The taiji (tai chi) classics refer to the ultimate purpose of practice:
. . . with your whole being, develop your life.
Taiji is a multi-dimensional (physical/mental/spiritual) and multi-modal (combining balance, strength, coordination, dynamic stretching, and moderate aerobic) form of exercise, and the bounteous physical and mental benefits of meditation and exercise have been known throughout history and continue to be documented in research today. These benefits clearly improve our quality of life, but the special benefit of taiji philosophy and practice is how it lets us continue to live stronger, happier, and wiser as we grow older.
People initially come to taiji for different reasons, but as we progress and begin to realize the benefits of practice, at some point to continue improving a natural evolution is to bring our practice to daily life. But how do we actually expand our taiji practice to daily life—how can we practice all of the time, and not only at class or during our limited personal practice time?
Here are a few ways to do this. In Part I below we’ll look at two simple physical reminders, and in Part II we’ll take up mental/spiritual principles. The list of reminders is intentionally short. I did not want to repeat the principles and techniques of taiji/qigong and meditation and say “do this all the time,” but rather was aiming for reminders that are simple (though not always easy), can be applied at any time (regardless of where you are or what you may be doing), reflect the foundational principles of taiji and qigong, and can be easily remembered. My experience has been that, if you can remind yourself to do these simple things during daily tasks or events, the remainder of your training will kick in automatically—commensurate of course with the quantity and quality of gongfu you have already built in meditation, qigong, form, agility, and push-hands training.
. . . if you can remind yourself to do these simple things during daily tasks or events, the remainder of your training will kick in automatically—commensurate of course with the quantity and quality of gongfu you have already built in meditation, qigong, form, agility, and push-hands training.
Before jumping into our list, I would say that I hope you are blessed with ample physical labor in your daily life. Physical labor obviously provides the greatest opportunity to bring practice of the physical principles of taiji to daily life. Remember that the folks that created taiji were farmers. (Here I am referring to well-established and documented taiji history based on the evolution of forms originally created in the Chen family village in Henan, China.) And not “ride-in-air-conditioned John Deere tractor” farmers, but “work the plow behind oxen” farmers. These original creators of taiji were certainly physically strong people who had ample physical exercise in their daily life. One can only imagine what they would say about sitting at a computer all day every day.
If you do have a more sedentary job, I would highly recommend cross training—swimming, hiking, whatever you like—to get the recommended amount of cardiovascular exercise. There has been a significant amount of research in the last decade or so documenting the health perils of too much sitting, and excess sitting has even been referred to as “the new smoking.” Here is one simple summary on the perils of excess sitting. I also suggest taking time to stand and move every hour if you are stuck at a desk, and if possible to get a standing desk.
Now on to our list.
Relax your shoulders
In our blog entry Why Standing? I explained that learning to relax the shoulders is a fundamental purpose of standing. Only by learning to relax the shoulders can one begin to habitually recruit the powerful core musculature which, combined with the Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC), or “elastic force,” is integral to the physical mechanisms of internal power. (We detailed the physical characteristics of internal power in three previous posts : 1)
Physical mechanisms Part I, 2) Physical mechanisms Part II, and 3) More on physical mechanisms: understanding the elastic force.)
And so in whatever you are doing, a simple way to bring your nei dan gongfu to daily life and recruit core musculature is to just remind yourself to relax your shoulders. In my experience if you remember this one simple thing all of the postural principles internalized in your practice will automatically come back. You will correct/adjust your posture, stance, and footwork strategy without further conscious attention, and you will then be able to use internal power to exert greater force, without tiring. It may even be fun, as you begin to recognize and treat the labor task as training.
And so in whatever you are doing, a simple way to bring your gongfu to daily life is to just remind yourself to relax your shoulders . . . if you remember this one simple thing all of the postural principles internalized in your practice will automatically come back.
To do this requires a heightened degree of awareness, calmness, and acceptance of the moment or task at hand, as opposed to hurrying to get it done. (These are of course mental tasks, and heightened awareness will be further discussed in Part II of this article, but at some point it becomes difficult to speak of yang without yin.) All of these principles mentioned—posture, stance, angles/footwork, efficient use of force, awareness, calmness, and acceptance of the moment—are critical for martial application. (The martial strategies and skills of taiji were detailed in a previous two-part blog article: Part I (physical) and Part II (mental).) They are also all elements of efficient daily labor, and for enjoying the labor.
The simple reminder of relaxing the shoulders can apply to any daily physical task. Here’s one example from my own recent experience. My task was to uncouple threaded pipes with pipe wrenches. At first I just thought about getting it done fast and attempted to turn the wrenches with an awkward body position and angle of attack—with the expected result of using my back and shoulders for force exertion. Within seconds the job became unpleasant, and I quickly tired and was not able to loosen the pipes. I then simply thought “relax your shoulders,” and automatically took steps necessary to readjust my posture/position. Immediately I could feel the expansion in my lower abdomen as the core musculature engaged and force output increased, and I easily loosened the pipes. As the navy SEALS say, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
One more fun example. This time the task was to install a garbage disposal. I and two other experienced people tried but even after an hour were unable to “muscle” it with enough force to attach it completely. Finally, and after a little French, one person (a taiji student) readjusted his body and actually rested the disposal on his dantian (lower abdomen) to position it and push upward—it then attached quite easily, with relatively little energy expenditure. Nothing more satisfying than when the students in our class teach me. 🙂
Even if the task is more passive, the simple reminder to relax the shoulders will bring your practice to daily life. For example, when standing in line, if you do think “relax the shoulders” you will automatically adjust your posture and relax body and mind; if you are lucky enough to have a long wait you may even automatically enter standing meditation mode. 🙂 And of course when sitting at a desk typing, the reminder to relax the shoulders will automatically prompt you to adopt optimal posture. There is literally no task in which we can’t use this reminder to bring both physical and mental principles of practice to daily life.
There is literally no task in which we can’t use this reminder [of relaxing the shoulders] to bring both physical and mental principles of practice to daily life.
Be silent, make no sound as you move (i.e. control your energy)
Another reminder is simply to practice moving silently—in other words, to move with intention and control of your energy. We practice the form slowly because the improvements in motor control—intra- and inter-neuromuscular coordination—are best effected in mindful slow movement. We bring this gongfu to our push-hands and agility drills during practice time. When practicing the quicker-moving agility drills we often remind students to move as silently as possible, thereby practicing controlling their energy. For example when jumping the students are encouraged to land silently, which requires considerably more motor control, and is further practice of the lightness, agility and power developed in form and meditation practice.
This practice of moving silently is easily brought to any movement in daily life. For example, if you are walking or even jogging, try to do so not in a lazy manner producing a “thudding” sound, but silently. You will quickly see that, as with the reminder to relax the shoulders, you will instinctively adopt all the postural principles of your taiji practice. This simple mindful practice also has considerable benefit as we grow older. For example, the conscious exercise of inter-muscular coordination (i.e. interactions of agonist, antagonist and stabilizer muscle groups) will help us to avoid falls in daily activities such as walking stairs. Of course, heightened awareness and presence in the moment is probably the single most important factor in avoiding any accident, but one also must have the physical ability to move quickly and with precision to avert many mishaps.
This reminder applies to hands as well as feet. When grasping something, do it gently, with control, and feel the object in your hand. Just as you “listen” to your partner when pushing-hands, feel the texture and weight of the object in your hand and the force of gravity you are working against. Lift and set the object down silently and with intention. Use only the amount of force necessary to do the task with your hands (which probably involves relaxing the shoulders 🙂 ). Again this practice will make any activity safer, and I think more fun.
So the reminders to:
- relax the shoulders; and
- move silently with intention and control of your energy,
are two simple ways to extend practice of taiji movement to any daily life task. In the next part (and possibly the magnum opus of our blog) we’ll look at two simple ways to bring mental/spiritual training to daily life.