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Posture, Trauma and Teaching Tai Chi

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

In tai chi we spend a lot of time on the physical aspects of the art. But as teachers and students of Tai Chi we sometimes overlook how Tai Chi can impact both our emotional state AND our physical state. These two are interrelated and not separate.

Just about every teacher I have spoken with, relates how many of their students have a difficult time with letting go and opening their postures. As teachers and students, it is important for us to understand this MAY be caused by a subconscious block preventing us from opening up, letting go, and relaxing.

Besides being a tai chi teacher with over 40 years’ experience, I am a certified Master Practitioner and trainer of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). In NLP we recognize that one’s physiology is a reflection of one’s emotional state. When happy, one has a very different physiology than when one is sad.

We all have defense mechanisms of one kind or another; aggression, domination, superiority, meekness, anxiety, fear, etc. We have all experienced trauma whether in a small way or in a life altering way. Our bodies reflect those defense mechanisms and trauma through our physiology - arms close to the body, arms folded across the chest, chin sticking out, shoulders slumped, etc.

As tai chi players, we learn that our posture can be a reflection of our mental/emotional make up. As teachers, it can be helpful to be aware of the subtle postural messages in our students so that we can offer more benefits to our students, become sensitive to their individual needs, and guide them more effectively.

The relationship between past trauma(s) and muscle tenseness is usually not in our conscious awareness. When we reference “blockages” we are talking about muscles being tense and not releasing. This is also true when people hold their arms close to their body or across their chest. This may be a defense mechanism as a response to some hurt or pain which may or may not be in the person’s conscious awareness.

Let me be very clear, as a teacher, it is NOT our job to emotionally “fix” our students’. Our job is to help our students become better tai chi players with the resultant benefit of improved emotional well-being and coping tools. That is why they come to us. Being aware of potential emotional reasons behind postural problems, can help us to help them.

What can we do, then, to help our students? Creating a safe and accepting environment in our classes is paramount. Using encouragement is helpful, but must be done judiciously, as over doing it can quickly backfire. Note, though, if the behavior is a defense mechanism, then we can expect a fair amount of subconscious resistance. To get around subconscious resistance a well-known technique in counseling is telling stories that can affect the subconscious in an indirect way. After all, Tai Chi is all about being indirect!

For example, I’ll relate a story about “a student I once had who was just like you. They felt that they were carrying a heavy weight. They worked on letting go but it didn’t feel safe. It took a little while but as soon as they let go you could see the weight lifted off their shoulders as their body relaxed.” You could say something like, “A previous student of mine told me that he always felt that he wore a heavy armor around him. But as he became better at tai chi, he realized how this heavy armor was slowing him down and making him vulnerable (do not specify vulnerable to what; let them figure it out), and how much better and effective at protecting himself he became when he dropped all that armor.” These are indirect message to the subconscious, and you can be as creative as you want to be. Incidentally, do not worry about being exact or specific with your words. Oftentimes, vagueness is better as it lets the subconscious mind interpret the meaning for itself.

Another technique is to say, “After a stressful day, isn’t it wonderful to feel that this is a safe space from all of life’s troubles.” The message is that this is a safe place where your subconscious can allow its defenses to relax and let go.

There is a phrase that hypnotherapists use that says, “The more you relax, the better you feel, and the better you feel, the more you relax.” Murmur this to a student almost as an aside, a throw-away line, as you walk away. It doesn’t have to make rational sense; you’re sending a message to the subconscious mind. You could add, “I know there is a part of you that is reluctant to let go because it’s doing something for you. Go inside and suggest to this part that it could do whatever it's doing even better if it let go.”

There are far too many techniques to cover here, but the key point is that you want to reach the subconscious mind and have it feel safe enough to comply. That it can still do its job of protecting the person, but in a better way. Does this mean that these techniques will work every time with every student? I wish it were so, but sadly, no. You have to try, and keep trying; if one technique doesn’t work, try another. Just like tai chi applications, you can mix and match to create an effective tool. Be patient; it may take time to convince that subconscious, and sometimes, key words spoken some time back, percolate through the caverns of the mind and somehow strike a chord at a later time.

As a student, as all teachers are, this can work on ourselves as well. None of us have reached perfection, and all of us can improve. Sometimes, the thing holding us back is our own lack of awareness of our subconscious expressions. It may be helpful to look at what is getting in our way to be where we want to be and ask our subconscious what is it doing for us that is not working for us. And why!

Written By: Joseph Eber

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