Shifting Back

One of my favorite simple movement practices that can be done almost anywhere at all is shifting forward and back. Starting with your feet about shoulder-width apart, move one foot forward anywhere between a few inches and a whole foot. This exercise actually works best if the stance isn’t too wide, so I usually keep my foot closer than if I was actually walking.

forward_foot_wide

From this position, begin slowly shifting the weight to the front foot and then to the back foot. When I say slowly, I don’t mean just moving slowly, though, there has to be stability present in both feet all the time. You should be able to pause at any point during your shift and be totally comfortable. Another way to look at this is that if someone were to come push on you, you wouldn’t immediately topple over.

The key to this stability begins in the feet. Keep both of your feet flat on the floor. Notice where your weight moves along the bottom of your feet, sometimes alighting on the balls, sometimes the heels, sometimes one edge or the other. The foot is designed to spread weight out like an arch, across the whole foot and down into the ground below. When you feel more weight in the ball of the foot, then a shove from behind will uproot you more easily, so try to keep the weight evenly balanced between ball and heel.

As you shift, it’s common to throw your hips forward and allow your legs to handle it. In this exercise, move with your legs the entire time. When you shift forward, push with the rear leg, when you shift back, engage the front leg. This will also keep you connected and stable on the unweighted leg, which in turn will improve your overall stability tenfold.

Once you’re comfortable with this practice, try it with your eyes closed, swapping forward and back leg every so often. Feel and try to relax any tension in your body and allow the legs to control the movement. Your body can learn a lot from just this.

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On Feeling Peng Jin

Peng Jin (掤) is another of the most important concepts in Taiji, but it is notoriously difficult to explain. Many others have done a better job than I could. If you’d like my brief version, though, I’d say it is akin to being an inflated balloon. There is no slack in the body, but neither is it tense or overly stretched. No resistance is offered, but a full structure is in place to take in and support whatever comes in the most efficient way possible. You might think of trying to “defeat” a balloon by pushing it. The whole balloon moves right out of the way! Punching it won’t do you much good either.

Anyway, if that doesn’t make much sense or sounds like too much theory, you may be comforted to know that I rarely use such thoughts when I’m practicing. They only appear when I try to explain the feeling of Peng with words. As much as possible, I’d like you to be able to feel these concepts without the use of words, so here’s how to start feeling this balloon in your own body.

Peng is felt internally, but it is most notable when an outside force interacts with it, so to begin with I’d suggest asking a friend to give you a hand. To start, stand in the most stable but relaxed way that you can. If those sounds like opposite ideas, just find some middle ground, the rest of your stance will become more apparent during the exercise. Extend both of your arms a bit forward as though reaching out to wrap someone in a hug or like being handed a large bowl of water. Now have your friend gently push on one or both of your arms, seeking to collapse your hug. This is where the feeling begins.

There are three possible reactions to your friend’s push: first, you may collapse, allowing your arms to move in and eventually being knocked over by the incoming force; second you may resist, pitting the strength of your body (particularly the arms) against your friend’s strength; the third option is to manifest Peng. Do not push the force away, but rather feel a little expansion all the way out to your fingertips that is unaffected by the push. As the force comes in, link your joints up in such a way as to transfer that force not just to your elbow, arm, or shoulder, but all the way to your backbone (or maybe even to your legs, but that’s many more joints to go through). This way when your friend pushes your arm, they are actually pushing your backbone as well. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, relax your arms as much as possible while doing this.

If that sounds like a challenge, you’re probably right. Feeling a collapse or a resistance is much easier, but eventually you’ll start to find some middle ground and your arms will be connected to your body. Once that happens, maybe you can try feeling that same expansive and connected quality in other parts of your body. This is Peng in its most basic form. There’s a lot more to feel, but if you can get to this point, you’re on the right path.

Soft Eyes, Soft Mind

One of the most useful and potent qigong practices that I know is dissolving tension around and behind the eyes. I don’t discuss it very much, however, even in my classes. I’ve always considered it a more advanced practice and only worth pursuing after learning many other qigong fundamentals. Recently I have changed my mind.

For me, and I suspect for many of you, a great deal of tension is carried in and around the eyes. I find that if I don’t work on relaxing my eyes first, none of my practice goes very well. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and I repeat it any chance I remember, even when I only have a minute to practice in between tasks. For something so important to my practice, I’ve decided I should share it, even if it’s a challenge.

Here’s an exercise to get you working with the eyes. Whenever you have a chance to pause, ideally somewhere relatively quiet (outdoors works quite well) with nothing immediately distracting you, close your eyes. First, try to feel the muscles around the eye sockets, paying as close attention to each part as possible. See if you can feel the tension there, whether strong or light. Sometimes you’ll feel a big section, but sometimes you can feel a small one, like maybe the muscles just between your eyes.

As you focus on one muscle area, try relaxing just that area. Sometimes it helps me to first tighten that area instead, just a bit, and then let it go. I find it’s often easier to locate a muscle by using it. So a little scrunch, and then release. Then move on to the next area, perhaps above your eyes. Try the outside corners, then the bottoms. Feel free to go around as many times as you like. You may find that tension released appears again as soon as you bring your mind to another area.

Here’s the second part. Open your eyes and look at whatever is in front of you. I find this part most useful if there’s a panorama of trees and rocks nearby, but a wide room will work just as well. When we look with our eyes, we tend to tighten them in various ways to see better, to focus on one object or another. That tree moving, that book on the shelf, that flower all draw our attention. But our vision is quite wide. You’ll easily notice if a person walks into your field of view off the side.

Have you ever noticed that looking at a photograph of a landscape can often be more beautiful than looking at the landscape yourself? This is because we can see the photograph as a whole, but when we normally look around we focus on single things instead.

Try this: relax your eyes in such a way as to see everything within your field of vision. Everything in your left and right periphery, up and down. The whole scene all at once, as though it were a photograph or a painting. The mind tends to rebel against this a bit, because you won’t be able to gather much information about any individual things in the scene before you, but stick with it. Soften the eyes.

When you’re looking straight ahead, can you see the sky above or the ceiling without moving your eyes? Can you direct your attention a bit without focusing on any one sight? Play with this. Notice how it affects the breathing. See if it can lead you to soften more of your body, if you have the time.

With these exercises, you can begin to tap into the powerful practice of dissolving the eyes. Try it at different times of day, when you’re waking up, or when you’re stressed from work. Learn about the muscles around the eyes (and perhaps behind the eyes) and how they affect your body and your mind.

Soft soft soft

As you move in the form (or, one could argue, nearly any activity), notice each part of your body and how tense it becomes. Try the same motion without that tension. How must you adjust your body? Does the movement becomes focused in some other part of your body? Does it create tension somewhere else? Can we soften that?

For example, try opening the door to your home. Move forward, reach out for the handle, grasp, pull or push, swing. Let’s examine the arm. When the arm reaches out, does the arm tense? How about the hand? Certainly there must be some amount of muscle activity in the hand to hold the handle, but how little tension can there be? Experiment with this.

Once we’ve gotten a hold of the door, how much tension appears in the arm to twist or pull on the handle? Can that be done more gently? What part of the body is pulling or pushing here? If the arm is doing all the work, see if the motion can originate from the hips or the legs instead.

Once you feel that you can’t soften any more in the arm, examine other parts of the body. What about the face and the area around the eyes when we open the door? What about the belly? It’s like playing hide-and-seek with the tension in your muscles. Seek it out, soften it, and then soften it some more. You can try this with any motion, or even — gasp — standing still!

Play on, Taiji friends.

Another Wednesday Morning Tai Chi

Wednesday July 4th and Wednesday July 11th I will be holding a Tai Chi class outside at Battery Park in Burlington at 9am (note that this is later than last week). We will meet in front of the Band shell.

The class is for all levels (even if you’ve never played any Tai Chi before) and is donation-based. No special clothing is required.

If you’ve been meaning to try Tai Chi for a while or if you’d just like a chance to practice with like-minded folks, you should come out. The form work we will do is gentle and flowing and will be easy on the body.

Wednesday Morning Tai Chi

This coming Wednesday, June 27th, I will be holding a Tai Chi class outside at Battery Park from 8:30am-9:30am. We will meet in front of the Band Shell.

The class is for all levels (even if you’ve never played any Tai Chi before) and is donation-based. No special clothing is required.

Please come join us if you can!