TAI CHI NEWSLETTER JULY 17TH 2015
Now that the weather is warm, sometimes even hot, it is perfectly okay to take your shoes off and walk around barefoot, at least when at home or in your garden. This will help you to develop awareness of your own body as well as of the earth and its energy in relation to yourselves, thus developing better balance and feeling more stable and connected- literally and metaphorically.
Someone once said (and forgive me if it’s not the first time I’m quoting this to you) that we humans are like acupuncture needles on the face of the earth. I personally am very honoured to function as an acupuncture needle.
I fully believe in the effectiveness of acupuncture, and if I can be one of many needles that contribute to the wholesome balance of Earth within itself and to the balance between Earth and Heaven, I am most grateful for the opportunity.
So as you may have already guessed, I wanted to dedicate this newsletter to looking at the principle of BEING STABLE, ROOTED AND GROUNDED and to its importance within the fundamentals of Tai Chi.
Stability is one of a group of words/principles called ” The Four Secret Words” in Tai Chi, the other three being Relaxation, Slowness and Unity. This is already an indication to the immense importance of it in the world of Tai Chi.
It’s not a coincidence that we use expressions such as ” being grounded” as in well balanced and sensible, or “feeling uprooted” when describing a person forced against their will to leave their home or country.
The idea of being grounded and rooted is not merely a physical one. It indicates on an emotional and mental state that we strive to be in.
The technical instructions of how to achieve physical stability will therefore help us at achieving emotional and mental stability at the same time.
This is not an alien idea to anyone who knows a little about Chinese medicine, or in fact any other holistic system, which does not separate the well being of body from that of the mind.
Keeping true to the spirit of Tai Chi, we will start by looking at some of the verbal instructions from the traditional writings that talk about the body and its way of moving
” The motion should be rooted in the feet, released through the legs, controlled by the waist and manifested through the fingers”. The Essence of Tai Chi Chuan- the Literary Tradition, p.21
Movement and action are of the Yang character. So before we look at the action let’s have a look at the Yin aspect of motion, which is pause or stillness. When we stand still we are told to connect with the ground. This indicates that although the motion is ‘rooted in the feet’, its energy comes from further afield. In fact, it is only rooted in the feet in terms of looking at the body as an organic unit within itself yet separated from the rest of the world. When we expand our understanding of the energy of movement as an interaction with the world it may be more correct to say that the motion is rooted in the ground (and its quality and effectiveness depends on the contact between feet and earth).
Assuming that through looking at the process of stepping we can learn a lot about our state of balance, let’s briefly go over the technicalities of stepping – that stuff that you have all heard me repeating hundreds of times during lessons, when we practice the Rooster Walk or other exercises that require stepping:
We are looking at two main directions of movement (movement meaning- shifting of weight and energy, thus moving the body ); one direction is primarily horizontal to the ground. This happens each time we shift weight from one foot to the other. The other direction is perpendicular to the ground- this happens whenever we sink with all the weight on one side of the body or sit into the posture at the end of each movement.
The process of stepping can be described in this way:
The first stage is a complete separation of weight. We want to empty one side of the body of weight, connect the side that carries the weight to the ground and only then step out. Since we are talking about weight shifting, at this stage the energy moves horizontally to the ground.
Next thing is sinking into the side of our body that carries the weight. Without getting into the details of sinking it’s suffice to say that at this point the energy will move down into the earth and vertically to it.
Then we can lift up the empty foot and step out with it.
Once we placed the foot down we want to connect it to the ground – to make sure that as much of the foot’s surface as possible is in contact with the ground and in this way is ready to receive the weight.
The next stage is to see that ankle, knee and hip joint are open and relax and finally we can transfer the weight from the ‘full’ side of the body to the ’empty’ side that is now being slowly filling with weight and energy. (another horizontal direction of shifting weight and energy ).
Eventually we will root our body to the ground again in the new stance, and this action is often described as ‘sitting’ to differentiate it from the ‘sinking’ that happens at the beginning of the process.
Here, I am going to pause for a moment in order to explain why the first stage- a complete emptying of weight of one side of the body- is so important. A Zen story tells us of a man who decided he wanted to become enlightened. He found a master to study with, and began taking regular lessons. After a while it became apparent that every time the master was trying to teach the man or share an insight with him, the man would come up with his own ‘teachings’ and ‘insights’. The master then ordered a short break in the lesson, and tea was brought in. He poured tea into his student’s cup. He poured and poured and wouldn’t stop pouring the tea even when the cup was full. The tea went onto the saucer and filled it. From there it started dripping down to the floor. At this point the pupil could no longer hold himself, and cried ” What are you doing? Can’t you see that the cup is full? There’s no more space!” To that the master replied: ” Yes. Just like you, my friend. You are so full of ideas and arguments that there is no space for anything new. Go home and empty yourself of all your ideas, and when you are truly ready to learn, come back”.
The Tao Te Ching portrays a similar idea:
…Be empty, and you will be filled.
Let go of the old, and let in the new.
Have little, and there is room to receive more…
Again, we can learn both about the physical as well as the mental and spiritual ways of the world from this. Physically, just as spiritually, we need to completely empty (one side of the body of weight,) before it is ready to receive (weight again). In the same way that a theoretical idea can teach us how to use our body, a physical practice can teach us how to ’empty ourselves’ in order to allow new learning to happen, or new ways to be found.
Going back to the practice of emptying the body: In order to do this we want, for a moment, to visualise the weight of our body like water running in a tap. As long as we’re shifting the weight to one side we want it to accumulate in that side, as if the plug is in, allowing the sink/body to fill with water/weight. When sink is full we pull the plug out. What happens then is that due to the laws of physics-gravity, the water will go down the plughole and drain in a spiral movement. Exactly the same thing happens to the body’s energy. It moves into one side of the body and accumulate there, and then it moves down to the earth in a spiral motion, gradually allowing the upper body to empty and become light and flexible, while lower body, and particularly from the knees down, stays rooted and grounded. So when looking at emptying one side of the body of weight, we really are looking at filling the opposite side with weight. This is where the attention is.
This spiral movement that is mentioned above can also be visualised as an action of connecting two parts together with the use of a drill, a screwdriver and screws. The two parts that we put together are body and ground, and the weight and energy of the body do the spiral action of the screw moving deep into the earth, thus connecting the body to it.
Once the weight is all on one side of the body, and we feel stable and rooted enough to stand on one foot we raise the ‘ empty’ foot in order to step out.
When stepping out we need to really feel the ground with our foot, and connect with it: Feeling the ground and connecting with it is a prerequisite to stability. Otherwise- what are we stabilising ourselves onto? At this point we want to have most of our attention on the two surfaces that are being in touch- the sole of the foot and the earth. Having our attention there is of primal importance, as it allows us to develop this extra sensitivity to touch that is at the base of all Tai Chi partners work, as well as the base for good balance. Technically, the way we place the foot down when stepping forward is heel first, (one of the reasons for this is to stop the mind from getting worried about losing our balance ). Next we place the whole foot down – at which point we want to be aware of the quality of touch between foot and ground; do we press the foot too hard, is any part of the foot not touching the ground, is the foot still completely weightless and so on. The last stage before shifting the weight over is to make sure that the knee joint is soft and open so that when we finally shift the weight it is received smoothly into the hip joint first and from there moves down the leg without getting stuck half way between hip and foot.
We can now let the weight smoothly transfer from one side of the body to the other, and once weight shifting has come to an end we sit into the new posture. That sitting at the end of the process is done in very much the same way as the earlier stage of sinking. Again, we want to have most of our attention on allowing the weight to move down and connect us to the earth rather than on the ’empty’ side of the body. The empty and light doesn’t need much attention as it naturally follows and responds to the full and heavy. Try visualising your body like big old-fashioned scales with two equal sides. All we need to do is place a bag of potatoes on one side and that side will drop down while its opposite will rise up. In the same way it is enough to have our attention on connecting the ‘full׳ side of our body to the earth, for the opposite side to feel so light that the foot rises in preparation for the next step almost by itself… And the process of searching for balance and stepping starts all over again.
So what do we achieve by paying so much attention to the finest details of such a simple act as stepping?
Most obviously it is a way of developing better balance and stability, which hopefully helps in fall prevention and in everyday activities such as walking, carrying heavy loads or reaching out for something.
It preserves our energy, as we use only the minimum energy necessary for the whole process while utilising the earth and the whole body’s energy rather than just a few leg muscles that would have to work quite hard and won’t necessarily achieve very good results.
And above all, this is the beginning of our way of portraying, through the use of our body, an immensely important philosophical Taoist idea: the idea that we humans are not separated entities often in clash with each other, but are parts of the Whole, a connected and connecting part that brings together Heaven and Earth. When our feet are firmly connected to the Earth we can begin exploring the endless possibilities of our head reaching the Heavens, even if for brief moments only. Those brief touches are moments of true magic, when everything seems to fall into place in a natural and flowing way, and we feel in total unity with the world, or in other words- things are just as they should be- perfect.
We must understand that being rooted in the ground is not an indication to any stubbornness or rigidity of body or mind. On the contrary, according to Taoist philosophy, being firmly rooted in the ground is what allows us the greatest flexibility and freedom of movement. It is merely a matter of balance between Yin and Yang; between knowing when the situation requires we stay rooted in our place, be stable and strong and keep body and mind balanced, and when the situation calls for flexibility of action or movement, quick and agile speed or calculated slow pace, at the end of either we will find our newly rooted stance.
Simple, isn’t it?