NEWS

Holiday Schedule: All classes will run as usual except for Monday, December 25 2017 and Monday, January 1st 2018.

Intensive Workshops at the Regent Centre Studio

As requested, Laurie and I will be running intensive workshops for those who have some familiarity with the tai chi set. 

Dates:
Sunday, 16 January, 2011
1-5 pm

Sunday, 6 March, 2011
1-5 pm

COST: $65

Intensives are a great way to deepen your practice. You can expect:

  • techniques that we haven't had the chance to work on in regular classes in any great depth 
  • deeper individual corrections so you can get some insight into the next level of practice for you  
  • more opportunity to explore qigong meditation
  • a more relaxed pace, so that your body has time to sink gradually into the lessons
  • more chances to practice the tai chi set in its entirety

Please let me know in person or via email at smithmk2 at gmail.com if you would like to attend either or both of these dates. 

The Tai Chi Learning Spiral

In our tai chi classes (as, I would imagine, in many others), we don't talk about a learning curve: we talk about a learning spiral. I wanted to dedicate a blog post to discussing why that is, and what it has to do with beginning to walk on the tai chi path.


Many people who begin learning tai chi think that they are working toward a goal. In the beginning, it can feel that way: you want to learn the tai chi set, or perhaps you're working toward memorizing it. Maybe you want to feel more confident with the basic stepping. Or you're aiming to achieve the smoothness you've seen when other students practice.

As you train, your instructor might talk about a few different concepts: pushing from the feet; turning rather than performing lateral movements; moving the entire body as a single unit; staying relaxed at all times.

But you've got a goal to meet: you've got the tai chi set to learn. So you kind of hear what's being said, and you sort of take it in, or you think you're doing it.

Fast forward to a little while later. You pretty much know the set, and you can practice it on your own. Now what? One day, your instructor tells you to push from your back foot and gives you a little resistance as you move forward. If you want her to get out of your way, you're going to have to really use that back foot. You do it. You get that when she says push from the feet, she means really push from the feet.

You're on the tai chi spiral. As you learn, you will hear the same concepts again and again, but each time, the concept will have a deeper meaning for you because of the skills you’ve spent time building.

The next time you encounter "push from the feet," it might be part of a lesson in softness, or as part of push hands. You'll learn that you can push and relax your muscles at the same time. You'll learn that pushing effectively allows you to take your arm muscles out of the equation and perform a connected, effective technique.

In between these revelations, you'll hear the phrase "push from the feet" hundreds of times. But when the phrase really pops for you, that's when you're really learning.

There is no end to the depth of each tai chi concept. Push from the feet has a superficial meaning, but can also be completely profound.

If you're familiar with western forms of exercise, this concept will probably seem a little strange. You can become a better and better runner, for example, but once you've accomplished good technique, running up the same hill each morning is going to pretty much challenge your heart, lungs and legs in the same way.

Tai chi is different. As you train, your body and mind open up in new, very deep, ways. A tai chi set in Year One is not equal to a tai chi set in Year Four. That Year Fifteen tai chi set is many times more challenging than the Year One set - because you are able to do more, you can go deeper, open inside further, and use your energy much more profoundly. Returning to the same concepts is a little like returning over and over to visit old friends - except the friends are getting smarter, wittier, and better dressed as the years pass.

That's the tai chi spiral.

Tai Chi and Spiritual Guidance, or: Tai Chi Teachings from Beyond the Pale



In "The Tai Chi Book: Refining and Enjoying a Lifetime of Practice," Robert Chuckrow, physics PhD and tai chi practitioner since 1970, has this fascinating point to make about tai chi teachers and where they might come from:

It is possible to learn from a teacher whose identity is completely unknown to the student. This may sound unbelievable, so prepare yourself for something strange. The teacher may be a consciousness that may or may not even reside in a living body. The teacher may have died and not yet have been reborn. Or, the teacher may at present be a child who, in a past life, attained some sort of mastery. It may be that the teacher had a strong connection with the student but passed on. Or, the teacher may have had no connection in this life, but, rather, in past lives. Or, the connection may even be much less fathomable. The student may not even be consciously aware of being taught through "spirit." Such an awareness, however, can make the process more efficient. If the instruction is coming, for example, through dreams (as mine most often does), the student can do various things to increase the likelihood that contact will be made and that what is received is consciously retained upon awakening. Future contacts can be initiated by consciously desiring the contact to be made. Retention can be increased by an awareness that an important process is taking place. The knowledge that you are being helped in spirit adds an extra keenness to your receptivity.
~Robert Chuckrow, The Tai Chi Book, page 109

The idea that non-corporeal teachers were involved in my practice was floating around (har har) in the club I trained in long before I had any direct conscious awareness that I was personally receiving such guidance. And when that guidance manifested, it was really only as the barest of whispers.

I remember training up at my family cottage, in the part of Ontario just west of Algonquin park. I had my weapons, a water bottle, and time to spend all afternoon working out. One of my favourite things to do when I'm all on my own is to go through each of the sets I know one by one, usually in this order: tai chi, lok hup, hsing-i, sword, sabre. I was warming up and thinking about where I would start, and all of a sudden, I felt a strong impulse to pick up the sabre first.

"Practice your turning," a thought came through - by which I understood I should work on the spiral turn of the spine. Not "Hey, I should work on turning the spine," or, "It would be cool to practice turning my spine."

This was much more like a directive.

I silently thanked the source of the thought, thinking without fully believing that it didn't come from me, and I proceeded to practice.

Now, whenever I get the chance to do a lot of solo practice, I always start with the sabre.

I don't recommend relying exclusively on a non-corporeal teacher to learn tai chi. (Almost) everybody needs a physical, visceral human teacher to help connect with this practice. But I do believe that when we pick up a tai chi sword, or we start to learn tai chi stepping, or we practice any of the Taoist arts, a chorus of non-corporeal beings, from teachers who have passed out of the physical world to dragons to guardians, stands by ready to help us.

Tai Chi, Qigong and the Paranormal

There is something about tai chi training that people don't discuss very much, but that is a part of walking the tai chi / qigong / meditation path. Call it psychic ability, the paranormal, tuning in to energy, or whatever you want. If you do a lot of tai chi and qigong meditation, sooner or later, you'll start to see and feel...things. This can be a fascinating experience, and it will probably develop alongside your self-defense and qi skills, so there is nothing to fear.

What kinds of things?

Well, a lot of people begin by seeing auras, or the electromagnetic field that surrounds all living things. I remember years ago doing sitting meditation. I sat behind one of my friends, and as I settled into my meditation focus, a bright red layer appeared all around her head and shoulders. I knew that red typically means a heightened emotional state - it can signify that the person is angry, or that she is feeling especially lusty. I assumed it was the former situation - we were in class, after all. When I spoke to her after meditation, she told me all about the terrible day she'd had, and how frustrated and angry she was at something outrageous that had happened.

It was one of my first clear moments of knowing I'd really seen something significant.

Chances are, when you first start to see auras, you'll see them as a faint pale gold glow around people. It's easy to dismiss this as an effect of lighting or tired eyes. Just bear in mind that we are trained, especially in Western culture, to dismiss anything that isn't 100 percent verifiable by science. The more you sink into your tai chi and qigong training, the more you'll notice that not everything is what it seems. It can be a bit of a disconcerting experience, especially if you're accustomed to embracing our culture's habit of skepticism.

One of the things that happens to us as we train is that we begin to become aware of how we are affected - physically, mentally and emotionally - by our activities, by the food that we eat, by the people we spend time with, and by our surroundings. Because we develop a habit of tuning in to our physical sensations and our thoughts, we take notice when something seems intrusive or out of place.

A lot of my students experience this awakening as a sudden sensitivity to other people. As energy beings, humans toss around a lot of loose qi, usually when we're feeling strong emotions. We throw anger; we project disapproval; we send love. Once you've learned how qi feels, you can walk into a room and get an instant impression of the emotional and energetic temperature of the people there. If someone who hates you is sitting in the office you just entered, you might feel their emotional presence as a drop in the pit of your stomach. That's your qi reacting to theirs.

Back when I was doing my PhD and I taught undergrad classes, I always hated the days when I had to hand back essays. The classroom was often ripe with the students' nervousness, and I felt their fear of doing badly hit me like a wave.

One of the things tai chi can teach us is how to manage such scenarios so that we aren't quite as vulnerable to the emotional projections of others.

Another key aspect of tai chi and qigong is a sensitivity to non-corporeal energy beings that surround us. On a fundamental level, our world is composed of such energies. Not all of the sentient and mobile energies out there have physical form like we do. If you're out in the woods, and you see what look like multi-coloured or golden sparks, don't worry: your retinas probably aren't tearing (as I thought mine were the first few times I saw this phenomena). You're seeing elementals, rudimentary energies. You can feel these energies at times, too. While meditating a couple of months ago, I felt a large, sinuous form pass by me where I was sitting on the floor. A while later, a white, translucent, smiling face floated in front of me. I'd been visited by a dragon - one of the guardians of our practice.

While seeing these things doesn't make you a better tai chi practitioner, it does highlight the fact that there is layer upon layer of reality that is unacknowledged by our materialistic culture. Being able to see such things doesn't make you crazy. It's just a part of taking a deeper look at your world. One of my favourite things about walking the tai chi path is watching the world unfold before me, in ways that are constantly surprising, new and unexpected.

Masters who learn to tame their minds and emotions, and who build an intimate relationship with qi, can also use their energy for self defense. YouTube is full of videos that include demonstrations of qi manipulation, often followed by cries that they are "fake." While it's true that a lot of these videos are the qi master equivalent of professional wrestling, some offer wonderful insight into how qi manipulation works. This demonstration by Venerable Lama Dondrup Dorje of the Pathgate Institute of Buddhist Studies both shows and discusses the use of your qi bubble. While the demonstrations might look fake, the Lama's assistants are reacting to the way he is using his qi field. Enjoy.

Swimming Dragon Qigong

When  you look at another practitioner's tai chi, it's tempting, especially in the beginning, to only look at externals. Does the practitioner do the same movements you've been taught? Is she performing the movements in a way that you've been told is good? Is his hand in the right spot? Is his timing exactly like you've been told to it should be? What's that funny stuff he's doing there? Never seen that before...must be wrong!

It's far more profitable to watch a master tai chi or qigong practitioner in order to pick up what you can about style. You're not looking for the moves you know. You're looking for the how.

In this 1997 video, Liping Zhu, acupuncturist and incredible qigong artist at the Qi Dragon Healing Center in San Francisco, performs swimming dragon qigong. When you watch it, look for the power and amazing smoothness of her movements. Watch how each movement comes from the feet and is channeled through her body and out through the hands. There's no extraneous movement, and nothing flowery here. This is direct, focused, and soft movement at its best.

Enjoy.

Tai Chi as Meditation

These days, calling tai chi "moving meditation" is pretty much a cliché. If you've never tried tai chi, or you've learned from an instructor who hasn't gone beyond the superficial levels of tai chi, you might be wondering how moving slowly and stretching your body translates into meditation.

My experience with tai chi is that the meditation part of the exercise - uh, like the exercise part of the exercise - takes time to develop, and tends to go in stages. 

At first, when you're learning tai chi, it's a matter of getting your limbs to go in the right place. There is something about beginning tai chi practice that can take a perfectly well coordinated individual and turn him into a crazy, limbs-akimbo mess. Flailing through your first beginners lessons is common - and it's also the beginning of meditation, believe it or not. Your mind is so focused on not falling down, and maybe even on cursing yourself out for not getting it right away, it's impossible to focus on anything else! You've forgotten the argument you had with the person of your affections. You've forgotten the dry cleaning you're supposed to pick up after class. Gone are the worries about whether you look fat in your workout outfit. You've got bigger things to worry about now. At least you're worrying about whether you'll ever be comfortable doing tai chi instead of the things that normally bug you.

No, this is not true meditation. But in some ways, a change is as good as a rest when it comes to taming monkey mind.

Source: National Geographic Monkey Gallery

Once you do get a bit more comfortable doing tai chi, your mind becomes more focused on achieving certain goals: memorizing the set so you can do it at home; refining your technique; trying to keep the flow going from one movement to the next. Focusing on these tasks can bring you much more peace than wondering if you'll ever "get it" (you never will, by the way, because there's always more to learn). It's still not real meditation, but it should help you to calm and centre yourself.

After a while - for some people, a few months, for others, a few years - you'll start to feel that the tai chi set is part of your muscle memory. You'll learn to sink deeply into each movement, and you'll feel waves moving in and around your body as you work. That's qi - vital life energy that flows all around you and through you. When you first start to feel qi, it can be distracting. But the more you return your body to performing correct technique, and the more you focus your mind on the purpose of each movement, the more it will flow.

You're on your way to doing tai chi meditation.

As you practice, you'll begin to feel a deep calm. It will happen from time to time at first, but the more you can access that inner stillness, the more you'll feel like you're standing at the centre of a hurricane when you do tai chi. That still centre comes from relaxing, focusing the mind, and all that technique you've absorbed as you practiced. The hurricane is one you're creating, and it's your qi that's moving around and through you.

Now you're meditating.

And you aren't just the eye of the storm. You're the storm itself. And that is awesome. That's tai chi meditation.



Tai Chi and Diet



When you do any kind of exercise, it will change your body composition: that much is inevitable. In the long term, tai chi has an incredibly profound effect on your entire body, from the inside out. Your muscles and tendons become softer -- and, paradoxically, stronger. Your bone density will increase. You'll find your emotions are more balanced, and you'll be able to achieve a stronger mental focus. All of these changes are based on moving your body and focusing your mind in entirely new ways. To make the most of your tai chi, it's important to follow a few key dietary principles.

The diet recommendations I'm making here are based on my experience as a tai chi practitioner who works out six times a week, sometimes for three hours at a time. Your mileage may vary. You probably have different body composition and different energy tendencies than I do, so nothing here is absolute. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners recommend an incredibly wide variety of different foods and cooking styles, depending on your basic disposition and any symptoms you might have. As Victoria Dragon notes in her article on TCM & Diet for Acupuncture.com, one of the beauties of TCM is that it recognizes individuality in everything, including diet.

Needless to say, you shouldn't eat a food to which you are allergic or sensitive. If you think you have a food allergy, go get tested by an allergist.

In TCM, one of the core notions is following what's called a "pure, clear diet." This means natural food. It means whole food. It means that you won't get what you need from a frozen cube of tastelessness that you stick in the microwave each night. My tai chi classmates--the people who I've been training with for years now--have noticed that slowly, their tolerance for any processed foods has dropped way down. If you want to feed your body well, you need to cook.

When you're especially starving after a workout, it's tempting to grab the fastest, easiest source of calories. Back at the club where I first learned tai chi, people routinely ate cheap storebought cookies along with their tea during class breaks. But it's important not to gravitate toward simple sugar. A cookie or piece of cake will only leave you feeling draggy if you eat it after a workout, and over time, sugar stresses your entire energy system and causes spleen qi depletion. Don't deplete your spleen qi!

When I was first practicing, I craved pasta and other carbs after a workout. I would head home after the end of class at 10pm, cook a big pot of noodles, and eat them with some bread. Needless to say this was not the best idea, for my digestion or my energy level.

So what's ideal? As a baseline, you'll want to focus on lean proteins, whole grains, lots and lots of vegetables, and some fruit.

In TCM, eating raw veggies is generally speaking not considered the best idea. Raw veg makes your body work extra hard to digest it. I know there are a lot of raw foodists and general nutritionists out there who think it's a great idea to make your body work harder. If it wants calories, the logic seems to go, it has to slave to get them!

But the TCM approach suggests that the best way to keep your qi levels high is to give your body food that it doesn't have such a hard time with. Lightly steamed veggies are great. In the depths of winter, when it's absolutely freezing out, a hearty, root vegetable-laden stew is terrific for you, and will help you stay warm. When it comes to doing tai chi, which warms you greatly on the inside, a good rule is that warming foods are best.

Whole grains are the foundation of a good diet according to many TCM practitioners. I've been experimenting lately with starting my day with a bowl of porridge of some kind--whether it's brown rice porridge, oatmeal, quinoa, millet, or some other mystery grain, and I've found I have energy to burn and I stay full for hours and hours.

You'll find varying opinions on meat among TCM practitioners, but if you're going to do tai chi intensively, it's best to include some in your diet. I know, I know. A lot of people who are vegetarian are also attracted to activities like tai chi. But as a former vegetarian, I can tell you that it's next door to impossible to do tai chi and stay healthy on a vegetarian diet. Meat protein relaxes and nourishes your muscles and tendons in a way that vegetable protein sources, like beans or tofu, and even eggs and dairy, just can't accomplish. I speak from experience on this: I was vegetarian for 13 years before I started experimenting with adding a little bit of fish or chicken back into my diet, and the difference was incredible.

Generally speaking, you'll find your digestive tract is happier when you drink and eat foods that are room temperature or warmer, especially right after a workout or if you've been spending a lot of time meditating.

Good luck with your tai chi, and happy eating!

Wang Shujin

In the past few months, I've done some online writing about tai chi, qigong, martial arts, and various other holistic and alternative health topics for Livestrong.com, which has been just great. Writing for this online branch of the Livestrong Foundation has allowed me to combine two of my passions: writing and internal martial arts. If you're looking for brief, informative articles on tai chi and qigong, allow me to direct you!


Far and away my favourite topic to write about so far has been Wang Shu Jin. This man exemplifies everything I love about tai chi, qigong and internal martial arts. He was large and in charge. He practiced relentlessly and achieved amazing things. The Livestrong article gives you a tiny hint of his prowess and stature. In the name of keeping things family-oriented here, I won't go into too much detail, but my point is that Wang Shu Jin knew how to deal with young upstarts who misjudged him because of his body shape.

Bruce Frantzis, martial arts practitioner since 1961, had this to say about his earliest meetings with Wang Shu Jin:

"When I drove my fist into his belly, it felt as if the blow had broken my wrist. Wang would often tap me on the head during sparring just to demonstrate how easy it would have been for him to demolish me. One time, in fact, he tapped me lightly on the head, dropping me to the ground instantly. I sat there in utter surprise, feeling as if I had just been jolted by a high-voltage electrical current."

He quotes Wang as saying "Well, young man, there is a lot more to being healthy than being young, and it all comes down to how much chi you have."

(Bruce Frantzis, "The Power of Internal Martial Arts and Chi," pages 17-18

This is not to say that I am in any way recommending violent behaviour as a lifestyle. Nor am I into knocking anyone around (or being knocked around, for that matter). The reason why I love stories like Wang Shu Jin's is that it's a great reminder that this training can take us anywhere. I've personally used it to rehabilitate from an accident and surgery. You might want to use it to help you reach new spiritual insights. Maybe you're looking for a different way to learn martial arts. Or maybe you just want to feel great. There are no limits here.

There was a Chinese documentary made featuring Wang, before he passed on. It features him demonstrating some of his incredible technique. Enjoy!


What is the difference between tai chi and yoga?


If you're looking for an exercise class that has a meditation component, you might be interested in yoga or tai chi. Both practices have their origins in eastern spiritual traditions. Both emphasize stretching and strengthening. Both focus on increasing the flexibility of the spine.

Where some forms of yoga emphasize getting into a posture and easing deeper and deeper into it, tai chi tends to work on stretching through dynamic movement. When you do a tai chi set or practice the movements of chi kung exercises, your goal is to flow constantly from one part of the move to the next, never to hold one pose.

Unlike yoga, tai chi is a martial art. Some classes emphasize the martial arts aspect of tai chi more than others. Although I train students gently and always match my lessons to the pace of the individual, I do show people how the movements would be used for self-defense. Although many people who come to my classes are hesitant about this aspect at first, they often find that it becomes their favourite part of tai chi. Most people find that it is much easier to access the warrior spirit within than they would have thought! Like any martial art, tai chi gives you a keen mental focus that is stimulating and uplifting.

Where some yoga poses require the student to use his or her arms to support the body (e.g., downward dog), tai chi does not involve the arms in this way, except in some advanced exercises that are not introduced in the beginning. If you have any concerns about putting pressure on the joints in your hands, wrists, or arms, it may be that tai chi is a better option for you.

Tai chi and yoga are two different paths to the same goal: health, joy, and inner peace. The ultimate answer to the question of which to choose has to depend on you. Ask an instructor in each of the forms if you can sit in on a class and observe. Take your time and shop around. See which one speaks to you.

Can I Do Tai Chi Even if...


This post is the first in a series of answers to questions that people have asked me about tai chi.

Sometimes people have concerns about beginning tai chi training. It's natural to wonder about whether a medical condition or other physical limitation will mean you can't do tai chi.

Some forms of this question include:
  • Can I do tai chi even if I must remain seated?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have chronic pain?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have a major chronic illness (lupus, Parkinson's, MS, fibromyalgia)?
There are less extreme versions of this question that might still prevent you from trying tai chi:
  • Can I do tai chi even if I've never done formal exercise before?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I don't do any other kind of exercise?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I've been told I'm uncoordinated?
  • Can I do tai chi even if I have trouble focussing?

While I can't speak to how other tai chi instructors deal with this kind of issue, my answer to all of these questions is yes, you can. One of the many beauties of tai chi is that it can be adapted for anyone who is willing and able to attend a class.

My training has included hours of instruction on how to tailor lessons for each individual, so that each participant receives exactly what he or she needs in a class. I have worked with people with Parkinson's, MS, Alzheimer's, brain injuries, arthritis, and chronic pain.

When I teach someone in compromised health, I work from my own experience. Part of my tai chi journey has included using tai chi to overcome chronic joint pain that resulted from a cycling accident. I know how very effective the gentle stretching and strengthening movements of tai chi can be as you work toward recovery. It has been my experience that anyone can begin to practice tai chi and receive some benefits even from one session.

This is not to say that it is equally easy for everyone to begin. Tai chi is an incredibly sophisticated and complex system for healing mind, body, and spirit. Challenges await anyone who decides to start down the tai chi path to healing. And it is especially difficult to engage in physical exercise when your health is already compromised. But I guarantee that no matter what your situation, with effort and practice, you will be pleasantly surprised at how soon you begin to feel better.

New Class Hours for 2010

Happy New Year, everyone! Hours are changing a little bit for 2010.

Wednesday classes

Wednesday classes are still on from 5:30-6:30pm. This is an open class for all levels of tai chi.


Friday classes

The intermediate class for Seniors is still ongoing on Fridays. The start time has shifted to 2:10pm.

Our beginner class on Friday afternoon is just underway, so if you're a brand new beginner, 3:10 on Fridays would be a wonderful time for you.


Saturday classes

I'm very excited about the change to the Saturday class. The class will run from 3:00 to 4:30. I'll run a lesson aimed specifically at brand new beginners from 3:00-3:30 pm. We'll do Qiqong exercises for all levels from 3:30-4:00 (beginners most welcome!). Continuing students will have dedicated time from 4:00.

But of course if you're a continuing student, you can still benefit from going over the moves with the beginners, working on your technique, and joining us for standing exercises from 3:30-4:00. If you're up for the challenge of an hour and a half workout, please join us! There are amazing benefits to be had from an extended workout!