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When Practice begins What is Important?
By Richard Farmer
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I was musing on what to write for this winter’s newsletter and my thoughts turned to those people who have begun Tai Chi with this School in the last year - well actually, to all those people who have started Tai Chi this year, wherever they may be. Recently I have asked students who have been practising for a long time, to imagine meeting themselves as a beginner. I’ve then asked them to consider the advice they would give themselves knowing what they know now.
As we begin the path of learning Tai Chi we come weighed down with many bags, we come with lots of apprehension, excitement, projection and fantasy about what it is we are learning, how we are going to do it and what it can do for us. I would say as a student of 27 years that everything you feel it can be, and all the good you hope it will do, are true but over time. So between then and now what are the important things to hold in the forefront of our practice mind?
The body does not lie. It is a wonderful mirror. That is why Tai Chi works. So we begin here with the one place in the body that can represent our mind and our spirit, the spine. We all had wonderfully aligned spines once and when we first learned to sit and first learned to walk we did so with poise, balance and alignment. Then life happened to us and as our fears and yearnings came into play, this balance was pulled out. We began to slump in defeat or stiffen in protection. The tensions in the mind affected the muscles and they in turn pulled on the bones of the spine. So when you come to your practice you come with all of this and so the first place which will make a huge difference, whether you are playing the form or some simple exercises, is here, the spine.
There are three places of realignment that can make a big difference.
1) The first is the lower back to allow the lower back to reconnect with your feet. Sink your knees a little to give some space, place one hand on your lower back and one on your belly. Let the belly hand suggest an upward movement and let the rear hand follow the release of the lower back. Once realigned, do this from feel.
2) The second place is the centre of the chest. Again, place a hand in the centre of the chest and suggest an upward movement. The chest will expand especially on the in-breath. Let this happen. As this happens the shoulders will open and relax enjoy this.
3) The third place is at the nape of the neck. Again, place your hand there and suggest an upward motion. The neck will lengthen and join the spine and head, letting the spine rise up to the top of the head.
With these three places joined you will have re-found the original spine and with that spine will be your original spirit. It has a sense of nobility, grace and self worth. From this place, the movements of the form and exercises will take on the feeling of a personal expression rather than something learned, or something followed.
The second major area of focus is relaxation. Simply put, as you move through any moment of practice, use 10% less of any effort you are making. This allows the ‘doing’ to be less and so allows more room for the receptive mind, the one that notices things and feels the nuances of a move, to come our attention. When we are busy ‘doing’ a move there is only ‘trying’ involved. Yet Tai Chi requires a high degree of listening. Listening for where we are tense so that we can relax. Listening for where we are placing our feet so that if the step is too narrow then we can feel that restriction. If we are doing too much we cannot listen, so we cannot see what is really happening. Doing less is vital.
Relaxation of the muscles also allows the muscles to become softer and more subtle. This allows us to feel more easily the movement of the energy body which is a more subtle body than the physical body. Without this relaxation the hardness and solidity of muscular movement masks the movement of the energy body.
A lot of students come to Tai Chi to learn to relax and then, in the process of learning, get very tense. The tool to relax becomes another cause for tension. So if you are just beginning or you find yourself struggling, please stop. Feel the tension in your face and soften. There is a Zen saying which says that your face becomes a mirror of the mind. Like the spine there is a true face and then there is the same face which has been pulled by life and our struggles with it. Soften and let your true face come through, it is just behind the “day face”.
Our dog Sunny, who is very old, recently had some chiropractic treatment. Her back legs were weak. After the treatment we asked the practitioner whether we needed to book more sessions. As a human one would need at least 6 if not more to effect change. He said no, one would be enough. We asked if this was just because it was Sunny or was this a general thing for animals. He said because animals’ minds were not in the way, they allowed the treatment to do its work and one was enough. And it was! Relaxation!
Wherever there is tension, relax. This tension is between you and life. As we gradually learn to relax we begin to enjoy and live.
The third and final area which can make a huge difference is to be kind. In this moment of practice, what is it that you truly require? Notice how many “shoulds” there are. How many “oughts”. Even if there is an "ought to" to practise, relax this and allow the original feeling of engaging in something really healthy for you, like Tai Chi, to take its place. You may end up doing the same thing but from an entirely different space.
Kindness can take the form of taking care of wounded or habitually damaged places in our body and mind rather than knocking them into shape. Kindness can mean actually allowing some of the things I have just written about to become part of your practice.
Who are you practising for? Why are you practising? What is it that you are actually practising? If you are practising for your teacher, that’s not so good. Practise for you. Something drew you to begin the journey and now that you are on it, the old ways of doing things can take over. When this happens Tai Chi becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.
So what can you do to help this? Firstly attend to your spine, bring balance and poise back. Relax, whatever you are doing, relax and let the old patterns of defence go. Finally be kind enough to allow yourself to be present. Be kind to move the way you know you can. Be kind enough to be in a move fully, even if it is technically wrong, at least it is yours.
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