First day back in the United States. Stayed at my parents’ house last night (closer to the airport than mine), and slept like a log.
The first thing that always strikes me on the drive from the airport to home is how thoroughly mish-mashed the US looks. The Netherlands, even the industrial or commercial areas we drove through, always look ‘unified’ and ‘of a piece’. High rise towers looked Dutch — even though they were made of modern glass and steel, and looked like the same kinds of buildings you might find in the Edge Cities around Washington DC or New York, they still had a quality about them that made them Dutch. Very odd… and I contrast this with the United States, where I saw buildings that looked “Dutch” and looked “French” and looked “Chinese” and looked “modern” and looked “industrial” and looked “Italian” and looked “Greek” on the drive home from the airport. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing that we’re a mish-mash, but the Netherlands has been the Netherlands for six hundred years or so; they’ve had time to evolve an architectural aesthetic, which is rooted in the combination of having built on marshland and reclaimed land on one side, and having evolved a culture of pragmatic tolerance (which has certainly had its challenges in the previous 200 years). Not about tai chi, necessarily, but I’m aware that I’m coming from a place where the “dragon lines” of the land have smoothed a good many things out, to a land where the “dragon lines” are considerably more confused. Me, being an American descendant of the Scottish, English and Norwegian diasporas, practicing a Chinese martial art, probably doesn’t help smooth our dragon lines out much. Just something to be aware of.
Anyway, back to tai chi. Got up this morning, had some water, some coffee, and went back to bed for a bit before getting up and doing tai chi. Normally I don’t eat or drink anything before tai chi, but today I didn’t have much choice; dad was banging around in the kitchen, and I heard him yell loudly at something, and I went downstairs to find out if he was ok. And he was, but then he handed me my coffee and it was all over.
The thing that stood out for me today was this question: Where does the pull come from?
Early in Five Golden Coins, the hands reach out and grasp invisible apples on trees that stand to the left and right of the practitioner. When I first began doing this movement, the pull was in the forearms, and in the wrist, followed by the biceps and triceps, followed by the shoulder. In other words, the movement led from the hand and extended inward to the body. The hand was where the desire was expressed, and the movement’s control reflected that.
Today, after so many months of practice, the movement flows in the opposite direction, and begins deeper in the body. Now, the movement begins in the obliques on the opposite side of the body from the hand that moves. In other words, when it’s the left hand that reaches for the fruit of energy, it’s the right obliques that tighten. The movement is expressed from there up the column of muscles that move the spine. Then the energy of the movement is transferred to the shoulder and to the pectoral, and then to the triceps, and then to the forearm, and finally to the wrist and fingers.
It’s totally counter-intuitive to the way I imitated this movement when I watched my teacher practiced back in the late 1990s. Although I watched him, and although I moved my arm as he did, I could also see that I was not moving my arm as he did. I led the movement with my fingers, and he did something else. I literally could not see how he moved his arm at the time, I just knew that he wasn’t leading the movement with his hand or his fingers. And I wasn’t sure I could ever get it. He was fine with me and the other students moving our fingers, he said we’d get it eventually, but he didn’t say how long that would take or what insights we might have to have along the way.
But now, my arm and hand and shoulder feels that it’s moving the way that Master Laddie’s body moved. I don’t think it is moving the way his arm moved, of course — I can watch myself in the mirror and I don’t see the same strength or the same fluidity of motion that he brought to the movements. But I do see that the movement of my body is now being expressed more often from the core muscular groups, and then radiating outwards — as opposed to starting in the extremities and working their way inwards.
I can see the same thing happening in leg movements like kicks and spins. It used to be that I would try to spin from the foot, and that would fail. But now the spins are executed more and more from the hips and from the tan tien — the energetic center of gravity. Likewise, the kicks are not executed from the toes, but from the thigh muscles and the groin. More than that, they’re coming from the abdominals and the obliques. From the center. And this is as it should be.
For your own practice, consider which muscle gets pulled or tensed to start the action off. And it may not be the one you think it is. As much as I currently think that it’s the right obliques for a left arm movement, something tells me I’m wrong. I’m still learning.