Walk Like a Cat

This article by Alan Baker was published in Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts magazine (N0.59) May 2020

Walk Like a Cat

(Wu Yuxian 1812 -1880. Exposition of Thirteen Postures: Taiji Classics)

It is said that, by raising our consciousness and adhering to certain principles laid down by past masters of Qigong and Taiji, it is possible to cultivate the Qi (vital energy) 24 hours a day. Improbable as that might sound, given that we spend a third of a day asleep, it accords with the notion of using the knowledge gained from our practice of Taiji and Qigong to affect positive change in our everyday lives.

Integrating the principles of Taiji and Qigong into all activities, it could be argued, is the main aim of our practice. As it says in the Taiji classics, ‘Think over carefully what the final purpose is; To lengthen one’s life, to extend one’s years, and to live in an ageless springtime.’ (The Song Of The Thirteen Postures, Unknown Author). It does not say: to acquire martial skill, to master Taiji forms, or to perfect Chansijin, though these may be the aims of formal practice. A footnote added to a classic by Yang Luchan, attributed to Zhang Sanfeng, reads; This treatise was left by the patriarch with a desire toward helping people achieve longevity and not merely as a means of martial skill.

In fact, our Taiji study or formal practice can be further deepened by attempting to apply principles learnt to the mundanities and rigours of daily life. The Daoist advice on meditation, for example, is that it is best practiced in the hub bub of the marketplace rather than in a quiet place. There is a story where a monk from a mountain retreat, known for his unflappability, is asked to take up a senior position at a distant temple. On his journey, deciding to walk through a town in the quiet of the night to avoid distractions, he inadvertently walks through the red-light district. Looking up he sees a woman, through a window, in a state of undress. In that moment, it is written, thirty years of practice were undone.

The same can be true of martial skill. To paraphrase Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang: It is not necessarily people we are training to defend ourselves from but “hidden enemies”, like ice on the path. How we respond to slipping, by adjusting and remaining stable and balanced is the victory. Perhaps a child suddenly appearing from behind a corner on a bicycle, tripping on a kerb, or a drunk falling into you, will be the real test to your level of skill.

The following is a sequence of Taiji principles I put into practice whenever I am on a solitary walk (It is possible to do the same whilst engaged in conversation but probably not as a beginner). I begin by paying attention to relaxing and releasing my joints as much as possible one by one. I usually start with my ankles and work up – I know, I know, but I have my reasons. It is, after all, a walk, and the feet are paramount. I relax the ankles as deeply as I can, until they feel quite limp, and my toes naturally drop as I lift a foot. The action of walking is instinctive and naturally the foot swings forward to land on the empty heel. I do the same for the knees, so that it seems that the lower leg is swinging free and the action of bringing the thigh forward places the foot. Then the hips, so now it feels like the whole leg is heavily dangling and is placed forward by the subtle rotation of the pelvis.

As mentioned, the act of walking is instinctive and has evolved so that very little effort is needed by mind or body. By watching the movement, turning off all effort, and nurturing a feeling that one is being walked, rather than walking, much is revealed. Still, there is always the intention to follow and develop Taiji principles, such as empty stepping, head suspension and so on. Observe how the weight gradually roles through the foot, from the outside of the heel and along the outside of the foot to the little toe (unless you are flat footed), then gradually through the toes until the big toe finally takes root. At this point the whole foot is in contact with the ground and ready to take the weight of the body. There is a brief moment when the foot feels clamped onto the ground as the whole weight of the body settles on it, a feeling of all the tissues of the leg being squashed and then elastically springing back as the other leg is effortlessly propelled forward. The foot leaves the ground in the reverse order with the outside of the foot leaving first and the big toe last. Such is the anatomy of walking and a wonder in itself.

I would then address the upper body joints, beginning with the vertebrae, looking for a sense of lengthening the spine as I release all the tension I possibly can. It is interesting to try and feel the way in which the spine moves, a subtle snake like undulation that ends with a slight rocking of the head side to side and back and forth. These are subtle things, easy to miss and maybe impossible to find if holding patterns are too strong. The shoulders are next, and elbows and wrists, so that the arms swing naturally, heavy and free. Watch out for the counter rotation of hips and shoulders, which results in left leg and right arm moving forward and back in synch and allow it to be. Taiji has been referred to as a system of unlearning, rather than learning, where it is best to get out of the way and return to the natural. Wu Wei, as the Daoist’s say, non-doing but everything being done.

Having gone through all the joints, releasing and relaxing from bottom to top, I now reverse direction and concentrate the mind on relaxing all muscles and tissues of the body from top to bottom. Starting with the face, it is incredible how much tension can be unconsciously stored in the eyes, forehead, jaw etc, softening the features and working back down the body to the feet. Special attention should be given to the inside of the body, particularly around the diaphragm, to allow the breath to naturally deepen. As before, the feeling is of being breathed rather than breathing, with an intention of allowing the breath (not forcing) to descend to the Dan Tian (Base of the abdomen).There is an intention to lead the breath to Dan Tian but this, like most intentions, is very subtle. One can also cultivate a sense of extending within the relaxed body, or allowing extension to take place, as if the whole body is getting bigger inside and the joints are naturally opened.

How much time is devoted to the relaxation and release of the entire body is personal but the whole process, for me, can take anything from 10 to 40 minutes. Having arrived at a state of deeper relaxation and having observed and accommodated the natural functioning of the body with great interest, for some while, I move onto the mind and spirit. In Cheng Man Ching’s Song of Form and Function, he writes; “In order to ride the winds (to be free) how about suspending the head top”. So, I begin here, concentrating the mind on a light feeling of the top of the head floating upward as the body relaxes and sinks below. A sense of effortlessly suspending the head top from the Ba Hui acupoint, as if by an invisible sky hook, brings a livelier feeling to the entire body. In the Taiji classics it says, ‘walk like a cat’, which I take as an invitation to walk with animal grace, envisaging the power and vitality, the indomitable prowling confidence of the alley cat (you might prefer a bigger cat, maybe a lion, who knows?). Sharpening the senses, like a bird of prey ready to swoop, the classic Taiji metaphor, watchful and alert like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse.

This transition to being more engaged in the outside world, without disengaging from the inner, is an important one. Alexander (of Alexander Technique) wrote that ‘at all times half the consciousness should be inside the organism’, good advice not to forget the body, all that has gone before, as we raise the awareness to mindfulness and the entirety of our experience moment by moment. I usually begin this outward journey by engaging the senses more consciously starting with the sense of touch, easy to drop into as I have already been sensing the body and listening to feedback for some time. Still, I now pay special attention to the sensations directly on the surface of the skin. The movement of clothing, the texture of the ground, air currents, temperature differentials, and so on. Next, more consciousness to the ears and the sounds, big and small, that surround us. I am reminded that every sound should be welcomed as it is easy to be annoyed at strident mechanical sounds that impose on peaceful settings. There is no such thing as noise pollution if you watch all sounds with an undiscriminating mind. Finally, to sight, and likewise I am reminded not to grasp with the eyes, but to let the eyes settle where they will, not discriminating, this is good, this is bad, but just looking at all things with interest – which usually develops into wonder.

We are always feeling, hearing and seeing, the mind is continuously monitoring and processing information from the senses on an unconscious level, but consciously engaging fully with listening, looking and being aware of every tiny change in our environment involves a higher level of attention, awareness and alertness than usual. When we are totally immersed in this level of observation there is mindfulness, there is meditation. As J. Krishnamurti wrote:

“Have you ever noticed that when you are in a state of complete attention the observer, the thinker, the centre, the 'me', comes to an end? In that state of attention thought begins to wither away. If one wants to see a thing very clearly, one's mind must be very quiet, without all the prejudices, the chattering, the dialogue, the images, the pictures - all that must be put aside to look. And it is only in silence that you can observe the beginning of thought - not when you are searching, asking questions, waiting for a reply. So it is only when you are completely quiet, right through your being, having put that question, `What is the beginning of thought?', that you will begin to see, out of that silence, how thought takes shape...”

The awareness and practice of Taiji principles in everyday life, like walking like a cat, reinforces the cultivation of correct application of principles in formal practice which then feeds back again into our daily lives. A never-ending circle deepening and nurturing our understanding and practice of this great art.