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.
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 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.
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.
The Taoist Arts and more specifically Tai Chi and Lok Hup may be practiced within a group setting or solo. Each practice has benefits and detriments. Often people connect with a group more readily than finding the connections going solo.
In a group you can:
let go of need to know next move,
learn different perspectives as people share their experiences,
be carried by the dynamic of the group into experiences difficult when solo,
Receive external feedback from an instructor or compare yourself to others.
By one’s self you can:
Let go of any performance anxiety
listen to your own experience without getting drowned by other perspectives,
learn to follow our own intention using our awareness,
find the flow of your own energy without reference to others.
Having talked to multiple people who have returned to a group practice after a long time on their own, the experiences vary from mind-blowing to not much different. Everyone connects in different ways and has different levels of awareness. One thing I find is an increased level of trust in the form itself. Often people experience something more within a group. There’s additional energy to align with and follow in a group setting. Without many years of practice, going alone can lead to going astray and fabricating movements not grounded in the fundamentals of stepping, sitting and keeping things simple. It’s easy to let ones sensations exaggerate little things in the movements. This expression is what One advanced instructs called getting “flowery,” and can lead to distortion. There’s another side of practicing solo. It can feel luxurious to immerse one’s self in the group. It’s comfortable to forget the need to remember what move is coming next. In the height of life where our responsibilities peak, simply having time to practice can feel like a luxury.
The comfort and flow may be found solo after years of practice when the body remembers without conscious deliberation. There’s a sense of letting the energy flow without thought and conscious direction. The form becomes a moving meditation. This aligning with the energies within is just as mind-bending as returning to the fold of the group dynamic. The more we practice in this way allows to understand the difference between our own energies and those external to us. This is immensely beneficial and amplifies what we can learn in group practice.
To be clear, I am of the mind both group and solo practice have their place and are beneficial. The thing is we have to align with the forces in our lives and practice in an appropriate way for where we are on or own path. No matter where we are it is imperative to have fun with it and keep things simple.