What Is Meant by Natural.
The word natural pertains to nature, and a good dictionary will have as many as a dozen definitions of each of these two words. Consider the following definition of nature as found in Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition, Unabridged, 1954.
"A particular order of existence or of existing things, frequently regarded as in contrast with, or as the subject matter of art. Specif[ically]: a That which is in a natural, as distinct from a developed, ordered, perfected, or man-made state: that which is, or is represented, in its original, untouched condition."
The basic distinction is that natural is what existed for approximately 4,000,000,000 years before humans appeared and changed or corrupted it. So we are not here taking the point of view that everything in the world is natural and will not say, for example, that Grand Coulee Dam is as natural as a beaver dam. To do so might be of value in another context—but not here.
Movement in Nature
Movement seen in nature is efficient—if it were not, life forms would be at a great disadvantage. Inefficiency results in wasted time, being noticed by preda- tors, and increased requirements for energy and thermal regulation along with lessened abilities for achieving those requirements. A life-form having these deficiencies would suffer a decreased probability of surviving long enough to reproduce, which would eventually lead to that species's extinction.
In many developed countries in which abundance and safety exist, it is possible to be wasteful of energy, consume unnecessarily, and be unaware of our surroundings safety-wise. But such disregard has health and other consequences.
Elements of Natural Movement
Proprioceptive sense is the ability to perceive stimuli originating in the tissues of the body resulting from their movement or tension. A large part of learning Taiji involves training the proprioceptive sense to become very keen. Those who teach Taiji know that many beginners have little awareness of their own bodies and move one part thinking that they are moving a totally different part. Or they move the right part but are unaware of how they are moving it. Unless beginners have prior training in dance, sports, or other movement arts, their proprioceptive senses were probably never developed much or were developed at one time and have since atrophied. So studying Taiji can be of great benefit in that respect.
A basic principle of Taiji is that all movement must be unified, which necessitates feeling all appropriate parts of your body participating as a whole. If you do not know the extent to which each part of your body is involved in a movement—or whether or not it is at rest or moving—it is very hard to manifest unified movement.
Independence of Movement
Practicing independent movement (isolated movement of one part) helps us to become more aware of what part of the body is involved in a particular action and whether it should or should not be involved. How can you know that you are moving in a unified manner if you are unable to move a certain part of your body all the ways it can physiologically move and don't know which parts of the body are initiating each movement? For example, when most people are asked to move a particular region of their spines, they can't do so by using only the muscles around that region and resort to using their pelvises or ribs instead.
By learning to move independently, we can become highly sensitized to frozen or inappropriately used muscle groups, thus providing a tool for directly working on releasing such unnecessary and harmful tension.
Finally, the more able you are to consciously move a particular part of the body independently, the more successful you will be in sending qi to that area for healing an injury.
Thus, practicing independent movement can play an important in cultivating proprioceptive sense, ultimately leading to the ability to do unified movement.
Experiment 9-1. Stand in the Jade-Belt posture. Without moving your hands, alternately rotate the trunk of your body counterclockwise and clockwise, as a unit. Relax the shoulders and chest and let the inertia of the hands play a large part in keeping them from moving rather than using your eyes and analytical mind to make moment-by-moment adjustments to keep them motionless. Relax your neck and let the inertia of your head keep it from turning as it "floats." If you have trouble doing this experiment, think about what you do when you are watering your lawn and your neighbor calls to you. Do you turn toward her and spray her? Or does the hose remain in its original direction?
Experiment 9-2. Stand in the Jade-Belt posture and, as before, alternately rotate the trunk of your body counterclockwise and clockwise as a unit, except this time, slowly and uniformly separate your hands, and then bring them together. There should be several cycles of turning of the trunk of the body for each cycle of opening and closing of the arms.
Reasons for Studying Natural Movement
A fundamental Taoist concept in Taiji is achieving naturalness in all action. Another Taoist precept is that an empty cup holds the most; that is, we must strip away our preconceptions and habitual modalities before we can discover the essence of what is natural—our "baggage" obstructs attaining enlightenment.
Releasing (emptying) as much habitual bodily tension as possible is a precur- sor to natural movement. Such tension entwines our ways of moving learned by copying inappropriate role models, corrupted early-on by clothing and footwear, and involving subconscious memories of past physical and emo- tional traumas. We are quite attached to and find it very difficult to change our habitual ways of moving, let alone all manner of other things. To remove a mountain is easy, but to change a man's temperament is harder. —T. T. Liang (1900–2002), T'ai Chi Ch'uan for Health and Self-Defense: Philosophy and Practice (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 12.
In recognizing and releasing our physical tensions, we are cultivating the potential ability to release corresponding obstructions in our thinking should we endeavor to do so.
Another philosophical principle that is basic to Taiji is non-action, which means accomplishing a desired action with the minimum effort and movement. Naturalness is akin to non-action because, in nature, wastefulness endangers survival.
In order to recognize and achieve non-action, it is first necessary to release unnecessary tension. Certainly, it is good to get something for free (principle of non-action).
Improvement in Breathing
Many of us do not breathe naturally. Some possible disruptive causes for such an innate and important process are restrictive clothing, the use of tobacco and other inhaled poisonous substances, and the manner in which many of us are birthed. Instead of letting a newly born infant rest and absorb oxygen through the umbilical cord, professionals in maternity wards prematurely sever that cord, forcing an infant to breathe or suffocate. This concept is addressed by Frederick LeBoyer, an obstetrician who has birthed thousands of infants without subjecting them to such unnecessary trauma. This subject is discussed in my The Tai Chi Book.
Exercises that emphasize cultivation of contractive strength tend to bind the body and constrict breathing. By contrast, in Taiji and Qigong movement, strength is minimized, enabling breathing to be more natural. Doing only contractive exercise—albeit beneficial—tends to habituate a non-beneficial way of breathing that doing Taiji and other natural activities such as running or swimming can offset.
The above is an excerpt from Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing by Robert Chuckrow, Ph.D., Publication date March 1, 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-741-7.