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PRACTICE

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Stand in shoulder wide until you feel you body aligning itself. Then do Raise Hands at least 5 times. ~ SLOWLY ~ feel what is happening within you without judgment! When you feel your energy shift into a more comfortable way being slowly come out of the posture and go about your daily business. Just before you eat your lunch…repeat the above. In the evening before you sit down for the night…repeat. Repeat as often as you like.

This beautiful little exercise will keep your body/mind/spirit integrated and aligned. Remember to let go of areas of tension and work to coordinate your timing. Simply notice and give your body the message to let go. She’s listening. She’s always listening so instead of letting her fill in and do what she feels like doing, why not give her messages to relax by letting go, to move in harmony with your breath, and to feel your energy calm and collect?!

As with all other endeavors, asking your body to relax and realign is a practice for attainment of the principles. No different than your riding practice. Practice this as daily as you possibly can and if you miss a day…promise yourself tomorrow … but don’t abuse it!  LOL

Namaste my horse loving friends.

Sara

RAISE HANDS EXERCISE

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RAISE HANDS

Raise Hands is a subtle yet very powerful exercise in Chi Gung. It is well worth practicing on a daily basis. After 40 + years it is still my best friend, my most profound teacher, and has kept me balanced during times when I thought I might not walk again after a devastating car wreck.  Simple and profound is its healing prowess.

There lives a legend of the exercise of raise hands. When Ben Lo was a young man suffering from tuberculosis he went to visit Professor Chang for help as he heard that the practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan could cure a person of tuberculosis. When granted an audience he asked Professor to please teach him T’ai Chi. Ben said that Professor did one round of raise hands and told him to go away and practice what he just showed him for one year then he might consider taking him as a student. Ben graciously asked Professor if he could see the exercise one more time. Professor sighed as if annoyed yet showed him the exercise one more time. “Now, go away!”

Professor gave Ben Lo a test in his commitment to study T’ai Chi and to Professor’s surprised Ben showed up a year later after having practiced the exercise diligently. He was cured of tuberculosis as well. Professor agreed to teach him T’ai Chi. They were in Taiwan at the time.

Ben Lo was one of my teachers and he recently died a ripe old age and probably with a smile on his face. He was always smiling, yet he was a fierce and dedicated teacher.

The point of this story is … please don’t over look an exercise that seems too simple to have any value. We do not need to pound ourselves into submission to be strong … quite the opposite, really. When you can practice this exercise and begin to feel your balance or the struggle with your balance you are on the verge of becoming soft, pliable, and strong. Suppleness and relaxation allows all parts of your body to work interdependently in balance and in harmony. Professor knew the efficacy of this exercise.

ASSIGNMENT:

Slowly practice Wearing the Moon to study your alignment, then move to Raise Hands. Go internally with your awareness and allow your balance to show you where to look and where to let go of holding patterns. Practice before you ride. Practice first thing in the morning. Practice before you go to bed. The benefits to your riding will become obvious with dedication.

I’ll will always enjoy a conversation with you if you would like to contact me.

Enjoy the ride … Sara

BALANCE

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Balance. A little word with immense meaning. Now when it seems the world is spinning out of balance it is essential for our own well-being to find balance within ourselves first and then to our external world. Physical, mental, and emotional balance keeps our good humor alive and our hearts open to whatever the world throws at us. The practice is not to feel numb or to feel nothing at all, but to have awareness to feel unquestionably alive in the moment. With a daily practice we can learn to nurture compassion, strength, and resiliency through awareness of own imbalances and rebalances enhancing all that we do. Then we can extend this to our horses and riding acumen.

In the practice of T’ai Chi and Chi Gung we practice letting go of excess tension in our bodies so we can be physically balanced to move with ease within the pull of gravity. When challenged in sparring we learn to tame the mental wild horses to stay in a focused and alert mental balance. When our fears rise we learn to respond in emotionally balanced ways so our fears do not take over. T’ai chi/chi gung tames the energy in our body/mind/spirits so we can think and respond in front of a tiger.

Through practicing the exercises one begins to feel where tension patterns  restrict movement. Feeling restrictions is noticing them and noticing how they force you to struggle to remain in balance. Noticing brings awareness which allows us to let go of excess tension patterns allowing muscles return to their inherent position and function. As a rider, understanding and developing your body/mind/spirit balance opens you up to feel and release those same qualities within the horses’ body. Your riding becomes more balanced and connected so that your aids are truly continuous, quiet, and focused without force or excess tension.

In this quiet time, it is a good opportunity to exercise and develop feel within yourself. I offer you our video that we produced in the late 90s when I began to teach T’ai Chi to equestrians. It is still relevant to this day. The philosophy and practice of T’ai Chi has survived thousands of years…it’s still relevant. Like good riding it takes mindful practice each day to develop the feel of softness, strength and flexibility wherein lies the foundation of relaxation and quiet balance. If you truly desire these qualities in your riding, your practice will not disappoint.

If you would, please feel free to comment, ask a question, or just connect with me in practice.

CHI GUNG FOR RIDERS – EXERCISES

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FEATHERS AND FUR

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She circled the atmosphere above,

speaking a language

I didn’t understand.

My mustang did,

he looked up

as if to recognize a kindred spirit.

 

He was the one that told me to listen to

what the hawk had to say.

I feel so inadequate

with my senses,

unlike the wild creatures who are the Tao

and have no need to read books to figure it out.

My masters have feathers and fur.

Sara

2011

THE BREATH

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I don’t focus on the breath in my T’ai Chi practice. We were designed to breath automatically without having to think about it so why worry about all those exercises about the breath? While it may relax you momentarily it will not change the reason you have difficulty taking a deep breath in the first place. And it takes away your focus on what’s important. What keeps us from taking a deep fulfilling breath is excess tension in our bodies and holding our breath is a symptom of tightness in the muscles of the ribcage. The action of the ribs on the inhale is to louvre outward allowing the lungs to expand and on the exhale they return back to their resting place. The muscles of respiration are the internal intercostals and the external intercostals which pull the ribs to expand to inhale and the opposing muscles pull the ribs back to resting on the exhale. This is a simplified version of it for the sake of brevity and I hope you get the idea.

Forcing yourself to take a breath does not encourage the body to breathe on its own. In my practice I discovered that if I reminded myself to let go of the muscles in my ribcage and armpits (not just for shaving, btw!) it released the tension on my ribs engaging the breathing mechanism. I didn’t have to force a breath yet I drew in a nice long deep breath automatically. A quick note to say that when you relax the ribcage and muscles in your armpits, you release the tension from your shoulders allowing them to sit quietly on top of the ribcage. Now your arms can hang freely and your hands can soften.

Simple  exercise … while riding remind yourself to relax your psoas muscle, then let go of the ribcage. A gentle reminder now and then and the body will get the message. You will be surprised how quickly you remember to remember to relax then the breath comes naturally.  It just takes a little practice.

Enjoy your ride.

INSPIRATION

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I’m back at it again. It has been awhile and I have missed talking with you. Yesterday I was looking a little out of sorts when my husband said to me, “You need to be inspired again!” I took that to heart and I began to ask my self what is it that truly inspires me. T’ai Chi and Chi Gung and its principles of natural movement is my base of study, the root of my tree which has many branches. T’ai Chi has to have a purpose for me as I do not study T’ai Chi for the sake of T’ai Chi alone. For me it needs a practical application. I love to apply it to riders and their horses. Working with that partnership is truly a joy for me because I see the rider and the horse begin to connect with more clarity in their communication. A very beautiful grace begins to appear in their movement as dance partners.

As you have read the blogs before, studying the principles of natural movement helps relax and organize the body into a cohesive whole where all parts move together in harmony. When your body is organized, relaxed, and in sync with the mind and the spirit, you are able to connect with the horse in a very clear way. Your horse is all about body language. Oh, sure, they, like all the other animals that we live with can understand words but in a very limited way which turns into a command instead of a conversation. In order to have a real and meaningful conversation with your horse, it has to be with your body language. It makes sense then, that words, sentences, paragraphs, and your story have to be congruent and easy for the horse to read. This way of communicating takes you beyond mere aids and commands to a real conversations with your horse.

I am inspired when I can help others understand, study, and put into practice the T’ai Chi principles of natural movement as I have used it in my work with horses. By studying Chi Gung exercises while keeping the principles in mind, the body will begin to organize and move in a quiet, soft, and responsive way that horses can easily understand and then enjoy following your conversation with them. Watching you learn and become strong in the principles inspires me. You inspire me. Horses inspire me.

Please stay tuned for some videos. Yes, I am getting braver about talking with you live and hoping that you will pass my blog around to others that might also be inspired to learn about this ancient art and apply it to our modern day equestrian sports.

Thank you for reading. Please stayed tuned. More is on the way.

LEARN TO ENGAGE YOUR PSOAS MUSCLES

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Engaging the deep psoas muscles, known as core muscles, is not an easy task. Understanding that engagement has to be invoked from the inside out, not from the outside in is the first step to finding them. Just imagining it to be so, will never engage them properly nor will just strengthening your abdominal muscles bring them into play. You learn to feel when they are functioning and when you can feel them, you can then engage them with mindfulness. Working with the core muscles this way creates flexibility, stability, suppleness, and balance.

The psoas muscles are our balancing and stabilizing core muscles. When functioning according to their inherent design, they allow the pelvis to sit balanced on top of the legs. Balance is when the pelvis is neither tipping forward nor rocking backwards but anchored on your sitz bones. When the pelvis is dynamically balanced, the lumbar spine aligns naturally as a bridge from the pelvis to the ribcage. The ribs and thoracic spine make up the ribcage which protects our lungs, heart and other vital organs. When the ribcage is balanced on top of the lumbar spine, the head sits comfortably on a little ball at the top of the spinal column. The upper body when balanced on the pelvis supports the shoulders so you don’t have to use your hands for balance. When riding, your point of reference is your sitz bones. It is complicated yet when the body relaxes it naturally comes upright in response to its inherent design. Relaxation is an upward movement.

Knowing where your psoas muscles live is vital to having a working image for engagement. The origin of the psoas major muscle is on the transverse processes of 12th thoracic vertebra, on the transverse processes of the each lumbar vertebra and the lateral aspects of the discs between them. It inserts to the medial side on the lesser trochanter of the femur. Basically the psoas muscles run from your groin to the bottom of your ribcage and they are muscles that help bind the legs to the trunk.

As you can see, the illiacus, psoas minor, and psoas major intertwine through the pelvis offering stability and movement. If you know of how these muscles are designed, you can visualize how they function. Form and function. Muscles can only pull or return to normal resting position. Muscles do not push you forward. Muscles pull the levers of the bones in the direction in which their fibers lay. Dynamic interplay of all muscles produce all the nuances of graceful movement.

Since you are a rider, I would guess that your core muscles inner thigh muscles are tight and strong. As a bodywork I can guess they might be too tight and a tad overworked. In this case, it is a good thing, because you have to be able to feel your muscles in order to relax them. Tight muscles are easy to feel! If they are not working, they are lax and you will first have to develop them before you can teach them to relax. You cannot relax what you cannot feel. A muscle that has too much tension lacks sensitivity. If they are tight, it is like someone always talking … they cannot listen when they are talking. Think about it in terms that your horse can understand, tight muscles feel very hard and static to the sides of your horse. He feels your gripping legs and has to figure out how to move through a vise. Tight psoas muscles pull your thighs up and forward which pulls your trunk forward and no amount of sitting up straight will alleviate the excess tension in your groin muscles. If you cannot let go of tight muscles, your horse is the one who has to adjust to your excess tension.

Just because you line yourself up with external ideas of what is proper and then say, “Relax!” doesn’t mean your body is going to respond to that command. Because … it cannot. The body does not relax that way. The body has to learn how to “let go” of excess tension by getting consistent messages in that direction.

The most important thing is being really honest about how your legs and hips feel to you. Start where your are not where you wish to be. Listening to the muscles in your hips and legs will tell you how they are feeling about the way they work. Accessing these muscles comes first because you need a real sense of how they are behaving. AND don’t beat yourself up because relaxation alludes you. After 40 years of T’ai Chi study, I am still learning to let go deeper into my structure. It is a study and it is a beautiful practice in the art of riding horses. Getting skillful at letting of tension will make your riding more vibrant and alive. Communication with your horse will be more dynamic and graceful.

A few years ago, I noticed that my groin muscles were really tight and I could feel the pressure of that tension against the sides of my horse. He was letting me know it was uncomfortable for him. I thought that perhaps I should relax my deep groin muscles and as I thought that, those muscles relaxed a bit. When they relaxed, I noticed that my trunk popped upward feeling it was where it should be. As my trunk came upright, my shoulders relaxed and my head came into balance. I then noticed that my horse took a deep breath, relaxed his ribcage and moved forward beneath me with more ease. EUREKA! I love eurekas when I am riding. It was a start. Of course, maintaining it was impossible because a very tense muscle is also a weak and brittle muscle and I have to practice softening those muscles as well. I am stronger and can maintain it for longer periods of time. I now have a way to enhance my alignment and balance. Please know that holding onto that great feeling is impossible. It is fleeting and you have to bring it back to the practice of letting go. Holding yourself in position is not an option because that is not relaxed … it is holding. So relax!

This is my practice … By paying attention to my groin muscles, I can now relax them before they begin to grip and tighten. I catch the first impulse of my legs wanting to draw upward. My balance is more subtle with much less movement. I can remain in the middle of my horse’s movement. The practice is to notice the first impulse to tense to maintain balance. Notice and give your body the message to let go. Relax your groin muscles. Release the struggle.

Try that and notice. Become aware of your body, your legs, your trunk and notice how your horse feels about it. As with all practices, the more you do it, the better it gets. By relaxing and letting go of your groin muscles, they will grow stronger with less tension and that softness is a greater strength than strength built by tension and hard work. When your groin muscles are functioning as designed, your abdominal muscles have to function in response to proper alignment. Your body knows when it is in proper alignment and all sorts of micromanagement to the contrary will build in more tension. That is a given. Through practice, you are developing your internal awareness of feel, balance, and ease because your core muscles are not struggling against gravity but are working within their inherent design.

I would love to hear from you about how this works for you. Please drop me a line and let me know. I would love to share what you think and notice in your riding.

INTERNAL ALIGNMENT

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Often times riders are “put” into a correct position with commands of heels down, shoulders back, back straight, sit up tall and now relax. All this putting into the proper place does is to create a false sense of alignment and holding to the point that genuine relaxation and fluidity is lost. A rider cannot hold herself into a measured position and relax at the same time. These two things are diametrically opposed. When a rider is holding onto a false position, the horse has to do the same thing through his body in order to brace the rider and himself into balance. Free movement, feel, and grace between rider and horse is completely caged. It is not possible to position a rider on a horse with a plum bob that imposes strict adherence to external measurements for alignment and then to expect to see both move with seamless artistry.

Genuine alignment is an internal feel for what is right (not what feels normal, we can talk about that later) and that rightness is achieved only through conscious relaxation of excess tension patterns and compensation habits. There are some very simple messages that you can send through your body that cultivates your body’s intelligence to let go of excess tension and restrictive holding patterns. It makes sense that if we can teach ourselves to be uptight and stiff through unconscious messages of fear, we can certainly teach ourselves to consciously relax and let go. It is not that difficult for our bodies to relax, what is difficult is our trust in faithful adherence to the practice of letting go and not expecting to suddenly get it so that we can have the luxury of going back to unconscious messages. It doesn’t work that way and it is easy to fall back into old habits. Every time I ride I work at being physically conscious and open and each time my understanding of relaxation deepens so connection to my horse gets softer and more interactive.

A fun practice:

Here are a few grounds rules, however. No nagging yourself about not getting it because that is just adding more tension. Do worry that you are not doing it right or not getting it. There is no right or wrong only letting go! Relaxation in varying degrees, some days easier than others. Struggling with balance is very chaotic and neurotic. NOTICE when you are struggling and remind yourself to simple let go and quite it! Please, know this is not an admonishment…I notice when I am struggling and fidgeting to find my way. Your horse will pick up on it and he will struggle to make sense of it! Oh, gotta love the feedback from them! So, no nagging and no struggling.

Try this next time you are riding and enjoy the feel you are beginning to cultivate: Quietly go through this conversation from your mind to your body.  Remember it is a conversation. Relax my toes, relax my heels, relax my knees, relax my inner thighs to my belly, relax my hips, relax my lower back, let go of my ribcage, armpits and shoulders and soften my jaw. Go slowly so you can notice what happens. Notice what your horse notices and build on that. Go through this conversation while riding a quiet walk and you will begin to observe that your legs will want to naturally reach down and softly wrap around your horse. Notice that as you relax your inner thighs your upper body wants to come upright naturally and as your upper body comes into place your shoulders drop long to your elbows allowing your hands to be soft and giving. As you relax your ribcage you will breath naturally and you won’t have the need to force or practice your breath. As your body relaxes it will begin to breathe on its own…after all, you are designed to function that way! Stop micro managing! You have to let yourself be and through relaxation allow yourself to be drawn into balance and alignment from an internal state of being.

ALL RESISTANCE IS INTERNAL

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There are other principles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan that we practice when we are sparring or playing push hands with another. When we play push hands, it is not so that we can defeat our opponent but so that we can lean to be soft, responsive, and to flow like water. When we are not soft and we receive a push, that push will knock us out of balance and throw us off course. I must say … to get pushed is annoying!!! Ok, it pisses me off! Which leads to one of the principles of movement applied to the art of working with another being. Push hands is a dance of balance, timing, and feel. One principle is All Resistance Is Internal. Trust me, I don’t like this one either! When pushed off balance, I would much rather make excuses, chalk  it up to a bad day, and/or apply blame, (maybe a combination of all three!) … but that ultimately never leads to softness. Push hands shows me where I resist being pushed, and when I resist, I brace and get defensive. I am out of balance and I struggle to maintain it. That is the root of hardness! I don’t mind saying and admitting these things, because it is our human nature to protect ourselves. Push hands teaches that we have to rethink human nature, if we are to become soft and yielding which makes us warm and compassionate in all our encounters. I am not there yet, maybe never will be totally, however, in my awareness I can let go of the struggle and regain my balance and softness.

How does this apply to horsemanship?  I will write the things I learn and practice in hopes that some of this resonants with you so that you can begin to cultivate softness through recognition of hardness. Awareness is the first step and without awareness there is no choice. One thing that leaps to mind is when my horse starts to act up and disconnect and ignores me … oh, my, I get frustrated. What happens is that I kind of panic, then get a little fearful which sometimes leads to anger and then upset, especially if I leave my emotions unchecked. All that is internal resistance to some imagined or real misfortune. Fear has a valid base to it…yes, I have been bucked off, run over, stepped on, bitten and kicked…to name a few! It hurts and is dangerous sometimes. Does bracing and getting upset help…NO.

One day, out of the blue while working with my horse who was having a uppity day, I viscerally realized that I don’t have to panic when he gets concerned or obstinate. I asked myself, “What is the big deal anyway?'”  I also realized that many trainers do it, too. I have been yelled at during lessons which I used to let it set me up to brace against my horse’s behavior. I learned to panic and get after him when he does THAT!  When we get after our horse, we get brace, get hard and demanding. That is  internal resistance and the horse “didn’t make us do it!”  When I can see that I am the driver of my internal resistance, I can learn to let it go, get soft and wait for my horse to do the same. I do a mini reboot!

Learning to notice that first sign of upset is the most optimum time to let go of it. Catch it quick! Just drop it, take a breath, soften your body and wait for your horse to follow you into the space of softness. It is such a lovely place to be with your horse.

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