Eight millimeters is a significant misalignment between the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae. How do I know this? It’s the underlying cause of not being able to practice tai chi for over seven months or unable to walk more than fifty feet on the most painful days even with the narcotic pain medication, nerve desensitizers and muscle relaxers. Life in the past year has been a struggle to say the least. When you can’t even walk a few hundred feet to go see your daughter sing in a choir in front of hundreds of people at a winter festival, it’s pretty obvious something needs to be done. The inability to enjoy and partake in family activities was the last straw. It was not long after that moment of laying down in the car waiting for my family to return from the winter festival that I went under the knife. I had my fifth lumbar and first sacral vertebrae fused. I was literally screwed and glued. It was an excellent decision. There has been practically no sciatic pain since the surgery. There’s occasional tingling in my foot or hip the doctor says could be the nerve recovering or my body figuring out how to move as my vertebrae fuses.
I used my practice of tai chi, understanding of physics and physiology to respect my limitations for months leading up to the surgery. The form gave me an opportunity to explore and understand the rhythm of nerve conduction from my back into the butt, down the leg, and across the foot to the big toe. Slight misalignments sparked the pain while the simplest adjustment relieved it. When I was unable to move within the form, I used my practice of mindfulness and intent from the Taoist arts to help me relax and maintain as much functionality as possible. The practice of mindfulness emerging from decades of tai chi enabled me to perform my regular activities at work and home as I got into the drug cycle. As my situation deteriorated, my understanding of the spiritual aspects of tai chi helped me take support when needed. I allowed family and friends to help me here and there. I didn’t feel bad, or at least too bad, when I had to take time to rest, sit down or nap in the midst of getting Thanksgiving dinner to a bunch of guests. I used the practical nature of the art form to build supporting devices like a stool with rollers to keep me cooking for the family. I used damn near every opportunity to learn just as we do when practicing the Taoist arts.
Tai chi is more than fifteen minutes of movement. It is a way of moving and relaxing with all movement and thoughts throughout the day. When the sciatic flared up, the tai chi form became something I was unable to perform. My tai chi practice became what it needed to. I learned from my condition and worked within my constraints to retain as much heath as possible. However, towards the end of the year, my movements became so restricted there were few options. Life is movement and thus my life was disappearing out from under me. I used the meditative aspects of tai chi to maintain my center and not get lost in the misery and suffering of pain or the side effects of the significant medications. Pain, disability and addiction are amazing teachers. And herein lies the art of tai chi. Opening ourselves what Master Moy told us, “to learn tai chi from anyone, even those who do not do tai chi.” Furthermore like the originator of tai chi did, Chang Seng-Feng, it is up to us to observe the nature of things, learn what we can, and most importantly apply it to our practice. Learning from our environment both internal and external and applying what we learn daily is the essence of tai chi.
Side note: I almost called this post “Suffering 8mm” but looking back any suffering along the way were stepping stones of discovery. Focusing on suffering is not the way or at least that’s not my experience of the Tao.
After doing something for more than twenty years, things are “easy.” And if, after two decades, you are not learning from yourself and your observations of your environment, you haven’t progressed past being a beginner. This is true of martial arts, a marriage or a career. It’s up to us to apply what we learn every day, moment to moment.
I came across an article that explains how movement decreases stress, how our core strength relates to our posture and effects our ability to relax. This is something I heard years ago and echoes with the idea of “Movement is Life.” In different ways, every workshop in the Taoist Arts had some slant on this idea.
We start from the outside and move within when we begin practicing any of the internal martial arts. We learn angles, stepping, and weight shifting. After we have these basics, we learn what tiger’s mouth is in our hand and arm structure as well as the bubbling spring and alignment of our weight. Over time these things become more natural leaving us to experience what’s happening when we have proper alignment and skeletal structure. These externals allow us how the movement feels inside. With guidance the internal feelings are expanded and verified via feedback from the groups we practice with or an instructor. This tuning into the internals is where the internal martial art begins.
With this said, I must share a cautionary note. There are many people who have an innate ability to feel things more than others. Often these are the folks drawn to the internal martial arts in the first place. Within the beginning class, they share how they can feel the movement inside. The caution is this, that feeling is ephemeral and changes as the fundamentals of the form have not taken root. It is extremely important to ground ourselves in the fundamentals of our arts before we start exploring the internal “feels.”
The angles, stepping and weight shifting come first. The mechanics of the form is critical. With the foundation in place, we can then place the girders of bubbling springs and tiger’s mouth. we can then start erecting the walls and ceilings of turning, extension, contraction and lateral movement of the spine after we have the skeletal structure in place on top of our foundation. This external home is where we can then start exploring the internal nature of our forms. This process can take anywhere between 7 and 20 years depending on the individual and some don’t ever get there. Being in a class for a couple of months and feeling internals is like walking through a model home. It’s not until you put forth the resources including time and energy in building the home can one start to live there.
It’s of utmost importance to revisit the foundations If we lessen our practice for whatever reason life brings us. When new instruction comes our way it is up to us to understand how it fits into our home and if it’s appropriate to integrate where ever we may be in our development. Hopefully our guidance and new instructions come from individuals who have a deep understanding of our form and its many different applications.
I once had the chance to work with Master Moy and Dr. Elliot Kravitz who watched an individual perform some Dan-yus for roughly ten minutes in front of a group of instructors. Elliot asked the group what instructions we would give. There were various answers. After feedback was collected, Elliot said, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” He went on to say the person was moving appropriately and not damaging anything. Sometimes we simply need to practice a while before we move on to other levels in our forms.
Master Moy often said, “Trust the Form.” Which form? There’s Tai Chi, Lok Hup, and Hsing-I in the Taoist Arts as well as weapon forms, sitting, standing and sleeping meditation. There are other forms in the Taoist Arts more subtle in nature. As I watch my kids learn Tae Kwon-Do, I question what is the form to trust there. There’s other martial arts and health benefiting activities. What about those forms?
When I was practicing and teaching within the crucible of the Taoist Tai Chi Society, I didn’t question much. I took the teachings at face value for the most part and was very diligent in practicing all that I was shown. Over time, I was able to perform a particular set one way and then an entirely different way. Now that I’ve been on a sabbatical of sorts focusing on family life, I’m left questioning what form to trust. When I’ve gone back to class here and there over the last few years, I’ve noticed my form can fit in with the current practice. There’s some nuances I don’t have with the current instructions touted as “advanced,” but I find I’m able to move just as easily and fall into the rhythm of the current teachings. This leads me to believe there’s a form underneath of the nuances and different manners by which we can practice and cultivate our art forms.
Maintaining strength, flexibility, openness and health is about learning the form within the different appearances that come and go over a lifetime of practice and cultivating health. I’m finding the form Mr. Moy was telling us to trust is deeper than the movements and corrections given by this or that instructor. It’s deeper than the “advanced” instructions and more akin to that first movement as a beginner when we are thrilled to learn, open to all instructions and observations. That spirit of wanting to learn and trying different things to see what works for our body is a form we can follow throughout our lives. The form we need to trust is where all parts are moving, connected and open. It is movement without judgement while grounded to what’s needed in ourselves and within the environment around us. This form is adaptable to whatever external movement we take part in and bodily changes occurring throughout our lives. This form connects us with the essence of ourselves and the practice we engage in no matter what it’s appearance or name is. This form is the expression of who we are in what we do.
Self-control is fundamental in martial arts. Any martial arts class will work on this even if it’s not directly addressed. Sometimes in classes for 4-8 year olds it is necessary to not only focus on the topic but dedicate exercises that develop it. One of the exercises used in my son’s class is to stand for a specified time at attention without moving, talking or fidgeting. It’s amazing how difficult it is for kids to do this and I argue many adults I know as well.
This simple activity or rather lack of activity is a form of meditation. It uses a standing posture and guidance to help students develop the ability to focus and let go of distractions. For kids the distractions are over-abundance of energy, itchy noses, noises, and talking to name a few. It sets the stage for the kids to focus on the instructions that follow. It gathers their energy which is critical to later stages of learning.
How can we use this simple exercise in our daily activities as adults? Before entering a room where we have to present to an audience we can stand quietly for a moment or two. We can stand quietly while waiting in line at the store or the airport. We can suspend judgement and sit without moving during conversations which helps us listen with intent. It’s up to us to find opportunities to use what we learn in our martial arts classes. It’s up to us to exercise our self-control like the muscle it is.
Practicing Tai Chi or any martial arts after an injury is an excellent opportunity to learn or relearn basic principles. I recently sprained my ankle. After a few days of taking it easy on my affected leg, I practiced some forms and was reminded of how important it is to connect with the bubbling springs.
Every time we bend our knees and hips to lower our center of gravity, being grounded in the sole of our foot allows the structure to carry the weight instead of the soft tissues. A small deviation away from balanced structure is felt immediately with an injury somewhere along the chain of pearls connecting our feet with our spinal engine. Moving slowly through the forms also allows us to listen to the rest of our structure as a small change outside of proper alignment can be felt with the injured tissues.
A couple of principles of martial arts apply here:
The fundamentals are always good to practice and relearn.
Listen with all of your senses to ensure alignment and connection.
Be mindful of injury, but do not allow the injury to define you or your movement.
We can learn our form from anyone, even someone who doesn’t practice our form, even from our own injured body.
Borrowing a thought from Bruce Lee in his book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, relaxing is the first step towards acquiring a skill involving movement. This relaxation is something to find in the movements of the martial arts we practice. Depending on your connection with your body, this sense of relaxing with the movements and forms may take seconds or years. Sometimes we can find our connections rapidly or it may simply take years of practice to elicit the sensation of relaxation for a particular movement or movement within the form.
The second step is to practice the feeling until it can be reproduced at will. Master Moy often said we have to practice a correction 100 times before we can understand it or show it to others. I don’t think the number of times matters so much as the repetition until we can readily produce the movement.
Over time our practice leads to the third step of producing the feeling voluntarily in potentially tension-creating situations. We gain neuromuscular skill when we have acquired relaxation, reproduced the feeling and then use that feeling outside of the practice or form. This is where we begin taking martial arts to heart and is true of neuromuscular conditioning or connecting to the internals. When we use our skills in everyday situation, we begin the journey of mastering of ourselves.
A master is nothing more than someone who has acquired, practiced and applied the forms both internally or externally in their lives. When a master is gracious enough to share some of the wisdom, we all benefit.