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Separate Yin and Yang

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Separate yin from yang – This concept is quite simple yet is an infinite study of discerning where you are at any given moment in time and space and what you are communicating with your body language. It is about separating or sensing up from down, side to side, back to front, and finally dividing the space in you and around you into finer and finer increments of awareness which allows for detection of subtle movements from your horse and control of movements within yourself.  With this in mind, it can first be a study of awareness in subtle weight shifts while riding your  horse. The more sensitive you become to these subtle shifts the finer the communication becomes between you and your horse.

For example, while riding if I have 50% of my weight on my left sitz bone and 50% of my weight on my right sitz bone it’s logical that I am equally balanced right to left in the center of my horse and that the weight of my legs would be equal (ideally…but I haven’t met a symmetrical body yet!) Don’t panic, we’re mostly designed that way and the closer we can get to symmetrical through relaxation the finer our balance will be. So if I subtlety shift 10% of my weight into my right sitz bone my weight would be 60/40 right/left. Becoming aware of that weight distribution is my goal and the ability to play with that in varying degrees and percentages and then becoming aware of what it means to my horse and how he interprets those sifts. Ten percent may seem like a small weight shift to me and maybe I think of little consequence to my  horse; however, I notice how that affects his balance and what he has to do to control his equilibrium. When I shift my weight, is my horse able to understand what it is I am communicating and respond in kind? Separating is not about holding weight distribution static either as that makes movement stiff and stilted. We can imagine what our horses think of that notion.  It truly is a dynamic dance through awareness of our body’s ability to communicate with softness and relaxation as well as subtle control of our internal balance of opposing forces.

With this in mind, can I become aware of the weight I have on both sitz bones side to side? Can I bring awareness to my legs hanging down around my horse which allows my torso to counter balance upright? Can I bring awareness into my arms and hands and what they are communicating while connected to my horse’s mouth through reins to a metal bit? Can I discern the amount of pressure right and left, back or forward, and up from down throughout my entire body? I am not asking for a number here…I am simply asking to help bring awareness into your body and your hands to help you understand that separate yin from yang is an ability to communicate through subtle shifts in body weight, pressure and balance. The finer I can make those increments the more subtle the communication becomes.

What I focus on in clinics is to help riders bring awareness into their body language which can be blocked by tension, stress and forceful intention and through that awareness they can internally dissolve those areas of restrictions through relaxation and turn them into soft lines of clear communication. Your horse has to make sense of incongruent messages coming from confused body language. We all make these mistakes, that is not the problem…the problem comes when we scold our horses for not doing what we think we are asking or we become frustrated and let our horses believe it is their inability to understand us or we blame them for “not wanting to.” This is many times a simple problem of unclear body language. Getting angry with our horse for that is the wrong answer and leaves us with a not so good feeling about our relationship with our horse. If you are like me, when I am finished riding, I want to feel that my horse and I had the best time of our lives, that day, one day at a time. The more we can do to relax, keep our bodies upright, move from our tan tien and separate yin from yang inside of us…the softer our communication becomes with our horse, the happier our horse becomes, the better the ride. We all know the beautiful feeling of The Perfect Ride.

Exercise:  Practice slowly shifting your weight through your seat bones and pay attention to what your horse communicates back to you.  A horse will notice, and you have to notice that he noticed and the dialogue goes from there.  If your horse is immune and numb to your weight shifts and what you intend them to mean to him, it is a good place to work on helping both of you get more subtle and clear with the meaning of those shifts.

Note:  Make your weight sifts by relaxing the muscles in your legs NOT by pushing or throwing your weight from one side to another. Your sitz bones will stay in place on either side of your horse’s spine so what will change is the pressure from side to side. Don’t push down hard into the muscles of your horse’s spine but shift your weight into the direction you want your horse to go. Relaxing your weight shifts will make it much more flowing and easier to follow from your horse’s perspective.

Move From Your Dan Tien

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When you can relax and when you can keep your body upright and aligned efficiently you can learn to move from your center…your tan tien.  According to the T’ai Chi classics, the tan tien is located three fingers below the navel and into the center of your body.  In teaching beginners T’ai Chi, we start with the idea of having a large ball sitting quietly in the bowl of your pelvis and at the very center of that ball is where all movement is initiated. When you can initiate your movements from the center of the ball, this will help coordinate your entire body so that you are not leading with your head or your chin or having your chest puffed outward. Your entire body will begin to move from one point or a hub and all parts will be connected to the whole.

My teachers, Jane and Bataan Faigao, always said, “keep your mind in your tan tien.” I would ponder that many times in a day until one day I realized that when I would think about moving from my tan tien, my mind would quiet. When my mind would quiet, my body would relax and when that happened by body would feel calmer, more coordinated, and connected. Keeping the mind in the tan tien melds the mind and the movements of the body.

I have had the great honor of a having a mustang for a partner for the past seven years.  He is different, he is more sensitive to energy and body language and he has sharpened my ideas, my riding and my ability to pay attention to the messages that I send to him. I love him for those teachings. In my riding I keep a listening and connected dialogue with my horse, Leo, by sitting quietly in my tan tien and letting him feel and interpret my movements coming from my seat. Not my head and not my hands but my seat, my hips, my center. If I have the least bit of force in my hands, he resists or does too much. If my shoulders are tight, he struggles to find balance because my balance is about twelve inches above his back creating a gap in our ability to communicate. I always get the image of a plate spinning on top of a stick and my horse has to make sense of that and then respond in kind.  If I am leading from my thoughts or my head he mostly refuses to take part in that conversation. It’s not that he is being bad, it’s that my body language is opaque and difficult to read and he is trying to make as much sense of it as he can. My husband, Michael, calls that multiple levels of indirection.  Horses are visceral, feelers, and interpret communication through body language and the more we can do internally to make those communications clear the more willing they are to participate in the dance. Ideally…on a good day!

The best way I can think of to help you with this concept is to listen to the movements of your hip joints. If you don’t know where your hip joints are, please take some time to look at your skeletal structure. Where your femur and pelvis met is called the hip joint, which is a ball and socket joint and that gives your legs a large circular range of motion.  When you can begin to understand true movement of the hip joint you can begin to let it move with your horses back.

Exercise: Ride bareback if you are comfortable doing so, sit quietly on your horse and listen to the quality of movement through your hip joints. Relax your hip joints and allow them to just roll with the movement of your horses back. One way to relax your hip joint is to let go of the excess tension in your groin muscles and let your legs hang from there. If your hip joints are locked and not moving, then the motion is being transferred to the joints in your spine. You don’t want this as the spine is not meant to rotate and your back will hurt after you ride. Putting your mind in your tan tien can initially mean just listening to your center and to your hips as you ride. Also while doing this pay close attention to your horse’s response to your movements. The more you can relax into this idea, the more your horse can hear your body language and the more connected you will feel to your horse.

Moving from your tan tien is a way of quieting your mind and relaxing your whole body and creating softness in your riding.  There is no limit to the subtlety of this exercise and how it relates to riding.

Keep Body Upright

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Body Upright

The Principle of Keeping The Body Upright

Stand up straight.  Keep your shoulders back. Don’t slump.  We have all heard these commands at one time or another.  We react to those commands by pulling our chest up, throwing our shoulders back and stiffening our spines.  Then we try to “hold” ourselves straight for as long as we can.  Soon we forget or fatigue and revert back to what feels “normal” to us.

When we are at our riding lessons we hear those same words about keeping our spine straight, shoulders back and be sure to relax while doing all that.  Our trainers see our posture is not correct and are in fact trying to help us find good form while riding.  We know that when we are riding, a correct posture is critical because it directly affects the horse’s balance beneath us.  But once again we feel stiff and unable to maintain the straight posture much less try to relax while holding ourselves in position.

Why does maintaining good posture seem so difficult and illusive? Let’s first look at why trying to hold ourselves straight doesn’t work.  The problem lies with the images that we use to create a correct and upright  posture.  If we use the image of holding our spine straight it is easy to take on the qualities of a board.   When we do this while riding, our horse has to try to balance a straight, hard unmoving stick up on their backs all the while being asked to relax, be flexible and to go forward.  You can see how this creates a dilemma for them.

The truth is the human spine is not straight.  It is a set of very complex joints and curves designed for structure, movement, and as a shock absorber.   In its inherent design, we can begin to see that it is a very dynamic structure and needs to move in rhythm rather than be held stiff and static.  T’ai Chi offers poetic visualizations to help us find our true uprightness, balance and relaxation without the tension of “holding” ourselves together or trying to force unnatural alignment.  We don’t ask our horse to stiffen and hold his back in order to carry us.  Instead we help train his back to be strong, resilient and flexible so that movement and energy travels through his spine unimpeded.

Imagine for a moment our uprightness as a form of two-legged.  For us bi-peds, the alignment starts at the bottom of the foot, our first contact with upright.  Feet should have our weight equally distributed side to side and front to back.  The ankle, knee and hip joints should have a slight bend and not be braced and straight.  The sacrum should be relaxed and just hanging down toward the ground.  Liken our lower back, to our horse’s croup, the pelvis is in neutral neither tipped forward nor held backward.  Our spine is gently stacked one vertebra on top of the previous until we get to the base of the skull.  The T’ai Chi classics say to “pluck up the spine”.  The chin should be tucked slightly until the base of the skull is relaxed and the top of the head is as if suspended from the heavens.

Study the nature of a tree. It seems to just know how to reach energetically upward to the heavens seeking the sustenance from the sun while its roots grow deep within the earth gathering nutrients from the soil.  There is an inherent yin/yang up/down balance within that tree. The branches trust that they are attached to the tree and hang gently downward without tension.  Imagine that same kind of energy line running up through the very center of our body reaching for the sunshine.  While at the bottom of our foot in the soft center spot we can grow roots that reach deep into the earth where we can gather the energy that we need as well.  Our arms and shoulders can be like the branches that just sit gently on the tree, hanging quietly and trustingly downward.

Professor Cheng Man-Ching says there are three treasures that we need to guard or pay utmost attention to if we are to truly be able to relax and remain upright in balance. Only through relaxed uprightness can we be truly in balance.  The first is the bubbling well, located in the center of the palm of the foot. The point adheres softly to the ground or takes root.  Second is the tan tien located 3 fingers below the navel and halfway into the body.  It is our center and all movement comes from there.  Liken it to a sphere that sits in the pelvic bowl.  Third is the top of the head, the spot that we suspend toward the heavens.  When these three treasures line up in a relaxed way we are upright, in balance and stable. Uprightness should be invoked from the inside out with rich visualizations not forced by outside standards or measurements.

Exercise: Let your alignment start in your feet,while standing and while riding, relax your feet and trust that they know how to hold you up or do their job in your stirrups. If you can relax your feet. you can relax your legs. and if you can relax your legs your torso will begin to let your shoulders and head sit quietly on top of your spine.  This too, is a practice. When you feel tension in your legs, start by relaxing your feet and soon your entire leg will begin to relax and hang down around your horse. The more you practice and pay attention to this the better your balance becomes while riding. You can cultivate body upright by learning to let go of excess tension when you become aware of where you are holding or protecting. The more you let go the closer your body comes to its natural alignment. Remember in Relax I told you that relax is an upward movement and a feeling of lightness through your entire body.  Upright is best invoked from an internal sense of what’s right not from an external measurement or imposed grid upon your body.

RELAX

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“…sometimes I think this body has a mind of it’s own.”  Auberge by Chris Rea, English singer and songwriter (great music by the way)

This line always tickles my funny bone.  It seems true and humorous sometimes … then those other times we pull out the ibuprofen.  It certainly seems true when we are riding and can’t get the left leg to stay put, the shoulders feel tight topped off with an aching back. All of these things are the body’s response to excess tension, doing the right thing by holding you together to lessen its pain. This is all in varying degrees of discomfort and that is what keeps our riding from being relaxed and in our athletic control.

Let’s banish some of the myths and misconceptions about what it means to relax. The ability to truly relax is a result of the Five Principles of Natural Movement working in harmony with body/mind/spirit.

Relax – Relax is not the same as collapse.  Collapse is what you do after a long ride! But if you were to tell yourself to relax collapse is what you would do. That is a misconception about relaxation. Ultimately relax is a lively upward movement throughout the entire length the spine. In order for that to happen the soft tissues need to let go of excess tensions holding the body in restrictive compensation patterns. So the mind gives a signal and the body responds in the best possible way it knows or has learned to do. Just because it feels normal doesn’t mean it is correct. That is why the body has a mind of its own. That said … you can take back control with a little practice of the principles and learning how to let go of restrictive habits.

“Sit up, heels down, put your leg on the horse, hold your shoulders back and keep your elbows straight, now breath and relax!”  WHAT!!??  I could never do it.  In an instant my horse and I would be a non communicating wreck of frustration and tension. It is impossible to relax every part of your body at once, you will either collapse or create other tension patterns. And that is the way that works which it is not efficient, comfortable or allowing for communication through feel. Two tense bodies are out of balance and insensitive to receiving messages.

We want two beautifully soft and relaxed bodies communicating in harmony and balance… come on … it is possible!!!  Relaxation is a practice and if you can practice letting go of one piece at a time then the whole will learn to connect itself one piece to another until your entire body is alive and full of chi – because it will no longer be held up by bracing caused by fears and traumas. When you can relax, you can feel, when you can feel, you can communicate with your horse. And that is a goal of most riders I know.

Exercise: Start with your shoulders, say to yourself,  “relax my shoulders,” this allows them learn to find their own place without you “putting” them someplace. (they don’t need to be earrings!) Remember this – just because you let go of them once doesn’t mean they can remember the message – you have to remind yourself over and over again to relax your shoulders. It becomes your mantra. This is why we call it a practice and through practice you get better at relaxing your shoulders and they learn to maintain their relaxed place for longer periods of time. You will soon begin to notice just how much tension is used to hold your shoulders “on”. When you let go of your shoulders, (I promise they won’t fall off) you will feel a warmth spread throughout your body because you are allowing for a greater circulation of chi and your hands will become soft and quiet as well.

 

The Five Principles of Natural Movement

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The Yang Style Short Form as taught by Professor Chen man’ching to his students in New York in the 60s is based on Five Principles of Natural Movement. These principles are unique to his way of teaching and are at the heart of what we study.  Without these principles, we would have no understanding of what it is we are trying to achieve with practice and no way of cultivating the benefits of T’ai Chi Ch’uan within our body/mind/spirit. We had to memorize them and they had to fly out of our mouth quickly and without hesitation. Jane and Bataan Faigao made sure we knew them, why they were/are important and how to study them while practicing T’ai Chi. The thread of T’ai Chi is woven into the spirit of all my work be it teaching T’ai Chi Ch’uan, doing bodywork, riding horses or making a painting. Over the many years of practice those principles have held me steady without a moments lapse.

1. Relax

2. Keep your body upright

3. Separate empty from full

4. Move from your center (tan tien)

5. Keep soft hands

In the posts to come we can explore them together and I will give you ideas how to practice these principles while playing with your horse.  I believe that if you contemplate these principles you will find them not so mysterious, esoteric or from another planet. I hope you find them kind of growing on you.

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