Tai Chi and Qigong for Mood Regulation

A review of recent studies examining both Qi Gong and Tai Chi in randomized controlled trials and meta-analysis of studies which met clear scientific criteria has shown a potential not only for physical benefits but also psychological well being such as reducing the effects of anxiety and depression.  (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6519567/)

Similarities with Mindfulness Meditation

A woman’s neural circuits are illuminated in similar ways during T’ai Chi and Meditation.

Qi Gong and Tai Chi both include meditative elements and healing characteristics typical of the recent mindfulness meditation movement. Current researchers continue to study how these ancient Chinese practicesaffect the mechanisms of the body and the mind to understand the observed physical and psychological health benefits. The coordination of slow movements with well balanced body postures involves deep rhythmic breathing, clear mental focus, and meditation on the body and mind connections that are similar to the components of mindfulness practice.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

By focusing attention on sensations from the body and slow rhythms of the breath, those who learn Qi Gong and Tai Chi can help reduce reactivity to aversive thoughts and activate the parasympathetic nervous system to restore and nurture our bodies and minds, instead of triggering the fight or flight response  from the sympathetic nervous system.

Taken together, these studies suggest possible directions for future research in how the brain responds through neural pathways and genetic predispositions that could further clarify all the ways Qi Gong and Tai Chi practices support a healthy, harmonious lifestyle.

 

Post submitted by Associate Instructor, JJ Rein

Kua Squats May Hold Off Dementia

Evidence is beginning to show that long term practice of T’ai Chi can affect brain structure and function, possibly helping to stave off cognitive decline and dementia as we age.(1)

But, how does it do this?  One way is by increasing blood flow to the brain.  Increased cerebral blood flow supports the growth of new blood vessels, which, in turn, support the growth of new brain neurons. (2)

Additionally, when combined with mental activity, for example the memorization of the T’ai Chi postures, the increased blood flow supports the development of all the areas of the brain, including the ones linking the right and left hemispheres and the ones supporting the hippocampus and the memory. (3)

Leg Strength is Linked to Brain Strength

Claire Steves, in the journal, Gerontology notes,

By promoting leg strength in your exercise habits, you are affecting the largest muscle in your body. Improving leg strength improves the flow of blood into the brain, which improves brain function. In a study of twins, we find consistent and strong evidence that increased leg power at baseline was associated with improved cognitive aging over the following 10 years. Also, increased leg power within twin pairs was associated with bigger brain volumes and greater brain activation on functional MRI studies after 12 years. (4)

Enter “Squats”

According to the research published by Dr. Damian Bailey, Professor of Physiology and Biochemistry and head of the Neurovascular Research Unit at the University of South Wales:

The alternating increasing blood flow and decreasing blood flow when doing squats stimulates the interior of the blood vessels to produce neuron growth factors.  The brain responds to the “high” and “low” blood pressure changes by growing new neurons and increasing the number of nerve synapses, as well as the size of areas such as the hippocampus.

What we have identified is that three to five minutes of squat stands three times a week is even more effective in terms of how the brain is adapting and responding to that exercise than steady-state exercise. Repeated squat stands, which swing blood flow up to and down from the brain, really help drive the flow of blood to the brain and optimizes the response, selectively targeting brain adaptation over the long-term. (5)

Do an Internet search for “squats” and you’ll find many variations–Asian Squats, Jump-Squats, Frog Squats, Sissy Squats, Pistol Squats, and the list goes on.  Each variation may work slightly different muscles, but they all work the quadriceps and glutes.   In a squat of any sort, the core (abdominal) muscles and the muscles on the sides of the knees become involved.

Since we are interested in T’ai Chi, let’s look at Kua Squats (aka, “Kwa Squats”).

Kua Squats

Tai Chi Master demonstrates how to do a kua squat
T’ai Chi Master demonstrating a Kua Squat.

What is a “Kua Squat?”  The Kua Squat is a T’ai Chi squat.  The feet remain flat, the back is kept straight, the chin is tucked slightly (helping to keep the back and lower back straight),  the lower back (mingmen) is relaxed and released, and the tailbone sinks.  The knees are bent slightly, but not extended over the toes.  The shoulders are aligned with the back of the knees and not pushed forward.  At its depth, the thighs are parallel to the floor.  This is not the “Asian Squat”, in which the femur actually points to the ground.  Arms can hang at the side or extend in front for balance.

Squats abound in T’ai Chi and Qi Gong.  Look at the picture of the Eight Brocades…how many squats do you see?

 

How about “Snake Creeps Down?’

Asian couple perform Tai Chi Snake Creeps Down

How to do Kua Squats

  1. Stand with feet parallel, at least hips width apart.
  2. Open the Kua (hip joint, not waist), bend at the Kua.
  3. Fold from the kua while releasing the knee hinge (bend from the back of the knees).  The knee remains over the foot (behind the toes) and vertical.
  4. Do not think of the knees, just release, while letting the straight back slide down. Keep the knees over the toes, being careful not to pronate them.
  5. Push the buttocks out as if about to sit on a stool.
  6. Relax the back, relax the knee, fold down, pushing the tail bone (buttocks) out.  Sit into the posture.
  7. Tuck the chin slightly to keep the back straight and relieve tension on the lower back.  If you have gotten to this point, tucking your chin slightly will release the sides of your lower back.
  8. The objective of the Kua Squat is to hover the femur (thigh) bone parallel to the floor.
  9. Hold for a few seconds and slowly rise to standing posture.

A Perfect Kua Squat!

This woman is demonstrating a perfect Tai Chi/Qi Gong Kua Squat.

Woman posing in a perfect Kua Squat

  • She is relaxed.  Notice her shoulders are relaxed and down.
  • Her back is straight.
  • She is tucking her chin slightly to straighten her neck, and her whole back straightens.
  • Her tailbone is pointed down, relieving strain on her lower back.
  • Her knees are not extended beyond her toes.
  • Her thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Her shoulders are aligned with her heels and inner knees.
  • Her feet are flat on the floor.  She is resting on her heels.

Tips for Kua Squats

  1. Hold onto a doorknob/door-frame as you squat to help keep your back alignment straight.
  2. Start from standing with your knees at the edge of a chair seat.  As you squat, if the chair moves forward, your knees are moving forward and you are pushing energy into them.  In the Kua Squat, we are using the knees as hinges only.  Think of relaxing and releasing the front of the knees while allowing the backsides to fold downwards.
  3. The goal is to have your femur (thigh bone) parallel to the floor, no lower.
  4. Feet remain flat on the floor. Do not raise the heels; sink into them.
  5. CAUTION! Start slowly, going only as low as is comfortable.  Over zealousness, can easily result in knee injury!

 

References:

(1) The Effects of Tai Chi Intervention on Healthy Elderly by Means of Neuroimaging and EEG: A Systematic Review

(2) 3 Profound Impacts Exercise Has On the Brain

(3) Tai Chi increases brain size, benefits cognition in randomized controlled trial of Chinese elderly

(4) Claire Steves, “Kicking Back Cognitive Ageing: Leg Power Predicts Cognitive Ageing after Ten Years in Older Female Twins”

(5) Dr. Damian Bailey, “The Best Exercises to Boost Blood Flow to Your Brain”

Stardust Startups interviews Kirk Talbott

Stardust Startups is a non-profit providing support for high-impact startup entrepreneurs all over the world.  They specialize in micro-grants for sustainable growth and development in the areas of sustainability, health, and learning.

Kirk Talbott spoke recently with friends at Stardust Startups.  Their conversation was included in the Stardust Startups March 2021 newsletter, The Constellation.

– March 2021 –

The Lessons We’ve Learned

It’s crazy to think that it’s been one year since COVID, since all of our lock-downs.  There’s been so much loss and tragedy. . . but Spring is almost here, and the clouds may be beginning to fade away.

We have learned a lot from this time to ourselves, whether it’s ways of: taking care of our mental and physical health, using technology to communicate and learn differently than before, discovering meaning and purpose, taking action for the planet, or exploring new interests…

We have been given the opportunity to think differently about our personal growth, our our relationships, and about the world.

As Jean and I talked about this last week, it reminded us of our grieving time and our lengthy journeys from that grief to real purpose and fulfillment.

Without rain, the plants can grow and thrive. Tragedy strengthens us, unites us, and makes us complex and beautiful . . .

“Sometimes good things fall apart
so better things can fall together.”

Marilyn Monroe

 

Kirk Talbott is a huge Stardust supporter, and has been from the very beginning.  He’s helped us morally and financially, and is just a staple in the Stardust community!

He’s also a volunteer t’ai chi and qi gong instructor, teaching all age groups in the Maryland and DC area for more than 11 years. I asked him a few questions to get his unique perspective on making the best of the current situation. . .

Stardust:  Everyone was faced with COVID restrictions this year. . . and you were able to pivot your t’ai chi lessons into a virtual class.  Could you explain a little bit more about this experience?

Kirk:  Thank you, Stardust, for the opportunity to share a few experiences and insights from our All Good T’ai Chi group.

COVID has presented difficulties and unexpected benefits for everyone.  Surviving or thriving depends on one’s attitude and approach.

We struggled to find the best ways to use Zoom to teach and practice qi gong (stretching/breathing exercises) and t’ai chi, an ancient, internal, Chinese martial art.

One of the best ways to test softness, yin/yang empty and full feeling, and true ‘gun fu’ (literally ‘skill acquired through practice) is through touch or ‘sensing hands’.

“Surviving or thriving depends on one’s attitude and approach.”

While not possible on Zoom, we have found other ways to encourage each practitioner to relax, release, open and feel the neurological pathways for health and healing.

We engage in socializing to connect before class as people join in the Zoom, sharing information on vaccinations and other topical subjects.

We celebrate everyone’s birthday with a Zoom photo card and a group shout-out.  We play all sorts of music from classical to reggae, team teach different ways to practice quiet standing and moving meditation.

It seems to work well as we regularly have 25-30 or more t’ai chi players, mostly seniors, here in Montgomery County, Maryland enjoying several practices on Zoom every week for a year now.

Stardust: Mental health is one of our focus areas for innovative projects.  We believe more emphasis on mental health and finding ways to heal in this era is more important than ever.  Would you share with the Stardust community some insight you have on this topic?

Kirk:  Just as with your team at Stardust and countless other authentic, grassroots groups, our All Good T’ai Chi community as strengthened of time by focusing on the most important aspects of life: health, awareness and consideration of others.

We find that by exercising mind and body in an integrated, relaxed and proven system of meditation and moving form with postures, we can let go of stress and open to healing.

Most of stress is self-generated and springs from the ‘monkey mind’ either worrying about the past or anxious about the future.

Kirk: Slowing down, paying attention to breath, posture and internal meridians or pathways sets us in the right direction.

T’ai Chi emphasizes simple principles of suspending, releasing, moving from the waist and feeling empty and full (yin/yang) to guide us through our 37 posture ‘short form.’

Whether yoga, walking in the woods, biking or just feeling gratitude–as your wonderful newsletter has mentioned, our mental, physical and spiritual health depends on our mindset and actions.

Stardust:  What makes you a Stardust supporter?

Kirk: When Angus died, my wife, Yvette, and I witnessed Jean turning grief into positive action.  We have marveled at what Jean and Camille have built around Stardust and Angus’s beautiful life and vision.

We applaud all the Stardust team, their creativity, endurance, love and inspiration.

The world is richer and hope kindles stronger.

 

(https://archive.aweber.com/awlist4121085/GoLY_/h/Health_healing_The.htm)

Play T’ai Chi

Grandfather and Granddaughter play Tai Chi on the beach.Having fun is an important part of learning T’ai Chi.  Indeed, many T’ai Chi practitioners refer to T’ai Chi practice as “playing T’ai Chi” and T’ai Chi participants as “players.”

When students learn to take away one or two specific exercises and postures to work on at home, at work, while running errands, etc., progress will happen much more quickly and learning new postures and refinements of postures will come more easily.

Examples of such practice can be:

  1. Shifting the weight back and forth from one leg to the other with feet shoulder width apart while standing at the kitchen counter or in line at the grocery store;
  2. Opening and relaxing the shoulders and holding the head “as if suspended from a string” while walking;
  3. Keeping the wrists in a “fair lady’s” position while typing;
  4. Standing in “Bow Posture” and turning from the waist when sweeping the kitchen, shoveling snow, or hoeing the garden.

Not only will such practice accelerate progress in class, it will also improve the awareness of self.

And through it all, SMILE!  Be aware of yourself smiling,  Smiling is an important part of T’ai Chi!