A few years ago, I was talking with someone about tai chi and she said she couldn’t do it because she was clumsy and had no balance. I told her, “This is exactly what tai chi improves, which is why you should consider it” but she dug her heels in deeper – she was clumsy and had no balance, therefore it was impossible. ‘Round and ‘round we went. I’ll refrain from further commentary but it’s a conversation I’ve had a number of times; so often, in fact, that now when I hear “Oh, I can’t do that – I’m too clumsy/my balance is awful” I just say “Okay, you’re right” in my mind, and then change the subject.
This sounds like a form of giving up – not making a strong enough case for the benefits tai chi has for us – but I submit that the problem is larger. Tai chi is like every other martial art in the world in that it offers benefits to the player, but the player must work to achieve them and more importantly, be willing to put in the work to achieve them. No martial art – indeed, no learned activity at all – can conduct a person from inexperienced tyro to confident expert with no effort on the individual’s part. It would be like saying you’re training for a marathon by riding a Hoveround for 26.2 miles a day. Like I’ve said before, no one can go to the bathroom for you, and no one can do your tai chi for you.
Tai chi therefore takes effort. Thankfully, not the kind of painful struggle of holding a “Horse-riding stance” for hours on end or beating one’s hands against striking pads for years. But it still takes effort and work, and some of that work might in fact be daunting or even scary.
Improving our balance can be daunting and scary, because in order to improve balance, we must be willing to go to a place of “imbalance.” I’ll explain what I mean. If I lie on the floor, there’s no balance involved at all – you can’t fall off the floor. If I sit up, I might schlump over but we all have sufficient core strength and internal balance to sit on the floor. Even if we do schlump over, it’s not far and unless there’s a table corner nearby for us to bonk our heads on, the worst that will happen is we’ll look a bit foolish. Those of us who are not wheelchair bound can stand unassisted. This carries the risk of falling but we all agree that the benefits of standing up outweigh the risks of falling over, so we put in the effort without giving it any thought. Same with walking, crouching down, rising up, stretching and the rest of our physical activities. We do things like standing, walking, crouching and stretching every day and we’re comfortable in doing them.
When we first start perching on one leg as in some of the postures in tai chi, we’re hesitant and daunted, and our first efforts are clumsy. Mine certainly were. I was unfamiliar with the postures, not comfortable at all in my ability to do them, and very conscious of how I’d look and feel if I fell over, even if I didn’t hurt myself. My instincts and some small bit of trepidation would kick in and hold me back, and this happened with me for a lot longer than I’m proud to admit. With continued practice and purposefully working on the “perched-on-one-leg” postures, I eventually started to improve. Then I started working balancing exercises purposefully into my at-home practice and started to actually get good at it.
It took the following things for me to improve:
- Being dissatisfied with my state of balance
- Wanting to do something about it
- Being willing to work at it
- Finding the exercises to help me improve
- Doing the exercises
- Pushing past my comfort zone, but not too far
I underwent a medical procedure in 2015 that botched up my balance and strength, and I had to start pretty much all over again, and that hesitancy and fear were right back with me just like they were before. It’s a part of getting older, I suppose. But I’ve improved – even better than before the medical procedure – and that’s the important part.
Improving our balance involves pushing past our comfort zone, but not too far. When we do the “leg swings” in the 9 Temple Exercise qigong, I direct the class to have a light touch on the barre – next to no touch at all. You notice of course I don’t use the barre, but I do use “an invisible chair” – I visualize leaning on the back of a chair when I do the exercises. “Leg swings” are an excellent exercise to improve balance, but only if we purposely go just this >< far past where we’re comfortable. Doing so forces our core muscles and our inner ears to start working together better – they get lazy over a lifetime of not needing to do so. Being slightly off-balance and forcing our bodies to make those small corrections is how our balance improves! When I focus on the “empty stance” and “cat stance” and ask the class to “check your posture,” what I’m actually doing, in addition to getting students conditioned to do kicks, is throwing in a little balancing exercise. Just doing our “checks on posture” will improve our balance, almost without us knowing it’s happening.
There are many qigong exercises to improve balance. We do some of them in class but as yet I haven’t spent much more time on the more aggressive ones. The most aggressive balancing exercise I do in class so far is “Crane” from the “Five Animals” set. But it’s also the best balancing exercise there is.
The good news is that improved balance is one of the very first benefits to tai chi you should experience. It only takes a few practice sessions to start feeling more confident in standing and moving. Celebrate achievements like this! By all means share them in class – you’re not only taking pride in your own accomplishment, you’re also encouraging your fellow students. We go to class to grow; it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate that growth when it happens, and encourage it in those around us.
Balance, core strength and confidence all go together, but we have to get a bit “off-balance” to improve them.