How Doe Tai Chi relate to mastery?

I woke up this morning asking what the best and truest contribution I can make to the world might be, and discussed the answer to that with Tananarive.  I’m not ready to discuss the answer directly, but I am willing to discuss pieces of the puzzle.  You’ll have to wait to see how they all fit together.


On a completely different subject (yeah, right!) Why are martial arts and movement arts like yoga considered transformative, evolutionary disciplines? What in the world is the connection between the physical and the spiritual?    Why aren’t they “just” calisthenics?


Because if you can handle stress without it devolving to strain, the only reaction of a healthy organism is to evolve, grow, become stronger and smarter.


So when yoga puts you in a stress position and has you smile and breathe through it, you increase your ability to breathe smoothly when your boss is screaming at you, someone cuts you off on the freeway, or you get a tax audit announcement.   When stress (pressure) becomes strain (deformation), you enter a perceptual tunnel in which you cannot see options, cannot access your creative problem solving, fear overwhelms love, and you fall into dualistic thinking: us OR them.  This OR that. Male OR female.  Black OR white. And so on.  Caught in a dilemma or seemingly intractable issue?  Remember what Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  In other words, when caught in a stress loop, if the problem was created by dualistic thinking, using more dualistic thinking just digs you deeper.  I’ve seen some of the smartest people I’ve known, people MUCH smarter than I am,  indeed some of the smartest human beings in antiquity (judging by their writings) tie those brains into knots and come up with wrong, stupid, destructive answers simply because they began with incorrect premises, or use the wrong mode of thought to address the issue.

When it comes to solving the greatest issues of life, you have to avoid fear.  That means either removing the threats, or inuring yourself to them, or denying target, or becoming strong enough that it doesn’t hurt you.  Only then can you see “what is true” and find a solution.

So the martial arts, for instance, teach you attitudes, emotional states, and tactics. But they also are PHYSICAL arts.  According to Scott Sonnon, the three major components of a physical technique are breathing, selective muscle tension, and skeletal structure.   That when stress becomes strain, one or more of these things MUST become dysfunctional:

  1. Holding your breath, rapid breathing, shallow breathing, mouth breathing.
  2. Muscles tensed and braced, or an inability to relax and tense the muscles needed for optimal efficiency and effectiveness.
  3. Collapsed structure, bad posture: hunching, etc.

These three aspects are connected via biotensegrity.   There is no isolation in the human body.  You can’t wiggle your eyebrow without twitching your toe.


This is the reason that lie detectors work: the stress of lying causes fear and disconnection.   The tension registers in your blood pressure, skin conductivity, heart beat rate, pupil dilation, breathing rate and depth, and so forth.  If you create a convincing enough fantasy world, you can lie your butt off with no physiological changes.

And if you can maintain the physiology and focus of someone who is calm, then even amid horrible stress (for instance…a mugger in a dark alley) you react with all your perceptions and options, have access both to your animal survival responses and your tactical and strategic mind.  Best of both worlds.


So as a yoga instructor keeps you on an “edge” of attention by constantly moving you slightly more advanced and challenging asana, causing you to continue to expand your balance, focus, and capacity to relax under stress, a fine martial arts instructor will teach you a basic technique that engages mind (tactics, strategy, technique), body (posture, tension, breathing), and emotions (control of fear) and even spirit (what are you willing to die for?   Fight for nothing less.)

The “canary in the coal mine” is the breathing.  It is the first thing that screws up when you get too stressed. It is also, conveniently, one of the only physiological processes that is both voluntary and autonomic (blinking is another).  So…the trick to linking your physical and psychological practices is to learn to breath and move smoothly under stress.  Note the way you breathe.   Now breathe that way in other situations in your life.

Deliberately address physical, mental (career), emotional (relationship) and financial (money management) goals, so that you are constantly pushing against resistence, learning to remain relaxed as you access higher and higher levels of performance.  Commit to remaining balanced: don’t allow your emotional toxins to accumulate in the corner of your life where you are afraid to look.

What happens?   Constant learning and growth (even if you won’t always like what you learn, and some of the growth is painful.  You’re strong. You can handle it!)

And as you resolve the mundane issues, you automatically “move up” to the next level of your life–both the yogic chakras (a model of growth) and Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs suggests the exact same thing here.   The net amount of resistance in your life remains the same.   It just manifests on higher and subtler levels.  But if you ignore your body, or your hunting/gathering (mind/career) or your emotions you are just shoving your unresolved pain and fear into the dark. Sweeping dirt under a rug.  After a while, it makes quit a lump.

This is where people often get the “why should I bother?”   Why keep going, if the work is never done? Attitude. One answer is simple: because if you don’t maintain a sense of dynamism, if you don’t engage with internal and external reality, you will miss your life.

And another: why eat today if you’re just going to be hungry again tomorrow..?

So: back to Tai Chi.   Due to a recent promotion, I’m having to re-consider who and what I am in the arena of the arts, and the first thing I can see is that I want to do more with Tai Chi.  If you practice another form, that’s fine: the principles are the same.  If you practice another movement art altogether, MANY of the principles will still be useful. And if you don’t have a physical discipline at all…you are blinding yourself to about 25% of what life is, and denying yourself the “reality test” that can help you sort truth from fiction in your existence.  Critical to maintaining a reality map.

If you take two classes a week, it will take you about a year to learn the 108 movements of the Wu Style Tai Chi form, if you practice every day.  I’m going to assume that this note is reaching people who wish genuine advancement in their lives and practices.  Others may look over our shoulders and giggle.

If it takes a year to learn the whole thing, then what do you concentrate on first?

Breathing.   Skeletal alignment.   Relaxation.  These three will root you and get you started.  Look at just the first movement in the form: “Rising hands.”   On an inhalation you expand, like blowing a bubble. On the exhalation you contract. On the inhalation the hands rise.  When the arms sink, your knees bend, and you “compress the bubble” you created on the inhalation.  Just take this cycle: expand, contract.  Note your breathing.  Hold your head erect, as if suspended by a string from above, like a marionette.   Keep a slight smile on your face.

Breath smoothly and easily.    Close your eyes and FEEL what is happening inside you.   Just inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale…expand and contract, expand and contract. Simultaneously feel rooted to the ground and floating like a kite.

Do this for about 5-10 minutes, preferably in open air.

Don’t forget to smile!

More soon…



(p.s.–here’s a link to the FIREDANCE TAI CHI video I created twenty-five years ago.  But please go beyond it–there is plenty of video instruction out there, and find a live teacher if possible. The principles and practice are all that really matter.  Don’t mistake the container for the contents, the menu for the meal.

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