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T’ai Chi and Chi

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T’ai Chi is about chi, energy! The daily practice of Chi Gung or T’ai Chi (TCC) is about letting go of the excess tension that we hold in our minds to our muscles to our body language and that excess tension is broadcast all around us. I call it white noise. In the human realm we have learned to ignore it in others, somewhat, and we have definitely learned to tune it out in ourselves. In the horse realm, horses would tell you most of their riders are screaming at them through the unconscious body language they are projecting. How do we stop screaming at our horses? We practice TCC! Does the mind affect the body and does the body effect the mind…absolutely, both are true. That is not the question here. The question is, “how do I become more aware of what I am broadcasting and learn to become quiet and consistent within myself?” When you can learn to relax your body through the gentle exercises of Chi Gung, they can have a calming effect on your mind because you use your mind to consciously make the movements. By listening to the effect the movements have on the body the mind becomes calm. We call this taming the wild horses of the mind. When I can see more clearly the wild ponies of my mind, I can practice letting go of random thoughts, when I can let go of random thoughts, the ponies of my mind become calm. When my mind becomes calm, my muscles can let go of excess tension. Then the cycle begins again. You have to learn to think in circles!  Much better than the vicious cycle we unconsciously project. TCC is a practice and practice means patience, dedication and discipline to work at it everyday. Everyday work brings you to a life time of calm. (p.s. rethink the meaning of discipline, it doesn’t have to mean beating yourself into submission with a stick!)

You see, what we have trained ourselves to do in this culture is to grab something and have a short burst of satisfaction and  move quickly to the next and to the next and genuine satisfaction is never achieved. Can you imagine what this must sound like to your horse? How is she to make sense of this when she has never been shopping in Target, or has had to drive through traffic on a Friday afternoon? Do you see what I mean? When you are frazzled it becomes noise without any sense to it to your horses. They have no concept of our lives outside the barn. Horses feel our energy, energy is their reality. They do take it personally, believe me!

I have a mustang and he is very sensitive to this. In fact he is teaching me the finer things in my energetic life. One day, I got a late start to a lesson and it was “hurry up, we gotta go! Actually that should probably be in all caps! He stood outside the trailer and I know he was thinking, “I don’t like they way you are asking me to do this! I know how to load in a trailer, but I don’t wanna!” I remember at that point when I recognized his reaction, I let it go, which is a T’ai Chi practice in and of itself. He immediately got this look on his face as if to say, “that’s better. I’ll load now”. Crap! He really had my number. Lesson learned but I still have to keep practicing that.

If you are genuinely interested in being a calm, quiet, and confident leader for your horse, then practice these simple exercises and develop the discipline to become the safe place your horses is looking for you to be. Don’t make your horse have to figure it out…that is not their responsibility. And besides, this is just ONE little benefit of TCC. I will share more.

Please ask questions, I would love to hear from you. Please share with your other equine friends.

 

 

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.

 

CHI GUNG – AN ANCIENT ART FOR THE MODERN EQUESTRIAN

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Some things survive centuries for a reason … they remain useful and relevant through the times. They become classics that inspire generation after generation and even though they get modified here and there to fit the times, the ancient form remains in the spirit of the art. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a martial art, a physical practice, and meditation from ancient China that has flourished there to this day and has been shared from Asian masters to the west. It popularity has taken root in American culture in the last century. In ancient times the T’ai Chi players were warriors, on horses, both men and women. We wear pants today because of the Chinese women warriors on horseback from those times. Its study is relevant in the equestrian world today.

Chi Gung movements are the simple exercises created out of the forms of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Yang Style Short Form. Chi Gung exercises are the elements strung together to create the form. They are related not separate entities. When practiced diligently these movements promote relaxation, strength, and vibrant health from within.

The principles of natural movement are intricately woven into the exercises to cultivate softness, enhance awareness, and promote relaxation through imagery, movement, and practice. In dedicated practice you can become relaxed and resilient in body/mind and your spirit will take rise with a happy heart. Dynamic balance and softness fosters feel of another and when you can feel you can listen to the subtle message your horse is returning to you in the artistry of riding. Two bodies in balance are harmonious.

Perfection is a myth. Practice is the key. It is not a matter of doing the exercises perfectly. We practice to become aware, aligned with gravity, and balanced in movement. As we repeat each exercise (like riding a circle) we refine awareness, subtle balance, and relaxed strength. T’ai Chi and dressage are cousins with the same root. Balance, rhythm, timing and feel are the goals of each discipline. How could they not be good for each other?

Many exercises come and go and are just another passing fad that takes rise for awhile and then dies off for lack of spirit or shen. In the last few decades T’ai Chi for equestrians became a fad and then lost interest for the most part and I can tell you it is not from some lack of shen in the classics of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Most teachings lack knowledge in the practical application of the principles of natural movement coupled with exercises that are not obviously relevant to the discipline of riding. Making those things more assessable will always enhance your riding skills.

T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Chi Gung for Riders is too precious of a classic to let it fade away. It takes dedication, practice, and adherence to the principles, like the principles of classical dressage to actualize results. For some it is well worth the effort. When practiced with an open heart it fortifies the body, keeps the mind agile, and allows the spirit free expression.

 

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