Thursday, 1 May 2014

Reflections on Practising: Why, When, Where and How

‘The more you put in the more you’ll get out!’

This statement is true for nearly all human endeavours, especially for qigong and the internal martial arts (taijiquan, xingyiquan and baguazhang). Everyone knows that we need to practise a lot to get good at anything. If practised regularly over an extended period of time both qigong and the internal martial arts can bring enormous benefits to physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual health.  However without regular and sustained practice you can only ever hope to achieve a tiny fraction of the potential benefits.

We shouldn’t view practising as a chore that needs to be completed in order to become healthy, calm, strong or whichever benefit you are hoping to achieve. For me it’s the favourite time of my day. A time when I have no worries and my attention is focussed inwards (on movements, alignments, breathing etc.). Practice has become like a drug addiction. If I don’t get my daily fix I’m irritable, tired and prone to illness.  

‘How can I find the time?’

It’s common to hear people say ‘I don’t have any time to practise’, I don’t believe this, perhaps they really mean ‘I’m not motivated enough to find the time’. Martial artists may be highly motivated to practise for hours each day, as they risk serious injury or even death. Of course many of us have work and family commitments that severely restrict time available for practice. My first teacher had a very busy family and work life, so he would get up very early each morning to practise, even though this often meant being severely sleep deprived (he had decided that practising was more important/beneficial to him than sleep). When I was in my early 20s I was able to practise for one and half hours each day after work, but now I have much less free time, so I go to work early to practise (I am more likely to be disturbed or distracted at home). Unfortunately, the periods when we are busy and stressed are also the periods when we need to practise the most (or benefit most from practising). Practising little and often is usually more effective than long drawn out sessions, so it’s possible to find lots of practice time without having to set aside large blocks of time. Varying times and seeking out new opportunities for practise may also increase the chances of hitting ‘windows of opportunity’, these are times when you are ‘in the zone’ and will make the most progress and gain maximum benefits from practice. One way to find extra time is cutting down (or stopping) bad habits, for example TV, smoking, wasting time on YouTube/social networks etc…

There are also some elements, such as breathing, relaxation, posture and alignments that we should try to practise throughout the day. 

Elderly people practising yang style taijiquan in a Chinese park

Where’s the best place and when is the best time of the day to practise?

A lot has been written on this subject. Dawn and dusk are generally regarded as the best times to practise. In China, early morning is the most common time to see people practising. Practising directly after a large meal or ejaculation should be avoided. It is desirable to practise outside near trees and water. However, in reality many people are unable to practise at the perfect time and location. I live in a polluted city that is well over 40C for at least 6 months of the year, so I prefer to practise indoors. My main recommendation is that you should endeavour to practise as much and often as possible, rather than being too picky about finding the perfect time and location. 

Combatting the 'monkey mind’

The 'monkey mind' is a Chinese expression that describes the difficulties (or often inability) most people have when trying concentrate on one task for an extended period of time. Boredom is one of the main issues that can make practising difficult. Practice inevitably involves repetition, especially for beginners who may only know a few movements. Repeating movements many times is essential. It leads to the creation of neural pathways, which allow movements to be performed instinctively without conscious thought, increasing speed and relaxation. The ‘information age’ means there are now many more distractions than there were in the past.  In many ways the biggest challenges that we face are mental rather than physical i.e. to avoid becoming bored or distracted. But there are a few techniques that can make practice more interesting. Although you may often practise the same movements and forms you can vary the internal focus. For example one week you may concentrate on tendon stretching, the next week pulsing joints and cavities, the week after that weight shifting or breathing and so on. It's best to wait until you can perform an element comfortably before moving on to the next component. If you suddenly start try to juggle too many balls you may drop them all.

As you become more experienced and aware you may be able to tailor your practice to the different seasons, your bio-rhythms or any health problems or weaknesses that you have.  For example exercises that benefit the kidneys (which usually involve stretching the lower back) are particularly useful in winter and when you are lethargic or suffering from colds. If you’re having digestive problems you should focus on the earth element, which is linked to the spleen in Chinese medicine.

The importance of finding a good teacher

Practising with others, attending regular classes and teaching others can also help increase our motivation and provide you with much needed feedback. In a perfect world we would be able to see wonderful teachers every day, who could supervise our practice to ensure that we achieve the best possible results. Unfortunately few people have this luxury, so the onus is placed upon the student to decide when and how to practise. Just a few decades ago the only option for someone wanting to study the internal martial arts or qigong was to find a teacher in the Orient. Today there is a plethora of information (such as books, websites and videos) available to us all online. Although these can be very useful resources and help increase awareness amongst the general public, they don’t provide any shortcuts to success or an effective substitute for face to face instruction. Prolonged, regular, mindful practice and expert guidance are still required to achieve mastery (or even the benefits mentioned in the opening paragraph).

Students being taught ‘Pushing hands’ (tui shou in Chinese)

General advice
  •  Find a good teacher
  •  Practise little and often rather than bingeing
  • Gradually build up your practice time and intensity
  • First practise individual components separately before trying to combine  them
  • Set aside specific times each day for practice
  • Look out for new opportunities and places to practice
  • Vary your practice to keep it interesting
  • Try to practice with others whenever possible
  •  Practise to 70% of your maximum to avoid injury and tension