Tuesday, June 28, 2005

So what is T'ai Chi anyway?

“Understanding [energy], how can one not be prudent in regard to such habits as sitting, sleeping, walking, standing, drinking, eating, urination and defecation in order to promote the best results?”
--excerpt from the Yang Style Family Manuscripts, compiled and translated by Douglas Wile

So what is T’ai Chi anyway? And how can it save America?

T’ai Chi literally means “grand ultimate point.” From my studies and readings, I define the grand ultimate point as being the balance point of any object. Every object on this planet must have a balance point unique to its mass and structure in relation to gravity.

T’ai Chi (formally known as T’ai Chi Chuan) is represented first and foremost by a symbol that we in the West know as the yin/yang symbol, which illustrates a balanced interrelationship of opposites. For example, night and day, hot and cold, etc. This symbol dates back to around 1100 BC. The oldest known writing that discusses yin-yang is the “I Ching,” or “The Book of Changes,” a book that describes the natural ebb and flow of energy in the universe and how that effects change. It was written about 3,000 years ago.

Eventually, someone got the idea that this concept could be used to defeat an opponent. Martial arts already existed, but someone looked deeper into the interplay of gravity and leverage. Out of this exploration was born a host of martial arts, including T’ai Chi Chuan, Judo, Sumo wrestling, Aikido and Jiu Jitsu. These arts all originate from the same starting concept (yin-yang energy). They differ in how each style trains and how they apply the concept. What sets T’ai Chi Chuan apart is that its creator incorporated Qi Gong techniques into the martial movements. So T’ai Chi also contains self-healing principles in its martial movements. (An essay explaining the healing art of Qi Gong is coming soon.)

The Chinese credit the celebrated hero Zhang San Feng with T’ai Chi’s creation. Legend has it that he observed a hawk attacking a snake. As the battle between the two animals ensued, the snake repeatedly used relaxed evasive movements to elude the aggressive attacks of the hawk. Finally, the exhausted and frustrated hawk flew away. There are several versions, using different birds, but this is the basic myth.

The Essence of T’ai Chi

T’ai Chi is a series of martial techniques that are performed slowly, with mental awareness of each micro-movement that puts the practitioner in the most advantageous position in relationship to gravity. They are low impact, which is good for the joints. The moves involve natural gross motor movements that every human is wired to perform. For example, Ward Off is a posture in which, while sinking your lower body to drop your center of gravity, you simply put your forearm horizontally in front of your body. Humans do this a lot as part of daily life—for example, when walking through a crowd of people or when a dog tries to jump on you. It is a basic movement that keeps your vital organs (or simply clean clothes) protected. Most of T’ai Chi’s moves have this kind of inherent practicality.

In the long evolution of T’ai Chi, practitioners sought to attain the biomechanical perfection of each position. They asked such questions as, how can one extract the most power from the simplest movement? They integrated the results of their research into forms, which tie all the moves together into a choreographed, martial, healing dance called T’ai Chi. This dance also uses the biological systems and rhythms of the body to increase both physical power and health.

Slow and Relaxed

Many westerners scoff that T’ai Chi can’t be “real” exercise because it is practiced so slowly. What they don’t understand is that T’ai Chi trains the nervous system, which develops the good habits best for living a longer, healthier, independent life. And by soothing the nervous system, one is more likely to train. The more relaxed you feel, the more your body craves practice. The hard working out of much western exercise often causes the body to revolt, eventually convincing the mind to stop the training altogether.

The nervous system is the network of communication for the entire body. A tense nervous system inhibits the flow of blood and other fluids, as well as all communication between body parts. By releasing tension, the nervous system can open up (relax) and flow with its natural cycles. The health of your internal organs, including your brain, is largely determined by the health of the nervous system. Just look at all the diseases that are related to too much stress. What is stress but the nervous system out of control? This alone supports my claim that T’ai Chi can save many Americans who suffer from high stress.

The United States has been a Super Power for a while now, fueled by coffee, fast food, and intense competition. We gulp down fast foods and high-sugar/low-nutrition soft drinks. We multi-task, rushing from one obligation to the next, driving through red lights. The “flight or fight” nervous system cannot sustain this pace without “burning out,” literally burning up the adrenals. This is what we as Americans are currently experiencing. Most of us are simply burned out. And, unfortunately, this is the standard we are spreading through much of the world.

Shake Things Up

We need something to catapult us out of this quagmire we have gotten ourselves into. This requires a serious shift in the way we do things. I believe we need to move away from short-term thinking and into sustained, steady, mindful living.

If you want to sustain power you must learn to carry it evenly for an extended period. And the more power you have, the more responsibility you have. You must be sensitive not to abuse that power, not to be “care-less,” which is the opposite of “mind-full.” I think one of the best ways to learn the skill of mindful living—including mindful eating, mindful relationships, etc.—is through practicing mindful movement, which is the essence of T’ai Chi.

Being mindful, sensitive, thoughtful, careful—these all mean pretty much the same thing. Paying attention to the details of a situation. Nurturing, growing, evolving. T’ai Chi is a proven method of training the mind and body (or mind-body) to be on the same page in their endeavors. T’ai Chi teaches the martial artist to resolve a situation using a win-win model. Instead of bullying the other guy until he agrees with me, I should practice a type of physical negotiation of energy and mass. And this process is as much mental as it is physical.

Negotiating a win-win position is the way to get the best results from any team or partnership. As Dale Carnegie once noted, “Someone convinced against his will, isn’t.” Bullies might win for a short time, but as people start to evaluate the reality of the relationship, they begin to get upset. They feel robbed or cheated, which can make them be hostile or uncooperative. Or maybe they just won’t put real energy into the end result—be it a work situation, a marriage, or an international treaty—which jeopardizes the outcome or relationship.

Mindfulness and the Body

So what does all that mindfulness have to do with the fate of America?

As a cultural whole, Americans are so dependent on power tools and labor-saving conveniences that we are losing the skill of using our bodies. Most of us no longer do the kinds of hard physical labor that previous generations were used to doing on a daily basis. Sweating in public is only sanctioned if one has the proper exercise attire.

But hey, isn’t it good that we no longer have to do all that hard stuff? Yes, it’s nice to have the option of saving ourselves from back-breaking work. But the simple fact is that most people in this culture no longer know how to move their bodies to do work properly. This is dangerous to our bodies—because we end up hurting ourselves, not to mention the host of diseases and conditions that are caused or exacerbated by bad posture and poor body mechanics—and it is dangerous to our future generations. The so-called Third World has got something on us: hunger and the ability and know-how to do efficient hard physical work.

Working with elders who lived through the Great Depression has taught me a lesson. A few of them were candid enough to say that they don’t think my generation could make it through another great depression. Do we have what it takes to work seven days a week, maybe without adequate electricity, heat, or water? Could we make our own clothes, grow our own food, provide our own fuel? Now think if these things had to be fueled with your own body’s power. You would have to know which foods could sustain that kind of energy expenditure. And if you think healthcare is unaffordable now, how much do you think it would cost if there were an economic crisis?

Wait a minute, you say, America is Number One. There is no threat of another great depression. For now, no—but how long will it last? Even if none of us witnesses a swing in the other direction, future generations will undoubtedly have to face this kind of shift. Let’s just say something like that happens 100 years in the future. By then it will be too late—we will have severed the threads of physical awareness by not passing on this information to our children.

It is awfully short sighted to focus our children’s evolution strictly on mental skills—how to use a computer, or a video game, or even a garbage compactor—without giving them a solid base in knowing the proper way to use the body. Observing history and humanity tells us one thing for sure: abundance comes and goes, and the human animal must be adaptable to change. We need to prepare future generations for using both the mind and the body.

The T’ai Chi Solution

T’ai Chi is the way back to understanding human movement, while connecting it to exercising the mind. It prevents injury and disease. It is great for any body, including those who are “disabled” or have little physical aptitude. It sharpens the ability to listen. And if you can listen to the early warning signs, you can catch a disease before it builds a home in your body.

Once you learn to listen to your own body and identify the sources of disease, then you can extend that outward. When you can really listen, you become aware of how anger, prejudice, racial insults, exploitation, and lack of education feed disease in our society as well as others.

Such listening skills lead us toward being proactive. If a storm is coming, one prepares for the bad weather. Old farmers and homesteaders knew about living this way. If they didn’t put up crops for the winter or cut firewood, they either begged or died. Being proactive in our time means educating the poor, seriously addressing environmental concerns, developing healthcare systems, and making wise financial plans.

T’ai Chi as a mental-physical training holds the key to mastering the essential abilities a human being needs to thrive on this planet. Understanding body mechanics, controlling the nervous system, listening to your body, nature, and others—what more could you need to make good decisions for yourself, your family, your community, and your country.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

How I healed my own knee

Let me start off by saying that I did not tear any tendons or ligaments. But I did experience chronic knee pain for about 8 months.

The injury began at a gym when I was doing an exercise incorrectly. Plyometric jumping is a great way to increase explosive power. The drill I was doing involved holding a 10-lb. medicine ball and jumping one legged onto a 24”-high box. I jumped a few too many times and was getting tired. Instead of stopping I kept pushing for more. I didn’t really notice any significant pain until the next day. Of course I still worked out the next day—which isn’t a bad thing per se, but again I pushed myself too hard. This is a great recipe for injury. Now I know when to back off and not feel guilty about it.

A knee injury is particularly bad for a Tai Chi practitioner. The whole point of Tai Chi is to have root or stability. How can you be stable with a bad knee? And to top that, I teach 6 Tai Chi classes per week. The pain in my knee was real sharp on the bottom right of my left patella. I talked informally to a physical therapist who comes to my workplace. He said it wasn’t torn but sounded more like a repetitive motion injury. He suggested a few leg curls on machines, which I tried, but it didn’t really help much. I tried Glucosamine-Condroitan for 2 months. That helped some but still didn’t take it to an unnoticeable level. I then tried eating a lot of cherries, which are reportedly good for inflammation. That worked pretty well, but there was still a missing link.

It wasn’t until I spoke with a friend who is in her 30’s who has been diagnosed with early arthritis. She had a book that helped her called “Heal Your Own Knee.” I read it in a day, as it is very short. The author mentioned a term called “proprioception.” I had heard of it but didn’t understand how it was related to joint injuries. Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense where it is in space, basically physically feeling, not emotionally or intellectually feeling. The author of the book drew the connection to not feeling enough to compensate with surrounding muscles; thus one is overusing one part of the joint. One of the proprioceptive exercises I used is standing on one leg for a few minutes throughout the day. That sent me right back to Tai Chi as always. This was a huge breakthrough for me because I understood at once how those exercises were going to heal me. When you are wobbling on one leg it is a sign your joint is destabilized. First it needs to learn how to stabilize itself and then build stronger muscles to strengthen the joint. Secondly you are going to be more in tune with your joint through developing awareness, thus adding to the stabilization of your injured joint.

I progressed with those exercises to a book called “Strength Ball Training,” which has proprioceptive exercises for competitive athletes. There were exercises like standing on one leg and tossing a medicine ball from the right to left hand, as well as others in this genre. After practicing these, my knee began experiencing less and less pain during classes. I kept this routine for 3 months, about 3 days per week. I also stretched 4-5 days per week, doing daily Qi gong self massage and icing my knee every night. All these brought my pain down from an 8 on a scale of 1-10 to a 1-3 depending on how much I used my knee.

The supplementation I use is milled flax seeds with omega 3 fatty acids and Curcumin. Flax seeds lubricate the joint and Curcumin reduces inflammation. It is a great combination.

In this day and age where people are looking for that one pill fix, my pain management solution is a good deal of work. But in doing it I got a few surprises. One, healing yourself is an incredible boost to your self worth. I learn to look at every injury or sickness as a puzzle to be solved and enjoy the whole process of exploration. Most importantly I have a deeper understanding of my body, which is a valuable skill in itself because you never truly heal, you always negotiate. Negotiating involves listening to your body so you don’t make the same mistakes again. Lastly, to master Tai Chi one needs to link up and stabilize the joints. Be sure energy transfers without wobbling. This injury has been a lesson I have learned deeply. Tai Chi philosophy clearly states one should never jolt the body too hard. My injury proves that pearl of ancient wisdom.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

One day after class

A senior student of Fong Ha asked a question.
It was in reference to the movie “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” The student wanted to know if there were secret techniques to teach that type of superhuman jumping as seen in the movie. Fong Ha looked a bit annoyed but the student asked again.

Fong Ha replied “What other miracle do you need, other than we are all standing here together, isn’t that enough for you?”

Qi Gong Lessons from a Retirement Community

Chapter 41 of the Tao Te Ching

A wise student hears the Tao and practices it diligently
An average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought
A foolish student hears the Tao and laughs aloud
If there were no laughter it would not be the T

This is a story that I have experienced through teaching Qi gong in a retirement community. It is a lesson about our own obstinacy.

There is an 82-year-old woman who attends my class—I’ll call her Franny. She is in top physical shape, with great posture, a clear mind, and a strong walk, though she is legally blind. She is a spitfire, is often very bossy, and usually blames others for her problems.

Franny has been one of my most loyal students, to the point of pushing the more sedimentary residents to come to class, sometimes even berating them if they miss. However, her daily complaint of my Qi gong routine is that it is “too easy.” She used to do vigorous aerobics and sometimes announces to the class how Qi gong is wimpy compared to aerobics. Many times Franny tells people what a great teacher I am, although she qualifies it by lamenting that I teach this “benign” exercise to old people. She also blames the other lame "inmates" for my "going soft" on the routine. Every one in the community fears her temper yet admires her physical prowess.

Yet she frequently asks me to correct her. Often I glance around as we meditate and see Franny nervously tapping her foot or hand, or moving her head half-heartedly. So my daily mantra during class is, "Listen to your internal energy," "Listen to your breath," "Listen to your heart rate," "Just listen to anything!" Although her external form is the best in my Qi gong class, and her posture is better than most with a military career, she is still unable to let herself go into meditation.

An important part of my class teaching is about moving from a balanced center. I explain that one fall for an elderly person can forever change the quality of their life. I go into great detail, demonstrating that simply reaching for a glass of water or answering the phone without moving consciously could be so devastating that you might never walk again. Elderly people must weigh the value of doing something quickly against the risk of falling. They must constantly ask themselves if rushing to a phone call is worth losing their ability to walk. I spend many one-on-one hours teaching Franny how to walk with a balanced center, especially since she is blind and needs to use extra caution. When in a group, she often laughs off what she’s learned, saying “See, my new ‘sexy walk’ Chris taught me!”

One day Franny’s bitterness and anger at the other “inmates” got a bit out of hand, and she lashed out at two other residents for petty reasons. The residents complained to the administrator, who spoke with Franny about it and told her that she was concerned that Franny’s anger was heading her towards a stroke. It was a legitimate concern, as excessive anger has been shown to push elderly people closer to a serious stroke.

Franny told me what the administrator said, and I knew that she needed some type of stress reliever as soon as possible. I took her to a local herbal shop where she trusts the owner, who spent time listening to her and then suggested an inexpensive bottle of Chinese herbal pill (total cost $4). The following day the administrator referred her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed a pharmaceutical drug that costs much more than the herbs. I worked with Franny on her breathing and explained how slow, deep breathing can relieve stress. Within a couple of days, four people had offered their help: me as her Qi gong teacher, the residence’s administrator, the psychiatrist, and her herbalist friend.

I returned to work three days later, and Franny immediately handed me the bottle of Chinese medicine, saying, “I won’t be needing this!” Her attitude was “This is who I am, I will not change.” She repeated it so many times I lost count. Later that day some university grad students arrived to give each resident a psychological evaluation test. I witnessed Franny’s responses, which were almost all extremely hard on herself. I have seen no equals in her physical shape at her age, and yet she still answered that she was mediocre at best. She was comparing herself now to herself as a young woman, an unfair comparison for anyone to make.

After the evaluation, Franny told me about her meeting with the psychiatrist. She reported that he said she is perfectly normal. (I suppose no one can know what he really said.) Then she berated the administrator’s assessment of her health, claiming the administrator was trying to gain control over her. In the meantime I spent hours talking with her, trying to help her cope with this long transition, yet she never yielded an inch.

Wednesday of the following week I went into work and was immediately sent to Franny’s room to take her to the hospital. She had fallen and broken her hip. But she quickly corrected me—she did not fall, she tripped over a wire in her room. It was the wire’s fault. The wire got in her way. There was subtle language happening. Blaming, not accepting. Tripping, not falling. Fighting the inevitable. She programmed her mind to deny the aging process by constantly changing terms, blaming others for her problems. She had stopped listening and sealed herself off from the inevitable truth of the human condition. On the way to the emergency room she constantly repeated, “I am not like those old people.” She could not admit that she was aging.

Franny’s hip has healed, and she returned to my classes. Still, she argues with other residents in class and insults people at nearly every opportunity. Sometimes her attitude makes me laugh out loud, but I know that her bitterness is only harming her and others around her. She is a lesson to me about how I want to age, how to accept the inevitable.

In T’ai Chi we seek to absorb the reality but then guide it safely away from us. If an energy comes towards us, we must communicate with it. This is the essence of Taoism. Most people fight energy straight on. If it is a bigger force, they lose the fight and that’s that. No dialogue. Aging is an energy, time and gravity wearing on our bodies. Taoists do not fight this process but instead speak with it, understand it, and yield to it. People who scoff at the Tao fight the inevitable head on.

Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching says,

“A man is born gentle and weak,
At his death he is hard and stiff.

Green plants are tender and filled with sap,
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death,
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle,
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall,
The soft and weak will overcome.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Six Qualities of Mattie Cofer

While working as Activities Director for an assisted living facility, I became very close to a resident named Mattie Cofer. She was 100 years old, sharp as a tack, and fiercely independent. I knew her for only about a year and a half, but during that time she had a deep impact on my life. She died suddenly in May, just a few weeks short of her 101st birthday. I want to share some of the lessons that she taught me.

Humility: She was a devout Christian but was humble about her faith. She didn’t brag about being “saved,” rather she wondered if she was good enough for Heaven. She showed her humility through self-deprecating humor: “I am not worth a dime”.

Strength: Although she was 100 years old, Mattie had strong bones, the kind many 60-year-olds dream about. She spent most of her life working on a farm, and she thrived on drinking a lot of goat milk. She fell three times while living at the facility where I work. Only the last time did she break a rib. For someone who was almost 101, that is not too shabby. And her mental sharpness was exceptional even compared to residents twenty years younger.

Hard work: Mattie always said, “I worked harder than any man,” and she meant it, every word of it. She plowed fields, sewed her family’s clothes, taught generations of children Bible lessons, and was a longtime church elder. One of her frequent statements was, “Hard work—it won’t kill you!” She also ate healthy home-grown food up to the time she moved into our facility when she was 99. Yes, she kept her own garden until then.

Walking the line: Mattie said time and again, “You got to walk the line, Chris.” Her constant advice helped to keep many people straight. In fact, she walked the line so well God probably hired her as a crossing guard in Heaven. She would even say that preachers are not any closer to God than anyone else and that if anyone tells you they don’t sin, they are lying.

Fun: Mattie thought that having fun is good. She was a jokester, with a sarcastic kind of humor born of the Great Depression. She made fun of herself and anyone else and didn’t keep things too serious..

Teaching: She felt that it was a great service to be a teacher, in order to better the community. She was a spiritual mother, a great teacher, and a church elder. She helped others by her presence alone. She was one of those rare individuals with that inexplicable gift. Now that she is gone I miss her more than I can say.

As human beings age, we naturally conform to the ideals of T’ai Chi. The way energy flows through the universe: Water finds the lowest places, what goes up must come down, yielding is the way of the universe, we should observe nature and work with it, not against it. In living these principles, Mattie Cofer was a fine T’ai Chi master.