Tai Chi can help address pain and “clenching.” But how? Here’s one thought for practice.

I sometimes see pain as a sign of the body or brain talking to you, trying to get your attention, telling you to listen. If you have a painful joint or muscle, it might hurt because it’s doing more than its share of the body’s workload. It’s doing the work of other joints or muscles. One or more of these other parts might be holding back, either reacting to tension or stress, or creating tension and stress.

I trace some of this back to the influence of emotion or knowledge. Often it’s low-level, under the radar sort of fear. Sometimes its a lack of clarity on how to respond to some force that you don’t quite understand enough about in order to act on.

I’ve heard of one reaction called “clenching,” a subconscious attempt to control, which has the opposite effect: no control, or perhaps more accurately, causing undue control of other parts of the body by hindering their movement, and reducing their contribution to the movement of the whole.

In other words, trying to hold back the inevitable: movement. If and when you discover yourself doing this kind of thing, tell yourself to listen in a different way than you’re accustomed to:

“Change View. Shift. Release.”

Flow with the compelling force of the mind and body and spirit that is always present whatever we may, or may not, be doing consciously or unconsciously. Move and adapt with the ever-fluctuating force of life.

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Thoughts on Developing Your Home Tai Chi Practice Routine

I was recently asked about developing a routine for home practice. Most of us are probably used to being given a set of movements to do—one set for everyone. I take a different approach, suggesting that you choose a few moves from among the many that we do in class that appeal to you and remember them at home.

While we share a lot in common, every person is different: different bodies, different circumstances, and different interests, needs and desires. So the routine you develop should be customized to you and not have to be a “one size fits all” approach.

Still, you need a place to begin when you’re new to the system. That’s why I share a system made up of loosening exercises, stretching, single-basic moves, qigong, some standing (called Zhan Zhuang), and tai chi form. This is the context out of which a home practice develops.

I also say that that tai chi is founded upon moving in six directions and in three patterns, or shapes, of movement: up/down, left/right, front/back, and circles, figure 8s, and spirals. This is the foundation of your practice.

To add to that, you begin to cultivate an awareness of the energetic piece of the practice, which brings up the questions of “how” to move in the directions and patterns. What you’re doing with your mind, more specifically.

I begin with the question of, “How do you initiate the move and from which point in the body?” You can begin with the dantian point below the navel and inward about three inches (xia dantian), or the zhong ding (central equilibrium/spine). Remember that the focus of your attention is what you’re working on in any particular moment. With experience you can hold your attention on more than a single thing at a time. The key is to develop a concentration and sustain that concentration. This correlates with the meditative function of tai chi and qigong.

With these ideas you have a foundation to begin your home practice. It takes a little time to get familiar with these concepts, but with some effort it comes together. And with a little help from teacher and fellow practitioners you can build a stronger understanding through group practice and testing.

So pick out a few single moves and practice them at home. You can do a few minutes every day whenever your feel the urge, or remember that you have the chance to make a difference in your condition if you try.

This way you’re doing a more customize practice rather than having to do what the teacher forces on you regardless of your unique situation.

Refining and Single-Basic Exercises

Although single basics are repetitive, they are not repetitious, so to speak. You repeat a pattern, intent on refining, not on repeating it exactly the same way as before. Change is the key. “Changeability” as Master Xu puts it.

How do you refine? Pick out a particular locus and focus your attention on how you move there. Focus on the move itself and how you might alter it—make it smoother, rounder, less hesitant.

Knowing what you want to do in tai chi practice and doing it

One key to reaping the greatest benefits from tai chi is to develop a home practice. Practice is something you do regularly, which offers opportunities to refine and discover new things as you learn.

I recently suggested working on releasing tension and not to clench or tighten joints, tendons and ligaments, as well as muscle, when moving. This may sound like a rule to apply to all of your efforts, but it’s actually not likely you can do it all the time. It would be great if you could whenever you needed.

For the sake of your practice now, just remember to let tension go when you recognize you have it. Try to change that condition into some other state. That probably will take all of your concentration.

Beyond this, you may eventually find the importance of having the control to do what you want when you want. This is a sign of being more aware of what’s going on in your mind and body. For example, more clarity comes from being able not only to relax when you want, but also tighten when you want.

Knowing what you want to do and having enough control of your body and mind to actually do it is one ability you’re searching for in practice.

This is often not so easy, mainly because we’re not clear on what we’re doing. It’s too much guess work for us. One way to approach it is to try to move a part of your body in isolation from the rest. Once you can do that, then you can intend the rest of the body to follow. You should feel sooner or later the energy flowing through your whole being.

As an example of what I mean, I told you once to tighten the hamstrings. This is a way of guiding your focus to move something specific on purpose. I like the word condense energy, where your power coils up and quickly “springs” open when you’re ready.

I also bring out a similar subject when doing qigong and single-basic repetitions. The idea, in this case, is to extend the arms and legs to a point then quickly release and continue on. Don’t hold the tension. This is the idea in Eights Pieces of Brocade, with poses, such as push up sky, and bow and arrow.

Moving a muscle or combination of joints, bones, ligaments and tendons, or fascia as well, begins with holding our attention on a point in the body and initiating a movement from it. Once that’s accomplished, you can hold your attention there while also placing it on a secondary activity, such as another point, or the feeling of movement itself. The feel of movement refers to speed, quality, shape, size, distance, and so on. To reiterate—learn to do what you want to when you want to.

Working to relax and release tension can eventually result from cultivating a deeper awareness of the feeling of your intended movement. You need to feel the move, not just think it. Thinking is a small part of tai chi practice, if any at all. Words may help to describe, but they don’t often adequately explain, nor can they elicit real understanding on their own. You must feel it.

How do you reach that coveted state of understanding? First, you must practice at your level of understanding and observe your actions. Understanding is discovered through practice.

Beware of trying to understand before you practice, or you’ll risk complacently thinking you’re skilled when in truth you may not be.

We can practice and get feedback by sharing our experiences and doing group and two-person training. These are great benefits to learning. But in the end, it’s you who comes into understanding through solo practice.

If you like this sort of info, please let me know by writing a comment. I want to provide you with useful knowledge that you can use and apply in your practice. It would be helpful to hear from you in this regard.

The bubbling spring and your gongfu

In the beginning, you want to develop sensitivity to the bottoms of your feet, or the “Bubbling Spring,” also called “Bubbling Well,” or in Chinese, Yongquan. As you practice over time and develop your gongfu, that feeling that you once had to concentrate so much in order to develop now results from a more-mature practice.

Gongfu = Effort done over time that creates knowledge and ability.

A highly sensitized bubbling well liberates you from the initial task of focusing attention on that spot and sustaining concentration as you move from, or through, it mindfully.

Once that’s achieved, you can move on and focus on other aspects of practice, such as other parts of the body and the physical mechanics of movement, or the energetic configurations of your movement.

 

The Bubbling Well

Tai chi as a practice to train the mind

Renown Zen master DT Suzuki writes in the introduction to the little book entitled Zen in the Art of Archery that describes something that I’ve discovered about tai chi. He writes that a significant feature of the practice of archery is not “… for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but … meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”

This is la raison d’etre for tai chi for me—to train the mind. Training the body is equally key to balancing the dynamics of yin and yang in motion, of course, but Master Suzuki touches on a very core notion of tai chi practice that takes a little extra effort to grasp. Technique and application are subsumed by training the mind.

“If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough,” he continues. “One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing out of the Unconscious.”

He intrigues the reader with this rather abstract statement, but his next statement, for me, speaks directly to what I try to arrive at in my understanding of taijiquan, qigong, and Chinese internal martial arts, in general.

“The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, …”

This may still appear rather abstract to most tai chi practitioners, but it does speak to what you experience after practicing long enough. That is, when you seek and find silence in your thoughts, the act becomes one of balancing thought with non-thought, or the “unconscious.”

Master Suzuki writes, “As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and a thought interferes.”

If you experience this in tai chi practice, then please share your thoughts with me and others. I recommend reading Zen in the Art of Archery (Eugen Herrigel, 1953) if only to read the introduction by Master Suzuki. I found a copy at White Rabbit Books on the River Trail in Durango.

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.

 

 

A goal in tai chi

There is a progression to tai chi. First is to relax places where we’re tight (often painful, too). Often it can be described as “clenching.” For most of us that is true. The next step in the progression is to move. Move around and through the tight places with a mindful intention to dissolve the tension. The moves are designed to help you to relax. Moving changes the body.

We use different methods to get that change to happen: loosening, stretching, and single basic exercise. Repetitive, rhythmic, single moves, in which we employ awareness of and intention to the six directions, and then in shapes and patterns. The six directions are up down front back left right and the shapes are circles, figure 8s and spirals.

Begin with circles and visualize with your mind intending to circle inside your abdomen. This location is particularly important in the beginning, but you can move in circles anywhere in your body with the intention.

Moving the abdomen and the hips are key to relaxing and loosening the tightness in the lower back and spine.