a child, strong like a wood-cutter and calm like a wise man.”
Chinese proverb

Improve Your Sensitivity and Awareness

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Tai Chi and martial arts help us to improve our sensitivity and awareness. They help us to achieve a deeper level of mindfulness throughout our lives.

Sensitivity

While we initially mostly struggle to follow our teacher’s direction, we will notice over time that Tai Chi creates its own sensations as we go through our practice. We learn to listen to our body and we notice the small changes and feedbacks that we are getting. Tai Chi becomes more than just ‘going through the motions’.

That change creates a deeper awareness for our movements, our body and our mental and emotional state. We become more observant, aware and reflective. Tai Chi constantly teaches us to observe ourselves very closely in order to monitor whether we are doing the moves properly.

Observing is the first step to changing. Tai Chi prepares us to build up an effective feedback loop to better control our own reactions to the things that life throws at us.

We are more aware, live more in the moment and with that we learn to enjoy life more.

Awareness

The other kind of awareness that we gradually build up as we study Tai Chi is situational awareness.

All too often we go through our days without noticing what is happening around us. Remember those funny videos where people bump into objects because they are fully immersed in their smart phones?

Tai Chi, as any worthy martial art, teaches us to have both attention to the detail when needed, as well as situational awareness throughout. In japanese martial arts that situational awareness is called Zanshin and it is a core building block for all traditional japanese martial arts. The best technique doesn’t do you any good if you don’t see the bad guy coming.

We train our gaze in Tai Chi. Most of the time we have an unfocused peripheral view. When appropriate, we focus in on an important detail and then we let go again. If you do that consciously, it becomes a natural habit throughout your days.

However, you don’t only need this to become a legendary warrior. Being aware of your surroundings let’s you more deeply appreciate the beautiful world we’re living in. It will make you more aware and thus safer, but it will also make you more tuned in to your life and thus happier. It might even take your relationships to a whole new level if you pay attention to the other person!

Live in the now!

 

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Go Outside

Whenever you can, try to go outside for your Tai Chi practice.

Connect to nature

Tai Chi is a great way to connect with your inner core as well as with the universe around you. Practicing outside is a shortcut to the latter one, breaking down the walls that normally separate us from nature.

Connect with nature and heal. Inhale the fresh air, focus on the smell of flowers in spring and the sweet flavors of fruit in fall (we always smell blackberries around here). Take in the salty sea air or the fresh mountain breeze. Experience dry deserts or cooling forests. Listen to bird songs and nature sounds.

Be in the moment and be connected to nature!

Make it real

The other benefit of going outside for your practice is that it adds a whole new layer of sensations and complexity to your practice.

While our inside training rooms are perfectly levelled, with smooth floors and air condition, nature is much less predictable. The ground is rough with sudden holes, the sun might shine in your eyes and blind you, the wind might tickle you and the bugs might annoy you.

That means lots of stimuli and lots of distractions. Learn to deal and eventually to work with it. Life is messy, learn to manage your arts within that messiness. If your art only works in controlled environments, it actually doesn’t work at all.

Work with and embrace distractions. Learn to do perfect your Tai Chi in an imperfect setting.

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