Tai Chi Wandwork 34

With a bewildering array of health exercises from China – literally dozens of Tai Chi and Qigong forms,  styles and routines – how do we choose one as our daily health routine?

I have explained many times on this blog that for comprehensive health and fitness (“internal” and “external”) the 17 Chinese wand Exercises passed on by Bruce Johnson is a perfect daily routine for just about anyone. That does not mean to say that we would not benefit from other exercises routines once we have completed our daily round of wand exercises. For a long time I performed Tai Chi after the wand exercises, using the wand-led movements as a sort of warm up and stretching routine for Tai Chi.

Then one day I felt that I wanted to continue holding the wand while performing Tai Chi and created the Tai Chi Boating Wand form. It is a flowing and very relaxing form that adds many benefits to gentle movement, such as improvement of posture and increased shoulder mobility.

My daily exercise routine became the wand exercises followed by the Tai Chi Boating Wand. This is as simple and comprehensive as it gets.

But….many students, while enjoying wand exercises, still want to learn Tai Chi and Qigong.

Tai Chi
During the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was learning Tai Chi there was basically only Cheng man-ching’s short form in the west. Nowadays the 24 Step Yang form has become and international standard. Both forms, while rewarding for dedicated long-term students, contain elements that are very challenging for the average person. I created the 55 Step “Flow Form” based on both forms but without the static single-leg stances and squats.

So after the wand exercises students can either perform the Tai Chi Boating wand or The 55 Step Flow Form. Both options are as simple and comprehensive as it gets.

What about Qigong?
Students ask about Qigong. It’s difficult to incorporate a Qigong routine into a class syllabus when there are hundreds of routines to choose from. For example the Chinese Health Qigong Association have created many new Qigong forms and still teach updated older forms. The interesting thing is that the stated health benefits of the routines are remarkably similar. Which Qigong form should I choose for class? I decided to use some of the “Shibashi” Qigong exercises because they are similar to the wand exercises in that they focus on both the external and internal and are practised with a moving flow which is neither too slow or too fast.

Putting it all Together
The reality is that most students will not have the time or inclination to study the entire wand exercises, learn the 55 Step Flow Form, the Tai Chi Boating Wand or a the Shibashi Qigong routine.

So I designed a sequence of 34 exercises which contain simple movements with comprehensive benefits from Tai Chi, Qigong and wand exercises. The routine, called the Tai Chi Wandwork 34, not only serves as a general introduction to these different forms but focuses on quickly getting circulation and energy moving in an accessible way. The form is simple yet just challenging enough to be enjoyable.

The first 18 exercises are open-handed (no wand needed) and consist a selection of  Shibashi and other Qigong movements and Tai Chi 55 Step Form. The last 16 exercises use a “wand” – a stick, wooden dowel or bamboo pole about 48 inches long and one inch thick to perform some Chinese Wand Exercises and movements from the flowing “Tai Chi Boating Wand” form.

Breathing is integral to the movements of the whole program. Movements should not be too fast (using momentum) or too slow (with stagnant energy and no flow). A moderate, even speed is maintained throughout, coordinated with breathing. This methodology gently stretches the body and massages internal organs (with rocking movements, for example).

While some students may want to go on and learn the various components of this form in their entirety, those seeking a 15 – 20 minute well-rounded gentle exercise routine for health and wellbeing need look no further than the Tai Chi Wandwork 34. It is a sort of one-stop shop for people with a wide range of medical conditions as well as the sedentary and office workers who sit for hours.

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Tai Chi Wandwork 34 is  accessible for programs such as “wellness in the workplace” and the “GP Physical Activity Referral Scheme”. Doctors are now prescribing Tai Chi and Qigong for conditions such as: High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol, Heart Disease, Muscle or Joint Problems, Anxiety or Depression, Arthritis, Asthma, Diabetes, Obesity, Sedentary Lifestyle, Posture Problems, Seniors Balance Problems, Slouching & Stooping.

Tai Chi Wandwork 34 is especially beneficial for people suffering from ailments of modern life such as slouching and stooping caused by using smart phones / desktop computers / tablets and playing PC games. The movements excel at opening the chest, strengthening the shoulders, back and neck and combating bad posture.

Tai Chi Boating Wand and Tai Chi Health Preservation Stick Side by Side

Some students of the Tai Chi Boating Wand form have asked how it differs from the “stick” form created recently by the Chinese Health Qigong Association. Firstly, while there are many “weapons” forms used as health exercises, both forms are non-martial with emphasis solely on health. However, they differ is some fundamental ways.

Tai Chi Health Preservation Form 太极养生杖

This form mixes static stretches with movements. The hands are shoulder-width apart for most of the form and perform some quite intricate movements as they change position several times to hold the stick in different ways. There is a focus on stimulating acupuncture points and meridians. In the moving postures, the footwork and weight distribution is similar to Tai Chi with the weight sometimes moving onto the front bent leg as in Tai Chi “bow posture”.

Tai Chi Boating Wand 太极划船杆

This form is concerned with “flow” and creating spiral and circular movements. There are no static stretching postures. The arms are mostly in a wide position, opening the chest and encouraging good posture. The spine is constantly massaged as it is gently twisted. There is no particular focus on “internal philosophy” of Chinese medicine. The footwork and weight distribution is a little different from Tai Chi, with only 50% weight going onto the front foot in “bow posture.”

 

 

Exercise Tai Chi: 55-Step Flow Form

Tai Chi (Taijiquan) is a martial art some few hundred years old. An important element is a series of linked movements called a “form” which is based on fighting movements. There are “empty hand” forms and weapons forms.

In the 1920s three major figures in Taiji worked together to adapt the empty-hand forms of their respective styles. Yang style’s Yang cheng-fu and Wu style’s Wu Chien-chuan smoothed out the forms and got rid of explosive postures, jumps and other abrupt time changes to make their forms easier for the general public to learn. Sun style’s Sun tu-t’ang also created a style with smooth, flowing movements omitting more vigorous martial elements. The work of these masters during this decade saw the emergence of what could be called “Tai Chi Exercise” with its distinctive slow, even movements that are practiced primarily for exercise rather than emphasising vigorous martial training.

It must be stressed that all styles of Tai Chi have kept the full martial art training for those who want to pursue that path. The fourth major Tai Chi style – Chen – did not adapt its empty hand form and today still contains explosive fast movements with the slower gentler ones.

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century two of the most influential Tai Chi “Exercise forms” were created from the Yang tradition:

  1. The Simplified 24-Step Taijiquan was created by a group of masters organised by the Chinese State Physical Culture and Sports Commission in 1956. The form was simplified, repetitions removed and postures balanced by performing them on the opposite side. The form takes no more than five minutes to perform.
  2. Cheng man-ching’s Simplified 37 Posture Form was created probably in the early 1950s. Cheng eliminated most repetitions and removed some postures, which reduced the performance time to about ten minutes. The postures are performed with the spine more upright. It was not until the 1960s that it became widespread.

In recent decades there has been more focus on introducing Tai Chi or the elderly and those with a range of health issues preventing them from performing robust exercise. Simplified forms have been developed to improve the barriers to Tai Chi and to introduce it to a wider range of people. These simplified forms contain only a few postures; the idea is that students do not have to devote years to learn complex postures in order to gain benefit. However, the simplification process can frequently result in movements that are almost too easy. Students can find them repetitive and monotonous and uninteresting to perform. This can be frustrating because mindfulness in moving exercise is best achieved by interesting movements or movements with meaning. Tai Chi’s martial intent makes it “interesting”. If simplified forms lack the martial element they are indistinguishable from Qigong. In Qigong, mindfulness can be achieved by focusing on the body and visualizing internal energy / Qi and directing it to various parts of the body. So-called “Easy Taiji” forms that adopt the abstract mindfulness of Qigong rather than the worldly mindfulness of the martial arts can be enjoyable if the movement contains enough variety. If too repetitive they become an `empty-headed’ chore like many modern Western exercises.

In a Tai Chi form there should always be martial intent with continuous flow, stepping and an awareness of single-weightedness.

And so we come to the 55 Step Flow Form, which is an amalgamation of Cheng man-ching’s short form and the 24 Step Yang form that has been abridged and adapted in the tradition of “Exercise Tai Chi” evolution. I removed the kicks, squats and postures requiring weight placed entirely on one leg because it is not efficient to have leg strengthening and “core exercises” in the midst of a moving form (that’s what the Chinese Wand Exercises are for!). In addition, too much emphasis on placing all the weight on a single leg – which is what happens in traditional tai Chi forms – can create an uneven strain on the lower back. Eliminating these type of movements has resulted in a more balanced and flowing form.

I also changed footwork and weight distribution to reduce knee loading when moving forwards in bow posture. Every posture is performed on both right and left sides. The result is an interesting flowing form lasting about five minutes. More crucially I have changed Cheng man-ching’s idiosyncratic footwork (completely shifting weight from one foot to the other, then stepping out with the empty foot without any adjustment whatsoever of the weighted leg). The only explanation I have found for this is that his method “opens the kua” (hip-joint). But there are safer and more efficient methods of doing this.

Summary of the 55 Step Flow Form:

1. There are no kicks, squats or single leg standing postures.
2. No more than about 65-70% of weight transferred to the front leg in bow posture.
3. With transitions between postures requiring all the weight to be on a single leg, that leg should be directly under the body and only slightly bent.
4. When stepping forward in postures such as Parting Wild Horse’s Mane and Brush Knee, the opposite leg is first brought back under the body before stepping out.*
5. Stances are no more than shoulder width.
6. Every posture is performed on right and left side.
7. Each postures occurs twice only – once right and once left
8. Breathing is taught from the outset and integrated with each posture.

*Many articles have been written about avoiding injury when placing all the weight on the forward bent leg in traditional Tai Chi forms. They offer complex, long-term solutions.

In the three examples below of traditional Tai Chi forms, the left (bent) leg is in front of the body and has its knee about 8-12 inches in front of the hip. With the right leg off the ground the weight of the entire body is on the left leg. This means that the left knee is taking the body’s weight at a vulnerable position.

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The 55 Step Form avoids this technique and only places 100% of weight on a leg if the knee is under the hip (so that the leg is almost straight).

55 Step “Flow Form” Postures list on PDF Document

Meridians and the Chinese Wand Exercises

The more I study the movements of the Chinese Wand Exercises the more Traditional Chinese Medicine reveals itself. Bruce Johnson scratched the surface of Chinese philosophy in his book. In my own book I explored the two main concepts Johnson highlighted;

  1. The pyramid shape enhancing the body’s energy
  2. Moving the energy from Huiyin at base of the spine to the Baihui point at the crown of the head (Microcosmic Orbit).

In addition, the exercises can be viewed in terms of the more detailed meridian system. Although I did not have room to go into this fascinating subject in my book, there is a wealth of research that indicates exercises (Qigong and `Taoist Yoga’ in particular) activate meridians.

In the wand exercises, focusing on the fingers and toes in various exercises will bring this aspect to the fore. Mindful attention to the extreme meridian points in fingers and toes as we stretch the arms and legs can provide great extra benefit. It stimulates meridian points in the toes of feet.

The Stretching and tasking of the fingers which takes place in the wand exercises actually works the Heart Meridian, Small Intestine Meridian, lung Meridian, Large Intestine Meridian, Pericardium Meridian and San Jiao (Tripple Burner) Meridian. This `upper body group’ of meridians either begin or end at a certain finger tip and run along the arms.

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The particular stretching of the legs, going up onto our toes and pointing toes during also works the meridians that extend to the toes (the lower body group of meridians) such as the Liver Meridian, Gall Bladder Meridian, Kidney Meridian, Urinary Bladder Meridian, Spleen and Stomach meridians.

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Tasking the hands

In wand exercises the hands are continually employed as they gently manipulate the wand a round the body or to create certain postures. The important acupuncture point in the hands – the Lao Gong – is traditionally associated with being stimulated in a range of Qigong exercises. This increases by the use of implements like the `Tai Chi Ruler’ in which the ends of the implement are in direct contact with the point.

In the wand exercises, the length of the wand prohibits the tips from being placed directly on the point. The contact is maintained with the side of the wand against the point. In addition, we simultaneously stimulate the acupuncture point at the finger tips as we gently grasp the wand and take it though different patterns around the body. This maintains a continual flow of `Qi’ from the hands and through the wand and up the arms to form pyramid shape as it reaches the Bai Hui point at the crown of the head and the Hui Yin point at the base of the spine.

laogungruler1handandwandpyramid-front

Search for the Hatchet Taiwan Wand Method

`Search for the Hatchet’ is one of the more challenging Chinese Wand Exercises. It involves bending forwards and raising the arms behind us as we hold the wand behind the back either side of the body.

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There is a style of Chinese Wand in Taiwan that has an identical technique. However, their wands are shorter which makes the posture a little more challenging. This posture is one of many presented by Bruce Johnson in his original book which also feature in exercises in China and Taiwan today.

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Exercises that Hurt: Standing Pole

At one extreme of Chinese health arts Tai Chi is marketed as an easy and painless exercise.

At the other extreme is `Standing pole’. This is an exercise that involves standing in the same position for a long time without moving. You stand for longer and longer – until you can stand it no more – but then you must go further and the burn will come, legs start shaking causing the body pain and suffering.

Proponents of the standing pole exercise say that most people give up this exercise because it hurts and that people who continue this exercise eventually become masters and achieve superior physical and mental capabilities. While this is not to be doubted, the trouble is that the practice of standing pole is difficult and hurts.

Practitioners further claim that the fact that so few people are keen to do the exercise means that they are `special’, one of the few ‘worthy’. In a sense, they are. Only a minority of people want to do painful exercises each day of their lives.

Standing pole is an interesting exercise – and it does actually `work’ in that you can eventually achieve benefit if you practice it for long enough. However, the benefits can be achieved through other practices that do not involve such hurtful self-torture. It is also an inefficient form of health and fitness training; it requires a lot of practice over a long period before any return and needs expert supervision and intervention. More importantly when standing still you sacrifice the benefits of range of movement.

The standing pole method is suitable for fit martial artists keen to push themselves to the limit of endurance and you have to admire the dedication and single-mindedness of someone putting themselves through this year after year. But it is not a suitable technique for the average person, seniors, the obese and the sedentary.

While I do not think that a gentle Tai Chi workout is enough to develop fitness we don’t need to torture ourselves with painful and stressful methods.

The Chinese Wand Exercises are in the middle ground between gentle and more robust exercise, which is the reason I practice the art.