All my classes are back in full swing now and it’s great to see so many new faces (and lots of familiar ones too) keen to try out Tai Chi. Learning anything new can be challenging of course and this is great because it is the actual ‘learning process’ that keeps us mentally and physically agile just as much as the content of what we learn. It is this experience that greatly contributes to the neuroplasticity of the brain thus keeping our minds fresh. In this sense too we can keep our bodies fresh by experiencing new ways of moving and by challenging the habitual ways in which we hold ourselves that restrict our movement. In Tai Chi we are ever keen to learn how to learn especially when this is about how we use our bodies and minds. So having said that I thought I would describe one of the preliminary principles we use in class to facilitate this learning process.
The first principle in Tai Chi is that we learn how pay attention to what we do. As we are mainly concerned with developing our health, which is a good starting point for everything else, we learn to pay attention to the body. By paying attention to the body (i.e. being aware) we can discover a great deal about how we use it and start to develop a tangible sense of and a good relationship with this our essential internal architecture. From here we can foster such skills as learning how to relax and move with ease, structural integrity, balance and strength. And of course paying attention to the body and immersing yourself in the direct experience of its myriad perceptions is as much of a mental as it is a physical process. I cannot focus upon feeling and sensing the body clearly if my mind is otherwise engaged and I am thinking about something else. Through practise I can learn to engage my mind in a wholesome way and orient it to the present moment. Often we find that our minds consist of a constant chatter and we can live a ‘top-heavy’ existence. Learning to pay attention to the body promotes a much more democratic and accurate life!
For those people who are interested in sports or martial arts the skill of paying attention can make all the difference to your ability because it directly challenges inefficient movement and habitual ‘mistakes’ because you notice much more of what you do. It keeps you grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off on auto-pilot. Through paying attention I can acquire the feedback necessary to distinguish what the body actually does rather than what I think it does and often these are two different things! For example, I might think that my posture is quite well balanced but when I stand up and really focus upon feeling (i.e. pay attention to) what my body does I actually discover that I have a tendency to lean right back. Similarly, I might consider myself to be quite a relaxed person but on a physiological level my adrenals have been working on overtime for years to keep me alert (stressed) and this has simply become my normal mode of existence so I do not notice it. Through being aware we have a chance to facilitate improvement on many levels.
Practising this preliminary principle of Tai Chi is not particularly easy to begin with, far from it! However, it is very satisfying and is something that we can continue to improve that provides a constant refinement of our enjoyment of life.