Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Imagery And The Power of Intention

One of the cardinal features of our discipline is the don yu or the relaxation of weight. Also referred to as letting go, dropping, or filling the feet, it forms part of all movements of the set. Once understood by the body, this subtle but simple process has a profound impact on our physiology.

But how do we come to understand what is, initially, quite mysterious and hard to grasp? And why do our instructors first ask “how do you feel” and only later “do you understand”?

Fig 1 A portion of Waldseemuller's map of 1507; the first to depict, in addition to Asia, Africa and Europe, a 4th world - the New World, surrounded by water and distinct from Asia. The map: a symbol of discovery and new understanding. Lester, 2009

Certainly, the don yu does not come to us by reading about it. It is through practice, guided by others further along in the journey, that we learn how it feels, and what it means, to relax the weight.

And the guidance often comes in the form of images – maps which direct our explorations.

Peter Wayne and Ted Kaptchuk write about tai chi² as a complex, multifaceted intervention that employs imagery as one of its essential ingredients. By means of imagery, our mind, our intention, produces specific kinaesthetic, emotional states. Through their use,

the mind brings together bodily perceptions, mood, muscles and tendons to create a particular movement and state of being.

Think of the metaphors we use every day to influence movement and spirit – Wave Hands Like Clouds, White Stork Cools Wings, or Carry Tiger To Mountain.

We know through work on mirror neurons that simply imagining a movement activates the same areas of the brain engaged when that movement is actually carried out. And visualizing a sequence of movements, even without physically performing them, improves recovery of motor function after injury and allows the learning of new complex movements.

Several aspects of the use of imagery in Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health come to mind:

  • They play a central role in learning news ways of moving that involve the entire body
  • The value of any given image varies with the mindset and life experience of the student
  • The images used change as the body and spirit change
  • They work best when they are simply presented, leaving lots of room for interpretation
  • An image may be fleshed out or abandoned as our instructor watches us practice, allows time for the body to change, assists when we’ve gone off course, and moves to the next step when we’re ready
  • Once provided an image, we need to be left to our own devices. To practice, puzzle over things, explore
  • The image is a key into a room, not the room itself. The “how do you feel” is your experience of the contents of that room
  • That experience then leads to a better understanding of how the body can move with balance and stillness
  • By remembering our trajectory of learning, and the images used along the way, we are able to pass this art on to others
  • An image may be offered that will only make sense later on. Yet we remember it when that time comes.

So what about the images that help us learn what it means to relax the weight? We will look at that in the next post.

Bruce McFarlane, MD

¹The Fourth Part of The World, The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, Toby Lester, Free Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4165-3531-7

²Challenges Inherent to T’ai Chi Research: Part 1–T’ai Chi as a Complex Multicomponent Intervention, Peter M. Wayne, Ph.D., and Ted Kaptchuk, The Journal of Alternative And Complementary Medicine, Vol. 14, Number 1, 2008, pp.95-102

© 2010 Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada



Filed under Anatomy and Physiology, Health Watch

3 responses to “Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Imagery And The Power of Intention

  1. David Kemp

    It’s always interesting how we can use metaphor to describe an event, and abstract to shape understanding. Bob Flaws, a contemporary of Ted Kaptchuk reminds us that the “map” that we use as a way to try to interpret a “landscape” can easily be mistaken for the landscape itself. Much of what we experience in our practise is just that- an experience; we can then use imagery to help others understand whether or not a similar experience is of benefit to their practise. The imagery might be our personal way of creating our own map for understanding the “landscape” of our own development; someone else might well use a different “map” or image to describe the same thing; either way, both can be a useful way of describing or signposting the way to an experience that ultimately improves what we are trying to do. Go down, go up, and keep smiling- the simplest map of all!

  2. Dave Latham

    Dr. Bruce,

    I have stumbled upon your periodicals in Tigers Mouth and have been reading and reviewing all of them. I find them to be an excellent introduction to physiology as it relates to all of the Taoist Arts that Chi Mr. Moy left us. I have a much better understanding of both Tai Chi and physiology as a result.
    I have let our instructors know of the blog and encourage any practitioner of Tai Chi to read the articles but especially instructors.

    Thank you,

  3. Robert

    Hello Bruce,

    Once again sir you have brought out many interesting elements of Tai Chi with much respect toward observation and self study.

    For how do we put into words that which arises from no words, but to ascribe to ourself the teachings of what cannot be described with the learning of clouds in the sky.


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