Last time I suggested some simple balance-improving practices you can do anywhere. You can noticeably improve your balance in just a couple of minutes a day.
Here are a couple more – equally simple, but a little more demanding in terms of strength and focus.
Before we start, a quick reminder: Maintain relaxed awareness… with your focus down the stable leg deep into the earth…
Whichever exercises you choose, keep your awareness on what is happening in your body, and relax as much as you can all the way through.
Look out calmly into the distance with a soft open gaze (the owl gaze I’ve written about before), and let the back of your mind think itself deep into the earth, down the stable leg. As you keep your awareness here, raise your ‘free’ leg and let it do whatever it wants…
(In fact, if you’re doing a kick, or generally wiggling the free leg around in space, it’s interesting to try moving your attention from that ‘downwards’ focus in your stable leg to the free one. Most people find that their balance instantly deteriorates – there’s something about trying to keep the focus in the moving leg that makes it much harder to keep solid balance.)
Shifting forward and back – the advanced version
In the last post, we started to look at how balance works when we shift forward (or backward) before lifting the unweighted foot.
We can be surprisingly awkward doing this sometimes, especially when the size of our step is unexpected. Think of a busy shopping street – some people striding out, others drifting along, heavy shopping bags, people in twos and threes taking up the whole pavement… Anyone who is actually awake (most people seem to be in trance!) finds themself constantly dodging and sidestepping so as not to bump into people.
If you watch this process from the sidelines (great excuse for a coffee in a pavement cafe), you will notice that many people find these sidestepping movements quite difficult. It’s not only that they weren’t paying attention, it’s also that you need good balance to change the speed and direction of your movements in the middle of making them.
Start as before with your feet only a foot or so apart, maybe less. Balance, and shift one foot – empty – forward by say 6 inches in the first instance. Put it down and shift your weight fully into it, relaxing all the way. Think down through your forward foot into the ground, and when you’re ready, lift your back foot off the ground…
Forwards and back – basic weight shift
It’s good to spend a little while simply shifting your weight forward and back. When you’ve completely emptied out a foot and found your balance on the other one… gently lift up the empty one and move it around… before putting it back down and shifting the weight back into it.
Then change feet, so that the other foot is forward and try a few back and forth moves on this side.
When you’re ready, walk forward very very slowly, emptying and balancing each time. Your eyes should be gazing calmly and gently straight out into the distance (this makes more difference than you would expect). Your attention is internal, and part of it is deep in the earth through the stable leg.
If you’re finding the movement difficult at first, try making the distance between your feet a little smaller or larger, and take a smaller forward step.
Bending your knees
Now bend your knees a little.
Notice that bending your knees can change the mechanics of this move. In general, it takes more strength to shift weight on well-bent knees, but if you’re strong enough, this position gives you more stability and springiness.
When you’re finding the basic shift comfortable and familiar, it’s worth working on bending your knees just a little more than you are currently doing. (This assumes you are not already quite low. However, most people start with their knees pretty much straight.)
Bend your knees to your usual position, then add in a tiny additional bend – just enough that you can feel the difference in your leg muscles. Now check that you are as relaxed as possible – your legs in particular, but all over. This is important, as it is easy to add tension as well as a deeper bend!
Taking things very slowly and gently, move through some of your practice in the new position, coming back to your normal position, or to a straight-legged (but not locked) position to rest whenever you want to rest.
When you’re ready, try walking backwards. Start with a gentle bend, and shift backwards… Notice that this is hard work in a different way. You are actually using a different set of muscles from those that carry you forwards.
Regularly walking forwards and backwards with bent knees will develop strength and confidence faster than you expect. It’s a great way of strengthening your legs and the stabilisers in your hips and knees. Don’t overdo it, though. A couple of minutes will probably be enough at the start – otherwise you’ll really feel it in your leg muscles a day or two later!
This practice will also help you get rid of ‘tai chi bounce’ – a common problem in which people dip down in the middle of their moves, but ‘pop up’ at the end of each one. Ideally, in Sun and Yang style, the top of your head will stay at the same level throughout your whole tai chi routine (except for things like kicks) – but it is surprisingly hard to do.
A mirror can help you check. Stand sideways on to a conveniently placed mirror (or your reflection in a window). Practise once or twice without looking. Then when you have found your current pattern, check your reflection and make any adjustments needed.
You can also use your mirror regularly to check that your spine is straight and vertical – the top of your head pointing to heaven – and that you are sitting back a little and keeping your shins relatively vertical, rather than pushing your knees forward as you bend them.