By Won Do-Laura Samuels
Awareness of our physical being can be a pathway for deepening our Buddhist practice. I have discovered, in my long-time practice of Tai Chi, benefits for my spirit, mind and body. Tai Chi is a discipline that fosters a mindful physical consciousness by using movement to cultivate positive energy or Chi and its movement through the body.
The practice of Tai Chi as the series of slow, flowing moves that you may have seen in
the parks around the city is referred to as "playing the form."
The form is beautiful to watch. The simplicity of its presentation, however, is deceptive because these movements require intense concentration and must be executed with precision. Learning and refining the form may take years of practice.
In this article I attempt to convey some aspects of what Tai Chi is about, but it is such a complex and multifaceted practice that I want to emphasize the limits of this description and my experience. Tai Chi encompasses Taoist theory, martial arts and touches upon Traditional Chinese medicine. It is flexible yet extremely precise. It looks easy, is appropriate for any fitness level, yet can take a lifetime to master. I've been practicing for more than a decade and I am still learning to refine the movements and deepen my practice.
Precision of movement in Tai Chi helps cultivate the balance. Feet are positioned at 45 or 90 degrees in relation to the primary direction points, (N,S,E,W). As you move through the form the body will face all of these orientations. The body is aligned by placing head, shoulders, hips, knees toward one direction at a time. The weight is evenly distributed until it is purposefully shifted from left to right or the reverse. Gross imbalance in the body can be created by habits as simple as leaning to one side or the other. Regular Tai Chi practice with its consistent focus upon body alignment helps bring the body back into balance. Chi flows more easily through a correctly aligned and balanced body.
People often wonder, "What is chi, or, what does chi feel like?" Everyone can feel chi, which is the body's life energy, if they take the time to. Simply calming the mind and allowing the sensations of the body to arise is all it takes. Cultivating beneficial chi, however, is done through a combination of this awareness and physical work, which is why Tai Chi stimulates the production of more improved chi. For example, hands are major conduits for chi. As you play the form, the palms face and 'communicate' with each other, thus stimulating the chi as you move and hold a "ball" of energy, shifting it from one side to the other. Also, chi is often blocked by stiff underused joints. Tai chi movements are intended to open up the major joints in the body so the chi can flow through more easily. Although Tai Chi is physically rigorous, you will feel less tired and more dynamic after playing the form because you have created more energy than you have expended.
We cultivate a sense of balance and centeredness by moving the body more fully from the center outward in Tai Chi practice. As the arms and hands move they deceptively appear to float, however, this floating gesture is actually a dynamic movement originating from the center of the body. Hand movement, for example, is powered from the shoulder. Movement that starts from the body's center is a fundamental distinction of Tai Chi practice; it is also why the Tai Chi player appears to move so naturally and easily. This is in stark contrast to the disconnected movement of arms and legs that most people develop over time. The ubiquitous activity of keyboarding is a good example. Continuous typing on a keyboard can cause a lot of damage because it is a repetitive activity that is removed from the body's center. This action blocks the flow of chi and often results in numbness or pain in the wrists and hands, commonly known as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Tai Chi's emphasis upon intention resonates with the Buddhist practice of living in each moment. The nuance of each body movement has a specific intention or concentration. In Tai Chi a simple step is accomplished by lifting the body and letting the feet naturally follow the intention of the motion, rather than stepping out in a disjointed way with the leg. The body's weight continually and deliberately shifts from left to right, forward and back, circulating the chi. I have found that when the mind is concentrating harmoniously with the body there is less mental chatter going on, which deepens the experience. Movement with intention cultivates an awareness that guides the flow of chi.
Popular exercise often does not engage the mind/heart intention. If you jog on a treadmill while reading a magazine you are not cultivating your body's awareness. And I think this may be why some exercisers are not receiving the physical benefits that are equal to the effort they are putting forth; and a few actually take on a less health appearance. Movements that reflect intention, however, embody the purpose of physical well being. Intention of movement can be expressed, for example, when you turn the body, look with the eyes, and then move the body by stepping and moving arms in that direction. The awareness of moving with intention helps you feel the energy in your body. Through continuous practice you can become awakened to your body and carry that focus with you at all times. This focus is what it means to be centered physically.
The Tai Chi form is always begun with a standing meditation. We refer to this as "opening the gate." You cannot just rush in and "do a little Tai Chi." Unless you first cultivate the right frame of mind, calm the body, regulate the breath, and sink the weight, these movements would be pointless. We "sink" our weight by letting go of tension and grounding the feet firmly to the floor to draw in earthly energy. Commonly, people are disconnected from their roots to the earth and carry lots of tension high in the upper body: head, neck, shoulders and chest. Tai Chi helps reverse this unnatural imbalance. When you let go of this tension, you can move the arms easily, the neck is less stiff and the face will actually appear less combustible. You will feel less tired for the simple reason that you are not hauling around all of this unnecessary negative energy.
As a Won Buddhist, I understand that true consciousness is free from physical form. However, I have found that corporeal awareness has a bearing upon basic tenets of Buddhism. We attempt meditation to stop the mind from thinking and identifying with the self as a separate being from all other forms, which is the essence of dualism. I think most Buddhists would agree that setting the mind aside is not easily done. However, Tai Chi's natural movements actually induce a quieter mind. And, learning how to focus the mind on the nuances of Tai Chi brings your focus intensely into the present moment.
When you are deeply rooted within your body, outside events are less disturbing. You are able to perceive the mind and its activity with more acuity. In Tai Chi we use the analogy of a tree being deeply rooted in the earth, having flexible, flowing branches. We consider this an optimal way of being that takes advantage of the nourishing energy from the earth through strong roots while being open to the energy of the heavens through light flexible branches. The deeper understanding of the body's energy, breathing and movement that can be achieved with Tai Chi allows you to live in your body more fully and comfortably. A guiding principle of Buddhist practice is to understand and to be your true self, which becomes distorted and obscured by thinking and delusion. A solid and balanced physical presence makes overcoming delusion easier because you have firmly established something beyond the mind of your egoic, smaller self.