Do you feel graceful? I have to confess that most of the time, I do not feel graceful. I feel clumsy and like my very presence is out of place, wherever I am. I’m sure I would starve, as a hunter. I blunder about, relative to a prey animal’s stealthy, svelte movements. About the only time I feel graceful is when I play guitar. That’s my element. That’s where I merge with the instrument and just play. Even then, I am positive there are players that play with more grace and dexterity than I ever will be able to, but it’s the closest I get to feeling poetic in my movements.
Millions of years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors learnt to walk softly on the land and to notice minute details about leaf falls, delicate sounds, disturbed earth, distant rustling in the long grasses and the feel of their own bodies. They could sense their own balance, feel and absorb the minerals from the earth upon which they walked, move with suppleness, precision, silence and strength. They could endure long distance walks in blazing sunshine, without breaking a sweat. Their minds were attuned to their bodies and their bodies to the environment, in a holistic oneness that meant they felt intimate connection to nature. They could read their own breathing.
We’ve lost a lot of that delicate sensation. We wear hard-soled shoes. When we commute, we jostle, rather than move like a fluid. Our children no longer climb trees or play sports in the street. Today, few of us can even write longhand legibly, anymore. Our fine motor skills have atrophied. We clunk at indelicate touch screens, composing texts with our opposable thumbs, rather than our fingers. In the digital age, we’ve forgotten to use our digits.
Dancers and other artists have retained some of this grace and presence of mind in body. Those that practice Tai Chi, which has been called “meditation in motion”, rapidly learn to sense their own centre of gravity and to move with strength and fluidity. It’s very difficult and physically demanding to move slowly, supporting our own weight and that of our limbs, as if everything were actually weightless. Movements and extensions can form utterly charming shapes in space. We can build strength around movement and with it, refine those movements until they are graceful.
These body sensing skills play an important role in professional sports, where hand to eye co-ordination and economy of movement translate into advantage. Strength, endurance and grace are also important for musicians who play an instrument and for painters who must make precise, deliberate and delicate brush strokes, holding their brush effectively in free three-dimensional space, while the paint transfers to the canvas, according to its own rheology and flow characteristics. The viscosity of the paint and the subtle movements of our hands, fingers and wrists work in concert to make exactly the right mark. Sculptors, I think, have a very special relationship with centres of gravity – both their own and that of their work, as they bring their piece to life.
As we age, becoming aware of our movements and our centre of gravity can be an important protection against falls. Those with inner ear disorders and balance dysfunctions can train to lower their centre of gravity, slow down their movements and place themselves more deliberately on the earth, with their feet. Taking steps (literally) to strengthen your legs and your leg muscles allows you to tread more softly. You can become more aware of the point of contact between the sole of your foot and the surface you are stepping on. Muscle stiffness can be held at bay by slowly and gradually transferring your body weight onto different muscle groups, then releasing again. Injuries and muscle weaknesses can gradually be healed by this gentle repetition of loading and unloading.
Learning to move with grace, whether through Tai Chi, or via other methods, helps you maintain your sense of peace, too. It can relieve stress, help you to unwind and relax and keep your blood pressure low, due to the meditative concentration that graceful movements require. You become more aware of when your body has been destabilised, when your centre of mass is not supported well and gain confidence, through your more precise reactions to destabilising situations. Smooth, slow, gentle, circular movements of wrists, ankles, arms, legs, neck and torso all train your brain to know the extent of your body, in any surrounding space and hence prevent you inadvertently bumping into things.
As a relaxed, supple, strong, durable human body, then fine motor movements, such as those required in the elegance of dance or in virtuoso playing of musical instruments, can be honed and refined. If your joints flow like a fluid, through space, you can appear to be beautiful, even when feeling tired, old, worn or depressed. The ability to synchronise these movements with other people, in an ensemble, such as is achieved in dance training or in Tai Chi classes, brings another level of refinement to graceful movements, that pays great dividends for artists wanting to play in bands, or otherwise synchronise movement to rhythm.
The human body is an astonishing machine. No robot can move with quite the poetic fluidity, with the same strength and delicacy, for as long, without requiring serious maintenance, on as little energy, as the human body. It makes you wonder how some people can be so blind to this amazing and unarguable fact that they will abuse bodies, punish them physically, place them in harm’s way in wars, treat them as mere pack animals and restrict their movements and available space in which to move. What’s the attraction in a sedentary office plan? Why do we glorify the clumsy, indelicate, blundering, jerky movements of machines? Can’t we see how elegant and efficient muscles are and how wondrous the curves traced through space of our extremities, as we move?
How can an organism, capable of such breathtakingly beautiful movement, such economy of energy utilisation and such precision and strength ever be considered to be a useless eater? Why would we replace them with brutal machines?