The Garden of the Gods is a beautiful park and registered national landmark located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is swarmed with naturally-forming crags, outcrops and monoliths, that on a particularly blustery day, provide among the pinnacles a vast, open area for the gusts to swell unimpeded, and narrow channels along the ground that amplify the blowing power of the wind.
It was just such a day when I visited this amazing place, and it was incredible. I don't know if it is always like this, or if I was just lucky, but in certain spots, grown men were literally being propelled sideways like children, and their children were literally toppling over. Naturally, I recognized the importance of the occasion and entered the park as if I were attending a lecture. The wind has something to say if you're willing listen. Here are the two key ideas it discussed:
1. The Idea of Absorbing and Deflecting
In Tai Chi Chuan, it is often said that one should practice the form as if moving through thick or heavy air. This sensation is clearly perceived when the air is actually offering this resistance. It becomes apparent that when expanding or contracting, stepping or rotating, the body must be prepared to experience resistance from any direction so that is able to absorb and deflect offending physical energy.
To absorb a force is to align the body in such a way that it behaves like a supporting structure wedged between the incoming force and the ground; to deflect a force is to maintain that structure and rotate so that the force rolls off the support. By assembling random forms in the gales, the wind became my rival, and because it's further along the Way than I, it played the role sifu as well. Strong gusts into the structures I built demonstrated defects in my posture, which threatened my balance when I didn't correct. Untelegraphed flurries perpendicular to my stance kept me constantly turning my waist and arranging my footing to manage the spontaneous onslaughts.
The tactile feel from a significant, invisible force offered new insight on my postural deficiencies, and provided an opportunity to experiment with idea of Absorbing and Deflecting physical energy in a turbulent environment.
2. The Idea of Following and Piercing
The "Swimming Dragons" are set of chi kung exercises that move in a twisting and sinewy manner. The body, of course, is always governed by tantien, but many of the movements themselves follow and stay behind the fingertips. The concept is simple, but the actual practice is not trivial to coordinate. In free practice and push hands, I often use the Dragons to "swim" out of locks and throws.
When sparring with the wind, a gust would frequently manifest as a sudden sideswipe, or it would overwhelm my posture before I could erect a suitable support. In such a case, Absorbing and Deflecting cannot be performed effectively, if at all; collapse is much more likely. I experimented with two solutions to this problem, both of which where inspired by the shapes of the Swimming Dragons.
If I was late to react to the wind's attack, I had no choice but to be blown in the direction it sent me. Why resist if such an act results in a clumsy saunter or a fall? Instead, it is better to Follow. When I was able to swim my fingertips in the direction of the gust and align my body behind them, it was as if I was riding on the current, and I was easily able to correct.
If I was cognizant enough to anticipate the impending collapse, I could preempt it by swimming my fingertips into the gust. When I formed the Dragons correctly, they resulted in aerodynamic shapes that dispelled the gusts by Piercing through them, again allowing me to correct.
I had never experienced the sensation of Following and Piercing like this before, and when I got it wrong, the wind chose the oldschool approach to teaching — which is to say, it knocked me over. I think it would be a very intriguing exercise to switch dynamically between Following and Piercing in a similar environment, but in this case, the gusts were too quick and unpredictable. I suppose next year I'll have vacation to Kansas to seek the tornado.