A conversation between teacher and learner

Here is a brief exchange over email between a DTC member and myself that reveals our thinking about a subject central to learning tai chi. I welcome questions and comments because it stimulates concrete conversation which serves as a knowledge-building activity.

Background: I returned after 10 days training retreat and exposed practice partners to using different muscles to feel more connectivity. I had usually been focusing on using mind to move, but also on changing the body in subtle ways of movement. Afterwards, B wrote:

“I have to say I am a little sore from the workout yesterday. … How in the world do you do it for 6 hours a day?”

Me: “You got me to thinking, or remembering, that we were using muscles that we don’t normally use. If you used them more you wouldn’t get sore. It’s just like the muscles you use everyday, say for walking, don’t get sore when you use them for longer periods of time. Same principle applies to using martial art/tai chi muscles. Make sense?”

B: “Yes. Makes sense. However if we are not supposed to use muscle what do we need tai chi muscles for? …

Me: Good question. Helps me to clarify. We rely on muscle tension to move out of sheer habit, practically unaware of other possibilities of movement and for focusing our attention. As we age we reduce usage of everything: muscle, tendon, ligament, bone and joint. In effect, we run out of energy to move, so we simply reduce the range of motion to accommodate our needs. Human beings are very efficient creatures. We do the least possible work to meet our needs. This is not bad, because it saves energy; but we cultivate a habit of not using our bodies and minds to their fullest potential and we begin rather early in life to atrophy or decline in ability.

Not to “use” muscle is not really the instruction. More like, free muscle up of its dominance and release tension (qi) that we have been carrying for a long time without realizing we have been. It also is to focus attention on moving different muscles as an exercise in changing the focus. It’s not just an exercise in muscle-moving activity. It’s one of reducing the dominance of muscle over the rest of the body and making more energy available to us that is stuck in muscle. We “wear” our tension in muscle for the most part, I think. Of course, it can be produced anywhere in the body. Changing the way we become aware of tension in the body and learn to release it is really the point. I just decided to focus on muscle. Has it made a difference in your connectivity and how you move?

The other point I would make is that at the beginning stages of practice the novice needs to have something somewhat concrete to focus on in order to “get connected”. Even while we focus on the more esoteric, elusive “energy” connection. This is what I’ve learned from my teacher, Xu Guo Ming (George), during the past couple of years. He was realizing that people were not getting the more esoteric lessons and decided to bring it back to the body, to the basics. That’s what the recently published Chan Shi Jing video is about, really.
Tim