We just finished up Week 1 of the Strala 200+Hour Yoga Leadership Training here at Sundance, and wanted to share a bit with you all from the first section of this course, focused on foundations for practice. Since what we do draws on the movement and healing wisdom of tai chi, across the practice forms of yoga, tai chi, qigong, and TCM, many of our practices began with tai chi, and expanded from here into yoga and the rest of life.
Each morning we went for a group hike, which began a daily focus on one of the foundations of tai chi. It turns out this was a wonderful way to learn and practice together, so we’ll keep this one going on the beach this January in Miami, in the mountains at Sundance in April and Zermatt in June, and the hills of Ibiza in October.
One thing I love about tai chi is it begins with these 5 Foundation of Tai Chi, which you can just as simply call the 5 Foundations of Being a Better Human. Because you don’t even need tai chi to discover, grow, and prosper from tai chi. You only need the foundations, carry them with you where you like. Many of the most inspiring and impactful people I know have never practiced tai chi. But they all have these foundations that thrive in the people they are, every step and moment of the way.
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So long before you study forms or techniques, you learn the ground for how to move through and meet challenges across your whole life. You discover first who you really are, what you love, how you want to be. I’ll outline these foundations and practices, that guide this discovery for you below.
1a. Notice. To work with how you are, you must first notice how you are. This one comes even before the foundations. In a way, it’s simply about turning all the lights on. And it turns out a really good place to notice you is when you’re up to something unusual. So we created something unusual in two ways.
First by heading straight uphill at a starting elevation of about 2,000m. And second, by breathing in a way that’s quite different from normal. Very long, unhurried, extra deep inhales, holding for a moment at the top. Even longer, even more unhurried exhales, holding empty a moment at the bottom.
Now, add purpose. On the inhale scan through your body, to see what’s going on. Where is there some extra tension, some feeling of one part disconnected from the next, that gets in the way of your body moving and expanding easily? At first this is simply mechanical, the feeling of your breath physically pushing an expansion that is more than what you’re used to feeling. So you might notice an oddly raised shoulder, maybe some corner of your back is a bit tight, your neck a little stiff. Gradually this practice carries your attention into all your corners, every part of your body and mind.
And from here on your exhales, do something about what you notice. Let a little something go. Drop some of this tension that disconnects and blocks easy flow of energy and movement. Make it just a bit easier, to be where you are.
It’s easy to mask unneeded effort, stress, and tension when we’re doing what we always do. Because here we have more than enough strength and ability just to get it done. We might even put on a good show of relaxation and ease, even when that’s not the real inside-story of what’s going on.
So this is why the unfamiliar can be useful. Put yourself in the middle of something different, something challenging in an unusual way, and you’ll see very quickly what you’re really doing, the strategies you really follow in your life. When things get tough do you isolate, disconnect, and push a little harder to get what you want? Do you feel only limited by the amount of strength that you have, so if you can’t do something it just means more pushups, literally or figuratively?
Or, do you have a different path available inside you, meeting challenge with peace, connection, harmony. It’s not binary, all one way or the other, for any of us. And luckily we have practices that can create more of the path we want in our lives, and in our world.
1. Practice Always, Everywhere, in Everything. This is another way of saying, you don’t need tai chi to practice tai chi. You simply need an understanding of foundations for becoming better, and a will to make better every moment that comes your way. Not by manipulating, forcing, or controlling that moment. But by simply being the best possible you, within whatever this moment happens to be.
So don’t wait for tai chi time, or whatever your special practice might be. Because it’s already time, always, everywhere, in everything you do. Everything counts, especially all those moments you think don’t count. Count those double.
2. Bother to get it right, even when you don’t have to. Even when you could simply use more force, more pushing hard just to get it done, choose a different path. Learn how to do things a better way.
This always must begin where things are easy for you, which is why it’s so difficult to change habits, to create new wiring for something better in your life. Because when it’s easy, why change? But it’s true, you never learn a better way to climb mountains if you’re dropped by helicopter at 7,000m on a vertical ice face, and handed a couple of axes. This isn’t where you learn a better way to navigate through your life. This is where you survive, following whatever strategies you already have.
And if your wiring is really good, you know how to use you in an optimal way. Because you practiced this on the ground, many times, even when you didn’t have to. Which creates something very special. The ability to do much more in your life than simply survive.
3. Live in the big picture. There’s a question that often comes along in discussion of alignment, and again in healing practices. Isn’t it good to isolate and focus on one small part of your body at a time, and carefully put it back in the right place if it’s out of line?
It’s intellectually appealing, to direct focus this way at a problem, get it right, move on to the next. So maybe for this reason I’ve seen it come up in so many wellness practices over the years. And in medicine this has been standard practice, especially in areas like surgery. Keeping with this example, it’s also why the outcomes have been so disappointing for so many problems.
Take surgery for sciatica as an example. The 2-year efficacy for surgery here is the same as not having surgery at all. And the data is the same or worse for most wellness practices. At best equivalent to placebo, what might occur simply through spending time with a charismatic healer, or that your body might manage on its own in spite of whatever you do. So why doesn’t this isolation approach often work? Simply,
It’s extremely rare that one link in the chain acts on its own, extremely improbable that any one part of us hurts, heals, or prospers in isolation from every other part. We’re holistic beings living in a holistic world. Everything counts, and everything matters.
When your back hurts, and you push into line or even cut out the part that hurts without addressing why it hurts, it goes back to hurting again. Unless you change the life that got you there in the first place. It’s how you move through everything you move through that created this pain, this challenge or problem. And it’s rarely isolated fixes that actually fix anything that’s difficult to fix.
This is why even Western medicine has been exploring more holistic treatment, even in surgery. The outcomes simply aren’t good enough, and cost far too much, to keep practicing isolation and disconnection. Whether you look at it through the lens of alignment, anatomy, mechanics, energy, or psychology, how we got to where we are is created by how we were along the way. So we need to change how we are, how we go where we’re going, to have a better result. To be healthy and happy wherever we arrive.
How do we make the shift to big-picture living? Put it in what you practice, simply and easily, every day, everywhere. Disconnection and isolation, part by part manipulating and fixing, always seems so appealing in intellectual theory but rarely works in our reality. Life is more complex than this. If you don’t change your life, your life won’t change. Neither will your back.
Always practice connection, unity, harmony. The whole picture is the important picture. How you do Everything you do is the important picture. The whole company, the whole system, the whole person. Whatever it is you’re looking at, living with, or practicing, the whole thing is the important thing.
4. Focus on foundations not techniques. One thing I love in traditional tai chi learning and practice is right here. The techniques, forms or poses, tips and tricks, all this comes last. What comes first is the ground you stand on. Who you are, how you are, how you move through each moment in life, in all the moments there are. This is first, by many years.
Imagine for a bit the other way. Always learning techniques, it’s something I see so much in the wellness world. Always jumping around, crystals, oils, energy, shiatsu, chakras, yoga, qigong, taiji. All with some possible benefit for some people. But, not so much when they are taken each as a new set of techniques to learn. So much information! How interesting!
The results are not so good. There’s not time on this path for uncovering and creating the one foundation you need: you. With all these techniques first, you get something quite different from you. Some call it “mile-wide inch-deep.” Studying many things, good at no things. Another way to say it, collecting so many techniques, you get only the scattered expression of yourself.
Nothing works well without foundation. Moving first in a positive, holistic and harmonious connection with yourself. Which makes it possible to form a positive harmonious connection with other people. And from here, after many years of practice, techniques might become valuable, going along with whatever you choose to do.
Tai chi was built for this. Your whole life comes first, techniques last. So it can be ground for anything you want to do, by learning to create your most optimal self. By the time you get to the techniques for any particular form, whether it’s tai chi or yoga, shiatsu or medicine, business or building a strong community, there’s one ground, a way of being that doesn’t change for one effort or the other.
5. Always follow the old mountaineer. There are three ways to be, in whatever you choose to approach. And since we’re talking about mountaineers, let’s take mountains as a start.
First, you could be someone without any great strength, or any great endurance, or any great ability to move easily uphill. Maybe you won’t get up the biggest mountains this way. But, you have a very great advantage. When you start to climb, you will feel you. You’ll notice exactly what’s hard, exactly where you struggle, and you’ll have no choice but to figure something out: the vey simplest and easiest way to walk where you want to walk. And it turns out, this gives you something in common with the old mountaineer. Something that’s very good.
Second, you could be someone who has great strength, great endurance, but without any particularly great ability to move gracefully or easily. You might not make it up a truly great mountain this way, but you’ll get up lots of them just fine, because you have the force needed to make it happen.
And third, you could be someone who has a great ability to move with grace and ease. When you climb, it appears you have found a way to make water flow uphill. If you’re not so strong, you can still play forever in the mountains with no fear, only joy. And if you’re strong, there’s something extra. Something very different is open to you.
The first person is in a perfect place to learn, maybe not to be a mountaineer overnight, but to notice who they are, and build something good from the ground up.
The second person is in a perfect place to become an X. Ex-climber, ex-runner, ex-athlete, ex-walker, ex-person who can get around without pain, injury, or surgery. It might work for a short time when they’re younger. But never learning to use your body efficiently as one whole connected body, instead pushing hard one part at a time just to make it happen, this is a perishable strategy. Meaning, you perish this way, one injured, overworked, and worn-out part at a time.
The third person, if they’re also very strong, they have what’s needed to be truly excellent at what they do. And as they get older, strength might be less, taking challenge by force is no longer even an option. But, it never needed to be. They have an ease that carries them wherever they want, without falling or failing. This is the old mountaineer. Because always eventually, force fails and falls. Which in mountaineering terms means, you will never be an old mountaineer.
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About Strala Yoga Training
Strala combines the movement and healing wisdom of tai chi with the form vocabularies of yoga, tai chi, qigong, and Traditional Chinese and Japanese Medicine, to help people release stress, move easily through challenge, and live radiantly inspiring lives.
It begins with a mindset, that says our best way to get where we’re going is to feel good along the way. It also works miracles for whole health, helping us to find ease in our bodies and minds, and create the right conditions both for healing and optimal performance.
In our Strala Training Courses, you learn to shape your destiny on every level that counts, from your psychology, chemistry and neurology, to your chromosomes and even gene expression. The unique set of skills you develop – for connecting with yourself and others, unblocking your energy, healing what needs healing and accomplishing challenge with ease – uncovers your ability to create the life you want, and be an inspiring leader to the people around you.