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.

 

Adapt to change with tai chi

Tai chi is a tool for adapting to changing conditions. Change prevails wherever you look. The weather changes. The wind blows, doesn’t blow, blows hard, then is a breeze. The temperature is hot, cool, cold. It’s raining or it’s dry. Grass is green and moist, or brown and maybe tinder dry. A tree never stops growing. It’s always at some point of changing from a sprout to a tree. Even a desert plant that seems never to grow is active in its own way. Water flows in a stream or river. It is never the same river, they say. People change. We flow, or stumble, through emotions all day and even through our dreams at night. Change prevails. Tai chi is a method of adapting to change by focusing on the act of change itself.

It seems human beings are the only ones who want things to stay the same. Sometimes we call it the “status quo,” sometimes simply inertia. Not that it’s a bad thing—it’s serves its purpose. But some things we hold onto no longer have purchase in a ever-shifting world. They are not serving other than to hold us back from evolving. Staying the same will not always protect us from the onslaught of the constant flux that surrounds us. The whole universe is in constant flux. Time itself seems constant, yet it is nothing if not constantly changing, moving ever out of the moment into another. The present is not the same now as before.

We can change what and how we think and we do it all the time. Rather than thinking you want things to stay the same, you can want them to find equilibrium—balance. That balance is what taijiquan attends to.

Tai chi still requires adapting and shifting with the tides, but it gives you a way to do that.

Many beginners who give up before reaching a threshold of practice view tai chi as too much to learn. You tell yourself that you’ll never be able to learn all that. As a teacher, I have had many difficult moments trying not to blame myself for that thinking. I want to make tai chi available to as many people as I possibly can, but they quit before they learn enough to see what it offers them. I know now that tai chi hasn’t failed them, nor have I, rather they have failed to see the potential for themselves, electing to go the same route that has led them away from a personal evolution.

I don’t blame them, even though change is easier than they think. The key is to approach it with a mind of taking small steps and learning a little at a time and building a bunch of little pieces of knowledge and ability upon previous learning. One day you’ll look back and see a massive body of knowledge buoying you up.

It’s not a matter of overcoming inertia as much as acting in spite of it. Inertia seems much more overwhelming than possible to overcome. Too great of a mass of resistance. And yet, often the simple act of standing in Wuji, the first posture of tai chi, is enough to set you off on a new path of awakening.

 

Learn more at DurangoTaiChi.com

I like getting questions in class

“Every time we ask a question, we’re generating a possible version of a life.” – David Epston

Questions in tai chi group practice give me something tangible to relate to. They challenge me to delve into knowledge immersed just below the surface, waiting to emerge and bring light to a topic of interest. They bring teacher and student closer in shared experience and understanding. They bridge one story with another, thus creating a single story out of many.

Tai chi and getting some energy back

It is said that we are born with a finite amount of energy and that is all we have to make it through life. As life progresses that supply of energy is depleted through living: events, act, thoughts, points of view. It takes energy to live. Less of our original life force becomes available to us as we age. It becomes stuck, tucked away, or wasted upon others. We can get much of it back, however. If you knew this were possible, would you consider doing what it would take to get it back?

Yep. Martial arts are (virtually) popular, but here’s the (real) thing

With the popularity of martial arts in the movies and in gaming, wouldn’t it be nice to know what the real thing is . . . . and actually do it . . . . with your body? And wouldn’t it be best to learn from the best? That’s what you get if you were introduced to Martial Arts masters like Xu Guo Ming.

A 40-year-plus practitioner and teacher of a number of styles of Chinese Internal Martial Arts, Master George, as we call him, is well known and loved for his style of teaching and his knowledge of Chinese Martial Arts.

I just finished producing an instructional video of Master Xu lecturing and demonstrating his special approach to the theory and application of chan shi jing, or silk reeling, which sets the practitioner onto the path towards more-complex “spiral training.”

Silk reeling moves are easy to do. They are a foundational practice of kung fu. What I like about them is they give you a start on the real basics of internal martial arts.

Master Xu gives more than 20 individual movements that can be practiced to begin learning his system. His system is based on his theory of martial arts, which he refers to as “predator theory.” Tai chi, at its core, is based on the movement of animals, and Master Xu refines the concepts underlying martial arts to a high degree.

Just about anyone can learn the movements.

Begin learning the basics of spiral training and you can be on your way to learning the real martial arts that are so popular these days.

Master Xu & weekend workshoppers, Cortez, Colorado. I’m to his right, Susan Matthews to his left.

Tai chi as a strategy to relax

One of the first things you’re asked to do in tai chi is to relax. Not easy for many beginners, who seldom can relax on command. Actually, most of us forgot how, or even define what relaxing is for ourselves. Life is like that.

Tai chi offers a strategy for relaxing. My own approach is two-fold: mind intention and physical activity, both based on tai chi principles with which I have become familiar over time. It takes time, but more importantly, effort. You don’t have to work hard, rather calmly, regularly, consistently.

Breathing meditation, single-basics, stretching, moving meditation and taijiquan forms all combine to form a pretty sophisticated strategy for relaxing using these two core principles. Of course, if you develop a practice using these methods, you’ll not only cultivate relaxation, you’ll also evolve a more energetic, lively composure that will probably amaze you.

Tai chi and alpine climbing similiarites

I was talking with an alpine climber friend the other day. He spent some time in Switzerland as a guide and teacher. Mountain climbing, at least the way he describes it, sounds very familiar to tai chi. He was describing to me some of the things he would say when interacting with clients or students. One of the things he said that resonated with me was that a big key to alpine style rock climbing is the need to save energy. A big part of tai chi is to save energy, because we only have so much given to us to work with throughout our lives. We don’t make new energy, technically. We re-access what is stuck and we save what we have.

I think many people think of exercise as giving them energy, or perhaps, by rearranging energy by loosening bound up Qi and redistributing it to fill weak empty places in our being. But saving energy shouldn’t be overlooked. I mean, what do you do with the energy we do release and make newly available? I try not o spend it on unnecessary activities. I’d rather save it for when it comes in handy.

My friend brought other similarities tai chi and mountain climbing have in common. I particularly liked the idea of grabbing the cliff edge with the center of your body and mindfully attacking the rock. Look at it, connect with it from the center of your body, then carefully place your feet and hands in strategic points. This resembles using the dantian to move and connect internally and externally.

A conversation between teacher and learner

Here is a brief exchange over email between a DTC member and myself that reveals our thinking about a subject central to learning tai chi. I welcome questions and comments because it stimulates concrete conversation which serves as a knowledge-building activity.

Background: I returned after 10 days training retreat and exposed practice partners to using different muscles to feel more connectivity. I had usually been focusing on using mind to move, but also on changing the body in subtle ways of movement. Afterwards, B wrote:

“I have to say I am a little sore from the workout yesterday. … How in the world do you do it for 6 hours a day?”

Me: “You got me to thinking, or remembering, that we were using muscles that we don’t normally use. If you used them more you wouldn’t get sore. It’s just like the muscles you use everyday, say for walking, don’t get sore when you use them for longer periods of time. Same principle applies to using martial art/tai chi muscles. Make sense?”

B: “Yes. Makes sense. However if we are not supposed to use muscle what do we need tai chi muscles for? …

Me: Good question. Helps me to clarify. We rely on muscle tension to move out of sheer habit, practically unaware of other possibilities of movement and for focusing our attention. As we age we reduce usage of everything: muscle, tendon, ligament, bone and joint. In effect, we run out of energy to move, so we simply reduce the range of motion to accommodate our needs. Human beings are very efficient creatures. We do the least possible work to meet our needs. This is not bad, because it saves energy; but we cultivate a habit of not using our bodies and minds to their fullest potential and we begin rather early in life to atrophy or decline in ability.

Not to “use” muscle is not really the instruction. More like, free muscle up of its dominance and release tension (qi) that we have been carrying for a long time without realizing we have been. It also is to focus attention on moving different muscles as an exercise in changing the focus. It’s not just an exercise in muscle-moving activity. It’s one of reducing the dominance of muscle over the rest of the body and making more energy available to us that is stuck in muscle. We “wear” our tension in muscle for the most part, I think. Of course, it can be produced anywhere in the body. Changing the way we become aware of tension in the body and learn to release it is really the point. I just decided to focus on muscle. Has it made a difference in your connectivity and how you move?

The other point I would make is that at the beginning stages of practice the novice needs to have something somewhat concrete to focus on in order to “get connected”. Even while we focus on the more esoteric, elusive “energy” connection. This is what I’ve learned from my teacher, Xu Guo Ming (George), during the past couple of years. He was realizing that people were not getting the more esoteric lessons and decided to bring it back to the body, to the basics. That’s what the recently published Chan Shi Jing video is about, really.
Tim