First published in no. 46 edition of ‘Tai Chi Chuan’ Magazine
Daniel: “When do I learn how to punch?”
Mr. Miyagi: “Better to learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, then karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, then better pack up, go home. Understand?”
Excerpt from ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984)
For me Taiji is the art of balance and the ability to ‘stay balanced’ is one of the key skills that we consistently work on in all of our training. It underpins everything we do, for as our ability to be balanced improves so too does all other aspects of our movement. Balance, however, is an idea that can be quite misunderstood. People often tell me: “Oh, I just couldn’t do Taiji; my balance is no good!” This is usually accompanied by a hazardous-looking tottering on one leg as if to demonstrate the point. It’s funny really because while balance is something that people perceive to be perhaps an obviously difficult part of Taiji training it is in fact fundamental to everything that we do as human beings.
We all have the ability to stay balanced to varying degrees otherwise any movement would be impossible and balance certainly refers to much more than just standing on one leg. The simple ability to walk on two legs for example, is an incredible evolutionary achievement comprising a profound balancing act that relates through the whole body, from head to toe. However, we rarely appreciate this simple thing. So to the many people who say to me that they simply just cannot stand on one leg I like to point out that every time we get up off the sofa and take a single step we are in fact balancing, albeit briefly, on one leg. In fact, when we walk we spend about 80% of the time on one leg. [i]
The reasons why we evolved into bi-pedal creatures in the first place are widely debated but one thing is for sure: we sacrificed a great deal of natural animal strength and agility in order to free up our hands so that we might manipulate our environment. Furthermore, this evolutionary step was inherently bound up with the development of much larger brains, which has its pros and cons! Whereas all animals demonstrate amazing physical and sensory feats as a matter of course, we modern humans seem to struggle with achieving and maintaining the basics. Our big brains get in the way. Even Olympic athletes who are generally considered to epitomise peak physical excellence, dedicate themselves to full-time training in order to achieve kinds of body movement, which compared to our animal friends, are pretty elementary. More often than not said athletes seriously damage themselves both physically and psychologically in the process of doing so while animals, on the other hand, do not. It is a curious phenomenon which I think relates to our tendency to control and manipulate rather using awareness to discover and work with our inherent natural ability.
Four legs good, two legs bad?
In terms of human evolution standing on two legs is still a very new thing. You never know, perhaps it will eventually go out of fashion and we will devolve back into being more stable, grounded creatures. For unlike our quadruped ancestors and our modern four legged friends, our upright bi-pedal stance requires a much more meticulous balancing act.
Some years ago when I had a dog I would often marvel at his natural abilities. Not only were his senses amazingly acute but also his body extremely well tuned. If I pushed him gently on his flank his whole body would compress naturally like a spring in order to stabilise. If I pushed him more he would just compress more. Sometimes I would push him and then quickly let go but he would never lose his balance, instead he would simply return back to his neutral stance with a yawn. He used to seem to like this game and when I was practising he would often come and lean heavily on my leg inciting me to experience my own tensional balance more clearly. Or perhaps he was just getting his own back?
Being a Biped and staying upright is a challenging feat which involves every part of the body and although we are not usually conscious of it there is a plethora of constant adjustments, some minute, some gross, occurring across the entire body structure at all times. If we wanted to build a basic bi-pedal robot that exhibited the ever adaptive and perceptive skills seen in humans necessary for a lifetimes worth of walking, this would be a very difficult challenge indeed. Standing, walking, running, sitting, lying, you name it, our bodies are ever active in the management of this dynamic, three dimensional balance. Furthermore, our state of mind is inextricably linked to this never-ending process. If we are relaxed and calm for example, we find that any movement is generally easier and more importantly our perception of balance usually much clearer. You would never know unless you specifically paid a lot of attention to it and thus experienced it for yourself.
Updating our understanding of the human body structure and how it moves can really help to inform our concept of balance. Unfortunately, traditional models of anatomy are of little use. Instead of balance simply referring to standing on one leg and our ability to do so merely governed by a group of local muscles, overseen somehow by the inner ear, we can turn to the wonderful concept of Tensegrity (which I have mentioned before in this series) for a much more lifelike and useful model. The concept of Tensegrity, also known as Biotensegrity[ii], is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, of which the human body is a prime example, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system: every part is involved. If we take time to look more closely at nature we can see this kind of structure everywhere. In humans this occurs via the spring-like three dimensional myofascial web instead of being dealt with locally as in lever systems, which is how, somewhat misleadingly, anatomy and movement have been traditionally understood:
“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” – R. Buckminster Fuller[iii]
This new model of the human body gives us a more accurate way of understanding balance as being an intelligent and integrated interplay between strength, stability, mobility and perception across the whole body in relation to gravity. Facilitated by the myofascial web, all bodily systems collaborate inextricably to distribute gravity, movement and tension throughout the entire body and collaboratively organise the most appropriate response i.e. balance. Tensegrity is thus at play continuously throughout the human body and comprises the basis for how we retain our form when we move or remain seemingly motionless. Contemporary research into Fascia and Tensegrity is fascinating and is coming on in leaps and bounds.[iv] One interesting discovery is that as well as fascia’s vital structural functions it also comprises one of our richest sensory organs being heavily laced with mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors. These receptors can be incredibly perceptive and inform our nervous system with all the essentials for successful movement, balance and interaction with the external world.[v] You could even describe the inherent sensing abilities of fascia as being our sixth sense. The most salient point here however is that a body that is free from restriction will exhibit these natural ability exponentially – so if you want to move well and stay balanced, first relax!
Just like riding a bike
Improving balance takes lots of practise and ongoing maintenance. A clearer understanding of what the term refers to can really help improve one’s training approach and here an analogy might be helpful. Learning to stay balanced is like when we first learn to ride a bicycle. To begin with it seems almost impossible to stay up on those two thin wheels and as we slowly wobble along, desperate to travel in a straight line, we make drastic manoeuvres in a bid to control our movement. This is especially so when we sense that we are losing balance, which to begin with is all the time! We panic, go rigid and thus inevitably we fall off our trusty steed. Through trial and error we learn that in order to stay balanced we have to ‘do’ much less and instead constantly ‘feel’ all the nuances of ourselves and the bike and our motions to maintain this must be fluid, relaxed and thoroughly in tune with the present moment. So after a few falls and scuffs our attempts to control lessen considerably and our motions become smoother and more natural. As we progressively relax we slowly and surely learn to navigate by the subtle but constant whole-body adjustments led by our intent to stay balanced rather than our original erratic to-ing and fro-ing.
Essentially there is no other way; you have to learn from your own experience and this is facilitated by making lots of little mistakes, by losing balance in fact. Mistakes are vital for learning and so we must not fear them but instead embrace them! Interestingly enough I suspect that no matter how much theory one knew about the laws of physics it wouldn’t help to learn to ride a bicycle any quicker. Direct experience is the best teacher and theory, while being important, is well just theory. In the same way a map of a place is useful for navigation it can never replace actually being in that place and experiencing it for yourself. I’ve met many physiotherapists and manual therapists over the years who have a really deep intellectual understanding of the human body but have very restricted body movement and poor balance themselves (too much time sitting down reading books). I find the incongruence between the two quite fascinating and the prospect of someone who cannot balance very well trying to teach someone else how to do it even more intriguing! It’s difficult to convey to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of simple practise and experience![vi] I would rather know very little information and possess the golden sensation of freedom of movement than the other way around. The best way to understand and improve balance then is to feel it, and often our first most essential step is simply sensing our lack of it.
To begin with it is most useful to start with a simple exercise such as Zhanzhaung (Standing Meditation) in order to concretely experience and identify this whole body balance. For learning how to balance when standing in a simple ‘neutral’ position should be quite easy when compared to complicated movements or extreme stretches. If we assume a basic ‘Wuji’ standing posture with our arms hanging by our sides our first objective then is to find out how we balance in order to maintain this simple position. Before I even start to think about ‘doing anything’ I must first observe and simply sense my whole body in order to find out what is happening currently without interference or intervention. If this sounds easy then let me clearly state that it isn’t. It requires a lot of ongoing practise.
“Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.”[vii]
Most people struggle to feel their body without a strong stimulus and usually we discover that our bodies actually behave differently to how we think they do. In our culture we can observe a vast imbalance between mind and body i.e. between thinking and perception. Mental activity dominates everything we do and our down-to-earth sense perception takes a distinct back seat. Even when we take up a more holistic exercise it’s all too easy to retain our mentally dominant approach and continually try to force ourselves to practise with significant incongruence between what’s happening in our mind and the more accurate, real time experience of the body.
When I first started to learn Taiji I bought and read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on. I memorised all of the information because I mistakenly thought that Taiji was mainly about thinking. Rapidly, my head became full of complicated ‘Taiji ideas’ but at ground level I couldn’t even manage the very basics. In fact, the complicated and sometimes nonsensical theory distinctly distracted me from good practise. Instead of reading books I should have just relaxed and trained the basics more. Fortunately, commonsense prevailed when I met my current teachers and I worked it out in the end!
One of the best things about Taiji is that we want to address this mind/body imbalance distinctly, right from the start because the first and most important skill we learn is to pay attention to what we are doing in the present moment both physically and mentally. It’s as simple as that. This can form an ongoing and substantial challenge for most people and what a superb challenge it is! If we stick at it, slowly but surely we can develop a much more balanced state of being, calm and assertive, but also begin to experience the sweet pleasure of natural movement, strength and agility unimpeded by unnecessary control, force and effort.
Don’t think, feel!
Through basic standing practise we can discover all kinds of nuggets of wisdom. For example we might discover that it is difficult to concentrate on feeling the body as our mind keeps on interrupting; you just cannot think and feel at the same time. Even thoughts about Taiji will detract from the job in hand! It seems to be in the nature of the mind to keep wondering off so I like to approach paying attention as if were a game to play or puzzle to solve. Similarly, we may discover that there are lots of areas of the body that we just can’t sense at all. Our aim is to be able to feel the whole-body. Corrections and adjustments from a good teacher are invaluable because we all have strange postural habits that are difficult to sense. I remember gently correcting a student’s standing posture some years ago and when I quietly said “Relax” he barked loudly back “I AM RELAXED!!”. We laughed about it later! Often we initially discover just how much tension we hold on to in various parts of the body that impede the tentative, fluid balance and strength of the whole and this is vital for progress.
Standing with one’s eyes closed often makes is easier to concentrate and feel what the body is up to. Usually people find that the body is hardly still at all but constantly adjusting, albeit in a minute way. If we were to imagine our skeleton floating unimpeded within the interwoven mesh of fascia combined the constant downward flow of gravity to make us stable then this would give us a good idea of what we are working towards. Stiff, locked joints and rigid, restricted parts of the body impede movement and hamper the natural ability of the body to work as a whole. So an important part of our training is learning to relax all the bits that we have conditioned, either consciously or unconsciously, to be tense. Gradually, with ongoing practise we can build a progressively more accurate, three dimensional ‘felt’ map of the body and what an excellent basis for movement and balance this makes! People often mention coordination (or lack of) in terms of the difficulty in learning Taiji. Coordination, however, implies separate parts but once you start to experience the body as an interconnected unit, a whole piece like a snake, then this term goes out of the window!
(Walking) The Walk
Once we have got to grips with basic standing training another excellent exercise to try out and test our newfound sense of the whole body balance is slow walking. For as our velocity decreases our perception of balance and movement greatly increases. For in Taiji to move quickly we must first learn to move slowly. Students usually find this slow ‘Taiji walking’ surprisingly challenging as it requires mental concentration and physical perception in equal measure. Here we can easily discover that with each slow step our awareness floods to the oft neglected legs and the feet; they constantly support the rest of the body and provide key feedback as to how we are moving. Similarly we might discover a whole host of postural tendencies we habitually assume that actually inhibit our balance without us realising it. The good thing is that once we are aware of something we have a chance to improve it. While in some cases ignorance is bliss, in others it is the backbone of stagnation.
Try it for yourself. First find a clear, even space to practise. Looking straight ahead walk forwards as slowly as you can comfortably manage. Relax your feet, knees, hips and shoulders so that these key players are able to move. As you step allow the heel to contact the ground first letting the rest of the foot roll down towards the toes as you gradually shift your weight forwards. This consciously engages the whole foot each time you step maximising both balance and stability. Beginners will probably find that they want to look down at their feet to see where they are going but instead we want to aim to look forwards. The human head is quite heavy and so if you look down your centre of gravity shifts compromising your balance. Instead, you want to ‘feel’ your balance with your feet and pelvis, your centre of gravity and eventually simply with your whole body just like when we were standing earlier. Just take your time, don’t rush and keep it comfortable.
An allusion to a conclusion
The phrase ‘staying balanced’ is actually an umbrella term; we want to promote a balanced, progressive relationship between all the aspects and attributes of our physical and mental world: thinking and feeling, stability and mobility, movement and stillness, slow and fast, tension and relaxation, control and letting go. If we focus upon one attribute too much (and we inevitably always do) we sacrifice something else and start to become less balanced. Like any attribute, balance can be improved through awareness and training. While it isn’t something we might consciously address in our day to day activities, exercise or sport, by simply becoming aware of and improving our balance we can vastly benefit how our whole system operates. Therefore it seems a sensible place to start. As we move towards a balanced, relaxed and aligned body structure every action we make can become smoother and more natural, economical and ergonomic. This provides an excellent base for speed and strength and forms a basic requirement for pushing hands and more martial training. Similarly, with an elevated sense of this ‘whole-body’ balance we expend much less energy in our activities and many injuries, aches and pains related to posture can be alleviated. Similarly, such balanced physicality supports emotional and mental balance too, for of course they are inextricably linked.
I have outlined the above exercises in a basic way and it is good to keep things simple. In fact, watch out for people who make the simple things sound incredibly complicated! Regular practise of this kind of standing and slow movement is very beneficial as it not only strengthens and stabilises all the joints but also mobilises their functional range of movement. Similarly, it requires a certain kind of concentration that engages and trains the brain in a very wholesome way. All in all it makes for a body/mind that is strong but also, relaxed, stable and balanced and as we say in the Taiji world: ‘Strong like a mountain, fluid like a river’.
[i] For more information take a look at: ‘Born to Walk – Myofascial Effiency and the Body in Movement’ by James Earls. Lotus Publishing, 2014.
[iii] Fuller, B. ‘Synergetics.’ New York: Macmillan. 1975
[iv] I’ve written about Fascia in previous editions or you can check out my blog: theinternalathlete.wordpress.com
[v] Lots of research can be seen here: Schleip, R. et al. ‘Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.’ 2012, Elsevier.
[vi] Nassim Taleb talks about this kind of thing in: ‘ Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder.’ Penguin, 2012.
[vii] Kabat-Zinn, J. ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life.’ 2004. Piatkus