Whether you’re thinking about taking a Tai Chi class, or just interested in the ideas behind the martial art form, the principles of Tai Chi can be carried over into all aspects of life. Joseph, my Tai Chi instructor, claims that if all four principles are being followed, you are doing Tai Chi. The forms we learn are just ways of teaching our bodies to follow the principles and give our minds something to focus on.
The four principles of Tai Chi are breathing, alignment, relaxation, and slow synchronous movement. The first letters form the acronym BARS, making the principles of Tai Chi easy to remember in any situation.
No matter what physical task you perform, your breathing should remain even and slow. This sounds strange considering how often we are encouraged to seek out vigorous exercise, but even the slow movements of Tai Chi are considered aerobic exercises because the muscles use oxygen to sustain activity.
There are several techniques for regulating the pace of your breathing. The first involves improving the quality of breaths you take. By breathing deeply, you should be able to intake enough oxygen to keep your muscles happily working without panting. To teach yourself to breathe more deeply, start by inhaling. When you exhale, push out as much air from your lungs as you possibly can. This pushes more carbon dioxide from your lungs and makes room for more oxygen to enter. With your next inhalation, you should feel yourself taking in much more air and filling your lungs completely. When you master this technique, you shouldn’t become “out of breath” while exercising, because your body will have more of the necessary oxygen to distribute to the muscles you are working.
To further make use of this technique, imagine that you are inhaling all the way down to your pelvis. If a particular area of your body becomes sore while exercising, imagine inhaling to that area of your body. Whether it works for physical or psychological reasons, I can’t say, but I’ll bet it’s a good example of how mind-body harmony contributes to greater health.
Another way to make sure you breathe slowly and evenly is to practice breathing with a piece of paper in front of your face. Hold the paper a few inches from your nose and mouth while you slowly inhale and exhale deeply. The goal is to keep the paper from moving with the force of your breath.
In Tai Chi, these breathing exercises are typically learned during standing meditation, but you can practice them anywhere and any time you breathe for greater respiratory health.
The Tai Chi principle of alignment is simple in theory, but hard to learn after picking up years of poor posture habits. In Tai Chi, your spine should remain straight at all times. Not so hard theoretically, but when you think about how often you slouch over your computer or steering wheel, it takes conscious effort to relearn how to sit and stand. Fortunately, there are training exercises you can do to improve your alignment.
When standing, practice keeping your spine straight. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, with your feet parallel to each other and your toes pointed forward. This might be difficult at first, particularly if you walk with your toes pointed outward like most Americans do. Do not lock your knees because your knees will absorb the weight of your body and may give you problems later. Keeping your weight on the balls of your feet, bend slightly at the knee so that your weight is held on your thighs instead.
Now that the lower half of your body is aligned, it’s time to work on the top. All our lives we’ve been told to “stand up straight,” so we throw our heads and shoulders back, curving our spines. To truly stand up straight, keep your eyes straight ahead and your head level on your neck. If you find yourself arching anyway, try tucking in your chin a bit instead of thrusting it forward. Your arms should hang naturally at your sides with your fingers extended. Your shoulder blades should not stick out, they should disappear into your back. It should feel like the shoulder blades and the tailbone make a perfect triangle inside your back. To do this, imagine that you are a puppet being held erect by a string that extends from the top of your head upward. Your spine should “hang” naturally without any interference from you.
In Tai Chi, which is purely a defensive martial art, it should be hard to knock you off balance if you are perfectly aligned in any stance. To stay aligned as you assume postures other than merely standing there, keep your center of gravity positioned over the center of your stance and your feet shoulder width apart (even if one foot is in front of the other). If your spine stays straight and your weight evenly distributed, it will take more than you might think to knock you down.
Let’s face it: no matter how strictly we follow the principles of Tai Chi, exercise hurts because we are training muscles. The Tai Chi principle of relaxation teaches us how to keep our minds clear and at ease while our bodies are in pain. While the breathing techniques and proper alignment you’ve learned will naturally help calm your mind while your muscles are being strained, there are other ways of coping with pain to keep you relaxed.
One of the things standing meditation (or any exercise, really) should teach you is how your mind reacts to feelings of physical discomfort. Do not reject feelings of pain, but acknowledge them as natural reactions to strain. Then let those feelings go as temporary. Imagine beams of white light radiating out of your “third eye,” or a place in the middle of your forehead. Breathe slowly and deeply into the muscles that hurt, and smile. Smiling relaxes facial muscles and releases endorphins into your bloodstream. It also keeps your shoulders loose and your chest more open to oxygen intake.
Slow, Synchronous Movement
This principle of Tai Chi teaches us to move slowly and with deliberation. All movements should begin in the pelvis to keep your body from wasting energy by fighting gravity. To practice this, make sure your body is aligned, and then turn and bend from your pelvis. Your arms should move naturally as your body does, as extensions of the original movement. Now try lifting your arms on their own. It takes much more work to lift your arms independently of your body than it does when they move in response to your whole self.
You can use this technique when doing any sort of manual labor to cut down on exertion and strain. The next time you mow your lawn, for example, try pushing the lawn mower by walking forward and exerting the push from your pelvis instead of your arms on the mower. Your arms will be considerably less sore when you are done.
Most exercises work the muscles in little bits and pieces, but in Tai Chi, the positions are sustained and exercise the muscles continuously. The slow, synchronous movements of Tai Chi are intended to train the core muscles, which are the rarely used muscles surrounding your bones. If Tai Chi is done properly, it takes about forty minutes to go through all the forms in order. To get the effects of slow, synchronous movements outside Tai Chi, practice doing the exercises you would normally do, but at half the speed. All of a sudden, a stomach crunch becomes that much more of a workout!