One of the goals practitioners want to achieve and refine in the practice of tai chi is “whole body moves as a single unit.” One way to approach understanding what it is, is to distinguish between parts that you are not moving and parts that you are moving already. Usually, we rely on individual parts as substitutes for moving the total body. We reach with only an arm, or bend relying only on the thin muscles of the lower back, instead of positioning the body to take advantage of all the bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. This would reduce the pressure placed on any single part.
How would you know you’re moving the whole body as a single unit unless you feel the parts moving first? Most people don’t feel many, if not most, parts moving—because they’re not. Cultivating this awareness is the function of tai chi movement.
In the beginning, the focus of your attention would be on choosing a place to begin. Normally, we start with the Dantian. This corresponds to a point in the body, as well as an area, below the belly button and inward a couple of inches. But the Dantian is also a concept that you can formulate anywhere. It’s not just a place, but also a mental picture. Practicing tai chi can be placing this picture anywhere. You move with this idea in mind.
Another concept called “Central Equilibrium,” or Zhong Ding, corresponds to the spine in terms of location; but it too is a concept. While on one hand, it is alignment, which is linear, it’s also equilibrium in relation to one’s surroundings, as well as to the parts that make up the whole. This is a similar relationship as the Dantian—how the parts relate to the whole. How they function in unison to form a whole.
The Dantian and Zhong Ding work in unison to produce whole body movement. In the beginning, you focus on moving from a specific point and aim to coordinate movement of parts in terms of speed and timing. For example, moving the arms in harmony with breath. Inhale (or exhale) and raise the arms to shoulder height in front of you, as in the first move of the form.
Time the move so that the breath initiates the move and completes at the same time the movement completes. Exhale and drop arms to the side with same coordinated timing. Pretty simple. This practice is good for novices because of its simplicity. It is limited, however, because it’s focusing on only a section of the body, not the body as a whole.
You can go beyond and tap into coordinating the movement of energy (Qi) itself with movement of the body as a whole. This can be attained by a similar method as that described above. The difference is by focusing on a specific activity initiated from a specific locus, the rest of the body settles into harmony—the motion of the parts become the sum of the whole in motion. Kind of interesting, plus it feels pretty good when you recognize it’s happening.
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