Tai Chi Class

Welcome to WholenessInMotion. Tai chi is a whole body and mind exercise that combines meditation, martial art and health tonic in one. This particular form is the Yang style, 37 posture short form as taught by Prof. Cheng Man-ch'ing. This fascinating and intricate exercise has many benefits and just about anyone can practice it.

Take a look at this site and consider the study of relaxation and how it can benefit you in your daily life. I look forward to working with you. Tom Daly


 

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Tai Chi Chuan and Listening

Posted By Tom Daly on February 25th, 2016

Tai Chi Chuan and Listening

I’m always amazed at how poor most folk’s listening skills are.  I’ve done a lot of work on my own listening skills.  I’d say I have moved from D+ to maybe a B-. A few F’s here and there.

But even worse than listening to others, we rarely listen to ourselves.  By that I mean, what we say, what it means, how others hear it – this never registers. Often, we are clueless.

When we speak, there are two of us present, not just one.

And one would hope that tai chi might have some influence on this because so much of it has to do with awareness.  We begin with ourselves, we then work with others.  Yet how rare it is to see any of this spill into everyday life.

Let me give you an example of poor vs. good listening in life.

Poor:

T: I’m going to India.

B: wow, I know lots of people who have gone to India and hated it, though some have loved it. I think people get sick over there so you should be careful. The Taj Mahal is really worth seeing, my aunt was stunned by it, but she doesn’t want to go back to India, too many poor people, too sad.

(We’ve all been there!)

Good:

T: I’m going to India.

B: Where? (pause.)

What brings you to India? (pause.)

Do you have your reservation yet? (pause.)

When are you going? (pause.)

The point being, good listening engages the speaker to express themselves, poor listening takes control of the conversation.

In the poor example, B doesn’t even hear himself.  He just rattles on, oblivious to the statement T just made. (Because what T really said was: I’m going to India, do you find this of interest?) In certain situations, if you tell B what he just said, he may be surprised, deny it, or get angry. Or just not care.

The inability to hear yourself comes to mind in an example in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.  Fosca (sad, sickly) is walking with a soldier she later comes to love.  He is rattling on about love in very idealistic and noble terms. He doesn’t see her need, her challenge in terms of intimacy, the improbability of attaining this ethereal concept in her sickly and somewhat morbid state.  She then lets him have it big time, pouring out her reaction to his self indulgent puffy nonsense. Let me paraphrase: “How dare you talk to me of such nonsense when it should be clear to both of us that this will never happen for me. Why taunt me with such a concept?” He wasn’t listening to what he was saying. Or who he was saying it to. Clueless.

Tai chi.

It would foolish to think that tai chi would change all this, yet the kernel of change is there.  You begin by listening to your body. For most beginners, this is a foreign concept. We never see our habits, never see our inability, and never see how our movement doesn’t match what the teacher demonstrates. Most who begin tai chi quit rather quickly. It’s a slow process.

Then we work in push hands, and again, mostly your partner is viewed in terms of what I want. As in, I want to do something to this person. But the study is more about being WITH this person and you become less and less while what they are doing/wanting becomes more and more. The only way to hear this person is to be empty. A favorite teacher I know says, “There is only one mind here, and it’s YOUR (the partner’s) mind.” His mind has been put on hold and now he can better hear you.

I highly recommend books on listening. There are lots of good ones on the market.

In tai chi, I recommend being even more attentive to what you are doing in the form and what your partner is doing in push hands.  By this I mean attentive like you might observe a laboratory rat.  How does it move? What does it want? What makes it go for the heroin?  Start with investigation, not manipulation. Be curious. Don’t fix it, just see it. Give it some time to be itself and see what that is. We move on from there…

We learn more from our flaws than from anything else. Begin with here and now, not some fantasy of who you would like to be. Find a time to listen, on every level, in some period of time, to something.

Just listen. Nothing else. Allow presence of this body, air, that person, sound, a feeling, ground, silence.

 

 

 

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Tai Chi Chuan – Heavy and Light

Posted By Tom Daly on October 10th, 2015

Tai Chi Chuan – Heavy and Light

Years ago I went to a hypnotherapist.  This was not for fun, but for a real reason, for real therapy.

The hypnotherapist had a technique to hypnotize.  It was not like the movies where you do something you don’t want to do.  Instead she aimed at a certain kind of deep relaxation.  The technique was simple.  You lie on the couch and she would suggest for all the major regions of the body, carefully moving through each, that you are “heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy as lead, heavy…”  At the end, you were really heavy!

Then she switched channels and repeated this body scan, but this time she intoned in a feathery voice that you were “light, light, light as a cloud, floating like a cloud…”  Man, you were up there in clouds like a twirling leaf.

So relaxed!

In part, this confuses the mind.  You don’t know which way to go and you are in a space that can’t decide where reality sits.  Are you heavy? Are you light?  It unlocks you from your patterns.

I’ve always loved this as a meditation.  And it strikes me that tai chi lives exactly where those two polarities meet.  You are neither here nor there but can change in an instance into either.  By being in that zone, you have options that do not bind you to either, while opening up opportunities to be either one.

There is another system that rings true to me as well: Laban movement.  Laban divides space into quadrants and emphasizes natural movement.  I won’t describe that here though it is easy to demonstrate.  Laban describes all 8 possible movements.  Tai chi is a limited expression of the choices available.

In Laban, the upper planes above the waist are light and free.   The lower plane below the waist is strong and bound (that is, using some muscular strength, as in sawing a piece of wood.)  In front of you is sustained smooth movement, but to move backward is quick movement.  When you execute Laban’s 8 movements, you explore each quadrant that Laban sets out logically (direct/indirect, free/bound, light/heavy, sustained/quick).  Tai chi looks at the heavy/bound lower part and the free and light upper part.  Mostly tai chi form only uses “sustained” movement regardless of going forward or back.

So we might say that the heavy as lead is the lower half and that light as a cloud is the upper half.  Note I’m not suggesting “heavy” is tense.  It’s not.  This heavy happens through letting go and being with the ground in a substantial way.

And there you have it, a place that expresses infinite opportunity.  You are grounded and you are free and agile, light as a feather and capable of joining the rest of the world without being thrown off balance.

You can’t really think this through. You inhabit this space.  The organic you is allowed to exist.  In that sense, this is not a mind focusing exercise; the mind is free to land on any point in the spectrum and see where it goes.

I am tempted to say it is a mind letting go.  I’m not entirely sure here.  Words fail this space as hard as one might try to define it.  I think if I was really sure of the right word(s), the mind would be far too meddlesome to allow the kind of freedom I see in this intersection of allowing, meeting, heavy and light.

Are we one piece?  Are we two?  Are we one and two?  Where are you if you are simultaneously grounded and floating?  Where is the freedom in all this?

You may be asking, what is this all about?  What’s the point?

The point is that we need new tools to change our old patterns.

Take a few years and see what happens…

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Tai Chi Chuan – Creative New to Replace Old Baggage

Posted By Tom Daly on September 6th, 2015

Tai Chi Chuan – Creative New to Replace Old Baggage

One thing I loved about Maggie Newman’s teaching was her creative use of language.  It evolved.

I find when creatively playing in push hands, one way to go is to find what you want to improve on, and then practice it endlessly.  That’s required unless you are a genius.

But sometimes we are very stuck in our patterning.  And we need to look at the interaction with a fresh perspective.  If we keep going back to the old rules, however true they are, most likely we are also going towards the old patterns.  For each rule that you believe in, I can almost guarantee that over time, your habitual patterns cling closely by.  The rule is actually a list. And you may not see the list as it is played out in action.

New words that don’t have baggage can be very helpful.  You think differently and perhaps, just perhaps, you will move differently, experience something new, get somewhere you couldn’t imagine before.

I have been thinking about Dr. Tao, whom I had a few classes with years ago.  Alas, it is mostly forgotten.  But something has emerged that feels very much like what he did with ease.  And in thinking about it and trying to let it emerge, a new way of looking at push hands evolved.  Is it true?  Is it real?  I’m frankly not sure, but I can say venturing out on a new limb to explore and use new language will open up the process and perhaps the game.

Here is what I think I experienced – it really felt as if he knew where you were going before you got there.  And when you got there, he was right there, right with you.  It was predictive in a sense, but not in being manipulative, putting you somewhere you didn’t want to go, not getting ahead of the game in terms of his connection.  And yet there it was:  Wherever you went, he was right there with you.  It sort of reminds me of sitting in the balcony of a sporting event, looking down on a boxing ring for example and watching a fight.  Pretty much from afar, you have a better view of where this punch is going, where this duck and weave is being executed.  Did part of his mind exist above the entire endeavor?  Worth a try.

But next it felt to me that when he arrived where you were going, the two of you form a single unit.  And this unit, like the tai chi symbol, has a yin and a yang.  It is as if you are becoming a sculpture.  And Dr. Tao was the yin side of the sculpture.  It seems worthy to play, even sloppily, to find the yin part of the formation.  Be the yin side of the sculpture.  Depending on your accuracy and skill, if you truly become the yin side of this sculpture, it follows that you have the advantage in a push.

I like to experiment with this one by not pushing, but just changing changing changing into yin yin yin into new shape new shape new shape.  You needn’t stick so formally to the push hands form in doing this.  You can slow down.  We are trying to discover something new through new language and new variations in the game.  Then I might see if and where a push feels inevitable from the standpoint of the yin part of the sculpture.  Go slow, don’t assume you have this skill, explore, and see if you can clearly identify your yin and your yang in relation to their yin and their yang.  Worth a try.

New language helps, letting go of old language helps.

How to find new language?  Look at where you want to go and see what comes up as you feel your way into that new result.  It feels like… It seems like… It looks like…

There is tremendous poetry in tai chi.   Chi, Mind, Ti Fong, Fa Jing, Relax, Yield, Sink, Let Go, Stick and Follow – all to the good.  But how does that translate to YOU?  How do you get there from where you are?  What does relax REALLY feel like or what do you think it should feel like?  Are you as flowing as a river? As porous as a cloud?  As massive as a mountain?  As elegant and soaring as an eagle about to strike?  As strong and full as a polar bear?

Words point the way.

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No Time To Think – New York Times Opinion

Posted By Tom Daly on July 27th, 2014

Being busy is fine, but the inability to be with oneself is not.  Below is not so much about tai chi, but it does promote mental down time.  Hey, Google, of all places, offers its employees mindfulness meditation.  Slowing down, as tai chi reinforces, is invaluable.  Tom

No Time to Think

By KATE MURPHY

JULY 25, 2014

New York Times

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.

 

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Non-Doing Is, Oddly, Hard To Do

Posted By Tom Daly on December 13th, 2009

I’ve been having an interesting time teaching a simple exercise. We start to do it standing in the legs with little steps. At first I have the class do it as sort of an easy movement. Essentially we perform the movement, but it is sort of a glob. No real skill is being utilized. We “do” it.

Next, I begin to break it down in greater and greater specificity. This means that I’m looking at ways to accomplish the same movement but using relaxation and non-doing. As I articulate how to make it one whole non-doing movement, slowly but surely the students start to lose the movement altogether. Then they go through a time period where they feel they have mostly lost the movement. It falls apart in their hands.

One student commented that the more we work on it, the harder it gets. This is because the focus has shifted. As an unskilled glob, it was easy. But now we are relying on a whole body movement where all parts are integrated and working together. Each part individually is not required to hold you together. The whole is holding you together. One part is all parts. So each individual part has little to do, but more importantly each part must communicate with every other part.

Harder to not “do” it? How fascinating.

Of course, this is impossible to nail in print here because this is an experiential experiment. But the class goes from being able to “do” it, to not being able to “do” it. Nor are they able to NOT “do” it. We perpetually lock ourselves into the habit of doing in order to accomplish what is essentially a simple simple movement.

Or to put it another way, we only know how to do things, we don’t know how to allow things. Allowing relaxation, air, ground, structure, whole body integration to be the tools that hold us together and create a movement. Our habit, and therefore our experience, is that a sense of our doing things is how we get things done. If that support system is removed, we fall apart. Yet to utilize this other support system makes a world of sense because it requires much much less effort. It makes life easy. And now we have a surplus of energy. All that fuss and stiffness is gone.

I see our American sense of personality as a way of forcing results to happen as well. We throw this around like a calling card to help identify who we are and get what we want. This would be OK except this is often unnecessary, tiresome and inefficient. And it is so hard to let this go. Who are you and how do you act if you don’t access your personality? And so many times it actually gets in the way and prevents us from getting what we want.

This comes up a great deal in the work place where most of us are on automatic, getting things done as quickly as possible, and relying on habit to do so. Doing what comes naturally, which usually means how we have always done it via “doing”. The spaciousness and potential of non-doing is completely lost: mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, work is poorly executed, working relationships are damanged, information is misinterpreted and so on. Ever happen to you?

Oddly, in our culture, presenting who you are – your personality – is considered a necessary means of getting to know each other. But it is primarily this habit of doing that we are presenting. Maybe this is a good thing because it is this habit that we ultimately have to deal with. Isn’t it an insult to say “Mr. Jones” has no personality? Yet when we complain about someone, it is the personality that we are annoyed with. How ironic.

If nothing else, I would like to suggest that adding “non-doing”, or allowing, as a tool to get things done is a worthy pursuit and an invaluable practice. The art of tai chi is one way to study this (although not the only way.) Certainly you will add energy to your day since you now need less of it to do what you used to do. You get out of the way of what needs to be done. Your energy goes where it needs to go to accomplish tasks. You are no longer this stiff glob, but free flowing energy.

Yes, this IS difficult to do! Because we don’t practice this. Is “non-doing” on your to do list? It requires great focus and a certain kind of commitment. But the pleasure of tasting even a little bit of this is what tai chi students love. The thrill is palpable. Non-doing is a challenge, yes, but is also thrilling.

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Tai Chi – Stress Buster! How?

Posted By Tom Daly on October 10th, 2009

Tai Chi is well known for its ability to reduce stress. How does this happen?

Stress is ultimately a body issue. The causes of stress are many and inevitable in life. One type of stress (the garden variety) is self induced – we think too much about things that we have no control over, or on problems that have no acceptable solutions, or solutions we do not like. We want what we want. Perhaps we lack patience, or acceptance of “what is.” Perhaps we are too needy. Maybe we only think of others, or only of ourselves.

While one might claim that all stress is self induced, I tend to think that life offers experiences that are sometimes threatening, uncomfortable or unhappy. Tsunami’s do, in fact, happen. Partners decide they want something different in life and leave us. We lose our jobs because markets change. Or a new boss doesn’t like us. We can’t concentrate on our work. We fail crucial exams. Children die prematurely. Spouses get hit by cars. We are rejected by a university we want to attend. The car breaks down on the freeway at midnight. Cancer invades our lives. It is raining cats and dogs and we forgot to pack an umbrella.

“Life happens” and it doesn’t match our game plan. Some solutions lie in changing how we think. Some solutions lie in simply going with the experience and allowing ourselves to feel where we are (without judgment) and letting it go. (Letting it go is the difficult part.) Or meeting the situation head on with total acceptance. Oy!

Stress is a body issue. Regardless of the source, it will damage your body. Research confirms that stress causes obesity, heart disease, lowers immunity, premature aging, even damages your DNA. We all know of someone under stress and how they “age” suddenly. The New York Times published the following article, October 8, 2009: When Stress Takes a Toll on Your Teeth. Yep, some dentists are seeing an increase in patients with teeth grinding, up 20 to 25 percent from last year due to economic worries on the part of patients. Dr. Steven Butensky reports, “I’m seeing a lot more people that are anxious, stressed out and very concerned about their financial futures and they’re taking it out on their teeth.” Teeth are under attack from stress? Who knew?

The study of tai chi is synonymous with the study of relaxation, whether you are relaxing throughout your form, push hands, sword form or sword dueling. It’s relax relax relax. We use the tools that are always available: gravity, the ground, the air, your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. These are the tools we have to experience relaxation. Throughout the study of tai chi, we discover real relaxation, a physical condition inherent to the body you are now “renting.” We gain insight into our own tension and how to let it go. This is the detailed work of a soft martial art. We come back again and again to what is relax? What is letting go? What is a whole body movement? What does it feel like to be “centered”? And we come to experience that particular state and begin to inhabit this state not only during practice, but in our everyday lives.

One way to counter stress is to acknowledge its presence. Awareness, a key element to any study, comes into play, but in tai chi, the particular area of awareness is the body, its tension, and relaxation. Awareness: we are on alert that stress has arrived. Some people are so tense they don’t know what life is like without it. In fact, some people equate life with tension. Prisons, of course, are filled with them. Guards and prisoners bounce off one another like a set of billiard balls. Tension can be motivating to some people. I call this beating the egg whites: lots of activity, lots of effort, lots of motion, lots of noise, lots of thinking, improved muscle tone and then a small result.

Tai chi gives students a way to feel something different and to feel this while they are in motion. Actually, relaxation is the cause of motion. You can relieve stress by going jogging, but you will not let go of muscular holding patterns when you go for a jog. You simply carry them with you, burn yourself out, and then feel what you think is relaxation. Ah! Relief! Actually what you are feeling is exhaustion. Not bad but this isn’t a solution to stress. Exhaustion is the body’s way of escaping stress. Many confuse exhaustion with relaxation and stress relief. Beat those egg whites, exhaust yourself. This is a lifestyle for many. We even admire it at times!

Compare exhaustion to relaxation. Ultimately, with exhaustion, you can’t move, nor do you want to move. The sudden absence of extraneous movement will feel good to those who are prone to exhaustion. But with relaxation, in the tai chi sense of the word, you are simultaneously alert and ready to move. In fact, it feels good to move. It is a source of joy. Just watch any infant in a waking state. Moving is a source of fun. With relaxation you are ready to respond! You are ready to explore and engage.

I was teaching a class to some beginners in a less than desirable situation. We had half of a basketball court. The other half of the court had a group of young athletes having fun shooting hoops. Renegade basketballs inevitably came bouncing our way. One student was hit twice. Not very relaxing! These were beginner students, but if this had been an advanced class, this would be a GREAT way to train. The advanced student would pay attention to the instructions, follow the exercise, but also be aware of the other half of the basketball court. You take in the whole picture and include it. One aspect of tai chi training is being aware of the external world so that you can protect yourself. Alert, but not tense. You align yourself with what is. I feel more relaxed just thinking about this as a possibility.

A while back on a wet cold icy day, I was walking to work very carefully to make sure that I wouldn’t fall. I have delicate knees and I am careful to prevent giving them an unwanted twist. I walked all the way to the building safe and sound. But as I was walking on the hard linoleum in the halls indoors, I struck upon a hidden wet spot and took a complete fall to the ground. Wham! I simply got up without any injury. I think the sense of being whole, relaxed and round helped me with that fall. Somehow I did it right. (We do not train in tai chi in how to fall!)

Once you are aware of stress and tension, does the alternative experience that you are learning from tai chi come to the rescue? You may have to go through some feelings of stress. But if you are a tai chi student you do have some tools in dealing with it. For one, the increased awareness that your body is out of kilter will help you identify the Not-Relaxed state. The second thing is that you can practice tai chi or simple standing meditation to help get you back on track. Even this may not necessarily help when you are in a stressful situation. But what does help is that, knowing you are out of kilter and tense, you will more readily want to find a way to return to a state of centered relaxation.

I do get knocked off center, but my body wants to get back to a whole relaxed state as soon as possible. It seems that I return to “normal” more quickly these days. I look for solutions, or go through the stressful process knowing that something else exists.

I know it because I’ve been practicing it, every day, for years.

My body knows it. Yours can too!

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The Tai Chi Habit

Posted By Tom Daly on September 10th, 2009

The Tai Chi Habit.

Well, not so fast. Let’s look at habits in general….

I was at the Zendo some time ago and I saw something that has stuck in my mind. There was this male sitting in Zen meditation and, along with all of us, he was at it for roughly an hour with a kin-kin walking meditation in the middle. But unlike the rest of the group, his torso was not vertically upright. He held it leaning back, perhaps at a 20 degree angle off the vertical. This was not someone with a disability. He was merely in the habit of leaning back while sitting zazen. In order to do this, he had to be holding muscles tightly to maintain the angle for an hour. Looking at him made my back ache, but I’d guess this felt normal to him. I don’t know where he learned sitting meditation and I suspect he doesn’t have a teacher. But generally, one is taught to sit erect in order to find a line of balance that is comfortable. Just like in tai chi.

So here was a good example of someone with a poor habit, at least in terms of a comfortable posture. Perhaps his habit gave him a sense that what he was doing was comfortable. His muscle holding pattern had been sufficiently developed so that what would hurt the average person felt OK as far as he was concerned. And if you corrected him, the new posture would feel uncomfortable to him. Such are the ways of habit. What’s “wrong” feels right and what’s “right” feels wrong.

In a way, of course, we are all like my example here. The only difference is that our patterns may not be as visible or dramatic. We are in a somewhat correct place, but still, there are uncomfortable holding patterns that are hard to see, and even more difficult to feel, because we have become accustomed to the position. What feels normal is not correct, but merely a habit that blinds us to what would be truly comfortable. There are 656 to 850 muscles in the body (depending on which expert you consult) and to arrange them properly is a science and an art.

In tai chi we are aiming for perfect relaxation so that precisely the muscles that are needed in any given movement are free to do the job exactly as required. Improper muscle usage blocks freedom of movement. This is why the study of tai chi requires great attention. It is very difficult to discern habit and improper use of muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, from relaxation and proper muscular tonus.

Holding a posture for a long time can be a double edged sword. Often it will reveal that you are tensing some muscle improperly. But habit can also hide poor muscular usage and actually make the habit itself WORSE. We unconsciously tell ourselves, “I am right because it feels right.” But it is the habit that makes it feel right. The mind assumes that what you are doing is correct and this will override the actual experience in the body.

Answers? Here are a few but I can’t claim this is a complete list.

1. A good teacher. (In addition to tai chi, The Alexander Technique is a superb method to focus on recognizing and changing habits.)

2. Aim for comfort. Since comfort may in fact be habit, search for deeper comfort than the level you currently inhabit.

3. Try it different ways to experiment.

4. Aim for the whole picture, not just the isolated area of concern.

5. Do the posture as if you are a marionette and see if you can find a way let the structure fall into place.

6. Use non-doing as a guide.

7. Let the body fill from the inside out and see if you can find a feeling of releasing into space and ground.

8. Balance the top of your head with the bottom of your feet with the right and the left and front and back of the room and the four corners. Be balanced in space so you can let your body relax but in a round way.

9. It may be helpful from time to time to look at a mirror and see if what you think you are doing IS what you are doing. It is not a good idea to rely on mirrors, however.

I haven’t bothered here to note habitual ways of THINKING. That is yet another level.

The tai chi habit is to practice on a regular basis, and to examine again and again any habitual patterns (mind and body) that may be interfering with relaxation. We need to play with our structure and test it out.

Let go of being right. Let go of being wrong.

Get in the habit of trying something new.

That’s the tai chi habit!

Tai Chi, Stress and Struggle – NOT!

Posted By Tom Daly on May 9th, 2009

Our world, our lives, at many times, involves stress and struggle. It is one of those things that actually creates growth and innovation. Tai chi has a great deal to teach us regarding stress and struggle. While we are programmed for fight or flight, there is an alternative.

There is stress, and then there is STRESS!!!!! And depending on our conditioning, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. We all know of that individual (perhaps you?) that actually finds the challenge of overcoming stress to be enjoyable. There are those of us who want nothing more than to avoid it. It’s too uncomfortable. We avoid it to the extent that when we can’t, we have stress on top of stress. I often see stress as “good” stress or “bad” stress. One motivates, the other defeats! That boundary, the shift from good to bad varies with each individual.

Learning tai chi for most beginners is a challenge. We are asked to be very specific in what we are doing with the hands and feet and pelvis and torso and head and the “center” (tan t’ien). The effort to be correct is anything but relaxing, yet we are encouraged to be correct, and then relax. Or more perplexing, relax and this will correct you. Of course both are true, but underneath all of this is a stressful situation. It is inherent in the learning process. In this way, tai chi replicates life.

I recall my own beginning. I was sort of good at putting the hands and feet in the right place. Then my teacher noted, “You work very hard…. TOO hard!” Man, you can’t win! I thought. But that is the teaching of tai chi – there are layers and looking correct is not necessarily correct. To be in the right shape, but not hold the shape, to relax the shape, to allow the shape to emerge from the movement, from the ground, from the air, from the center – all of this is going on. We tend to put ourselves in a vise, to squeeze ourselves into what we think is correct.

So to begin tai chi is to volunteer to work with something that looks easy, but in fact is not. This is dealing with stress in a good way, a playful way. Beginners need to pick at it bit by bit and enjoy the small victories until the day when it finally falls, more or less, into place. It is a pleasurable process. This is one reason that we learn it so slowly. We can’t be overwhelmed by the process in order to learn. We deal with enough stress to learn, but we do this slowly so that eventually there is some ease and relaxation too. Sometimes you just have to hang in there with the discomfort before grace falls from above.

My teacher, Maggie Newman, is always looking for a way to make it more comfortable. That may seem trivial, but in fact it is essential. Consider what Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why has to say about children aged 6 and under. This group has one of the highest survival rates when caught in a disastrous situation, better than experienced hunters, physically fit hikers, former members of the military or skilled sailors. One aspect is that they try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive.

It is hard to say what will create real relaxation and comfort – each of us responds to something different, though each of us must maintain some level of effort to continue on. For some, this can take quite a while. This can feel like a struggle. Yet, stay with it long enough and it will happen. I have never seen anyone not make progress in their work on tai chi.

But wait! It gets worse! Now you have to be all of that, and let someone attack you. A new stress and a very complicated struggle. How on earth can relaxation lead to a martial art? Put two bodies together – any two bodies – and you have a struggle. In fact you have two layers of struggle: the first is within your own body, which now refuses to maintain all the hard won relaxation (mysteriously vanished!) and the second struggle is between two bodies as you try to deal with your partner’s attack.

Here, again, the wonder of tai chi gives you a new challenge. I often work with advanced form students who think that because they have skill in the form that this will automatically translate into good push-hands. They don’t realize that they have to take what skill they have and add to it. The only way to add to it is to practice push-hands with a partner. Because push-hands is complex, this requires great attention and time. The more you practice, the more you learn and the more interesting it becomes. But at first, it is usually a mystery (and a frustrating one at that!)

Of course, you have been practicing some of these skills while learning the form, but this context is very different. Now you have to adjust to an outside force that is moving at you. What are these new skills? Fundamentally, you need to stick and follow the direction of your partner. You have to play THEIR tune, and this requires listening with your physical body. You intentionally create harmony. You become as easy to move as a helium balloon, but as grounded as the Empire State Building. Stick, follow, listen… stick, follow, listen. AND keep connecting them into your feet. Make the two of you one big ball. You are only half of the equation at this point, no longer the whole ball that you were when doing the form. Don’t disturb their pathway. Again, find a way to make this comfortable. This becomes YOUR responsibility. If a pressure presents itself, be sure it connects to your rooted foot. These are rather new skills that you add to your relaxed, structurally sound, whole body movement from the form. One teacher told a push hands class to NOT STRUGGLE. Give up struggling. How? That is part of the struggle, discovering how to give up struggling. Again, there is intentionality at play here, and new skills to be learned.

So in a special way, tai chi replicates stress and struggle in life, but simultaneously offers you solutions to that very stress and struggle. Tai chi is about solving that problem. What a wonderful problem to solve!

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