Friday, July 30, 2010

More on knees ...

An update on my knees. After a few days of no pain, I started getting some pain again in both knees. Not all the time, but certainly when serious bending and sometimes on turning. Something clearly wrong, so time to do some research. I was a runner for quite a few years, and sporadically over the last few years. I used to go through periods of knee pain. Crushed ice on the knees after a run (actually frozen peas—very effective). It might be that I did some damage to my knees with all that pavement pounding.

My research revealed a couple of things. Lots of advice for folk with bad knees to take up tai chi. Tai chi will help bad knees is the general consensus. But then, quite a few folk who report getting bad knees after doing tai chi for some time. Hmm ...

There are also those who say, "Take up tai chi. It can't do any damage." But then other who say, "Do taiji wrong and you can damage your knees." Looking at the credentials of those who make the comments, I am tempted to go with the latter. If you practice seriously, there is a lot of knee bending, and a lot of knee turning. If you persistently bend and turn with your knees incorrectly you can do damage.

So, what have I learned about correct knee position? It's back to basics.

  1. Don't go too low as a beginner. The masters look great, but they have practiced for years and have developed great flexibility and strength.
  2. Make sure your knees don't go over your toes when you bend.
  3. Make sure your knees do not bend inward.
  4. If you get pain in your knees don't bend or turn to the point of pain. If you feel pain, pull back, raise your position.

I have been paying attention to these basic ideas. Number 3 has been very interesting. To move the knees outward rather than inward makes for a much stronger stance. It is also a definite point of attention. I think it may be that I have been allowing my knees to bend inward, particularly the back knee in any stance. So, I am paying attention still to knees. I'll report again.

Here's an interesting link about knee health: Yoga For Knees


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Be kind to your body

It's something I am learning to do.

But let me back up a little. We have a way of talking about the body as if it is not "us" but something separate from us; something we own, "my body." It's as if the "me" is not the body, but the "me" has a body as an appendage.

Our trouble with the body is as old as recorded history. The body is a wild horse that needs to be mastered (the ancients). The mind and body are a dualism (the moderns). But, what if the body is just who you are? Be kind to you!

Mostly, we are unconscious of the body until it begins to play up. You don't notice your feet until someone treads on your toe. You don't think about your stomach, until it is upset. Your head sits on your shoulders unfelt until you get a headache. Body consciousness (and that is what taiji is) is about becoming more aware. Being more aware you become kinder.

I have noticed this with sports. Not the ones we watch as spectators, but the ones we engage in. I was talking with a friend recently who has not been exercising regularly for some time. "I need a good work out, sweat a little," he said. We have a view that every now and then the body is better for a good thrashing! (English public school style.) That is not being kind to you. You will feel it. The body will ache. You will pant a lot, sweat a bit and think it's done you good. I wonder.

Before practicing taiji more seriously than before, my games have been squash and running (2-3 games of squash a week, plus a couple of runs of about 3-4 miles). They have kept me pretty fit. Both are good exercises, but both are pretty jarring on the body. I have noticed in recent years that in both squash and running, I am more prone to aches and pains. Knee aches. Ankle aches. Back aches. Shoulder aches. (Of course, my right shoulder still aches because I ran into the wall playing squash six months ago. Stupid thing to do!) In both sports I have learned to push hard. Give it 100%. More if you can.

I am rethinking. The other week my knees started to ache a little. Hmm ... All I have read about taiji is that it is good for your joints and muscles. What was the issue? I began to pay attention to my knees. Focus energy there while practicing; becoming more aware of the feeling in and around the knees with different forms and movements. I realized that I was pushing too hard. After years of "One hundred percent effort. No pain no gain" thinking, I had taken it over into taiji.

New way of thinking. Be kind. Don't push so hard. If anything hurts, pull back. In any movement take it only to 70% of your ability. Be kind to your body. Be kind to you.

The difference? My knees did not ache as much. I am hoping that the ache will go away completely.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Taiji as play

I have noticed that in a number of taiji books taiji is referred to as "play," and those who do taiji as "players." Other books speak of "practice" or "training."

I have had an aversion to calling taiji play, but I am rethinking. Practice and training are goal oriented. You practice to get better at the thing you practice. You train with some end in mind: to be fitter, to compete in a race. When you play, well, you just play! Play is childish. It is one of those things we put behind us when we mature. When adults play it is a little self-indulgent. Play is usually unfocussed. Play is not serious. Play is an end in itself. It doesn't go anywhere. It is not instrumental to something else. It just is.

I suspect I have imbibed too much our cultural emphasis on getting things done. "I had a productive day," we say. Ever hear, "I had a playful day"?

Max Weber (one of the fathers of sociology) had something to say about the "rational" and the "irrational." Rationality is goal oriented behavior. Irrationality is doing things merely for the sake of doing them. In Western society, we discovered that the most productive form of human behavior was rational. We have looked down on the irrational. That's how we accomplished so much. In his other phrase, Weber called this the "Protestant work ethic." It underlies capitalistic enterprise.

(This is an aside, but it always irks me when in a restaurant the wait staff ask, "Are you finished or are you still working on it." Dinner is not work! Dinner is more like play ... or should be.)

What if taiji is irrational, in a Weberian sense. It just is. It is not producing anything. It is play. Pure and simple. Feeling playful?

Don't work too hard at it!


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Different energy

Last week we had a lovely time at the ocean, camping at Delaware. It gave me the rare treat of my daily practice on the beach with the Atlantic waves rolling in, only a few feet away. I noticed a very different energy than in my yard at home. This was not really a surprise as I have noticed that energy is different in different places at different times. Practice is different in the sun than in the shade. Different in doors than out doors. Different on a still day than on a stormy, windy day. This makes taiji all the more delightful. I don't know what the explanation might be, but it is a fun part of the journey. I suspect that these different energy levels are there all the time. It is just that in becoming more aware it becomes more obvious.