I used to practice the Tai Chi Ruler but now I prefer the longer (four-foot) wand. Why?
I spent most of my teenage years as a trainee cook. I was on my feet all day and evening chopping, rolling pastry and preparing dishes, while spending all my free hours playing my piano. I soon developed a painful condition in my upper back and neck – the result of holding both arms up in front of my body for long hours.
Jump ahead twenty years when I was an office worker sitting at a computer for most of the day. I practiced Tai Chi in the evenings, which helped me cope with the effects of sitting at a desk for long periods. When I discovered the Tai Chi Ruler I was immediately impressed with its philosophy and simplicity. I began to practice it diligently in the evenings but my upper back problem returned! It wasn’t that I was doing the exercises wrong; it was the fact that I was spending most of the day with my arms up in front of my body at a computer and there was no release from this posture with the ruler exercises. I was a victim of overuse of repetitive movements (arms habitually held up close together in front of the body).
Since then I have been careful to practice therapeutic exercises which contain contrasting and varied positions for the arms. When I discovered the Chinese Wand Exercises I found that the varied movements countered the effects of modern lifestyle. In recent years I have added some therapeutic gentle movements in the style of Tai Chi and Qigong routines.
Physical Advantages of the Longer Wand
I believe that things have moved on from the time the Ruler was devised as a therapeutic exercise. Modern life’s problems are focused on tasks and behaviour that could not have been envisaged at the time. We live in a couch-potato, sedentary world where the daily use of modern technology puts our health – particularly our posture – at risk. And it is in this area that the ruler is not as useful as the longer stick. In `Ruler work’ practitioner place to their upper body in a similar `closed’ position as that forced on them by modern lifestyle.
The images below show the remarkable similarity between typical Tai Chi Ruler posture and posture exhibited by people using smart-phones, tablets, laptops, game consoles, or sitting at desks and computers, etc.
Postural problems due to modern technology have been called `Text Neck’ or `IPhone posture’
With the Ruler exercises, the focus is on the hands held a short distance from each other mainly in front of the body. It is impossible for the practitioner to open the arms because of the short length of the Ruler. These photos are typical of the most common Ruler postures, although there are some movements in which the arms are held up or turn to the sides the arms themselves never open up.
Open Up and Receive the Power!
By comparison, techniques of the four-foot wand (when held correctly in a wide grip) encourages opening the chest and shoulders – giving an unsurpassed range of movement and opening up the shoulder, neck and entire back.
The second advantage of exercising with the longer wand is psychological. Straight and wide body posture is psychologically linked to success. Wide postures – stretching out, making yourself big, opening the chest, having the arms wide and being upright – are linked to high power, while being hunched, bending forwards, having the arms in front of the body, is linked to low power. Research has shown that people habitually exhibiting cramped, hunched postures have high rates of cortisol (which is linked to stress). Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have negative effects, such as:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing
While hunched posture can raise cortisol – the `stress hormone’, opening up postures can raise testosterone – the dominance hormone. High-power alpha males in primate hierarchies who have high testosterone and low cortisol have lower stress. When a male takes over an alpha male role, within a few days that individual’s testosterone has gone up significantly and his cortisol has dropped significantly.
So if we adopt wide postures we feel powerful, which decreases the amount of cortisol in our bodies and also the amount of stress.
Therefore using the longer ruler in a wide grip can transform our health and well-being by improving our body language! Wand exercises which predominantly involve wide open postures make us feel more powerful and in control.
Philosophical and Spiritual Intent
Yet most people who practice the Tai Chi Ruler do so for its philosophical and spiritual concepts – as a way to meditate and focus / move internal energy – qi around the body. However, my book `Jiangan – The Chinese Health Wand’ revealed that the longer wand also has strong basis in esoteric philosophy and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Exercising with the implement stimulates qi circulation by gentle rhythms, and holding the wand and coordinating the movements of the hands and body with breathing helps to connect the energy flow and cultivate the Three Internal Treasures (essence, qi and spirit). We also train the connective tissue/bones, muscles and skin as we coordinate the hands, eyes, body and feet. All the movements are slow and gentle, with conservation of energy as an underlying principle of training.
Both the short and long sticks have deeply philosophical and even spiritual elements such as focusing on `internal energy’, acupuncture points and meridians.
The internal aspect of the longer wand emerges most within gently flowing exercises such as the rowing drills. I have created many based on simple footwork and circular / spiral movements.
In the above exercises there is a wonderful sensation of exhilaration as the body opens up as it gently turns and stretches and moves the internal energy through the wand and throughout the body.
There is nothing wrong with practicing traditional Ruler exercises; in particular, people who have an active life or a physical job will enjoy the focus of the narrower hand position. However, I prefer the four-foot wand because it is a more efficient implement for building comprehensive internal and external health and fitness – as well as improving psychological well-being.