Whilst taking my tai chi class last Sunday I was struck yet again by how much one student was over-straining. I had a chat with her and it was clear that she didn’t realise what was happening. It was beyond her awareness. Over the years I’ve struggled with this myself and it is a common pattern that many people have. Tai Chi practice is a microcosm of everyday life and it is therefore no surprise that any of our physical, mental or emotional habits should show up in our practise.
One of the reasons we strain is that we are no longer aware of our body in that moment. Our awareness is totally divorced from our actual experience. We become numb to our body as we get caught up in what we think our movements should look like! We lose ourselves to the ego which starts to compare how we’re doing the movements to Mr or Mrs X. And if Mr X can sink a little deeper or Mr X can kick a little higher our ego will say we can too!
But the fact is that as soon as we are guided by our ego all sense of awareness of our body is lost. We are no longer present and so as a result no longer able to realise when we stretch beyond our capacity. In stretching beyond our capacity we will lose our center and in order not to wobble or fall the natural tendancy is to tighten up. A cycle of strain, tension and eventual fatigue will be the result.
In the West there is a very common tendancy to not just put 100% effort into a task but to go beyond that and put in 150%! This kind of overstrain is of course not sustainable over time and is why so many people eventually burn out.
I know this from my own experience as a professional musician. I used to practise 6-7 hours a day relentlessly on top of my heavy study, rehearsal and concert schedule. I would push myself way beyond my capacity and it was no surprise that some years later I put my violin away for a long break.
One of the reasons that I pushed so hard was of course to get better. And yes with lots of practice one can improve. But I was too caught up in outer appearances! I was comparing my ability with everyone else. If I met someone who could play quicker, then I strove not just to match it but go even quicker. You get the picture. I have been known to be quite competitive in the past! Whilst this did enable me to get better and better I became less and less connected with the one thing that had held so much joy for me whilst falling into a pattern of strain. Whilst I’d got caught up with the ego’s story of being the best I had lost touch with my inner compass and the real reason why I was studying music.
I had found from a very early age that I was happiest whilst playing my violin. I felt the most connected, in flow and on my soul path when the violin was tucked under my chin and the bow was swishing across the strings. Life seemed so easy when in my music and on good days it all just seemed to flow naturally along with effortless ease.
After discovering this sense of being in effortless flow and feeling the expression of inner peace I decided that it would be my life’s mission to find a way of living every moment in that way and not just whilst playing the violin. I later discovered that this is in fact central to many spiritual traditions.
I found that the key to getting out of this cycle of strain and tension is to LET GO! By letting go of the ego, we release any thought of what we think ‘it’ should be like and discover a way of opening ourselves up from the inside to discover all that is hidden within us. And it is by looking inside rather than outside that we can come closer and closer to realising our own hidden capacities and strengths and heal what needs to be healed. The letting go of the ego or grasping tightly of what one thinks ‘it’ should be like, will allow not just our mind to relax but also our body too.
I remember practicing a particularly fast piece of music sometime ago, I was struggling and struggling to get quicker but the more I tried the more tense I became. Suddenly, after much sweating over it, I let go of any struggle and thought “to hell with it..I’m just going to play and I don’t care how it goes!” and in that moment I felt such a release and played it the fastest I had ever played!
Coming back to my Tai Chi student, she was a little stiff in the hips. I explained that in trying to copy someone else who had much more flexible hips and could get much further round, she was forcing her body beyond its capacity and then straining and tighten up as a result her movements became stiff and awkward. It would be more appropriate to understand the motion and only go as far as she could manage with NO strain. This would allow her body to start to let go, soften and relax enabling her as a result to gradually get a little further in time but without the strain. This would have a much more therapeutic effect on her whole body and mind.
And whilst there are correct ways of moving and aligning the body we begin to heal or relax the body through our tai chi practice by understanding where we are coming from, our starting point. if you truly become present and listen deeply to your body, you will start to understand what it is saying to you all the time and in that way you will work with your body and not against it. You will be in flow.