Independence of Movement
One of the fundamental principles of T’ai Chi is that all movement must be unified. There is a well-known T’ai-Chi admonition, “When one part moves, all parts move,” which I interpret to mean that when one part moves, there is a corresponding movement of every other part of the body through a kind of hydraulic pressure that permeates the entire body. That is, no body part moves on its own—rather, the movement of each and every body part occurs through activation of all body parts. From a health standpoint, unification of body parts promotes the flow of ch’i, makes the body less susceptible to injury, and causes less wear and tear. From a martial standpoint, a unified body is stronger (the whole body is much stronger than any of its parts), and when unified movement occurs, less information is visible to an opponent because each part only does a tiny fraction of the movement.
Whereas independent motion might seem antithetical to the basic principles of T’ai Chi, doing independent movement as an exercise is of value in cultivating unified movement. Those who teach T’ai Chi know that many beginners have little awareness of their own bodies and move one part thinking that they are moving a totally different part. For example, even after watching and being corrected, when told to lift their whole arms, some students will lift only their forearms by bending at the elbows or lift their shoulders as they lift their arms. This problem often does not stem from a semantic difficulty—rather it stems from perceiving that one thing is happening when something different is happening.
To learn unified movement, it is necessary to feel all parts of your body unified as a whole. If you do not know the extent to which each part of your body is involved in a movement—or whether or not it is at rest or moving—it is very hard to manifest unified movement. Thus, learning unified movement is facilitated by first learning independent movement.
In another article, I have interpreted ch’i as interconnected with nerve impulses to cells, below the threshold of external action. I theorize that such neurological activity promotes cellular movement, thereby facilitating the cellular absorption of oxygen and nutrients and the release of waste products. Moving a particular part of the body independently requires sending nerve impulses to the muscle cells associated with that movement. Thus, it follows that the more able you are to consciously move a particular part of the body independently, the more successful you will be in sending ch’i to that area for healing an injury.
Another negative health aspect is that we tend to sympathetically tense certain muscles when using other muscles, or we unnecessarily tense certain muscles for long periods of time without an awareness of doing so. When a part of the body is continually held rigidly, in “frozen tension,” muscles controlling that part contract for long periods of time. That makes the body unable to move naturally, takes a lot of energy, and cuts off the circulation of blood. Learning to move each part of the body independently helps us to become aware of these negative actions.
Such habitual tensions can result from our “emotional armor” or as what we feel is our body identity. Either way, what I call “driving with one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brakes” is very hard to discover because the tensions involved are very familiar to us. In fact, releasing these unnecessary tensions can make us feel vulnerable. It is possible to do T’ai Chi for quite a few years before shedding some of these unnecessary tensions, but, by learning to move independently, we can become highly sensitized to the involved muscle groups, thus providing a tool for directly working on releasing such tensions.
A further consideration is that when doing strenuous movement (e.g., lifting a heavy weight), instead of using muscles that are optimal for that action, we may sympathetically use weaker muscles that are physiologically inappropriate, which can cause injury to those muscles. Practicing independent movement helps us to become more aware of what part of the body should or should not be involved in a particular action.
In doing day-to-day movement, there is a tendency for many people to avoid use of certain parts of the body, especially when doing so might involve a problematic region. Because we avoid painful actions, parts of the body can become shut off from our awareness. The muscles involved not only start to atrophy, causing further problems.
Lastly, one of the most efficient ways of healing a part of the body that has been overused or injured is to do tiny, relaxed movements using the muscles in exactly the region of the injury. It is vital that such movements are ideally done painlessly; that is, when even slight discomfort arises, the movement causing that discomfort is suspended and then re-approached in such a way that the same movement is again done but in a way that does not produce discomfort. In order to take advantage of this powerful method of healing, it is necessary to be able to move each and every part of the body at will.
©Copyright 2009 by Robert Chuckrow
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