Tai Chi Classics: All Parts Connected

The first verse of the Tai Chi Classics by Chang San-feng reads,

Once you begin to move, the entire body must be light and limber. Each part of your body should be connected to every other part. (Liao)

The emphasis here is on lightness and connection. While playing Tai Chi, it is possible to move the hand, the arm, the leg, and the foot, but this view can be misleading. If the hand moves, it naturally moves the arm as well. As the arm moves, so too does the shoulder. As the shoulder moves, the torso is affected, and so on. This is obvious in large motions, but remains true in subtle motion as well.

One summary for Tai Chi I’ve used in the past is that, externally, it is the art of dealing with force: yours, your environment’s, or someone else’s. Sometimes this force is the weight of your body on a stair, and sometimes it’s a heavy bag in your hand. If any force is applied to your body, it is possible to feel that force in many other parts of your body as well. Of course, you may not feel it in some places. In order to feel (and respond well) to force, you must be soft and light. Parts of the body that are tense or hard have lost their spring and cannot transfer energy very well. Force that enters those areas can become stuck. Worse, without a full connection, that stuck force can stagnate and spread the tension to other parts of the body.

What does this mean in practical terms? If your hand is tense, your whole body will carry some of that tension as well. If you make a hard fist, the pressure of that contraction will also be evident in your arm, in your shoulder, and maybe your face and neck. Perhaps more dangerous, when allowed to remain, that contraction can appear in your breathing. Similarly, if your breath is tight and shallow, your movement will never be completely relaxed. This tells us that we need to check in with all the parts of our body regularly (during a Tai Chi form or anytime, really) and try to relax any tension we find in order to help release tension in other places as well.

That said, if my body is not well connected, then relaxing my face may not have much of an effect on a my tight lower back, but it’s likely to have an effect on my neck and shoulders. You never know where you’ll find a connection; some may surprise you. Try it and find out!

So how do we improve connection? Another translation of this classic reads,

In motion the whole body should be light and agile, 
with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together. (Scheele)

This gives us another analogy. Imagine a thread pulled taut; if one side is pulled, the other side moves also. This is true for either side of the thread. The body is like this thread. If the thread hangs slack or is tangled, pulling on one side will still affect the other side, but not immediately and not evenly. On the other hand, if the thread is too tense, a single pull will cause it to snap.

To best manage the daily forces that apply to your body (carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling, etc.) you should try to find a level of extension and fullness in your body that removes the slack without creating additional tension. In this way, when the dresser you are pushing suddenly gets stuck, you won’t fall over or wrench your shoulder. Even while walking, it can be helpful to feel and respond to the pressure and feelings you get from your foot in your whole body.

So remember: the body is one piece. You can consider its elements as separate for convenience, but when one part is affected by force or discomfort, so too will some other part. Relax one part, you’ll probably find relaxation everywhere.

1. Liao, Waysun (1977,1990). T’ai Chi Classics. Boston: Shambhala Publications. pp. VIII. ISBN 0-87773-531-X.

2. Scheele, Lee N. (2009). T’AI CHI CH’UAN CLASSICS. Retrieved from http://www.scheele.org/lee/classics.html

Tai Chi in the Cold

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.

Tai Chi Vacuum

You’ve heard of Tai Chi Sword, Tai Chi Staff, and Tai Chi Fan. What about… Tai Chi Vacuum?

Ok, this is not a traditional training tool. Still, Tai Chi can be practiced with anything in your hands, and certainly the principles hold true for something as mobile as a vacuum cleaner (or mop or broom). To reiterate from a previous post: anything you touch with your body becomes, in effect, part of your body. You can feel through it, it can influence you, and you can influence it.

The unfortunate truth is that we tend to see many things that we carry as separate from us and, in fact, annoyances. Why should we pay attention to our alignments while vacuuming the floor? We really just want to be done so we can go watch that video online about Tai Chi Spear. This is a mistake. Every repetitive movement is practice. Even if we don’t want it to be practice, even if we really really just want to finish cleaning the carpet, it is practice. From practice, from any repetition, our body learns. Our nervous system creates patterns which can be very hard to break.

Here’s the good news: focusing on an activity like vacuuming or sweeping as Tai Chi can make your chores a lot more interesting. One of the key components of Tai Chi is Yi or Intent. Most of the time when we’re doing a chore over and over again we aren’t using our intent. We aren’t really even there for the sweeping or the cleaning. And yet, our body is still learning from the motions. Since we are teaching our body how to move, why not teach it something worthwhile? Your health depends on it.

The first thing that you’ll find when you start bringing your attention to your body is how your back feels. Uncomfortable? Notice how it’s aligned. If you’re bending forward, make sure to keep your spine straight from your hips to your head. What do I mean by “straight”, though? Not just straight up and down. Straight like the broom handle, meaning lined up from top to bottom even while leaning or tilted. The lean in your body should come from the hips rather than from the back. This will help keep your spine from complaining. Remember that in Tai Chi there is no tension. Straightening your back in this way should be comfortable and relaxed, although it may feel strange at first.

Also pay attention to how you shift your weight. As you move around the room, you’ll be shifting all your weight from one foot to the other many times. How you shift your weight matters. As you shift, try to keep your hips at the same level. If you do move up and down a little, make sure that the both hips move up and down together. Each step forward and back should feel as smooth and gentle as the rolling of a rocking chair.

If you have time, also play with slowing everything down; while you are about to take a step, slightly exaggerate the motion so you have an extra moment before your weight shifts. During that moment notice how balanced you feel. If you find yourself falling over to get to the next step, try to move more carefully and allow even the middle one sweep to feel as stable as the end of the sweep. As you push the vacuum away from you, take care not to over-extend your arms. If you must extend your reach, lean or turn your body and bend your legs to get the added stretch, staying balanced and comfortable the whole time.

Finally we get to the vacuum itself; when you push it along or pull it toward you, are you struggling to move something unwieldy and stiff or (as is the case with a mop) throwing the other end carelessly around? Try to feel the implement you hold as an extension of your arms. Focus on the movement of your hips, rather than your arms, to power the movement of the handle. As you turn a corner, let your hips and your legs do the work, relying on the alignment of your body to carry the motion to your arms.

Vacuuming (or sweeping, or mopping) can be very much like a dancer leading his or her partner around the floor: you can’t just whip your partner where you want to go; you have to feel that your partner has a body and gently guide it from one step to the next, moving together as one. So the next time you start your cleaning, think of it as beginning your practice time. The house will be spotless in no time.

Tai Chi Snow Shoveling

Tai Chi is in a very fundamental way about body mechanics. The alignment of your joints and the efficiency of your muscle movements is the reason for studying the Tai Chi form, whether you’re interested in using that efficiency for martial arts or just for your daily activities. This is especially relevant for uncommon activities that can quickly stress and even injure the body, like shoveling snow.

An important point to understand about your body is that anything you are touching becomes, in a sense, another part of you. If you are holding a book, moving your arm moves the book, and moving the book moves your arm. They have become one piece. Moreover, the weight of the book is now part of the weight of your arm!

In Tai Chi practice, we work on absorbing, integrating, and redirecting force. This can be the inward force of a punch to the face, but it can also be the force of gravity. “Weight” is just a convenient term we use to describe force that is moving downward. Both receiving a punch and holding a book are tasks that require controlling an external force by routing it through your body. The greater the force, the more difficult this can be. For example, imagine a tall stack of lego blocks standing on its own. If you bend the stack so that it remains together but leans slightly to one side, it will still be capable of supporting its own weight. Now imagine the same stack with a book resting on its top. If the stack is leaning, it’s very likely the whole pile will come crashing down. Yet the stack can easily hold the book if it is lined up straight.

When we pick up a pile of snow using a shovel, the snow (and the shovel) becomes part of our arms. While our body may easily be able to hold up our arms under normal circumstances, when we increase that weight by adding the snow, now it’s a real work-out. The muscles, particularly those of the lower back, have to pull much harder than they are used to, and this can cause strain. Worse, if we then twist the back to toss the snow away, that bending and twisting under pressure can seriously injure the spine.

Here’s some ideas for the next time you shovel snow or pick up any heavy object:

1. Keep the spine straight, paying particular attention to the lower back, as there is a strong tendency to bend it when we lean forward. Bend from the waist only. Use the legs to get further down.

2. Keep the knees in alignment over the centers of the feet. Also be careful of twisting the knees or the thighs as you toss snow. Twist from the hips only.

3. Take many breaks. Shoveling snow is like going to the gym for an intense workout with no warm-ups. Every 30 seconds or so for most people is a good time to take a rest to allow the body to adapt to this new weight-lifting exercise.

4. Do less! You likely won’t be able to bend as far, twist as far, or move as fast as you’d like to. You have a choice of getting it done fast and living with the consequences or taking care of your body and moving slowly.

Listen to your body. Then you can brag to your neighbors about how you dug out your car this winter and your back feels great!

Qigong and Tai Chi

Green Leaf Tai ChiTai Chi can be many things: moving meditation, martial art, and an exercise to improve relaxation and balance.  It is also an effective tool to “pump” energy around your body.  In the style I study, tai chi forms can be described as an expression or an application of qigong.

By learning to expand your awareness within all the parts of your body it is possible to dissolve blockages that slow your natural flow of energy.  Once the nervous system relaxes and the muscles soften, the student of qigong can begin to apply their increased energy toward their goals.  If a complicated tai chi form is attempted without first softening the mind and body, the result is less likely to be relaxation and ease and more likely to be tension and stiffness.  In this way, we begin with gentle qigong work to create the foundation of any successful physical activity, including tai chi chuan.

My classes cover both qigong and tai chi as intertwined arts.  They support and define each other, much like Yin and Yang.  Better yet, they are both tools that positively effect the routine activities we undertake every day.  Being able to release tension and increase your energy level are skills that can help everyone.

Please join me at 8am on Monday mornings to learn about the energy of your own body.