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.
Good form is the most efficient manner to accomplish the purpose of a performance with a minimum of lost motion and wasted energy.
-Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do
This is true no matter what martial art you practice. Focusing on effective and efficient movement enables us to achieve our end goals in our art forms. It also allows us to understand when poor instruction seeps into our classes or when movements do not work with our particular bodily capabilities and constraints. To understand effectiveness in our form requires us to be aware of the purpose of the individual movements, their function and what is intended in the movement. To understand efficiency is being aware of what it takes to achieve the intent and eliminating the unnecessary. Thus, to practice good form, it is imperative we understand the intent of the form and individual movements.
Master Moy once told me during a major correction, “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” I was doing dan-yus in front of a group of about 30 people at a Fung Loy Kok Taoism workshop. He also said some things to me which seemed so militant to some onlookers that they left the Taoist Tai Chi Society. However, to me I never had the sense Master Moy was trying to control me. Quite the contrary, I had the experience of trust and attempting to peel my outer layers like an onion and show me what was inside of me. It’s as if he took my hand and showed me around my inner being. After what seemed an eternity of his lecturing me through an interpreter, I felt lighter and was able to do far more of the exercise I could do before we started. I also remember information about the physiology and physics of the exercise.
Many things stick with me from the correction. However, I usually return to his voice and the translation of “You should be able to learn tai chi from anyone, even someone who doesn’t do tai chi.” In the context a tai chi correction, this statement implies we need to be open to the learning all around us. I practiced the Taoist arts for over 15 years in an organized environment and instructed Tai Chi, Lok Hup, Health Recovery and gave classes in Taoism. After my wife and I started our family project, our involvement in the Taoist Tai Chi Society dropped off and faded away. Our interest and practice remains to this day. We continue to learn from each other and from the world around us. Our practice is sporadic which affords us the opportunity to observe and experience the fundamentals of the Taoist Arts in way unavailable to us while heavily integrated into the society.
The external form is just as we taught years ago with a strong foundation in angles reflecting body mechanics. A forty-five degree step is along with proper length of step is critical to the many aspects of the forms as is alignment of knees, hips and an ever shifting center of gravity. Internally, we return to connecting the bubbling spring and tigers mouth as well as dropping the coccyx to open the hips giving the internals freedom to move and connect to the movements. Deeper yet are the connections to the stillness learned in meditation and the non-judgmental awareness of both internal and external environments. Out of this stillness we stay over our emotional, physical and mental centers. We enable ourselves to learn tai chi from anyone and most especially those who do not even do tai chi.
My wife and I have the fantasy of returning in some fashion to the Taoist Tai Chi Society if life affords us the opportunity. If it doesn’t we still continue our quiet cultivation. We connect with ourselves, each other and those who pass through our lives. We learn tai chi from the world around us.
To be, or to do that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a see of troubles, And by opposing end them. To act, to do Get it done, and by doing to say we end The heartache of open commitments and responsibility That minds and spirit are heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To act, to do, To achieve perchance to create our vision: ay there’s the rub! For in that sense of accomplishment what other dreams may come When we have shuffled off our current toils Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes enjoyment of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When we ourselves might our stillness make With a simple act of getting shit done. Who manages To grunt and sweat under a weary life, Creates themselves through their actions, Deeds and decisions and puzzles the will Of those without the connection between seeing What needs to done and doing it without question. And thus the native resolution of those without passion Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises dreamed of die within, Leaving regret and thoughts of other’s sin. With this regard their currents turn awry And further lose the name of action.
To the great Shakespeare, I apologize for hacking and slashing what I think is one of the greatest creations in literature. With that said, my point is thus. Without acting on our decisions and observations we lose our connection with life. Life is movement. Without the action of our bodies, minds and spirit we atrophy, lose resilience and die. This is a critical internal to external connection we have the potential to nurture and develop with every conscious decision and unconscious choice of our lives. To be or to do that is the question.
This fundamental connection can transform our lives. Master Moy used to talk about it during his classes and workshops. “When you see a dirty dish take it to the kitchen and wash it.” “When you see someone has an empty water or cup of tea, offer to fill it.” “If you see dirty floors, pick up a broom or mop and clean it.” His focus was on helping others so that we can nurture our virtue and thereby cultivate our health through our actions. Essentially, if you see something needing done, then do it. This applies to action in our individual lives, our interactions with others and our environment. In this sense, my answer to the question of to be or to do, is quite simple. Do or die, there is no try.
Breathing sustains life. Breathing in particular ways can enhance and even prolong life. In the Taoist arts there are different breathing techniques. There’s nostril breathing, mouth and nostril, mouth, natural abdominal, reverse abdominal, perineal, tortoise, fetal and entire body breathing. Dr. Eliott Kravitz a medical advisor to Master Moy once quipped to a small class, “Just don’t stop.” This last one is probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard about breathing.
During some movements like the Dan-yu, if you can breath in and out timed with each cycle of down and up the effects are amazing. One can continue practicing with ease and energy is circulated readily throughout the movement. Breathing can better connect the movements of our forms. There’s regulating the breathe which is breathing without conscious awareness allowing bodily movements to affect our breathing. This is perhaps one of the primary benefits of a well-timed internal martial art. When we move in a regular rhythmic manner our breathing follows. This regulated breathing over time has significant health benefits. On the other hand directed breathing is where we consciously manipulate our breath to control movement and the rate of our breathing. To achieve benefit from directed breathing it is wise to seek guidance from someone with experience. A beneficial approach but fairly benign is the directed breathing technique where you attempt to breath as deeply as you can slowly without stopping. In the middle of stressful situations, this directed breathing can help one relax and recover emotional balance.
What does this have to do with our daily affairs? Our breath is an indicator of our state of mind and body. Many people breath in shallow manners not taking in energy for various reasons like stress or emotional difficulties. This is restricting the exchange of energy with the environment. When we are injured in sparing or other physical activities we hold our breath. The thing is if we can breath deep and allow ourselves to relax, the injury and pain can more readily subside. The same holds true in our stressful lives. Simply being aware of our breathing when confronted with a difficult situation or person can significantly alter our perspective and interaction with our environment.
Breath is life. It is one of the primary ways we exchange energy with our environment. The first step in working with our breath is to be aware of it. Awareness of our breath can enhance our connection with ourselves and what’s happening around us. The second step is to allow our breath to follow the movements in our lives whether we are practicing Tai Chi, a hard form, exercising, having fun with our significant other or just going for a walk. We need not pursue this so directly. Simply being aware and loosening our body to allow our breathing to proceed naturally without interruption is the key to the second step. The third step is to explore how our breathing changes as our movement and emotions change. This is where guidance is beneficial.
No matter what you do, just don’t stop breathing.
For descriptions of different types of Taoist breathing techniques refer to The Shambala Guide to Taoism, A complete introduction to the history, philosophy, and practice of an ancient Chinese spiritual traditions by Eva Wong.