A note on “change” in tai chi

The following text published Nov. 2015 is the most-shared post of more than 2400 posts that readers shared. I thought I would republish it today.

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In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

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.

 

How much time to I spend doing tai chi?

People ask, “how much time do you spend doing tai chi? Everyday?” I’m troubled to answer, because time is not an issue, only that I practice. Less and less I have to look for the time. It’s more of a command. I know if I don’t heed it, I will pay a price. I am no longer willing to pay for ignoring it. Once I could ignore the call, but not now. If you ever get to this point in your life, whatever your routine practice may be, I congratulate you. I honor you.

Tai Chi movement, qi and yin-yang equilibrium

The word Qi (pronounced “chee”) in Chinese refers to vital energy and is found everywhere in nature. The Chinese refer to Heaven Qi, Earth Qi, and Human Qi. In learning tai chi, when we talk about Qi, we often talk about Yin and Yang— two opposing, but complementary, forces that are seen in endless variations. Taijiquan and Qigong are activities that you could think of as exercises, or methods, for working towards a balance of yin and yang in the relationship between our minds, qi, and bodies. I lead tai chi practice with these relationships in mind.

According to Chinese thought some of us are too yang, some too yin, generally speaking. The movements introduced in practice can help balance out your Qi whether you are too yin or too yang.

You can be both at the same time, as well. Too yang in some aspects and too yin in others. For example, you may be too yang in your Qi and too yin in your physical body. As Yang, Jwing-Ming writes in The Root of Chinese Qigong, “A person who seems to be externally strong and healthy may be weak internally” (p4).

Either case can result in the whole being being weakened. Most of what I teach focuses on both external and internal exercise with mental concentration, or mind practice. You’ve probably heard of mind-body connection. I try to bridge the mind and body with what is often the missing link in rebalancing one’s being—vital energy. I truly believe that the motivation to learn and practice tai chi comes from feeling the need to rebalance your energetic configuration. It’s marvelous that tai chi movement performed with mind intention can result in profound shifts in mental, energetic, and physical equilibrium.

A Basic Tip

The mind, energy and body interact in a sequence of movement. Your attention travels from mind, to energy, to physical in that order. It works this way: You focus attention on a specific point in the body, which invites the energy to go there. You actually feel it. Then the body is invited to move in the way that you intend. So you allow it to move. Over time, you refine this progression to build inner strength and skill.

How this happens is a kind of mystery to me, but it happens. You may not detect the sequence at first as a beginning practitioner, especially the feeling of energy flowing to a place where you direct your attention. You will with practice, but I think everyone is familiar with it very quickly.

Tai chi and Aging: A story

Not long ago, a friend and I were talking about our ages and about growing old. My friend said that he could hurt himself just from bending over and tying his shoes. That’s how fragile his body seems to be getting. I was embarrassed to admit that I’ve tweaked a back muscle doing just that.

In the past, if we had had that conversation, I might have gone along with a tacit acceptance that little could be done about it and we would simply have to grin and bear it. But now, after doing tai chi for a while, I wouldn’t agree with that. Our bodies give out more from neglect and abuse than from the aging process itself. The aging process is real enough, but taking it for granted risks assuming that nothing can be done. Yet, as long as we breathe we can transcend and transform, and reduce and eliminate the abuse and neglect that hastens old age.

You may not be able to stop old age, but you can slow it down. Its effects are manageable with the right exercise and nutrition. I found this out through my practice of tai chi and qigong, as well as changing my approach to nutrition.

Things like how to hold the back in different postures so that the force is distributed in such a way as to reduce straining any single part of the body. This is called, “Whole body moves as a single unit.”

I offer many more practices in my classes that learners can use in their own process of resisting aging. This coming January, I’m inviting new learners into classes to do just that. If you or someone you know is interested you should give it a try. All you have to lose is time and that’s going to happen whatever you do.