When the temperature starts to drop, many other mammals begin to slow down their activities; not so for humans. Other mammals also grow thick pelts to keep them warm in the ensuing months; for most of us, we start layering on the flannel instead (not a bad idea). There are, however, important lessons to learn in the colder months of the year.
For one thing, cooler temperatures naturally cause our metabolism to slow down. Our ligaments and muscles tighten up a little to retain our body heat. Tai Chi follows the principles of the Tao, one of which is flowing with the natural order of things. To follow the Tao in the cold, you need to feel the conditions outside of your body and respond appropriately. This usually means slowing down and being more gentle with your movements. Where a large stretch or a big reach may have been possible in the Summer, as soon as you feel the first frost you should be mindful that your body’s range of motion is a lot smaller than you might remember. Reduce your speed and focus on moving within about 60% of your full range. Since you won’t be fighting the environment to extend too far or move too fast, you’ll be a lot more comfortable and still be able to get things done.
Another effect of the tightening of the tissues of your body is that your blood flow is greatly reduced. Even though your body is tightening to preserve warmth, it is actually cutting off warmth to your extremities to preserve that heat for your core. Obviously this is a good thing when you might be miles from any source of heat, but in our modern society it can actually cause us to be colder than we need to be (and can make getting home to bask by the fire take that much longer). Much of Tai Chi teaches about relaxing tension in the muscles and joints. Using your sense awareness, you can feel the parts of your body that get tight in the cold (notice especially the armpits and belly). When you feel that tightness, see if you can just let it melt away. If you need help feeling this, just make a tight fist, hold it for a few seconds, and then, very slowly, let it relax. That’s the feeling of releasing muscles. Of course some tension is harder to release than others, and practice will definitely help. If you can relax even a few muscle groups while walking around (or playing the Tai Chi form!), you’ll find you get warmer pretty quick.
So, the next time you have to walk around your house before the heat comes on or when going to work before the sun comes out, take just a few moments to slow down and feel your body. Melt the tension in your muscles as you move. Suddenly it might not seem so cold out there.