How tai chi changes habitual movement

Sunday, June 9, 2019

How we move says so much about us. We identify so closely with how we move. Whether or not we are aware of it, our manner of moving is very often a matter of self-image. Posture and gait even develop from attitudes—how we see ourselves and how we wish others to see us.

It’s a personality thing. We would not be the person we know if we moved differently. We’re not going to saunter like John Wayne, because we are not him. Our walk is us; our posture is us.

The famous actor’s walk was made up, of course. Normally, we are not conscious of how we walk and stand. We learned without direct attention to how we were doing it. The goal was to stand and walk, maybe just to please mommy and daddy, and to be like one of the big folk.

Over time, we engaged in activities that gave us the postures and ways of walking that matured as we aged in life. More likely than not, those activities were performed under some kind of physical (and mental) stress, whether mild or intense.

So it follows that how we move often correlates to aches and pains that develop over time—from regular usage, but also from over use, misuse and abuse. Some usages result in chronic pain. Chronic pain is an ache that seems to have no source, seems never to go away, and if it does, it’s temporary.

We find ourselves saying, “Why does my knee hurt all the time? I don’t remember injuring it.” Or, “It must have been that time I slipped on ice. But that was years ago! Why won’t it go away?”

Because we return to moving in the old ways. The angle of attack we use to manage the issue often causes even more discomfort. We wish it would go away. We feel unable to change the situation. It just has to run its course.

Sometimes, you reach a point where you think you need to redirect and look for ways to fix it. If you had a new way to move that could alleviate the problem, you might try it.

What if just moving differently could control the problem? We are all familiar with how we walk differently because of a sprained ankle or a bruised leg. We move “contrarily” to alleviate the pressure and the pain.

We can’t stop just for that little problem. Keep moving. It will go away. This thinking usually works, at least until the initial injury heals. Makes sense.

Our tendency to keep going despite a painful condition is normal. Chronic pain presents a unique challenge, though. The old ways of shifting weight or hobbling don’t work anymore. Your body could be suggesting you might need a new direction.

When plugging away at the same old-same old doesn’t work, the question may come up of how ready you are to change your move patterns. You don’t know if anything you try might actually work and it may not be worth the required effort.

I often see people who try tai chi to fix a movement problem by moving in the same old ways. But in tai chi, fixing it correlates directly with shifting your perception of how you move.

You have to look at it in a different way and that’s what the practice of tai chi helps you to do. Tai chi may not be for everybody, but then again, something like tai chi can help to resolve some issues. It’s all about breaking that familiar fixation of habituated movement.

I like tai chi because it can align the mind and body in harmonious motion that produces calming effects.

The challenge at the body level is ongoing and you have to deal with it on the long term; but it’s less of a difficulty for the body as it is for the mindset. Tai Chi movement helps to focus the mind and body on specific tasks beneficial to both. You see more clearly and move more smoothly.

It affects how you feel, too. I get the most excited over this aspect of tai chi, because that relates to what the old Chinese called “Qi” (chee), or life force; or simply, energy.

Life force relates to determination—the will to live, in other words. It’s kind of like the question of which comes first: the chicken or the egg. Movement or life force? Do you start moving differently first, or do you get a will to move differently first? It doesn’t matter, really. You have to start somewhere. It doesn’t matter where, just that you do.



Beginning tai chi when younger may help avoid problems of aging

Doing taijiquan and its complement, qigong, can add great benefits to the lifestyles of younger practitioners, as well as reducing the effects of growing older. Why younger people don’t get into tai chi is asked often and many reasons have been discussed. One is that “tai chi is for old people,” as discussed in this video clip.

For me, there are many more reasons for younger people to do tai chi than not to do it. For one, I’m convinced that as preventative practices, tai chi and qigong both can help reduce healthcare costs related to aging (which comes sooner these days than we think!). We just don’t expect problems while we’re young and our bodies are still new and healthy. Instead of waiting until we’re sick or breaking down we could do something about it.

But often, you could have greater effectiveness by accepting that you’re going to have those problems sooner or later.

Tai chi and qigong are also complementary activities to many exercises you choose to do for staying shape, which often is a lifestyle choice. We look good when we feel good. These can be enhanced by practicing even just a few principles of tai chi. You don’t even have to do it as a martial art, either.

As a tai chi and qigong teacher, I find more people in their twenties, even teens, interested in trying tai chi. As a multi-level exercise for mind, energy, and body practice, no other exercise does all that tai chi can. It helps to heal injuries, maintain healthy systems functions, such as nervous and lymph systems and blood circulation. It helps to detoxify and cleanse.

It trains memorization skills, too; like a crossword puzzle for the whole body, not just the brain. Whether you’re in school, on a job, or whatever, that’s a good thing.

Even if you’re in the grips of aging, you might find that a steady, long-term tai chi practice will have positive effects on the flexibility of your brain function.

Neuroscientists talk about “neuroplasticity” to refer to the brain’s ability to disrupt our tendency towards inertia and be more easily changeable. As Catherine Kerr, a Harvard Medical School instructor, says, “For anyone who practices tai chi regularly brain plasticity arising from repeated training may be relevant, since we know that brain connections are ‘sculpted’ by daily experience and practice.” Kerr is investigating brain dynamics related to tai chi and mindfulness meditation at Harvard Medical School.

In addition to tapping into the brain’s capacity, it’s a bio-mechanical stretching method that can maintain and improve elasticity of bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles so we may live longer and better.

All of these reasons to start tai chi sooner than later apply to every stage of life, but if you start sooner, you might just be happy you did. Starting tai chi is only a matter of joining a class and making a habit of practicing regularly over time. This is a relatively simple key to success.

The irony in seeking silence in tai chi practice

Tai chi is getting in touch with your own silence. Your inner place of peace. “Quiet mind,” as the teacher says. Quiet, not inactive, or complacent.

The irony is that the ultimate goal of tai chi is to see beyond one’s self. Not just to look inward and find silence, but to go outside of one’s self from a place of silence within.

You could argue that you must first find silence within in order to hear what’s out there. If so, then maybe the best avenue to silence in the whole being is to look at what nature offers. We could evolve our practice, thus ourselves, as a result of observing nature.

More irony: When we do try to observe nature, we often seem to hold on even more to our habitual self-talk that we are trying to quieten in the first place. Then what do you do?

Practice. Focus your attention on the dantian, for example, and move from there. Gradually extend the movement outward from deep within yourself, utilizing all of your senses, eventually.

We have expectations, not in the sense of demands. We just expect things are such that they fit with our ideas about them.

It’s like taking things for granted without realizing we are. Transparent and invisible. We become vulnerable to outside influences primarily by virtue of not being aware (apparently) that we’re taking something for granted.

I see people do tai chi with this habit, thinking that tai chi is what we think it is. Even though we’ve never done it before. We’re the same way with everything we do, especially involving movement.

To illustrate this difficult-to-grasp idea, you can look at the two aspects of training in tai chi: physical and energetic.

I notice it most when teaching other learners. They take to the physical rapidly, although it’s a little alien at first, because it requires unpracticed effort and memorization. They learn the moves and sequences, which are difficult enough and take time to get familiar and comfortable doing.

But we more readily balk at grasping the energetic basis of movement, which requires us to employ a different skill than we are accustomed to. Energy doesn’t stand still. It fluctuates, pulses with life, and is much more elusive and difficult to put a finger on or hold it back. You have to learn to work with it on its own terms. If you do, you’re rewarded with practically magical results.

One doorway into this skill is to change awareness from rote memorization to the sensation of movement itself. We shift perception and observe how, or of what, we are aware.

With beginning practitioners, I focus on a point in the body at first, such as the dantian—a point of departure, so to speak. We sustain the focus on this point while executing a move.

The first stage is developing energy awareness in tai chi is to simply become aware of qi. This is followed by being aware of it moving, or “flowing,” then realizing that it can be directed with mind intention.

We all use these skills, but it has not been a focus of our attention for most of our lives. We’ve taken it for granted to the point of it losing its effectiveness. With tai chi we realize that it can be redeveloped and we can get more out of it than we had imagined.

Assumptions obscure obvious opportunities. If only we would look more closely. …in tai chi and in the world itself.