Basic movement patterns and body coherence

When I was a college student I used to give guitar lessons. It was a great way to earn money without being too time consuming and I soon realised that I really liked the teaching process, not to mention the independence of being my own boss. My students would start out by learning the basics; how to hold the guitar, simple scales, chords and so on. The only way to play more complicated tunes well, I would always explain, is to be competent at the basics, which requires diligent daily practise. How boring and not very rock ‘n’ roll at all!  The students who followed my advice over the years went on to become decent musicians able to play almost any tune well because of being forearmed with a fundamental understanding of and essential skill base in music.

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Too many people are afraid of discomfort.
Training should be mentally and physically challenging – working on the basics improves everything

The students who were most difficult to teach were the ones who couldn’t follow basic instructions, were either tone-deaf or had no sense of rhythm (sometimes all three) especially when they didn’t realise it and thought they sounded amazing.

To begin with they would have no frame of reference as to whether something was in tune or in time. They would make a horrible din – lots of noise but no discernible tune or tempo – and they couldn’t hear the difference between what I was playing and their cacophonic attempts. So with these students it was a really interesting teaching process and very educational for me. Slowly but surely I had to teach them, step by step, to really listen and pay attention to all the variations and nuances in tone and timing. Nothing could be assumed by me or them. Even more than usual did we have to get stuck in to basic practise with lots of repetition and comparison of simple riffs so they could gradually build up a more accurate (and sweeter sounding) frame of reference, and they had to practise a lot. At times it was frustrating for both parties but when they improved they often couldn’t believe just how far they had had to come to understand something so simple. I guess it’s only simple when you know how.

Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.

In this article I will discuss how learning basic movement patterns and building body awareness should be the first port of call in Taiji classes. Otherwise it is like trying to teach Beethoven to someone who is tone deaf.

The big difference between music and Taiji is that while most people have some basic sense of music, many people are completely lacking in body awareness and have poor habitual movement patterns without even realising or conceding that such attributes have much value. Basic movement ability and awareness are two of the most essential life skills – without them we are seriously compromised as individuals in almost every conceivable way. It is impossible to learn Taiji without resolving these basic issues first.

Taiji is often assumed to be an art of special ‘mystical’ movements, confusing subtle energies and unrealistic spiritual ideals barely comprising a physical activity at all.  My experience is that Taiji training is based on a long history of optimal body/mind training gained through highly perceptive heuristic movement, astute observation of natural phenomena at both micro and macro levels and rigorous testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). Over a long period of time this culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts.

During my two decades of teaching and training Taiji the most common problem I have encountered is that people want to spend a lot of time trying to learn the choreography of forms but do not actually learn how to move well, often lacking the most basic level of body cohesion after many years of practise. More often than not people immediately get bogged down with trying to learn and remember forms and as a consequence completely forgo the forging of basic body cohesion and basic perceptive mind skills therein. Furthermore, by trying to remember choreographed movements rather than improving the basic nuts and bolts of human body-mechanics people usually compound the physical and mental issues that they have in the first place.

 ‘The more details you give people, the more they ask for details’ Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

Body cohesion is the essential fusion of balanced, connected, relaxed, 3-dimensional whole-body movement, strength and awareness that underpins all good movement and is especially emphasised in Taiji and other internal martial arts as a key-stone principle. Taiji teachers really need to step up what they are doing otherwise we will all be perpetually condemned to that abysmal umbrella understanding of Taiji as a pseudo-spiritual, faux exercise for the infirm.

Body cohesion is the heart of Taiji training and more than anything else building this whole-body connection will benefit the vast majority of people in terms of their physical and mental health and overall ability to move and function well. As a teacher I want my students to experience significant change in the way their bodies operate and not to spend years worrying about remembering sequences of movements or theory. Ultimately I want to teach a person to improve the way they move, the way they use their body and the way they use their mind. As the vast majority of people are not used to learning movement or indeed moving much at all the most significant benefit is gained from establishing the basic exercises (Jibengong). In most of my classes we spend at least 50% of the time training basics.

For people taking their first steps into Taiji training the last thing they need to do is to learn a form. Learning a Taiji form offers very little benefit if instead of learning how to move well  people simply retain their old, habitual ways of moving. This is especially true if their bodies are in poor condition. Since many people come to Taiji because they think they are too damaged to do anything else and/or that the art is going to help them float away from physical reality, this a particularly salient point.

Countless hours spent trying to remember sequences of movements and puzzling over which body part goes where, when and why is almost a complete waste of time, although perhaps intellectually satisfying in a superficial sense. Instead the initial and ongoing aim should be that students look to the body and mind and build; build their awareness, build their body and ultimately build their body/mind connection. For all the major health, movement and functional (martial or otherwise) benefits our art has to offer this is the absolute foundation and without it the majority of training is a false economy.

Taiji is a martial art with a difference. Instead of learning fighting techniques the first port of call should be simply learning how to develop body cohesion. Moving well, being at ease with one’s physical existence, being immersed in down to earth sensory experience and possessing freedom of movement are vital attributes for life and are the basic skills we seek to develop in Taiji.  Ultimately this means that our training is much more physically and mentally rigorous than most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of physical work; and you have to learn to calm and focus your mind, to pay attention completely, in order to succeed. So having said that, here’s a rundown of essentials we train in my classes and what I focus on in my own training:

Find your body – Fansong Gong

All of my classes begin with Fansong Gong. Consisting of a wide range of simple though not particularly easy exercises, Fansong Gong follows a general theme of opening the soft tissues of the body along the main fascial lines. Not only does this build a body that is loose, elastic, resilient and connected but also teaches you how to feel the main kinetic chains within the body and how they are woven together to form the three dimensional body structure in a simple and tangible way. Fansong Gong also incorporates lots of variations of balancing on one leg. Some of the exercises are strenuous for not only do they create a strong stretch but also continuously emphasise developing a base that is sufficiently stable to facilitate balanced  movement from the legs and centre that emanates through the whole body. Fansong Gong thus emphasises a number of key elements that people greatly benefit from in developing body cohesion:

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Simple squat – an important basic movement skill
  • Basic movement of the hips and spine. Flexion, extension, lateral motion (side-bending) and rotation are explored throughout Fansong and seeing that these are areas which are restricted in most people, and of course vital for all movement and for developing ones Taiji, it generates delightful results.
  • Balance and leg strength. Squatting motions and balancing on one leg help to build the body from the ground up whilst facilitating functional hip mobility. As unstable bi-peds, being able to balance well and having a stable base is one the most important skills we can develop.
  • Connecting the arms to the back and freeing the shoulders. Our arms are not independent levers that are separate from the body, their strength and dexterity depends on how well they are connected to and stabilised by the back so that movement and power generated by the legs and body can flow through them.
  • Developing a clear felt sense of how all body parts are woven together, from the toes to the fingertips, through the elastic facial web.

Zhanzhuang: Standing Meditation

Learning how to stand up is the next step after the elasticating endeavours of Fansong Gong. Zhanzhuang is simple and superb: it stabilises the body, stabilises the mind and develops a clear sense of the tensegrity of the human body structure. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system via the spring-like and elastic fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems. A body that exhibits tensegrity in an optimal way is tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity:

“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” R. Buckminster Fuller

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements.

‘Being natural is the first and foremost principle in Taiji’ Chen Bing

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)
Standing – simple and effective

Zhanzhuang is the epitome of reorganising the perceived separate parts of the body back into the homogeneous whole of a tensegrity structure.  What separates the body is habitual tension and restricted movement underpinned by a lack of awareness in the corresponding parts.  Usually we are not aware of the restrictive patterns that have become enmeshed in our structural fabric over the course of our lives.  Everybody has them but they are essentially unfelt.   Standing then, is to help us feel, locate and relax restrictions in the body structure.  It’s not that we want to replace one habitual posture for another but instead return to a settled state so that the body becomes less segmented and more integrated; a malleable mass free to be directed by our will.  Through gentle and perceptive coaxing of the body we discover how it can support itself effortlessly from the ground upwards utilising the natural power of ground reaction force.  The key is to quieten the mind by simply feeling and observing.  Curious observation through the lens of stillness allows one to discover the inherent qualities our bodies possess and work with them rather than against them.

It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness and an incorrect, intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body as a homogeneous whole and thus capitalise on its inherent, natural attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control. It is the ability to pay attention accurately which allows us to discover the inherent structure of our human form, something that is with us whatever we are doing.

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Tactile cues/posture corrections are vital for developing an accurate frame of reference

A very important point with Zhanzhuang is that tactile cues and posture corrections are essential for students to learn how to stand. One’s habitual posture is usually so engrained that without regular feedback from a teacher’s hands-on body adjustments it is very difficult to perceive. If your teacher doesn’t give you tactile cues then you should find one that does.

Thus Zhanzhuang training facilitates a number of key developments:

  • More than any other training, Zhanzhuang, due to the absence of deliberate movement, allows one to gradually perceive and use the body as a whole unit, a tensegrity structure.
  • Strengthens and stabilises the body and mind at the most fundamental level.
  • Highlights how busy the mind is and as such provides an opportunity to learn how to focus on direct experience and not just thinking.

Learning to practise meditation is probably one of the most useful skills that anyone can invest their time in. The mind is such a busy little monkey; always trying to pin things down, categorise and judge most inaccurately.  It constantly craves information and fixed points of reference. Aside from this relentless activity the mind is also capable of quietly observing. Learning how to strengthen this observational aspect of the mind comes from deliberately paying attention and forms the most basic and most useful aspect of meditation. However, sitting down more is often the last thing most people need to be happy and healthy so as an excellent alternative and precursor to seated practise we can simply train Zhanzhuang.

Walking the walk (Zou Bu)

After Zhanzhuang the next basic skill I like to work on with students is being able to step well. Taiji walking has many variations but all follow the theme of learning how to maintain structural integrity, balance and connection whilst stepping slowly (to begin with). It is challenging to do well and without the distraction of waving the arms around students can really focus on moving in a balanced way.

Chansigong : Silk-Reeling exercises

“The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web” Steven Levin

Simple Chansigong builds upon all of the preceding basic exercises and offers students the chance to discover how good movement flows smoothly and naturally through the whole body, from the feet to the fingertips, organised by the centre (Dantien). Training simple isolated, whole-body movements gives one a chance to get into the nitty gritty of what one is doing and most importantly how one is doing it. Any Taiji form is basically a collection chansigong variations but as one goes from one move to the next any mistakes are usually glossed over and forgotten immediately. Practising Chansigong gives you a chance to discover and then iron-out any deviations in one’s basic movement patterns using all of the preceding simpler work as a tool for accurate cross referencing.

Conclusion

When people have a good grasp of the basics they become much more physically capable, confident and independent. From here they can use their new skills to learn a form successfully with meaning and without being a slave to irrelevant details or the teacher.

I first came across the term ‘Heuristic’ in Nassim Taleb’s superb book ‘Antifragile: things that gain from disorder’. The word Heuristic comes from ancient Greek meaning to find or discover for oneself. I had not really thought about it too much prior to this but at that point I realised that this is how I learn and teach Taiji. In Taiji we have the general movement principles (one principle, three kinds of motion) or rules of thumb and it is through inquisitive tinkering via lots of basic training  that you discover, realise and then own them for yourself rather than trying force oneself to adhere to them and/or just blindly following a teacher:

Heuristic: Serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own by experimenting and evaluating possible answers or solutions or by trial and error.

I always encourage my students to pay more attention to their own body feeling rather than thinking about things too much. As soon as people start thinking they start to forgo their whole-body experience.  I want students to learn how to learn from their own felt experience of their training rather than trying to remember things. It is because many peoples’ felt experience, their sensory perception and proprioception are so limited that the mind takes over to fill in the gaps. That’s one of the reasons why people crave details, in-depth theory and spiritual mystery rather than relying on their own practise and experience. Since we are so used to being spoon fed information from external sources it can be quite a big step to become more self-reliant. Training Taiji basics for body cohesion gives you all the tools you need. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

Sam teaches full-time in West Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Posted in Chen Bing, Fascia, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, posture, Tai Chi, taijiquan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Guest post by Antonia Stringer

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I don’t often read fiction books however on the run up to our recent retreat in Morocco I read an excellent and very funny book. It is titled ‘this book will save your life’ by the author A.M. Homes. The story is about a stocks and shares trader who works from his beautiful house in L.A and is so caught up in making money, he sees no one except his nutritionist, his trainer and his housekeeper. He has become so out of touch with his feelings that he does not realise how completely disengaged from life and other people he is until an attack of excruciating pain lands him in hospital.  While they can find no physical reason for the pain it is the catalyst to his emotional thaw and the start of his transformation to engaging more fully with his life.

At one point he goes to see a doctor who says to him ‘you have hit a wall, now climb it – literally’ and gives him the number of some rock climbing venues.  ‘Make the mental physical and the physical mental, and things will improve.’

Whilst rock climbing might not be for everyone he has a point.  In the relationship between physical and mental the line is blurred. The body is an object that inescapably conditions our thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the world around us and this in turn conditions every cell, organ and function within our body for better or worse.

Our minds and emotions are difficult to observe and tend to resist change; the body is an ideal, highly visible medium for transformation. ..when we relax the body and release tensions, the mind and emotions tend to reflect this change (and vice versa).  Conscious physical training is using the visible to mold the invisible.’  Dan Millman, The Inner Athlete

I like this quote. It suggests, as does my own experience, that a mind-body movement practice can be a powerful tool through which you can affect and change your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in profound and enduring ways.

Physical ease is a mirror of the relationship of the body to the mind and relaxation is the single most effective indicator of whole body well-being.  Relaxation through balance is the best way of promoting vitality.

Less energy is expended by working with the body rather than against it; learning to breathe well, to stand, to sit, to get up and down and to move in ways that centre and align the bones and breath is fundamental for health and well-being.

‘A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living’.     Joseph Pilates

Relaxation in the context of physical training is often misunderstood:

“Relaxation is not negation, it is not passivity. The moment it is considered as such, flaccidity is encouraged, both mental and physical. Take hold of your bones softly, but do not let go of them.”     Mabel Todd, The Thinking Body

Babies and children are masters of relaxed movement. They have yet to develop the tensions, imbalances, comparisons and limiting self-beliefs that often plague us as adults. They progressively, playfullly, yet determinedly persist in exploring their movement potential every day and as adults there is great benefit to be gained in rediscovering, restoring and refining basic yet fundamental movement patterns.

Thankfully most of the body’s tissues, including the brain, have a remarkable and lifelong capacity for change. Becoming aware of the chronic tension we carry is the first step in being able to release it but as with any change there is likely to be a period of discomfort as the body and mind adjust.  Indeed a sure sign of this is that we feel as if we are getting ‘worse’ as we become increasingly aware of our stiffness, tension and weaknesses.  Due to this temporary drop in self-esteem our built in defence mechanisms can cause resistance which results in us remaining stuck in old patterns and habits that no longer serve.  The will to change therefore needs to be greater.

Perhaps the crux of any mind-body movement practice therefore should not be to try to conform to an ‘ideal’ or achieve a particular standard of posture or movement but to develop our curiosity and awareness sufficiently to be able to recognise and evolve our own habits and patterns, particularly those that literally disconnect, contort and confine us within our own body.

 

Join Antonia and Sam for their forthcoming workshop ‘Centered: posture and balance’ on April 13th at Cowdray Hall. Visit Antonia’s website for all the details: www.antoniastringer.com

 

Posted in Balance, Health and Fitness, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, posture, Qigong, Tai Chi | 1 Comment

It’s not what you do…

 It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it – that’s what gets results.

Exercise is a bit like food, we are what we eat and we are how we use our bodies. So it is well worth being intelligent in ones choice of how to exercise rather than just ‘eating anything’.

The initial contents of my classes are simple and extremely useful and perhaps a little difficult to grasp; we learn how to pay attention to our bodies. This vastly underrated first step is the keystone to really being able to move well, breathe well, feel well and live well. Although a simple concept it takes lots of daily practise to realise on an experiential level and when taken further along the line is what will allow one to get some seriously tasty results from any physical/mental endeavor (like life) owebr performance without destroying the body/corrupting the mind on the way.

For most of us our senses are extremely dull and what takes precedence in our experience of life is the content of our minds i.e. our common thought patterns and constant benign mental chatter. However, it is in fact only from our senses that we glean accurate information about both our internal and external environments and as such it is well worth addressing this top-down imbalance. Otherwise it’s like living in a dictatorship and you never really have a clear idea of what you are doing, how you are doing it and what is happening around you.

There is only one true rebellion: to free your body and mind.

Often, when people start training the first thing they notice is that their mind is a cacophony of chatter, categories, judgements, memories, predictions and unreasonable beliefs none of which have anything to do with or accurately reflect whawavet is happening in the present moment. Realising that it might be worth learning how to turn this noise down is major step in an intelligent training direction. I’m not, by the way, referring to being spiritual but instead simply being very sensible. For me this process is inseparable from ‘turning up’ our bodily senses – I take inspiration from nature, our animal friends who absolutely bristle with sensory life.

This is not something that can be taught in the traditional sense but instead something that must be learned. My job is to facilitate this learning process rather than simply disseminating information. While having its uses, information is inferior to knowledge. Knowledge is superior because it comes from direct experience and experience derives from trying things out for yourself, making a few little mistakes and learning directly from the results rather than following instructions blindly or just regurgitating what someone else has said. This all takes time and in order to learn something we must not kid ourselves that there is a quick solution.  Embrace the process, seek progress, not perfection and keep practicing.

 

Posted in Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Squeeze in some Squatting

First published in ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts’ magazine Spring 2014

Over the last ten years of teaching Taiji full-time I have had the pleasure of meeting many different people from all sorts of walks of life. From teenagers to 90 year olds, from gymnasts and ballet dancers to boxers and fitness trainers, from staunch businessmen to placid yogis, from couch potatoes to triathletes, you name it; they have probably been to one of my classes or booked in for some one-to-one time with me. One of the greatest things about being a teacher is meeting lots of people, and being an avid learner, ever keen to improve my own skills too, I am always fascinated in how as humans we all vividly exhibit similar patterns in how we move, think and learn despite myriad superficial differences. Just as Sherlock Homes points out we often miss out on learning some really good stuff that is in fact right in front of our noses:

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”[i]

Resting Squat

Squatting is an excellent way to get to know your lower body

One of the main things I have observed along the way, both in myself and virtually everyone around me, is that from a relatively young age we all gradually lose our body-awareness, proprioception and sense-perception and this is matched usually by diminished mobility, integrated strength and stability in the general body structure. This is especially evident in the lower half of the body comprising the feet, legs and hips and lower back. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this is mirrored by an increasing dominance of mental activity unrelated to what is actually happening within and around us in the real world, in real time, over the visceral, present, down to earth world of sensation. It’s like we slowly suffer from a kind of ever increasing disassociation from our physical selves and this supplements a gross imbalance between the physical and mental threads that inextricably twine together to form the whole human. We tend to become incredibly top-heavy as we leave childhood. Unless this imbalance is addressed from the off then I feel it is very difficult to facilitate optimum health and fitness and our more standard, less perceptive attempts to do so are somewhat counter-productive. For generally when most of us exercise, it is most often inspired by a aesthetic bid to simply change the way we look from the outside rather than a conscious re-orientation towards integration and balance. This is even, and often especially, the case in ‘alternative’ or ‘mind-body’ disciplines. The question of ‘how’ doesn’t usually come into our equation; the actual quality of the movement/exercise we engage in, whether it requires the relaxed, focused awareness necessary to address these kind of imbalances, is rarely a consideration.

For me Taijiquan is an absolutely genius system in this sense because it immediately addresses this imbalance right from the start and from this most sensible of premises proceeds to offer stupendous benefits of all kinds (too numerous to mention!). However, developing this receptive and perceptive mindset can be quite tricky. Even with the wonderful art of Taiji it is easy for us remain mentally dominant and  just kind of intellectually collect and blindly repeat Taiji movements without paying the relaxed attention necessary to deeply immerse ourselves within the world of sensation i.e. directly engage with what we are doing in real time, that I feel fundamentally constitutes ‘doing Taiji’. Practising something very simple is a good place to start as it gives our big, interfering brains a chance to calm down and get with the programme in hand. So this time I’m going to talk about and encourage you to try the superb practise of squatting.

Almost all of us sit down far too much, even children. We humans originally evolved to be hunter-gatherers primed to be steadily on the move all day with our plethora of senses finely honed to be highly receptive. Staying firmly grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off into some revelry about the past or future was then, as it is now, vital not only for survival but also for healthy, happy and successful living.[ii]

Lack of movement in day-to-day life has seriously negative health implications; if we can simply do more walking (or more Taiji!) each day then we can placate that hunter-gather part of ourselves and begin to disperse some of our excessive mental energy. Even better, if we can improve our perception and functioning of the much neglected foundational, lower halves of our bodies then not only will this focus and engage our minds in their fundamentally embodied nature but our overall health and mobility can be seriously enhanced. A kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link as they say.

Back in 2004 when I first went to train in Beijing one of the many things that amazed me was just how often people would rest by squatting flat-footed on the ground rather than sitting on a chair. Everyone would do it, from little children right up to the eldest of the elderly. It seemed that the majority of people could demonstrate this excellent, basic mobility. Often after training we would eat our lunch in the park and all just simply squat down in a circle around a very low table. This was noticeably excellent for my lower body and I love training while I’m resting!  At this point in time most of the toilets in China consisted of a simple hole or small trench rather than a western toilet, and so a simple ablution would require careful, mindful squatting and balance in order for it to be successful. Fortunately, when I was twenty years old my first ever Taiji teacher taught me how to squat properly. Despite being quite young and what I thought was very flexible (I could happily do the splits for example) to begin with I found it very difficult to do and couldn’t maintain the position for very long. It really perplexed me to find such a simple thing so difficult! Yet with daily practice it rapidly became easier as my joints and spine became stronger, more mobile and more stable. It really helped with my Taiji and to this day I really enjoy squatting on a very regular basis and often much to the amusement of people around me. Funnily enough, nowadays I feel that flexibility is quite a gross misconception and an attribute that isn’t half as useful as many people make out who seem to strive for it, especially if we compare it to something much more functional like mobility. Anyway, that’s another story for another time.

Being able to squat successfully requires and facilitates excellent hip, ankle and spinal mobility, stability and leg strength. It also promotes healthy digestive, elimination and sexual functions. It is worth remembering that in reality squatting is simply a basic and fundamental human movement rather than an ‘exercise’ to torture ourselves with. Again for me it brings to mind our ancient hunter-gatherer friends squatting round a fire, relaxed, alert and ever-ready to move. Many of us in the west, even youngsters, cannot even nearly carry out a full flat footed squat but if we could learn to do it well and regularly it would do us the world of good and address some of the imbalances that impact deeply upon our health that I mentioned earlier.  It’s not something that people normally think of when they want to ‘get fit’ but what better place to start than learning how to lower your body down and then lift yourself up from the ground? Learn to walk before you run, learn to stand before you walk and learn to squat before you stand, that’s what I say! And if you want it to sound a bit more mystical then just consider it to be practicing the art of ‘sitting without sitting’. That must be in the Tao Te Ching somewhere! So try it for yourself, see how you get on and incorporate it into your daily life but don’t throw away all your chairs and sofas just yet, please wait until you have actually tried it.

Here is a rough guide to how it is done but it’s much better if you mainly just experiment intelligently with it for yourself. As long as you pay relaxed attention to what you are doing and do not force your body to anything particularly uncomfortable you will be able to discover how you body actually moves in its current state and go from there. Just practice slowly, softly, smoothly and sensibly. What we want to do is a flat footed squat as opposed to a heels up or ‘Western’ squat where we rest on the balls of the feet. The flat footed squat comprises a highly beneficial closed kinetic chain of movement whereas the heels up version does not, is invariably much easier but places more stress on the knees and is less productive in the long run, especially when it comes down to improving hip mobility in a sustainable way.

The basic squat

The basic squat

There are a few basic variations on how we can go about it so to begin with I suggest starting with a stance of approximately shoulder width apart and with your feet facing forwards or both turned a little outwards at more or less the same angle. We can vary the width of our stance all the way from a narrow gait i.e. feet together to a wider double shoulder width stance. It’s nothing to get caught up about; each variation simply offers slightly different emphasis. I suggest that once you establish the basic way of doing it that I outline here you vary how you do it from time to time and investigate the differences for yourself. Remember, try to go with the flow of how your body moves naturally rather than forcing it to move in a way that you think it should. Simply practice, observe and learn from your own experience without judgement. For example, no body is a hundred percent symmetrical and it really is counterproductive to pursue such ideals.

From our shoulder width stance then, we want to slowly but carefully relax and lower the hips down and back using our connection through the legs to the ground to support the upper body. It is just natural for the upper body to move forwards a little in order to balance the movement of the hips so do not try to force yourself to be straight. Over time as your mobility improves the amount you lean will probably lessen naturally. Gradually keep sitting down and see how low you can go without causing too much discomfort. Watch out for any pain in your joints: this is an indication to move much less or stop.

As you sit down relax your hips and with your knees soft try to keep your feet flat on the ground i.e. don’t lift your heels. Find out if you can also relax your feet. Gently encourage your knees to track the line of your feet; many of us will find that our knees want to collapse inwards. Keep working on it and slowly but surely this will improve as the tensegrity of your body structure becomes more balanced. Again, it is just natural if you feel certain parts of your body are restricted. For example, it is very common to sense that your calves and hip flexors are  tight. All these observations are just interesting insights into how you have used your body up to this point and offer an excellent starting point for great improvement. If you can only go down a little way without lifting your heels and/or knees collapsing inwards, perhaps you can just comfortably manage a half-squat, then that’s all good; just slowly and carefully lift yourself up consciously using your legs and the ground to lift and support your body. If you try it a few times in succession, a few times every day then you should find that slowly but surely your comfortable range of movement will improve until you can sit all the way down into your heels so that your backside is almost on the floor. This may take some time. Just be patient and persevere. Gradually as you get used to it you will start to notice, if you pay attention, that the whole body shifts and balances as you lower yourself down and lift yourself up. Just as with all movement, there is no part that is not involved in this balancing process. The more you can relax and focus your mind on perceiving the plethora of inherent nuances and sensations the more you can learn and benefit from the movement.

If you find it fairly easy to do a full squat then you can try staying in this squatting position for a few minutes and investigate your body-experience of this. Occasionally, slowly shift your weight side to side a little and rock your weight forward and back. Again this will emphasise different aspects of your structure allowing you insights into how you move. From here you can further experiment by executing your squats extremely slowly and continually without pause. To begin with see if you can try taking half a minute to go down and half a minute to go up again all in one fluid motion. This can be fairly hard work so just be careful; the slowness of the movement should be mirror the amount to care and mindfulness you put into it.

Lots of us will find this exercise quite a challenge and perhaps not want to do it because of this. If you find it difficult because your knees roll in or your legs struggle to support your torso for example, then this is more of an indication of the current state of your body than anything else and highlights even more of an incentive to practise and improve. It is best not to judge before experience so just relax and keep trying it out every now and again. For almost everyone, if they pay attention and persevere, will be able to glean lots of benefit from regular practise. So instead of slumping into your favourite armchair, try squatting for a bit instead. If you are fairly happy squatting anyway, experiment with yourself and see if you can watch your favourite TV show whilst maintaining this position. Often I eat my meals squatting in the garden and it is very satisfying. When I slowly get up again I feel my hips and spine are more fluidly mobile and somehow stronger than before. I’m not sure what my neighbours think though… Happy squatting!

You should always check with your GP before starting any new exercise regime and anyone attempting the exercises outlined in this article do so entirely at their own risk.

Sam teaches Chen style Taijiquan full-time across Sussex.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

www.facebook.com/sussextaichi

References:

[i] Doyle, A.C. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” 2007. Penguin Classics.

[ii] Dawkins, R. “The Ancestors’s Tale.” 2005. Phoenix.

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Fascia, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, sports science, Squatting, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Paying Attention: The Power of Perception

first published in the 2013 spring/summer edition of Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine

If you took footage of a sportsperson engaging in their chosen pursuit and slowed it right down you would immediately be able to see much more detail in the way that they move when compared to a normal speed performance. You could observe significantly more of what was happening in the background too. If you were a bio-mechanic or sports-scientist you could assess their performance, gait, economy of movement and so on and then use this information to help the athlete improve the way that they move. If you could get said athlete into a laboratory, you could attach motion sensors to all of his or her joints and spine and then measure their alignment and efficiency in relation to each other with the help of a computer programme. Further still, you could attach electrodes to the athlete to gauge the quality of muscle tone and distinguish any areas of unnecessary tension. Regular treatments from an osteopath or chiropractor could relieve symptoms of persistent structural misalignments. Perhaps one might even measure their brain activity in a bid to calculate just how well they concentrate and focus and define whether or not they are in ‘the zone’. Or more simply, you could just teach them Tai Chi.

Slowly but surely wins the race...

Slowly but surely wins the race…

Initially, the most distinguishing feature of Tai Chi training is that it is carried out slowly even consisting at times of the absence of obvious external movement entirely (i.e. Zhanzhuang). It is this slowness and stillness that facilitates key neurological and physiological developments in Tai Chi; it allows us time learn how to accurately feel, locate and assess our bodies from the inside out within and in relation to the field of our external environment. Learning how to directly and accurately sense our internal architecture allows us to optimise and integrate our physical and mental capacities to the full and thus produce the health and fitness that is required for a fulfilling life and fundamental in martial arts. As you learn and practise the slow, smooth movements of Tai Chi focusing your mind on the job in hand is essential to develop the ability to perceive and influence the mechanisms of your own inner workings – through practise you can become your own bio-mechanic, your own sports-scientist. As your perception improves you start to clearly feel how the body is connected, moves and operates naturally as an integrated system rather than merely coordinated and controlled separate parts.

Training this way we progressively uncover and augment the natural principles of Tai Chi rather than somehow forcing them into ourselves (a common misconception). The most important concern here is the development of sufficient awareness and perception for without these one cannot discern such essential discrepancies in the body nor clearly and accurately feel how one actually moves and functions. Furthermore, training and augmenting our proprioceptive and kinesthetic faculties directly stabilises and strengthens our body structure by activating usually neglected tonic (postural and slow twitch) motor units.[i] It is slowness and stillness that gives us time to do this, to pay attention to the body and mind and discover what they really do rather than what we think or would like them to do and merely training blindly and incongruently. Intellectually, one might have a deep knowledge of human anatomy, TCM or have read every book on Tai Chi theory but it doesn’t mean you can do Tai Chi. It’s easy to talk the talk but walking the walk comes from ongoing practise and direct experience:

‘If I rely entirely on books then it is better not to have books. If I rely entirely on teachers, then it is better not to have teachers.’ T. T. Liang [ii]

All of us can sense our bodies and minds to some degree for if we couldn’t successful interaction with the external world would be impossible. However, when we really tune in to our physicality it is surprising just how much of our bodies we cannot clearly feel or are completely unaware of. Assuming that our nervous system is working properly there is potentially no part of ourselves that we cannot feel.[iii] However, our habitual mental busyness is a distinct distraction from accurate perception and awareness.[iv] In fact it as though all of our senses are dulled by thinking. Unfortunately, from a young age we are taught to ignore the majority of the body and its sensations in favour of mental activity. We have to sit down all day at school and lose much of our natural strength, awareness and freedom of movement especially in the lower body. Many of us then go on to do sedentary jobs post-education. We can become ‘top-heavy’ with incessant thinking as our body awareness diminishes and we tend to care more about our thoughts and how the body looks from the outside rather than how it feels and works from the inside. It is unfortunate that when we do get around to noticing the body it is usually as we get older and because it is in pain. For many of us even when we exercise and consciously use our bodies the emphasis is upon ‘no pain no gain’ and we blindly and repetitively push the body ever harder ignoring the plethora of physical sensations that suggest that how we are using our bodies is entirely uneconomical.

It seems that we cannot but help to separate mind from body in our culture, even our language necessitates such a divide, but in order to do anything well we have to realise this fundamental error. In order to understand the integrated nature of the mind and body we must recognise that the mind, as a function of the brain, is essentially embodied i.e. a physical thing; the legendary organ simply forms the condensed pinnacle of an extensive nervous system that permeates the whole body.[v] If we approach the mind and body as an integrated unit; we cannot separate training our muscles from our mental activity for they are obviously inextricably linked.[vi] Training the body perceptively necessitates a quietening and training of the mind as it is actively engaged it in its observant and embodied nature.

So the first and most important principle in Tai Chi is that we learn how pay attention to what we do. As we are mainly concerned with developing our health, which is a sensible starting point for everything else, we learn to pay attention to the body and our senses. By paying attention to the body we can discover a great deal about how we use it and start to develop a tangible sense of and a good relationship with this our essential internal architecture. From here we can foster such skills as learning how to relax and move with ease, structural integrity, balance and connected strength. Paying attention to the body and immersing yourself in the direct experience of its myriad perceptions is as much of a mental as it is a physical process. I cannot focus upon feeling and sensing the body clearly if my mind is otherwise engaged and I am thinking about something else or drifting off in some kind of reverie. Through practise I can learn to engage my mind in a wholesome way and orient it to the present moment through my sense perception. Often we find that our minds consist of a constant chatter, by learning to pay attention to the senses we can promotes a much more democratic life rather than simply being governed from the top down.

The skill of paying attention can make all the difference to your ability because it directly challenges inefficient movement, actions and habitual ‘mistakes’ because you learn to notice much more of what you do. It keeps you grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off on auto-pilot. Through paying attention I can acquire the feedback necessary to distinguish what the body actually does rather than what I think it does and often these are two very different things. For example, I might think that my posture is quite well balanced because it is habitual, but when I stand up and really focus upon feeling and pay attention to my body I discover that I have a tendency to lean back.[vii] Similarly, I might consider myself to be quite a relaxed person but on a physiological level my adrenals have been working overtime for years to keep me alert or stressed and this has simply become my normal mode of existence so I do not notice it. Through being aware we desist from blindly operating on automaticity and thus have a chance to facilitate improvement in our health and our chosen art on many levels.

So in order to evaluate optimally how we use our bodies it should occur personally from the inside via felt senses such as proprioception. This marvellous term refers to the internal physical sensation of bodily positioning in three dimensional space. It is via proprioception that we sense our interior architecture and the mechanics and processes of our own movement and posture. Without proprioception simple actions such as walking or reaching for a mug of tea would be very difficult, nigh on impossible. Typically a high level sportsperson exhibits a higher than average level of this fascinating attribute and a high-level Tai Chi player perhaps even higher! As Yoda from the Star Wars trilogy gurgled: “Luke…you have to feel the force “ so too in Tai Chi do we want to move away from intellectualising our practise, the body and how it should move and instead gravitate towards developing an accurate felt sense of the direct experience of our bodies and minds in the present moment as a foundation for all subsequent practise.[viii]

It is incredible to note then that usually where we have gaps in our proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness there are habitual restrictions and impingements of movement in the corresponding unfelt parts of the body.[ix] Our connective tissue, the myofascial net that holds the entirety of the human form together from top to toe and essentially comprises our body structure, starts to lose its vital elastic nature and becomes rigid. Similarly, the stability and mobility of the joints diminishes when consistently unfelt and unconsciously used in turn further compromising the structure and function of the whole body. The knock on effect of all this is that without fully engaging our senses the structural integrity of the whole body is compromised which gradually hinders all major functions and movement.[x] To perform any action well we have to work on ridding ourselves of unnecessary tension which impedes our natural motion, perception and flow of awareness. Similarly, we must seek that our entirety works together as a seamless, balanced and homogeneous unit for it is in this direction that health lies. Improving our ability to feel and be mindful of our actions can thus be fundamental to how we improve our health. It all comes down awareness: the essential tool of the mind that firmly roots it back into the body. Not only does such awareness training foster a healthy body free from restriction and pain but also serves as an incredible tool for calming the overactive mind. Deliberately sensing the body brings us directly into contact with the present moment, which is where everything happens, and it trains the mind to focus and disassociate from churning endlessly over as if on automatic pilot. Modern neuroscience literature suggests that this trained ‘presence’ actually builds new neural pathways within the brain and is akin to the highly prized ‘Zone’ a top sportsman enters when on good form. It also shares some similarities with various ‘Mindfulness’ practises which are fashionable at the moment.

Out of all exercise systems Tai Chi is unique in that it specifically trains proprioception as a most basic and essential requirement. Learning how to feel the entirety of our bodies takes time and practise but as this ability improves so does everything else. It underpins movement, posture, balance and strength. By readdressing the balance between our internal world and the outside we can develop more of an integrated and enjoyable way of life. Learning anything new can be challenging of course and this is great because it is the actual learning process that keeps us mentally and physically agile just as much as the content of what we learn. It is this experience that greatly contributes to the neuroplasticity of the brain thus keeping our minds fresh.[xi] In this sense too we can keep our bodies fresh by continually experiencing new ways of moving and by challenging the habitual ways in which we hold ourselves that restrict our natural movement.

Sam Moor teaches Chen style Tai Chi and Yiquan full time across Sussex. www.sussextaichi.co.uk.

References:


[i] Richardson, C. et al. Therapeutic Exercise For Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain. 1999, Churchill Livingstone.

[ii] Olson, S. Steal my Art: The life and times of Tai Chi Master, T.T. Liang. 2002, North Atlantic Books.

[iii] Myers, T. Anatomy Trains (second edition). 2009, Elsevier.

[iv] Didonna, F. et al. Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. 2009, Springer.

[v] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

[vi] Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.

[vii] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.

[viii] Dawkins, R. The Magic of Reality – How we Know What’s Really True. 2011, Bantam Press.

[ix] Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books

[x] Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.

[xi] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

Posted in Health and Fitness, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, sports science, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments