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Working Harder Is Not Serving You: What I Learned in My First Tai Chi Class

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"Liz, you must be very polite with yourself when you are learning something new." -- Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Have you wanted to learn a new language, start salsa classes, or maybe just learn how to throw a ball in the right direction? Besides distractions and making time available, what holds you back?

Recently I checked one off of my to-do list. I started taking tai chi classes. I have always been interested in studying a martial art, particularly one of the healing and internal styles such as tai chi. As a person who works with people that are challenged with balance, pain and adaptive skills, tai chi has held a fascination for me. I also chose a class taught by Feldenkrais and bagua/tai chi teacher Edward Yu. I knew from taking other classes with him that his instructional style would guide me to learn in my own way, rather than focusing on working harder or the correct way. Certainly there need to be accurate and precise movements with tai chi, but the question is how does anyone access accuracy and precision in their own body -- not just learning something new, but finding ways to engage more fully in the learning process?

So after only five classes, what have I learned?

Reduce your effort -- the harder you work, the less you will feel. This contradicts what we think about exercise, but when learning something new, you need to be able to sense what you are doing. Lawrence Galante, author of Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate says, "The body must be quieted. The mind resides within the body. If the body is in a state of agitation or anxiety, then the mind is also." He also advises, "Take the middle path." In class we were led to recognize how to reduce effort and to notice what we were feeling to observe new ways to explore, using the ground as a mirror and our easy breath to note any extraneous effort.

The brain only changes when it matters to it, to be engaged in the task... It mattered to me. I know that learning something new engages me to start off like a child. In child development, we passed through certain growth milestones by following our intention with self-guided exploration. This is hardwired in a healthy human system. Watch baby Liv as she learns...

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, keynote speaker for the 2012 Feldenkrais Conference: "You really want to exercise the brain with a variety of movements, a variety of actions, a variety of challenges." This way you become more resilient and adaptable -- something that is not only essential to a martial artist, but to everyone who is alive.

For learning something new, we need to proceed at our own rate, which provides us the leisure to get used to the novelty of the situation. Since our class adds new students each time, we revisit our first practice and this allows me the freedom to play with our movements with a fresh start. Even though we are ostensibly repeating the same movements from previous classes, the value of experiencing it differently with fresh eyes helped me wake up my senses and allow me to be patient with this new experience.

Accept inevitable mistakes. Do not avoid errors, but instead use them as alternatives from what you feel is right. Soon the errors become the foundation upon which learning grows. Our tai chi lessons were guided instructions to explore what worked and what didn't work and to notice the difference. This provided me ways to discriminate better, so I could rely on drawing up the right choice later without guidance from the outside.

Reversibility: According to Dr. Feldenkrais, optimal movement can be stopped at anytime... or reversed without any preliminary change of attitude and without effort. In other words, having the ability to always take a movement back. In class, we refined our balance as we stood on one foot, and would shift our opposite heel to the floor with such clarity, we could reverse our action at anytime. Often Edward would move about the room, placing his little finger under our heels to magnify our intentions to go about this in a way we could easily reverse our actions. As we worked through our movements, I became more aware of how my intention to move in one direction and reverse it created a profound sense of stability.

So my Mr. Miyagi moment happened when I went for a long-distance run this week and ran a longer distance with less fatigue and without any strain. I haven't noticed this sense of movement in myself for a very long time... I am hooked now!

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