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.
Mrs. Kwan, who worked with Mr. Moy and taught Tai Chi, Lok Hup, and Hsing-I, once commented about doing the “series of four” of Brush Knees, Monkeys, Cloud Hands and Parting Mane when a cold is coming on. It gets the circulation going well. So can a hundred Dan-yus. What if you combined them and added other repetitive moves?
Whether you practice Taoist Tai Chi, Fung Loy Kok Taoist Tai Chi, other internal or external arts the principle is the same. Interspersing a repetitive move with a foundation exercise is a power house to get things moving. Relative to Taoist Tai Chi, you can start with 18 Dan-yus. That’s not so bad. Then do a row of Strum the Pei Pa followed by 18 Dan-yus; Brush Knee & 18 Dan-yus; Repulse Monkey & Dan-yus; Cloud Hands & Dan-yus; and Parting Horse’s Mane & Dan-yus. Depending on how fast you perform the movements and how long the rows are, the circulation will be pumping in 10-30 minutes. In that time is 108 Dan-yus plus a lot of repetitive movements. It’s excellent to see how quickly people can fall into the stillness of the movements. If used as a warm up for the form or foundations, you can utilize the circulation to share details of the movements that normally get shared in workshop settings.
If you’re on your own keeping your practice going without the luxury of time to connect within a class setting, this idea is an excellent opportunity to explore old or newer corrections within different movements.
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.
“Relaxation is not a procedure, it is the result of practice.” I’d like to add to this excellent repost that relaxation emerges from the relationship between mind and body and more specifically moving with the dynamic tension present in every moment.
Anyone who wishes to master an activity must first understand its tools and rules. In internal martial art practice, the tools are not material objects but concepts, and the rules governing mental rather than physical performance only.
In Tai Chi practice, in order to achieve a high level of understanding and mastery of this art, practitioners should understand what the determiner of maintaining a relaxed manner in any single movement. These important aspects are mental state, physical condition and related coordination between the mind, breath and movements, including dynamic motion and static posture.
Relaxation is not a procedure, it is the result of practice. Therefore to relax, the posture and the movement have to be correctly performed according to Tai Chi principle. One of the golden-rules in Tai Chi practice is: “fast, but not mass; slow, but not pausing; light, but not floppy; sinking, but not stiff.” It indicates…
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.
Practicing Tai Chi is not just moving through the forms of the tai chi set. It’s not just practicing the other Taoist Arts, foundations or meditation. It’s not just coming together and finding our connections, relaxing and working with one another. Practicing Tai Chi also includes how we interact with people throughout our lives. It is our exchange of energy with the environment. It is respecting the spectrum of yin and yang aspect of all things. It is achieving balance throughout our lives and by balance I mean the appropriate amounts of different things, not equal amounts. Everything to it’s own accord. It is knowing thyself and our particular balance of self to others and self to environment. It’s our personal biz integrating with the biz of those in our lives. Practicing Tai Chi is about continuous and incremental change as we progress along the path in our particular life.
What we are now is not what we were seven years ago. In that time our bones have completely replaced themselves through normal biological processes. We are not what we were a month ago when we had an entirely different liver. We think we are the same as we used to be physically, psychologically and spiritually in the past. We are not and we will not be what we are now in the future. This to is practicing Tai Chi. It is the wisdom of our unique situation as individuals and as conscious beings. In this wisdom we are practicing Tai Chi with the rest of humanity whether they know the tai chi set of movements, Tae Kwon Do, Jeet Kun Do, football, Catholicism, Wicca, Islam, weight lifting, working, retired, schooling or whatever we may do.
Exchanging energy, changing throughout our lives, and practicing the forms and rituals we do is the grand ultimate.
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.