Staying Rooted: Insights on How to Handle Stress Using T’ai Chi

By Milton Huang, M. D.

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Monday September 6, 2004

The world seems to get more hectic and complex every day. We are being bombarded by a multitude of different ideas, different cultures and different conflicts. New technologies change our jobs and our relationships with instant messages, instant demands and instant expectations. Everything seems to keep accelerating, moving increasingly faster.

These are the feelings that bring people to my door and keep me busy in my job as a psychiatrist. Everyone is stressed, even in “laid-back” Santa Cruz.

Part of my job is to help people find relief from that stress. Although some relief can be found through herbs, medications or other substances, I find that more lasting relief comes when people recognize patterns in themselves that contribute to their stress, then engage in a sustained effort to redirect those internal forces.

This is not easy, and is sometimes even stressful in itself, but it is a lot healthier and allows greater flexibility in the long run.

Understanding Stress

Stress is not a one-way street that the outside world uses to make deliveries to our door. It is a dynamic response to the conditions of our lives. When we feel stressed, we often make it worse by worrying about it, blaming ourselves for not being “good enough,” or simply tensing up and carrying the tension around in a defensive stance.

I have learned this not only through talking to my patients, but also through my own experience. Stress, and specifically anxiety, is a visceral body reaction. Few other emotions remind us so directly that mind and body are inseparably connected.

We feel our anxiety in our clenched guts and thumping hearts. We get physical aches and pains. Our hands get cold or sweaty. Yet, this connection between mind and body is generally automatic and unconscious.

When we are able to look at ourselves and perceive how these body reactions are tied to our feelings about our lives, one is struck by the fact that mind and body are not only connected, but connected in a way we often cannot control.

Anxiety reactions can seem to come out of nowhere or appear completely disproportionate to any rational assessment of the danger of a particular situation. Learning how to manage these reactions is difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. I find it a constant personal challenge, as well as a professional one.

The Mind-Body Connection

Although I have been trained in multiple therapeutic techniques and theories, I constantly look for ideas and approaches to better manage and resolve anxiety. In the last year-and-a-half, I have explored one such approach in t’ai chi ch’uan, or tai chi.

This ancient discipline can teach a broad range of self-awareness and self-connection skills that help a person understand and manage many physical and emotional issues.

So what is tai chi?

Those with a passing acquaintance immediately visualize a group of people moving in slow motion in a park in the early morning hours. My earlier impressions were primarily derived from such images, as well as various readings in Chinese philosophy.

Yet, tai chi is not simply beautiful, slow movement. It is a highly refined and sophisticated martial art and self-development discipline. My current understanding comes from regular training with a local teacher, Greg Brodsky.

A martial artist since 1960, Brodsky studied with two of the most renowned tai chi masters in the United States, Cheng M’an-Ching and William C.C. Chen.

Now in his 60s, Brodsky’s emphasis is on practical body mechanics with exquisite awareness and practical cultivation of energy through the body. He always employs a characteristic gentle and humorous style, emphasizing the mental and emotional aspects in every lesson.

Mind-Body Mechanics

One of these basic lessons is called “rooting.” In this part of tai chi, one seeks to develop a solid grounding of self to the earth, keeping your feet on the ground, your feelings open and your mind clear and focused.

Attention moves through the body from earth to foot to legs to center to hands. You begin to be aware of the constant relationship of how you physically support yourself, how different parts of your body are interconnected and how your efforts and intentions can hinder or enhance that support and connection.

You also become more aware of the natural flow of motion and energy through the body and how these flow through our connection to the world around us. The physical background for such lessons is practice of the form – a series of 60 movements that takes 10 to 15 minutes.

As I move through these steps, I maintain awareness from moment to moment of where I am and how I am moving. Such attention has shown me how unconscious tensions are always present in different places in my body.

Although being aware of how tense I am often makes me even more tense (since I know that I “need to relax”), the process of being immersed in the flow of tai chi helps reduce the tendency to make those judgments and self-criticisms.

Brodsky and his wife and co-teacher, Ching, work to create a training space where there are no “good” or “bad” moves, encouraging their students to just recognize their self-generated stress patterns and cultivate new ones.

These efforts have taught me that the main barriers to a comfortable inner state and competent tai chi practice are emotional. It is through learning your own emotional “root” and center that you can begin to recognize your own strengths and boundaries and feel a greater comfort in letting go and relaxing.

This in turn allows us to release the energy we waste in defensive stances and to better connect with everything around us.

This process creates an energized and dynamic relaxation that is not passive, but rather alive with a power that comes from our connection to the energy all around us. Although I am only a novice in learning these skills, I can understand what Greg means when he quotes his first teacher, Cheng M’an-Ching: “Stillness while in motion is true stillness.”

Push Hands

These lessons become even more clear in another part of tai chi that is not as widely known: Push Hands.

Push Hands practice extends the body awareness and connection developed in solo practice to a situation in which one interacts with another person.

In this exercise, two people face each other and, within safe boundaries, attempt to push each other off balance.

As in form practice, one strives to maintain a constant grounding and balance, as well as a smooth and natural flow – this time in coordination between two different individuals.

To be successful, one must pay close attention to their partner’s actions and intentions. You quickly learn that single-minded pursuit of the idea of pushing with aggressive force makes you vulnerable because your force can be used against you.

It is from knowing and blending with your partner’s moves that you can learn how to recognize and redirect them in a natural and flowing way.

Tai chi practitioners call this “listening.” I find that, with Push Hands as with the tai chi form, anxious emotions create the greatest barrier to progress.

I have become acutely aware of how I tense or overreact when I sense a push coming, thereby wasting energy or making myself more vulnerable.

I also see how I inhibit my own pushes and reflexively become passive, failing to push when I should. These are the same emotional reflexes that I always carry with me, whether I’m playing with my kids or working with a patient.

In the exercise of Push Hands, I have a dynamic arena where I can learn to recognize and change unconscious patterns of behavior – an essential part of growing to be a better father and therapist.

Less Stress

Personally, I have found my work in tai chi to be challenging, yet an important path that continues to provide me opportunities to grow emotionally.

The emotional self is always difficult to change, as it resists with a legion of deceptive devices. Obvious symptoms such as stress activate us and draw us into looking for immediate relief, sometimes leading us to miss the larger patterns of how we become trapped in our lives.

I always encourage people to look to the larger picture and not rely on the quick fixes that are becoming all too easily available in modern society.

The healthiest ways to reduce stress are the ones that last. Stress is often a sign that we are challenged by the task of uniting our physical, intellectual and emotional selves.

It is from discontinuities between these selves that we often create our personal lifelong traps that can repeatedly drain us.

Recognizing these traps and resolving these discontinuities form an ongoing, lifetime work that is essential for health and for living fully.

Each person is unique, with unique background, unique talents and a unique path to tread.

Some find assistance in such a task through spiritual practice. Others through psychotherapy or disciplines like tai chi.

If you seek new ways to find how to connect to your mind and body, you should consider finding a teacher or “sifu” and discover what this ancient practice can do for you.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008 Milton Huang All rights reserved.

Well-Used Ex-Marine Finds His Way to Health, Inner Peace

By Gene Ervin

This article appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on August 25, 2002

It has been over a year since I started my journey to learn this art. I am surprised that it happened at all.

At 65, I have had a hip replacement, smoked cigarettes for years and tended bar at local landmarks like the Catalyst, Tampico Kitchen and the legendary Club Zayante. On paper, I’m an unlikely candidate for something like t’ai chi.

As a former Marine and lifelong athlete, I have intermittently practiced hard styles of martial arts since 1968. All my previous training taught me to ignore pain and push through mental resistance to meet life’s physical challenges.

This is different.

Today, you can see me in the park playing the slow, beautiful moves of Greg Brodsky’s Yang style t’ai chi ch’uan (pronounced tie-jee juen). I’m breathing deeply, at peace with myself and having lots of fun. I no longer smoke and no longer crave it. My energy has doubled, and my strength has increased by at least half. The chronic back pain I suffered for years is gone. The weakness in my leg from the hip replacement is gone. The dull aches that I used to have upon arising every morning are gone. My mind is more clear than it has been in decades.

All because of t’ai chi.

Who would have known that such a subtle art could do so much in such a short time for an old warhorse like me?

It turns out that medical researchers know it. In studies by the American Heart Association, National Institute on Aging, and American Geriatric Society, the practice of t’ai chi by seniors lowered blood pressure, reduced the risk of falling by nearly 50 percent, increased strength, improved balance and flexibility, and sped up people’s reaction time.

“You better believe we were surprised by these results,” said researcher Dr. Deborah Young from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We expected to see significant changes in the aerobic exercise group and minimal changes in the t’ai chi group.” As it turned out, the t’ai chi group reduced their systolic blood pressure almost as well as did the aerobic exercisers.

Sifu Brodsky’s students (Sifu means teacher) don’t need to measure blood pressure to know about healthy results.

“For the first time, I can feel harmony in my body,” reported a classmate of mine, a woman in her 40s who had tried t’ai chi before, with mixed results.

T’ai chi involves slow, smooth, balanced movements, but it challenges you both mentally and physically. Deep relaxation is one of the benefits, but you can raise a healthy sweat while learning this art.

The focused presence and body awareness it produces are wonderful for the adult mind. The leg strength, balance and physical alignment one achieves are revitalizers. And the cultivation of that mysterious force called qi (pronounced chi), which is mental and physical energy, is a marvelous experience.

Once you feel your qi move, you find yourself in touch with your essential vitality. In describing the personal rejuvenation coming from his practice, another 50-something student states, “I move, stand and even think differently.”

Greg Brodsky, 60, has been doing t’ai chi since 1964 and is the student of two grandmasters: Cheng M’an-Ching and William C. C. Chen.

A martial artist with over 42 years of experience and a former practitioner of Chinese medicine, Brodsky built his art on sound body mechanics and t’ai chi principles. Having experienced considerable bodily damage in his harder training days, topped off by being hit by a runaway car in 1984 while standing at the airport, he teaches in a way that creates spinal alignment, physical power and effectiveness, and mental and physical well being.

Because of his own injuries, the worst of which is a vertebral break in his lower spine, Brodsky developed a method that improves the mechanics and quality of movement regardless of the activity involved. When doctors told him in 1985 that he would require spinal fusion, Brodsky instead developed an approach that was inspired by ideas from Pilates, Alexander, and Feldenkrais, along with basic back stabilization training. He works out 3-5 times a week in a gym doing weight training and aerobics.

While he has to manage his back carefully, an orthopedic specialist observed that he was “doing things that most people can’t do even after the surgery.”

An avid gardener, he digs, weeds and prunes on weekends.

Greg has also taught some of his methods to his 90-year-old mother and 82-year-old mother-in-law, who had become wary of stairs after falling down and breaking her wrist. After a few short lessons, she now takes flights of stairs with confidence.

“You can often see my mom on West Cliff Drive,” Brodsky said, “peacefully standing in meditation as she gazes at the ocean. She uses her martial arts skills to go shopping.”

T’ai chi ch’uan means “supreme ultimate boxing,” but few practitioners actually box. Practiced in China for centuries, the art now enjoys a world-wide following. As a martial art, it employs the principle of neutralizing aggression by yielding to an attack and using the attacker’s own force against him. As a health-building moving meditation (the area most students are interested in), it teaches principles of relaxation and self-cultivation.

Brodsky’s Yang style T’ai Chi involves 60 movements that are practiced in a sequence known as “the form.” Mastering the form is a lifelong undertaking, but in four to eight months you can become familiar enough with the basics to play it on your own, which takes 10 minutes.

Greg teaches on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings in Santa Cruz.

He opens his class to new students three times per year: January, May, and September.

For more information, contact Greg Brodsky at 427-1467 or visit

Gene Ervin is a writer and t’ai chi and qigong student and teacher living in Santa Cruz.

T’ai Chi Driving

by Greg Brodsky

This article appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on May 28, 2005.

Imagine that you are driving on a four-lane highway, approaching a sharp, descending curve to the right. Traffic around you moves at a brisk pace. As you enter the curve, you realize that you are going a bit too fast, so you slow down. Holding the wheel in both hands, you turn it to the right and steer into the curve. Which way do you lean your body?

Do you make the effort to lean to the right, to the left, or not at all?

Most people say “right.” They lean into the curve when making a sharp turn, and lean further when going faster. This can be a costly mistake.

If this describes you, your instinct to lean into curves might come from a desire to keep your sense of balance and stability. But unless you weigh about a thousand pounds, your body weight doesn’t do anything to keep the car more stable on the road. This habit actually makes you less sensitive to the physics of the car’s movement, and potentially less skillful in negotiating the turn. This is because you are pulling yourself up and away from the car’s “root,” disconnecting your senses from where the rubber meets the road.

The leaning habit can also include some jaw clenching and muscle tightening that restrict your breathing and inflict stress on your body and mind. Chances are that you also find yourself excessively tensing your hands, arms, back, and abdominal muscles while trying to maneuver your car, a habit for which you pay a price during your time on the road. When you eventually get out of the car, your knotted neck and shoulders provide evidence of the tension you build up through driving patterns like this one.

You wouldn’t do this if you were practicing t’ai chi.

Using t’ai chi principles for driving, you can relax and put some of your attention to feeling your car’s root: its wheels on the road. This is where the car’s stability occurs and where your comfort and safety begin. As you go around curves, a little attention enables you to feel the connection of the car’s root to your body’s root, which in this case is your butt in the seat. By securing your sense of connection to the road, you don’t have to lean at all, but instead can settle yourself into the seat to better feel the car. Rather than pulling away from your foundation by tensing and cringing up and to the right, you let gravity sink you deeper into the seat. Then, you can sense the car’s road connection on its left side, which is where the weight of the car goes during a right turn, and let your body weight settle along the natural line of force produced by the turn.

Your Root Helps You Relax

Skiers use this principle on the slopes. They concentrate their weight in the outside ski when turning because that is where the root is; turn right and your weight goes to the left ski. T’ai chi players use it, too. They develop a stable, relaxed root and use it to generate power. When you see someone doing that nice, slow movement in a t’ai chi class, for example, they are sinking their weight into the ground and building leg stability that enables their intrinsic power to flow naturally while their upper bodies relax. Neck and shoulder tension dissipate as the root becomes reliable enough to support you.

But, can you practice t’ai chi in a car? Considering today’s road conditions, you have to.

The U. S. Department of Transportation estimates that Americans spend 3.5 Billion hours (Yes, that’s Billion.) stuck in traffic each year. While none of that presumably includes zooming around curves, the built up frustration it causes influences how we take curves once we get the chance, plus how we pass other drivers, react when other drivers pass us, change lanes, accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, and deal with road rage. The next time you find your biological, I’m-gonna-be-late clock ticking because the light just turned red in front of you, wouldn’t it be nice if you had some personal tools to cool you down? A deep, relaxing breath might provide a good start. By breathing to calm yourself down, you are practicing t’ai chi.

Try this:
For the next few days, every time you stop at a traffic light start counting seconds. Use the “one one-thousand, two one-thousand…” method to calculate how long you actually sit there. You might find that you wait for less time than your impatience had you believe. Instead of feeling your blood pressure rise over a 12-second pause, you can take a few deep breaths and let yourself relax. Discovery magazine (April 2005 issue: “Stay Patient, Stay Alive”) states that over 1,300 driving-related fatalities occur yearly involving cars that are changing lanes or merging, not to mention the many thousands of fender benders that happen during lane changes. Researchers attribute many of these to “lane envy,” a traffic-density related perception that other lanes are moving better than yours. But most people get it wrong, neither calculating everyone’s average speed nor figuring out which lanes are doing better. Their perception that others are getting ahead of them causes them to impatiently jump from lane to lane. If they stayed centered on their goal of traveling from one place to another rather than competing with other drivers for momentarily “better” relative positions, they could track their own real travel time and relax much more. Letting the other guy pass you without interpreting that he is winning is pure t’ai chi. You get this when you ask, “Precisely what is he winning?”

Cell phones point to another consciousness-raising reality. According to researchers, cell phone use while driving “poses the same level of risk as driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.” Think about the number of drivers talking on their cell phones, and you can realize that defensive driving isn’t enough any more; we need something that goes deeper, something that helps us manage ourselves when we are the ones on the phone.

But, t’ai chi? Isn’t that a form of moving meditation? Yes, it is. It’s also a martial art that teaches mental and physical focus, high-sensitivity response to subtle and sudden changes in your training partner, and deep relaxation under pressure. More than ever, we need these skills when driving, working, shopping, and reading any recent newspaper. Since your car is moving among many others, and both you and the other drivers represent considerable danger to each other, you might as well be practicing a meditative martial art.

Easy Steps to Meaningful Goals

The next time you get in your car, consider setting two goals. Make the first one arriving at your destination safely, having made the trip without incident. Make your second goal to be arriving in a state of body and mind of your own choosing. Instead of letting yourself be the product of traffic conditions, choose the way you want to feel when you arrive. Imagine a positive state and set yourself a goal of cultivating that state while behind the wheel. While you might not get to Nirvana, when you arrive at work you won’t be in knots. Instead, you will have had a successful exercise in inner management that can set the tone of your day.

Try this:
Sit in the car for 20 seconds before starting the engine. Breathe and relax and visualize yourself arriving at your destination in a positive frame of mind and body. A few steps make this easy. When you get into the car, hook up your belt, put in the key, and just sit for a moment before starting the engine. Twenty seconds should do it. Just relax and feel the weight of your body settling into the seat. Hold the wheel in both hands, let your arms hang, and relax some more. Take a couple of breaths. Get your body and brain ready for a pleasant experience of your own making. This little pause can save you from going into road-stress autopilot as soon as you start the car.

As the car starts, visualize your two goals: getting there safely and cultivating the state you want to be in. Keep these goals in mind and start to breathe accordingly. Breathing can be your primary self-management tool, so use it well and often to relax you. Chances are that you want your desired-state breathing to be full, easy, and complete; no breath-holding, for example.

Next, feel your body’s current state of relaxation. Whether you are commuting over the hill or driving a few miles from home, picture how relaxed you want to be. As your brain prepares to drive, let gravity settle your shoulders, chest, and elbows. Physical tension typically means fighting gravity, and relaxation means going with gravity. With every exhalation, get yourself to let go a little more of the gravitational fight. Let your neck be long and your shoulders relaxed by thinking about gently increasing the distance between your ears and shoulders. This will come in handy while you navigate those curves, or traffic, or finding a parking spot. Let looking, listening, and feeling your root be associated with relaxing.

Presence Relaxes You

Along with breathing and relaxation, the third essential component to attaining your goals is presence: paying attention. You might be surprised to find that you will be more calm and energized at the end of the trip if you were paying attention during the entire trip. Spacing out, while in some contexts might seem like relaxing, actually gets you more tense by the end of a driving experience. This is because of the startle reflex.

Everybody has a genetically built-in startle reflex. Babies exhibit it when you are holding them and start to put them down too quickly. Their eyes fly wide open, their necks and backs stiffen, their hands and shoulders jump up, and they gasp air. We all do the same thing when surprised. But we don’t notice the hundreds of times a day in which small, jarring events invoke mini-startle reflexes in us: the phone rings while you are deep in thought; or somebody interrupts you in a significant conversation; or maybe the driver in front of you suddenly hits the brakes. Where do your shoulder go? They go up!

Spacing out behind the wheel, whether through music, cell phone conversations, or just not paying attention sets you up for getting startled into reality by unexpected events. You are better off staying attentive to the road the whole time, and your body can prove that to you in one or two commutes. You will find that steady presence taxes you less than occasional presence. Meanwhile, you can relax your shoulders.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t listen to the radio, or enjoy a pleasant conversation while driving. It means that you will do yourself a favor if you practice presence while driving. Whether commuting with a group or alone, on the phone or into the radio, you can practice presence. I suggest listening to something that helps you relax, like books on tape, good music, or talk radio that doesn’t exploit and promote your anger. Also consider turning off the radio from time to time, and just listening to your surroundings and thoughts while you drive.

The whole experience becomes increasingly pleasant when you become more sensitive to the movement characteristics of your car, which will behave according to its mass and center of gravity when you turn, accelerate, decelerate, or stop. You feel all of that much better when you are rooted in the seat, sensitive to the wheel, and relaxed. Relaxation lowers your body’s functional center of gravity and enables you to feel your car’s base on the road. The more you feel of your car’s movement on this base—its root—the more you will be able to relax.

Breathe, relax, and stay present while you are driving and you are playing t’ai chi. Just remember your root.

The web provides some interesting reading about stress and other factors that can improve your driving experience. Here are a few:

Compression Breathing in the Practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan

by Greg Brodsky

An earlier version of this article first appeared in T’ai Chi Magazine in August 2004.

Everything about t’ai chi ch’uan is paradoxical. This enigmatic art teaches that relaxation cultivates power, slow practice enables speed, and a few ounces can deflect great force. We yield to attacks instead of resisting and push our opponents without pushing. We try hard to sense and differentiate energies that can only be sensed when we stop trying. If we are to meet the endless challenges that t’ai chi presents to our minds and bodies, we who choose this path must become comfortable dealing with paradox.

Breathing presents us with an especially rich paradox. All t’ai chi practitioners use breathing techniques to cultivate energy, power, skill, health, well being, and even personal transformation. We all believe our breathing methods to be effective. Many of these methods are based on principles that have been passed down through generations and represent hundreds of thousands of hours spent in trial and error. They all deserve respect, and the greatest respect for any principle is to use, test, and refine it over time.

In this article, I invite you to explore breathing from a mechanical perspective. Rather than focusing on traditional ch’i or jin (internal power) development, I address a model that generates power in the body through compression. My intent is to present the breathing paradox in a way that respectfully challenges conventional wisdom regarding breathing in t’ai chi forms, with proofs that can be tested on the training floor and in every aspect of daily life. My hope is that experimentation with these proofs will open new, useful pathways to t’ai chi practitioners, for cultivating both health and martial arts effectiveness. While gaining considerable benefit from this model myself, specifically following a car accident that severely injured my spine, I make no claims about having developed superior abilities. My only claim is that if you objectively experiment with the concepts presented here, you will discover ways in which breathing can transform your practice.

Assertions that Shape the Paradox

  1. During slow movement such as form practice, the practitioner can root, relax, and cultivate power more easily by reversing the typical breathing model. According to that model, one inhales in order to “load up” and exhales as you “apply” each movement in the form. When playing form, I propose releasing air in between moves, and inhaling gently as each move arises.
  2. At speed, the release of air that occurs when pushing or striking is not a true exhalation; it is a by-product of compression. If you relax and don’t hold your breath, there is no need to think about exhaling.
  3. When moving slowly, the prevailing breathing model might actually inhibit the level of relaxation you can achieve by causing you to breathe against your natural body mechanics. We will explore those mechanics below.
  4. While breathing plays a significant role in generating power, the more significant role belongs to your ability to accelerate along a single line from root to target. Alignment with gravity, relaxation, compression, and congruent movement provide the foundations of this acceleration. Whether a movement is large, as in a kick, or indiscernible, as in an internally generated repulsion, acceleration is the key.

A Few Definitions

Acceleration refers to the rate of change in speed with respect to time. Where moving the body is concerned, this means going from near zero (virtually no tension or movement) to 100% (absolute hardness along a single) in the shortest possible time.

Congruent movement means everything in your body is moving together to produce a single force vector (the sum of physical forces moving through the body) combined with a minimum of contradictory or unnecessary body tension. This is a cornerstone of all martial arts. We practice the same moves thousands of times to hard-wire pure movement into the body/mind: focused, aligned to one purpose, without mental or physical “static” that contradicts our actions.

Compression, which we shall explore here in detail, is absolute hardness along that same force vector, the “needle wrapped in cotton” that occurs while everything inessential stays relaxed. Although muscles must contract to move our bones into place, the compression we seek is passive, as if it were a response to incoming pressure rather than an active or aggressive action. Whether we are aware of it or not, we compress the body whenever we issue power.

The breathing paradox begins with the realization that we don’t have to inhale when “loading up” and exhale when discharging energy. As long as we don’t hold the breath we can compress from root through dantian to target while we are anywhere in the breathing cycle.

In this article, I hope to prove these assertions. I also advocate testing them in a variety of environments. Let’s begin, paradoxically, by delving into one of the most common errors for beginners: the tendency to hold the breath when trying to be strong. Our starting point is seemingly the farthest point on Earth from t’ai chi practice: the typical weight room in a gym.

What Makes Johnny Hold His Breath?

If you walk into any gym in the world, you’ll see the same sweaty scene: Here’s young Johnny, struggling to lift a heavy barbell, red-faced, veins popping, holding his breath. Along comes an experienced trainer who instructs him to exhale on the exertion. This way, he won’t break blood vessels or otherwise hurt himself by excessive straining. So goes conventional bodybuilding wisdom.

It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough. Taken at face value, it implies that the young lifter can hold his breath at the “bottom” of his exercise. If, for example, he’s on his back doing a bench-press, he will inhale as he lowers the bar to his chest, then hold his breath while he works to get it moving upward, and exhale explosively as he pushes the bar toward the top of his movement. This is better than holding his breath the entire time, but still dangerous in the aneurysm department and an inefficient use of Johnny’s potential power.

If he wants to develop maximum power and optimal health, he should never hold his breath during weight training. Instead, if he coordinates his breathing and movement in a fluid, non-stop pattern, he can quickly raise his level of performance. This is because integrated movement leads to optimal power; when he holds his breath, he locks up much of his body, restricting his fluidity. Also, when he holds his breath, he limits critical biological processes like oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, making his workout less aerobic, and even dangerous.

But there is an important reason why Johnny holds his breath in the first place. The most direct way to understand this mechanism, one that you and I share with Johnny, is to try a simple experiment. Before you read into the next paragraph, just stand up and sit back down. Do it twice and pay attention to everything you do. Don’t just read on; please try it. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Compression: The Pneumatic Backstop

Did you, at any time during this action of standing and sitting, hold your breath? If so, why? I’ve asked dozens of people to try this experiment and found that 90% of them hold their breath somewhere in the process. What do they gain from it? Where does this habit come from? Similarly, why do people hold their breath when opening a tightly capped jar of peanut butter? Or lifting a heavy object? Or bending over?

Consider the idea that people hold their breath at moments like these to create a brace: a pneumatic backstop for the torso. By holding our breath and simultaneously tensing our muscles we change a loose torso into a single, solid unit against which we can apply leverage. Whether opening the jar, lifting the heavy object, or standing up, this backstop for the torso provides a foundation from which we can push.

The pneumatic backstop works on compression. Compressed air in our lungs presses against the abdomen, internal organs, and spine. When getting up, the tensed-torso unit acts like an automobile air bag, helping it to hold its natural position against the powerful forward pull acting on our lower or lumbar spine. We contract and compress while holding the breath, then exhale once we no longer need the support. And voila! We are standing. It’s not elegant, but good enough for average humans who are still learning to stand erect. By studying this primitive instinct to inhale and hold for leveraged force against the spine we can learn how pneumatic/muscular compression works in our bodies.

Lifting a 22-pound weight with knees flexed and torso upright produces about 300 lbs. of force on S1. Lifting with straight knees and trunk flexed forward takes it into the 700-pound range. The force required to smash this disk is somewhere between 1,000-1,800 lbs., but it is believed that the disc can take loads up to 2,600 pounds.

The disk can do this for two reasons. First, the force is distributed through the disk itself. Then, the trunk as a whole acts to relieve the pressure on the disk. This most common relieving action is called Valsalva’s Maneuver: holding the breath and blocking the orifices of the body. This raises thoracic cavity pressure, causing the torso to act as a rigid beam, reducing stress on the 5th lumbar disk by about 30% and stress on the 12th thoracic disk by up to 50%.

But Valsalva’s Maneuver is a primitive instinct with a huge downside: It creates cerebral venous hypertension, decreases venous return and pulmonary blood flow, raises pulmonary vascular resistance, and increases cerebral-spinal fluid pressure. Held over several heartbeats, its counter-pressure also inhibits the heart’s ability to expand and refill with blood. (Imagine packing your heart in bubble-wrap, then expecting it to expand easily in between beats.)

Where ongoing stress is concerned, habitual breath holding also conditions the body to sustain a baseline of unnecessary, chronic tension. Where t’ai chi is concerned, habitual and unconscious breath holding can severely limit your development by keeping you from experiencing meaningful relaxation. For these reasons, it is very valuable to replace Valsalva’s maneuver at virtually all times with a conscious and appropriately timed breath cycle.

Principle: Never hold your breath to brace your torso. You can develop even more support by exhaling naturally whenever flexing at the hip joint (bending over) and inhale abdominally whenever extending the hip joint (straightening up). This practice can enable you to support your spine with a dynamic “air bag,” rather than the static, and stress-building practice of holding the breath. This provides a way to attain spinal support, flexibility, and increased power in all movement.

Try a Different Pattern

Let’s take our experiment further. I’ll ask you to stand up again, but this time:

  1. Tilt forward, as if you were going to fall onto your face on the floor. This will cause you to flex the kua (hip joint). Gently exhale without blowing out forcefully; just release the air and “fall” forward to shift your weight from seat to feet.
  2. Don’t try to stand right away. Continue “falling” forward until your weight sinks into your feet and you are bent forward, spine long, looking at the floor.
  3. After completing this transfer from seat to feet, inhale and push your feet into the floor and extend (straighten) your kua to stand erect.
  4. Let yourself exhale again after you are standing.
  5. Reverse the process to sit down. Exhale to flex and inhale after you are seated.

Virtually everyone with whom I have tested this has found it to be a more natural breath pattern. By exhaling as you flex (bend) and inhaling as you extend (straighten) the kua, you support your spine and replace Valsalva’s unnecessary, static tension with a more dynamic and timed compression. This is compression breathing.

Consider compression breathing from the standpoint of a small child. A toddler, when losing balance, falls by sitting; air is naturally released from the child’s body, because the mechanics of sitting include flexing the kua and a bump on the bottom. Similarly, if you suddenly passed out from a standing position, as you slumped to the ground, what would happen to the air in your lungs? You would release air. If you regained consciousness half way down, you would inhale to help yourself stand again. If you carefully study your movements during the day, you will find that as long as you are relaxed, your body naturally wants to inhale every time you initiate an expansive (extending) action and to exhale every time you fold your frame. By recognizing and refining this natural instinct, and by carefully eliminating breath holding from your behavioral pattern, you are practicing compression breathing. This is useful day to day, especially if you have chronic back pain or high blood pressure. And by applying compression breathing to your t’ai chi practice, you can revolutionize your experience.

I have tested compression breathing in my own body, with bodybuilders pushing considerable weight, with my t’ai chi students and colleagues, and with people who are well past their physical prime (ages 80-100). The results are consistent: exhaling upon flexing the kua and inhaling upon extending the kua adds more fluid power with less chronic tension than breath holding. Incidentally, if you pay attention to your breathing during the day, you might be surprised to find how many times you hold your breath. Eliminating this habit can be worth several blood pressure points as well as some interesting training discoveries.

With that introduction into compression breathing, let’s look at compression itself.

To summarize my first points:

• Breath-holding, as an adjunct to movement, is a primitive habit that is meant to support the spine. It works, but is dangerous and self limiting.
• This habit can be replaced by a well-timed breathing cycle: exhaling when flexing the kua (bending) and inhaling when extending the kua (straightening). 
• These are more natural actions than the ones to which we might be habituated. 
• Changing these habits can enable the healthy use of compression and decompression in t’ai chi, which we will now address.

Unhealthy and Healthy Compression

Compression is critical for any physical movement, and especially meaningful in t’ai chi practice. In t’ai chi, we need to resolve anything that unnecessarily slows us when we need speed, tightens us when we need to relax, drains us, limits our range of movement, dulls our ability to sense and respond, or keeps us from cultivating inner well-being. Misuse of compression has all these negative effects.

Right now, for example, with a quick scan you can find some muscles that you are tensing that you don’t need to tense in order to maintain your position. These are results of chronic holding patterns that you, along with the rest of us, unconsciously maintain. Such patterns could be anywhere in your body. As you take a breath and let a few muscle fibers relax, you decrease the unhealthy, habitual compression that you unknowingly impose on yourself. It’s a low-cost solution to a high-cost and stress-promoting pattern, and probably part of why you started t’ai chi practice in the first place. You might also notice that you actually relax when you exhale, not when you inhale. This signals a clue about how to bring your relaxation baseline down a little more. We all tend to breathe within a range that maintains a familiar baseline of tension in our bodies, and without realizing it, habitually restrict part of our breathing. A gentle sigh shows you how easy it is to interrupt this pattern and release that unconscious yet confining habit. As we let go of our breathing and relax, we feel less pressure within. This is decompression.

Tension and Gravity

T’ai chi principles teach you to consciously relax and loosen our joints (sung). Sung occurs as you become increasingly sensitive and responsive to gravity, a powerful but often ignored force that never stops acting on us. Aging and gravity produce an earthbound sort of compression that bends our spines, shrinks our vertebral disks, and accentuates the effects of our chronic holding patterns in ways that distort our bones and cause us stiffness and pain. Conscious sung, on the other hand, enables us to root our feet to the earth as we raise the tops of our heads skyward and gently liberate our spines. We learn to align with gravity and use it to enable more graceful and economical movement. As our muscular strength declines with age, our actions become more efficient and effective. This occurs because we improve our relationship with gravity. As t’ai chi practitioners, we slowly replace chronic tension throughout the body with the conscious and purposeful use of tension (compression, activation, energizing) and relaxation (decompression, release, loosening). As we replace raw strength with thought-driven movement, we also distinguish static compression (being generally tense) from dynamic compression (conscious contraction of appropriate muscles), which accompanies subtle pressure changes in the dantian.

Pressure and Release

The world’s leading proponent of compression in t’ai chi ch’uan is Grandmaster William C. C. Chen. He describes compression this way:

“All the movements of Tai Chi Chuan are activated by pressure changes in the lower abdomen. As the pressure increases, the arms flow outward or upward. When it decreases, the arms move inward or downward. The arms never move by themselves.”

This is consistent with the T’ai Chi Classics, but the classics don’t address compression. To understand compression, let’s compare throwing a punch to opening our previously mentioned jar of peanut butter. With the jar, you need appropriate compression in your torso as you apply torque to the lid with your hands. When you punch, you need optimal compression in the dantian as your fist reaches its target. While the punch is still accelerating toward the target, your foot, knee, pelvis, torso, arm, and hand must align so that your energy moves in a congruent direction. This line from foot to hand—the force vector—must embody absolute hardness as the fist arrives or the punch will have little power.

At the moment of contact and in response to the contact, your compression will be at its relative maximum. Just as it would make no sense to tense your fist when preparing to punch, then going limp as you arrive at the target, it would make no sense to decompress at the moment you need your backstop the most: at the instant of contact. Decompression occurs afterward as you complete the follow through and prepare for your next action.

With this moment of contact in mind, decompression characterizes your resting state. In motion, you relax and tense as needed and where needed. In your daily life, you are relaxed most of the time and able to generate explosive hardness in an instant and along a specific force vector. You don’t practice for 70-80 years so you can live your life primed like a bomb, compressed and ready to explode. You just want power, and therefore that hardness, to be available when you need it, and to be in a state of relative relaxation the rest of the time. This applies equally to martial arts, daily living.

Your breathing pattern supports your ability to find this balance. In our experiment, you found the usefulness of inhaling to compress upon standing and exhaling to decompress as you sit. This supports the conclusion that in practicing your form, you can inhale every time you want more compression in the dantian and exhale when you want to decompress with similar results.

Here, we arrive at the central breathing paradox: When practicing your slow form, you gain optimal compression by gently inhaling into the dantian with every activated move (moves that you could apply—the actual punch, push, ward-off, etc.) and optimal decompression by exhaling with every deactivated move (the “negative” aspect, transition, or in-between state). This is exactly the opposite of what most people practice, unless they are doing some interpretation of prenatal breathing which they do more for esoteric reasons, and not for mechanical ones as described here.

So, how should one breathe in the practice of t’ai chi ch’uan? Your answer is best found through your own straightforward experimentation. If you test the patterns described here—flex-relax-exhale, extend-compress-inhale—in consciously observed, day-to-day movements outside of your orthodox training context, you will be increasingly convinced that this is a natural, healthy, and productive pattern. (While she was living, it enabled my 93 year-old mother to get into and out of a car, for example.) If you then test the applicability of this pattern when playing t’ai chi form, you will find yourself more able to relax in the transition between moves (gently exhaling during the relative yin phase, as you step into place or set up each move), and more able to feel compression and the hard vector line as you apply your moves (gently inhaling during the yang, energizing phase).

Pressure and Release at Speed

This doesn’t mean that you should inhale as you fajin (issue energy) or when you throw a fast punch. Paradoxically, when you punch at speed, air must leave your body. But, this doesn’t have to be because you are trying to exhale; it is because you are compressing to energize the punch while letting the air within you move naturally, according to the physics of the movement. You are: 1. Contracting the muscles that move your hand and body along the vector line 2. Compressing the dantian 3. Neither holding nor controlling your breath 4. Arriving or visualizing arriving at a target that has mass; the amount of mass will determine how much compression you actually need.

In a fast punch, the rapid vector/abdomen contraction will push out some air. You do not, however, have to exhale in the same way as you would if consciously attempting to blow out air. This is what a kiai (percussive shout) accomplishes. If you practice kiai as part of your art, you know that, mechanically speaking, your shout derives its power from abdominal pressure. The kiai releases air under pressure. As your punch arrives at its target, and you achieve relative maximum compression, the tension in your abdomen connects and energizes the line from foot to hand and back to foot while the degree of compression is dictated by the mass of the surface you are striking. If you try to blow out your air at this moment, you actually diminish the amount of compression you can achieve, like deflating an automobile air-bag at the moment of impact. In this example, your release of air is a by-product of the rest of your actions, which are in turn energized and substantiated by compression. Deliver a strike, and your vector line compresses into absolute hardness. Immediately after the move lands, everything relaxes as you sink into preparedness for the moves to come, with air entering or leaving your body as your body mechanics dictate. Flex at the kua, and air leaves the body; extend the kua, and air enters. Compress, and pressurized air escapes. As long as you aren’t holding your breath, conscious breathing at speed is neither necessary nor productive.

A Convincing Demonstration

I first saw these mechanics in action when meeting Grandmaster Chen in New York City in 1964. I was a young student of Professor Cheng M’an-Ching. Because I was about to move to Europe I sought extra help to complete the form ahead of schedule. Professor Cheng handed me over to the recently arrived William Chen who gave me three private lessons per week for several months. I remember his gentleness and politeness being so remarkable that I naively worried about his welfare in the Big Apple. I also witnessed some demonstrations. On one occasion, I was in his apartment on Manhattan’s West Side when he demonstrated his art to a group of visitors. While explaining his theories, in a single movement he dropped into a crouch and threw three straight rights to the abdomen of three different observers. I heard three distinct sounds as his fist arrived at each man’s belly, but I could only see one punch. Although I was standing no more than five feet from these men, I couldn’t see the three contacts that I heard arrive, each with a resounding pop. There is no time for inhaling and exhaling in movement like this. Nor is it possible to move this fast while hold one’s breath. Grandmaster Chen demonstrated release, then contraction then release in a lightning sequence that was driven by compression. As he explains it, “The force of a technique depends on the speed and magnitude of the pressure change,” which here I have called acceleration. As the quintessential body mechanic who lights up when talking about boxing, he doesn’t elaborate on the ch’i aspect. “Just get there”, he declares.

Breathing Distinctions

Since you are not holding your breath, we can say that you are always either inhaling or exhaling. It is useful, however, to make a distinction between inhaling (taking in air), exhaling (expelling air), passively releasing (air is free to leave but you aren’t trying to exhale) and compressing (tensing the dantian while air either enters or leaves your lungs according to your speed and mechanics). These distinctions help bridge the breathing paradox. “The steam whistling out of a teakettle is not the same as an exhale.” Grandmaster Chen states. “The exhale occurs when you open the lid and the pressure escapes.” Air leaving your body under compression is analogous to steam escaping the teakettle under pressure. This is what happens at speed. In resistance training (with weights or having someone resist your moves) you need compression. If you are standing up or lifting a 2-pound weight, you can easily inhale to achieve compression. If you are lifting 100 pounds, you might exhale right away, but you will have more full-body power if you initiate a tiny inhalation first to compress the torso, then exhale through the lifting cycle. This takes practice and I address it at the end of this article.

When playing slow form, you can energize each move by inhaling to compress. Releasing and exhaling in between energized moves enables you to relax. At speed, there is no time for conscious breathing, and you must relax; if you are relaxed enough, you can let your movements “breathe you.”

Compression Breathing in Hawaii

One sunny morning while researching this topic, I called my friend, Howard James, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Howard is a seasoned t’ai chi instructor and first-class boxer. I had emailed him this article a few days before, and he was excited to talk about it.

“Do you experience compression the way I’m describing it?” I asked.

“Let me see, it’s kind of like your description, but I feel that my breathing connects the whole body. To me, compression feels like connection and intention, not tension.”

“How can I communicate that to a reader, especially the breathing part?”

We stumble over words for a while as the morning chatter of Hawaiian birds provides a nice background.

“Wait a minute,” Howard says, shuffling the phone about. “Can you still hear me?

“Yes. Loud and clear.”

Then, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! The phone conveys the report of an impressively fast five-punch combination as Howard pummels the heavy bag hanging on his back porch. He repeats it several times, trying to exaggerate his breathing so I can hear it. But, the action comes too fast.

Howard describes his internal experience. He maintains abdominal pressure throughout the combination, but releases his kua and arms completely between punches. During this release, he lets air naturally leave his body, not by consciously exhaling, but through the natural flexing of his kua. He doesn’t “blow out” the air. We conclude that, at speed, one will compress the belly on impact and the lungs will release a little pressurized air. This release is like steam escaping from a teapot. It’s the loose-to-compressed-to-loose pattern that creates acceleration and therefore gives power to the combination; and it’s the natural release of air as his body flexes at the kua and the intake of air as he extends it that keep Howard oxygenated. As long as Valsalva never rears his breath-holding head, no conscious exhale is required. One never needs to blow out the air, and one never needs to think about inhaling, just compressing and decompressing and letting the air move in and out naturally.

Breathing in the Form—Tangible Examples

The same principles apply while one is playing slow form. Instead of organizing your breathing around the acts of inhaling and exhaling, you can organize it around compressing and decompressing. In time, your breathing will naturally adapt. Let’s consider some tangible examples.

In the opening move of virtually all t’ai chi styles, you inhale as your hands first rise. That initial inhalation gently compresses your dantian, as you sink your root and let your mind’s eye envision where you want your hands and fingers to go. This is intention, connection, and compression together.

In Yang Style, that first active move is Raise Hands: wrists up first, elbows relaxed, filling the dantian. As your wrists reach shoulder level, your fingers extend in front of you and you reach fullness. You then exhale, decompressing and letting gravity help you draw your hands into position near your shoulders. Inhalation-driven compression then activates the fingers to move upward again. (This sub-move can serve as a block against Strike Ears with Fists. Professor Cheng eliminated it from his form. William C. C. Chen includes it.) Decompression allows your hands to slowly fall to your sides. Raise Hands is now complete.

You now turn to the right as your right hand rises to your shoulder and your left sweeps past your groin to “hold the ball.” Is this an active application or simply a preparatory move for the upcoming Ward Off left? Since I personally consider it a three-possibility application, I inhale, sit into the left foot, and gently compress to throw both hands into place. The three possibilities are:

• Deflect a push or strike from the front by drawing the right hand upward to stick to the attacking wrist. 
• Deflect a kick to the groin by turning and sweeping the left hand across the body. 
• Strike to the rear with the right elbow.

At this point, I have completed an active application. The fact that both hands are now in position for the Ward Off left that follows is part of t’ai chi’s elegance. If I had been moving at full speed, there would have been compression but neither conscious inhalation nor exhalation. While I would surely release a little air, breathing would be instinctive and unconscious. Steam from a teakettle…

The next action is to soften and decompress as I sit into the right foot, letting the empty left foot fall into place for the bow stance to come, sinking the left knee over the foot and letting air escape naturally. As Ward Off left arises, I gently inhale, compressing the dantian, and further sinking the substantial root of the left foot. I must pay attention to the line from root to hands, inhaling downward into the dantian and slightly back toward the kidneys and spine, while tracking both hands as they fulfill the picture in my mind of the completed move. As they do, the insubstantial rear foot adjusts.

And so it goes. One determines how to play the form by your interpretation of the moves. Any move that you consider being an active application or imagined point of contact deserves compression and a clean, rooted line from foot to hand or shoulder/elbow or kicking foot. Any action you consider being intermediary or preparatory, calls for decompression and complete relaxation as gravity sinks you into place to set up the next active move. Playing the form this way, one energizes each applied move via inhalation and compression, and sets up every move through exhalation and decompression. As the mind becomes quiet and the breathing cycle softens, one can relax through both inhalation and exhalation and tune one’s sensitivity to internal power. Here, everything feels connected and in transformation. The spirit rises up the spine, making the meditative transition from thought to ch’i to spirit to emptiness a sweet journey.

My Personal Experience with this Approach

I’ve been a martial artist since 1960, and trained several hours a day for many years. A car accident in 1984 changed all my priorities. As a pedestrian, I was hit between two cars and sustained a serious back injury that forced me to stop many aspects of my practice and look at life in new ways. My t’ai chi practice turned away from application, and I just played the form as a moving meditation, with my purpose simply to cultivate spinal health, peace of mind, and the ongoing refinement of my spirit. But, my spine had been compromised, and many acute episodes kept me marginally disabled. Since the numbers surrounding “inevitable” fusion surgery were not promising, I kept searching and experimenting. After 18 years of chronic instability and pain, my efforts came together. I had ventured into a combination of back stabilization training, regular gym workouts, Rolfing, Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Alexander lessons to learn how to stabilize my spine. I experimented with the breathing and compression methods described in this article, both with my own body and with others: senior citizens, people with chronic back pain, and unsuspecting bystanders. I interrupted serious bodybuilders in the gym and asked them to try compression breathing, then got reports from them about what results they experienced. I helped a surprising number of people and learned from them all. The results have been meaningful. The breathing and tension/relaxation patterns described here have enabled me to do things with my body that several physicians told me I would never be able to do.

By coordinating breath and compression in the form, the congruity of body/mind I experience sometimes approaches the ecstatic. Every inhalation signals an expansive rising of ch’i from foot to hand and through the top of the head. Every exhalation accompanies a relaxation that feels like slow, conscious falling in harmony with gravity’s gentle pull. The sine wave of energy passing through my body sometimes feels like freedom beyond reasonable expectations. The use of compression to protect my spine throughout a wide variety of activities has been a lifesaver. While I don’t claim to represent Grandmaster Chen’s theories in the same way that he would, my own experience with his teachings of compression show this model to be supremely useful for activating all the movements of the body. To me, the gentle compression of t’ai chi is simply a more subtle and sophisticated version of the same pneumatic backstop I use in planting and pruning in the garden, resistance training and aerobic conditioning, and leading a physically active life in my mid 60s. I hope that you find these ideas useful in your practice.

To Summarize:

• The prevailing t’ai chi breathing model, which is based on inhalation and exhalation to store and discharge energy, can be challenged by a compression and decompression model and its empirical results. This model reverses the breathing pattern in slow form practice and reframes the breathing model during fast application. 
• The compression/decompression model focuses on mechanical effectiveness and spinal support going from relaxed to tensed along a force vector rather than the buildup and discharge of ch’i. 
• Testing the mechanics of exhaling to flex the kua and inhaling to extend the kua during daily activities will prove the usefulness of the compression model.

A Closing Comment to Johnny

What is a better way for you to breathe in the gym? Try this: Instead of just taking a single breath for each repetition, try exhaling at both the bottom and the top of each rep. That way, you get to inhale, and therefore have the turbo-boost of compression when you start moving the weight either up or down. This is when you need it. You can then naturally release your air as you move toward the bottom and the top of your moves. This will give you greater control and smoother movements. For a while, you can concentrate on the double exhalations and let your inhalations come by themselves. When you feel ready to focus on the inhalations, direct them down to your abdomen in the initial moment of each move. Start adding weight when you are comfortable with the coordination.

You can gain at least 30% more power this way. If you try the standing-up experiment, make sure you root your feet before trying to stand. If your toes peel up from the floor, you are too far back in your heels. If you want to teach Grandma how to get out of her chair, read The Mechanics of the Three Nails on my Web site first ( and teach her to sink her root. It makes a big difference. And, never, never hold your breath for power.

Finding a Sense of Balance Within

Greg Brodsky wrote this article with 9/11 in mind. It appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on 12/10/02

Daily language often gives us insights into ourselves that we might otherwise miss. The term “interrupt driven,” for example, now a part of the standard business lexicon, refers to activities that people engage in because someone stops them from doing something else: the phone calls that pull us away from our tasks, the suddenly-called meeting that burns precious hours, the lack of time for purposeful thinking because we have to attend to emergencies. Instead of organizing our actions around our professed goals and values, we let our behavior be driven by these interruptions.

In fairness to ourselves, we have no choice. With increasingly complex and variable lives, the demands to constantly respond to unexpected events make this just the way things are.

On a larger scale, it could be said that we live in a Time of Disruption. Along with the frenetic pace of our days, the 9/11 attacks disrupted our life patterns. For some, it was the ultimate disruption. For the rest of us, each new warning, event, or burst of information disrupts us again. To adapt, we have to get used to regaining our balance in an unpredictable, erratic, rapidly changing world.

Some personal tools can be especially useful right now. Good tools will help us absorb new information quickly, think clearly, respond with poise and maybe even grace, and act according to our deepest values and purposes amidst surrounding turmoil. In my experience, a few tools have shown themselves to be especially valuable.

Self-Management Tools

As adults, our first responsibility is to manage ourselves. Before we can bring our resources to the stream of unprecedented situations that challenge us, we have to manage ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally. Along with our moral principles and spiritual guidance, we accomplish this management with our instincts. Fortunately, since we have made it to adulthood, chances are that those instincts are pretty good. If only we can gain access to them when we need them!

Access to our finest instincts means remembering who we are and being aware of what we are becoming. After all, our essential character is evolving, becoming something more developed all the time. If we are in charge of our lives, what we become is less a product of our environment, thank goodness, than our own, self-cultivated inner states. By inner states, I mean our mental, emotional, and spiritual sense of being.

Here’s a simple procedure that can help keep us in touch with our inner states and cultivate the best of them when we need it most:

1. Breathe 
When people become anxious or afraid, we tend to hold our breath. Most of us don’t realize that we restrict our natural breathing pattern much of the time. This is especially true now, when every news bulletin might cause us to gasp and cringe. This common habit produces a tense, anxious, and energetically drained state in us. We would avoid much of this if we breathed fully and deeply all of the time.

As soon as we are aware of a tense holding pattern, we can immediately soften our muscles and make ourselves more comfortable—and resourceful—by taking a deep, relaxing breath. Most of us do this instinctively, as long as we think of it, when we want to relax. In a very natural way this simple, deep breath brings us a little closer to our natural selves. When feeling pressure, we can take another deep breath, and another, as we take charge of our immediate well being. It’s easy and simple, but surprisingly effective.

Disciplines like yoga, martial arts, and meditation have taught for thousands of years that purposeful breathing can serve as a powerful state-changing tool. Anyone can use it and find it always available. Breathing is an entry way to our inner selves, the states of mind, body, and spirit that we need to cope with things. What can you do? When you want to get a moment of freedom from chronic tension, take a deep breath, relaxing your whole body as you exhale. Then, do it again.

2. Relax
 Of course, we’re tense. Opening the mailbox, watching TV, traffic going too slowly, traffic going too fast, money worries, the latest threats, and uncertainty are making us tense. But tension doesn’t help us deal with things; it just makes us brittle. We need to relax.

In the martial art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, we practice a basic technique in which you push your opponent a little, which causes him or her to tighten up in the effort to keep balance. Then, you let up for a second and suddenly push much more powerfully. Because your opponent tenses up with the first push, you can easily topple him or her with the second one. If the person would only relax and yield to both pushes, you wouldn’t have anything to push on. We call this trained response “neutralization by relaxation.”

Life has been pushing harder on us and with increasingly shocking bursts. The more we relax our bodies, the more we can neutralize the effects of these pushes. Letting the shock waves pass through us without resistance, we can find calmness and poise. We don’t have to be pushed over. We can practice neutralization by relaxation.

As hard as it seems for many people, relaxation calls for nothing profound. It doesn’t require that we first solve our problems, just that we de-tense our muscles when we need to. As we exhale that deep breath we just took, we can soften our muscles and release our hold on ourselves. Then, gravity will help us relax. This powerful natural force will draw us earthward and the tension we feel in our necks and shoulders and jaws can melt toward the ground.

Try it. When you want relief from your tension, just give up your fight against gravity for a moment. Breathe in and out and let your shoulders sink. Imagine all your tension dropping into the ground. Then, breathe again and relax some more. After a few of these breaths, you’ll feel a nice release.

3. Stay Present 
When we are disrupted, we are distracted. Instead of thinking about what our kids are doing or saying, we are thinking about our work or bills or problems. Instead of attending to our spouses, friends, and co-workers, we are worrying about various threats. When we need to be aware of our own behavior, our minds go elsewhere.

We aren’t good at being present: being in the moment, paying attention here and now. This long-standing problem for human beings has produced whole systems of self-development that require a lifetime of practice in becoming more present. Whether we practice or not, when we absolutely have to, we can be exquisitely present. Each one of us has proven that many times. Now is a good time to practice this skill.

Staying present means noticing what is going on around us and within us. We accomplish this by remembering to be mindful, and that our attention is important to everyone in our lives. Meanwhile, as the government issues warnings to be alert, people ask, “alert to what?” They feel that they don’t know what to do with a vague admonition to be on the look out. Well, why not be more alert in general, aware, attentive to ourselves and our surroundings?

Why not simply pay more attention? It’s just a form of presence. It will enable us to be more effective, creative, and, surprisingly, happy in the moment. When you want to be present, tell yourself to look, listen, and attend to your immediate surroundings. Pay attention to yourself as well. Give the people around you the gift or your presence, from the inside out. They will thank you.

Use this little algorithm: Breathe, relax, stay present. We can practice this a hundred times a day: in the car, at work, at home, in the community. We don’t need incense, music, or bells and whistles to help us; we just need to remember to breathe, relax, stay present.

Health Benefits of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (TCC)

GENERAL BENEFITS: TCC develops inner strength, increases muscle tone and flexibility, boosts immunity, reduces stress, increases energy and body awareness, and improves balance and coordination…Men’s Health Magazine, 8 Mar/Apr ’93 p. 66-69.

PHYSIOLOGICAL BENEFITS: TCC increases heart rate and urine noradrenaline excretion and decreased salivary cortisol concentration during practice. Relative to baseline levels, test subjects reported less tension, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and anxiety; they felt more vigorous, with less total mood disturbance…Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1989 V. 33 (2) 197-206.

MENTAL HOMEOSTASIS: Psychological homeostasis refers to emotional control or tranquility. The biological function of human emotion and repression is primarily homeostatic. A feedback relationship exists between forms of homeostasis, and the body-mind type of therapies (including acupuncture and TCC) that have a combined physiological, physical, and psychological effect. American Journal of Chinese Medicine, 1981 Spring V. 9 (1) 1-14.

 IMMUNE SYSTEM: A study conducted in China indicates that TCC may increase the number of T lymphocytes in the body. Also know as T-Cells, these lymphocytes help the immune system destroy bacteria and tumor cells. Prevention Magazine V. 42, May 90, p.14-15.

BREATHING, ACHES, BLOOD PRESSURE:  Study participants observed a “big increase in breathing capacity,” a disappearance of back and neck aches; those with high blood pressure claimed a drop of 10 to 15 mm Hg systolic at rest, and all participants claimed to have more energy in their daily work. Hawaii Medical Journal – V. 51 No. 8 August 92.

MENTAL & PHYSICAL STRESS: Mind & body exercises based on a series of progressive choreographed movements coordinated with deep breathing, such as TCC are increasingly replacing high-impact aerobics, long distance running, and other body punishing exercises of the 1980’s. Mind/body workouts are kinder to the joints and muscles and reduce the tension that often contributes to the development of disease, making them especially appropriate for high powered, stressed out baby boomers. Unlike most conventional exercises, these forms are intended to stretch, tone, and relax the whole body instead of isolated parts. Working Woman Magazine V. 20 Feb. 95.

BEYOND TRADITIONAL CARE: Health practitioners encountering clients who are faced with problems that do not seem to respond to traditional health care may employ some of the health traditions of other cultures that view the body and mind as a balanced whole, such as massage, acupuncture and TCC, which focus on the mind/body connection to facilitate healing through relaxation, pressure points, and movement. American Association of Health Nurses Journal, 1993 July, 41 (7) 349-351.

RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS: No significant exacerbation of joint symptoms using TCC was observed. TCC appears to be safe for RA patients and weight bearing exercises have the potential advantages of stimulating bone growth and strengthening connective tissue. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, June 1991, 70 (3) p. 136-141.

PSYCHOLOGY: “TCC is a natural and safe vehicle for both clients and staff to learn and experience the benefits of being able to channel, concentrate and co-ordinate their bodies and minds: to learn to relax and to neutralize rather than resist the stress in their personal lives. This is an ability, which we greatly need to nurture in our modern fast-paced society.” Dr. John Beaulieu, N.D., M.T.R.S. Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, N.Y.C. [Refer to the TCC book “The Supreme Ultimate” for full text]

CARDIORESPIRATORY EFFECTS: The data substantiate that practicing TCC regularly may delay the decline of cardio-respiratory function in older individuals. In addition, TCC may be prescribed as a suitable aerobics exercise for older adults. Journal of American Geriatric Society, Nov. 1995, 43 (11) p 1222-1227. TCC lowers blood pressure almost as well as moderate intensity aerobic exercise, according to a study presented at a meeting sponsored by the American Heart Association. The scientists studied 62 sedentary adults, aged 60 years and older, assigning half to a program of brisk walking and low-impact aerobics and the other half to learning TCC. After 12 weeks, systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading) had fallen significantly in both groups, an average of 8.4 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) in the aerobic exercise group and 7 mm Hg in the TCC group. “You better believe we were surprised by those results,” one of the researchers, Dr. Deborah R. Young, MD, from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said in a statement. “We were expecting to see significant changes in the aerobic exercise group and minimal changes in the TCC group. “It could be that in elderly, sedentary people, just getting up and doing some slow movement could be associated with beneficial reductions in high blood pressure.” High blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke and heart attack. Young cautions that the results of her research need to be confirmed by studying a larger group of people.

SUPPORT GROUPS RECOMMENDING TCC: Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s Disease, Lupus, Migraines, Chronic Pain.

For a more complete presentation and discussion of the many medical research studies that have investigated TCC, please refer to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind (Harvard Health Publications) by Peter Wayne.



Why I Practice T’ai Chi Ch’uan

Wu Wei is a famous Chinese expression meaning “No Effort.” Wu Wei does not mean that one takes no action, but rather that one’s actions have no trace of straining, pushing, forcing, or imposing. It refers to the ability to adapt to conditions and change according to circumstances without forceful insistence or striving. From the outset, it is important to understand that, in Tai Chi practice, very little progress will be made through pushing and straining. Everything should be done in the most relaxed manner possible. Striving and struggling will not yield results in Tai Chi. This is one of the most difficult concepts for Americans to grasp. We are a nation of active doers who have an unconscious belief in “No pain, no gain.” Such an attitude is one of several negative habits that will have to be gradually shed during the process of mastering Tai Chi.

There is a great deal of information available about t’ai chi ch’uan: how-to videos, photos, diagrams, the various schools, styles, and lineages, history, health benefit claims, and numerous books, blogs, and website courses. True of most information these days, there is an overload. Despite this, the central question of the inquisitive person often remains: Why should I do t’ai chi ch’uan (TCC)? That is a fair question. The benefits are not obvious to the casual observer nor is the rationale for continued practice. Yoga, in the most obvious, simplistic view, is a systematized type of stretching and we all have been told or know from experience that stretching and flexibility are positive things. Those who regularly practice yoga for any length of time know that the practice is much more than that, yet it can be seen and appreciated in that simple context. TCC practitioners, on the other hand, don’t seem to really be doing anything other than waving their hands in the air, performing what looks like a pretty but unchallenging, boring, repetitive, slow dance. Videos and claims of great power, of throwing others across a room with a flick of the wrist are legion, however, and the allure of that possibility intrigues those attracted to this more power-oriented aspect of the martial arts. Generally, older individuals are attracted to the claims of improved balance, stamina, longevity, mental health, and stress reduction. Many resonate with the spiritual, meditative, or philosophical depth of TCC. Regardless of what initially draws a person to TCC, with a focussed, attentive practice, all will find what they seek. And more.

Since individual desires and expectations are many, as are the experiences of those who take up the practice, I can only describe my own experience in learning, practicing, and teaching this incredible art and science. As a chiropractor for 30 years, I have reviewed, recommended, and experimented with many different “health regimes” with both myself and patients. In my opinion, there is no more effective, straightforward, elegant, complete, and unified approach to the recovery and maintenance of optimal health and sense of well being than a TCC practice coupled with good nutrition. This is based on observing changes in myself, students, and patients, and my knowledge of anatomy, exercise physiology, and endocrinology, especially stress and its effect on the autonomic nervous system.

Humans swim in two seas: the sea of gravity and the sea of consciousness. TCC is unsurpassed, the perfect dorsal fin, if you will, for enhanced equilibrium and less effortful navigation of both the limitless expanse and confining demands of these two invisible, inescapable realms. TCC views the human body as an energetic phenomenon, not simply or primarily a physical, mechanical one. This alone sets it apart from most forms of western exercise and conventional thinking about muscle development, training, and physical effort. Traditional Daoist thought, and current modern physics, views all matter as condensed energy that is in constant flux despite its static or solid appearance. Thus the essential nature of all manifest “forms” of matter is formlessness and constant change. TCC is considered the highest manifestation of Daoism in human activity and this primacy of change is central to Daoism, witnessed by the title of its classic text, The I Ching, or Book of Changes. While eastern art and culture idealize certain conceptual forms, in eastern philosophy the ultimate is that which has no form. What has no form is a shape in constant motion and flux, and what constantly changes contains the potential to manifest as all possible forms.

One translation of “t’ai chi ch’uan” is “action in the realm where yin and yang play.” The concept of yin/yang is central to this idea of change and the limitless possibilities of manifestation. Opposites, whether dry/wet, hard/soft, dark/light, etc. all express their qualities in relation to their opposite: you can’t have one without the other and the gradation of qualities or ultimate transformation of one to the other is the natural order. In Daoist thought, all creation fluctuates within this duality constantly and eternally. This is represented by the familiar intertwining, black-and-white yin/yang symbol. TCC shares with some other martial arts the idea of receiving and returning or redirecting force rather than using effort in opposition or to generate force unilaterally. In TCC we play and use yin/yang to explore the ability to engender power and force through yielding and softness and to position and inhabit our body in a manner that allows forces to pass through us rather than from us. Daoism is called the “Watercourse Way” because water is the ultimate example of power through yielding–there is nothing in nature more malleable yet potentially powerful as water, and our body is about 70% water.

In the Chinese martial arts, the energetic nature of our physical body is “qi” or “chi.” It is not separate from but inherent to our nature and all the natural world. Personal qi is known as Yuan-Qi. It exists in and simultaneously with the condensed form of energy that IS our physical body, all its tissues, organs, etc. The practice of TCC develops the ability to sense and use qi, in ourselves and in others. We speak of developing or cultivating qi, as though it is a “thing” different or separate from “us” that we must gather and hold onto, but I feel it is more accurate and useful to think of it as a flow or movement, and getting out of the way of this expression of our true energetic nature, and removing blocks to the flow, allows us to utilize the ubiquitous availability of limitless qi for health and effortless being and action. So, what stands in the way? Ourselves and our habit of self-identification with the physical body. I believe it’s really as simple as that. How do you stop doing that? That is not so simple. This is where the practice of TCC is so valuable and unique.

Space and a feeling of expansion is central to the practice of TCC. Muscles contract and qi expands. Where there is effort, where there is muscular contraction, there is reduced qi flow. The goal of acupuncture and all Chinese medicine is the normalization of qi by removing blockages to flow. To that end, the TCC practitioner is constantly investigating “Can I empty more? Can I align myself with gravity better to remain upright and move, yet use minimal effort to do so?” TCC practice is not one of addition, but subtraction; not the acquiring of new skills to add to what one is already doing, but “What am I doing in this and every moment that results in unnecessary effort and/or discomfort (mental or physical)?” The result of this attention is to replace dense matter with less dense energy; to suffuse the body, every cell, with this potentiating qi. This not only creates a pleasant sensation of expansion and lightness, like a lessening of gravity even as we simultaneously surrender to it, but also positive changes in stress levels and overall health. TCC refers to the joints as “gates” to energy flow and we always keep the joints open and uncompressed, thereby creating “space” in the joint. In TCC we try to hold our joints in a neutral position at all times and never take them to end range, an obvious difference from yoga. Yoga takes joints to extreme end-range stretch, often for long periods. While advanced yoga practitioners can ideally do this without compressing the joints, it is still true that end range positions are emphasized. Another difference arises from the philosophy of Hinduism versus Daoism. Hinduism views the body as an impediment to spiritual awakening; something to be disciplined, even mortified, as a means of transcendence. Daoism and TCC emphasize deepening the awareness of the physical body, exploring and developing its physical and energetic nature as the gateway to experiencing one’s transcendental Self.

This Self-Realization through occupying and manifesting the transcendental Self simultaneously with the physical body is the cohesion of mind, body, and spirit associated with TCC. We are not doing something in order to unite them. That relationship already exists. TCC simply helps us embody and consciously manifest that unity and cohesion. This is not experienced as an abstract philosophy or mental “idea,” an internal dialogue or thought process, but as a bodily feeling, as “being there.” Being bodily present in the moment, the Now, is a release from the constraints of time, and the anxiety that arises from dwelling in the regrets or memories of the past and the anticipation or fears of the future. Liberation from the constraints of the past and future, through increasing identification with our energetic form, results in a sense of floating or existing beyond Space and Time. I realize this is quite a grandiose claim for any practice. Nonetheless, it has been my experience and is the natural consequence of a regular TCC practice. It does not happen every time I practice. It is totally dependent on the practitioner’s level of attention and focus and the longevity of their practice. Ten years is not an unreasonable amount of time to spend in order to begin to experience this, but regular practice usually begins to provide inklings of it after one. Nonetheless, it is available to those who practice; it is there for the asking. And the more often I can approach that experience, the more it overflows and permeates the rest of my life. Slowing down, being in the present moment, for its own sake rather than any result, is an important part of TCC. The development of a daily “practice” is essential to the unfolding of this potential. I view my practice as Daoist prayer. I surrender to it without anticipation or attachment to outcome, without judgement, without expectation, only attention. In that state, wonderful, pleasurable, and joyful things happen that transform the physical body, the mind, and the spirit that have positive effects on how I inhabit my own body and interact with those around me that, in turn, effects their behavior and life experience and, as a result, the world as a whole.

This is why I practice.