Qualities of Tai Chi
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Qualities of Tai Chi
Taking a walk down a local park we notice someone practicing Tai Chi, we stop for a while to watch, feeling a relaxation going through our own body and a calmness appearing in our mind from watching such gentle flowing movement. We notice a beauty in the flow and a quality that we can’t quite recognise, one that almost seems like silent prayer.
As we observe closer we start to notice that they are following their own movements attentively, oblivious to the world, to all that is happening around them, their movements and attention as one, floating in their own serenity, moving as if mimicking the flow of nature.
We can see these qualities in others when watching them practice but when it comes to our own practice it isn’t always easy mimic them. This is because what we see isn’t so much a way of moving but a quality that is expressed through the movements. Just copying the movements no matter how much physical control you gain over them will always be empty of the essence that supports it. Just as a skilled singer can change the quality of a song by the amount of emotion they feel and attention they give to the words while they are singing. As for the singer our tai chi form changes the way it is expressed and is developed by paying attention to the qualities expressed within it.
To discover what these qualities are we need to dissect our form, in doing this we come to discover that the qualities that affect the way it is expressed and develops are relaxation, timing, control and awareness
The quality of relaxation that can be observed in the tai chi form is not the same as the one you might have during a holiday vacation down the beach, laying around relaxed and drifting off to sleep. Relaxation during tai chi practice has alertness, sensitivity, it is self supporting like a balloon yet soft and flowing like water. These opposites might seem to be a contradiction to each other but they aren’t, they are actually one; we just need to understand the mechanics involved.
When practicing tai chi we want our muscles to be relaxed whilst we are performing a movement, this relaxation has many benefits that can be brought into our practice. When our muscles are tense they are unable to flow and move with changing circumstances, they become rigid and are easily locked into the direction they are travelling. This tension also absorbs a lot of the energy travelling with the movement, so it lowers the energy transference, for example in a strike. Tension also has the downside of lowering circulation and blocking the flow of Chi to the hands and feet.
When our muscles relax it allows our movements to flow more freely, in the relaxed state during combat not only are our movements faster but they are more flexible in their ability to change direction and flow with incoming force. The relaxation of the muscles also allows energy generated from the legs and waist to travel up through the body and out through the hands, etc, with lower energy losses then if the muscle was in a tense or tightened state.
An example of this is the analogy of a whip, the handle of a whip is solid and this is where the energy enters and travels along the whips length. If not only the whips handle is rigid but the length of the whip, the energy transference is very low, making it impossible to make the whip crack. On the other hand if the length of the whip is soft and flexible, the energy will travel its full length and transfer through its tip.
When practicing, we need to consciously release any tension we find in our bodies, breathing can be a fantastic tool for this, whenever you breathe out let go of any tension you find in your body and relax. Make sure your posture is correct and do no fully extend any joint or clench your hand; if you follow this your body will start to relax and move more freely.
Timing is the manager making sure that the whole company moves and works as one, if everyone in the company does their own thing, not coordinating with anyone else, then productivity will be low and costs high. If the manager gives good direction and everyone moves towards the same goal, then the work load is easier, more efficient and the company can move forward and grow.
Without proper timing our movements and breathing will be out of sync, our form appears disorganised, making it difficult to quieten our mind and develop the flow of chi. When practicing tai chi we need to pay attention initially to our physical movements, they must begin and end together. The movement of the hands, body, feet and breathing must move and finish together as one; only with this precise timing will you truly start to get results.
Control refers to the whole range of each movement, when performing our form it is easy to pay attention to only the beginning and end of the postures, control means to feel every moment of the movement and giving each moment your full attention. In slow form we move in a slow and controlled way at a constant pace; performing it this way strengthens our control over the full range of the movement.
Control also refers to the coordination of the whole of our body, moving hands, body, legs and feet as one. Whether shifting your weight forward or back pay attention to your posture, see if it feels as one or separate.
We practice the forms in a controlled way so that we are not using momentum to carry the movement but making the muscles, ligaments and tendons work for the full extension and contraction of their range. Making them work in this way teaches us to be balanced throughout the whole posture and exercises them through the whole of the movement.
Awareness is the mental quality that arises when our mind takes an object and observes it clearly in the present moment. Awareness of the ‘feeling’ of all movements during practice is essential, this keeps us mentally engaged with our movements. It teaches us to be aware of any variations in balance and tension within us, allowing us to make adjustments as needed. It also quietens our mind and mental chatter leading to deeper concentration and stillness within.
When I use the word mind in this case is not our usual understanding of our mind is, generally we think of our mind as part of the brain that can be developed through the study of and gaining of knowledge from books, teachers, thinking etc. While it is true that we can develop our mind in this way, the word ‘mind’ that we are talking about here has a different meaning. Mind in this context is ‘that which knows’ the aspect of ‘knowing’ which is present with every waking moment, knowing is a quality of consciousness.
To experience the quality of knowing we can try a simple exercise, sitting on a chair place your attention mentally at the point where your body and the chair meet. Close your eyes and ‘feel’ the sensations involved in the act of sitting. You may feel hardness, softness, tension, heat, cold, vibration etc. Look closely at these sensations mentally, if you look close enough they will separate into their individual aspects. Observing this way it can be hard to distinguish where your body ends and the chair begins.
Mentally knowing these different characteristics is your awareness, with exercise it will become stronger and clearer. As you practice your forms you will not only do the movements but feel them, feel the changing sensations associated with the movements, feel the subtle shifts of balance and the flowing change of yin and yang.
Bringing relaxation, timing, control and awareness into your practice will bring a physical and mental solidity to your forms that will allow them to develop. These qualities will build a strong platform from which you can observe the flowing change of yin and yang allowing understanding to arise which will further fuel your desire to practice
Without these qualities your forms will always just be physical exercise, nothing more, this in itself is still worthwhile doing, but will carry no more benefits then jogging or going to the gym. Tai chi aims higher then this, it aims at a balance between physical and internal development, it is only when you create a strong foundation and turn your attention inwards that true understanding, health and happiness can arise
Why not give it a try, you have the tools, all you have to do is use them
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you