Attainment of Skill

British schooling conditions us to think that we are either right or wrong.  During our developmental years, we are assessed and marked accordingly. There develops a sense of failure or achievement depending on how good we are getting things ‘right’ and, at an early age, we learn where we stand in relation to others in this regard. As an Open University tutor, I often come across students with a deeply ingrained sense of failure which seriously impedes learning.

In Taiji there is no right and wrong: just a spectrum from poorly skilled to highly skilled.

Please ingest this.

There will always be more skill to develop and therefore you will never have it done, have it right, have it finished. Skill is always developing. For some of us, this produces an open-ended lack of achievement (no sense of completion) but only if we assume there should be an end point. The end is not the aim. Development of skill is the aim.

In the early days, we do not have much skill and we struggle with clunky bodies, self-criticism, and perhaps a sense of defeat (I will never be able to do that). But there should be no comparison with others. This is not a competition, a grading, or a test. We are each developing our skill as best we can at this time in our lives, with all the limitations of aging and injury inflict. One student will be flexible and flowing while another is stiff and clunky but if both are developing slightly more skill each week, both are doing it right.

The interesting thing about skill is that it develops by DOING. It is not about understanding it with our intellect (although, for some of us, this helps). It is about understanding it, knowing it, kinaesthetically. This is a completely different type of learning (which academic schools do not address but various craft-based apprenticeships do).

We do not develop taiji skill by ‘learning’ the form as quickly as we can. We develop skill by working on (practising) the principles we know so far. As our skill evolves, our teacher gives us more principles to work on. In other words, the sense of achievement needs to shift from one of ‘completion’ to one of ‘attaining skill’.

It is not so much about the length as the depth.

Silence for Health

Silence is under-rated in our stimulation-rich, things-to-do, must-never-get-bored, society. The ceaseless attentional demands of modern life put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where we organise thinking, decision-making and problem-solving. Over time, of course, our attentional resources become depleted. As a result, we become mentally fatigued, and may struggle to focus, solve problems or come up with new ideas.

But the brain can restore its cognitive resources when we have lower levels of sensory input than usual—in silence, for instance.

Silence can also regenerate brain tissue. Researchers have found that only two hours of silence a day can lead to new cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region associated with learning, memory and emotion. These findings suggest that silence could be therapeutic for conditions like depression and Alzheimer’s, which are associated with decreased rates of neuron regeneration in the hippocampus.

Silence does something tangible to our sense of self. When there is little input to process from outside, we have an opportunity to process inside. This is often one reason why some of us avoid silence; it prevents any observation of our inner lives. But silence allows access to more than our internal processes. It allows us access to something deeper, bigger, wiser.

When I was in the Sinai desert, doing Qigong (as you do) the silence created by a vast expanse of emptiness was the most unexpected part of my experience. It was as if, in the silence (where there were not even plants to rustle in the wind or distant activity from far off people) my senses expanded in all directions to find something. This silence was, quite tangibly, expansive. It became obvious why so many spiritual retreats take place in deserts (Didn’t Jesus spend time mooching about in a desert?).

So give yourself a full day of silence at one of our regular mini retreats. There will be guidance (it is not a day of sitting in silence wondering what to do or what to think about) and opportunities for brief discussions of feedback but the day will generally be silent.


Speech is a river, Silence is an ocean.



Belly breathing

In many ways, the breath is the link between body and mind because the way we breathe directly reflects our mental and emotional state. When in a state of panic, for example, we breathe with the top of the chest, visibly gasping for air. On the other hand, when depressed, our breath can be shallow with substantial periods of stillness with no breathing at all. Different ways of breathing use different muscles. When anxious, excited or busy, we naturally breathe using chest and shoulder muscles. If this is prolonged it can create a tight neck and back. But, when deeply relaxed, we breathe predominantly with the diaphragm with our abdomen moving in and out and our chest remaining still and relaxed.

Fortunately, the relationship runs both ways. We can induce relaxation through diaphragmatic breathing.

But so what? Why is this kind of deep relaxation good for us?

Our bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, breathing, and immune activity are controlled by a part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and this has two modes.  ‘Fight or Flight’ mode is designed to prepare us for action taking the focus away from non-emergency processes such as digestion and fighting disease.  ‘Rest and Recuperation’ mode, on the other hand, is designed to kick in between emergencies and allows digestion and immunity to function once more.  If we never fully relax, we never allow the body to drop back into Rest and Recuperation mode and unfortunately a stressed person does not necessarily fully relax even when asleep.

The thing about Belly Breathing is that by stimulating the vagus nerve running deep into the belly, the ANS switches from Fight or flight to Rest and Recuperation mode. This allows our immune system to focus on long term health problems rather than short term damage and our digestion to work optimally.

The way we breathe also influences the acidity of our blood. Improving our breathing pattern can reduce acidity and thereby help reduce the severity of a range of inflammatory conditions.

Technique (min 20 mins per day):

Lay on your back with knees slightly bent. Let your belly go up when you breathe in and down when you breathe out. Check that your chest is NOT moving as well. For this exercise we want no movement in the upper chest.

After a few minutes, check that both inhale and exhale are soft, smooth and long. Make sure you are breathing OUT fully. See if you can make the inhale and exhales change over slowly, smoothly from one to the other, i.e., there is no gasping or holding of breath.

Belly Breathing should feel like a wave gently rising and falling. It will be quiet, unforced, and smooth. We want the in and out breath to be the same length and intensity.

As your practise develops, your belly breath will get longer and smoother.