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10 Life Secrets I Learned in T’ai Chi and Qigong
In ancient China, sages and medical doctors studied reality as fields of energy. They discovered a universal life force known as “qi” (“chee”). When qi is integrated, aligned, and flowing smoothly, a person lives according to “The Way of Life” and they experience greater health, happiness, and well-being.
The ancient sages also learned that when energy flow is stagnant, divided, or in any way impeded, a person experiences illness, unhappiness, and misfortune. When you fall out of alignment with the universal life force, you experience greater suffering. T’ai Chi and Qigong are about returning to your natural state of flow in a conscious way.
Here are ten life secrets that I’ve learned in my 25-plus years of study, teaching, and practice:
1. Feel your feet on the ground
Now that might seem a bit mundane, but, with the right attention, it can be the foundation of something life-changing. T’ai chi and Qigong begin with body awareness and through this you awaken your ability to sense your internal energy field and the energy around you.
It all begins in your feet. Here’s the cue: Feel the entire surface of both feet firmly on the ground. Become aware if your weight is more in one foot than the other. Is your weight more on the ball of your foot or the heel? Is your weight more on the inside of your foot or the outside edge?
Now, feel the entire weight of your body sink down through the center of your feet, just behind the balls of your feet, and into the ground. Feel as if you have roots sinking into the ground through the center of both feet. This is “grounding” yourself or becoming “rooted.”
Practice feeling your feet on the ground and sinking all your weight down through the center of your feet as often as you think to do it. Try it when you feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. Try it when you feel threatened in any way. Practice it when you are walking. Feeling your feet on the ground is a great way to get out of your head and back to feeling solid ground underneath you.
2. Relax down through your body.
Another one of the primary things I’ve learned in T’ai Chi and Qigong is the meaning of conscious relaxation. Conscious relaxation is an active process that is different from “crashing on the couch” or “vegging out” in front of the TV. In contrast to passive relaxation in which you “zone out,” conscious relaxation makes you more alert and tuned in. It connects you more deeply inside.
Here’s the cue: First, focus on feeling inside your body. Find any areas of tension or tightness. Imagine that tension as a chunk of ice that is melting. As it melts, allow it to flow like a waterfall down through your body and down into the ground. Then, imagine and feel a waterfall flowing from the top of your head down through and around your body, washing any tension down into the ground.
A great way to get a feel for this is in the shower. You can use the sensation of the water flowing down your body to help you feel the inner experience. Then, record that feeling in every cell of your body, so you can take it with you, out of the shower and into your life. Use that remembered sensation to consciously relax yourself whenever you feel tension rising.
3. Breathe from your lower abdomen.
Another foundation of T’ai Chi and Qigong is full, conscious breathing. In contrast, shallow rapid breathing is characteristic of being in a state of stress. Learning to become aware of your breathing process, feel it, and deepen it has a therapeutic effect on your whole being.
A full breath is initiated by your diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of your ribs. The diaphragm is a muscular sheath beneath your heart and lungs and above your digestive organs. When you inhale fully, your diaphragm flattens downward opening space for your lungs to inflate above. The flattening of your diaphragm presses down on your digestive organs, increasing pressure in your lower abdomen and making you feel as if that area is filling up. Increased lower abdominal pressure is a sign of taking a nice full breath.
Taking full, slow, rhythmic, conscious breaths has an entraining effect on your heart and your brain. It brings your emotions into balance and your brainwaves into coherence. It initiates a “relaxation response” and just feels good. It’s a great way to come down from feeling “stressed out.”
Here are some cues to practice: Place your hands on your lower abdomen. As you inhale, imagine and feel as if your lower abdomen fills up first, followed by your torso and chest up to your collarbone. As you exhale, imagine and feel that your whole torso empties out from top to bottom.
You might imagine two vertical balloons running up through both sides of your torso, from your lower abdomen up to your collarbones. As you inhale, imagine that these fill from bottom to top. As you exhale, imagine that they empty from top to bottom. Once you get a good feel for this process, try not to force it. Simply pay attention to your breathing and, as you relax more deeply, observe how your breath naturally slows and deepens.
Try taking conscious breathing breaks throughout your day to come back to center.
4. Center your mind in your Dantian.
T’ai Chi and Qigong are based on your internal energy system or the circulation of life energy (qi, “chee”) through your body. Your qi circulates through a subtle network of energy centers, pathways (meridians), and points (acupoints) along those pathways. The qi circulatory system runs through the connective tissue of your body and closely relates to and influences the circulation of blood and lymphatic fluids.
There are three primary energy centers in T’ai Chi and Qigong, called the dantians (“dahn-tee-en”), in your lower abdomen, the center of your chest, and the center of your brain. These are called the Lower Dantian, Middle Dantian, and Upper Dantian, respectively. T’ai Chi and Qigong begin with emphasis on your Lower Dantian, the center of your physical vitality. You build energy here first and then circulate it through the rest of your system.
How do you build your physical vitality? This is achieved through good nutrition, adequate exercise and rest, conserving sexual energy, deep breathing, and appropriate self-care. In addition, you can increase Lower Dantian energy by focusing your mind into that space and holding it there. This is a great way to come down from stress, anxiety, or pressure, and come down from being “in your head” into being present in your body.
Here are some practice cues: Imagine a pearl of energy about three finger-widths below your navel and 1/3 of the way from the front to the back of your body in the center of your lower abdomen. Imagine your Lower Dantian pearl growing bigger and glowing brighter as you concentrate on it.
You can combine conscious breathing to heighten your concentration and build the energy there. As you inhale, imagine your lower dantian pearl being fed by the energy in your breath so that it grows larger and glows warmer and brighter. As you exhale, concentrate into the center of that ball of energy. I call this “Lower Dantian Breathing.”
The more time you spend focusing on your Lower Dantian, the more energy you’ll feel there. Centering your mind in your lower dantian is a powerful way not only to boost your physical vitality, but also to relax deeply and come back to center when you’ve gotten caught up in the stresses of your day. If you’re feeling tired, lay down, put your hands on your lower abdomen and focus on Lower Dantian Breathing. This is a great way to take a nap or fall asleep at night.
5. Three keys to powerful posture
T’ai and Qigong are replete with memorable cues to help you embody their insights. Good posture is the foundation of releasing tension and achieving full-bodied, emotional, psychological, and energetic integration and flow. It begins with “roots” in your feet, an “energy sphere” in your abdomen, and a “string” attached to the top of your head. These are three keys to mastering your inner being and realizing your full potential.
Here are three posture practice cues:
1. Feel your weight sinking into the entire surface of both feet and then through the center of your feet into the ground. Imagine yourself rooted into the ground through the center of your feet, your “bubbling well” or “root points.”
2. Feel the connection from your root points up to the center of your lower abdomen, your center of gravity or lower dantian (“dahn-tee-en”). Imagine your lower dantian as a brilliant energy sphere just below your navel and 1/3 of the way from the front to the back of your body. Center your awareness in your lower dantian to be stable and present and to build your vital energy.
3. Feel the connection from your lower dantian to the top of your head, your crown point. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head drawing your spine upright.
These three cues connect your entire body into a functional whole. They give you a strong feeling of psychological and energetic grounding, a solid center, and upright extension so you have clear spaciousness in your energy field and your awareness.
Make it a point to check in with your posture frequently throughout the day, especially when you feel stressed or “out of sync.” Use the three posture cues to help you come back to a grounded, centered, upright stance in your life.
6. Soften your hands
No, I’m not talking about which dishwashing liquid you use or which hand lotion. Instead, this is a cue about how you’re relating to others or to circumstances in your life. Feeling the quality of “softness” versus “tension” in your hands is a clue to just how tightly you’re “gripping” your life. If you’re “hanging on for dear life” it will show up in how your hands feel.
Legendary T’ai Chi Master Professor Cheng Man Ch’ing said that he once had a dream in which his hands felt light, like balsa wood, and beautiful, like a “fair lady’s hand.” When he woke up he applied this to his T’ai Chi practice. From this dream, he developed what he called the “Beautiful Hands” posture.
In “Beautiful Hands” you relax your hands so that your wrists are straight (not bent), your fingers are gently extended, yet slightly curving, and your whole hand feels soft, light, and highly-sensitive. If you apply this hand posture as you move your body, your movements flow more easily and you become more sensitive to pick up on the energy in your environment.
When you apply this to working with a partner in the T’ai Chi practice of “Push-Hands” you are able to sense what your partner is doing before they do it. You can sense the energy underneath and preceding the action-a good skill for all your relationships.
Your body is an expression of, and a mirror for, what is happening in your mind and emotions. If you practice “softening your hands,” as in “Beautiful Hands,” you can become more relaxed and sensitive to pick up information inside you and around you.
Here’s a practice cue: Notice the quality of tension in your hands and fingers. Imagine softening your hands so that you can feel the air on your skin and the space inside your hands at the same time.
Softening your hands in this way, helps you to release tension in your hands, shoulders, and neck. It gives you an easy cue to use when you feel tension rising. Try softening your hands when you feel stressed or agitated. Notice how this makes you more present and aware and begins to shift your reactive state.
7. Feel your body as a whole from the inside.
One of the most important things you learn in T’ai Chi & Qigong is to feel what is happening inside your body. Through practice, you awaken your inner sensing abilities. All the cues we’ve talked about in this series help you to do that, from feeling your feet on the ground, to relaxing down through your body, to consciously breathing from your lower abdomen, to centering your mind in your dantian, to the three posture keys, to softening your hands. Each of these will awaken your ability to feel what is happening internally.
In addition, your ability to sense what is happening inside your body is a foundation for being able to feel your emotions and witness your thoughts. It also fine tunes your intuitive sense of “who you are” and “what you are here to do.” Inner body sensing is a bridge to all dimensions of self-awareness.
I found that inner sensing awakened in my body one area at a time. First, in the bottoms of my feet, then in my hands, then the top of my head, then my lower abdoment, then the center of my brain, then the center of my heart, and so on. How this awakens for you will depend on your life history, your personality, and how much of this type of inner work you’ve done.
At a certain point, I began to feel my whole inner body at once. I felt a conscious presence extending throughout every cell of my body. This gave me a sense of inner wholeness, peace, and well-being. Since that time, this inner presence has been a reference point for living my life and a feeling to return to whenever I get “stressed out” or “out of sync.”
Here’s the practice cue: Feel your body as a whole from the inside.
If that doesn’t come naturally, you may focus on any of the inner body cues we’ve been discussing to gradually awaken that feeling and spread it through your whole body.
Another way I like to use this feeling of whole body presence is to rejuvenate my energy when I am tired or “run-down.” To do that I take an “inner body nap.”
First I look at the clock and decide how long I will “nap,” usually 15-20 minutes. Then, I lie down, place my hands over my lower abdomen, lightly close my eyes, and feel my body as a whole from the inside. After a short while focusing on inner body feeling I find that my consciousness shifts into a “lucid dreamlike state,” somewhat like a floating feeling. When the time period I set is up, I feel completely refreshed. I feel re-connected to the essence of who I am and ready for what is ahead of me.
8. Define your personal space.
T’ai Chi and Qigong are based in the ancient Daoist philosophy which views all of life as nested fields of energy within one unified energetic field. Each of us is an energy system within larger energy systems within the One Field. This is corroborated not only by 3000 years of Daoist exploration and practice, but also by the experiments of contemporary physics and energy medicine.
The space that your energy field inhabits can be called your personal space. It is more or less an arm’s length around you in all directions. Imagine your personal energy field as a sphere extending 2-3 feet around your whole body. This defines the space that you call “yours” versus what is “other.”
Your personal energy field has importance energetically and psychologically. It is the energy that is most strongly “who you are” and the way that you differentiate yourself from the world around you. When you “own” your personal space you feel more psychologically empowered. When someone comes into your personal space you sense it. Depending on the state of your own energy and the state of the energy interacting with you, this can create intimacy, resistance, or complex entanglement.
Your personal space is an important “felt experience.” As you awaken your inner sensing ability, it’s important to extend your energetic senses beyond your skin.
“Own” the space around you by feeling your energy filling your personal space. With your personal energy sphere in place, you’ll be able to sense the energy of others as they come into contact with you. You’ll be able to feel what they are bringing to the interaction at that moment. You’ll be able to more clearly sense “what is yours” and “what is theirs” so you can have clear and conscious communication. This is invaluable because so much of our interpersonal conflict comes from projecting our own “stuff” onto others and/or “taking on their stuff.”
So here’s the practice cue: Feel an arm’s length space around your entire body in all directions. Imagine this sphere defined by a border of bright light. Allow your internal energy to extend outward to fill this space evenly and completely. Observe how your experience of your whole personal space shifts the way you relate to yourself and others.
9. The secret to health and well-being is the smooth flow of life energy.
When symptoms, tension, or discomfort arise in your body, instead of first thinking what doctors, drugs, or surgery you need, ask:
1. What can I learn about myself?
2. What is impeding smooth energy flow?
3. How can I return to flowing with my life?
It’s not that medical intervention isn’t sometimes needed. If it is, these questions will lead you to that as well. Sometimes symptoms do progress to the point of medical emergency, especially if you haven’t been able to listen to or heed the inner voice of your symptoms earlier. And sometimes there are larger forces and destinies at work. You’ll discern these, too, by paying attention inside.
When you become sensitive to pick up on the subtle information in your discomforts, symptoms, and tensions and allow them to lead you toward self-awareness you journey on a path of inner discovery. You also take responsibility for the part you play in the process through your intentions, thoughts, feelings, and actions.
On this path, suffering can be a great ally. When you become conscious in your discomfort, whether it is physical, mental, or emotional, you are closer to healing than when you dissociate or cease to feel. Suffering signals you to dive deeper to discover the source of imbalance. It alerts you to disruption in your energy flow, so you can address it at the root cause.
You can awaken your sensitivity to life energy and facilitate smooth energy flow by tuning into your body and feeling your “qi.” Your “qi” is a conscious presence that underlies all your experiences. It is an expression of the greater Life-Force that lives in all of us. Attunement to the Life-Force inside you will guide your way.
10. Daily practice is the key to self-mastery.
I visited Beijing, China, in 2004 on a Qigong study trip and was pleased to see that many Chinese people practice self-cultivation on a daily basis. Everywhere I went, I found people engaged in inner disciplines. I visited one park in Central Beijing early every morning on that trip.
Throughout the park there were groups and individuals doing their mind-body routines, from t’ai chi and qigong, to chanting meditations, to painting and calligraphy, to various group dances and forms. As I returned day after day and joined various practice groups, I found the same people, in the same exact places, peacefully and happily carrying on their practice. What a perfect way to start the day.
The Chinese have a saying that if you do something everyday for 100 days it will become a part of your life. They also have a saying that you are a beginner in your art for the first 20 years. These folks know what it means to master their training.
Reflect on what you would like to grow in your life. Whatever that is, commit to giving it attention every day. Read about it, share it, practice your skills, and grow your resources. Even 15 minutes done every day will build new possibilities in your life.
Your life is meant to be a fantastic voyage of increasing consciousness, passion, and purpose. You are here to fully and authentically express your part in the One Life that we all share. When you do that, you flow with “The Way of Life.”
Enjoy your practice!
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