By Brian Cooper
I began teaching in 1989 and still have many students who started with me back then. These long-term students have not found any problem practicing on a regular basis and that’s probably why they are long-term students. In more recent times many of the newer students have complained that they don’t have time to practice or they are so busy and stressed out, it’s difficult to keep up their practice of tai chi or chi gung.
I don’t think it’s true that these students have no time to practice. I feel that their practice is probably unrewarding and therefore, deep in their hearts they don’t feel like doing it. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. There may be many reasons for this, but my intuition is that there is a sense of strain in their practice.
When working with your own internal practice, the requirement to go inside, feel and concentrate can create a subtle sense of strain. This in itself will make the person not want to do it.
This reminds me of a time, way back when I was young. I wanted to learn to play blues guitar. Every day I practiced in a set session for about an hour. My progress was very slow and I didn’t seem to be able to get into the feel of how to play blues guitar. I followed all the instructions to the letter, and even took private lessons.
But still, I couldn’t seem to make it flow. I gave up my practice sessions and left the guitar in a little empty space between the lounge and kitchen and I began to find myself picking it up for a few moments and trying a chord or two.
I did this a number of times a day since it seemed effortless just for a few minutes and I didn’t really care how well I did. It was just for the enjoyment of it. After a few days the thing began to flow and I started to practice for longer periods of time gradually building up to long afternoons as my skill got better. Then progress became quite swift and for a while back in those days I could play a pretty mean blues guitar.
So what was wrong with my full practice?
I think it was the strain of trying to get it right, of not being natural about it. The casual attempts at micro-practice seemed to release me from strain and things began to move forward. So, if you find your practice getting stuck in this way even if you don’t obviously feel strain but just can’t seem to get it to work, try the art of micro-practice.
Example: When you’re brewing your coffee first thing in the morning, standing in the kitchen, bring your awareness to your feet. Feel how your feet contact the floor.
Begin to sit into your stance so that your weight sinks into your heels. Let your tailbone sit down into your heels. If you were standing in soft mud it would be your heels which would be sinking.
And gradually without deliberately shifting your weight, direct your tailbone forward until you can feel the pressure going into the middle of the arch of the foot. Now lift all your toes from the floor, stretch them forward and gently lay all the pads of your toes back on to the floor.
How does that feel? Do you feel now you’re contacting the floor better? Do you have a sense of gripping the floor but without any sense of tension or strain?
Now, your coffee is brewed and you just completed your first session of micro-practice.
People often report to me that standing is difficult for them. After some attempts, they say that standing, even for a few minutes becomes a frustrating experience. The desire to move about becomes so strong that they fidget and fidget and finally give up.
So here is an example not so much of micro-practice, but of casual practice:
If you can’t stand to stand, go for a walk. Take a stroll in the woods and as you walk just casually begin to go inside. Feel how your head is held. Is there any tension or strain? Just casually let it go. How are your shoulders? Do the same thing, let them drop. How is your spine? Feel all the way down your spine; begin to let your pelvis hang as you walk.
Gradually you will find that your whole body is beginning to relax and become more fluid. Keep going for as long as you feel comfortable with it and there is no strain. I’m willing to bet at least a fiver you’ll feel much better at the end of your walk.
Waiting in a queue at the supermarket? Instead of being in a hurry, standing on the balls of your feet, watching the person in front of you so slowly packing their bags, trying to remember their pin number as they pay, just sit back and relax into your stance. Let your shoulders drop, let your pelvis drop, let go of tension, and just have a moment of peace.
You can apply the same kind of softness to your regular practice also. Did you ever see a cat overstretch? Practice like a cat, feel your way through a stretch. Enjoy it. Let your body hang, have fun, don’t worry. When you don’t feel like doing any more, go and do something else. There will be plenty of opportunity throughout the rest of the day . . . for micro-practice.