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(2 pages total)

Page 2 - Feather Walking

Feather Walking

Left to right: A. Flexing the foot in back opens up the yong chuan, the bubbling well. B. Sit into the hip, bend the knee, and keep the back straight from the tailbone to the crown. C. The heel touches down light as a feather. D. Feather walking forward with arms. E. Feather walking backward with arms. Note the exaggerated backward movement of the opposing arm. Photos by Elizabeth Mackay of the author.



Walking Backward

In the Wu style that I teach, we walk backward while doing Trapping Tricky Monkey. Instead of using the knees to take the foot backward, we use the big jointthe hip. Thus the step is rounded and the foot describes a low arc in the air. You may choose to just use the knee. With each step, land on the ball of the foot. As the heel goes down in the back foot, the toe of the front foot comes up. Youre like the runners on a rocking chair. Its extremely important to preserve a shoulder width stance while walking backwardits hard enough without putting ourselves on a rail as if were confined to a balance beam. A mirror can help here. If the back foot is partially hidden by the front foot, youre in trouble. This is a great hip sitting exercise. Establish yourself in one hip before using the other to move the foot back. Of course we combine breath and visualization here too. Its fun to add arms while walking backward. The mental focus shifts to the arm swinging back instead of the arm swinging forward. It pulls the opposite-side leg back with it. Our elbows dont bend backward the way they bend forward, but thats the only difference. Although it takes some getting used to, its surprising how quickly our bodies respond to training. Walking backward with arms becomes noticeably easier with each try.


Playing Red Light-Green Light

After wed been practicing feather walking for a while, I decided to play music during the exercise and stop it at random intervals for a few seconds at a time. When the music stops, the students stop; when the music resumes, they resume. Its challenging and fun and reminds me of games I played as a kidred light-green light and statue. You might be caught with one foot in midair, or an inch above the ground, or with the heel or toe barely touching so that youre in empty stance with no weight on one leg and all the weight held by the other. You will eventually be caught in every conceivable position. Our legs strengthen and our balance improves.

We learn a lot about the molecular progression of weight transfer and about how all the parts of the body combine for walkingone leg and another, one foot and another, and the upper and lower body. If youre using arms, it becomes abundantly clear how helpful they are in maintaining balance. One of my students brought in a tape called Stop Music that hed gotten from the Arica Institute in New York in the 1970s. The music is quietly evocative and mysterious. Random stops of several seconds duration are built in. They get longer as the tape goes on. This means everyone can participatewe dont need a disc jockey.

Everyone laughed when I suggested we use stop music while doing Tai Chi, and so did I. Then I thought, why not? This has turned out to be one of my students favorite exercises. Theres a wall of mirrors in the studio and if you can sneak a glance at yourself while frozen, you might see some surprising departures from basic Tai Chi principles and posture. You can also feel your mistakes when required to hold them. You may have thought you were focused before, but doing the sequence knowing you may have to stop at any moment brings awareness and balance to a new level. This single-mindedness can be carried over into every (nonstopping) practice of the form. The heightened concentration makes me feel even more calmed and refreshed by Tai Chi.

When the classes moved outside for the summer, I started using a gong to signal students to stop and the tapping of a mokugyo (a Buddhist wooden bell) to tell them when to go. Many people prefer this over the music. Im careful to turn away from the class when I do this so no one thinks Im persecuting them by repeatedly catching them in hard-to-hold positionsin the middle of a high leg lift, for instance.

As you can see, our practice of feather walking takes different forms and has evolved over time. One of the intriguing gifts of this exceedingly simple and exceedingly profound exercise is that it reveals to us, often for the first time, our physical quirks and asymmetries. We learn things about our bodies and gait that we didnt know before. We can even remake our way of walking. Its also a form of moving meditation thats stimulating and calming at the same timejust like Tai Chi. When I practice Tai Chi, I try to make every step a feather-walking step. There are the inevitable tell-tale clunks here and there, but its fun to try to get through the entire form without ever falling from one foot onto the other.


Margaret Emerson has been practicing Tai Chi, qigong, and meditation since 1979 and teaching since 1989. She lives in Arcata, California where she also writes and paints. Her books are Breathing Underwater: The Inner Life of Tai Chi Chuan, A Potters Notes on Tai Chi Chuan, and Eyes of the Mirror, a memoir. She is a contributor to the book Martial Arts Teachers on Teaching, also to Qi Journal, Black Belt Magazine, and Aikido Today. Her new video is Wu Tai Chi, Kao Style: As Practiced and Taught by Margaret Emerson. Margarets Web site is www.margaretemerson.com.

Reprinted from Qi Journal, Autumn 2011 issue

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