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.

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.

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