Healthy kids are animated and noisy, not still and peaceful. How to get them to do t’ai chi was the biggest challenge I had ever faced.
The earliest versions of the Pushing for Peace program were developed at St Pauls Lutheran School in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania from 2000 to 20003 where I taught qigong and meditation to the elementary school-aged students. Disturbed by a series of Columbine-copycat bomb-threats, I had decided to share the peacefulness I was experiencing from my own t’ai chi practice with young kids.
Teaching the kids how to meditate was the first step in the journey to t’ai chi. By shortening the meditation time, using evocative visualizations and making it 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.
With my own training, first I go inward into stillness to integrate my mind with my body for t’ai chi and push hands. I knew clearing the mind must be the first stage for the kids as well. 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). 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.
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 with the program.
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, the students were 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 a precursor to Push Hands.
Rocking is another Qigong type, light–contact, partnered exercise. Students touch each other lightly under the elbows. When one person shifts forward and exhales, the other shirts back and inhales, slowly with weight sunk into gravity. Centering and grounding are felt even more acutely with eyes closed. This becomes an exercise in trust, sensitivity and focus as both students can sense that they are in each other’s hands, and moreover, that they are both causing and maintaining the flow of calm energy.
Twelve years olds who are just coming into puberty and self-consciousness are at a pivotal time in their lives. When teaching the group in the video on the home page, I was surprised to find that they were far more interested in t’ai chi than kung fu. These young adolescents wanted to feel peaceful and get relieve from the constant stresses around them — the pressures of socialization, studying, and danger on the streets. The qigong meditations, push hands, and non-competitive t’ai chi games provided much more stress relief than the self-defense training of kung fu.