The mid-August heat offers us the perfect time to go inward in our practices. Like myself, I know many of you prefer to practice qigong and tai chi outdoors in nature where the healing presence of chi can be experienced the most powerfully. While it's beneficial to practice outdoors throughout the year, it's important to take special care in the heat of summer to be kind to your body. In summer, it really pays off to get up early and beat the heat to get in vigorous practice sessions. But by mid-day these same invigorating practices can be too much for a body already working hard to cope with oppressive heat and humidity.
In the Tao Te Ching, Taoist master Lao Tzu offers sage advice in many areas to maintain balance and harmony in a variety of circumstances. Verse 45 is quite useful regarding how to practice with the seasons: "Movement overcomes cold. Stillness overcomes heat. Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe." When it comes to our health practices of qigong and tai chi, this verse offers a practical guide for how to practice in the summer months.
When it's time for our qigong practice but we need to overcome heat, non-moving exercises are often the best way to keep our chi flowing and growing without any undue strain on an overheated heart. The classic Holding Post/Embracing Tree exercise begins with the very basics: Stand, Relax and Breathe. Stand: stand with good posture, feet shoulder width, knees slightly bent, arms relaxed at sides, head up, eyes level. Stand: be still. Standing is not moving. Standing is not swaying. Standing is not doing, it is simply being and being aware of simply being and standing. Relax: use minimal muscular effort to maintain this healthy standing posture. Relaxing is not clenching muscles. Relaxing is not sucking in the gut. Relaxing is not trying or pushing ourselves. Relaxing is being open and at ease. This takes focus and awareness of self within each moment. Breathe: be aware that you are breathing. This does not mean manipulating the breath in any exercise. Just become aware, and stay aware, that you are breathing. This is enough to create a healthier breath.
Stand, Relax, Breathe. This powerful non-moving exercise can be used virtually any time, any where we may need to center ourselves. If dirty water is left to sit quiet, the impurities will gradually settle to the bottom, leaving the water above it clear. In the same way, if the body is still, relaxed and allowed to settle, your energy will settle and sink into the Bubbling Wells in the the feet, thus clearing the mind and allowing your energy to settle so that clarity of mind is more easily attained.
By adding just one more aspect we move into a very high level practice: raise your arms in front of your chest like hugging a tree or holding a big beach ball. This is the centuries old training posture known in Chinese as zhan zhuang or Holding Post, Embracing Tree or Holding a Jar. Continue in this more challenging position with arms held still in front of chest for as long as is comfortable (or perhaps even through the discomfort, if you're ready for that). Stay still, relaxed and focused on breathing and letting go of muscular tension. If you attempt to hold this posture for any length of time, you will notice not only is it challenging to keep your arms relaxed but also to stay focused and aware of breathing. Holding this posture for even just 3-4 minutes a day will make you stronger, more focused and able to breathe easier, among numerous other health benefits.
If you should choose to challenge yourself with Embracing Tree, start off slow with just two minutes and gradually work your way to 10 or even 20 minutes in stillness. For myself, after just a minute or two of Embracing Tree, I am no longer even aware of external heat (or cold). My mind comes back into my body-it is centered within me just breathing and being. I let go of the outside world to be with myself in the present moment, grateful that I can stand on my own two feet. Grateful that I can relax and let go. Grateful that I am still breathing. My own practice has proven to me that Lao Tzu's observation holds true: for this practice does set things in order in my universe.
"Great accomplishment seems imperfect,
Yet it does not outlive its usefulness.
Great fullness seems empty,
Yet it cannot be exhausted.
Great straightness seems twisted.
Great intelligence seems stupid.
Great eloquence seems awkward.
Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe."