Tag Archives: Tai Chi

Softening the gaze

“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.

When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.

The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.

There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.

There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.

If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.

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Adventures with Ankles

Most of my joints will bend the wrong way(s) under any kind of pressure. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve grasped that this is a thing with considerable implications. It explains much of why I hurt, and why I get tired a lot. The tissues supporting my joints are softer than normal, so everything takes more effort, and I’m more likely to injure myself, including micro-damage. When I was first dealing with fatigue issues in my teens, I’m not sure anyone was aware of this sort of thing. No one asked about my joints.

My ankles are especially bad. I spent my childhood falling over a lot, running was scary and difficult. But, I’ve persisted, kept moving, walked, danced, swam, did what I could with this body and tried not to hurt it too much. I hold pens and chopsticks the ‘wrong’ way to alleviate hand pressure. I hold bows the wrong way, I probably type wrongly as well, but I get by.

A few weeks into learning Tai Chi it became apparent that I couldn’t get the knee and toe positions right for most stances. It’s a small knee bend. My teacher talked a lot about not bending knees the wrong way – clearly used to a lot of older students with dodgy knees. I started exploring what was happening between knees and ankles and realised I was loading the joints badly. Thus started a massive program to re-think how I stand and walk.

My ankles default to rolling outwards in response to any kind of pressure (i.e. being stood up). This probably makes me more likely to fall over, and I suspect it puts pressure on my knees and thighs. One of my hip joints is very loose as it is and often problematic. To correct my ankles I had to get more weight onto the inside of my foot. I focused on my big toes. I did it when practicing Tai Chi, and also when walking, and at first it really hurt, and gradually it’s got easier.

This in turn has got me looking at my toes. I’ve never been a serious wearer of pointy, heeled shoes so my toes aren’t much distorted by that, but they do all roll towards the middle. Getting my weight in the right place has meant training my toes to spread out a bit more. I need to build toe strength! When learning new moves I have to figure out how I’m going to get my ankles to the right place, and this can be tricky with bigger steps, but I’m getting there, and my teacher has been supportive and helpful.

I’ve learned a lot about my body in recent months. I’ve learned things that I wish I’d known when I was a child, struggling with sports lessons. I wish my teachers had known. I wish my doctors had known when I started having fatigue issues. I spent so long with body pain being treated like an over-reaction, fatigue being treated like drama, the poor co-ordination that goes with hypermobility being treated like a personal failing or lack of effort. It’s hard to ask for help when you’ve been convinced that your body is fine and your mind is the problem. I’m getting there now, and it’s changed how I feel about myself and what I do with my body.

I’d internalised so much of that sense of my body issues just meaning that I am a crap person in some way. Having a clear sense of the mechanics has been empowering, and allows me to feel better about myself. I get tired more than the average person because everything takes me more effort. I hurt more because I take more damage. It was never all in my head. And now that I’m dealing with it as a thing happening in my body, I might even be able to improve the situation for myself.


Giving it sixty percent

I’ve been going to a Tai Chi class for a few weeks now. One of the ideas my teacher reminds us of every lesson, is the principle of giving about sixty percent. Don’t go for the maximum you can do. Don’t push your body. Don’t over-extend or try too hard. Just relax, and do about two thirds of what you reckon your upper limit might be.

This is a very long way from conventional western thought around developing strength and fitness. We’re normally told to push, to feel the burn, go through the pain barrier. No pain no gain. My experience of life with a body is that if I hurt myself, I lose scope for movement and end up less active in the short term. Hurt yourself enough and you’ll be obliged to quit. Perhaps this is the inevitable price if you want to participate in sports at higher levels, but is it necessary for all of us? What if it isn’t?

I’m enjoying the process of giving it about two thirds of what I’ve got. I’m careful with my joints and muscles, and as someone with various pain issues, I’m enjoying feeling relaxed about doing what I can and not pushing into discomfort. A few weeks in and there are several things I can now do better than when I started, so even though I’m not pushing, I am clearly developing. My balance in some of the moves has improved. The flexibility in a shoulder I’ve had problems with, is improving too.

I’m also finding the sixty percent idea relevant for the rest of life. I tend to feel like I should be going at everything with everything I’ve got all of the time. I know it doesn’t work. A sixty percent approach would be kinder and more sustainable. As I learn to work kindly with my body, I may manage to work a little more kindly with my head, as well.

The no pain no gain mentality can make physical activity seem unavailable to those of us who really can’t afford any more pain. It can discourage people from action on the grounds of disability, age, physical delicacy, ease of being hurt. It can take us down a path towards injury that then limits what we can do. It is definitely possible to strengthen and develop your body without pushing it to, and beyond its limits. However, the idea that pain and gain go together, that growth is good and growth hurts are part of a bigger story our culture tells itself about how we have to push for success and how we should expect to struggle and suffer along the way.

Giving it sixty percent allows me to step back from all of that, rethink my natural limits, rethink other natural limits, and make radical changes.