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.

 

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Taiji and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind

I do tai chi as a way to not do other things that disrupt and cause stress. Practice is a meditation through which I may understand the nature of this moving meditation. When I began taiji, I had not yet explored sitting meditation; nor even moving meditation. I viewed taiji as an exercise that I hoped would help me relax, divert my mind away from stressful things and allow my body to heal.

Now, if I want, I can shift the intention of my practice from exercise to meditation and back; that is from physical practice to energy awareness practice, and to some extent spiritual practice. It’s all meditative, however, and as time passes and my practice matures, I ponder on the nature of meditation itself.

For me, many passages in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pertain to taiji practice, as well as sitting meditation (zazen). I became interested in reading this classic treatise on Zen practice while at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center where we have had our annual five-day taijiquan camp for some years now. We meet in September with our teacher Xu Guo Ming (George Xu).

Suzuki Roshi speaks to why I do taiji. He describes what I aim to achieve in practice. One of those aims is to forget the self and merge with the movement and expand it to merge with a greater self that is not me.

For example, he writes “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself” (p47). The first paragraph of that page is so dense with meaning that I can reread it over and over and always find fresh insight.

“. . . . usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea.” This applies in taiji practice, where movement aids in achieving quiet mind.

In “Mistakes in Practice,” he writes that when you become discouraged with your practice “. . . . you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point in your practice” (p57). Similarly in taiji when we are aggravated by something in practice, it is a positive sign that you are becoming aware of your own nature, as well as gaining clarity on the direction practice can go.

Desiring to attain an ideal or goal creates more ideals and goals which in turn “sacrifices the meat of your practice” (p57). It is not possible to achieve rapid, extraordinary progress, he says. Learning is like walking in a fog compared to walking in a rain. You get wet little by little as you walk and practice is like this. But you must practice without seeking goals.

Suzuki Roshi writes: “When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. . . . let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. . . . it is only the waves of your mind . . . . gradually they will become calmer . . . . (p17). We use movement to achieve this in taiji practice.

In taiji, there is a twist to this topic. Many practitioners assume they are achieving their objective, but in reality they only think they are. I find that it helps to study in a group to test yourself to reveal if you are actually doing what you intend or just think you are. I feel this is also good for meditation. Sit or practice with a group or knowledgeable teacher to help cut through the delusion of thought.

“The cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea” (p60), Suzuki Roshi writes. This is so in world affairs and in one’s self. Taiji practice is a method of working this way of being out of the self. For me, the movement itself in a meditative mental state produces, or merges with, the intention of clearing the mind and body and energetic configuration for fixation.

These are just a few nuggets of wisdom corresponding to taiji practice found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If a taiji practitioner read this book, their practice would surely be imbued with greater awareness and beneficial results.

Tai chi and a Buddhist notion

Impermanence more than implies motion . . . . through time and space, through body, sensations, mind and phenomena, encountered in our particularized journeys. Our shared journey.

Tai chi practice and teaching is a sacred trust, because I have chosen to depend upon this methodology for attaining better health and awareness, and perhaps, enlightenment. I suppose that enlightenment can take place on many levels and in many degrees of life without actually trying. Maybe at some point there is a great, final awakening; but until then it’s small, incremental ones. Unfortunately, for most of us, they are so small that we don’t notice them. Perhaps that is not so unfortunate.

The mood of tai chi

IMG_0354Tai chi and qigong are moods–somewhat of an ephemeral notion to a novice perhaps, yet real to a long-term practitioner. If you skip practice for a certain amount of time, you begin to miss it. Your body might even crave it and you won’t feel content until you practice. Both tai chi and qigong place you in a feeling of being more fully present in a moment–a mindfulness moment.

Something about that feeds the spirit.

When you do the moves that make up these systems of exercise, you’re tapping into the flow of energy prevalent in the universe. Imagine yourself dipping your toe into a river … the vast energy of life. How long you can go without a feeling of being swept up by the rush of the current, or the wind lifting your spirit?

Zhong Ding: A Fundamental Part of Tai Chi Practice

I recently saw a post on linkedin.com by Violet Li who writes about tai chi subjects at examiner.com. She often refers to Chen family masters but this time she interviewed a Wu Style practitioner and presents useful information about the lineage  of Wu Jianquan (Chien  Chuan) which is the Wu style I have studied. Good information, but although she titles the article “Zhong Ding at Every Second,” it only begins to touch on the subject of zhong ding.

Zhong ding translates as central equilibrium. It is a key concept of tai chi and internal martial arts that I believe you rarely hear about. If you want to learn tai chi, you should know about zhong ding. It’s just about the first thing I teach beginning tai chi learners. I particularly like introducing the concept of zhong ding into practice for the goal of improving posture and stability, but also to apply movement with more powerful results. I emphasize health and well being, but martial application is well-within that range for me.

Increasingly, scientific researchers report that tai chi and qigong help reduce symptoms of many common ailments. In one National Institutes of Health-funded report, researchers found that more patients spent money on treating lower back pain than some 14 other conditions examined in the study. I began doing tai chi 16 years ago due to back and neck injuries. Even though research reports often say that studies so far have been small and inconclusive, my case surely is conclusive. I’ll do tai chi and qigong as long as I can move.

Another study in Australia reports that tai chi is good for improving posture and alignment. It states that, “Practicing Tai Chi may therefore reduce the practitioner’s back pain through application.” This speaks directly to the concept of zhong ding in tai chi practice.

Zhong ding work, or “gong,” (along with its complement, “dantian” work) is necessary to truly understand and enhance your practice of tai chi and qigong. Whether you practice for martial arts or longevity exercises, both are essential to make practice most effective. I suppose I could talk about it, explain it, define it and try to make sense of it in a post, but it is always better to just do it and learn through doing.

Zhong ding is especially important for me as a method to emphasize the internal focus of martial arts more than actual fighting technique. I employ zhong ding, as well as dantian, to evolve greater ability and clarity in my practice. Both have application in everyday life itself. The ability to move itself is magical and how we move has potential to change us. Many people are suffering needlessly, in my view, when all they have to do is learn to move differently, with intention and clarity.

Writer and Editor, Paul Tim Richard, MA, writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of master practitioners. He also studies and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong at Durango Tai Chi Instruction.

 

Tai chi and qigong can help break “bad” habits

Note to self.

Note to self. Do tai chi and qigong.

Breaking old, or so-called “bad,” habits is not easy. Though we commonly think of habits as bad, we develop them in the first place because they comfort us. Habits, routines and repetitive behaviors actually have useful purposes. And while they often do turn on us (like smoking, for example), acknowledging the positive aspects of habits might actually help in leaving old habits behind. Unloading the negative attachment is the key. So how do you do it?

More and more people are finding that tai chi and qigong movement offer beneficial ways to help shift from one habit to one that we welcome. Practice evolves positive change to grow something new and fresh, which is invigorating and life-affirming. Repetitive, rhythmic movement powerfully influences our ability to loosen the hold of undesirable habits and open us up to the positive power of routine. It works for me and I know it can work for others.

(While writing this post, I searched for similar writings and discovered this one in the Huffington Post:

“Want to have a perfect posture? Rearrange your habits.”)

I welcome comments on how tai chi and qigong have helped others curb unwanted habits.

The body’s way of knowing

Re-experience being with tai ji

People don’t know what tai chi really is, or could be, or how much more they could know about it and the potential it holds. Narrowing it down to a phrased description I would say tai chi is a whole-being movement art. It is body-mind movement. Even more, it is mind-energy-body movement meditation. It is being.

The body possesses a sentient awareness unique from the brain, which in turn has its own way of interpreting data provided by the senses. A quiet mind allows this to happen. The body is close to the life force. Thought is not essential, yet knowing is possible. The body can be kept alive even if the brain is dead. The body knows when it is sick and when it is well. It doesn’t need the brain to tell it. It has its own way of knowing. This way of knowing, the tai chi practitioner seeks in practice: to know with the body, to think with the heart, to feel your way, rather than have a discussion in the brain about what the body is doing.

 

Wu Chi, a Tai Chi Reminder

Be in wu chi (wuqi) in stillness and in motion. It is the center around which everything moves. It is the beginning and the end of movement where taiji becomes yin and yang. It is that part of us that is aware of everything even while our surface minds have forgotten its existence. It is replicated in the body and the mind, the whole being. It is now and never at once. It extends in all directions, yet is forever shrinking into itself. It is both unconscious and conscious simultaneously. It is timeless, placeless, yet here anyway. It is here, yet not here. It is the Tao and not Tao. It carries you in motion and in stillness. Focus attention on it to not forget it and it will have a life that you give it.