Most people have the idea in their heads that we are held upright by the bones in our structure. But without fascial tissue (the fibrous connective tissue that holds structures of the body together) we'd be a helpless heap on the floor.
Hard to do laundry that way.
We are supported, bound together, and held upright by the tensile strength of fascia. So it's probably a good thing to take care of it.
Caring for and strengthening the net of tissue that connects so much of our body is just starting to become a clear and important part of physical training. Practices like Taiji and Qigong, and even massage therapy and other bodywork are all great practices for creating and maintaining a strong, supple system of connective tissue in the body. Bottom line: it prevents injury by increasing elasticity in the body.
So many injuries are the result of putting too much demand on tissue that isn't prepared for it. Luckily, connective tissue is amazingly adaptable, we're finding out. It changes quickly to meet the demands we place on it. But it takes certain movements and exercise practices to make it strong so that our joints, bones, organs remain healthy.
In practices like Taiji and Qigong we use expansion and contraction to create elasticity in our network of fascia. Some people, through these practices, notice that they aren't ending up shortened and compacted as they age. Their joints are safe and strong and their bodies heal much more quickly.
This is one reason why cultivating song (relaxation) is so important in Taiji practice. When we release as much li (muscle tension) as possible, we begin to activate and strengthen the other subtle tissues in the body. Ligaments and tendons begin to awaken and hold our joints, strengthening them in a balanced, gentle way.
But fascia is a net that goes beyond the physical part of our existence.1 This is a net that not only responds to physical movement but emotion and thought. And if we don’t let go of what this net captures, like the simple letting go of Strike Palm to melt into Grasp Bird’s Tail, stagnation occurs. If we don’t let go of circumstances beyond our control, of perceived hurts, emotional challenges they stay in the tissues.
Being "song" is not limited to the physical body. We practice maintaining neutrality in our emotions and thoughts. Our emotions aren't limited to the confines of our hearts, nor do our thoughts hanging out in our skulls. We are interconnected.
Those who are really gifted in push hands don’t use li, brute strength. They sense their opponent’s move before it happens.
What I find so curious about the practice of Taiji is how it builds interoception. Interoception is our awareness of our inner state of our “being.” And as Taiji players we are always building this awareness. It's just a natural part of the practice because we are cultivating song. As we relax and use as little li as possible in our movements we begin to reveal places and spaces of holding. As we relax the body, it’s a domino effect that the mind and the emotions also release tension and move toward a neutral state. This allows for our awareness, our interoception, to build.2 And with practice, we realize that awareness is not limited to the confines our own body, but like a net, extends out to what is alive around us.
Many can sense this in push hands practice. Those who are really gifted in push hands don’t use li, brute strength. They sense their opponent’s move before it happens. Believe me, I’ve ended up countless times on the floor gazing up at the ceiling wondering how I arrived there when practicing with gifted push hands players! They were with my qi, and I was just floundering in my head thinking about my opponent’s root.
And this practice connects us to a web much wider than the fascia in our bodies. It connects us. All of us.
But our web of fascia and our web of interoception is more than push hands. This is about our health, our wellness, the richness of our life. This practice builds our awareness of how tense or relaxed we are in any moment, and how that affects us physically, emotionally, mentally - and those we love around us.
Taiji is much more important than martial prowess. This practice awakens us to a shared voice of wisdom we all have access to when we are present. Just as fascial tissue connects us to sensing and responding to our inner world, Taiji practice teaches us to center into our being aware of the world around us. It brings us to the center of who we are - not whipped around emotions, thoughts or physical sensations - but advised by them. And this practice connects us to a web much wider than the fascia in our bodies. It connects us. All of us.
And now is the time to be in our centers. Now is the time to sense the aliveness within and around us. To come together. To leave the pettiness and distractions, the stories and the prejudices, and to drop into being guided by our wisdom, compassionate with the world around us.
The emotions many of us feel in our current state is understandable, but it doesn’t need to lead us. We can feel strongly and still act from our own compassionate wisdom. And when we do, it will be reflected not only in our own health but in the health and welfare of others.