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Feather Walking

Tai Chi teaches us how to walk. Every step is slow and exaggerated, so we have a chance to notice and shape every detail of the process. My students and I practice what I call feather walking to prepare us physically and mentally to do the Tai Chi sequence.

I flex my ankle and extend my heel, touching down light as a feather on the ground. Theres no weight there yet. Thenonly when I decide toI roll my weight gradually onto that foot until it makes full contact with the ground. (Walking is not falling from one foot onto the other.) All the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and the dozens of bones in my foot have time to assess and adjust to the groundwhether its bumpy or flatand bring me into balance. Meanwhile, the heel of the foot in back is rising off the ground, flexing the sole. Im conscious of the fact that flexing the back foot opens the yong chuan or bubbling wellthe energy center on the midline, just below the ballso qi can flow freely into and out of the body. I wait until I feel solidly weighted and balanced in the forward foot, then I lift the back foot off the ground and gradually extend the heel for the next step.

Feeling solidly weighted and balanced in the forward foot is the trick. I use a number of techniques to do this:

• I bend my knee to lower my center of gravity;

• I visualize my center of gravity (located in the center of my abdomen) connected by a string to the center of the supporting foot;

• I sit into my hip as if sitting straight down into a chair;

• I think about getting the weight of my upper body over my hip; which is a big, strong, reliable joint;

• I lift my crown up (which means the chin tilts slightly downward), so that my spine is vertical from the tailbone right up through the back of the neck. One of the most important things to keep in mind while walking is that a minimum shoulder-width stance is absolutely necessary for good balance. According to a Mayo Clinic report, our stances tend to become narrower as we age. So I look down at my feet now and then and correct myself if I need to.

Breathing and visualizationboth important parts of Tai Chican be added to feather walking, deepening the experience and further improving balance. Connect the breath by breathing in as you lift a foot off the groundas if pulling new energy up from the earth through the yong chuan. Breathe out as the foot presses into the groundas if sending the energy back down. Visualize elastic threads connecting the back foot to the ground as the heel lifts up. Theres a gentle resistance. Continue to feel that same sense of connection and supple support when the foot is airborne. As the heel and then the rest of the foot touch down, imagine that youre pressing a soft ball into the earth. Soles of the feet are wide open, very alive and sensitive. Your feet will appreciate the attention.


Adding Arms

One of my students with rheumatoid arthritis complained of loss of balance to her physician. He recommended that she do slow walking while using her arms in the cross-patterned waythe way we naturally walk. This means that when the left foot moves forward, the right arm moves forward and vice versa. It worked immediately for her. Now weve started adding arms to feather walking. The arms move in slow, exaggerated motionthe left arm lifts as the right foot lifts and it lowers as that foot presses down into the ground. The right arm lifts as the left arm lowers. I imagine rubber bands connecting the opposing arms and legs. Be sure to let the lower hand swing back behind the bodythis helps with the timing. You can feel energy rising and falling in the upper and lower body. Your brain and body have to come into coordination with each other. My student says she does this not just for physical balance, but also when shes feeling disconnected, meaning mentally fuzzy and discombobulated. Another member of my class says she feels more alert when she adds arms to feather walking compared to practicing it without arms. In his book Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Andrew Weil says that cross-patterned movement generates electrical activity in the brain that has a harmonizing influence on the whole central nervous systema special benefit of walking that you do not necessarily get from other forms of exercise. Feather walking with arms gives me a lovely, calm, weightless feeling while still solidly rooted in the ground.


Walking Sideways

We feather walk sideways and backward too. Sideways walking is used in the movement commonly known as Wave Hands in the Clouds. Feet face front at all times. You land on the ball of the foot with each step, slowly lowering the heel to the ground with the gradual transfer of weight. If youre moving to the right, step to the side with the right foot so your stance is a little beyond shoulder width. Then bring in the left foot just far enough to return your stance to shoulder width. As usual, avoid bringing your feet closer than shoulder width. Practice walking to both sides. Breathe in as you pick up a foot, visualizing qi flowing up from the earth and coursing through the leg to the dan tianthe energy center in the middle of the abdomen. Watch the energy pass through the dan tian and fall back down into the ground on the other side with the weight and the outflow of breath. Its like pouring water from one glass into another. Settle downward into each hip and find your balance before picking up the other foot.


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