T’ai Chi for Paddling
Paddling is all about putting that paddle, single- or double-bladed, into the water and touring, surfing, playing, and having a good time. T’ai Chi is a Chinese martial art performed very slowly on land. So what could one have to do with the other?
That was my reaction in the mid-1980s, when I started studying T’ai Chi. To my way of thinking then, my whitewater paddling and T’ai Chi were separate. As the years have passed, I have redefined each and at times wonder whether I am doing T’ai Chi in my boat while paddling or paddling while doing T’ai Chi on land.
Simply stated, T’ai Chi is a centuries-old “soft” martial art that is based on rooting, centering, and using weight shifts and waist and hip rotations to perform the movements. Energy is conserved by using the large torso muscles. The center of gravity is lowered by focusing, imaging, and relaxing into one’s root. The moves are beautiful, graceful, and flowing.
Paddling, whether on flatwater, whitewater, rivers, or oceans, is moving gracefully with and through the water using waist and hip rotations to propel your arms/paddle. The lower your center of gravity, the stabler you are in your boat.
Much can be learned from T’ai Chi to enhance and improve one’s paddling skills. Paddling can also become more powerful and less painful when the waist and hips initiate movement, as opposed to the arms.
Here are a few key points to paddling, followed by some simple T’ai Chi exer-cises that will reinforce these principles. It is another version of cross-training. Practice these T’ai Chi moves on land and they will carry over to your paddling when you are in your boat.
Quiet Body: If your body is quiet, centered, and rooted, your boat will reflect that. Posture plays a significant role. Sit up straight, with your weight equally balanced on your buttocks. This will create a strong pelvic base that will liberate your upper-body motion and allow for greater boat control from your lower body.
Keep your nose over your tailbone. This simple image helps maintain a strong paddling posture, balance, and good heeling. Also envision your nose connected to your navel. This keeps the torso moving as a unit and does not allow the neck and shoulders to act independently and inefficiently. Use the large muscles of your torso to rotate. Rotate from your waist and hips. These muscles are a very efficient source of power. Wind up and use them.
Paddler’s Box: To incorporate more power into your stroke and to prevent shoulder injuries, maintain the paddler’s box when paddling. Keep your arms and hands in front of the shoulder plane. Align the front of the shoulders with your arms and hands to create a box that stays together regardless of your stroke or move. Power and shoulder safety come from moving as a unit, not disjointed segments.
Quiet Boat: To paddle straight ahead farther, faster, and with less effort, you must have a quiet boat. To achieve this, avoid yaw (the side-to-side movement of the boat) and pitch, or bobbing the boat between the bow and stern.
Quiet Paddle: Focus on how your paddle moves through the water. It should feel smooth and flowing. It should also be noiseless. If you find that your paddle is creating a lot of noise, bubbles, or splash, you may be pulling the paddle too soon or fast or pushing down on or lifting up the water. To avoid these inefficiencies, try the following: Slow your stroke down, insert the paddle into the water, pause for a millisecond to allow the paddle to “stick,” then apply pressure.
T’AI CHI EXERCISES FOR PADDLING
T’ai Chi Walking: Do this before you launch, and then use the feeling and focus to quiet and center your body while in your boat. Stand with your feet in a V. Envision yourself suspended by a silk string from the crown of your head. Focus your eyes on the horizon line. Jaw is relaxed, shoulders are relaxed and sunk, abdomen is soft, hips are loose and relaxed, 1,000 pounds is hanging from your tailbone, knees are soft, and feet are relaxed. Envision deep taproots extending into the ground from the bottom of your feet. All of this helps to lower your center of gravity and elongate your spine.
Now you are ready to move. Shift all your weight to the right foot. Take a small step forward with your left foot, placing the heel first with the left toes pointing out at a 45-degree angle. Very slowly shift your weight left, so slowly that it is almost one pound at a time. When all your weight is on the left foot, the right heel will release. Take a small step forward with your right foot, placing the heel first, toes at a 45-degree angle, and continue. It should take you about five minutes to move forward 15 feet. When you have done this, turn around and repeat the exercise back to where you started. When you are finished, not only will you be relaxed, but your center of gravity will have lowered because you have concentrated on rooting into the ground, and you will be focused on the task at hand.
Hold the Ball: This exercise uses the torso, waist, and hips to move the arms, and will help you maintain your paddler’s box while in your boat. The arms follow the torso. Pay careful attention to this, as almost all of us instinctively let the torso follow the arms. Remember, torso first and arms follow.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the weight equally distributed between your feet. Let your arms rise in front of you, palms facing each other, until your arms are about halfway between your waist and shoulders. Envision that you are holding a beach ball between your arms. Shift all your weight left. Rotate your waist and hips to the right. Your arms will follow. Rotate waist and hips back to the center. The arms will follow. Shift your weight equally. Shift all your weight to the right, rotate waist and hips left, and continue. Do this exercise 20 times or more, alternating sides. While doing this exercise, focus on the postural description in T’ai Chi walking.
Rotating from Your Waist: This exercise emphasizes the use of your waist and hips to cause movement, and is excellent for working on using the torso to create strokes. Stand with your feet about six inches wider than shoulder width. Again, focus on the postural images of Hold the Ball. Envision your spine as a ridgepole. As with the ridgepole on a house, you do not want that ridgepole/spine to bend. Now envision that your nose and navel are connected by a steel rod-this keeps your torso as one unit. When you are ready, begin to rotate from your waist and hips around your spine. Let your arms follow and let them be soft like cotton candy. Continue this exercise for 50 to 100 rotations.
Practice these simple exercises three or more times a week all year long to become a stronger and more fluid paddler.
Betsey Foster is a longtime paddler and a freelance writer. Karen Knight (www.karenknight.com) is a world-class freestyle canoeist. She and her partner, Bob Foote, travel throughout the world teaching canoeing (flatwater and whitewater) and sea kayaking. Foster and Knight became friends a number of years ago through skiing, carried their friendship over to paddling, and have taught T’ai Chi and paddling workshops together to rave reviews at the East Coast Canoe and Kayak Festival as well as the Atlantic Sea Kayaking Symposium.