One of the best things about Tai Chi is that it trains us how to feel our bodies from the inside out. By learning how to directly sense our internal landscape in a tangible way we can optimise and integrate our physical and mental capacities to produce excellent health and fitness. As Yoda from the Star Wars trilogy gurgled: “Luke…you have to feel the force“ so too in Tai Chi do we want to move away from thinking about how the body should look and move and instead gravitate towards the felt sense of the direct experience of our bodies. A frequent comment of those new to learning Tai Chi is that it would be much easier if they could watch themselves in a mirror during class. The funny thing is that what we want to develop is actually the exact opposite of this.
All of us can sense our bodies to some degree for if we couldn’t successful movement would be impossible. However, if we really tune in to our physicality it surprising how much of our bodies we cannot really feel. So how about you experiment with yourself and see how much of your body you can get a clear sense of from the inside. Either standing or sitting upright is best; start with your head and gradually work your way down to the feet slowly scanning every part of the body for a clear sensation of some kind or another. Make a mental note of which parts of the body have little or no sensation. If you find that your mind drifts off (and it almost certainly will) and you lose concentration it is no bother, simply return your focus to the task of observing your interior bodily sensations.
The way a person moves and uses their body can be evaluated from the outside by a trained observer such as a Sports Scientist. Similarly, we could asses our own movement externally by observing ourselves in a mirror (if we knew what to look for). However for movement to be evaluated optimally it should occur personally from the inside via ‘Proprioception’. This marvellous term refers to the internal physical sensation of bodily positioning in three dimensional space. It is via proprioception that we sense our interior landscape and the mechanics and processes of our own movement and posture. It is feeling. Without proprioception simple actions such as walking or reaching for a mug of tea would be very difficult, nigh on impossible. Typically a high level sportsperson such as a tennis player or footballer exhibits a higher than average level of this fascinating and unsung attribute.
Unfortunately, from a young age we are taught how to ignore the majority of the body and its sensations in favour of mental activity. We can become ‘top heavy’ with thoughts as our proprioceptive abilities diminish and we tend to lean towards caring more about how the body looks from the outside rather than how it feels from the inside. One of the many impacts of this can be seen in the rise of stress related health disorders and depression within western culture.
It is interesting to note that usually where we have gaps in our proprioception there are habitual restrictions of movement in the corresponding ‘unfelt’ parts of the body. Our connective tissue, the stuff that holds us together, starts to lose its vital elastic nature and becomes rigid. The knock on effect of this is that the integrity of the body is compromised gradually hindering all major functions and movement. Improving our proprioception can be fundamental to how we improve our health and it all comes down physical and mental awareness.
Not only does such ‘awareness training’ foster a healthy body free from restriction and pain but also serves as an incredible tool for calming the overactive mind. The more we can learn how to ground ourselves by feeling our bodies through proprioception the more our internal chatter will diminish; for it is very difficult to feel and think at the same time.
Most people suffer from incessant thought patterns. How nice it would be if our internal chatter could be turned down so we could get on with enjoying life. Deliberately sensing the body brings us directly into contact with the present moment, which as I mentioned before, is where all the good stuff happens. It trains the mind to focus and disassociate from churning endlessly over as if on automatic pilot. Modern neuroscience suggests that this trained ‘presence’ actually builds new neural pathways within the brain and is akin to the highly prized ‘Zone’ a top sportsman enters when on good form.
Out of all exercise systems Tai Chi is unique in that it specifically trains propreoception as its most essential requirement. Learning how to feel the entirety of our bodies takes time and practise but once this ability improves so does everything else. It underpins movement, posture, balance, muscle tone and breath. By readdressing the balance between our internal world and the outside we can develop more of an integrated and enjoyable way of life.
Sam Moor is senior instructor for Sussex Tai Chi. For details of classes, seminars and 1:1 tuition see website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk.