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We would like to emphasis the belief that regular practice – even as little as 5 minutes a day – is important as the benefit builds up over time – you get back what you put in.

Daily practice of 5 minutes or 5 hours gives its own rewards in development of any skill, alternative health disciplines are no different – although it is perhaps more normal for health exercises to take around 15 to 30 minutes per day. Consequently, each video is aimed to fit this time slot and a variety of demonstrations are offered to move along with so that viewers may browse a number of related subjects.

We would emphasise the importance of an experienced personal teacher in providing correction and direction – repeated incorrect practice can lead to problems – a teacher can spot this.

On the other hand, no practice can also lead to problems as bad habits of body usage develop over many years and may develop their own negative outcomes if not corrected.

We hope that our Alternative Health Exercises videos will lend motivation to daily practice and provide a varied resource to enable this. We expect that the movement principles demonstrated will be co-incident with any local class attended – where they may appear to be in conflict please discuss with your teacher who should be able to advise.

It has been our experience and our belief that movement principles are common across all areas of human activity from dance to golf, swimming to tennis – on the basis that the human body is essentially the same, but of course with variations in size, in usage habits, and in extent of capability by virtue of development problems, injury, wear and tear. Nonetheless, the principles remain true – and by correct practice each person can learn to adapt so far as possible and achieve their optimal movement potential.

In Tai Chi we talk about natural movement and tend to think of it in quite specific, almost jargon, terms – as the movement which develops when the body is relaxed and moving from the centre.

But it is worth asking:  doesn’t everybody move naturally? What is the difference and how do we get from one to the other?

Well, it seems to me that we learn most movement by copying others, by modelling. As a baby we see others walking and seek to copy them – we use a hit and miss process to find what works and start to put in place habits of movement that we build on for life in a relatively unconscious way, unless we specifically and consciously choose otherwise.

It may be considered that in evolutionary terms a semi-quadrapedal gait is “natural” for human beings – a bit like chimpanzees – however we have accumulated a long history of upright movement which each new generation takes on for itself.

In this process of learning to walk we necessarily use tension in order to stand upright and move – we then add further tensions throughout our lives from our other experiences and training such as sports or daily sitting at a desk or in a car.

Over many years this unconscious “training” has a cumulative effect on our posture and ability to move easily – our joints become stiff, our muscles lose elasticity and we come to believe that these limitations are “natural” consequences of aging.

We notice, for example, back problems, stiff shoulders, knee problems, etc., inactivity leading to obesity, difficulty in doing things we have taken for granted – e.g. gardening, walking, getting out of chairs etc.

Even “young” people are subject to these negative changes as they use their body less over the years and are subject to more stresses in their lives – actually once we start “work” and don’t have time for relaxed activity, once we become driven about anything.

This is a process which begins at roughly age 1 year old when we learn to walk in a very ad-hoc fashion, and by late teens can already be well advanced. By the time we reach middle-age it is well entrenched and generally unnoticed until we reach our 60s and 70s and begin to feel physically limited and vulnerable on a daily basis.

From personal experience I know that the process is to a certain extent reversible. This reversal is initiated by loosening the body slowly by degrees, enabling improvements in posture and balance. Often by later years this alone takes a significant commitment of soft daily exercise and mindful gentle correction in classes and at home, together with daily attention in all our general physical activities. This can productively include learning to walk again – this time in a very conscious way.

Building on this work we can also seek to re-build elasticity in the released tissues by further gentle, slow, passive working of the fascial tissues.

Tai Chi training seeks to promote this relaxed and passive elastic way of moving – this is not a quick fix – rather it requires much dedicated effort over a long term, probably indefinite period.

However, once the process of loosening, postural correction and development of passive elasticity has begun then we also find growth of what we term connectedness, or connectivity. This refers to the way that once freed from tension the soft tissues can begin once again to work together, each working with its neighbours – in a way somewhat similar to a tug of war team, or any other team, each building on the work of the other. This results in a segmental movement whereby a ripple/wave type of internal action occurs with all parts of the body moving together in a synchronised way – leading to the idea that “one part moves – everything moves; one thing stops, everything stops.”

As this development of new habits of body usage and movement proceeds, it becomes natural, especially in so far as it is relaxed and integrative.

Within the Tai Chi program therefore we learn to:
–    Relax – e.g. informally, massage, stress management
–    Relax in stationery posture, e.g. Chi Kung
–    Relax in standing movement, e.g. exercises
–    Relax in walking movements, e.g. forms
Then we learn to relax when acted on by external forces, e.g. when involved with a training partner.

Ultimately, we can then learn to use this relaxed movement in our daily lives and in our martial arts practice if that is our interest.

Tai Chi and Alexander technique weekend retreat post image

Judy Hammond and Ian ran a Tai Chi and Alexander retreat at Belsey Bridge in May 2017 with everybody enjoying some relaxing work on posture and movement, connecting with our bodies and learning improved methods of body usage – as one delegate put it:

“What a lovely weekend. Thank you so much for all your hard work and input. I learnt so much and it was all very interesting. I felt pretty tired Monday but very energised now which is wonderful. Need more weekends like that! ”

With the day split up into morning and afternoon sessions each one began on the floor with Alexander Technique “semi-supine” work to relax and feel the body – to align the spine and to lightly engage the muscles of the trunk. After standing up this was followed with some very soft loosening in a Tai Chi format to take the feeling achieved on the floor into the vertical, so that everyone could get the sense of being relaxed while moving softly – which was in turn expanded into Tai Chi walking and other general movement. Good overall posture and good primary control of the head and neck were encouraged throughout with physical adjustments from Judy and Ian.posture adjustments

Greek dance sessionSunday included some Greek dance which gave a fun example of body usage – and some individual posture adjustments photographed or videoed on personal phones for delegates to take home.

The venue at Belsey Bridge was excellent with some lovely staff and delicious food – a wonderful exercise hall and delightful surroundings for strolling or personal meditation.Quiet time at Belsey BridgeA meal at Belsey Bridge


Ian Deavin & Judy Hammond

The following article was originally published by Kindred Spirit magazine:

Over my many years of studying and teaching Tai Chi I have recognised that much of individual movement stems from habit – we learn to walk at around 1 year old and then pay it little attention to it until some 60 or so years later when, having accumulated many random poor habits of posture and movement, we notice a certain lessening of physical ability and vulnerability of balance usually coupled with physical and emotional tensions.

Along my journey with Tai Chi I came across Alexander Technique which also refers to habits of body use and of the way each part of the body relates to the others. Indeed, I have heard it expressed that “Tai Chi is Alexander Technique with movement.” So it is not surprising that when I met Judy Hammond – an experienced teacher of Alexander Technique – there was a meeting of minds around a shared interest in understanding and teaching healthy ways of moving and healthy living – helping us to live more comfortably and more capably with reduced pain, facilitating the body’s natural healing processes. Helping us to deal with the stresses of daily living. Common approaches include: relax and move, light upright posture, movement from the centre, a connected relationship within the body, passive elastic movement, mindful attention, thoughtful consideration of movement, sensitivity and awareness of body and emotions.

Such a common understanding led quite soon to us teaching joint seminars and now joint weekend retreats. Drawing on my own Tai Chi background from Yang Style to Chen Style and Judy’s Moving Mindfully approach, we have developed a unique synthesis – a way of working with exercises inspired by the two disciplines.

Further drawing on dance, meditation, visualisation and martial arts experience with a good measure of humour, these Alternative Health Exercises are suitable for beginners and experienced people who will also recognise common themes from other areas such as Yoga and Pilates. Our aim has been to bring together a simple and fun way to develop easy movement as an investment in self.

It is our observation that developing a skill in movement leads to a healthier mind and body with enhanced proprioception that enhances static and dynamic balance. Exercises work to develop inner awareness around the centre line of the body, head floating up, lower body sinking down (heaven and earth), a lithe connectedness, good posture at all times whether seated, standing or in dynamic movement. Meditation and visualisation are used as aids to this awareness and relaxation.

In a world where we every day experience the spectrum of life from the fun and enjoyable to the aggressiveness of simple conflicts – as one of my teachers once said: “It is easy to be enlightened on the top of a mountain with no distractions – just come down here where life comes at you like a conveyor belt and then try it!” (Vince Morris). In such a world many people find the natural relaxed movement of Tai Chi to be very therapeutic – both calming and healing. For some the isolation of quiet meditative movement enhances this experience as in solitary practice or individual sessions with a teacher; for others the physical and emotional closeness of group work keeps them grounded in human contact.

Whatever suits each person the core of Tai Chi movement provides a centre – a structure on which to develop a very special way of being – with at its heart a dedication to resilience, strength and understanding of change leading to a stronger body, mind and spirit. Big claims – but ones which many have found fulfilled.

In seeing Tai Chi as therapy, leading to personal development in its widest sense, we should be wary of thinking this might be an “airy fairy” program. On the contrary, it is – or at least can be – a very practical down to earth skill set derived from much practice and hard work with its full measure of fun and challenge. Tai Chi viewed in this way can be understood as a very personal investment in oneself – an investment in future old age and learning to look after yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally. Whatever you are looking for the Tai Chi is the same, it is just a question of how far and how wide any one person wishes to take it.

Learning about ourselves and others, we learn to survive and to survive well into long and happy lives by developing our spiritual and emotional growth path. Tai Chi is fundamentally linked to the world views of Taoism and Zen Buddhist meditation and so is a very practical and pragmatic approach with connections to modern day psychology/psychotherapy as well as neurophysiology. As one student explained: “I’d suffered with sciatica for over 10 years and working at a desk bent over a computer screen really didn’t help. I had to have expensive back manipulation and decompression once a month, just to reduce the pain enough for me to function. Tai Chi was suggested to me as something that may help, so I thought “give it a try, what’s the worst that could happen”. By the end of the first month my back pain diminished, and I’ve never needed any treatment since starting. It worked for me, but I didn’t stop then because I thought, “what else can this do for me?” I look at Tai Chi as an insurance policy for health and wellbeing as I get older. Don’t believe for one moment that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, or course you can, as an old dog myself I can vouch for that. I’ve been learning Tai Chi for over 4 years and every lesson opens a new door to understanding how I function now, and gives me the tools to become better.

The classes are structured but with no pressure on you and you learn at your own speed. Every teacher I’ve met, including my fellow students, who I also learn from, have been friendly and supportive. People at the classes are not judgemental on how well you perform, because we are all still learning. Every lesson has left me feeling good and given me something to think about for the next week.”

My colleague Judy Hammond explains a similar viewpoint: “As a result of decades of dance, movement and Pilates studies plus the Alexander training, I began to acquire a more immediate understanding of and “feel” for the movement qualities embodied in the great classical techniques of yoga and tai chi as well as other movement and dance forms. Tentatively at first I began to experiment with new teaching methods in an attempt to convey the essence of the appropriate movement quality, employing a multidisciplinary approach, gentle partner work and vivid imagery. Many students visibly and rapidly integrated a broader range of movement qualities plus increased awareness and confidence in moving, and many reported ongoing benefits in everyday life.

It’s my heartfelt belief that the opportunity to move mindfully and be conscious of our alignment and breathing patterns is one of the key resources needed to flourish and feel positive and sometimes joyful, even in the face of difficult circumstances.”

A long term student of Alexander Technique explains: “When at 30 years old I was diagnosed with poly- arthritis and poly-myalgia … I was warned that I could be in a wheelchair by my forties. I am now 65, on my feet and leading an active life, due, I believe, to the benefits of the Alexander Technique throughout this period.”

It is our joint belief that when we feel anxious, depressed or traumatised most of us tend somewhat to absent ourselves from our bodies – the mind races, breathing may become rapid and shallow, neck and shoulders become tense, and we often lose awareness of our legs and feet. These phenomena will be most radical in shock/trauma, but even everyday levels of anxiety may evoke some degree of these responses.

One of the most effective and fast acting remedies for these distressing and all too common reactions is to apply mindfulness to our alignment, breathing and movement quality – it can be quite extraordinary to experience how quickly we can regain more comfortable levels of calmness, centeredness and resourcefulness.

In 2017 we hosted an Alternative Health Exercises weekend at Belsey Bridge in the beautiful Suffolk countryside near the market town of Bungay. This venue has a rich and fascinating history of learning and introspection, being originally a school for orphans run by the neighbouring nunnery. It was at the time also a school, a hospital and home for “fallen women”. The building was later used as a boarding school and now as a religious conference centre – it is ideal for a quiet weekend offering excellent outdoor and indoor spaces for practice and reflection, group meetings and country walks.

For details and booking of seminars and retreats contact Ian Deavin at [email protected] or 07860 218334. For further information see www.sheffordtaichi.org and http://movingmindfully.co.uk/

Why Tai Chi works for the over 50’s

As I understand it, there are many aspects to the aging process, for example cellular replication slows down at around 50 years or so, as a result of which the number of stem cells in our body start to run down. The world’s oldest woman who died at 115 years old a while ago was found to have only two types of stem cell left in her bloodstream – much reduced in comparison with a younger person.

As a result the cells that do not replicate do not die, rather they enter a lower energy state of senescence where they are not so efficient or effective at converting the energy of blood sugar work. Consequently we become weaker cell by cell, muscle fibre by fibre. The same of course happens with our internal organs which consequently become likewise as capable!

Now perhaps many things including Tai Chi, exercise in general, good diet, a low stress lifestyle etc. can prolong that period of decline extending the onset of senescence some years, but ultimately, unless we die by trauma, then we all die the same way, by gradual aging.

The difference is that Tai Chi offers a way of developing skill in body usage – Tai Chi people age and die like everybody else – they have simply learned how to deal with it better than most. They learn how to manage their body and if you have not learned Tai Chi by age 50 then this is when you probably still have enough energy left to learn.

The connected movement of Tai Chi allows the whole body to act together, supporting and enhancing the weaker parts. Like a convoy protecting and supporting the slower weaker ship. We need to get the whole convoy home – the whole body – with as little damage or loss as possible.

So, like a team who organise themselves so that the strong support the weak and the quick cover for the slow, the clever for the not so clever – of which each individual will exhibit a range of attributes that need to be meshed together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and ensuring that the weakest link does not fail.

As they grow old Tai Chi people learn to do this with their bodies, minds and emotions so that by developing relaxed integrated movement, the body organs and consequently the cells of which they are comprised are less stressed and for any action the whole body is brought to bear – thus compensating for developing weakness.

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