Staying Balanced

first published in Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine 2015

Daniel: ‘When do I learn how to punch?

Mr. Miyagi: ‘Better to learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, then karate good, everything good. Balance bad, then better pack up, go home. Understand?’

 Excerpt from ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984)

For me Taiji is the art of balance and the ability to ‘stay balanced’ is one of the key skills that we consistently work on in all of our training. It underpins everything we do, for as our ability to be balanced improves so too does all other aspects of our movement. Balance however, is an idea that can be quite misunderstood. People often tell me: “Oh, I just couldn’t do Taiji; my balance is no good!” This is usually accompanied by a hazardous-looking tottering on one leg as if to demonstrate the point. It’s funny really because while balance is something that people perceive to be perhaps an obviously difficult part of Taiji training it is in fact fundamental to everything that we do as human beings.

Excellent balance - Chen Bing demonstrates 'Pounding the Mortar'
Excellent balance – Chen Bing demonstrates ‘Pounding the Mortar’

We all have the ability to stay balanced to varying degrees otherwise any movement would be impossible and balance certainly refers to much more than just standing on one leg. The simple ability to walk on two legs for example, is an incredible evolutionary achievement comprising a profound balancing act that relates through the whole body, from head to toe. However, we rarely appreciate this simple thing. So to the many people who say to me that they simply just cannot stand on one leg I like to point out that every time we get up off the sofa and take a single step we are in fact balancing, albeit briefly, on one leg. In fact, when we walk we spend about 80% of the time on one leg. [i]

The reasons why we evolved into bi-pedal creatures in the first place are widely debated but one thing is for sure: we sacrificed a great deal of natural animal strength and agility in order to free up our hands so that we might manipulate our environment. Furthermore, this evolutionary step was inherently bound up with the development of much larger brains, which certainly has its pros and cons. Whereas all animals demonstrate amazing physical and sensory feats as a matter of course, we modern humans seem to struggle with achieving and maintaining the basics – our big brains get in the way. Even Olympic athletes who are generally considered to epitomise peak physical excellence, dedicate themselves to full-time training in order to achieve kinds of body movement, which compared to our animal friends, are pretty elementary. More often than not said athletes seriously damage themselves both physically and psychologically in the process of doing so while animals, on the other hand, do not. It is a curious phenomenon which I think relates to our tendency to control and manipulate rather using awareness to discover and work with our inherent natural ability.

Squatting: an excellent way to come to terms with being a biped

Four legs good, two legs bad?

In terms of human evolution standing on two legs is still a very new thing.  You never know, perhaps it will eventually go out of fashion and we will devolve back into being more stable, grounded creatures. For unlike our quadruped ancestors and our modern four legged friends, our upright bi-pedal stance requires a much more meticulous balancing act.

Some years ago when I had a dog I would often marvel at his natural abilities. Not only were his senses amazingly acute but also his body extremely well tuned. If I pushed him gently on his flank his whole body would compress naturally like a spring in order to stabilise. If I pushed him more he would just compress more. Sometimes I would push him and then quickly let go but he would never lose his balance, instead he would simply return back to his neutral stance with a yawn. He used to seem to like this game and when I was practising he would often come and lean heavily on my leg inciting me to experience my own tensional balance more clearly. Or perhaps he was just getting his own back?

Being a Biped and staying upright is a challenging feat which involves every part of the body and although we are not usually conscious of it there is a plethora of constant adjustments, some minute, some gross, occurring across the entire body structure at all times. If we wanted to build a basic bi-pedal robot that exhibited the ever adaptive and perceptive skills seen in humans necessary for a lifetimes worth of walking, this would be a very difficult challenge indeed. Standing, walking, running, sitting, lying, you name it, our bodies are ever active in the management of this dynamic, three dimensional balance. Furthermore, our state of mind is inextricably linked to this never-ending process. If we are relaxed and calm for example, we find that any movement is generally easier and more importantly our perception of balance usually much clearer. You would never know unless you specifically paid a lot of attention to it and thus experienced it for yourself.

Updating our understanding of the human body structure and how it moves can really help to inform our concept of balance. Unfortunately, traditional models of anatomy are of little use. Instead of balance simply referring to standing on one leg and our ability to do so merely governed by a group of local muscles, overseen somehow by the inner ear, we can turn to the concept of Tensegrity (which I have mentioned before in this series) for a much more lifelike and useful model. The concept of Tensegrity, also known as Biotensegrity[ii], is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, of which the human body is a prime example, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system: every part is involved. If we take time to look more closely at nature we can see this kind of structure everywhere. In humans this occurs via the spring-like three dimensional myofascial web instead of being dealt with locally as in lever systems, which is how, somewhat misleadingly, anatomy and movement have been traditionally understood:

A man-made tensegrity structure...
A man-made tensegrity structure…

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. 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[iii]

This new model of the human body gives us a more accurate way of understanding balance as being an intelligent and integrated interplay between strength, stability, mobility and perception across the whole body in relation to gravity. Facilitated by the myofascial web, all bodily systems collaborate inextricably to distribute gravity, movement and tension throughout the entire body and collaboratively organise the most appropriate response i.e. balance. Tensegrity is thus at play continuously throughout the human body and comprises the basis for how we retain our form when we move or remain seemingly motionless. Contemporary research into Fascia and Tensegrity is fascinating and is coming on in leaps and bounds.[iv] One interesting discovery is that as well as fascia’s vital structural functions it  also comprises one of our richest sensory organs being heavily laced with mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors. These receptors can be incredibly perceptive and inform our nervous system with all the essentials for successful movement, balance and interaction with the external world.[v] You could even describe the inherent sensing abilities of fascia as being our sixth sense. The most salient point here however is that a body that is free from restriction will exhibit these natural abilities exponentially – so if you want to move well and stay balanced, first learn how to release your restrictions.

Just like riding a bike

Improving balance takes lots of practise and ongoing maintenance. A clearer understanding of what the term refers to can really help improve one’s training approach and here an analogy might be helpful. Learning to stay balanced is like when we first learn to ride a bicycle. To begin with it seems almost impossible to stay up on those two thin wheels and as we slowly wobble along, desperate to travel in a straight line, we make drastic manoeuvres in a bid to control our movement. This is especially so when we sense that we are losing our balance, which to begin with is all the time. We panic, go rigid and thus inevitably we fall off our trusty steed. Through trial and error we learn that in order to stay balanced we have to ‘do’ much less and instead constantly ‘feel’ all the nuances of ourselves and the bike and our motions to maintain this must be fluid, relaxed and thoroughly in tune with the present moment. So after a few falls and scuffs our attempts to control lessen considerably and our motions become smoother and more natural. As we progressively relax we slowly and surely learn to navigate by the subtle but constant whole-body adjustments led by our intent to stay balanced rather than our original erratic to-ing and fro-ing.

Essentially there is no other way; you have to learn from your own experience and this is facilitated by making lots of little mistakes, by losing balance in fact. Mistakes are vital for learning and so we must not fear them but instead embrace them. Interestingly enough I suspect that no matter how much theory one knew about the laws of physics it wouldn’t help to learn to ride a bicycle any quicker. Direct experience is the best teacher and theory, while being important, is just theory. In the same way a map of a place is useful for navigation it can never replace actually being in that place and experiencing it for yourself. I’ve met many physiotherapists and manual therapists over the years who have a deep intellectual understanding of the human body but have very restricted body movement and poor balance themselves (too much time sitting down reading books). I find the incongruence between the two quite fascinating and the prospect of someone who cannot balance very well trying to teach someone else how to do it even more intriguing.

It’s difficult to convey to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of simple practise and experience [vi]

If I had to choose I would rather know very little information (things that you think about) and possess the golden sensation of flowing freedom of movement than the other way around. The best way to understand and improve balance then is to feel it, and often our first most essential step is simply sensing our lack of it.

Baby steps

To begin with it is most useful to start with a simple exercise such as Zhanzhaung (Standing Meditation) in order to concretely experience and identify this whole body balance. For learning how to balance when standing in a simple ‘neutral’ position should be quite easy when compared to complicated movements or extreme stretches.  If we assume a basic ‘Wuji’ standing posture with our arms hanging by our sides our first objective then is to find out how we balance in order to maintain this simple position. Before I even start to think about ‘doing anything’ I must first observe and simply sense my whole body in order to find out what is happening currently without interference or intervention. If this sounds easy then let me clearly state that it isn’t. It requires a lot of ongoing practise.

Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence [vii]

Most people struggle to feel their body without a strong stimulus and usually we discover that our bodies actually behave differently to how we think they do. In our culture we  can observe a vast imbalance between mind and body i.e. between thinking and perception. Mental activity dominates everything we do and our down-to-earth sense perception takes a distinct back seat. Even when we take up a more holistic exercise it’s all too easy to retain our mentally dominant approach and continually try to force ourselves to practise with significant incongruence between what’s happening in our mind and the more accurate, real time experience of the body.

When I first started to learn Taiji I bought and read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on. I memorised all of the information because I mistakenly thought that Taiji was mainly about thinking. Rapidly, my head became full of complicated ‘Taiji ideas’ but at ground level I couldn’t even manage the very basics. In fact, the complicated and sometimes nonsensical theory distinctly distracted me from good practise. Instead of reading books I should have just relaxed and trained the basics more. Fortunately, commonsense prevailed and I worked it out in the end.

One of the best things about Taiji is that we want to address this mind/body imbalance distinctly, right from the start because the first and most important skill we learn is to pay attention to what we are doing in the present moment both physically and mentally. It’s as simple as that, although simple is certainly not easy. This forms an ongoing and substantial challenge for most people and what a superb challenge it is. If we stick at it, slowly but surely we can develop a much more balanced state of being, calm and confident, but also begin to experience the sweet pleasure of natural movement, strength and agility unimpeded by unnecessary control, force and effort.

Don’t think, feel!

Through basic standing practise we can discover all kinds of nuggets of wisdom for ourselves. For example, we might discover that it is difficult to concentrate on feeling the body as our mind keeps on interrupting; we may even have the excellent realisation that we are distracted by thoughts almost all of the time; for you just cannot think and feel at the same time.  It seems to be the nature of the mind to keep wondering off so I like to approach paying attention as if were a game or puzzle to solve – it isn’t worth making a big deal of it or worrying about it. Similarly, we are likely to discover that there are lots of areas of the body  that we just can’t sense at all. Often this realisation can be quite discombobulating – but it needn’t be for like life we want our training to be a voyage of discovery.

When students become frustrated that they can’t do the simplest of things (and usually start complaining) I like to point out two things. Firstly, that it is much more useful to realise that you can’t do something when you can’t do it than to incorrectly assume that you can when in fact you can’t. And secondly, when you are learning something new how can you be frustrated that you can’t do it when you haven’t yet learned how to do it? I hope these points are crystal clear…

So our aim is to be able to feel the whole-body. Corrections and adjustments from a skillful and experienced teacher over an extended period of time are essential because we all have strange postural habits that are difficult to sense. I remember adjusting a student’s standing posture some years ago and when I quietly said “Relax here” he barked loudly back “I AM RELAXED!!” and we laughed about it later. First we have to discover just how much tension we hold on to in all parts of the body and how it impedes the tentative, fluid balance and connection of the whole – this is vital for progress.

Standing with one’s eyes closed often makes is easier to concentrate and feel what the body is up to. Usually people find that the body is hardly still at all but constantly adjusting, albeit in a minute way. If we were to imagine our skeleton floating unimpeded within the interwoven mash of fascia and fluid combined the constant downward flow of gravity to make us stable then this would give us a good idea of what we are working towards.  Stiff, locked joints and rigid, restricted parts of the body impede movement and hamper the natural ability of the body to work as a whole. So an important part of our training is learning to relax all the bits that we have conditioned, either consciously or unconsciously, to be tense.  Gradually, with ongoing practise we can build a progressively more accurate, three dimensional ‘felt’ map of the body and what an excellent basis for movement and balance this makes. People often mention coordination (or lack of) in terms of the difficulty in learning Taiji. Coordination, however, implies separate parts but once you start to experience the body as an interconnected unit, a whole piece like a snake, then this term goes out of the window.

(Walking) The Walk

Once we have got to grips with basic standing training another excellent exercise to try out and test our newfound sense of the whole body balance is slow walking. For as our velocity decreases our perception of balance and movement greatly increases. For in Taiji to move quickly we must first learn to move slowly. Students usually find this slow ‘Taiji walking’ surprisingly challenging as it requires mental concentration, physical effort and perception in equal measure. Here we can easily discover that with each slow step our awareness floods to the oft neglected legs and the feet; they constantly support the rest of the body and provide key feedback as to how we are moving. Similarly we might discover a whole host of postural tendencies we habitually assume that actually inhibit our balance without us realising it. The good thing is that once we are aware of something we have a chance to improve it. While in some cases ignorance is bliss, in others it is the backbone of stagnation.

Try it for yourself – here is a very basic outline: First find a clear, even space to practise. Lower your centre of gravity by a few inches (sit down into your legs) and looking straight ahead walk forwards as slowly as you can comfortably manage without bobbing up and down. Relax your feet, hips and shoulders so that these key players are able to move. As you step allow the heel to contact the ground first letting the rest of the foot roll down towards the toes as you gradually shift your weight forwards. This consciously engages the whole foot each time you step maximising both balance and stability. Beginners will probably find that they want to look down at their feet to see where they are going but instead we want to aim to look forwards. The human head is quite heavy and if you look down your centre of gravity shifts compromising your balance.  Instead, you want to ‘feel’ your balance with your feet and pelvis, your centre of gravity and eventually simply with your whole body just like when we were standing earlier. Just take your time and don’t rush. You will probably notice all kinds of things as you do it (unless you are completely distracted of course) and this is entirely the point. If your legs get tired then this is them telling you that they need to cultivated enough to be able to support your body…

An allusion to a conclusion

The phrase ‘staying balanced’ is actually an umbrella term; we want to promote a balanced, progressive relationship between all the aspects and attributes of our physical and mental world: thinking and feeling, stability and mobility, movement and stillness, slow and fast, tension and relaxation, control and letting go. If we focus upon one attribute too much, as we inevitably always do, we sacrifice something else and start to become less balanced. Like any attribute, balance can be improved through awareness and training. While it isn’t something we might consciously address in our day to day activities, exercise or sport, by simply becoming aware of and improving our balance we can vastly benefit how our whole system operates. Therefore it seems a sensible place to start. As we move towards a balanced, relaxed and aligned body structure every action we make can become smoother and more natural, economical and ergonomic. This provides an excellent base for speed and strength and forms a basic requirement for everything else. Similarly, with an elevated sense of this ‘whole-body’ balance we expend much less energy in our activities and many injuries, aches and pains related to posture can be alleviated. Similarly, such balanced physicality supports emotional and mental balance too, for of course they are inextricably linked.

I have outlined the above exercises in a very basic way but to learn them properly of course requires ongoing and hands-on guidance from an experienced teacher. It is good to keep things simple – watch out for people who make the simple things sound incredibly complicated.

Regular practise of this kind of standing and slow movement is very beneficial as it not only strengthens and stabilises all the joints but also mobilises their functional range of movement (amongst too many other things to mention). Similarly, it requires a certain kind of observational concentration that engages and trains the mind in a wholesome way. All in all it makes for a body/mind that is relaxed, stable and balanced : ‘Steady like a mountain and fluid like a river’.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk


Endnotes:

[i]  For more information take a look at:  ‘Born to Walk – Myofascial Effiency and the Body in Movement’ by James Earls. Lotus Publishing, 2014.

[ii] Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com

[iii] Fuller, B. ‘Synergetics.’ New York: Macmillan. 1975

[iv]  I’ve written about Fascia in previous editions or you can check out my blog: theinternalathlete.wordpress.com

[v] Lots of research can be seen here: Schleip, R. et al. ‘Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.’ 2012, Elsevier.

[vi] Nassim Taleb talks about this kind of thing in: ‘ Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder.’ Penguin, 2012.

[vii] Kabat-Zinn, J. ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life.’ 2004. Piatkus

Posted in Balance, Chen Taijiquan, Fascia, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, taijiquan | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Squeeze in some Squatting

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

Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting and teaching 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 private tuition with me. One of the greatest things about being a teacher is coming into contact with a wide variety 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. A lot of these patterns are actually pretty useless but usually they are so engrained and habitual that we no longer realise that we continually choose to employ them, but if we did then we probably wouldn’t. 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

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 however 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 here and now, in the real world, in real time, over the visceral, present, down to earth world of awareness. 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. It’s a if we die from the ground upwards.

We tend to become incredibly top-heavy as we leave childhood. In my experience 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. The question of ‘how’ doesn’t usually come into the 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 generally when most of us exercise, it is most often inspired by an aesthetic bid to simply change the way we look from the outside or achieve an unrealistic fixed idea or result that we think will make us happy somehow rather than a conscious present moment re-orientation towards integration and balance. This is even often the case in ‘alternative’ or ‘mind-body’ disciplines where it’s all too easy just to put the same shit into a different bucket.

For me the Internal Arts are absolutely genius systems in this sense because they immediately addresses this imbalance right from the start and from this most sensible of premises proceed to offer great benefits of all kinds (too numerous to mention). However developing the receptive, perceptive observational mindset can be quite tricky for most people. In fact it’s usually the thing that many people find the most difficult. Even with the wonderful art of Taiji it is so easy for us remain mentally dominant and  just kind of intellectually collect and blindly repeat ‘oriental 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 constitutes the first basic step in proper training. 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 in this article 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 in the most basic and satisfying way.[ii]

Lack of movement in day-to-day life has seriously negative health implications; if we can simply do more walking 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 also greatly enhance our overall health and mobility as we bolster the very roots and centre of the body. A kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link as they say.

Back in the early 2000s 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 (and resting while I”m training). 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. It was a great motivating factor for myself and other westerners to master the art of squatting rather rapidly. Fortunately, when I was twenty years old one of my teachers 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 certainly couldn’t maintain the position for very long. It really perplexed me to find such a simple thing so difficult. Yet with simple daily practice it rapidly became easier as my joints and spine became stronger, more mobile and more stable. It really helped with my training 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. 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 and especially 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 and cause a lot of problems for people as they get older. 

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 might even 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.

Ideally I would spend a few lessons working in person with someone on their squatting and offer quite a range of tactile cues and motor imagery to help cultivate the right approach and feel. Nonetheless 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 into anything too 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 soften 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. It should be as if you are slowly squashing a large balloon down with your buttocks and backs of your legs. The imaginary ballon helps you to find the feeling of your own support from underneath; for neither do we want to stick our backside right out nor force our tail bone under. Instead we have to aim for a constant delicate balance of the middle way between the two extremes. 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 and this is usually due to restrictions in the hips. 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 directly. Having said that it is unlikely that you will able to do this if you are do not already have some kind of basic level of movement ability.

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. Feel every millimetre, every millisecond!

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. Happy squatting!

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, Martial arts, movement, 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

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