Archive for February, 2011

learning to move like a cat

February 18, 2011

“Loki Tiger” by Ren Adams

During my daily practice of Tai Chi Chuan, our family cat always comes into the room with me, rubs her head and back on my legs several times, lies down in the middle of the floor space, and purrs continuously as I practice.  It can be a bit of a problem to avoid stepping on her as I practice…I often have to step around her or pick her up and move her, because she won’t move, even if I nudge her.  Her reaction to Tai Chi is curious to me, because I’ve never seen her purr for such a long time at a stretch, without being petted.  Perhaps watching the slow, flowing movements of Tai Chi is fascinating to cats, as watching a fish gliding through water would be.  Or maybe she enjoys the novelty of seeing a human being neither rushing about doing errands, nor lying asleep, but rather moving through space slowly, deliberately, mindfully.  Or maybe she recognizes something feline, something of herself in the movements.  I remember my wife commenting a long time ago that our cat is the embodiment of Tai Chi, that every movement she makes looks like Tai Chi—slow, graceful, relaxed.

When I began to read more about Tai Chi, I realized just how right my wife was.  In the collection of sayings and Tai Chi instructions known as the Tai Chi Classics, Wu Yu-hsiang instructs the practitioner to emulate a cat.

“Walk like a cat.”

–quoted from The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan:   The Literary Tradition, translated and edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe

When a cat walks, it places it paw softly on the ground and does not commit weight to it at first.  If necessary, the cat can lift that same paw up without losing balance, because no weight has been committed to it yet.  Only when it feels the ground firmly under its paw, does it gradually shift weight onto the paw.  Tai Chi trains one to step in the same way, softly with sensitivity, feeling the ground beneath your feet.  If a cat is pushed when it does not want to move, it does not push back or lift its weight up higher into its body, but instead  sinks its weight and energy down lower into its body and paws, sinking, rooting.  I’ve witnessed this with my own cat, when trying to nudge her out of the Tai Chi practice area.  When pushed, and therefore stressed, we humans tend to lift our tension and stress up into our upper bodies, and resist and push back against the force, all of which makes us more susceptible to losing our balance and toppling over.  However, Tai Chi teaches us the cat-like skill of sinking our weight into our legs, being firmly rooted, and redirecting or absorbing an incoming force either by shifting our center, or by absorbing the force down into the ground, into our root.

Cats are known for their grace and beauty in movement, the flowing way that their bodies move through space.  They move from the center of their bodies, and the motion and energy flows out from the center to the extremities.  For example, I’ve seen this when our cat lifts her paw to her mouth to begin grooming.  It is a quick motion, but when I watch it carefully, she does not just stick her paw in her mouth.  Instead, the energy of the movement of lifting the paw seems to begin in the center of her body, and flows up like a wave through her shoulder, and down her leg, and then finally ending in her paw.  This  continuous wave-like motion can be compared to the reeling of silk and is emulated in Tai Chi Chuan.  In fact, “silk reeling” is a skill set developed in the practice of Chen style Tai Chi Chuan.  To the best of my understanding (I’m just starting to learn about this), silk reeling involves learning to use the energy focused in the center of your body (i.e. using the chi in your dantien) and learning to let that energy flow out to your extremities in a continuous manner, which leads to a smooth, circling, and spiraling type of motion of your body and extremities while practicing.

“When changing position, you should move like a cat.  Exercising the internal power is like the delicate reeling of silk.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in T’ai Chi Classics, translated by Waysun Liao

As the quote above implies, this silk reeling leads to movements that are slow and graceful, yet have an underlying energetic power.

Cats tend to alternate between states of meditative stillness and motion.  Another saying by Wu Yu-hsiang in the T’ai Chi Classics instructs the practitioner to practice both stillness, as well as a fluid quality of movement, which is graceful and powerful:

“Be as still as a mountain,

Move like a great river.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan:   The Literary Tradition, translated and edited by Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Martin Inn, Robert Amacker, and Susan Foe.

Much of cats’ gracefulness comes from their ability to relax their muscles.  They use the minimum muscular tension necessary to move, and relax the rest of their bodies.  Because there is no unnecessary tension in the muscles, there are no blockages of kinetic energy, and everything flows.  Even when in a physical confrontation or in imminent physical danger, cats are able to maintain muscular relaxation and coordination.  My Yang style Tai Chi teacher repeatedly reminds us that most important principle of Tai Chi is “Sung,” i.e. relaxing the muscles, letting go of tension, while maintaining posture.  Through practice of the Tai Chi form, and particularly the practice of Push Hands with a partner, one learns the difficult and counterintuitive skill of relaxing, even when in conflict or under stress.  One learns that it is precisely this cat-like ability to relax that sharpens one’s sensitivity, enables one to more quickly respond and better cope with the situation.

The Tai Chi Classics also describe the apparent “mindset” of a cat…while a cat appears placid and calm, it is nevertheless able to respond in an instant to its environment…a striking, and seemingly paradoxical combination of serenity and alertness:

“Your mind should be centered, like the placid cat—peaceful but able to respond instantly to the scurrying mouse.”

— Wu Yu-hsiang quoted in T’ai Chi Classics, translated by Waysun Liao

This description of a centered mind combined with a finely tuned awareness of one’s environment, likened to that of a cat, is an unusual state of mind that the practice of Tai Chi Chuan develops.  During push hands practice, one works on simultaneously being exquisitely aware of the other person’s movements and sensing them, “listening” to them very closely, moment by  moment, but also remaining continuously aware of one’s own center…thus harmonizing and integrating the outer world and our own inner world.  One of Master Yang Cheng-Fu’s ten important points about Tai Chi Chuan was to “Harmonize the internal and the external.”

Although I have not been the most physically graceful person for much of my life (my wife would laugh at the understatement here, as I am prone to Inspector Clouseau moments), practicing Tai Chi Chuan gives me an opportunity to focus on, and become more mindful of the way I move, and where my body is in space.  A book that has been helpful as well is Peter and Laura Ralston’s book Zen Body-Being:  An Enlightened Approach to Physical Skill, Grace, and Power.   Hopefully this regular practice of Tai Chi Chuan will begin to affect the way I move throughout each day.


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