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.