In (search at Amazon.com) the book "Uncovering the Treasure" by Master Stephen Hwa, he makes reference to a peculiar phenomenon that occurs when one demonstrates Tai Chi Form to students. "...their attention will always be attracted to the upper body movements first and neglect footwork." As a teacher I make it a point to address this issue and I take measures to pinpoint their concentration back to footwork. In both the figurative and literal sense, Master Hwa refers to footwork as "...the foundation of movements."
I get much inspiration from my annual trips to the wondrous Adirondack Mountains and forests of NY State. In hiking the many trails of the Adirondack Forest each Summer my attention is honed to a laser sharp point. I speak of the many twists, turns and never ending obstacles that one comes across in any walk. As just one example of maintaining concentration, one is forced to watch for the obvious and not so obvious "roots" in the ground but one has to also keep the upper body relaxed. The upper body has to be kept relaxed with hands and arms able to fend off rebounding branches, and if you are walking a dog there are additional concerns.
In the "Tai Chi Walk" exercise (see this link to video) students get a first lesson and a truly visceral understanding on how to delineate between what is moving and what is still in the body. Please go to www.youtube.com/parea10 to see this video as well as many others. This is none other than the delineation between Yin and Yang for a student's first experience. As Master Hwa states: "This is the first lesson on how to keep clear a differential between the energized and the relaxed parts of the body working side by side". The problem in both the Tai Chi studio as well as on the Adirondack hikes however, is that most people find difficulty in keeping the upper body relaxed.
In traversing over those many Adirondack obstacles I find many appropriate "lessons": Proper body posture, proper foot position, proper body weight distribution as well as learning a very unique walking dynamic. In other words, "roots" are excellent teachers and always give good lessons. I sometimes take this methodology into the Tai Chi studio, having students step over objects placed on the floor but doing so only using Tai Chi Walk. Thus bringing our "roots" for training into the studio as well.
The important characteristics of the "Tai Chi Walk" exercise are trained:
- Use core power for the movements of the legs and this encompasses lifting and stretching the legs.
- How to keep one's center of gravity under control. One does not revert to "controlled falling" which is the mainstay of the everyday, common walking movement.
- One learns to pull the body forward or backward and not push with either leg.
- This last characteristic involves using the "contractive" power of the core. Specificially one contracts the lower abdominal muscles and pulls with the lead foot to move the body.
- This characteristic is sometimes described as a sensation of feeling the entire body "sucked" forward or backward with no accompanying and overt sensation of muscle strain in the legs.
What is "normal" in our everyday life is not the norm in the internal movement of Classical Tai Chi. It would be difficult if not hazardous to walk through the Adirondack woods in the manner that one walks around a city environment. Rushing here, rushing there, speaking on a cell phone, not watching where one is going, smoking, drinking while moving, etc. I illustrate the problems associated with "controlled falling" (everyday walking) as a teaching methodology for the "Tai Chi Walk". The problems as I see them are:
- Normal walking pushes with both front and back feet to provide for movement but it also "...engages both feet stuck to the ground until the body completes its move".
- This is commonly referred to as a form of "double-weighting" and besides being an entirely "external", not an optimum body position and it does not qualify as a "Tai Chi" movement.
- One's center of gravity is not under control. The "controlled falling" of everyday walking can often spiral out of control with the individual losing their balance and sometimes falling.
- The loss of balance in such situations, for instance, can partially be attributed to the uncontrollable momentum force that occurs in a body that walks very fast. One often sees this at street corners when people "lurch" off the curb in their zeal to get places in a hurry but do not concentrate on what they are doing at the time.
- One certainly does not want to add to the incoming force of an opponent that is coming at you by pushing your own body back with the front foot do you? In Classical Tai Chi, this push is sublimated by the Tai Chi Walk training and one "pulls" in order to adhere or stick to an oncoming opponent. This allows you to neutralize the oncoming force and not be bowled over as the front heel (not pushing) acts to also absorb some force.
- Certainly "pushing" with either front or back feet is "natural" for us ever since our parents encouraged us to stand up and walk. In Tai Chi paralance however, the "push" is further developed in what is referred to as Large Frame Form.
- Everyday walking with the "push" motion is always the culprit when one slips on ice and falls. The scenario is always where one lands the weight on the front heel with the back foot pushing off on the toe. This is the template for disaster. Using the "pull" eliminates these kinds of mishaps.
I encourage you to adopt the Tai Chi Walk as the overwhelming favorite to replace "Everyday (controlled falling) Walking". Keep the "characteristics" of Tai Chi Walk in mind but you do not have to walk as though you are actually doing a Tai Chi lesson...this would be a bit sillified. The object is to generate internal movement, that is powered by internal energy but controlled by internal discipline. I find that I now do this on my everyday long walks with my family and our dogs. One of the keys to doing this is "keeping the weight back" in order to control things. The Tai Chi Walk is truly both the literal and figurative path where one takes the "first step of a thousand mile journey".