Meditation is a great way to start out ones t’ai chi ch’uan practice.
Most meditation is practiced while seated, but for T’ai Chi Ch’uan, we meditate standing up. Standing meditation clears the mind while maintaining a specific physical structure. The mind and body become more cohesive after standing meditation, preparing it for the more physical, moving meditation that is T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
There is a checklist that the student goes over while standing. While standing meditation appears motionless, the student is making constant, tiny inner adjustments. The body should feel grounded, centered, and free from tension — like T’ai Chi Ch’uan.
Lift the Crown Point
Relax the shoulders
Make arms circular
Hollow the chest and pelvis
Break at all of the joints
Drop the body weight
Tip of tongue behind front teeth on upper palette
Breath lightly through the nose
Eyes gaze outward, ears listen inward
The neck and shoulders are crucial to relaxation. Always coax them down, and consciously relax the tissue at the back of the neck to release tension. The dichotomy between the mind and the body can find a spot in this region, and conversely, softening up that triangle of two shoulders and a neck will produce a calming energy stream, and literally can change your thoughts from negative to positive.
The eyes should gaze straight ahead. Some people close them halfway, or even all the way in order to turn inward. (to shut out the outer world). You can try all of the eye positions (open, closed and half-open) but make sure they are level with the horizon. Ears listening inward means to check for tension and let it go, and to listen to your thoughts.
Some systems of meditation use a repetitive phrase, or mantra to clear the mind. Others rely on the mind to clear itself simply by letting thoughts come and go without trying to do anything. I find this type to be most effective, and very much in line with the concepts in Push Hands (respond to what is there, don’t avoid it, allow it to pass through), and somatic psychotherapy.
Sometimes, and for some people, seated meditation is preferable to standing – when the individual is weak, sick or tired, or undergoing emotional stress, or as a personal choice to see what effects it might have. Seated chair meditation can be used if sitting on the floor is too uncomfortable. The purpose of meditation is to clear the mind, not to make the body uncomfortable while the mind struggles to disregard it until numbness sets in. It is important to use the edge of the chair to facilitate a straight back that is supported by the sitz, or sitting bones, and not use the chair back for support.
The chair is good for people who don’t feel comfortable sitting on the floor, aged people, people recovering from illness or injury, or people with very stiff legs and hips. The straight back is one of the most important factors. Without a straight back, you will find yourself doing little more than sleeping in a chair, and even potentially hurting yourself if your body collapses in on itself.
The sitz bones (or sitting bones) act like the feet in T’ai Chi and standing meditation, connecting to gravity. This is true when seated in the chair or on the floor. Lifting the crown point prevents crimping the spine, and thought travels up and down the spine from the head. The position of the spine is very much the same as in kung fu training.
Most people don’t know how to meditate until they are taught a technique. They think they are meditating when they kick back in an easy chair or lay out on the beach. This is a lot like gazing out of the window while entrapped in a boring class or letting your mind wander when it should be focused — a good precursor to falling asleep.
Resting and relaxation has its time and place, and is extremely important. There can be no Yang without Yin. If one falls asleep during meditation, it is an indication that more sleep is needed at night, or else that the mind is trying to escape from something it is not ready to look at.
This having been said, there are no shoulds and should-nots in meditation in the strictest sense. Any attachment to a goal is antithetical to the notion that meditation is a process, not a product or a journey, not a destination. If you go into meditation with a goal or intent, you will detract from its main purpose: to make you more in touch with the infinite.
Kids and Qigong Meditation
Teaching the kids how to meditate was the first step in the long journey to T’ai Chi. With my own training, I first go inward into stillness to integrate my mind with my body for T’ai Chi and Push Hands. Kids also need to turn inward to prepare for T’ai Chi.
I learned to get kids into a meditative state kids by using evocative visualizations, shortening the meditation time, and making standing meditation into interactive games. I was able to get groups of kids to be relaxed, calm, still, and receptive, something their parents probably never saw unless their little angels were fast asleep.
We had three types of meditation – lying down, seated and standing. Kids love lying on the floor and don’t need mats or pillows. Lying down is better indoors due to the propensity for bugs in the damp northeast. Swatting away no-see-ums (gnats) that would swarm any warm, still, life-form could distract even the most focused of practitioners.
Instructing the kids to keep their eyes closed, I would guide them into a relaxed state with visualizations like floating in a warm pool or on a cloud in the sky. Some mentioned they felt their own heart beat, or heard their classmates breathing. Others would tell me what they were thinking about, or what their mom had said to them before they left for school. Whatever came up, it was good for them to just be relaxed with their thoughts and feelings without interference, qualifications or judgments.
Bringing them out of their meditative state was trickier than getting them into it. They wanted to stay there, in the daydream state. I had to use images like snow falling on their eyelids or a dog licking their noses. They need to reenter the real world gently.
It was important for the students to share what went on with each of them during these sessions, to take the time to hear each one’s story. Some kids became magic fairies while others were in epic battles with monsters. One kid invariably thought about pizza. Some of the imagery bore a distinct resemblance to whatever Disney movie was in vogue at the time.
Transitioning students out of their dream state and into T’ai Chi training was difficult with pure meditation. Lying down is very relaxing and often made the kids lazy. Seated was better. Just as with adults, the best qigong for moving on to T’ai Chi is standing meditation.
On nice days, we sat on benches in the playground in a structured posture, legs at right angles, hip width and planted squarely on the floor, palms draped over knees, perched on the front edge of the seat just between the pee pee and poo poo. (It was actually explained to me in just these words by native Chinese speaking Qigong Master Madame Chiang). With kids, it was much easier to explain it this way than to point to the perineum.
After the five to ten minutes of silence, I asked the kids to slowly open their eyes and tell me what they heard and felt. They spoke of the sounds of birds chirping, leaves rustling and the feeling of gentle breezes. As with lying down meditation, the post-meditation sharing was a good way to come back to activity.
Standing meditation consists of much to think about, even for an adult; lift the crown point, tip of tongue behind front teeth, drop shoulders, hollow chest, hollow pelvis, drop tailbone, sink the weight. How could I get children to want to stand still without moving, and not regard it as a tortuous punishment? I had to make it a challenge, make them curious, and make it interesting.
One way to get kids to line up the spine is to have them stand with heels and whole back touching a wall. If they can slide their hand into the small of the back, then they need to drop the tailbone more. Another way to find this structure is to lay on the floor and try to touch the whole spine. The hand should not fit under if the back if entirely flat.
One of the best ways to illustrate the natural spine (the way the spine is encouraged during meditation) is to show a crawl position, on the hands and knees, how the back is not arched, nor swayed when crawling. The push off the floor and the friction of the knees causes motion. Take the crawl shape and stand it up, and the body will be in a formation that resembles standing, with a hollow chest and pelvic girdle.
After each student knew the rudiments of Standing, we formed a circle. Students touched the hollows of each other’s palms, (Laogong points) one facing up and one facing down. Often tugging and yanking would ensue, and they had to be admonished to be still. The hands should be close enough to not touch without reaching, and far enough to not be shoulder to shoulder.
This meditation game is known as Operator, based on the game in which someone whispers something in their neighbor’s ear, who then tells the next person what they thought they heard, till it returns to the originator. In this game, instead of a word, we gently press the palm into our neighbor’s palm. The goal is to watch and feel the force coming and going, with a larger goal of teaching kids to listen with their minds and bodies.
As teacher, I would initiate the force, with a gentle press either upward or downward. With an exaggerated head and eye movement as I looked at the force, I instructed the students to also look at the force as it would enter and exit. I could see when the force got hung up, when one student would space out, a break in the concentration. Seeing the lapse showed me which student to call out to bring back into the group, and stay focused on the game.
As soon as the force came back to me, I announced its arrival and then sent it out the other hand. The force circled around counterclockwise, and then clockwise.
The second go around was with eyes closed. Here we just sent the force and did not look at it. No one wanted to drop the ball, and because our eyes were closed, attentiveness was more acute. Then we felt the force circulate without any movement at all, just the gentle, still touching of palms.
The final stage of this circular meditation was to place our palms on our own Dantiens and stand in Wuji. Students were very relaxed, but sensitized and alert, from the previous two exercises. After going around the circle, each student was much more able to stand quietly and feel his or her own stillness, while still being aware of each other. Ting or listening energy, touching without stiffening up, or being invasive or defensive, is the basic state needed in Push Hands.
I had previously thought it would be impossible to get kids to be calm and still and meditate. Instead, I found kids were entirely receptive to relaxation techniques, dream states, and especially conjuring up their own imagery.
Most children act out, or else suppress their reactions to appear cool. Meditation is a way to process what is going on inside before it manifests as a disruptive behavior. Teaching these techniques to children at an early age gives them methods for clearing their minds and relaxing as needed in times of stress.