Friday, March 14, 2014

Cheating on yoga with taichi classes

I started taking taichi classes. I've always wanted to learn it so finally brought myself to sign up for a class. This is supposed to be a yoga blog and I'm supposed to be a yoga fanatic. However, it really difficult to be excited about a hobby on my own, with no one else around me caring about the topic at all. I've tried attending classes at yoga studios (both Bikram and Ashtanga, but not at the same time :P ). The enthusiasm of the students here can freeze the whole room. I guess it's the Scandinavian culture.

I've only taken very few classes so far, but happy to report that I really enjoy it. I can see why it's an art that's nowhere nearly as popular as yoga: the traditional way of teaching it is to be so strict about the placement of every body part that it makes traditional Iyengar yoga class seem like free-style classes. I'm exaggerating, but my point is that without a revolution/upgrade in the teaching style, this activity will never become popular in the world. I should note that I accidentally signed up for one of the less popular styles of taichi (because I didn't know anything about the different lineages before I started), but it's kind of like ashtanga, one of the "original" styles, which is harder to learn but "more aesthetically pleasing and more popular for younger students", so hey, works out for me :)

So the reason why I am practicing yoga less now is that my ligaments are so lax that I have a bad tendency to over-stretch, even when I'm practicing alone rather than in a class settings. This means that unless I become more mindful immediately, too much yoga practice is actually bad for my health. I think if I have a good yoga teacher who can check my alignment during chaturanga or something it would be really helpful, but right now I don't have any, so I'm switching to a milder activity in a small class setting, to learn something new, especially about this elusive "chi".

It's good to start a traditional course after being armed with yoga teachings from teachers with all sorts of backgrounds. One of the most surprising corrections I get is that apparently my shoulders still pop up a lot during a lot of my arm raising movements. I thought that got corrected out of my yoga classes, but I guess hearing the teacher verbally say "lower your shoulders" 1000 times doesn't mean I've actually achieved it. However, the taichi teacher is incorrect in saying the solution to my shoulder raising problem is just to "relax more" to lower the shoulders. It's actually a muscle pattern built in and I actually need to actively employ my lats to pull my shoulders back down. So until the new pattern becomes built in, the correct instruction should be "actively engage the lat muscles" rather than "relax".

For the past few weeks I've been trying to read up on information of taichi, and there's a ton of woo-woo, bullshit, and purposeful mystification filling up the internet about this activity (not much different from yoga I guess). I was lucky I had a lot of great yoga teachers with scientific knowledge who could demystify various aspects of yoga and show the benefits in the physical, spiritual, social aspects of yoga for what they are.  I think taichi teachings could a revolution like yoga, with dance teachers, kinesiologists,  massage therapists, athletes, scholars, modern martial artists, physiotherapists,  medical doctors, osteopaths, personal trainers all learning the activity and then provide their personal expertise and interpretations of the 'sport'. Then we can cut through the BS and identify why it is such a great activity. I must say that the scientific way of studying yoga and taichi (eg. patients with rheumatoid arthritis who did taichi 3 times a week, 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks showed better improvements than patients who took 30 minute walks 3 times a week for 8 weeks), while practical, is a very naïve way of studying such sophisticated arts. I would much prefer a dancer's (or 100 dancers, to be less biased) take on how he or she feels after 1 year of yoga vs. 1 year of taichi in terms of flow and other feelings/thoughts.

But until taichi becomes half as popular as yoga, we have Doug Swenson as one of the few people who do both I guess. However he positions himself as a yoga teacher. I wonder if anyone would position themselves as primarily a taichi practitioner with some level of proficiency in Ashtanga or Iyengar yoga. That would be pretty awesome.


  1. Hello Y,
    interesting to hear about your experience with Taichi. Is it Chen style taichi that you are practicing, btw? I've heard about how Chen style is more athletic and aesthetically pleasing.

    I tried taichi for one semester as an undergrad in Singapore, and eventually gave up because the instructor kept telling me I was too tight and stiff (which is pretty funny, considering that I now do yoga...). But I have a feeling that I know why Taichi isn't quite as popular as yoga: They need to get Madonna (or some other super-popular and attractive celebrity) to start doing taichi!

    But joking aside, I agree with you that taichi instruction tends in general to be more mystical and dogmatic than yoga instruction: In my experience, Taichi teachers tend to emphasize the idea that you should "feel" or "sense" something rather than try to verbalize or describe it (只可意会不可言传). Which is all very well, if you are able to sense or feel the right thing. But if you are a clueless beginner like I was... well, good luck. And again in my experience, they also tend to emphasize this idea of "feeling over verbalizing" to such a degree that they get kind of dogmatic about it. And so they tend not to be very good at breaking things down for beginning students. Maybe Kino needs to do taichi and then teach it to others; she can surely import some of her skill at breaking down yoga poses to teaching taichi.


    1. Hi Nobel, thanks for commenting! From what I've heard, old school yoga teaching was also very dogmatic. Students would do as they were told and not ask so many questions like they do nowadays. Kino also mentioned many times that her yoga teachers used to tell her she would just never be able to do the strength-based "advanced asanas" because she was too small and weak.

      I really think Taichi would benefit from a more explanatory style of teaching rather than this "You're too stiff... just relax more"-type instructions. But oh well, I will see how far I can get with this class.

  2. "Then we can cut through the BS and identify why it is such a great activity."

    I agree. It seems with Asian culture, there's a lot of mystic ideas about how it is somewhat mystical. People are making a lot of money off these ideas, but how much of it is legit?

    1. Hi Ryan, thank you for your comments. I would say that taichi is legit in that it emphasizes relaxation, body awareness (especially body weight distribution + center of gravity), and focus. Just these three things on their own are hugely beneficial for people who suffer in an over-stressed, over-worked, attention deficient society, often extremely out of touch with their own bodies. I consider the "chi" and self-defense aspects to be bonus and not essential goals for my learning. I do feel "something" when I practice the forms but I do not know if it "improves health", or if it's just something that feels good, like endorphin high for runners.

  3. The phrase in Chinese that is used in Taichi is 'song' more a state of mental concentration and an absence of muscle tension. So there you are standing post and your teacher, if they are worth their salt will be telling you to relax 'be song'

    1. Hi Dahn Yoga, my teacher does tell us to "relax" all the time :)