Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Ideokinetic Facilitation

When Channel 4 first started it ran " The Body Programme " with Yvonne Ocampo. It was there that I first came across the term " Ideokinetic Facilitation "., which was about using mental imagery to bring about postural change.

Tai Chi is full of imagery - root, iron bars wrapped in cotton wool, embracing the tree and so forth. Working with imagery achieves better results than trying to force the body into a position. An example might be to imagine that when standing straight you are in the middle of two slices of bread, like a sandwich. The front slice is sliding upwards whilst the rear slice is sliding downwards. This has the effect of stopping you from slumping and promoting a more upright posture.

A really useful book is A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook by Martin Mellish, a Singing Dragon publication. It's full of good exercises. Imagination becomes Reality?

Monday, 29 August 2011

All in the Mind

Tai Chi is mostly mental training. OK, I would be lying if I said that the physical is not important.
There is a fair share of hard physical training to be done. You can't get away from it.

However, the mind plays a key role. The mind directs the movements, it directs the intention and much more. As an example, each posture has a beginning and end. The mind must link the postures together smoothly without fudging the beginning and end. The mind provides the continuity. When issuing energy the posture may stop, but the mind must keep the intention going. The saying is that the lotus root may be broken, but the mind intent is not.

The external ( form ) and internal (mind intent ) must co-ordinate.

More Ego in the basement.

The question was on the tip of my lips. Should I ask it? The desire to know was enormous. I was burning to ask it.

I wanted to know how I was doing, if my Tai Chi was ok.

Before I got any further, John Kells said to the class that we shouldn't worry about how we were doing. Just to follow the teaching and practise sincerely. It was if he knew I was going to ask the question. His back was turned to me. I swear he was psychic!

We shouldn't worry about how we look or are progressing. With humility and sincerity, the practise of Tai Chi is its own reward.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Single most useful piece of advice

One of the most important teachings from John Kells.

Keep your bum in.

Steps - the long and short of it

Initially, we take longer steps to open up the lower body, to develop flexibility and strength. After that the steps should be natural. The waist controls the legs, they do not move independently.

This allows easy stepping in which the cross energy can easily be accessed and applied. The danger with a long step is that you can find yourself stuck in one leg, unable to sink quickly into the other one. Smaller, more natural steps allow for greater mobility.

The application of cross energy is a dynamic process, with energy stored in the legs and controlled by the waist. This can get lost with long steps.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Hard Work

Tai Chi is hard work.

Daily practise with purposeful intent is needed to understand and progress, whether doing the solo forms or working with a partner.

The following quote from John Kells sums up the deeper meaning:

" Throught dint of hard work all is revealed

  When all is revealed then all is concealed

  When all is concealed then principle is revealed

  When principle is revealed then inclusion is revealed

  When inclusion is revealed then nothing is revealed "

Monday, 22 August 2011

Curiously addicted?

When I started with John Kells, we had a 2hour class once a week. Then there was a 3 hour Sunday afternoon catch up session. This was followed by a Saturday intensive once a month. In addition I tried faithfully to practise 1 hour every day.

After 9 months we had finished learning the short form. Whilst waiting for a long form class to start we could attend other short form classes for half price. Pretty soon I was assisting in the classes. Then I would get to the Tai chi centre an hour earlier to practise and assisted for 4 hours. Eventually I was allowed to stay behind for another hour or so which meant rushing to catch the night bus back to Heathrow Airport, which was near to my home.

It was only a matter of time before I was attending classes every day of the week and getting there early to practise. It would not be an exageration to say it took over my life. This continued for around 5-6 years before other commitments meant I had to cut back going to the centre. I think I was notching up around 36 - 40 hours per week. My mother was aghast, especially as I had managed to wear away part of the lawn. When would I get a proper job and stop all this nonsense?

Thirty years later I am still addicted/enthralled? by Tai Chi. I enjoy it so much. There is so much to still learn and understand.

Perhaps Tai Chi should carry some kind of warning. It is curiously addictive!

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Root

Everyone has a root. It is our connection to the ground beneath our feet.

The feeling of that connection can differ greatly. A person who carries themselves high up in the chest is more likely to have a weaker connection that a person who is relaxed, sunk, soft and aligned with the flow of gravity.

A strong root in Tai Chi allows a person to absorb a force down through their body to the ground without being unbalanced. It is a strong platform for returning or issuing force, for psycho/physical stability and ease of movement.

How to develop the root? It is important to relax the body and mind and soften. Some people visualise roots emerging from their feet or sacrum which go deep into the earth. Another image is a ball and chain, hanging from the base of the torso or a third leg ( a la Jake the Peg ).

John Kells taught a different approach. Instead of penetrating the ground, he allowed the ground to come up through him. To do this requires an accepting mind. Echoes of this can be found in the discipline of Eutony, where the performer/dancer feels the support of the earth through their bones and works with that feeling.

There are no quick results. Practise until it is part of your body/mind feeling.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Ten Co-ordinations

1)   The head must co-ordinate with the cocyx.
2)   The neck must co-ordinate with the waist.
3)   The shoulders must co-ordinate with the inside of the thigh where it joins the body.
4)   The elbows must co-ordinate with the knees.
5)   The shin of one leg must co-ordinate with the shin of the other leg.
6)   The toes of one foot must co-ordinate with the toes of the other foot.
7)   The spirit must co-ordinate with the mind.
8)   The mind must co-ordinate with the energy ( Chi ).
9)   The energy must co-ordinate with the strength.
10) The inner aspect (spirit, energy) must co-ordinate with the outer aspect ( the external form).

B.T.C.C.A. Handbook 2nd Term.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Mindfulness Factor

Mindfulness is a good thing. Jolly useful. So what is it we want to be mindful of?

As Tai Chi practioners ( I detest the word "player" because we sure as heck aren't playing) we want to be aware of our bodies. This is so we can feel the principles, feel if we are relaxed, surrendering to gravity.

The opposite is to cut off feeling and pretend intellectually. I've been guilty of this on occasion but something always happens to rudely remind me to stop being up myself.

So feel if you are relaxing, sinking, softening, moving the body as one unit, not leading from the hand etc.

Mindfulness is rooted firmly in the experience of the physical body.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Embrace them like a Lover

When John Kells taught Pushing Hands there were the usual set of instructions. Maintain ward off, sink, relax, yield, turn the waist and turn the mind.

But one aspect stood out. To be interested in the other person. I have studied other Tai Chi styles pushing hands methods and none of them contain this approach. but then John Kells didn't teach a traditional approach.

What is interesting about it is that if we are not interested in the other person, then we are busy remembering self and causing a disconnection between ourselves and the other person. We use our clever techniques in isolation, demonstrating, in my opinion, a tense and fearful mind.

To be interested in the other person is to forget self. We need to open and embrace them, welcome them in. In this way a push can be accepted and transformed. Be so interested in the other person, use all your senses to listen to them. Be interested in the other person as if their touch was that of a lover. Then real communication can take place.

It may sound like a load of new age gobbeldy gook. It takes real courage and strength to be able to stand in front of another person in this way. Much easier, of course, to remember our habitual self and continue in ignorance.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Trying Hands

Any Tai Chi teacher worth their salt will teach pushing hands and partnerwork. It is an essential part of the discipline. Some teach it from the very beginning whilst others will introduce it at a later stage.

Pushing Hands can also be called striking hands. I came across the term " Trying Hands " which I like because it conveys a different flavour than that implied by pushing or striking, which might make a person think they have to be more " Martial " and tense up.

That is not to say that Tai Chi isn't a martial art, because it is. It is not a health practise, buddhist meditation, a new age fad or anything else. It is complete in itself and worthy of serious study. Other disciplines may inform your practise but are not a substitute for it.

Partnerwork allows you to work on the principles of Tai Chi with other people. It challenges you to understand softness and relaxation in the face of pressure. There are specific techniques to be understood which I will discuss in another post.

Trying Hands allows for an exploration of how different we all are, of touch, softness, hardness, strength, weakness and all that we bring to that moment. It is lively and dynamic.

So don't be put off from working with partners in class. Change your approach and Try their Hands!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Sink

Sorry to disappoint those who thought this might be a post about sinks. I don't think I can handle recent plumbing trauma at this point in time and space.

So I'm standing in the basement classroom, trying to work out what the teacher meant when he said we had to sink. Sink where? Into what?

To sink is the other side of the coin from relaxation. These two qualities go hand in hand. When we can relax, there is a corresponding release in the body. The joints loosen and the body can settle downwards. This is the first step. Further stages in sinking and relaxation take place over time.

An important Aikido principle is to keep the weight underside. This is a product of relaxation and sinking. C.M Shifflett provides the following visualisation in his book, Ki in Aikido ( ISBN 978-0-9778702-1-9 Round Earth Publishing).

Imagine a shaft of light, like a fireman's pole going through the centre of your body, from the head deep down into the ground. Then imagine yourself gently sliding down the shaft or taking the elevator down as deeply as you can.

How does it make you feel? Play with it. Investigate it at different times.

Imagery is a key part of Tai Chi and is a powerful aid to posture, performance and more.

Monday, 8 August 2011


A small postcard was propped up in the fireplace of the basement classroom. It showed a traffic sign with the word " Yield ".

To yield means to give way. A simple example is if someone pushes your shoulder. Do not resist, do not run away, but remain in contact with the push and give way. It's a bit like trying to stroke a cat that doesn't want to allow it. Note how the cat remains in contact but gives way to your contact?

But at a deeper level to yield means to accept. Accepting means to forget self, which is relatively easy. The hard part is the constant reminder of self. By accepting, we open to connect, to communicate, to embrace. Not accepting is rooted in fear and tension.

The practise of partnerwork in Tai Chi provides an excellent opportunity to investigate acceptance. But to yield does not imply a passive, helpless, limp state. It is a dynamic process that allows a meaningful interaction with your partner, with others, with your environment, with life and death.

I'm sure there is more that could be written but it would never be enough to capture the experience. Aaaargghh.... this is getting too deep so I'm off to bed!

Seven Minutes in the Morning

I recall reading that Tai Chi would give you the strength of a lumberjack and the pliability of a young child. Apparently all that was needed was 7 minutes practise every morning. How magical that seemed!

The truth, of course, is very different. In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed explores the connection between sporting success and the thousands of hours of practise that seperate top performers from the rest. The practise must also contain purposeful intent. This is directly applicable to Tai Chi.

My teacher, John Kells, practised relentlessly. Tai Chi is his life. He taught me that if I was serious about Tai Chi, I would need to practise for a minimum of 2 hours every day. This is quite a commitment if you have a job and a family. The great Yang style Tai Chi master Yang Cheng Fu is reputed to have practised 3 long forms 5 times per day. One form takes between 20 - 35 minutes depending on the speed.

This dispels the myth of seven minutes a day. But Magic? Yes, there is Magic to be discovered !

Friday, 5 August 2011

Humility to succeed

I like a compliment. I expect you do as well.

When my teacher gave me positive feedback about my tai chi postures in front of my peers, I glowed with egotistical pride. Clearly I was doing well! The attention from the teacher continued over several weeks.

Then it stopped. Completely. Utterly. Why? Was I no longer doing well? Couldn't the teacher see me? Instead, others in the class were receiving attention and praise.

Ego duly dented, I thought about giving up. I'm glad that I didn't. There was a valuable lesson I had to learn. Drop the Ego and false pride. Look beyond that. Learn Humility. Humility is vital to success.

To learn Tai Chi, two things are required:

1) Start Tai Chi.
2) Continue Tai Chi.

Do you have the Humility to succeed?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

So what's the deal with Relaxation?

Relax, said the teacher. But I am relaxed, I thought, as the teacher tried to gently move my resistant arms into a better shape for the posture we were learning.

Go to any T'ai Chi class, pick up any T'ai Chi book and you will be told that is important to relax. But what exactly does this mean? Is it the same as drinking 6 cans of Lager or half a bottle of wine whilst draped over the sofa after a day at work? No, this is approaching a state of collapse. Relaxing to the point of falling to floor is not what we're after.

We need to work with Gravity. Work with it, not against it. Instead of fighting to pull ourselves up, we surrender to the pull of Gravity. Drop tension, both in the mind and the body. Soften the tissues of the body. It is a process of transformation. We gain energy as we let go of tension. We are able to move more freely. We are supported by the Ground and are more stable.

The first posture of the short form provides a method. Stand with the heels touching, feet turned out slightly. Your weight is over the whole of your feet, not back on the heels or too far forwards on the balls. Arms hang loosely by your side, hands gently open, not clenched. Look straight ahead, a level gaze, not tilting up or down. the tongue touches the gum behind the front two teeth, as if trying to say  " Luh " . The molar teeth touch gently and the mouth is lighty closed. Have an enigmatic, Mona Lisa smile. The eyes can be open, half open or closed.

The shoulders don't hold you up, so let them drop. The elbows are unlocked. Don't push the chest out or let it slump. Take a deep breath and sigh as you breathe out. Feel the chest relax. Don't pull in the stomach or clench the buttocks. Be aware of the hips and let go. The knees are not locked - tighten and let go a few times to get the feeling. Feel the ground beneath your feet and soften them, not pushing or trying to grab with your toes.

Breathing naturally through the nose, do not try to control the Breath. Imagine you have a flow of warm water down the front of the face, throat, chest, belly, hips, thighs, shins, flowing down into the Earth. Follow this down gently with your awareness. Soften downwards. Stand quietly for a minute of two to work with this. If you feel uncomfortable then stop. If dizzy, lie down and put your feet up higher than your head.

With practise I found that I had a better connection/root to the Ground and had dropped tension , especially in my upper body. My breathing deepened and my personal energy improved.

Relaxation is the foundation.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Learning in the Basement

In early 1982 I moved back to London. Keen to continue learning Tai Chi I searched for another teacher. Nowadays it seems as if there is one hanging around every street corner but back then they were few and far between.

I had been referred to Paul Crompton but he wasn't teaching at the time. I thought about going to Master Chu King Hung but came across an advert in Time Out for the British Tai Chi Ch'uan Association. It contained a short quote from a student about the beautiful feeling of the form.

I duly signed up and began my relationship with John Kells, which continues to this day. He taught in the basement of his father's house. 30 people crammed into the small space to learn warm ups and the short form, admonished to sink, relax, try softer. Everything is contained in the first lesson, that first contact, first moment, first touch. This is a lesson for life if we can be open to it.