Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The naturalness of tai-chi and chi-kung

Do you have the following experience?  After reading an article or a book on the subject of tai-chi or chi-kung or after taking a seminar from a teacher of the subject, you found out that you haven't absorbed any specific skills, but have the vague idea that you should just relax more and act naturally more.   Your teacher might say something like this: "Be more relaxed (松)!" And you somehow feel a bit guilty - after practicing for so many years, you still don't know how to act naturally.  I had had such experience.  Now I know there is nothing wrong with me, the problem is a want of a better training instruction or teacher!

In the practice of tai-chi and chi-kung, a practitioner focuses, feels and moves differently from what we have trained our muscles to do our daily chores.  It is therefore quite futile, and indeed incorrect, to think that doing tai-chi and chi-kung is a simply a natural way of doing things, without a need for conscious re-learning or re-conditioning.  Our prior conditioning is useful for us in leading our daily lives.  What we need to is to act different while doing our practice, but continue to act our "usual way" when we do our usual tasks, otherwise we will look acting stupidly when picking up a piece of paper on the floor (if you smile [i.e. signified you understand what I am talking about], you probably wont' need to read on).

The correct way to look at it is: Tai-chi or chi-kung is a practice that requires a practitioner to consciously allow his body to respond in the most natural way to his intentional subjective feeling, imagination, visualization, and above all, his suspension of disbelief (an operational concept that is of vital importance to enable us to enjoy watching TV, without such assumption we can't be entertained by seeing 2D tiny action figures fighting among each other).  In other way, one should respond in such a way, as if our willful subjective is the reality (fooling ourselves intentionally for good).

Let's put away the theory for the time being and look at an example: the simple act of bending our legs at an angle in dong zhan zhuang or doing the tai-chi form.

In handling our daily chores, we oftentimes need to bend our legs, for body movement and for acting as a solid foundation in picking up or moving objects.  Our muscles will respond appropriately to the specifics of the situation, like the perceived weight of the object, in an almost instinctual way, earned after years of conditioning when we grew up. The issue is, in doing zhan zhuang, we bend our legs, but not doing any bodily movement and not picking up or moving any object.  Without any meaningful physical act to do, our legs naturally only need to exert a minute energy.  As a result, minimal exercise effect results.

How to increase the exercise effect?  The natural answer is to stand longer, which is exactly what some teachers have been teaching.  But this is not an efficient, nor effective, way to train zhan zhuang or to chi-kung.

A better way is to use visualization when we bend our legs and feel as if heavy weights are being placed on our shoulders.  Just think about it, if it is real, how will our muscles react? Or which muscles or muscle groups will primarily be responsible for carrying such heavy weights without our body structure collapsed in the process?   The answer is the muscles around one's pelvic joints.

Now the interesting question is: Why do we need to visualize?  Why not just use real weights to train our muscles?

The answer is that with visualization under direct feeling and a focused mind, the weights can be added bit by bit as we intend, so that we can mindfully align our muscles (or gradually make them align better, as our training progresses) .  The best part is during the process of gradual and mindful aligning our muscles, accompanying chi will be generated.  From another perspective, the generation of chi makes the alignment process possible in the first place, and help better alignment later.

How can it then be interpreted as natural?  In the first place,  with focused mindfulness, weight visualization will naturally generate muscles reaction in the areas that we desired it to happen.  In the second place, with aligned muscles being contracted, chi will naturally be generated and flow along the aligned muscles. Try to experience it in your next training session!

Primary muscles in zhan zhuang

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