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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A word on the word “taiji”

This is an excerpt from taijizen.org, a school founded by Jet Li and Jack Ma. The site looks non-maintained, with latest posts in 2013. The facebook page looks current, though. Of course, the meaning of taiji stays the same.

Taiji 太极 is an ancient Chinese philosophy about the natural world and is one of the central elements of traditional Chinese culture.

The word Taiji itself refers to the “great primal beginning” of all that exists, and is often translated as the ‘Supreme Ultimate’. It is the state of absolute and infinite potential, the oneness before the duality. This concept is comparable to the initial state of the universe right at the moment of the big bang, or the initial singularity. From this state, Yin and Yang were generated.

Zhong Ding

Central equilibrium. This is the Chinese word I know it as—Zhong Ding. I assume readers are familiar with it.  I came to understand that central equilibrium is more than alignment.

Alignment has a linear quality that we can become aware of in our bodies. It is two-dimensional, a line between two points. Equilibrium, which we can also become aware of, is orientation in relation to our environment. It is multi-dimensional. It is how we balance ourselves in response to the pressures from outside, of which there are many.

Almost every move we make is a response to some external force in our environment. The environment could be the physical environment near us or it could be a more abstract environment — distant and foreign.

Part of the release, and the relief, of letting go of things that are not essential to our well-being, which is a tai chi practice, is distinguishing between what it’s necessary to be concerned about and what is not.

We confront the overwhelming pressure from outside with great risk. We cannot defeat it, but we can relax and let it be. We don’t have to be concerned that we must respond. Yin instead of yang. Let yang take care of itself. Focus attention on yin.

So the act, as simple as it may be, of letting something go—tension, stress, anything at all—is emancipating. Our bodies respond accordingly and become satisfied, contented, rested.

Getting Original Qi Back

When I talk about my teachers having so much energy from taiji, it has to do a lot with the fact that they save energy more than actually producing it out of nowhere, which seems impossible to the average person. This is one thing every practitioner who practices long enough learns about taijiquan. It’s true, you get only so much Qi (energy) when you’re born and as life progresses you lose it, or at least, lose access to it. But you can get it back, and one stepping stone to do that is by learning to conserve it, not waste it, use the energy you have wisely, and consciously bringing stuck qi back into availability. By doing taiji movement, you clear out superfluous energy, which in turn attracts your original qi and rebuilds it. It’s fantastic to reunite with what is essentially a part of ourselves.

ARTICLES: More research results on Tai Chi helping with health challenges

These two news articles refer to new research results talking about tai chi improving the lives of peripheral neuropathy patients and reducing stroke risks. I continue to hold tai chi and qigong classes in Durango for learners with a variety of challenges, as does my teacher and friend Susan Matthews in Cortez (she’s the anatomy, stroke and Parkingson’s expert). So please tell your friends about this news and help them help themselves by suggesting they try tai chi classes.

UT Tyler improves lives of peripheral neuropathy patients through Tai Chi

http://www.tylerpaper.com/TP-News+Local/273318/ut-tyler-improves-lives-of-peripheral-neuropathy-patients-through-tai-chi

Tai Chi may reduce stroke risk

Session P16 – Poster WP416

American Heart Association

https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-02/aha-tcm021517.php

Filling gaps in learning tai chi

tai-chi-shoulder-roll

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.

Starting tai chi with trust

When I started tai chi I didn’t know what to expect, but I was rather desperate. I had been ill for a long time and I was willing to try anything. It just so happened that a colleague at work invited me to join him in his tai chi class. So I did, and that was the beginning of my journey into discovering what tai chi is and what it would mean to me.

Essentially, tai chi is a journey of discovery for whoever endeavors to learn what tai chi can do for them. It’s a journey of accomplishment. The “excitement of discovery and satisfaction of achievement” is my fancy, wordy way of describing it.

One thing that I’ve always been pretty good at is doing things without questioning why I’m doing them, or questioning what teachers, preachers, parents, doctors, dentists, and friends tell me to do. I trust things that way. It hasn’t always served me well, but it has worked in the case of tai chi. I think most children are naturally that way–to trust without knowing where it’s going.

And that’s how I felt about tai chi when I began 17 years ago. I’m still practicing, and it is a major part of my activities. In the beginning, I took to it slowly—one 90-minute class a week. I had difficulty lasting the whole class, and several times I walked out before class ended. But at some point I was feeling better. I got really excited about how it, so I started training more intensively.

After a while, as most long-term practitioners are aware, I met a “wall of resistance.” By this, I mean that at some point in a practice you become challenged to go beyond yourself, and to seriously shift to a new level of skill. You’re not sure how to, though. You’ve never been there before.

In order to rise above the block, you have to make clear choices about wanting to continue. One thing I’ve learned after practicing and teaching for this long is that every beginner that comes along has to do the same thing. However long you practice, for a month or many years, you have to make a conscious choice every day practically to practice.

The truth is you’re always at a starting point at which you’re at a new learning edge. It’s a chance to learn something you didn’t know before. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable. But if there’s anything that we human beings are good at, it’s overcoming the obstacle of not knowing something and learning anyway. You just have to trust.

Where is the proof in tai chi?

They’ve got theories to explain and practices to prove, but you may never prove anything. However, the effort you make to do so is proof enough that it was important enough to at least try.