Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tai Chi - A Personal Breakthrough


After eighteen years of struggle, practice, stopping practice for a month or two, and some outward success with my Tai Chi, this fall brought a breakthrough. One morning, not initially more unusual than other daybreaks, there was a formidable sensation of energy coming from the thigh area and being directed by the waist and flowing into my arms. The feeling of power and control was initially mind-boggling. It was so beyond anything previously experienced I was in awe of what was happening. I just kept doing set after set and used the energy to answer questions of how a move should correctly be done. The energy was so real my mind’s eye could clearly picture it flowing from place to place in the body. By the afternoon of this day, I started to look for answers in my many Tai Chi and Qigong books. Was this chi?
There were no descriptions that really fit so what does a 21st century person do? They google a description of their feeling and see what comes up.
Right at the top of the search results was an article by William C.C. Chen about the vastus medialis (Chen 2010) initiating moves. Really? I started reading and rereading the article and the similarities of his description to my experience were startling. Getting some kind of confirmation was reassuring so I went back to my experimenting. Bagua seemed to ground this energy out in a way – at least the way I do it which is very much as a beginner. My Bagua practice only started about a year ago and I have not been very serious about it until the last 2 – 3 months.
Even though during Bagua, the power and energy seemed to almost be blocked, I could do another set of Tai Chi and it was back. Then preserving this new feeling became very important so I started doing some Qigong thinking this would help preserve the energy flow and not let me burnout. So far – so good!
The next day I woke up and went out to the living room to do another set and this incredible feeling was still there just as powerful as the day before. I continued to use this time to refine moves that had vexed me in the past. My sense was that it was important not to let myself get carried away by euphoria, emotions of joy, or feelings of personal power so I was very careful to monitor those types of feelings and thoughts and not let them hold sway.
The third morning I started to do the set and felt like a dead battery. The distinct body feelings and sensations were completely gone and I was back to feeling like a Tai Chi novice. But, was I really the same person as the one before the experience?

So, now what?

I tried doing Qigong and Bagua and more sets. After a few days it seemed prudent to try and recharge by doing other exercises and backing off a bit on the Tai Chi. I consulted my Tai Chi teacher. But, no matter what, the direct feeling of power and chi (?) flow were gone, or, were they?
What I started to realize was that in spite of the fact the “experience” was over, there were some lasting changes.  There was a real sense of whether my feet were rooted or not and that started to become very important in my practice. And, my arm movements and kicks really were directed by an energy emanating from the waist and vastus medialis, though not the immediate and conscious feeling of the chi moving like during my awakening.  There was a more indirect and still somewhat magical feeling in many of the moves that my arms and legs were being moved by the waist. The ability to pump energy from the vastus medialis has not returned.

What is Tai Chi to me?

Up until recently, I looked at Tai Chi as a way to keep my body flexible. My lower back has also improved to the point that routine chiropractor visits have been eliminated. Martial arts have always fascinated me and the history and lore of Tai Chi can be an interesting read.
After discovering the feeling of the waist almost magically moving my arms, Tai Chi has taken on a different meaning to me. Waist turn moves the arms! I heard my teachers say this so many times. And, I would turn my waist first and then move my arms – but, I was still consciously moving my arms using arm and shoulder muscles. All of sudden my arms seemed to moving without any use of a muscle and feel like they are floating into the moves.
This new experience of moving the body has created a completely new way of experiencing the set. I am only writing this article now to encourage others who maybe like me have practiced their set for years and maybe videotaped themselves one day and thought that they might as well quit.
I am glad I did not give up, but really have no idea what kept me to persist for 18 years when progress seemed so slow. And, the few times I videotaped myself, the creature that was woodenly performing the set was so unlike the picture in my head, it was almost heart-breaking and a couple times did cause me to seriously contemplate quitting.
In retrospect, what might have been the keys to moving past a plateau?
  • Getting teacher feedback about how much tension there was in my shoulders and starting to sense that and getting them to relax sometimes.
  • Using video of myself. Warning! This could cause you to quit Tai Chi – it happened to me before.
  • Sensing certain clicks and pops indicating muscles remaining tense through certain movements. Stork Spreads Wings seems to give me good feedback about my neck – the levator scapulae in particular along with the intersection point with the trapezius.
  • Bagua strengthened my waist and my awareness of the waist. This position forces awareness of the latissimus dorsi, requires your waist to be turned completely in one direction or the other, and strengthens the muscles used in waist turning. I am just a beginner and have only a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of the moves. However, even that has made a tremendous difference.
  • Doing three Tai Chi sets per day along with practicing the Bagua Sun Style moves that I could remember.
  • The 2011 Tai Chi School Summer camp on Orcas Island helped break through some mental blocks about my practice and self-image. I was stuck on many levels and the camp inspired me to practice more which starting right after camp I did.
  • Good physical conditioning. I am 57 now and am fairly active physically working part-time as a bicycle tour guide, recently completing the P90X exercise series, and doing self-supported cycle touring with my most recent tour spending a month touring Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands and the Oregon Coast camping most of the time.

What is happening now?

Now, I feel like a beginner again because only now do I understand a little of what Tai Chi is about. Until a couple months ago, I did not understand what chi was and still am not 100% sure, though that energy surging from my vastus medialis fits most of the classical descriptions of chi.
When I turn the waist all the way to the right or left, I feel a slight pinch in the external abdominal oblique. After feeling that compression/pinch and relaxing the waist and the body, the arms and legs seemingly move by themselves. The explanation is that the latissimus dorsi connects to this muscle and the arm thus moving the arm. The psoas and linguinal ligament connect here as well and that moves the leg. So, this simple twisting of the waist and then relaxing it along with having relaxed shoulders allows the feeling and experience of the waist truly moving the arms and legs. The experience has now given me the ability to sometimes see it in play by other people. That has taken my learning to another level as well.
Now, I am questioning how much I should crank/twist the waist, if at all, on certain moves. I get quicker feedback on problematic areas like tensing my shoulders. If they are tense, my arms don’t move very much now. If my hip area of the unsubstantial leg is tense, the leg does not move properly.
When moves execute properly, it is a very positive experience. I am motivated to practice more and understand now how the camp leader was saying this summer that he is profoundly moved and pleased to do the set every time. I am finding the new awareness creates a more positive framework for doing a set. Maybe an analogy is, like playing keyboards, I was practicing the scales for so long, and now am actually making music.

Gratitude

The experience has given me a new appreciation of the teachers I have had. This feeling of movement now seems simple yet was completely hidden until recently. My different teachers have been trying to convey this all along.
Maybe this article will help those on the brink of discovering this feeling and inspire those thinking of giving up on their practice. I am in complete gratitude to all my teachers for their patience and ability to convey information in a myriad of formats to help me “get it”.  I am thankful to The Tao.

Bibliography

Chen, William C. C. “The Vastus Medialis and Inner Thigh.” www.williamccchen.com. March 29, 2010. http://www.williamccchen.com/Vastus%20Medialis.htm (accessed November 15, 2011).
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© 2012, IMOS Journal. All rights reserved. Please contact the author directly for permission to re-use this material in any other medium or location.

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