by Ronnie Robinson
Having taught taiji and qigong for over 20 years, the last 10 of which have been as a professional instructor, I have worked with a wide range of people from many social backgrounds and, through this time I am slowly coming to believe that, despite our many differences, we all seek the same goal, inner peace, and contentment. This being the case I am becoming acutely aware that often the search takes us further away from ourselves and makes it harder to find this inner contentment.
One of the first things I do when starting work with a new group is to ask them why they have decided to come to the class, in one or two words. Around 80% of the reasons given include the words, relaxation or stress reduction. Of course, if we asked these good people to expand upon their single word responses, we would hear terms like increased energy, better health, less resistance to disease etc. All of us who teach or practice these arts would see these as potential benefits which can be gained from continued practice but, the main problem is in creating a place that allows students to experience the benefits as quickly as they can, so that they are suitably stimulated to devote the necessary time and commitment to the work of achieving their goal of becoming more relaxed, less stressed and ultimately at peace with themselves.
In my early days as a teacher, I would spend a lot of time checking for correct postures, looking out for the usual potential dangers that can result from over-doing things, as well as taking care to impart what information I had in a clear, methodical manner. Getting it right was my God. Show them how to perform the movements, let them make a few mistakes, but slowly work to put things right. I continually spoke to the group, advising them of where their arms should be, told them to relax their shoulders, go a little slower, feel the gentle opening up of the body and so on...
Over the past few years I have noticed that I have changed my teaching method; I now say very little, I allow them to make their mistakes and I don't worry too much if they are doing things wrong; provided they're doing nothing dangerous they'll be fine. As a result of this adopted change I have become aware that my classes are quieter, students are gradually becoming clearer in what they are doing and the difference in their ability to perform the sequences doesn't seem to be any worse, despite my restrained verbal input. Recently it suddenly it dawned on me - the more I told them what to do, the more I took them away from the process of doing it! It just simply took too much time to get the information from my mouth to their ears, to their brain, and finally to their limbs.
The art of qigong is an experiential art and it only by paying real close attention to our own experience, can we begin to make the changes we need to our bodies, minds and, ultimately, spirits! The starting point is to really identify what it is we feel, and what it is that we want to change. This identification is not achieved purely on an intellectual level but more on a bodily sensing level.
Anyone who wants to achieve relaxation must first acknowledge their tensions and tightness. I encourage new students to spend some time sitting or standing still and bring their awareness to their breath. By listening closely to the breath we can become aware of its pace and depth and location in the body. Those with higher stress levels will often have a short breathing pattern located in the upper part of the body. This restriction may also be accompanied by tightness in the shoulders, upper back, and neck. Sitting quietly in this stillness allows us to really sense where we are with these aspects of our breathing and tensions and thereby moves us a little closer to the path of reducing them. Gradually, through this listening, we can begin to allow the breath to settle in its naturally comfortable position of our lower abdomen. Over a period of regular practice, we can speed up the process of centring our breath here and then begin to listen to the deeper voice of our stomach.
In our language we have common expressions like, 'gut feeling' sick to the stomach' and 'butterflies in the belly.' In extreme circumstances, these anxieties that manifest in our stomachs can lead to disorders like indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers. The expressions I cited convey something of the many feelings that be found by focussing on how we feel from this part of our bodies. Gradually you will become more aware of the noises of discomfort that stem from anxiety and disturbances in your life and, by trying to give space to allow them to still, you will develop the tools to quiet your mind and free your body from these stresses. Continued practice will lead you to a greater sense of inner peace which will sustain you through troubled times. In difficult situations of conflict, our Qi energy quickly rises to the upper part of our body, and raises our anger, which can often result in us acting rashly and saying this we later wish we hadn't. If you find yourself becoming excited or over-heated in a disagreement, try to bring your attention to your stomach and let your breath become a little more even. Very quickly, you will become calmer, more peaceful and more able to deal with these difficulties in a more rationale way.
In giving people then ability to tune into themselves in this way, your will find they are more open and more receptive to learning what it is they want to learn, without the usual stresses that come from trying to memorise a sequence of movements. With a calm, centred self we are more able to absorb information, without self-criticism or worry about not doing it right and appearing inadequate in front of our peers. The work of taiji and qigong can be paradoxical and ironically, it would be so much easier if those who came to learn how to do the work for relaxation, were actually taught how to relax before they were taught how to learn movements of postures, forms etc.
Having you ever pondered the question, "What is it we're doing when we practice taiji or qigong?" On a physical level, I believe, we are creating a structure for the body to do all it needs to do at its optimum best. Through the various experiences of our life, our body adopts particular postural ways to allow to cope with all we have to do. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a keyboard you are more than likely to develop physical tensions that result in back problems, bad posture, hunched shoulders and restriction in the flow of energy to your upper body than those who don't. Long term this can also result in inhibiting the fullness of your spirit to manifest. Try the following experiment:
Lean forward a little and allow your head to drop down. Round your shoulders inwards and, in this position, try to express a feeling of joy or elation. Now bring your body more upright, straighten your spine and open your upper body by slightly pulling your shoulders backwards. Now try to express a feeling of depression. You will find that neither of these emotions can be expressed with the body in these positions. In adopting good postural habits, we can help to improve our emotional well-being. The more physically open we are, the better we actually feel. It's as simple as that. By being aware of your body and how you are using it you will become better equipped to overcome emotional imbalances. The Qi or spirit will rise, your vitality will increase, and you will gain a clearer, calmer demeanour. Aside from the obvious benefits of allowing your energy to move through your body in a clear, unimpeded way you will greatly affect every part of your being, how you deal with problems, physically, mentally and emotionally.
The technical work of taiji and qigong is no doubt critically important and the more knowledge you have about posture, energy flow, and your relationship to the world outside your body, the more efficiently you will manage the business of living healthily in the 21st century. However, despite this technical knowledge, the best tool we can apply is our inner senses of listening and paying real deep attention to the messages that can come from within. We are graced with the information of imbalance which informs us when things are not right within us. We can feel stressed; we can feel, 'out of ourselves' from time to time and we can feel emotionally weak. It is only by developing the ability of becoming aware when we are getting close to periods of discomfort that allows us to take stock of ourselves and make the necessary steps to improving our situation. Simply by paying close attention to the body and breath on a regular basis you will discover the potential to overcome most of the imbalances that come your way.
In teaching taiji and qigong on a regular basis, we often hear of improvements to our student's health and well-being but, from time to time, the changes that take place can be more than we ever imagined.
I once taught a 10 week course in a working-class part of my city, to a group of elderly women. By playing some nice music, and creating a relaxing atmosphere, the smiles on their faces, and the pleasant chatter as they were leaving the building, indicated that they derived some pleasure from their practice, despite their lack of expertise. However, one week a little lady deeply moved me with her story:
Annie was in her late 70's, small, a good few pounds overweight and always worked quietly at the back of the class. One week, as the class finished she waited for the others to leave and softly asked if she could have a few words with me. "Sure," I said, "what can I do for you?" She told me that for many years she was a very active woman, always working, looking after the household, socialising with family & friends etc. However, for the past five years or so she lost the will to do much of anything, just did what she needed to, no more, and then rested in front of the television each evening until bedtime. Since coming to the class, since practising qigong she had, for the first time in years, planted flowers in her garden.
Annie is a rare case of someone who has found a way to both identify and express the benefits she has gained from her practice. There is no doubt many more tales of deep change that have come about from this work. What is particularly rewarding is the fact that, on a very deep level, the nature of this work is inherently simple. It truly is available to each and every one of us, for little cost, other than regular practice. We all have the potential to find a new vitality and peace within us, just as Annie seems to have done. Just try to consider what a greater place the world would be if we all attained this state of being.
This article has been reproduced with the permission of Ronnie Robinson and was first written for the National Qigong Association of America's Journal
Visit his website www.chirontaichi.co.uk where you can read more articles and purchase copies of his books and dvds
Ronnie Robinson is a full time, professional instructor who has taught Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung since 1985 in a wide variety of environments. He teaches regular classes and seminars in and around Glasgow and is a regular instructor at major European events. He has taught and demonstrated in: France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Switzerland, Czech Republic, UK and USA.
Ronnie has produced two highly acclaimed, practical dvds, 'The Chi Kung Way to Health and Vitality' and 'Tai Chi for Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere.' and has written three books on tai chi, Collins Gem Tai Chi, Live Better Tai Chi and Tai Chi For You. All are available through his website or via major retailers.
He is an active promoter of Chinese Internal Arts through his works as Promotions Manger of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain, Secretary of the European Federation for Taijiquan & Qigong, Editor of Tai Chi Magazine and co-organiser of Tai Chi Caledonia the UK's biggest multi-style international conference.