Taiji Day 157: Reverse Order

Today I reversed my usual order, and did the Form, Five Golden Coins, and Eight Pieces of Silk.  It was weird — like doing a completely different routine, really. All the snap-crackle-pop was in a completely different place and times in the routine than usual.  There were unexpected tightnesses in places, like the first Snake Creeps Down in the form, but very easy bits, like Carrying Milk to Heaven, which is the last posture in Five Golden Coins.  Overall, an interesting and useful exercise.

(Far more annoying to me is the discovery that Safari’s new command-I key no longer defaults to let the WordPress site treat that as an italics directive… which means unlearning keyboard shortcuts for writing this blog that helped me with my workflow and my writing process. Argh! What a way to discover that command-I now opens up a new e-mail!? No!)

Back to tai chi. Reversing order put a lot of things into perspective about the risks of habits.  By doing the elements of my practice in a different order, I realized how much inattention I’d applied to breath.  Breath is fundamental to a tai chi practice, possibly to any practice of any kind at all.  And I’d been neglecting it in favor of making my right foot hit my left hand and my right hand during a Windmill Kick (Curse you, Safari! Ok, I’m done now. It’s just a habit, and it can be unlearned just as it was learned). Being aware of each stretch is also valuable, and I’d forgotten that part of the practice too.  We keep coming back to the awareness that habits of body are as awkward as habits of mind; that habits of mind are just that — habits, automatic responses, which may or may not keep serving us.

Deborah Castellano’s piece today is about learning to innovate enough in your practice.  I don’t innovate enough when it comes to tai chi.  It’s just the three forms, over and over and over again.  But, like the rest of the magical community, I’m started reading Financial Sorcery by Jason Miller this morning, and it includes being reminded again and again about the importance of changing your set point… what do you have? What do you want? How will you get it?  I have a couple of set-points that I need to change, with regard to weight, financial success, and the design work I’m doing, and I think it’s powerful stuff. Good book, read it, buy it, borrow it.

But the point here is that we can’t get hung up on habits of mind or of body. I had a conversation yesterday with a friend of mine, and it amounted to the first strategical-magical consultation I’ve ever really performed.  In the conversation, it became clear that this person had gotten all hung-up on the habits of going out, finding a job, and trying to make ends meet within that realm of options. That’s what you do, right?

Instead, I pointed out that the kind of life she wanted to live was conducive to starting a sole proprietorship type of business. She did a lot of business-related travel; she did a lot of work in her house (or more often in other people’s houses); she arranged her life and her world in a lot of ways that made business sense… but she wasn’t treating the expenses of those aspects of her life as business expenses.  Just as I’d fallen into the habit of doing Five Gold Coins and Eight Pieces of Silk and the Form, day in and day out, she’d gotten used to the idea that the money flowing in came only from her employer (and not from her very own clients), and that her expenses were hers and hers alone to figure out how to pay.

I’m not a financial advisor, and this blog post is about tai chi and daily practice rather than money.  But I think that Deb is onto something this morning, as is Jason in Financial Sorcery (and apparently, now, me too…).  Break up habits from time to time, if only to see what beasts are lurking underneath.

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  1. Good morning, Andrew,

    How very interesting. In Ashtanga yoga, we NEVER CHANGE THE ORDER. You may do 5 poses one day and 75 the next but you DO NOT CHANGE THE ORDER.

    I mean EVER. (OK, some people do, but Guruji said not to).

    The idea, as best I understand it, is that the outer forms of the poses, or asanas (which directly translates from Sanskrit as “seat” or “comfortable, stable seat”) and the efforts of memory fall away (from, yes, habit and familiarity–I never have to think about what’s coming next. Uttitha Hasta Padangustasana follows Parvotanasana as Summer follows Spring.) and one opens oneself thereby to breath, focal point, and bandhas (subtle development of certain muscle groups, in particular the pelvic floor)…precisely the sorts of focus you found enhanced by reversing the order of your practice. These elements are the beginning, physical stepping stones to concentration and meditation, the 6th and 7th limbs of the 8-limbed (Ashto = eight Anga = limb) path of Yoga (of which asana, or physical pose practice, is #3).

    And so, in Ashtanga it seems we cultivate this habit of body to begin to undo the habits of mind (thinking and karma-generating action). If this is to work, then, it would seem we are seeking to transcend the body, rather than cultivate it, as in the energetic work of taiji (as I understand it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.).

    How very…Hindu. Or…Christian of us Ashtangis. I had never really thought of this before. Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Andrew.

    I hope you enjoy your day!


    • Good afternoon, Andi,

      I think it’s important to start off by saying, I wasn’t changing the order of postures within each formal set. Five Golden Coins is five particular actions, repeated sixteen times each, and I’m not altering those postures… in the same way that I wouldn’t alter the postures in a Sun Salutation if I was doing daily yoga. I like doing Yoga, but I’ve always had challenges making it a daily practice. The three ‘forms’.. a Sun-style short form, which is what I call ‘the form’ is a true tai chi form, but then there are two qi gong systems, five golden coins (really intended for senior citizens) and Eight Pieces of Silk (more for middle-aged and young people). So I’m not altering the order of the pieces within each of those ‘systems’, just doing the exercise sets in different orders. But that’s not really what you’re getting at, is it?

      If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that doing things in a particular order, according to a particular schema, is about breaking through certain body boundaries in order to reach more subtle states of mind, upper layers of concentration and focus. And I think there’s something right and good about that; it’s useful to cultivate that awareness and sensitivity.

      But, as St. Basil the Great said of the Holy Trinity, “The Trinity is wholly true. It’s just not the whole truth.” Or as Nils Bohr, the 20th century physicist suggested, “the opposite of a little truth is a falsehood. The opposite of a Great Truth is another Great Truth.” It’s not up to me to mess with the forms, at all. I can’t tell you to do Eight Pieces of Silk differently than the tradition (although the tradition allows a wide variety of options about what is the ‘right way’). You learn the traditional way, or not at all. BUT.. when I’m at drum and dance or some dance event, guess what? I rarely dance… I do tai chi movements. And I don’t do ‘the form’ or the qi gong systems… I just dance from one posture to another, moving the way tai chi people move when they’re moving through postures. It’s that very flexibility within the broader scope of tradition that I find so useful. And that’s exactly what Deb is suggesting we all fuss with — not breaking the bounds of our traditions, but learning to experiment within the patterns suggested by the existing frames.

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