Cold Mountain Internal Arts BLOG instalment #5:
The Five Necessities for Beginners: A Veteran Looks Back.
Richard Rooke (leading a class in the photo) has been a very active member of Cold Mountain Internal Arts since 1998. A retired teacher, he possesses a keen eye and a deep sense for pedagogical principles.
Recently he gave me a list of five factors he regards as essentials for Beginners. With his permission I present them here in italics, along with my own thoughts on applying them. His sixth point is a pure bonus for those of us who are getting older.
1. Release tension in the body:
I think of Ian Sinclair’s joke: “Relax…HARDER!” I am also reminded of one class in which I advised people to “Relax!” and a small voice from the back said, “Steve – if we knew how to relax we wouldn’t be here!” Another issue is that, coming from a Chinese context, relaxation in Tai Chi can mean something very different from what most Westerners understand the word to imply. It can mean the internal stretch that loosens the fascia outwards by overcoming our passive residual tension.
Any actual effort to relax first necessitates an ability to identify tension. This is tricky because aspects of the way we dress, walk, sit and stand all shift the distribution of the various stresses that act upon our bodies, and the cultural adaptations involved create the physical stresses we seek to address with Tai Chi.
For example, our shoes overwhelmingly are shaped to protect the heel of our foot from being bruised as the foot steps out heel-first onto the ground. All footwear, other than some sandals and moccasins, have heels to afford us protection from being bruised. But wearing shoes with heels shifts the angle of the pelvis so that the tailbone and butt are lifted, and the lumbar curve is accentuated, thus increasing tension in the lower back. In the case of high heels the issue is accentuated and accompanied by deliberate activation of the calf and thigh muscles. Accentuation of secondary sexual characteristics comes at a price!
So the first and perhaps most important lesson is how to sink into wujibu. The entire zone of the hips and lower abdomen must relax so that the tailbone drops, the pelvis shifts and the lumbar spine flattens. As this happens the tension held in the butt and abdomen is released and the entire zone softens. To paraphrase The Classics, “One must sink into a clarity of relaxation.”
This is known as “sinking the qi”.
2. Raise the energy:
As one sinks into the hips, simultaneously the head is suspended from the crown. This means that as the dorsal and lumbar areas extend, so too does the cervical spine. The entire spine is therefore stretched and lengthened as one sinks into wujibu. There simultaneously is the sense of a heightened awareness. As The Classics go on to state, one is “ready for anything from any of the eight directions.”
The traditional understanding is that when the “qi is sunk”, energy rises like a mist. As Yang Cheng Fu says in the first of his Ten Essential Points, “An intangible and lively energy lifts the crown of the head.”
This movement of energy generates a sense of warmth and ease, and clarifies the thoughts. One is not focused heavily upon technique or physical action. Rather, there is a sense of lightness, attentiveness and receptivity. If a fly alights upon you, you will move.
3. Develop concentration:
You have to learn to pay attention. As you move you must be aware of the weight shifting, of the limbs moving in coordination, of the direction of your gaze, and of the inner movements of tension and release that either accompany motion or inhibit it. This is absorptive concentration, the prerequisite for any kind of meditation. It constitutes a subjective awareness that is calm and not heavily fixated. One is alert to the moment.
Simultaneously your mind holds an awareness of where you are in the sequence of movements that constitute the form. The fact that you combine both this objective sense of your place in the sequence with absorptive concentration in the moment means that your mind is functioning simultaneously on more than one level.
By definition, this is mindfulness meditation.
4. Seek the flow:
As one club member put it, “It feels like a roller coaster!”
Tai Chi is based on rhythms. There is the rise and fall of the breath and an accompanying sense of movement that seems like an inner wave.
The four fundamental movements of Tai Chi are sinking, rising, extension and release. These all appear in almost every movement. Certainly release does, as it triggers the transition from one shape or posture to the next.
Richard points out that seeking the flow takes time and is usually not accessible to the beginner. Beginners are focused primarily on the demands of sequencing. For a beginner, the form consists of a collection of postures and the student must proceed from one to the next. Only when this is no longer a huge priority can the flow manifest, and it manifests as the cumulative effect of the earlier points in this list. It is also at this point that the breathing becomes natural.
As one realizes the inner sense of flow, one accesses deeper levels of relaxation and more energy. In turn, these result in more flow…and so it goes! This is a big part of what some folks call “the magic”.
It takes time. Initially you have bits of it but, as familiarity with the entirety of the form increases, the flow develops.
5. All failures are important:
You’ll never be perfect, so don’t get hung up on it! You will always be changing and developing, just as the masters do. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn and to develop, so welcome them and never indulge in being impatient with yourself!
One classic mistake is forgetting where you are in the form. One reason for this is that over-familiarity with it has caused you to go on auto-pilot…until you suddenly come to and realize that you are lost. In other words, you have lapsed into a kind of distraction or unconsciousness and have suddenly become aware. This reassertion of awareness is something to celebrate!
Another cause for forgetfulness is when something has changed, or when your absorptive concentration becomes aware of a new factor in your Tai Chi. The sudden sense of unfamiliarity momentarily throws you off. But what is happening is that this sense of unfamiliarity is actually a peak-learning instant. Relish it!
And a final bonus point that is important for all of us who are getting a bit older…
6. We must all accommodate change as we age and move through time:
As we get older we change. Acceptance of change is one of the most important lessons the art has for us.
As I have gotten older I have become aware of my compulsiveness and my tendency to go at it too hard. For me the changes of age have meant that I must beware of over-training. I need to more efficiently manage my energies so as to avoid injury and be serviceable to others. I need to know when to sit down and watch.
A much older practitioner once said to me that for her, in her mid-eighties, one of the most important lessons was to have an acceptance of death. She said that Tai Chi had given her a quality of ease and serenity in the face of impending death. This had immeasurably enhanced her quality of life.
It is a matter of being gentle with oneself.
It is a gift of age and the art!