Your ability to move in a differentiated manner is truly a measure of how freely you can live in your own body. Differentiated movement is a foundational concern to all tai chi and martial arts practitioners and is important, as well, to many other sports and movement disciplines.
It is a happy trend that over recent years exercise and fitness activities, in general, have grown in popularity. Many recreational disciplines, from dance to guitar to tennis to golf to yoga, and even knitting rely on the particular demands of their own requisite differentiated movements. Simply put, differentiated movement occurs whenever your brain tells your body to move in specific or novel ways and your body is then able to comply.
Think of an expert dancer, perhaps a ballerina or a ballroom dancer whose intricate dance patterns you find entrancing. Imagine the level and detail of bodily control that goes into such a performance. Now imagine an elderly gentleman weighed down by the burdens of a life lived, shuffling along with cane in hand. Our dancer entrances us with her display of precise and unencumbered movement.
Conversely, our elderly gentleman augurs the more sobering prospect that many older folks face of age-related decline, their bodies having lost the ability to move with the freedom, flexibility, and precision of youth. Our elderly gent has quite literally forgotten how to move his body in a determined and differentiated fashion.
The operative word here is "forgotten." While our elderly gentleman may be able to recall memories of having had that freedom, his brain and body have for all practical purposes forgotten how to implement those same skills. His abilities have succumbed to a particular form of (often subclinical) neuromuscular decline. Happily, his loss need not be permanent if only his brain can remember (or be reminded) how to recover what it once had – the ability to precisely control (differentiate) the muscles of his motor system. Often, that which has been forgotten can be re-learned with the right prompts.
When you perform any same movements over and over your brain and body habituate to those movements. Habituation occurs when repeated performance of same movements requires less effort and less of your conscious attention. As oft-repeated movements become automatic you may still apply your conscious attention to them – or not – yet achieve the same result. The technical term for this streamlining process is potentiation (or LTP, i.e. long term potentiation). Automation of your movements can streamline performance. But note that there's a potential downside. Without the benefit of ongoing conscious attention there comes the attendant risk that automatic movements may themselves become undifferentiated, meaning you can only do them automatically and without variation. I have known advanced tai chi'ers whose manner of movement evidenced this very tendency. As our movement options decline our bodies become less free. In a way we become stuck.
When undifferentiated stuckness occurs with muscles in our bodies the result is pain, stiffness and limitation. In somatics lingo we refer to this maladaptive state of neuromuscular decline as sensorimotor amnesia (SMA), in which certain muscles become chronically hypertonic and less able to provide feedback to the brain.
People, and especially older folks, who suffer from SMA are said to have fallen victim to the myth of aging, a term coined by the late great somatics pioneer, Dr. Thomas Hanna. Hanna regarded the causal factors for neuromuscular decline (generally misattributed to aging) as a myth because loss of differentiation has less to do with aging than with life style factors and/or poorly managed stressors. It just so happens that the longer you're alive the more opportunity you have to experience life's insults and accrue their deleterious effects. I refer to this dynamic in my book, The Sustainable You: Somatics and the Myth of Aging, as "the archeology of insults," which causes an incremental loss of conscious control over compromised voluntary motor functions.
Only a very few disciplines are designed to remind the brain how to recover whole-body differentiation once it has been forgotten. Notably, mindful movement practices like tai chi and yoga can be helpful in this regard. Hanna Somatic Education is specifically designed to remedy this situation, to restore conscious differentiated movement in order to undo the effects of sensorimotor amnesia. Tai chi and Hanna Somatic Education (HSE) are highly compatible practices in that they operate in complementary, albeit slightly different ways.
Slowness A Key Element
Both tai chi and somatics emphasize slowness as a key element in learning their differentiated movements. Slowness is essential as it eliminates momentum, allowing your mind to more easily turn its attention inward to restore conscious control over muscular engagement/disengagement. Slowness creates the opportunity to pay attention to yourself in a whole new (non-habituated) way, so you can experience aspects of yourself that are always there, but perhaps unnoticed as they linger below the level of conscious awareness. Just as a walk by the roadside allows you to take in more details about the landscape than if you were speeding by in a car, so does slow and mindful movement create an internal milieu that can put you back in charge of your own body and free you of stuckness and poorly differentiated muscles.
Tai chi takes a somewhat more generalized and indirect approach toward achieving differentiation. The primary goal of tai chi is proficiency at tai chi. Improved differentiation must occur first for that goal to be fully realized. Differentiation, while actively cultivated with tai chi, is primarily a means to another end.
Somatics has two primary goals. The most immediate goal is relief from pain and stiffness. Somatics movement patterns specifically target certain muscles or muscle groups, restoring differentiation as a way to undo the effects of pain and stiffness in your body. A second goal of somatics is differentiation as a means onto itself for a smarter and more compliant body. Who wouldn't want that.
Consider that good health is not just the absence of negative factors, or having the good fortune to go through life without anything bad happening. Truly good health means actively working to make the most of your life, and being the best you can possibly be on all levels.
The effects of sensorimotor amnesia can be so gradual and insidious that many people aren't even aware that they suffer its effects. However, if you're older you may have noticed, for example, some loss of flexibility when turning your head from side to side as compared to your youth. This may be due in part because your ocular muscles (which control your eye movements) have forgotten how to differentiate from your neck and shoulder muscles. Below, I'll guide you in a simple practice in differentiated movement so you can begin to experience its benefits for yourself. Be sure to practice all the following movements very slowly.
While sitting or standing, rotate your head around to the right as far it will turn without straining. Make a mental note at full turn of where your nose is pointing. Return to neutral. Now, without any head movement whatsoever, turn only your eyes to the left. Keep your eyes fixed to the left as you once again turn your head to the right. Take care as this will feel counterintuitive. You may even feel your neck muscles actively resisting your head turn. When your head reaches a point of full turn let your eyes slingshot around from left to right to catch up with the head and notice if your head is able to rotate now beyond its previous limit. Repeat 3 times. Finish with a comparison, turning your head around to left, and then back around to the right to note your flexibility to either side.
Repeat these patterns to the opposite side, but try it now with your eyes closed. Having your eyes closed will heighten your awareness of the role of the involved muscles and also serve to confirm that vision, per se, is not a significant variable in this exercise.
Have fun. And remember, it's not just practice, but mindful practice that will enable you to apply these concepts throughout your tai chi.
This is an original article authored by John Loupos, M.S., H.S.E. and appeared in his October 2018 monthly newsletter.