The slender woman with shoulder-length white hair (let’s call her Molly) stands in her sock feet, knotted hands rubbing her upper arms during every pause or break in the hour-long T’ai Chi Chih class that I bring to her neighborhood once a week.
Her skin is translucent, blue veins visible in what little is showing under her layers. She signed up, she says, hoping for better circulation, one of the studied benefits of the practice.
After class she is off to an appointment for a blood transfusion. She has a leukemia diagnosis.
Molly is amazed at the warmth in my hands as she takes them in hers when we finish. Hers are icy, even after all the movement we’ve been doing. I can see the effects of improved circulation lending a light blush to her neck and cheeks—but she wants warm hands. Like the ones holding hers.
The worst thing about this cancer, she says, is that I can never, ever get warm.
“Chi goes where blood flows.”
Words from my first Shiatsu instructor that stick with me years later. I find myself saying them to my students often.
Chi is the energy—sometimes called vital force—flowing through the channels in our bodies called meridians. Asian Bodywork Therapies like Shiatsu and Chi Nei Tsang, treatments such as acupressure and acupuncture, as well as movement practices like Chi Gong, T’ai Chi Chuan, and T’ai Chi Chih, of course, are intended to develop, circulate, and rebalance the flow of this energy from the organs along these channels to our extremities. (And beyond. But that’s another post 😊).
We talk a bit about this in class—the motivation behind doing the movements. Enough that Molly makes the connection that the disease in her blood robs her of the energy needed to motivate her sluggish circulation. The warmth in my hands and those of some of the other students gives her hope and keeps her coming back.
Like most beginning students, Molly finds the foundational concept of the effort of no effort difficult to grasp. After all, we live in a culture that preaches an alternative view—harder work equals better results.
The “hard work” of T’ai Chi Chih lies in dedication to practice and finding the path of ease.
I’m in the habit of introducing my students to the seated form of TCC, particularly as seniors work on increasing their endurance in the hour-long class. More active participants often experience some resistance to sitting when they don’t need to sit. I offer the “carrot” that learning at least some of the seated movements will actually benefit their standing practice.
When I say benefit, I’m usually referring to a deepened experience of the pelvic tilt that expands and contracts the student’s core, providing the motivation for the hand movements. This often leads to a kinesthetic “aha” moment of realization around the effort of no effort that often translates into softer and more integrated standing movements.
Molly had an “aha” of her own. The day we first experienced the seated practice as a class was the day of her breakthrough.
We started with a movement named Rocking Motion, making our way through most of the first half of the practice that consists of 19 movements and 1 pose.
After our repetitions of Rocking Motion, I could see her palms, as they faced me, pinking with circulation. By the time we were finished with the first two warm-up movements and the next three in the series, her fingers visibly joined the party.
In the seated practice, you see, it’s harder to “cheat” than when you’re standing, able to use your legs to motivate the movements and overuse the arms to accomplish them, instead of fully expanding and contracting the core. You’ve seen the athlete who explodes from the core in their jump or swing for effortless distance or power. And you’ve seen the one who “muscles” it from the arms or legs.
In standing T’ai Chi Chih, moving from the core is something that usually expands and develops with practice and over time. Seated T’ai Chi Chih—especially for folks who may find it difficult to sink into their knees to allow for much of a pelvic tilt—can accelerate and exaggerate this, without the legs to limit the range of motion.
As the seated TCC practitioner sinks, rocking the pelvis back and contracting the core, then lifts to expand, open, and motivate the arms, a new benefit occurs—the organs get quite the massage, increasing circulation and encouraging function.
“Chi goes where blood flows.”
That’s what happened for this happy student.
When I took her hands in mine, the glaring difference in temperature between them had disappeared. Molly got it. The next time her arms, by habit, went to hug herself for warmth, she caught herself. She placed them back on her thighs, and rocked on her sit bones, opening and contracting her core.