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Concepts Of Tai Chi

Finding Balance by applying concepts from the practice of tai chi to Yoga and Life

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The picture above was shared by a friend recently.

I've been experiencing this more and more both in push hands and other martial arts classes, learning to relax. Applying less force.

The challenge when working with a partner is that it is easy to forget about yourself. Until you remind yourself to focus on yourself. Even without a partner, in yoga practice, my own focus is on feeling my body and controlling it. This means being able to feel when muscles are relaxed as well as active. And this also means being able to make muscles relaxed or active.

In some cases the ability to activate or deactivate a muscle is dependent on the situation. The target muscle may be supporting part of your body or other muscles may be active in such a way to prevent activation or relaxation of the target muscle. And so body awareness means not just controlling muscle, but also means being able to vary the position of the body in such a way to that muscles can be controlled and prior to that recognizing when position will affect controllability.

Muscle activation affects the position and stability of the skeleton. But the position and stability of the skeleton also has an affect on muscle control. And so controlling the body isn't just about controlling muscles it's about being aware of and controlling the skeleton and how the bones relate.

The Dancers and the Dance
Or Consciousness and Energy

In a way it's like two dancers, the lead (generally the male) and the follower (the female). This can seem sexist, why is the lead always or nearly always the male? The male could be viewed as the chooser but he chooses based, perhaps, on the environment. Is there room to do what they want to do? If not he chooses something else or he moves them to a position where it is possible to do what he chooses.

His focus is on choosing and on transmitting his decision so that the follower can follow.

The lead also provides a foundation of sorts, the follower uses him as her environment. He is the foundation and she can then express herself around this foundation. But as much as the lead uses the external environment to shape his decisions he also has to be aware of his partner.

Is she in a position that allows her to do the desired move? If not he chooses to select another move or waits till she is ready. The two work together to create and express the dance.

And you could say that the female leads him, by positioning herself to allow or disallow particular movements.

And it should be pointed out that the goal isn't to pick who is better, but to work together in creating something better than the some of the parts.

Drivers and Navigators

In rally driving there is a driver and a navigator. Is the driver more important or the navigator?
If they want to get places fast then both are important.

An important point is that the driver can still drive even without the navigator, but with the partner he or she can now go faster. The navigator provides the ability to see or know what is ahead so that the driver can be ready for it. To enable this the two need good clear communication.

The navigator has to be aware of where they are in relation to the map so that they can see what is coming up next. In a way the navigator is the equivalent of the lead in dancing while the driver is the follower.

Going back to muscles and bones, the bones would be like the navigator or the lead dancer. They provide the framework the grounding for expression. The muscles provide the drive, the muscles do the expressing. Together they give the body posture and/or movement.

Better Than the Sum of the Parts

So why work together in a dance, why work together in a car?

Working together successfully is a new level of experience. It's as if you become one. It's a true sharing, an experience of what love can be like.

In a similiar way we could view our mind, our consciousness as one element and our body as another. Our consciousness is the lead, the navigator, the chooser of ways to go. Our body is the element that expresses the desire.

If the two have good communications then they work well together and it can be a joyful experience. But like dancing or driving with a partner it takes practice. And it involves learning a means of communication.

In a rally car the navigator uses language that suits the task at hand. They use pre-arranged language to clearly communicate what is on the map relative to their current position to the driver.

With dancing communication is by touch. This requires a certain rigidity. Each has to have some resistance so that when the lead pushes or pulls the follow can feel that and respond. If their connection is too flaccid then information cannot be transmitted. If it is too rigid then it inhibits the ability to move effectively. Similarly if dancers are too far they lose the ability to communicate, but if they are too close then they lose or inhibit the ability to move.

Balance is then a moving point of stillness between not too much tension and not too little, between not too much space and not too little, between language that says not too much and not too little that isn't spoken too soon (too far in advance) or too late. And obviously the signal whether it is spoken or transmitted via other means, should communicate clearly what is about to happen.

Creating Separation To Learn Unity

This all takes practice. And one thing to realize is that in order for two things two work well together, as one, the two individual entities need to work on themselves as well as working together. In other words, it can help to create separation in order to learn to act as one.

With respect to yoga poses (and feeling our body in general) two very basic qualities we can work on feeling and controlling are relaxation and strength. Another pair of quantities is relaxation and length. Notice that relaxation is present in both pairs.

One possibility in both cases is to start by learning to feel both quantities separately, feel the extremes of relaxation versus strength, the limits or relaxation versus length or space, and then find the balance point.

This is like driving within the lane markers on a road. To drive in the middle of the lane you have to know where the lane is. To drive through gaps in traffic you have to know where the gaps are but the gaps are defined by what is on either side of the gap. And so to find balance, it helps to explore the edges of balance and even go beyond it (in a non-damaging way.)

Weight Shifting and Stable Foundations

An example is weight shifting. Starting on two feet the idea is to shift weight to one foot while keeping the other foot in contact with the floor.

A four step exercise is to shift to one foot, pause, then lift the non-weighted foot, then touch it to the floor keeping weight over the same foot, then shift weight back to center. Initially you should feel even weight on both feet. Shifting to one foot you should be able to notice an increase in tension in the foot, knee and hip of the standing leg (the leg you are shifting weight on to.)

You should also be able to notice a lessening of tension in the un-weighted leg as you shift away from it. Adding the leg lift, (and note here all movements should be done slowly and smoothly) you may notice, that in order to keep your upper body absolutely still as you lift the leg (a half-inch/centimeter or less off of the floor is fine) the foot and ankle of the standing leg stiffens considerably.

Rocking forwards and backwards on two feet you can feel a similiar effect with the heels and toes. As you rock forwards you toes will engage and press down. Your heels, still contacting the floor, will only lightly touch the floor. If your weight is far enough forwards, so that toes and forefeet press down with even pressure, you can even lift your heels without the need to shift your upper body further forwards.

The purpose of this exercise (and ones similiar to it) is to learn to feel when part of your foundation is supporting all of your weight and when part of your body is just touching the floor without supporting any of your weight.

A sort of walking tai ji like exercise is to keep weight on one foot move the other foot forwards and touch it to the floor without shifting weight to it. Step as short as you need to so that you can do this comfortably. Pause and then shift weight to that foot.

Again adjust your foot position if you can't do this without causing pain in your knees or other parts of your body. Then lift the other foot. Walk forwards, then backwards, even go sideways (stepping feet together and then apart again) using this awareness of which foot is wholly supporting the weight of your body. If you move your weight smoothly from one foot to the other practice noticing the transfer of tension from one foot to the other.

In this case what you are practicing is a switching of foundations. Going back to dancing at a high enough level lead and follow become meaningless, they are two people dancing together. Moving from foot to foot while controlling (and feeling) which foot is supporting your weight you are doing more or less the same thing, switching repeatedly the lead and the follow.

In a lot of yoga poses we have both feet on the floor. And it isn't practice to have one foot supporting all of your weight. In such a case it may be helpful to activate one foot and leg first. In a pose like warrior 1 make the front leg strong and stable first. Use it as a reference and then stabilize the back leg (perhaps from the hip to the foot.) Or start with the back foot. The important idea here isn't which foot leads but that one of the feet leads. You just have to pick which one.

Expression Branching Upwards and Outwards

So far the focus has only been on the lower body, the legs and hips. What about the upper? Here we can think of the lower body as the lead, the support, the foundation. The upper body then expresses the pose (drives.)

Where in a standing pose the legs can be stabilizing, contracting, the focus then in the upper body can be of lengthening, reaching out of the hips the way a tree reaches out of the ground.

If a tree exceeds the stability of its roots it will eventually be blown over by a strong wind or even tip over due to its own weight. And so the idea here is to find the middle ground between maximum length and relaxation. With stepping and weight shifting you felt the difference between when one foot was totally relaxed and not supporting body weight but still touching the floor versus a foot being active and supporting the weight of the body.

With the spine you can focus on lengthening the spine by drawing ribcage up away from your pelvis and head away from your ribcage. Focus on one first, for instance repeatedly drawing the ribcage upwards and then relaxing, then focus on the head and ribcage, lengthening the neck, then try to sequence both together. Make both actions like a phase of your breath. The lengthening can be like an inhale the relaxation like an exhale.

The idea in practicing moving between these two extremes is to notice the sensations that accompany each.

Lengthening has a distinctive feel. It adds tension to the waist, to the tissues between the ribs, to the neck, to the spine itself. Likewise relaxing has a feeling too. You may notice the feeling of your ribs sinking own, your spine bending forwards, you head handing forwards and down.

With enough practice you can learn to feel the middle point, the balance between length and relaxation. One that leaves you feeling aware, alive, awake but without being tiring.

Note that if you found yourself breathing in sync with your inhales and exhales, holding your spine long requires a change in breath. You may find it helpful to keep your lower belly slightly pulled in. You may notice slight movement of your upper belly and ribcage as you breath while keeping your spine long. Or you might choose to continually lengthen and relax.

Balancing Muscle Activation and Relaxation

Going back to the feet, is there a way to find a balance between stability/strength and relaxedness? If you shift slowly, you may find that you can slowly and smoothly activate your foot and ankle in preparation for lifting the other foot. The slower and smoother you activate your foot and shift your weight the more likely you are to feel the right amount of tension, not too much and not too little.

Another way to find this balance point is to practice activating and relaxing the feet so that then you can recognize the middle point between those extremes.

Feeling What You Are Doing

This sort of awareness, feeling the difference between strong and relaxed (and lengthened and relaxed) lends itself well to other things. In yoga teaching it lends itself really well to adjusting.

One of the main signals that you can look for is the lack or presence of strong muscle tension in your own body.

And this is yet another way to practice experiencing the body, by activating muscles strongly and then relaxing them. It is then much more easier to recognize when we are exerting effort as opposed to relaxing. By learning to feel when muscles are active it's that much easier to consciously relax them.

Published: 2016 06 17
Updated: 2020 10 30
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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