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.
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.
“We make vessels of clay,” observed Lao-tzu,
“but their true nature is in the emptiness within.”
The Taoist Arts approach to stillness at least in the guise of meditation is emptying our minds without focussing on emptying or stillness itself. There is no stated goal of Taoist meditation during a particular sitting session. The direction is as simple as, “If thoughts come in, just let them go. Don’t focus on them.” This observation of our chattering mind is extremely useful as it allows us to experience how our particular mind works with the thoughts, feelings and what-nots that lurk within us. Observing this while sitting still in a posture facilitating internal circulation allows us to connect mind and body in subtle ways.
Certainly, there are other martial arts and meditation practices that can help us connect in this manner. The form is not as important as the non-judgmental observing of ourselves. Over time with a long-term practice, we get to know ourselves and how we respond internally to the events around us. This understanding born out of observation enables us to see the myriad things in the world and not be moved by them. Stillness emerges. Once we connect with some level of stillness within ourselves, we are more relaxed and able to weather difficult experiences. Our manager can come yell at us and we respond with calm and listening to what’s behind the words so we can interact in a way to discharge the angst and deal with the problem at hand. Our spouse can come home all wound up from work and we can interact with them in such a way to help them understand they are home and safe. We may find ourselves in a car accident and react as we can to avoid death or dismemberment if at all possible. Connecting with the stillness within allows us to respond appropriately to the situation and it’s needs. This is the function of stillness. We see a need and fill the need. We observe without judgement and do what’s necessary in the short-term while not sacrificing the long-term.
SIDE NOTE: Stillness is an unstated foundational concept of managing the “business of you” I share on another blog at www.bizofyou.com. Instead of meditation, martial arts or other art forms, it looks at ourselves through the lenses of business and systems thinking to ultimately achieve the same thing, using stillness to create the life we truly want.
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.