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.

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.

Tai Chi Door Opening

Ok, now you think I’m joking. Actually, how you open doors is a really good indicator of the integration level of your Tai Chi practice. Doors generally have some weight to them, so pushing or pulling them out of the way requires a short but intense movement of your body. If you’ve ever tried to open a door while your arms were full of groceries, you might remember the amount of extra effort it took for such a simple task.

Let’s begin by examining doors that you push. No, not the ones that say “PULL” that you push on anyway (this happens way more often than I’d like to admit), but the doors that open outward away from your direction of movement. This is important: you are moving in the direction of the door, so this is the easier direction, right? On the other hand, the door isn’t actually moving directly away from your body, it’s pivoting to one side. If you’ve played any Tai Chi Push Hands before, this motion may be familiar to you. It means that you have to “stick” to the door as it moves out, adapting your body and arm to keep things balanced. If you over-extend to get the door out of the way, you’ll be forced to use the muscles of the arm to carry all the extra weight of the door opening, especially if there’s an auto-closer attached that you’re fighting against. This can cause a strain and maybe even injury. But we already came up with the solution to that! Much easier would be to allow the motion of your body moving forward to help keep your arm at a comfortable reach. Let your legs push the door.

This is all alignment. If you’ve studied Tai Chi, you’ve probably come across the idea of alignment before. The full principle is too complex to approach here, but maybe you know something about it already. By removing the slack in our joints, we connect our upper body and our lower body, attaching our arms to our legs and our hands to the floor underneath our feet. If this is successful, by walking forward we can push into the ground to create the force needed to open the door without using the arm strength at all.

Good, so that’s doors that open out, what about those that open inward? A principle I’ve discussed before is that anything you touch or grab hold of becomes, in some sense, part of your own body. As you grab the door handle, really allow yourself to feel the weight of the door. Don’t treat it as something annoying that you need to yank out of the way; this gives your arm (and probably your shoulders and your back) quite a sharp jerk. If you yank the door, you yank your body as well. If you don’t believe me, try pulling quickly on a heavy door and feel how your arm and torso tense up in response. Quick, sharp movements like this are dangerous for your muscles and joints. A smooth, controlled pull is much safer.

There’s even better news, though! Why not take all that work away from your arms and torso and let your hips and legs do the pulling? Try this: after you’ve grabbed the door, keep your arm at a comfortable distance from your body and step backward. You’ll notice that as you step back, your torso and your arm naturally move back as well, and if the door is part of your body, it will too. You may need to turn near the end of this pull, in which case let the hips do the turning as well! Your legs and hips are generally much stronger than your arms and chest, so why not let them do the hard stuff?

Door opening is an excellent Tai Chi exercise and one I recommend for nearly everyone who wants to get out and back in again. It’s like having a push hands partner just waiting for you at every door.

Tai Chi and the Dishes

How do you wash the dishes? This is one of those things that, I think, everyone has to do (at least once you stop putting it off). But how exactly do you wash plates, cups, and spoons? It’s no simple task to judge the weight and shape of every piece in a pile of objects, choose one, then hold it in one hand while using the other to clean its contours. At the same time, you visually assess the object for debris, add soap and water as needed, and then stack it someplace for drying.

Of course we don’t think about any of those things. We just wash the dishes and try to be done with it so we can go back to playing our Tai Chi forms (heh).

What I see here is a perfect microcosm of the fundamental principle of Yi or intent in life. We are not usually present with our individual actions when we go to wash the dishes. We are not conscious of what we’re doing. But as Thich Nhat Hanh cautions,

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” … If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. (Thich Nhat Hanh)

When you practice Tai Chi long enough, you can perform postures and transitions without thought, but this is not Tai Chi, nor is it really “alive”. The idea of using “intent” is to fully be present with each movement of the body (or hey, the mind!) while playing your Tai Chi form or while working on any task.

As I pick up a bowl, I feel its weight in my hand, supporting it (Peng) while I move in my other hand to begin cleaning. If I find my attention wandering to other events, I gently bring it back to the bowl, telling myself, “I am washing this bowl right now; the other thing can wait.”  Often I will get impatient with the endless sea of bowls and try to speed up my washing, a tactic I’m well aware has broken many bowls! When the bowl is clean, I need to get it to the rack, so I shift my weight smoothly to one foot and rotate my body using my hips so I can comfortably place the bowl in its place. If instead I were to stretch my arm to the side and twist my torso, I may find that my lower back is sore later (for some weird reason). Tai Chi alignments aren’t just for the form.

In Tai Chi we never stretch when we could comfortably reach and if we cannot comfortably reach we move our core (or your lower dantien) to make the distance easier. With a little practice, the art of lift, wash, turn and set down, lift, wash, turn and set down can become a rhythmic qigong set in itself (I believe Tai Chi is just applied qigong anyway). It’s at the least more interesting than just creating clean dishes. Keep the focus turned inward on your body and its motion and your “chore” can even be relaxing.

Now what about the breath? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. When my mind is present with the actions, my breath is smooth and even. If I am moving in straight, jerky lines, my breath is also jerky and tense. As you put your hands in the water, take a moment and feel your breathing. What does it feel like for you? Practice letting your breathing become soft and gentle before picking up the next plate.

If you clean out the sink before you know what happened, you may have made some progress in your Tai Chi.

  1. Nhat Hanh, Thich (1975,1976). Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press books. ISBN 0-8070-1232-7

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 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.