When I first started my journey with T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I was young and stylish: stylish with tight fitting cloths, high heel shoes, and a hard walk. My posture – shoulders slumped and head slightly tilted downward. As I began to progress in my study of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, my clothes loosened up, my shoes got lower to the ground, and my posture became more upright. With these changes came the incentive to leave New York City for places on this Earth that allowed me to feel freer in my body, mind, and spirit. I packed my bags and headed west for the open sky, cleaner air, and a more natural environment.
For me, T’ai Chi Ch’uan has been a “Meditation in Motion” and a “Dance of the Universe in Miniature.” More often T’ai Chi Ch’uan is characterized as an internal style of Chinese martial arts. As internal style my primary experience has been the integration of my mind, body and spirit. Along with this I also experienced an increase in the coordination of my movement, relaxation while I am in motion, and the potential of my balance. These qualities have far more and foremost kept me focused on the internal aspects of this martial art, before I give any thought or action to its self-defense techniques.
The actual movements of T’ai Chi Ch’uan are referred to as the Form. The Form consists of individual postures that are linked together by transitional movements. Once I begin the Form, it remains continuous until the closing posture. Consisting of many individual postures, the circular transitional movements tie each posture together like the knot between pearls being strung on a seemingly endless reel of silk. I pay just as much attention to the transitional movements as the final posture for they are the dissolving of one posture and the raise of the following one. Once arriving at the fullness of a posture, I allow that posture to dissolve into the transition and experience the ebb of energy and momentum of that carries me to my next posture. Raising and falling, expanding and contracting, filling and emptying I create a continuity of motion like the Earth’s rotations around the Sun, but as dynamic as the raising waves of a peaceful lake.
There are so many styles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. I prefer the Yang Style – Short Form. Some of the most prominent instructors who have studied this style have been my mentors and have helped round my understanding of this art. Each one of them has had their own unique sharing in relation to the art. They have emphasized body mechanics and application; the intricacies of the transitional movement; the dynamics of the motion; the philosophy within the Form; the meditative aspect of the Form; the lineage of understandings transmitted directly from my mentors has continued my learning. Whenever I go to a workshop, I place myself relatively close to the instructor; within their personal field of energy. There is a wealth of information that lies within their field which I unconsciously absorb while learning. Listening with my body as we move together, their energy becomes a current that feels as if it embraces my Form and helps direct its flow. Their energy field is the corrective touch that expresses how the postures can feel. My intellect can hardly explain what it is that my body picks up intuitively. For now, the best I can express is that it is similar to gestures or ways of walking that are shared within families.
THE FORM AND ITS PRINCIPLES OF MOVEMENT
As a beginner, what I first practiced was not the combative or self-defense techniques of this martial art. I was already a bit defensive in my demeanor so instead I concentrated on the basic principles of the Form. Visualizing and reflecting on relaxation, concentration, coordination, improvement of balance, and my general well-being was and remains my foremost concern as I move through the Form. With these principles as my focal point, the most important interaction I have is with myself, and the most important opponent is my inner shadow, the part of me that is most resistant to change, the part that holds the tension.
I have gone through my Form thousands of times and each occasion has been unique. With no expectation and without anticipation, organically my movements create kinetic memories of that wash upon the shores of my reality daily; in the way I think, the way I move, and my interactions. Each movement’s vantage holds perspectives of a dance. A dance of relationship, coordination, dynamics, balance, concentration, and effortless movement…. of the same nature as the Earth and her dance in the Universe. Within the breeze of these memories is delivered to me a universe of understanding. As I ponder the matrix of principles that govern my movement, my mind, body, and spirit grasps the knowledge of a collective experience. All of this leads to the independent spirit of each posture, and a collective community of transitional motion.
Just before I begin this “Dance of the Universe,” I stand in the middle of space, and dissolve my consciousness into a vibration on the edge of movement and stillness and wait for an impulse of action. Form the energy of my being, this vibration expands into conscious movement. As the pulsation expands I feel my body swell, open into itself and the dance begins. I am propelled into the movements. Wave after wave, I feel as if I am swimming in air. My body, mind and spirit breath together and I can feel the oneness of their existence. I identify inwardly with the space outside, allowing it to infuse deeply into my body while I move. I am in practice of the mystical Tao. Each manifested movement blossoms and then dissolves within the moment, into its source of non-existence. Like one complete breath, my potential energy is ignited, filling my body, and upon completion returns me to the vitality of Nature’s dialogue with itself, a dialogue of a conscious and interactive dance between viscera, fluids, and energy.
At every turn, I consciously remind myself to relax. This is the first and foremost principle of movement in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. To relax I continually scan my body with my mind, consciously dissolving tension, releasing, or opening the contracted muscles or holding of my breath. I scan with my mind, and locate the points of tension in my body, and with my breath as an essential component in releasing tensions, I inhale as if I were inhaling the essence of a flower, filling me with the vital breath of life, and the exhaling as if it were the end of a day, releasing the tension. My mind is also relaxed through my breath, in addition through the use of concentration, imagery, and direct involvement in scanning my body. This helps to release my mind’s engagement of any other thought processes. Another aspect of relaxing my mind in this case, is my experience of being present and in the moment. I believe this is in part one of the meditative components of my practice, and a necessary ingredient in my concentration. When I achieve relaxation of mind and body in just one coordinated movement, I am effortlessly moving through space.
Learning to relax my body and mind simultaneously is an ongoing challenge, but quite a rewarding effort. Alone, this one principle of relaxation has had a profound effect on my health. The quality that it lends to my health is un-measurable and quite tangible. On a practical level, my stress levels are reduced and my thinking more clear. The benefits of relaxation also ripple out to my relations with others. I have more of a direct access to my emotional intelligence which allows me to communicate my feelings in a effective, coherent, and straight forward manner, unencumbered by the un-called for reactionary behavior that seemed to drive me prior to my involvement with T’ai Chi Ch’uan. In a confrontation situation, I can feel my energy rise and my body getting tense. This insight gives me the opportunity to reflect on the principle of relaxation and consciously settle my being. Outwardly a mirrored expression begins to take shape and I find ways to possibly dissipate stress of the confrontation.
Another goal in the practice of the Form is to feel of the roundness of space and coordinate all movement within that space. To achieve this I remove all edges in my motion so that the shape of my movements are spherical, spiraling and ecliptic. If one part of my body moves, the whole body is in motion. Within the circular movements my body feels freer, performing with efficiency of movement, and moving with the least amount of structural resistance. It is within this state of awareness, spinning on my axis that I, as Joseph Campbell has said, “realize the relationship of the temporal moment to eternity.” I exist in a place where the wholeness of my movement and the stillness I experience from relaxation come together.
Feeling my feet on the ground and paying attention to the clear definition of my weight distribution; the filling and emptying of my legs, as one leg fills as the other one empties and vice versa, is another one of the basic principles of movement in T’ai Chi Ch’uan. To understand chi I draw on the image of the T’ai Chi symbol often referred to as the yin/yang symbol. When I look at this symbol, it appears to be a symbol of balance, however, it is not stagnant at all to me. It really represents the continuous interaction of full and empty, action and non-action. Similarly, as one of my leg fills to support my body in stance or in the taking of a step, the other empties. When I shift my weight both of my legs are consciously in constant relation to propel the movement. Like a cat, each step I take is taken quietly, without weight, and then I shift as if I am wading a stream, acutely aware of how and where I place my feet and my balance potential. This conscious, slow, and clear definition of shifting settles my physical weight and lowers my center of gravity. Along with relaxation my physical weight is like the tea leaves that settle to the bottom of a cup when they have been saturated and filled with hot water.
In T’ai Chi Ch’uan the axis is represented by proper alignment. Proper alignment is another principle essential to the movement of the Form. With my head upright, my awareness has yet another point of concentration. The crown of my head extends up to meet the Universe. Relaxing my coccyx (often referred to as the tail bone) down softens and strengthens my lower back creating a wholeness to my torso. I have found that if my lower back is tucked too far inward or swayed outward, the security of my torso and its connection to my legs, and my ability to feel the strength that this connection provides, is compromised. With my feet relaxed on the ground in support of my entire body, I no longer have to hold myself up but feel an appreciate and connection with the Earth as my foundation. This alignment allows my body’s weight and tensions to release more easily. As well, within this alignment my body is an open vessel between the Universe and Earth, an easy pathway through which both energy forces may pass. With my head upright, the exuberance of the Universal energy pours through my body cleansing it; while simultaneously through my feet the Earth becomes a source of energy I feel fountains upward, permeating into my body, branching out into the smallest of open space available as a source of nourishment.
There are a couple of other facets to proper alignment that influences my experience. My joints should remain open; in other words if I lock my joints, my flexibility is impaired, the roundness of motion is nearly impossible to create, and the soft quality attributed to my flow in the Form becomes choppy. Whether my hand is above my head or at my side, my elbows are weighted and I feel the space in my shoulders as if I am supporting eggs in my armpits. I also think about the proper alignment of my head. Not only do I keep my head upright, as if “being hung by a string from above,” but the base of my nose is kept parallel to the ground. This keeps my head from tilting back or forward. With my head upright, I experience the spirit of my vitality reach the upper most point of my body. By “spirit of vitality” I am speaking of my integral energy system. If I happen to be self absorb in thinking, or feeling poorly or fluffed up about myself, my head tilts. In some way, the tilt of my head expresses my energetic spirit. Commonly, if I am in deep thought or feeling poorly, my head will tilt forward. Likewise, if I am feeling extra proud of myself, my nose goes up a bit and tilts my head back. If my head is upright the back of my neck is more relaxed, my sense of body and surroundings is poignant, and my spirit feels uplifted yet contained and integrated with my whole body.
Concentration, focus, imagery, intent, as well as the physical body are different forms of active energy. I know the Universe as a form of active energy, the Earth as a form of energy, and myself as a form of energy. Nonetheless they are a part in the design of energy I perceive as “chi,” “prana” or “life force.” It is life’s cohesive glue in the distinctive matrix of vibrating particles. Together, these are the macro concept “Universal energy.” The physical body has its own system of energy that runs through the energy pathways in the body. Acupuncture depicts these pathways and their connection to the body’s organs. Penetrating throughout the body running along side and connecting to the viscera, skeletal, circulatory, nervous, and lymphatic systems. I feel the slow, relaxed, continuous, and graceful movement of T’ai Chi Ch’uan increase my vitality, exercise my viscera, strengthen my structure, calm my nerves, increase my circulation, and move the impurities through its motion. All of my systems are simultaneously being supported and integrated.
In addition to energy pathways, the body also has energy centers. There are many “tan tiens” (pronounced don tee-ins) in the body. In the Hindu tradition they are referred to as “chakras.” Each tan tien has its attribute. All of my movements are controlled by the “lower” tan tien. As I concentrate on my lower tan tien as the center of my movement, I can feel it radiate in from my lower abdominal area. This field of energy emanates throughout my small and large intestine. When I use this area I include both its physical and energetic components. The energetic aspect of my lower tan tien feels like the core of the Earth, as it is essential as a grounding center in my energy system and the source of my body’s nourishment.
The sensation of having a tan tien at all is enhanced by the mind’s ability to find or focus on that area. It helps for me to sense its location if I stand with my feet parallel, about shoulder width apart, place my hands on my lower abdominal area, and bring my awareness to the contact between my hands to my body. After a period of time I also engage my breath by imagining that my breath also touches my hands as I inhale, leaving my awareness there as I exhale. In no time I can feel my lower abdominal area begins to radiate warmth; not only from the physical contact, but also because my mind and breath are also focused on that area. This simple exercise allows me to be conscious of my lower tan tien giving it a tangible location in my anatomy.
All centripetal and centrifugal movement is executed from my lower abdominal area. It acts like an axle or pulley when I move my limbs left or right, or extend them away from or closer to my body. Integrating the use of my tan tien, for simplicity I will call it the waist, along with the governing principles of proper alignment and weight differentials, makes it much easier to coordinate my movements. From my continuous and circular movement a dynamic spiraling of force is generated that surges up initiated from my feet and their connection to the Earth, travels through my legs, and connects to the turning of my waist which executes an intentional movement with the rest of my body. I have a wondrous sense of moving my whole body as an integrated, completely unified, organism.
My spirit and approach to the movements also helps to shape their dynamics. I move into the fullness of the posture with the intention of its practical application placing a soft veil over the implication of self-defense. This veil not only camouflages my intention and defuses the intensity of T’ai Chi Ch’uan as self-defense martial art. I think “soft inside” and allow that softness to be all prevailing throughout the execution of my movements. Focusing on softness does not however make me feel less powerful. That softness allows me to feel a vulnerability that relays a wealth of information in regards to how I feel inside. That vulnerability gives me a sense power in knowing who I am and what it is that I feel both during my practice and in my everyday activities. The concept of softness in Form helps me to keep the shape of my movements round and open.
Another construct of shaping within the Form is the use imagery, focus, and the memory of body-shapes formed by the mind. After repetitive performances of my Form, a memory has been formed. It is very similar to how I extend my hand in a handshake. My mind is familiar with the gesture and my body’s memory automatically forms the shape. Similarly, what part of my consciousness guides me home? I know where it is that I am going, but there may be many different streets along the way that I must drive or walk on before I get there. These facets of my mind – the ability to form body shapes, focus, and guide movement, are my canon of direction. The only muscle force that’s used in my movement is the muscle necessary to perform the postures and the transitions. When I raise my arms out and up directly in front of me, it is as if someone is pulling them out and up with a string; no extra muscle is used. My mind forms the movement like a brush stroke, and my body’s movement is the image manifested. I rely on the familiar shapes and my body rides their remembrance home. In this case, home is that internal and synchronistic experience of the Universe and Earth within.
Mindfulness is the meditative goal of my practice. I use to believe that the mind existed and resided in my head, in that place called the brain. I believed the brain to house cognitive thinking, was the interpretation of what I saw, heard, touched, tasted, smelled, and it performed all my calculations. My brain was the “mastermind.” In a sense this may have been true, however my experience taught me that it was a very narrow perspective of this thing I called the mind. Experience has taught me to consider that the body also participates in communicating to the brain with gut feelings, nerve reactions, and instinctual hair-raising fear. With this consideration, a broader understanding of what may be constructs of the mind has encouraged me to include the integration of the intuitive with my practical practice. Thought, imagery, emotions, feelings, and the body – all are a part of my mind. The entire body and everything that goes with being a conscious, living organism – is now my opinion of the mind. When I am practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I am not only using my mental capacities in my movements, I am also opening my senses. Mentally I am forming the shapes of the movements, concentrating on what I am doing, focusing my direction, and using imagery. The sensual experience exists in the letting go of tension, feeling my body, and making energetic and biological connections. My intentional action and sensory faculties are operating simultaneously, nurturing a transformed quality of inherent consciousness into physical movement. Essentially I have become mind-full of my integral being in practice and outside of practice: the true nature of life surrounds me, and a much larger reflection than my self is reinforced through my practice. I notice that I am more than my body; plant life, air, and animals become a reflection of my being and vice versa. I am connected to the common thread of life force. And if I move slowly enough while practicing, I have the time open up, and let go into the space inside and out and reflect on my connection to life.
The quality and speed of my practice has a direct correlation with the benefits that are achieved from my practice. I move slow enough so that I can scan my being, breath and release in-between the postures correcting myself every step of the way, feeling my feet, head-top and hands, and engaging my movements from my waist. In this way the daily practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan has becomes a vehicle for me to build new mental and body memories that profoundly ripple out and shape my life experience. Whenever I find myself not breathing, slumping, getting tense physically and mentally, not sensing my being, or falling off balance – something whispers in my conscious ear, and automatically I am reminded to make an adjustment. I have the biological and psychological memory from my practice, to find the source of my discomfort and make a change.
Learning, practicing, exploring, questioning; the cycle repeats itself over and over again. Most important to the practice of the Form has become my relationship to the information that lies within it and how it relates to me. Staying open to the possibilities of experiences and change is one of the most challenging dynamics of my study. There is a universe of information in every moment of my practice. The best I can do is to keep letting go as I ride the waves, and with patience allow the wisdom of my practice to caress my being. This wisdom may come to me in the uncovering of the mental process that may be affiliated with a particular tension; or that I may need to be extra mindful because my balance is off today; or a moment of experiencing an embodied unification of the Earth and Universe. Whatever may come, I listen, wait, open all of my inherent bodily senses and remain ever present for the unfolding process of connecting with the forces of Nature and with the nature of my being. Exposed in this way, Nature’s secrets, nourishment, and the healing follows.
T’ai Chi Ch’uan is like a myth. It is not the actual Form that carries meaning. I continually seek to understand the methodologies in the principles while I perform T’ai Chi Ch’uan’s mythological dance. Its secrets are revealed in the experience of my practice. The Form by itself is but an empty shell of motion. The practical principles are the temporal limitations of movement. The present moments within the experience of Form, principle, and the eternity within those moments… ahhh there lies the visions, insights, precision, coordination, balance, growth, and health. For me, T’ai Chi Ch’uan has woven together textures of understanding into a rich and dynamic fabric; and like a pebble dropped in water, it ripples out, mysteriously delivering life’s treasures, on a journey without end.