Tai Chi is often referred to as “moving meditation” and in the practise of meditation it is sometimes said that the ideal mindset is that of a beginner. The first time we ever experience something it is unique and captivating. As a beginner i.e. new to something, you are curious, observant and aware of every tiny detail. Come the one hundredth time however and the same experience can just seem normal and hardly worth any attention or value at all. Interestingly, the object or activity is unlikely to have changed from the time of our original fascination, but our perception can become normalised so that our attention wanders elsewhere and we are not really engaged with what we are doing. It is very much in this sense that one of the basic aims of Tai Chi is to continuously learn how to experience our body, mind and surroundings with this fresh perception of the beginner, for being able to do so is fundamental to good physical and mental health.
In our high-tech world we tend to use body and mind in a compromised and un-balanced fashion. Humans have not yet evolved to spend eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer screen without ill effect, and what do we usually do when we get home from work? We indulge in a few more hours of sitting in front of the TV or laptop. Similarly, our tendency to travel by four wheels rather than two legs only contributes to this affront on our essential musculature and posture.
From when we start school at an early age we are taught to sit down all day and ignore our bodies (I can still remember the bite of back pain from being squashed into one of those tiny plastic chairs all day at infant school). Mental faculties are given vast precedence over physical intelligence and as time goes by our perceptive capabilities and physical attributes become ever more limited and dulled. Generally we do not notice this process because we learn to take our bodies for granted and this is deemed to be “normal”. The ability to move freely, happily and untiringly that we have as children becomes long forgotten as we settle into adult life and intellect takes precedence.
From my perspective as a Tai Chi teacher everything we do is in fact exercise of some kind or another. For example if we tend to spend a lot of time sitting down it is like we are training ourselves to sit down; like plastic the human body and mind naturally mould to how they are most often used (I find it fascinating that the majority of people, both young and old, new to my Tai Chi classes usually exhibit very little body awareness and mobility especially from the waist down). If we are on our feet and active for some of the day then similarly our bodies will reflect this in posture and muscle tone. The amazing thing is that this moulding process is never-ending throughout our lives. With this in mind we might start to see that simple day-to-day changes in our general activity levels can have a big impact on how our bodies and minds develop over the years.
Fortunately even though we may forget about “it” the human body does not forget “us” and usually it is when the body starts to hurt or complain as we get older that we are reminded that it might be a good idea to do something to help ourselves. Prevention is much better than a cure as they say and so the sooner we can do something to improve our physical/mental condition the better.
The important thing is that just by being curious and observant about how the body feels, moves, breathes and balances and through awareness of our thoughts we can instigate significant improvement in our health. Try it now and experiment on yourself, how does your body feel? When you focus upon feeling it what does your mind do?
In Tai Chi one learns how to recognise that body and mind are inextricably linked and thus train them as so. To begin with we learn how develop a concrete perception of our physicality and in doing so facilitate anchoring the incessant wandering nature of the mind. Tai Chi training is carried out slowly and smoothly and as you learn the first simple movements and exercises you are inundated with a multiplicity of sensations in terms of how your body moves and balances and the flow of your mental activity. Maybe you get a sense of how tense or relaxed different parts of the body are. You might notice the motion of your breath or the concrete feeling of the ground underneath your feet. Perhaps you may observe that your mind is quite busy or perceive the delicate sounds and motions around you.
The inherent slowness of Tai Chi movement allows one to re-connect with all the essential senses one possesses but may have overlooked and dulled over the years. Gradually, as your whole-body perception improves and habitual tensions unwind, you start to feel a deep sense of physical ease and connectedness akin to an intelligent animal happily moving through its natural environment.
Moving slowly may look easy from the outside but this kind of training is deceptive. It provides an effective and challenging workout that trains the whole muscular/neurological system in a functional and perceptive way. Whatever it is, the direct and wholesome feedback from your real physical experience (as opposed to you thought experience) allows you to engage fully with what you are doing and with the present moment, which of course is where all the good stuff happens! Having fresh curiosity about our bodies and minds teaches us how to fire on all cylinders and most importantly facilitate a healthy and enjoyable life. So having been sat down at my laptop for an hour or two now I’m off to do some practise and stretch my legs!