By Holly Sweeney-Hillman, Center Director and Senior Instructor
It was an unusually chilly but sunny morning in Pottersville, New Jersey with a good stiff wind blowing. The Yang Family Tai Chi Center students arrived in good spirits and worked together putting up the celebratory banners, not an easy task in the strong wind. The performance area looked festive and lively with the banners flying. It was too chilly for spectators so we decided to have a class together to celebrate …
All of the students who came out on Saturday had at least a year of tai chi study and some more than ten years. In the tai chi world, we like to talk about “beginner’s mind” meaning that even experienced students approach each class, each movement with their mind open to learning more even though they may have been practicing a movement for ten years. We decided to have a class that would be new to everyone, we decided to explore a little tai chi fan.
In the tai chi progression of learning, we first work with physical balance. Physical balance is the prerequisite of refined purposeful movement. In biomechanics it is said that “all unstable systems perform poorly” and this is quite true in the microcosm of our individual lives: without physical balance we are uncoordinated and uncontrolled in movement, without emotional balance we are easily stressed and erratic in our behavior. We can also see this same principle in the macrocosm of our communities and countries: “unstable systems perform poorly”. Studying and practicing to achieve balance is paramount in tai chi but it is easy to see how balance could be the determining factor in all successful and enduring human endeavors.
After tai chi students have some command over their physical balance, then the real essence of tai chi study can begin: understanding how to work with energy. “Relaxation” is the foundation skill for working with energy. Working first with our own bodies, “relaxation” means moving away from stiffness and rigidity towards suppleness, expansion, and openness. In the lexicon of tai chi, we call this going from “hard to soft” like going from a bar of wrought iron metal to a light shiny flexible steel blade. After this kind of “softness” is achieved, we can go from “soft” energy to “hard” energy by unifying our bodies to allow kinetic energy to pass through it following a deliberate pathway: “the energy is in the root, the root is in the foot, developed by the legs, directed by the waist, expressed through the upper body”. The energy being described is here is what is “ground reaction force” in the lexicon of physics.
So, our World Tai Chi Day celebration was a class about working with kinetic energy according to the principles of tai chi. When you first look and listen to this video of the students working with fans, you may see it as a dance. If you look a little closer, you can see the tai chi principles in action. You may notice that the students don’t wave their arms to open the fans, you can see the students have actually stopped moving (this is the moment of “rooting”) when the fans open explosively, making a loud sound as the cloth stretching between the wooden supports of the fan rip through the air. The fans are opening because the students are sending kinetic energy through them. The students’ bodies have to be balanced and stable to send the energy into the fan. If their bodies were not stable, the kinetic energy would be dissipated by wobbling. By keeping their bodies relaxed, the students don’t block the pathway of energy. Their bodies are like a whip: soft and supple and able to focus energy into the fan. In our brief tai chi fan class, the students practiced rooting and sending energy in three tai chi stances: the horse stance, the empty stance and the bow stance.