Sunday, July 17, 2011

Moving Slowly in Tai Chi

Why are tai chi movements done so slowly? I get this question from beginning students. I'm sure most other teachers do, too. There are many benefits to slow movement. As far as I am concerned, one of the major reasons for slow movement is so that the learner can pay attention to every detail. When we move quickly, we move in the way we have always moved. We have habits that we follow. Moving slowly allows us to pay attention to how we want to move instead of how we usually move.

It can be very difficult for beginners to move slowly. They do not have a well-develop sense of proprioception. Their mind is not even aware of where and how their body is placed. A beginning tai chi class starts to develop this skill in the students. With continued practice, they can become aware of and control finer movements.

For more advanced students, slow movements also help you identify the rough edges that need work. Sometimes we don't notice that something isn't quite right until we slow down enough to see it better.

It is important to complete one movement before moving into the next. Beginners often get sloppy when in transition between one form and another. Moving slowly helps them become aware of what is happening. With slow movement, beginners can learn to become more aware of how they are moving from one stance to another.

Tai Chi PrinciplesThere are many principles that students learn as part of their tai chi practice. It would be too much to discuss them all here. I decided to focus on just a few of them to show how slow movement enhances the student's ability to learn and practice them.

Coordinating the upper and lower. The first things students learn is the physical movements of the forms. With slow movement, it is easier to figure out where to place your feet and hands, when and how to turn, and where to look. A common mistake for beginners is to have the lower body move faster than the upper body. In other words, they finish stepping and shifting their weight before they finish their hand movements. Sometimes it is the other way around where they finish their hand movements too soon. Moving slowly allows the learner to understand the relative speeds and how to coordinate the movement. Slow movement allows you to think about and analyze what is happening as you move.

Song. One of the first principles typically taught to students is Song, or relax and loosen. Quick movements hide the tension. It is easier to identify any areas of tightness in the muscles and joints when moving slowly. It allows us to feel every muscle as it contracts and loosens.

Distinguish Between Substantial and Insubstantial. Another common problem for beginners is learning how to step. If the feet make any sound while stepping, it means that the movement is too fast. A common visual used to teach students how to step is to have them imagine walking like a cat. Each foot is carefully placed before any weight is placed on it. I also use another visual. I have students imagine wearing tap dancing shoes and try to step without making a sound. A good student will try several different ways of moving until they have enough experience to understand what the teacher is saying. This can only happen when the movements are slow.

Once students learn to step, they can learn to distinguish between substantial and insubstantial so they are able to turn and move lightly and gracefully. If you can’t tell the difference, your steps will be heavy and sluggish. When you prepare to move, place all your weight on one leg. That becomes full, or substantial, and the other becomes empty, or insubstantial. Slow movement makes it possible to understand this. In addition, it is easier to focus on your breath and coordinate your exhales with your yang movements.

Stillness Within Movement. Tai chi emphasizes stillness instead of movement. Even when moving, the form appears to be tranquil. Slow movements in tai chi force you to spend time with all your weight on one leg as you step and move. This develops leg strength and improves balance. Better strength and balance leads to smooth and tranquil movements.

Calm Mind. With slow movements, the body and mind learn to relax naturally. It is in introduction to the meditative state. In her book, Tai Chi as Spiritual Practice, Caroline Demoise says, "Slow movement calms your mind and leads you on a path in ward to experience the stillness at the center of your being. The energy of tai chi is innately meditative and produces this inner alignment. The underlying principles teach you to harmonize with Tao and flow with change."

That sounds like Meditation in Motion to me. Smile, enjoy, and play tai chi.
© 2011 Eric Borreson