How Circularity Leads to Smoother Mind-Body Integration
by Dan Kleiman
When it comes to movement practices like taiji and Qigong, the key to smooth mind-body integration is having more and more circularity in your art.
Now, when most people think of circularity, they think of breathing. The way that we are wired neurologically, breathing powerfully connects movement and intention. However, in the internal arts, breathing is only one way to make this link.
From now on, when you hear someone describe circular breathing, you should immediately think of the circularity as the important part, not just the breathing. In this article, I want to show you how to feel the difference between circularity and breathing and how to start forging a smoother link between your mind and your body by finding more circularity in your practice.
Circularity and Breathing Exercise
To develop a better feel for the link between circularity and breathing, try this little exercise. Take your finger and draw a square. Make a good square, with corners and edges and, as you are making the square, start to feel your breath.
For most people, it is not that easy to pay attention to your breathing and to what is going on inside your body at the same time. It is certainly not easy to have a smooth breath as you are making a sharp, linear movement.
Now make a circle. Feel the difference between doing the square and doing circles. You have much greater internal access when you are making a smooth, circular movement. As soon as you switch back to linear movement and corners instead of curves, you “lock yourself out” of internal access.
Circularity lets the mind and the body smoothly come together. Your breathing is smoothed out by doing circular movement, but breathing is not the root of this kind of mind-body integration.
The Inner Work of Taiji Also Relies on Circularity
Now let’s look at another example of circularity that is independent of breathing. There is a technique in taiji called “opening and closing”. Opening and closing refers to the internal movement of the joints and fluids of the body.
For example, feel your hands open and close. Notice that this has nothing to do with the breath. The pulsing of your blood, the natural shrinking and expanding of the joint spaces, and the springy stretch and release of your soft tissue are all internal rhythms that are independent of the breath.
In fact, the entire taiji form has a cadence of open and close and each part of the body has its own open and close rhythm too. Coordinating all these openings and closings is one meaning of the phrase in the Classics that says, “When one part moves, all parts move.”
When you synchronize the rhythm of the physical movements with your breathing, you risk losing internal access. When you focus on breathing too much, as you try to listen to your other internal rhythms, you can cover up what is really going on inside your body.
Pick Your Favorite Movement and Make it Circular
Take a small chunk of your taiji or Qigong form, as in these pictures, and repeat it five or six times.
First, practice in a more linear way, with clear corners and edges. Next, try to make obvious circles.
Do you feel a difference in terms of how the tissues, bones, and joints are moving? Can you feel the way that your nerves actually begin to relax and release through circularity, instead of re-tensing each time you have a jerky stop and start?
Finally, through sustained circular motion, can you begin to rest your mind inside your body and listen from the inside out?
Integrating More Circularity into Your Practice
Each time you practice, you make a choice and set a goal.
Are you practicing to simply relax? If so, emphasizing circularity over details will “unwind” your nervous system and let your mind and body find an equilibrium where they are more in sync.
If you are training new material, circularity has its place too. In this case, if you are learning a new technique or form, integrate circularity into the end of your practice.
Clear, linear movements do have their place. When you are going through the motor learning process for a new skill, be chunky. Stop, start, delineate. Go 1-2-3. That’s fine. You need clarity and distinction so that new movements find their place in your nervous system.
An explanation from modern neuroscience makes this concept clear. In The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone describes the effect of motor learning on the brain in much the same way. He says:
“The plastic brain is like a snowy hill in winter. Aspects of that hill–the slope, the rocks, the consistency of the snow–are, like our genes, a given. When we slide down on a sled, we can steer it and will end up at the bottom of the hill by following a path determined both by how we steer and the characteristics of the hill. Where exactly we will end up is hard to predict because there are so many factors in play.” “But,” Pascual-Leone says, “what will definitely happen the second time you take the slope down is that you will more likely than not find yourself somewhere or another that is related to the path you took the first time. It won’t be exactly that path, but it will be closer to that one than any other. And if you spend your entire afternoon sledding down, walking up, sledding down, at the end you will have some paths that have been used a lot, some that have been used very little.”
As you forge more stable neural pathways in your practice, the possibility to glide through them more effortlessly, more fluidly, and with a greater sense of internal connection is just like sledding down a familiar track on the hill.
Use this analogy to start to see your regular practice in two stages, learning first and doing second. Make the distinction between them to have more satisfying practice sessions, always finishing with the goal of smooth integration.
As you get the hang of this exercise, you learn to pay attention to several other things, beyond breathing, that govern the flow of the movements through circularity.
When you start to experience taiji and Qigong in this way, where you are literally tracking four or five other rhythms that have a circular quality, but are not the breath, you are on your way to forging the connection between your mind and body.
Dan Kleiman is the Program Director at Brookline Tai Chi in Brookline, MA, near Boston. Brookline Tai Chi is one of the largest health-oriented Tai Chi schools in the country and has been a center for teaching the Chinese movement arts of Wu Style Tai Chi, Qigong, Ba Gua and Taoist Breathing since 1992. http://www.brooklinetaichi.org. Dan teaches weekly classes and workshops on Tai Chi and Qigong for adults seeking a calmer mind and more vibrant health. For more advice on developing a movement practice focused on relaxation and pain relief, visit www.DanKleiman.com/get-moving