Paying Attention: The Power of Perception

first published in the 2013 spring/summer edition of Tai Chi and Oriental Arts Magazine

If you took footage of a sportsperson engaging in their chosen pursuit and slowed it right down you would immediately be able to see much more detail in the way that they move when compared to a normal speed performance. You could observe significantly more of what was happening in the background too. If you were a bio-mechanic or sports-scientist you could assess their performance, gait, economy of movement and so on and then use this information to help the athlete improve the way that they move. If you could get said athlete into a laboratory, you could attach motion sensors to all of his or her joints and spine and then measure their alignment and efficiency in relation to each other with the help of a computer programme. Further still, you could attach electrodes to the athlete to gauge the quality of muscle tone and distinguish any areas of unnecessary tension. Regular treatments from an osteopath or chiropractor could relieve symptoms of persistent structural misalignments. Perhaps one might even measure their brain activity in a bid to calculate just how well they concentrate and focus and define whether or not they are in ‘the zone’. Or more simply, you could just teach them Tai Chi.

Slowly but surely wins the race...

Slowly but surely wins the race…

Initially, the most distinguishing feature of Tai Chi training is that it is carried out slowly even consisting at times of the absence of obvious external movement entirely (i.e. Zhanzhuang). It is this slowness and stillness that facilitates key neurological and physiological developments in Tai Chi; it allows us time learn how to accurately feel, locate and assess our bodies from the inside out within and in relation to the field of our external environment. Learning how to directly and accurately sense our internal architecture allows us to optimise and integrate our physical and mental capacities to the full and thus produce the health and fitness that is required for a fulfilling life and fundamental in martial arts. As you learn and practise the slow, smooth movements of Tai Chi focusing your mind on the job in hand is essential to develop the ability to perceive and influence the mechanisms of your own inner workings – through practise you can become your own bio-mechanic, your own sports-scientist. As your perception improves you start to clearly feel how the body is connected, moves and operates naturally as an integrated system rather than merely coordinated and controlled separate parts.

Training this way we progressively uncover and augment the natural principles of Tai Chi rather than somehow forcing them into ourselves (a common misconception). The most important concern here is the development of sufficient awareness and perception for without these one cannot discern such essential discrepancies in the body nor clearly and accurately feel how one actually moves and functions. Furthermore, training and augmenting our proprioceptive and kinesthetic faculties directly stabilises and strengthens our body structure by activating usually neglected tonic (postural and slow twitch) motor units.[i] It is slowness and stillness that gives us time to do this, to pay attention to the body and mind and discover what they really do rather than what we think or would like them to do and merely training blindly and incongruently. Intellectually, one might have a deep knowledge of human anatomy, TCM or have read every book on Tai Chi theory but it doesn’t mean you can do Tai Chi. It’s easy to talk the talk but walking the walk comes from ongoing practise and direct experience:

‘If I rely entirely on books then it is better not to have books. If I rely entirely on teachers, then it is better not to have teachers.’ T. T. Liang [ii]

All of us can sense our bodies and minds to some degree for if we couldn’t successful interaction with the external world would be impossible. However, when we really tune in to our physicality it is surprising just how much of our bodies we cannot clearly feel or are completely unaware of. Assuming that our nervous system is working properly there is potentially no part of ourselves that we cannot feel.[iii] However, our habitual mental busyness is a distinct distraction from accurate perception and awareness.[iv] In fact it as though all of our senses are dulled by thinking. Unfortunately, from a young age we are taught to ignore the majority of the body and its sensations in favour of mental activity. We have to sit down all day at school and lose much of our natural strength, awareness and freedom of movement especially in the lower body. Many of us then go on to do sedentary jobs post-education. We can become ‘top-heavy’ with incessant thinking as our body awareness diminishes and we tend to care more about our thoughts and how the body looks from the outside rather than how it feels and works from the inside. It is unfortunate that when we do get around to noticing the body it is usually as we get older and because it is in pain. For many of us even when we exercise and consciously use our bodies the emphasis is upon ‘no pain no gain’ and we blindly and repetitively push the body ever harder ignoring the plethora of physical sensations that suggest that how we are using our bodies is entirely uneconomical.

It seems that we cannot but help to separate mind from body in our culture, even our language necessitates such a divide, but in order to do anything well we have to realise this fundamental error. In order to understand the integrated nature of the mind and body we must recognise that the mind, as a function of the brain, is essentially embodied i.e. a physical thing; the legendary organ simply forms the condensed pinnacle of an extensive nervous system that permeates the whole body.[v] If we approach the mind and body as an integrated unit; we cannot separate training our muscles from our mental activity for they are obviously inextricably linked.[vi] Training the body perceptively necessitates a quietening and training of the mind as it is actively engaged it in its observant and embodied nature.

So the first and most important 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 sensible starting point for everything else, we learn to pay attention to the body and our senses. By paying attention to the body 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 connected strength. 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 or drifting off in some kind of reverie. Through practise I can learn to engage my mind in a wholesome way and orient it to the present moment through my sense perception. Often we find that our minds consist of a constant chatter, by learning to pay attention to the senses we can promotes a much more democratic life rather than simply being governed from the top down.

The skill of paying attention can make all the difference to your ability because it directly challenges inefficient movement, actions and habitual ‘mistakes’ because you learn to 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 very different things. For example, I might think that my posture is quite well balanced because it is habitual, but when I stand up and really focus upon feeling and pay attention to my body I discover that I have a tendency to lean back.[vii] Similarly, I might consider myself to be quite a relaxed person but on a physiological level my adrenals have been working overtime for years to keep me alert or stressed and this has simply become my normal mode of existence so I do not notice it. Through being aware we desist from blindly operating on automaticity and thus have a chance to facilitate improvement in our health and our chosen art on many levels.

So in order to evaluate optimally how we use our bodies it should occur personally from the inside via felt senses such as 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 architecture and the mechanics and processes of our own movement and posture. 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 exhibits a higher than average level of this fascinating attribute and a high-level Tai Chi player perhaps even higher! 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 intellectualising our practise, the body and how it should move and instead gravitate towards developing an accurate felt sense of the direct experience of our bodies and minds in the present moment as a foundation for all subsequent practise.[viii]

It is incredible to note then that usually where we have gaps in our proprioception and kinaesthetic awareness there are habitual restrictions and impingements of movement in the corresponding unfelt parts of the body.[ix] Our connective tissue, the myofascial net that holds the entirety of the human form together from top to toe and essentially comprises our body structure, starts to lose its vital elastic nature and becomes rigid. Similarly, the stability and mobility of the joints diminishes when consistently unfelt and unconsciously used in turn further compromising the structure and function of the whole body. The knock on effect of all this is that without fully engaging our senses the structural integrity of the whole body is compromised which gradually hinders all major functions and movement.[x] To perform any action well we have to work on ridding ourselves of unnecessary tension which impedes our natural motion, perception and flow of awareness. Similarly, we must seek that our entirety works together as a seamless, balanced and homogeneous unit for it is in this direction that health lies. Improving our ability to feel and be mindful of our actions can thus be fundamental to how we improve our health. It all comes down awareness: the essential tool of the mind that firmly roots it back into the body. 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. Deliberately sensing the body brings us directly into contact with the present moment, which is where everything happens, and it trains the mind to focus and disassociate from churning endlessly over as if on automatic pilot. Modern neuroscience literature 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. It also shares some similarities with various ‘Mindfulness’ practises which are fashionable at the moment.

Out of all exercise systems Tai Chi is unique in that it specifically trains proprioception as a most basic and essential requirement. Learning how to feel the entirety of our bodies takes time and practise but as this ability improves so does everything else. It underpins movement, posture, balance and strength. By readdressing the balance between our internal world and the outside we can develop more of an integrated and enjoyable way of life. 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.[xi] In this sense too we can keep our bodies fresh by continually experiencing new ways of moving and by challenging the habitual ways in which we hold ourselves that restrict our natural movement.

Sam Moor teaches Chen style Tai Chi and Yiquan full time across Sussex.


[i] Richardson, C. et al. Therapeutic Exercise For Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain. 1999, Churchill Livingstone.

[ii] Olson, S. Steal my Art: The life and times of Tai Chi Master, T.T. Liang. 2002, North Atlantic Books.

[iii] Myers, T. Anatomy Trains (second edition). 2009, Elsevier.

[iv] Didonna, F. et al. Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness. 2009, Springer.

[v] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

[vi] Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.

[vii] Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.

[viii] Dawkins, R. The Magic of Reality – How we Know What’s Really True. 2011, Bantam Press.

[ix] Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books

[x] Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.

[xi] Siegal, D. The Mindful Brain. 2007, W. W. Norton and Company

This entry was posted in Health and Fitness, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, sports science, Tai Chi, yoga and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Paying Attention: The Power of Perception

  1. Well structured and concise, this is a great blend of scientific and practical advice on the benefits of Tai Chi, it is well researched and balanced in view .well done Sam , a superb piece of writing , this deserves further publication.Enjoyed it immensely, terry greenwell

  2. Pingback: Paying Attention | Shiyong Tai Chi

  3. Pingback: Obraćanje pažnje: moć percepcije | crnagorataiji

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