It was a gorgeous day for a stroll down the animal shelter’s tree-lined driveway with Hope, a 120-pound Mastiff, walking pretty as a picture at my side. I had been volunteering with homeless dogs like her to help them improve their manners and social skills. This gentle giant never needed help, but walking with her was a treat and a welcome break.
Until she launched after a mysterious temptation, nearly yanking me out of my skin. Letting go of the leash and admitting to the shelter staff that I lost her wasn’t an option. I’d rather be dragged to my death. After several leaps and bounds, I managed to get my feet back under me and pushed all of my weight and energy straight down. Thankfully, Hope stopped on a dime and didn’t take off again.
Strength didn’t create this happy outcome. In fact, what saved Hope (not to mention my pride) was something best known as an exercise for the elderly: tai chi.
Americans aren’t alone in their confusion over tai chi, which is sometimes spelled as one word or as tai chi chuan (also appearing in places as one word), or as taiji or taijiquan. Language barriers aside, tai chi’s evolutionary journey is as much the stuff of legend as it is fact, even among scholars. It could be as little as 300 years old, originating with the Chen family, or it could date back more than seven centuries. In any event, five families heavily influenced tai chi’s course, branding it with their names. They include the famous Yang family, whose style is most widely practiced today.
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Perhaps tai chi’s most important shift, however, was from a fighting art to a mind-body exercise. In fact, tai chi’s graceful, dance-like choreography originated as a martial art form. One of the ways tai chi differs from most other martial arts, however, is its strict attention to body alignment. This attention has a two-fold purpose: to create a kinetic chain with the body that maximizes power and to emphasize balance in any situation. The slow-motion practice helps solidify these alignments in the student’s muscle memory. It’s not a stretch to see how the same body alignments that focus on staying upright in a fight could help those who struggle to maintain balance on a daily basis.
Even though I’ve studied Yang style for some 18 years, the experience with Hope taught me that tai chi can help someone regain balance when struggling with a furry foe, too.
Here are a few Yang-style tai chi principles and some common situations in which they might prove useful. The last suggestion describes a way to practice these alignments without having to learn an entire tai chi form.
Using the waist for handling jumping dogs. Most people try to brace themselves against a jumping dog’s incoming force; they usually end up getting knocked around. The tai chi student, on the other hand, doesn’t meet incoming force head-on. She lets it sail past her with a turn of her waist. If a dog pushes on the right side, relax and let your waist rotate in that direction, moving like a revolving door. An important point to remember, however, is to move from the waist, not the hips, which can injure your knees.
Incorporating back muscles for bad leash manners. When you’re pulled, your body’s center of gravity rises from the gut into the shoulders and chest area. Not only does that make regaining balance more challenging, it reinforces your dog’s forward momentum. Pulling back from this awkward position pits your bicep muscle against every muscle in your dog’s body. Good luck with that.
Tai chi offers three upper-body adjustments that could make a big difference. All three help to engage the large back muscles.
First, sink your shoulders. It should feel like the backs of your shoulders are melting down and rotating under and forward toward your armpits. If you work at a computer all day, your shoulders, neck and upper back probably need a lot of stretching to release tension.
Second, drop your elbows so they point down. Otherwise, movement initiates with the relatively smaller, comparatively weaker upper back and shoulder muscles.
Third, sink your sternum. It’s a tiny movement down and inward from the middle of the chest. This slight adjustment creates a rounded feeling—without actually rounding your thoracic spine—across the chest, shoulders and back, again helping to keep the big back muscles active and protecting the spine.
In combination, these three adjustments connect all of your powerful upper-body muscles into one team, which is better than relying on your arm muscle alone.
Weight shifting for pulling. According to your dog, all the best things in the world lie just beyond the reach of the leash. Don’t pull back on the leash. Instead, stagger your feet, like you just took a big step, and shift about 60 percent of your weight from the front foot onto the back foot. Don’t lean back; shift your hips and torso back as one unit, sinking your weight into your back foot like a one-legged squat, keeping enough weight in the front foot to use it as a brake. That way, you’re “pulling back” with your body weight instead of relying on muscle alone.
Rooting for bad leash manners, or a jumper. Rooting is essentially pushing your weight and energy down into the earth, like the roots of a tree. You might even need to physically squat. When your dog starts pulling out of control, imagine all of your force shooting straight down into the ground. That’s your root. And your dog will suddenly feel like he’s pulling a tree. It’s the same for a jumper. Maybe he doesn’t jump high enough for a waist rotation. Rather than be knocked over, root yourself down.
Relaxation, which is good for everything, but specially for improving reaction time. In tai chi, a tense body is a slow body. Tension slows down the circulation of blood and other bodily fluids to the working muscles (and, hence, vital components for energy production) and qi, the body’s internal energy. Another speed bump for quick reflexes is the thinking process itself. In other words, in the time it takes to decide on a response, you could be already be responding. So, relaxing your muscles and quieting your mind can speed up your ability to act. Easier said than done, of course.
Meditation helps with this. Standing meditation may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a crucial component to tai chi training. It’s all about muscle efficiency and using only the necessary muscles while the rest relax. Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart—the closer they are, the more work it is to manage your balance—and raise your arms in front of you as if holding a beach ball. From here, practice all of the adjustments previously mentioned: sinking shoulders, dropping elbows, sinking your chest, sensing your center of gravity, and rooting into the earth.
Obedience training goes a long way toward creating a safe, enjoyable relationship with our dogs. But for many people, training for only one end of the leash might not be enough. Tai chi takes practice, persistence and patience, not to mention a good instructor, but it could be the ancient secret to a life free of serious pet-related injuries.