Thursday, December 23, 2010

Two Experiments In Movement

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And a little bit of knowledge is...  Be that as it may, I shall plunge headlong into aspects of movement that fill my head from time to time, drawing upon my little knowledge of Yoga (obtained while attending classes these past few years) and even more meagre knowledge of T'ai Chi (based on the books I have read and my observation of my husband's practice).

The deeper I move into understanding asanas (postures) and movement in Ashtanga Yoga, the more I am reminded of the principles I read about in T'ai Chi Ch'uan- the traditional Chinese form of exercise and martial art.  The stress on relaxation, mental focus, steadiness of breath, movement of weight and tapping into the internal energy, though described differently, are emphasized in both forms (and I'm sure they would be in other movement-related schools also).  A more compact form of practice designed a few decades ago, both for Ashtanga Yoga and T'ai Chi Ch'uan, led to their tremendous acceptance and popularity in the West.  Shri Pattabhi Jois selected and linked together sets of asanas, resulting in the primary, intermediate and advanced series that most Ashtanga aschools adhere to even today; Professor Cheng Man Ch'ing developed a shortened version of the T'ai Chi form that made it easier to incorporate it into one's daily routine.

But through all the threads of similarity that I noted regarding principles of movement, until recently I was puzzled by the apparent lack of conformity on how one feels as one's practice gets "deeper".  Teachers of Yoga say that the body feels lighter, movements are easier.  T'ai Chi texts emphasize the increase in heaviness and rootedness.  But I feel now that these are different aspects and different qualities being discussed, hence a simple comparison is not possible.  The lightness seen in Yoga is quite apparent in the movements that lift the body, making it almost hover in the air or remain balanced with very little weight on the ground.  The heaviness is never more apparent than in shavasana (corpse pose), a little understood pose, where one is almost sucked into the ground.  Similarly, the slowness of the T'ai Chi form is deceptive to a novice as anyone who has seen T'ai Chi masters dealing with opponents will confirm.  At times, the eye cannot even see the movement, just the outcome, and the T'ai Chi master is long gone from the spot when the opponent tumbles.

There are two simple experiments I tried today, in my attempt to understand some of these principles.  You could try them too (if you are so inclined), they are interesting and simple.

The first was a classic Yoga upward stretch - you stand with your feet together and stretch your arms up towards the sky, forearms close to the ears.  Most likely while doing this, you feel the stretch in your arms and shoulders.  Books say that if you are more flexible, you feel the stretch emerging from your lower back.  But now if you alter the movement a little - relax your ankles and if possible, make sure that all the parts of the foot that are in touch with the ground have a uniform distribution of weight (your arches will of course be off the ground).  Stretch your hips up and then stretch the arms towards the sky.  Do you feel a different stretch?  Somehow it seems to begin right from your feet and continue all the way up.  It probably is always like that, it's just that we aren't focussing on the complete movement in a relaxed manner much of the time.

Another nice movement from T'ai Chi is to stand straight and slowly lift your arms till they are stretched out at shoulder level, parallel to the ground and away from you.  This is a lift, not a stretch.  Not difficult is it?  But now, if you put your hands back by your sides, focus on releasing all the tension from your arms (your wrists will go limp, your arms just drop by your sides) and repeat the movement, lifting your arms as slowly as possible, feeling the air as a medium through which you are moving, you will see just how difficult it can be, just how heavy your arms can feel.

The conclusion?  There isn't any one conclusion- this is just something meant to initiate thought about how your body moves under different conditions and how your perceptions can change with varying circumstances.

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