My favorite place to practice taijiquan is among trees. When I became a student in the 1970s, I lived in a grove of eucalyptus trees. My practice spot was the bit of grass in front of the cottage. I was struck by the quiet stillness that emanated from the taiji forms and lingered in my senses after I’d finished.
It was the same quiet stillness that I felt flowing from the eucalyptus, and that welcomed me home whenever I walked back into their presence.
I remember one of the first times I practiced in a public park. I had chosen a spot with a level stretch of grass and a few trees that offered a small measure of privacy. As I began the slow, fluid steps I had the feeling that the trees were turning to watch me.
Part of me wanted to push the idea away—it seemed like hubris to think that the trees would be interested in me, even if they were capable of such a thing. But the sensation persisted. I felt the trees’ sentience, and their focus on what I was doing. They seemed curious, and mildly surprised, to find a human moving so slowly and quietly.
It’s an experience that I’ve had repeated—with slight variations—hundreds of times over the years. Sometimes the “witness trees” turn to me as an audience. Sometimes they simply stand in their stillness, teaching me to stand in mine. Sometimes their roots beckon to my feet and show me how to sink into the earth without leaving a trace. Sometimes the breeze causes their branches to rustle, reminding me to listen to the air vibrating in the wake of my movements, and to adjust those movements so the sound they make is in sync with the moment and the world around me.
These have been some of my most precious and profound taiji moments. They’re also a living corroboration of the taiji principle of wu wei— “actionless action” or “empty stepping.” At the heart of this principle is the understanding that all of creation—every rock and river, every blade of grass and tree, every microscopic creature and full-grown human—is part of a living and connected world. When we live disconnected from the natural world, we speak of “lower orders” of life and “inanimate objects.” The precarious state of our environment today and the existential threat to survival that climate change poses is an indication of where that disconnection leads.
Sharing taiji with trees, learning deeper taiji lessons from them, has given me a reverence for life that deepens and renews every time I repeat the practice. It has given me a profoundly subjective experience of the fabric of life and the invisible threads that weave us all into it.
But that’s not just a personal subjective experience. Scientific evidence confirms my sensory perception and validates the premise that the trees who watch me practicing taiji actually can be paying attention.
In her book To Speak For The Trees, world-renowned botanist and medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes about the startling discoveries she made while working on her PhD thesis: “I expanded my field of view beyond botany and compared the function of hormones in plants and human beings. In humans, the tryptophan-tryptamine pathways generate all the neurons in the mind… I proved that such pathways existed in plants—in some more than others, and in trees most of all… I proved that trees possess all the same chemicals we have in our brains. Trees have the neural ability to listen and think; they have all the component parts necessary to have a mind or consciousness. That’s what I proved: that forests can think and perhaps even dream.”
It’s no wonder that one of the first lessons in taijiquan is “Never land with weight on your feet.” It’s an acknowledgement that all the world is alive and part of the conversation. This, too, is sacred ground.
Forest bathing has become a thing because people recognize that simply walking among trees is restorative and healing. Some of that is because of the oxygen that the forest exhales. It’s also been shown that trees actually release mood-enhancing aerosols into the atmosphere. Being in their presence clears the mind and lifts the spirit.
So it begs the question, “What do we bring to the conversation?” What do we give to the trees?
How we come into the forest, how we move among trees matters. We can walk by them without noticing, carrying on in our usual ways, hurrying on to our next destination, and nothing much changes. Or we can slow down, pay attention, and listen, and begin to restore a balance. We can return to our place in the natural world, to our place in the circle.
The reason I love to practice taiji among trees is because they love to see me doing so. Part of that is the nature of the taiji movements. The forms and transitions are tuning forks designed to disarm discord and restore harmony. But, of course, taiji isn’t the only way to dance with nature. The most important element, the one essential action is to arrive with an open mind and heart and to listen before speaking.
When we do so, we can change the world. We can breathe new life into these tired bones, come away refreshed, and be a blessing. It’s not complicated. But it takes regular reminding.
I like to begin and end each taiji session with a simple, five-part qigong exercise that helps me expand my focus and remember I am a small part of a much larger whole. It’s called Opening To One’s Place In The Circle.
Opening To The Circle Of All Creation
Stand with feet together, arms extended to the sides, palm facing up. Remain in this position for a few moments, breathing easily. Then…
Inviting The Heart To Open
Bring hands slowly in until the fingertips of each hand touch the sternum over the heart. Remain in this position for a few moments, breathing easily. Then…
Acknowledging The Heart In All Creation
Rotate hands so they are palm-to-palm in front of the heart, fingers pointing up. Remain in this position for a few moments, breathing easily. Then…
Opening To One’s Place In The Circle Of All Creation
Turn the hands so the palms face up, fingers pointing forward in front of the heart. Then slowly extend the hands forward and out to the side until arms are fully extended, palms facing up. Remain in this position for a few moments, breathing easily. Then…
Balancing Heaven And Earth
Raise the hands slowly over head, turn them palm down and slowly lower them down to your sides. Remain in this position for a few moments, breathing easily. Listen.