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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Filling gaps in learning tai chi

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I’ve noticed that, while I received basics in beginning tai chi, much was skipped over. I entered mise-en-scene. I jumped into the middle of the stream. There was no actual “beginning.” As a result, I’ve felt a gap in my learning progress. I think it was partly from a lack of organization in the presentation of information. The learning continuity had holes that I would have to fill in years later.I would have to practice regularly for long enough to discover and fill them. I did it by evolving my perspectives on the basics.

Now, I try to help new learners avoid some of this if I can by showing them little practices that they can easily work on in the beginning of their learning journey.

I’m not faulting my teachers, because tai chi in the U.S. has been in a process of evolving since it started becoming better known a few decades ago. We’re working simply to figure out what works for us in terms of pedagogy and content. It’s really a life-long effort, but we’re trying to start up on a fast track. That can cause us to skip ahead a little bit.

Speaking of “skipping ahead,” we also skip ahead in doing individual movements. For example, I might say connect the qi to the back and move incrementally from tailbone to top of the head while performing a qigong move. You then jump from the tailbone to the top of the head, skipping over the rest of the spine. We anticipate where it’s going and in the process jump ahead, missing out on some real therapeutic results.

This is a case of our concentration faltering as the focus on a specific point oscillates. It’s like forgetting something and not realizing we have until a moment comes after time has passed. We then wake up to the fact that we weren’t paying attention, or that we had forgotten to concentrate on the task at hand. This is very common in training for internal movement.

Movement awareness is an effort to begin at points in the body that we typically don’t pay much attention to. I like to direct my attention to a point in the body and move from, around, or through that spot as an exercise in concentration. I want to incorporate a number of principles one at a time, then simultaneously. Being connected, weighted in gravity, whole body moves a single unit, spiraling, agile and changeable are a few. This is the basis for calling tai chi a “moving meditation” or simply “meditative.” This is my particular view.

What we skip is to focus on rather subtle movements and learning how to do them. With beginners, I often start asking them to focus on the soles of the feet—just about where the apex of the arch is located. Many know that this is called the “bubbling well” or “spring.” The idea is to stand and simply be attentive to the feeling of the soles. Sense the ground and your weight, for example. The toes, heels, arch, inner edge and outer edge, and the bubbling well.

This basic, preliminary movement practice is fairly simple to try at home. It’s probably easier to doing with a group so you can get and give feedback as you work with others learning the same stuff.

Practice Suggestion: Focus on bubbling well…

Feel the weight of the body funneling through and down the soles of the feet into Earth. Draw attention to your calves. How do they feel? Strained, relaxed? Try to focus on the skeletal structure and loosen the muscles. Tai chi requires a lot of visualization, which in turn requires concentration.

Stand with one foot forward—a forward stance. Place more weight on the front foot. Hold the weighted feeling as you shift you position in a small circle pattern around the bubbling well. Feel the muscles of the soles of the feet shift as you circle around the bubbling well.

If you get proficient at this, the force of the downward action will reverse and travel up the leg in a spiral pattern and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments will spiral around the bones. This takes a while to see. At first, just focusing steadily on shifting weight in a circle takes most of your concentration. See if you can do this at home.

Five years of blogging about taijiquan

This week marks the fifth year of venturing into blogging about taijiquan and its internal mysteries. My first post on December 5, 2011 is entitled “What is Tai Chi?”. I’m sure I will be trying to answer that question for the rest of my life. I may have wanted to quit at times, but I haven’t yet. Those peculiar dark slumps into the soul pit of delusion don’t last, and I emerge with renewed hope and insight. Now the sixth year of blogging begins.

I’ve struggled, as other bloggers must have, with whether I should blog. I’ve never been quite sure why I do. Some urge to write just happens. Why ask, then? One thing does come through the mind clutter—writing, just as taiji is, is an effort to extend awareness beyond self. Writing about it is a way of claiming the knowledge that I have amassed. Not that I am very knowledgeable, just happy to have overcome enough barriers to claim a semblance of victory over attachment to self. To savor my growth in some little way.

I’ve learned from practicing taiji that one must seek to eschew cliché and conventional thought if one wishes to exceed one’s limitations. That goes for practice, as well as for writing about practice.

I still struggle to craft words, sentences and paragraphs that help clarify my view and help others discover and organize their own views of the mystery of movement arts. In my case, it’s been taijiquan and qigong; but it could also be other forms, such as yoga, dance, and athletics, like running, skiing, swimming, bicycling, and so on.

When you’re at your best, you’re in nearly perfect yin and yang balance, the essential dynamic of taijiquan. Without perceiving these two points of taiji, you’re wouldn’t quite be doing taiji—the supreme ultimate expression of anything. In my mind, the greatest yogi is doing taiji—expressing taiji, manifesting it, giving it form and substance. As is the most masterful practitioner of internal martial arts that originated in China so long ago.

Thank you reader for your gift of attention. I hope to have been useful in your journey. To risk a little cliché— despite the distances, knowing you makes the world a little less lonely.

As I go forward, probably with the usual oscillation of forward-backwards-forwards again, I jot down an informal invocation for inspiration.

In your practice,
you have to be ready
to see something you’ve never seen before,
to do something you’ve never done before,
and to feel something you’ve never felt before.
And not get too surprised or overwhelmed
because of whatever might throw you off course,
and lose the concentration that got you this far.
You have to be ready for what you want.
That’s what you do this for.

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.

External movement is a sign of internal tai chi

In tai chi practice, we look to the external to show signs of what the internal is doing. The external is an outward expression of the internal. Don’t let that distract you and think that the external is all there is. It is only a tell-tale sign of the source of its movement. If the root of the movement is shallow, then the external expression will be weak and without depth. It will be awkward and hesitant. If the root is deep, then the outward expression will have breadth and depth, grace and eloquence. It will be powerful because of these things, as well, and the whole body—the sum of its parts—will be active and energized

A Point About Mindful Breathing and Moving

Gardener with vegetable seedling. Spring garden. Plant seedling in farmers hands.

Coordinating inhale and exhale with various arm movements: up-down, front-back, left-right can be a meditation. Maybe you can do it in a qigong or taiji class, but can you be aware of breath and motion while doing everyday things?

Tai chi is simply a way of paying attention to how you move while moving. Developing a daily practice is central to learning, but we usually struggle to remember every time we start to move not to jump ahead and forget the body.

Gardening in SW Colorado is a big activity now, because it’s springtime. How do you maintain awareness of breath while hoeing, shoveling, weeding, raking and watering? What is the priority?

I gardened and practiced taiji much of the morning yesterday. The weather has been nice for three days now—a big shift from April’s unsettled waves of clouds, some rain and snow and few periods of full sun. While working around the garden, I concentrated on paying attention to moving from the center of my body. I moved up-down, forward-backward, and left-right—initiating each move from that center point. Try it. See how long you can go without forgetting to hold the view of moving from the center.

 

What is Your Opponent?

cropped-bigstock-martial-art-21277994.jpgTai chi has always been a “martial art,” but we’re learning that it’s much more. Most practitioners in the US routinely do tai chi as an exercise. Many probably don’t realize that you can apply martial intention in the exercise of tai chi. When practicing tai chi as a martial art you focus on the notion of having an opponent. Even if you don’t actually spar with someone, you visualize you are. You place your attention out into the field around you as though there were an opponent there. And you move with the intention of moving an opponent.

Most don’t fight usually, or even spar, but that idea can still apply in tai chi as exercise.

The question is not who, but what, is your opponent? Chronic pain? Poor balance? Difficulty healing from an injury? Depression? Heart Disease? Fear and anxiety? Fatigue? The list in really long. Make these your opponents and practice tai chi to defeat them all with intention, energy awareness, and physical movement.


Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies and teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He also blogs about the philosophy (sort of) of Chinese internal martial arts, including taijiquan and qigong. He produces instructional videos of master practitioners. He lives in Durango, Colorado and is available for workshops and other taijiquan-related events as videographer and other communication development services.

A note on “change” in tai chi

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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.

Editorial Specialist, Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies, teaches and blogs about fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as he understands them. He also produces and edits instructional videos of master practitioners.