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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Running and Walking as Spiritual Practice
Tami Simon speaks with Danny Dreyer, a marathon runner, esteemed running coach, and a student of t’ai chi master George Xu. He’s the author of two books; ChiRunning and ChiWalking, as well as the Sounds True audio programs of the same name. Danny discusses finding stillness in the midst of action and the importance of incorporating chi into all aspects of our lives, what Danny calls “creating the conditions for energy to flow.” Danny also offers a practice intended to help us move and live from our center. (51 minutes)
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, I speak with Danny Dreyer. Danny is a marathon runner, an esteemed running coach, and a student of t’ai chi master George Xu. He’s the author of two books; ChiRunning and ChiWalking, as well as the Sounds True audio programs of the same name. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Danny and I spoke about finding stillness in the midst of action and the importance of incorporating chi into all aspects of our lives, what Danny calls “creating the conditions for energy to flow.” Danny also offers a practice intended to help us move and live from our center. Here’s my conversation with Danny Dreyer:
Danny, you’ve brought together the principles of t’ai chi with the exercise forms of both running and walking. I’m curious: Which came first for you? Were you an athlete that then became interested in t’ai chi, or a t’ai chi practitioner that wanted to apply this to running and walking? And how did these two forms come together for you?
Danny Dreyer: Well, it’s kind of an interesting story. I was actually a runner long before I started taking t’ai chi. I was probably, when I took my first t’ai chi class, I had been running for 25 years! I hadn’t been a competitive athlete until just before I started doing t’ai chi. I had been running for years just for my own peace of mind, exercise, and everything, and then about 12 years ago, I took my first t’ai chi class from a guy in Boulder, actually. That’s where I was living. He was from China. I had been working on my technique, because I had been starting to get into ultra-marathoning later in my running life. (You know, most of the race distances I was thinking of doing were going to be longer than a marathon, so that’s why they call it ultra-marathoning.) And so I had been really playing. I have always been fascinated by whatever sport I’m doing, so I was really trying to break it down into being more and more efficient. Some of my races were up to 100 miles long, so if you’re going to be out there for 24 hours solid, you need to be really efficient, because you don’t want to be carried off the course in a body bag or something like that. It can really take it out of your body, and so I had been working on my running technique in terms of getting it efficient.
Then I went to this t’ai chi class. I remember, the first night I went there, the instructor was talking about using your postural alignment as a basis to support your body, and then, if you really align your posture well, you can get it to rotate around a central axis. If that central axis isn’t straight, then it’s going to cost you more energy to do whatever it is you’re doing. I had been playing with my running, with this whole thing of learning how to run by leaning forward and kind of falling forward, like we all did as kids, and it was making my running really efficient, because the more I would lean forward, the more gravity would pull me, and the less I had to use my legs. Well, when I added in this component of posture and center line and learning how to rotate around this central axis, I went out running the next day and completely rocked my boat!
I came back from my run—I did about a five mile run and I came back—and it felt like I hadn’t run. That’s when my light bulb went off, and I said, “You know what? There’s really something to combining these two things!” I didn’t really know that much about t’ai chi, but I knew it was like the mother of martial arts, and so, if that was the foundation upon which a lot of really powerful movement comes from, then it was a natural fit with running, especially endurance running.
TS: Okay, let’s just take this a little slow. An ultra-marathon: You’re running 100 miles?
DD: Yeah! I did it twice!
TS: All at one time?
DD: Yes, all at one time, and you know, you stop at aid stations and stuff like that, but really, the whole idea is to run 100 miles as fast as you can—or to complete it. For some people, it’s just to finish. Yeah, it’s a long way. You know, I was looking at somebody who I know, that I met recently, who has just finished a race that was 3,100 miles long, and he ran 67 miles a day for 48 days. I mean, there are people out there that are really on the lunatic fringe side of running! One hundred miles is really far to go, and it’s a small population of the running field that goes for these ultra-marathons, but it’s a really growing field, actually. More and more people every year are getting into these ultra-long distances as kind of a . . . It’s not like a sports event. It’s more like a mindset, you know? It’s a real different way to run, because you just take your time. It’s not about speed. It’s about mind-body connection, really.
TS: And the two ultra-marathons that you ran: How long did they take you?
DD: Well, the first one that I ran was the Leadville 100, so it was up in Leadville, and the whole 100 miles was over 10,000 feet. It took me 22 hours and some change to run that. The second one I ran was called the Western States 100. That took me just under 24 hours.
TS: Okay, so I kind of get the picture of that. What I didn’t fully follow was how the t’ai chi principle of this central axis translated into you moving forward in a different way. I mean, as you were talking, I kind of had this image of you leaning forward as you ran, but I couldn’t quite follow how the central axis changed that.
DD: I’ll explain that a little more clearly. In t’ai chi, your dan tien, your center that’s just below your navel, is your moving center. It’s the center from which a lot of your power and movement comes that helps the rest of your body to move. If you look at how the body is set up, all of the large muscles, the core muscles of the body, are in the central part of the body, and as you get further and further away from the center of the body, the body parts get smaller and smaller. So how t’ai chi is set up as a martial art (as a very powerful martial art) is that all of the movement, all of the punches or kicks or anything that you do in a martial art, if you have the power and movement originating from your center, then all of the parts sequentially on down the line, as you get further and further away from the center, become completely at the whim of your center. They are all driven by your center. They are not having to do a lot of the work themselves.
The beautiful part of this is that it’s kind of like, if you’ve seen in the old Westerns, where a guy is cracking a bullwhip. Right? Okay, he’s holding onto the handle of the whip, and that’s the thickest part of the whip. If you just even move that a little bit, then the whole tail end of the whip goes crazy. It works the same way in your body. If you’re really cognizant of moving your center and relaxing everything else on down the line, then your power really does get to move more efficiently, because it’s moving from the more powerful part of your body. The rest, the smaller parts of your body, are just being directed by that center. That’s kind of the basis of how t’ai chi is set up, in that you always have . . .
The Chinese have this wonderful image. They call it “needle and cotton.” If you want to really look at your body and think about how it’s set up to move, think of the image of a needle sticking vertically through a ball of cotton. Well, the needle is really your central axis, and it’s the yin part of your whole body, if you think of it in moving terms. The yang is all of the moving parts. So the yin is your postural line, it’s your central axis, but you want to have that nice and straight, nice and strong, very gathered, very yin, and all of the moving parts—everything external to that, which is your arms and legs and hips and shoulders—you want to have as relaxed as possible, so that when this central axis moves, it easily moves all of the other parts. So there’s always a balance of yin and yang in your running, in your t’ai chi, in your movement, in your life in general. It’s always working from a center, but directing the movement of a very relaxed exterior.
I would say that a good t’ai chi practitioner really has a very effortless way of moving, because there are different levels of t’ai chi, obviously, and then at some point, you can get to the point where your body is set up to work correctly. The whole mechanism is trained to work correctly, and then you can start directing your movement and the chi moving through your body strictly from your mind. The Grandmasters from China that I’ve seen and met really are doing all of their movement just on a total mind level that’s just totally directing this instrument of the body. There’s this whole progression moving from getting your instrument lined up and moving correctly, until you eventually get to where you have your instrument moving so well for you, at your command, that your mind is really doing all of the work—if you can call it work!
TS: So I can imagine starting to feel this central axis in the body, this yin kind of central channel, but then when I’m running, what am I doing with my mind? Is my mind down in my dan tien, or how do I direct the movement with my mind?
DD: Well, the way we have it set up in ChiRunning and ChiWalking is that there are lots of various focuses that your mind can pay attention to. Now the groundwork of all of this stuff is—and it should be in every practice—to pay attention to your body, to learn to listen to your body and to direct your body. You know, true mind-body work is all about creating a great communication link between the two, between your mind and your body. It’s not just a one-way communication always, when your mind is directing your body, but your mind also has to listen carefully to what your body is sensing, to if there are any places that feel tense or tight or not moving correctly.
What my mind is doing when I’m running is watching all of the various body parts, feeling each of the body parts . . . For instance, if I’m running along the road and I want to be watching my foot strike, I want to focus on landing with a nice mid-foot strike. I don’t want to land with my heel out in front of me, because when I do, I can feel in my body that I’m impacting the road much more.
I’ll give you an example: If I’m running down the road and I feel myself hitting really hard on the ground, my mind will make the observation, it will feel it, and it will say, “Now how can I change that to where it’s less impact?” And so your mind goes through this list of various adjustments that you can make—we call them just “focuses”—and so my mind might give the response, “Okay, well we should just lean forward just a little more, and not let the leg swing out in front of the body, but really let it swing more out the back. The mind takes that on as a mantra, just watching where the foot hits, watching where the foot hits, and pretty soon, if you watch it long enough and direct it to hit in a different place or in a different way, the impact will go away, and you’ve kind of fixed that problem.
Another example might be if you’re running down the road and you’re feeling tension in your shoulders, which a lot of people do. Your mind would feel it, your body sense of the tension in your shoulders, and say, “Well, what can we do about this?” In a lot of ways, then, the mind can direct the shoulders to just drop it, just relax, swing naturally, no force.
So there’s this constant back and forth. The mind knows. We’ve broken down all of these different focuses that help the body to run more efficiently, and then the mind just pays attention to how the body’s doing with each of those focuses. It’s very similar to learning to play a musical instrument. When you start playing a musical instrument, you have to learn how to read notes, how to read music, and you just learn how to play the note that you’re reading on the paper with the instrument you’re playing, right? So there’s this whole learning curve of matching up a certain note with a certain thing that you do to make a sound come out of your instrument.
The same thing happens with your body. There’s a certain way of moving all of the different body parts. They’re designed to move in a certain way, and so our job is to help people learn to move their body in the way that it was designed, not in the way they’ve habitually ended up with. It’s like Caroline Myss says, “Your biography becomes your biology.” If you’ve been sitting at a desk for 20 years, or if you stand all stooped over, or if you don’t have any core strength, that’s going to affect how your body moves. As you get older, you have to learn to counteract your biology, how it’s been set up for the past 20 years, so there are focuses to get you back into that original nice, clean movement, nice postural, structural stance, and everything. All of these little focuses add up to learning the language of your body and how it works, so that when you’re out running, you just are practicing this language over and over—which parts are working right, which parts aren’t working right, what can I adjust, what do I not need to adjust?
It’s a great, fun way to learn, not only all about your body, but obviously all of the things that can be translated into life, in general. They’re all based in really sound principles of movement.
TS: Okay, well I’m just going to circle back to this question one more time, because I understand what you’re saying about paying attention to the different body parts—my shoulders, my feet—and I get that, but I’m still not sure how, in my running or my walking, is this yin central channel? How do I use my mind to get the power of the walk or the run from that?
DD: I start everybody, you know, when you start walking or start off running, the very first focus that you do is your posture. Everything starts from that, so that’s how you feel yourself inside of yourself, by working through your posture. A part of that posture is intentionally engaging your core, so you direct your attention to your core. You keep that attention there while you allow yourself to move into your running or into your walking, so that you feel this alignment going on as kind of like background to everything else that you’re doing. Whenever you’re moving, you’re always coming back, every time your foot comes down on the ground and you’re supporting your body weight on one leg, that’s when you feel this nice structural alignment, during the support phase of your running or walking. When your foot comes down onto the ground, then you’re supporting your body, so that’s the time to really sense this whole support of the yin line through your body. When you’re moving is when you need to feel the whole yang side, because once you’re airborne and running, then everything needs to be completely relaxed. There’s no reason to have anything, any tension held in your body when you’re in the non-support phase of your stride.
TS: Okay. And just another question about what you do with your mind: What about when you start thinking about your to-do list and dreaming about the vacation you want to go on? In ChiRunning or ChiWalking, what’s the instruction at that point?
DD: It’s no different than sitting meditation. There’s a mantra, you’re gazing at a candle—whatever your focus is—your mind gets distracted, and your job is to bring back the focus, right? It’s just training your mind to be quiet or to be focused on one thing which settles the rest of those thoughts. It’s no different than a meditation practice. What I tell people is, “Just focus on one or two things about your running.” So if your mind starts to wander and you get into this grocery list of everything you need to do for the day, if you can catch yourself wandering, then you just bring your mind back: “Oh. Here I am. I’m just watching my foot strike. Here I am. I’m just letting my knees bend.”
The interesting thing about our whole approach to running is that my goal is to really help people convert running from a sport to a practice, so that they approach their running or their walking more like an internal mind-body practice than a sport or even a fitness regimen. If you can do it like a practice, you become much more mindful in every phase of what you’re doing—what you get out of it, what you put into it, what you’re doing during the exercise.
TS: That’s a very intriguing idea: not so much like a fitness routine, but a practice. What do you think makes running or walking a practice? You know, “If you’re approaching it this way, then it’s a practice”?
DD: Yeah. What makes it a practice is that every time you go out to do it . . . Well, think of whatever you do as a practice. Whether you do meditation or pilates or t’ai chi, anything you do as a practice, why do you do it? You do it so that every time you approach it, you’re either improving yourself because of it or improving your way of going about doing it. You’re trying to master something, either something internally, master your ability to let go of your mind . . . You’re always trying to master something, and so when you’re talking about turning running into a practice, you can take it as a physical practice, you can take it as an internal practice, or a meditative practice, and you can take it further to a spiritual practice to where you’re really working at eventually getting beyond the spiritual, and you’re always working at something.
Whenever I go out for a run . . . I went out this morning for a run, and for me, I was working on directing my focus, my i chi is what they call it in t’ai chi. It’s the ability of your mind to direct your movement forward. My practice today, every time I found myself undirected, so to speak (my mind wandering), I would bring my attention to some object up ahead of me, and I would just focus my eyes on that and really feel my body being pulled toward that object, simply through the focus of my eyes on that object, and it works! It totally makes the whole body relaxed, makes me run easier, going up hills, it doesn’t matter what. That was like my mantra all day. Every time I found myself wandering, I would just lock in to something up ahead of me. By the end of the run, I felt better and better as I ran along, my mind felt calmer and calmer, my breathing relaxed, and when I finished the run today, I felt rejuvenated and full of energy instead of wiped out from having worked too hard to use my muscles, or been thinking about other stuff and my body doing one thing while my mind’s doing another. It’s a real different post-run feeling. It’s amazing how it feels in my body. And I just ran a half-marathon this morning, just for practice. I’m training for a marathon, so I wanted to make sure I could run the distance, so I went there this morning and challenged myself to run a half-marathon, and I came back, and if my wife hadn’t known that I had just run a half, she would have thought that I’d just run out to get the paper off the front lawn! That’s a really different approach to running!
TS: You’re an animal, Danny!
DD: I know! And it’s not because I’m hugely physically fit! It’s just that I’ve gotten to the point where I can get my body to do what I want it to do, and I can learn how to relax and use the least amount of effort to get that done. See? That’s the end game.
TS: Now, if you were approaching your run or walk as a “spiritual practice,” what would be your focus?
DD: My focus would be really more on the invisible aspect of the run, so whenever you talk about spiritual, you’re talking about “Well, what’s the unseen part of this?” Okay? So when I’m running, for instance, I love running trails, so if I go out on a long trail run, if I was doing it as a spiritual practice, I would, first of all, always be really connecting with my breath, because that’s one way for me to really connect with the invisible; just feel the air that I’m running through, feel it moving in and out of my body. Then the other thing that I do is I really pay a lot more attention to impressions. What I mean by that is just the field of vision that I’m running through, not just looking at what I’m doing, but feeling the energy of the field that I’m running through. If I’m running through the forest . . . I live in North Carolina, and it’s kind of a rainforest. It’s a really green and deep forest, and I just feel the oldness of the Appalachian Mountains, and I feel the seasons change, and I feel this whole invisible world kind of underneath what I’m looking at. I’m moving through space, and eventually I get to a point where I’m really blending with my environment, because there’s not a whole lot of difference between my body and what I’m looking at. Underneath all of it is this whole kind of invisible realm that kind of flows in and out of everything. As a spiritual practice, I’m always trying to set up the conditions to feel that connectedness of everything that I’m running through. If I do that, I get energy. I can feel the chi of the area that I’m in. I can feel it moving in my body. I can feel it when I touch the ground, when I move. I feel the air as I go through it. Different colors of green have a different energetic effect on me. It goes to this whole subtler way of approaching running, and what I come away with is such a deeper sense of connectedness to everything, that it’s way beyond just going out for a workout.
When people think of running, they think, “Wow. I’m going to come back sweating, my muscles might be sore, I’ve got this little niggle in my knee I’ve got to deal with . . .” It’s not like that at all. It’s kind of like putting on a different pair of glasses and really seeing the world in another way, through a runner’s eyes.
TS: Now you mentioned tuning in to your breath in a certain kind of way. Can you explain more about that, while you’re running?
DD: Mm-hmm. When I’m running, I do a lot of belly breathing. I do a lot of ayurvedic yoga breathing, so I’m really breathing really deeply into my belly. Physiologically, that helps, because all of the little alveoli that convert air oxygen into blood oxygen are down in the deeper part of my lungs, so if I’m breathing shallow, my muscles aren’t going to get fueled well. I breathe deeply, and I can really feel the breath going deep in. When I breathe in, I’m not just breathing in air. It’s kind of like . . . how do I explain it? . . . I have this image of my chest, like a big window that just opens up, and I don’t just take stuff into my lungs. I take the whole energy of what’s coming at me. I just throw up the sash of this window, and I let it all come straight into me. It’s like heart running, you know? When I breathe it in at the same time, it just somehow magnifies that or enhances that. It makes it feel more like my breath is very connected to what’s coming at me. Does that make sense?
TS: It does. It’s a beautiful image. I love that image of the chest being like an open window. That’s gorgeous!
DD: The other thing that I do with this, when I’m working on a spiritual practice in terms of running, is that it’s real important—and I think a lot of people lose—the sense of being in a three-dimensional world. You know? We just take on a real flat perspective a lot of times. That’s why I love trail running, especially, because when I’m running on trails, I go up and down and through a forest, and I can look side to side, and I can look way back in the forest, and some trees are moving in front of me, and then there’s trees further back that aren’t moving past as fast. There’s scenery way in the background. There are mountains in the far distance. I’m trying to feel the whole depth of the surroundings that I’m moving through. It holds much more for me than just what’s right in front of me within 10 feet, you know? Oh! It adds so much seasoning to life! It’s hard to explain.
TS: Now I was talking to a friend recently, and we were talking about his sitting meditation practice, and he’s also training for a bike race. He was saying, “I want the time that I’m on the bicycle to be my meditation time, because the truth is I don’t really have time to do both right now in my life. I’m so busy, so I want the time when I’m on the bicycle to be like my sitting meditation practice, to combine them, but when I’m on my bike, there’s some kind of driven quality, because I’m training for this race, and so I don’t think it really counts as meditation.” I’m curious what you think about this driven quality, and how can we approach something like, you know, you ran a half-marathon this morning, without that drivenness?
DD: Yeah, well, the funny thing is the mind is what drives. It’s not your body. It’s the mind that drives the body, and if your mind is driven, then obviously your bike ride is going to be driven. What I do to pull out of that driven state (because I just plain don’t ever run that way, I don’t train that way, I don’t race that way) is I try to be as sensitive as possible to what’s happening in my body, in the moment, and how can I adjust that. The closer you can be to being in the present . . . like your friend on the bike: If he’s on the bike, and he’s coming, for instance, to a hill, he has to change what he’s doing. He doesn’t just try to power up the hill or stand on the pedals or whatever he does. He needs to be cognizant of how can he best approach that and just totally stay with where he’s at right then, at any given moment, where he’s at. If he’s driven, he’s thinking about, “Well, I did this course yesterday in two hours and 10 minutes, and today I’m going to really try to do it in 2:05.” That’s result oriented. That’s the mind looking for results. Instead, you have to kind of retrain the mind to just be where you’re at, and make the absolute best, most economical decisions about how you move your body in any given instant and any given situation.
For instance, if somebody was a Grandmaster in t’ai chi, and he was in a match with an opponent, in t’ai chi, it’s impossible to be driven! You have to constantly be responding to your opponent all the time. You have to be sensitive to, “What’s this power that’s coming toward me? How can I cooperate with that instead of fighting against it?” If you cooperate with it, then you get the energy to move in your direction, and that creates power.
So a bicycle rider might consider, “How do I cooperate with my circumstances?” If it’s a hill, “How do I cooperate with that hill in a way that I just make that hill disappear? “How do I cooperate with the bike? How do I change gears? How do I make my body stand? Sit?” Whatever. But it’s a constant, in-the-moment kind of response to an external. That’s true meditation. It’s like really being absolutely where you’re at and making the adjustment then, not thinking ahead, like, “Oh, well, I’d better really rest on this hill, because I’ve got a big hill coming up,” or, “I’ve got to fuel up,” or, “I want to finish this one fast.” If you do everything right in the moment, you end up being just as fast as, if not faster than if you had been driven, because if you’re driven, you’re so focused on one aspect that you might forget another aspect. You might be holding tension somewhere else in your body, so then you have to pedal harder to overcome the tension that someplace else is creating inertia with. I would always go back to just focusing on what’s important right now, this pedal stroke.
TS: Now I’m curious what your response would be to this: Somebody says, “My walking” or “My running” or “My bike riding: That’s my meditation. I don’t have another period in my day. I don’t have another sitting practice or t’ai chi practice or anything. It’s just this exercise form. It is my spiritual practice.” Do you believe that that could be, if done in the way that you’re describing, a sufficient, could contain everything?
DD: Oh, yeah! I’ve been doing that for years! Contain everything. Absolutely everything. You know, the interesting thing that I thought about years ago (This just occurred to me one day as I was musing somehow.): Back in the 60s, I started TM back then, like everybody else, and I realize that back in the late 60s and early 70s, all of these gurus came over from India. They came over here, teaching meditation to us Westerners, and these guys come from a background of stillness, of connection with the earth, of not running around like crazy, and they were trying to teach stillness to Western culture, inner stillness, which was great. It was a good plan! The problem with it is that we are, by nature, a mobile society, a mobile culture, and so, if we can figure out a way to teach people stillness in the midst of activity, why not? It is totally possible to do. You can be still in the midst of activity, and then your activity can become a meditation. But to try to teach Westerners to just sit still . . . I mean, for some people, it works really well. If somebody’s ADD, it would be really great for them to just sit still and focus on a candle, but if somebody wants to have their movement be a meditation, the whole idea is to obviously quiet your mind. That’s what meditation mostly is about. How can you quiet your mind while you’re moving? Well, that takes focus. What do you focus on? You focus on some aspect of your body, a part of your body, a moving part of your body, and repeatedly just use that as your mantra, and go back to that. Go back, and watch it, and watch it, and keep watching it, and every time you settle in to just sensing—you don’t even need to do anything about it! Sometimes you can just watch it!
I did a walk once where all I did was I challenged myself to take a 45-minute walk. I was at a hotel, and I was teaching something in California, and I wanted to walk from my hotel to the beach and back, and I figured it would take 45 minutes. My goal was to just observe each foot hitting the ground from there and back, without missing a footprint, without missing one step. When I got back, I was transformed! I couldn’t believe how quiet my mind was, how focused I felt, how in my body I felt, and all I had done was just watch each foot hit the ground.
Any movement activity, especially walking or running or biking, which all have repetitive motion—there are always cycles, you know—I think is more ideal than trying to do something like, you know, I don’t think you could play football as a meditation. It would have to be something that’s very sustained and cyclical, but it definitely can happen.
TS: And then, in terms of ChiWalking, is there anything different about the ChiWalking approach from the ChiRunning approach? I’m sure it’s the same basic principles, but what’s unique to the walking modality?
DD: Well, what’s unique to the walking is that they are all the same basic principles—you work with your alignment, you work with your body movement and how to relax certain body parts so that you move correctly—and I like the walking, myself, because it slows down all of that body sensing. If you’re trying to watch parts of your body, the whole realm of movement happens at a much slower rate when you’re walking.
It’s interesting. If you’ve ever seen somebody doing t’ai chi, it looks like they’re doing something in slow motion, right? The reason why it looks like such a nice, slow-motion dance is so that, when you’re learning the form, you are really sensing your body, so that when you shift your weight, you can actually feel yourself shift from one leg to another, and what percentage is on one leg, and whether you’re feeling your center as your arm moves, whether you’re dropping your shoulder as your hand comes up . . . It’s like slowing down movements, like taking it slo-mo so you can really feel as many of the different things moving in unison as possible. If you speed it up too fast, you lost that sense. You know, you probably default into how you generally would move, anyway. If you want to pay attention to how you move, it’s great to slow it down. So t’ai chi people learn t’ai chi at a slow pace, but believe me, once they speed it up, it’s a full on martial art. To practice it slowly is a great way to get it better into your system.
I always suggest that runners start off doing ChiWalking, because all of the focuses are there, and it’s kind of on a more sensitive level, more slow paced.
TS: I’m curious, Danny, now, being the ChiWalking, ChiRunning person, how this has all turned for you into what you call ChiLiving, a whole approach to life.
DD: Oh, it’s fascinating, because you know the more I’ve been using all of these . . . I might as well just call them “Taoist principles,” because that’s what the whole foundation of t’ai chi is all about. It’s all about various rules, just like universal laws that apply to certain things. Well, when you’re really practicing something like t’ai chi (or even ChiRunning if you really watch it on a deeper level), you can learn about these universal principles.
I’ll go for a couple: It’s like one, the thing about alignment and relaxation, okay? There’s needle and cotton, okay? So if you take that image and move it into a life situation, let’s say, for instance, you’re an employer and you’re working with employees. You need to have this sense of clarity and conviction with your business so that you can help direct your employee in a way that would make them really enjoy their job and be more efficient with their job and everything. You need to be the needle, but how you approach them needs to be like cotton, so they can feel this substantiveness inside of you, but this ease and movement, and they go, “Oh! Okay! Well, I could do that!” You know? How you come across is much more clear when you’re not coming across hard edged or a micro manager or anything like that.
Gradual progress is one of the universal laws that t’ai chi follows, and that means that anything, any process needs to grow gradually. That applies to relationships, to business development, to raising a kid . . . Everything starts off in a very basic, simple mode wherever it starts, and in order to increase it in a nice, healthy way, in a forward-moving way, you need to take small steps to gradually increase. If you jump too fast, you’re going to miss something, you know? And so all of these principles that apply, like to running: In a race, you don’t take off at your fastest speed up from. You take off slowly, you build your head of steam, you relax a little more as you get further into your run, so at your finish, you’re really nice and stretched out, your energy’s moving, you’re taking in the environment, you’re enjoying what you’re doing, you’re relaxed, so that you finish like really fast and really strong, but only because you’ve taken a nice, gradual progression through your event. So you apply that straight over to anything.
Moving from your center, you know? That’s a really good principle to follow. I do it for my running, so that physically, I can be a really economical runner. I do it for my work. If I’m writing an article, I need to really center myself: What am I writing about? Once I ground myself there, then the words just come out naturally. That’s alignment and relaxation. I’m aligning myself with what I’m about to write about, and then I just let go! I’m able to just let the words come through.
So this ChiLiving is kind of like using running or walking as a “port key” (to borrow a Harry Potter phrase). It’s a window into another world. Any practice worth anything really should be transferable to all other levels. If it’s a physical practice, it should go to an emotional practice, and then a spiritual practice, and then a lifestyle practice. You’re always using one mode to learn about how to apply it in another mode. That’s the best way I could say it!
TS: I love this idea of living from our center, and since you gave the example of the employer and the employees, I’m particularly inspired. I’m curious if, right now, as a gift, you could lead us through something that, myself along with our listeners, we could do a little centering exercise right now, something that would help us contact this sense of a somatic center, a physical center in our being.
DD: Oh, yeah. That’s easy. So you’re sitting in a chair right now, I’m assuming?
DD: Okay. A lot of people who’ll be listening to this will be sitting in a chair, so what I want you to do is sit up in your chair to where you’re almost to the back of the chair. You’re not quite all the way leaning against the back. You’re just sitting straight up in your chair, but not at the edge of your chair. You’re kind of three fourths of the way back in your chair. What I want you to do is sit in a way like they tell you to do in yoga, where they say take a string from the crown of your head—not the top of your head. The crown of your head, which is just to the rear of the top of your head—and feel like a piece of string is just pulling you up and lengthening your spine in an upward direction. I want you to feel your feet on the ground and your sit bones on your chair, and then your spine lengthening upwards. Your spine goes up to Heaven; your pelvis goes down into Earth. I want you to feel these two things going in opposite directions. I want you to try to sit in a way, kind of rock forward and back, until you can feel that your shoulders are right over your hips. So you’re just about sitting straight up. You shouldn’t be against the back of the chair. You should be straight up. So, when you’re sitting in this position, you’re pretty well balanced, and you’re not necessarily feeling your center. You’re just feeling your alignment.
Now take a kind of a physical snapshot of what that feels like to be sitting up straight in your chair. Now what I want you to do is just relax your body and kind of fall back against the back of your chair. Keep your feet on the ground, just relax your legs, and kind of rest against the back of the chair. I want you to put your hands on the top of your legs, rest your palms on your quads.
What I’m going to have you do is just bring yourself slowly back into your original position, but you can’t use your leg muscles and you can’t use your upper-body muscles. I want you to just move yourself very slowly—in fact, the slower you can do it, the more you can feel this, and what I’m talking about is your center. I want you to move from this leaning back position in your chair and pull yourself slowly back into your original upright position, and I want you to feel in your body what part is working. Where do you feel any tension, muscular tension? What’s working, and where is it? The slower you do it, the more clear it will be.
You should be able to feel the center. Your lower abdominal muscles are what really are lifting you into the upright position. Could you feel anything?
TS: Yeah. I could feel that.
DD: Okay, so do it again. Lean back in your chair, just to make sure you can feel it and really locate it, and then slowly (try not to use your leg muscles, try not to bend forward) just try to bring yourself back up into that nice, upright feeling, and sense in your body where you feel the energy working. If you really feel it, it’s somewhere just below your navel, your lower abdominals.
So then what you can do is, once you feel that (and I call this “The Sitting up in Your Chair Exercise” for lack of a better word), what you can do is stand up. What I have people do is do this exercise first in a chair, and then I have them stand up. How most people stand is that they slouch a little bit, and when people stand just relaxed, their hips are usually a little forward of their shoulders. The shoulders are back and the hips are forward if you just completely relax your body. What I have people do is to think back to that image of sitting up in your chair, and what I want you to do is sit up in your chair, pretend you’re sitting up in your chair again to where you’re bringing your shoulders directly over your hips instead of just having them normally, naturally being behind your hips. So you’re bringing your shoulders to where you’re straight upright over your hips, and if you really sit far enough up in your chair, you should be able to look down and see your shoelaces.
There’s establishing a really nice, vertical stance, but in order to hold yourself in that stance, you should be feeling that same center holding yourself in that position. You want to practice it whenever you’re just standing in line at the grocery store or the bank or anything like that. Practice “sitting up in your chair.” Feel that center working to hold that alignment nice and straight. You can walk around that way. In fact, when people start walking from this sense, it totally changes how they walk. It’s amazing! If you can always walk with your shoulders over your hips, it will completely change how you walk—and run!
TS: Wonderful. Thank you, Danny. You know, I just have one final question, which is: In the two programs that you created with Sounds True, one on ChiRunning and one on ChiWalking, there’s actually a guided part where I take the audio with me while I’m out on a walk or a run. How did you create that? I mean people could be walking on the East Coast or the West Coast, or running over . . . How did you figure out how to compose that kind of instruction in a general enough way?
DD: I set up basic parameters first. What I tell people is, when you’re learning this stuff, be sure you’re on a flat surface. If you’re on a flat surface, try to be on an unobstructed path. Go to a high school track or go to a bike path that you know is not very busy, but set yourself up so that there’s no interruptions from externals. Then you download this walking program or the running program onto your mp3 player, and then it doesn’t matter if they’re an elite athlete runner or somebody who’s never had running shoes on before, or somebody who’s just starting a walking program. A body is a body. I’m body blind. People are colorblind, race blind, you know? I’m body blind. A body is just a body to me! So I give everybody the same set of instructions, because the same instructions work wherever you have a body. If you have a body, this works, because we all have arms and legs, and the same muscles, and all that. When I set this up, I just spoke straight to the body, and no matter who it is, they’ve got a body.
My favorite phrase lately—and this all goes back to body sensing—is “feel what it feels like.” We, as a culture, don’t spend enough time in our bodies. If we did, there wouldn’t be an obesity rate, there wouldn’t be heart disease, there wouldn’t be all of the things that go on. If people could listen to their bodies more carefully, they’d know when to stop eating, they’d know that smoking is lousy, they’d know what alcohol does to you, they’d feel what they’re doing to their body! When you sit at a desk too long, when you hold anger or tension . . . It’s feeling your body. If you can’t feel your body, you just have no choices. You can’t do something about it. You can’t change it.
You know, in our ChiLiving book, the tag line is going to be (it’s not written yet, but the tag line is going to be) “creating the conditions for energy to flow.” If I were to write one thing on my tombstone, it would be that I was always working for the conditions for energy to flow. You can apply that across the board, from physical movement, to anger therapy, to cancer therapy, to hospice, to whatever. If you can figure out how to get energy to move in a situation, you’re better off than if you don’t.
TS: Wonderful! “Creating the conditions for energy to flow.” That’s a great phrase.
DD: Yeah. Always. It’s a ruling idea of mine.
TS: Danny Dreyer is the creator of two audio programs with Sounds True: one on ChiRunning and one on ChiWalking, both including these instructional components that you can actually take out with you on your walk and your run, which I think is just a wonderful innovation.
Thank you so much, Danny, for being with us!
DD: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Tami!
TS: Great conversation.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.