Health obstacles, optimism and tai chi

I met a woman who is so obese she can’t stand. Her knee cartilage is gone and her joints are painfully inadequate for holding her up. She has diabetes and suffers from fatigue. She drives around in a small, three-wheeled cart like you see at supermarkets. I met her at an expo for women, “What a girl wants.” If this woman didn’t want weight loss to improve her health I wouldn’t know what else she could have been there for. We connected in a very authentic way, talking pragmatically about her condition. I don’t know if my products could help her but I wanted to believe they could. It felt to me that she wanted to believe they could. Yet her condition is so severe that it would surely take a very radical product or approach to get rid of enough fat from her body to give her back her life.

She courageously drove her cart among the crowd between the booths and displays, invisible to many of the beautiful, healthy people milling about. I thought if she can do that then she can set her health goal and achieve it. So I mailed her some info about my wellness products that I thought could help. I put a DVD of a video about one of the products that I have seen help so many sick people, including me.

I have no idea if she will or could use them or if they would work if she did and, as I said before, I like to think they would. If they did it would be a real success that I would love to tell people about. But what struck me deeply was the optimism that she seemed to have. Anyone who may help her will need to be optimistic to carry through whatever strategy she decides to pursue if she were to try at all. It will be a monumental endeavor, a true life and death struggle. We don’t think of things in our world in this way even though story after story is about someone overcoming a life-threatening event or illness.

It is exactly this way with tai chi, which literally played a major role in my ability to take my life and my body back from illness. Tai chi is a constant endeavor and quitting is not an option. It isn’t like you get rid of the problem and it stays away forever. You have to do something almost everyday to re-enliven your body, mind and spirit. Optimism is a naturally occurring characteristic in our human make up, but it is something you must cultivate to keep alive. Tai chi complements that endeavor.

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A little taijiquan cosmology

Taiji cosmology… “Taiji is the mother of yin yang,” the classic says. It is the “supreme ultimate.” Qi is yang and flows through the body and beyond with a healing power. Like wind and water. Our bodies are like the earth and the blood that flows through our veins is like the waters that flow on the earth’s surface and even below. Qi is like the wind, as well, that blows everywhere. It has similar qualities as water, healing, life giving, yet it is different. Qi is more connected with spirit, a bridge perhaps from our corporeal existence to our abstract connection with unknown, but knowable, things.

Doing taiji, I imagine moving through these connections. This imaginative method of movement raises the shen, which some of my teachers have mentioned to me, that we all need to do when practicing tai chi. 

A Question of Grounding

A fellow learner came into the practice studio the other day and said she really needed some grounding. I showed her a few things I felt could help and we reached a new place of learning by the time practice ended. Later, I wondered that if we know we need grounding, why can’t we do it when we feel we need it? Didn’t ever really grasp what it is in the first place? It sounded to me like a concept presented by a teacher in the past that sounded like a reasonable means of alleviating stress. Makes sense at first.

In tai chi we don’t refer to grounding. We have something named “root,” but I would not say it is the same as “grounding.” We also have the concept of “no root,” which I like to refer to as “not root.” In my lineage, we also practice sinking qi, being “connected”, moving the whole body as a single unit, and being weighted in gravity as we move (plus much more, of course). Perhaps my fellow learner was seeking “quiet mind,” which is a very important concept in tai chi practice, as well. I will explore this more in a later post, because it is so fundamental in tai chi.

Perhaps the notion of “root” comes closest to “grounding,” but root is changeable and doesn’t readily adhere to any preconceived notion to what it should be. Too readily we hold on to a notion of what something is in attempts to find stability. Our emotional mind does this.

From my tai chi perspective, this tendency in us, which is not unnatural, actually hinders our exploration of the true changing nature of the taiji, the supreme ultimate expression of any practice. More than anything, we want stability in life … and yet, change is at the root of life and, consequently, tai chi.… flux … no idea lasts … only movement continues and our perspective changes with every changing moment. Our environment changes with every changing moment. Outside forces shift as conditions, intentions, and perspectives change.

Perhaps there is no real thing such as grounding, only shifting of awareness from one view to the next, to the next, endlessly. Yet, within tai chi movement, there is a center that is motionless around which endless motion occurs. It is a silent place. My friend and teacher, Susan Matthews, sometimes refers to it as a black hole that astronomers talk about. Within this center place exists our orientation, our “grounding,” if you want to call it that. Whatever it is defies naming, though. I am certain, however, that it is action and we are always at a point on a path of evolving our grasp of how to apply it in our tai chi journey.

A Dream of Yi, Mind Intention

In tai chi, we talk about “yi”—mind intention. Applying yi in tai chi is somewhat elusive for beginning practitioners, but once you resolve to understand it you are on your way to new knowledge. The masters used to say “mind does it,” which for them was simple, yet I didn’t get it. Now I do and I am still developing my understanding of it and I most likely will for the rest of my tai chi life.

Yi is really a natural human ability. Tai chi proposes that we use our minds in unaccustomed ways. I’ve heard all my life clichés like “keep your eye on the goal,” or “on the ball,” and I knew what the mean, but they never inspired me like the notion of Yi. 

I had a dream early this morning not long before I woke up from which I gained clarity on yi. I want to share it. It was more of a brief vision that emerged out of a long stream of images. For me it was what a glimpse of infinity must be. I was walking with a mountain lion on a leash close by my right side. We were in a field of short green grass and a few faceless people milling around at an event. I forgot what event, but it was something I am involved with in waking life. As my companion and I walked, I firmly gripped the soft rope lashed to the harness around her neck, keeping her close by my side. At one point during our promenade we swerved to our right, and suddenly her body tensed as her eye caught sight of something unseen by me. She bolted in the direction of whatever it was. I held the rope tightly to hold her back and she acquiesced, but her spirit lurched forward far ahead of us taking mine own along.

Watching from my dreaming position, an insight silently came to me that she was showing me intent—her yi—and the spirit of her attention. In a single moment I glimpsed how to keep one’s attention on a goal. My friend, being acutely attuned to extraneous objects saw beyond the immediate moment to a bigger picture. Only the pull of that target interested her. Mind, heart and feet all leapt into the spirit of pursuing it. It is like being two places at once, to be cognizant of everything within an expanse and yet zero in on one tiny element within it all. This is yin-yang and you must have yi intention to accomplish it. 

Alignment, Tai Chi and alleviating chronic pain

What is your goal for exercise? I reach for the benefits of longevity and quality of life. This is how I visualize taijiquan.

Most people drive their bodies too hard (like an animal of burden), wearing themselves down. As we age and injuries add up, we end up with chronic pain. So many of us waste energy in movement which could easily be avoided with correct training. … Or retraining, because we all knew this when we were infants.

Often, if we are more observant with our bodies, we will move differently in order to alleviate discomfort. Tai chi is an excellent practice to relieve tension because it shows you things about moving differently. By shifting weight, spiraling bone, intending outward from the center, and other things. We forgot what came natural to us in the first months of our lives. As infants we all moved naturally, before we learned to move incorrectly, for reasons we have never examined. Probably not long after we learned to walk, even as a result of learning to walk. Tai chi offers a chance to return to the days in our lives when we moved naturally.

For a taiji practitioner adjusting the body to alleviate and even eradicate, for example, arthritic pain, can be simply a matter of alignment. The Chinese taiji masters use the term “zhong ding” to refer to the concept of alignment, which a basic concept with profound applications. More than mechanical or biomechanical, alignment can also be related to qi or intrinsic energy. It is “equilibrium,” a three-dimensional rather than linear concept. It is active movement that is effortless. As my teacher Master George Xu says, you aim for maximum movement with minimum effort in your tai chi practice.

Energy flows and motion occurs where the attention is placed as we observe the results of motion through our bodies and beyond in ever-more new ways and places and configurations. We experience the world with the body, not our thoughts and observations that we process with our intellect. Out senses are conduits of the experience.

A tai chi exercise

Taiji is movement in different directions: up/down, front/back, left/right, at its simplest expression. It is the concept of moving with attention to alignment, central equilibrium, or “zhong ding.” Please read my remarks about that further on.

The trick to learning taiji is to become familiar with moves, then comfortable, then refine them as you go along. It takes time to refine, but it’s fun and nothing worthwhile is always easy.

A simple exercise to begin is spinning on the spine. To do it, stand in wuchi—feet parallel, knees slightly bent, relaxed. Spin on the spine, tailbone stable while spine to top of head spins. Arms completely relaxed. Hip does the work. Pay attention to the hip turning. Fold in the crotch. Knees over top of foot, stable, so that the hip is forced to open and close. Step one foot forward and continue same movement while keeping your spine perpendicular to the ground.

It’s a lot easier to do this with someone like me know knows how in an in-person session, of course. Open the hip. Physically–lightly–separate the femur and socket from each other.

Taiji is performed on the physical plane as well as the energetic. Visualize opening from a point in the center of your body expanding in al directions into a sphere, then shrink back to a point. Just visualize it and let your body move if it wishes to.

Practice the 8 Pieces of Brocade.