Local taiji blog

The local taiji group that I practice with, Community Tai Chi, recently opened up its formerly closed (password protected) Community Tai Chi student blog.

If you’re local, and you’re interested in studying taiji, the site and the blog together give you a very good idea of what you’d be studying if you studied with us. At the top of the blog are a series of posts with links to videos of the various movements in the 8-movement form we teach beginners (reposted so that they appear in order). Further down is a long post with links to videos of the 24-movement form that the more advanced class is working on (the first 24 of the Chen-style 48 movement form). Further down yet are some older posts with links to taiji resources various other places (including a couple that link back here, to some of my taiji posts).

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

Brain chemicals and artist’s dates

In my family, “brain chemicals” is the shorthand term for unmotivated negative feelings. That is, when you’re feeling sad because something bad happened, that’s normal, but when you’re feeling sad for no particular reason, that’s brain chemicals. (On the theory that you’ve probably got a chemical imbalance or something, and that you should probably see a doctor about it when you’ve got the time.) The same applies to anger, frustration, anxiety, etc.

I mention this because I often suffer from brain chemicals, especially this time of year, when the days get short and dark and cold.

I’m actually doing pretty well this year. I’m doing a bunch of things that help. I’m taking my vitamin D. I’m trying to get outdoors for some actual sunlight, any day that there is any. I’m getting my exercise in. (For many months now, Jackie and I have been lifting weights three times a week and doing an hour of taiji three times a week. I’m trying to get in an hour of walking and at least a few minutes of additional taiji on the other days of the week.) I’m being productive. I’m getting enough sleep.

Still, despite all that, brain chemicals seemed to be setting in yesterday. I was feeling over-busy, under-accomplished, and frustrated. So, I went to level two in the fight against brain chemicals, and scheduled an artist’s date.

I think of it as a date with my muse. A proper artist’s date involves going somewhere and spending time with something that spurs creativity. That could be almost anything, and if I did them more often (and I really should) I’d probably have to broaden the range of places that I go. But I don’t do them very often, so I can usually get away with taking my muse to the same few places.

I started at the Krannert Art Center. Much of their exhibit space today was full of stuff that I had little interest in, but outside the museum proper there’s a changing exhibit of student work that’s often more interesting than the work in the museum itself. Today it had the work of school children. There were a lot of interesting ideas—for example, a low passageway made of cardboard where kids who’d studied ancient cave paintings had painted their own—even if only a few of the actual pieces spoke to me.

Connected to the museum is the school of design building. They often have some student work on display in the hallway, and I rather liked a small group of pieces by students who had apparently had the assignment to create a brand identity for themselves. They produced the same elements that a brand identity package from a marketing firm would provide—a name and logo (provided in a couple of sizes and formats, in both color and black & white), together with some key terms and images that could go into a branded ad campaign.

It was everything an artist’s date needs to be—a reminder that creativity is everywhere, a reminder that there can be joy in art of all sorts.

I was already feeling better today, and expect that I’ll feel even better tomorrow.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Long runs and rides

Bicycle on the side of a country roadI miss being in shape for long runs and long rides, so it’s great to finally be making some progress.

Since I always get out of shape over the winter (I’ve never been able to get myself to run in the cold), I’m always having to ramp up in the spring.

I’ve got a nice 1.5 mile loop that I use for my early season runs. An important milestone is when I’m first able to do a “long” run of longer than that—this year a 2.12 mile run last Sunday. Not very long, but I know from experience that, once I can do a long run, I can ramp the distance up pretty quickly. If all goes well, by mid-summer my “short” runs will be 2.5 miles (same as my short loop, except adding a second lap around Kaufman Lake) and my long runs will be 5 or 6 miles. Still short by distance running standards, but long enough for me to feel like I’ve gotten a good workout.

The biggest obstacle to making proper progress is a pernicious habit I have of letting the weather tempt me into deferring my rest days: When the forecast is for rain tomorrow, I’m inclined to squeeze in a workout today, even if I ought to rest.

That can lead me seriously astray when—as is common on the prairie—we get into a weather pattern with several days in a row where the forecast is for rain tomorrow. Each day I think, “I’ll go ahead an get in one more run today, then take a rest day tomorrow when it’s rainy.” A few days of that, and pretty soon I’ve got sore knees or sore ankles—something that can blight a whole season.

Happily, the rain actually did arrive today, so I’m taking the rest day I should have taken Monday or Tuesday.

I follow much the same pattern with long bicycle rides. All the more so, really, because they’re even more dependent on the weather than a run. But the result doesn’t seem as pernicious. I can wear myself out with a few extra rides on what should be rest days, but so far the result hasn’t been the sort of injuries that set back my training.

So, rest day today. The forecast is for thunderstorms tomorrow as well, but we’ll still get in lifting and taiji, even if we can’t bicycle to them. Then, Friday, back to outdoor exercise. We’re just about ready for our first long ride of the season, traditionally to the center of the universe, for lunch at the Philo Tavern. (That link goes to a post from 2005 about that year’s first long ride.)

Doing Taiji backwards

The Taiji form that we’re learning is handed. That is, many of the moves are not symmetrical left versus right. That seemed odd to me. In Aikido, each move has a left version and a right version and we always learned them both ways. My instructor says that some schools of Taiji do learn all asymmetrical moves as both left- and right- handed, but that most, including the version he’d learned, do not.

He told us a while ago that he’d added some mirror-image work to his own practice, and we even did a little bit in class. Many of the students resisted this, and we only did it a couple of times. Still, doing a mirror-image of the form seems like an obvious win to me, so I’ve just recently started to do so in my own practice.

What’s most interesting to me so far is the way doing mirror-image work makes me a beginner again. Not that my study of Taiji is at all advanced, but I had progressed beyond beginner—until this.

It’s a very different sort of being a beginner. When I was learning this form the first time, the hard part was simply learning how the moves went. In the time it took to learn what I was supposed to do, I worked through my coordination issues for executing the move. Doing the moves backwards, my experience is quite otherwise. I know how the move is supposed to go, but executing it backwards requires developing a whole new set of muscle memories. The practice exposes a part of the learning experience that was largely masked before—hidden by not knowing quite what I was supposed to do.

The whole thing is interesting enough that I’m sure I’m going to want to repeat this exercise on the long form, once I’ve gotten reasonably good at doing our short (9-movement) form backwards. I’m also going to have to think about other variations that might let me rediscover being a beginner in other ways.

The obvious varient would be to reverse the form in time—do it from the end back to the beginning. I’m not quite sure what the reverse of the kicks and stomps would be, but for the rest of it, working each form backwards would be straightforward enough. It’d certainly make me a beginner again.

How much exercise?

I’ve always struggled to get the right amount of exercise.

I used to blame much of my difficulty on having a job. My experience over the past three years makes it clear that it wasn’t so simple. (It wasn’t completely wrong. Especially when the days get short—when I would be going to the office before sunrise and returning home only after the sun had set—it was very difficult to get enough exercise. That is much improved.)

There have been periods I have managed to get enough exercise. Three different summers I managed to do so by organizing my exercise around training for a future event (twice a race, once a century ride), but those efforts never carried over into the following winter. More successful have been the times when I integrated my exercise into my day’s activities, such as by walking to school or by bicycling to work.

The first time I was running seriously, I kept a training log. At the peak in late summer I was spending just over 100 minutes per day exercising. (That was averaging a 5-hour weekend bike ride in with shorter weekday bike rides, almost daily runs, and two or three sessions of lifting per week.)

The problem was that 100 minutes per day turned out to be more than was sustainable if I was also going to hold down a job, keep up with household tasks, and have a life. Even now that I’m not trying to hold down a regular job, I’ve found it impossible to put 100 minutes per day into exercise.

That’s all prelude to mentioning the extensive coverage in the news lately on a recent study on physical activity and weight gain prevention. For people of normal weight, it seems that one hour per day of exercise was sufficient to prevent weight gain. People who got less exercise gained weight. (The details were complicated. People who were already overweight didn’t seem to benefit from exercise.)

Still, even with the complex result, it seems like a target of 60 minutes per day of exercise is a reasonable one. It seems to be enough to maintain a healthy weight. (That is, if you can’t sustain a healthy weight when you’re getting that much exercise, the solution is not likely to be more exercise.) And it’s well under the 100 minutes that I found unsustainable.

The first news story I saw on the study had a great line, to the effect that if an hour a day seems like too much time to spend exercising, think instead that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

So, that’s going to be my goal: about an hour a day of exercise.

I’ve already got two days a week covered—on Mondays and Thursdays Jackie and I have a well-established habit of doing about 30 minutes of lifting plus 60 minutes of Taiji. If I aim to spend an hour a day on the other five days of the week walking, I can hit my target even if I miss an occasional day due to bad weather or schedule problems.

And I’ve already started. Thursday I did my lifting and Taiji. Yesterday I walked with Jackie for an hour just after lunch. Today I walked into campus for the Esperanto group meeting.

One great thing about this new exercise plan is that I don’t need to work up to it—I’m already in good enough shape to walk for an hour every day. I just need to do it.

Taiji, weight shifting, and intention

One of the practices that we do in our Taiji class is a moving qigong exercise with a Taiji stick where we bring one end of the stick toward us, press that end down and point it down toward a spot outside the foot on that side.

We’d long done two versions of that exercise, one where we just shift some of our weight to that foot, and another where we stand on that foot (lifting the other and moving it close to the foot we’re standing on). We usually start with the former and then go on to the latter after a few repetitions.

In a class last week, though, one of the instructors called out the switch differently, prompting an interesting insight into weight shifting.

The instructor just said something like, “Now shift all your weight to that foot.”

I initially thought that this was some new, intermediate version of the exercise, so I was shifting all my weight, but without actually lifting the other foot.

Right away, I noticed that the instructors weren’t doing some new version, they had just described it differently, so I went ahead and lifted my foot—but only after having shifted all my weight to the foot I was going to be standing on. What a difference! This was obviously what I should have been doing all along.

Comparing the experiences, it was clear that I hadn’t been getting the weight shift properly established before trying to lift the other foot. Of course, once you pick up one foot all your weight is on the other foot, so the result (assuming you don’t fall down) ends up being the same. But the process is much easier and more comfortable if I make a point of getting the weight shifting completed and then raising the foot only after it is no longer supporting any weight.

It’s giving me some interesting insights into intention. I’m comparing the weight shifts I do in other activities, such as walking and climbing stairs. I’m sure there’s more to learn here.

Perfecting Taiji forms

I studied Aikido briefly when I was living in Salt Lake City. My teacher was a gruff Asian man whose English was just adequate and whose teaching style was not unlike what you see in martial arts movies—he would mock or berate students who got things wrong. I don’t know if he thought that was the best way to get people to learn, or if it was just how his teachers had taught him.  Maybe he just didn’t want to waste his time teaching anyone who could be deterred by a little mocking or berating.

At one point, talking about his philosophy of teaching, he made fun of some locally available Taiji classes that focused on “perfecting” your Taiji forms.  With his somewhat limited English he made it perfectly clear that he thought it was stupid not to learn your Taiji correctly in the first place.

It made sense to me at the time.  I mean, if you’re going to practice something hundreds or thousands of times, surely it makes sense to learn how to do it correctly first, right?  Who’d want to practice doing it badly over and over again?

My current teachers, though, have a completely different attitude.  Unlike any martial arts class I’ve been in, they basically never correct anyone.  This may be partially due to the makeup of the class—mostly old people who might have limited range of motion due to arthritis or some other medical problem.  Also, I think it’s because they’re focusing on the deeper fundamentals—things like shifting your weight and turning your body. Exactly when you turn your hand is simply not as important.

Even more fundamentally, though, it’s because you have to do the practice to learn to feel the difference.  I suppose if you had a private tutor telling you that you were turning your hand too early or were forgetting to straighten your foot, you might spend a little less time practicing the form incorrectly, which would mean that you’d start practicing the form correctly a little sooner.  But I think you’d lose the chance to learn how to feel why one way is wrong and the other way is better.

I have no particular natural ability at things like this—things like martial arts or dance or tennis.  I’ve seen dancers who can pick up choreography in a fraction of a second, copying the lead dancer’s moves so quickly that you can scarcely tell that they’re unrehearsed.  I’m the opposite of that.  It takes me tens or hundreds of tries to get even reasonably close.  However, I’ve been surprised to find that I get a little closer each time, even without an instructor telling me what I’m doing wrong.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the way you learn how to do something is by practicing.  I knew that already.  But it’s been very interesting to see how effective this sort of minimalist instruction is.  The teachers demonstrate the forms, and they answer questions.  There’s no pushing people to do the forms more correctly, and there’s certainly no mocking or berating.  And yet, I’m learning at least as fast as I’ve ever learned anything equivalent in the past.

So, I think my old Aikido teacher was wrong.  It makes perfect sense to start learning Taiji at the most basic level (weight shifting, turning your body), and then to move on to foot work and arm movement, and only then to worry about things like how you move your hands.  It makes perfect sense to have an instructor show you what to do, but then let you learn how to do it through practice.  And, since you can do 90% of the practice entirely on your own, it makes perfect sense to have an advanced course in “perfecting” your Taiji forms, to get whichever small bits don’t come naturally out of your practice.