T’ai Chi Driving

by Greg Brodsky

This article appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on May 28, 2005.

Imagine that you are driving on a four-lane highway, approaching a sharp, descending curve to the right. Traffic around you moves at a brisk pace. As you enter the curve, you realize that you are going a bit too fast, so you slow down. Holding the wheel in both hands, you turn it to the right and steer into the curve. Which way do you lean your body?

Do you make the effort to lean to the right, to the left, or not at all?

Most people say “right.” They lean into the curve when making a sharp turn, and lean further when going faster. This can be a costly mistake.

If this describes you, your instinct to lean into curves might come from a desire to keep your sense of balance and stability. But unless you weigh about a thousand pounds, your body weight doesn’t do anything to keep the car more stable on the road. This habit actually makes you less sensitive to the physics of the car’s movement, and potentially less skillful in negotiating the turn. This is because you are pulling yourself up and away from the car’s “root,” disconnecting your senses from where the rubber meets the road.

The leaning habit can also include some jaw clenching and muscle tightening that restrict your breathing and inflict stress on your body and mind. Chances are that you also find yourself excessively tensing your hands, arms, back, and abdominal muscles while trying to maneuver your car, a habit for which you pay a price during your time on the road. When you eventually get out of the car, your knotted neck and shoulders provide evidence of the tension you build up through driving patterns like this one.

You wouldn’t do this if you were practicing t’ai chi.

Using t’ai chi principles for driving, you can relax and put some of your attention to feeling your car’s root: its wheels on the road. This is where the car’s stability occurs and where your comfort and safety begin. As you go around curves, a little attention enables you to feel the connection of the car’s root to your body’s root, which in this case is your butt in the seat. By securing your sense of connection to the road, you don’t have to lean at all, but instead can settle yourself into the seat to better feel the car. Rather than pulling away from your foundation by tensing and cringing up and to the right, you let gravity sink you deeper into the seat. Then, you can sense the car’s road connection on its left side, which is where the weight of the car goes during a right turn, and let your body weight settle along the natural line of force produced by the turn.

Your Root Helps You Relax

Skiers use this principle on the slopes. They concentrate their weight in the outside ski when turning because that is where the root is; turn right and your weight goes to the left ski. T’ai chi players use it, too. They develop a stable, relaxed root and use it to generate power. When you see someone doing that nice, slow movement in a t’ai chi class, for example, they are sinking their weight into the ground and building leg stability that enables their intrinsic power to flow naturally while their upper bodies relax. Neck and shoulder tension dissipate as the root becomes reliable enough to support you.

But, can you practice t’ai chi in a car? Considering today’s road conditions, you have to.

The U. S. Department of Transportation estimates that Americans spend 3.5 Billion hours (Yes, that’s Billion.) stuck in traffic each year. While none of that presumably includes zooming around curves, the built up frustration it causes influences how we take curves once we get the chance, plus how we pass other drivers, react when other drivers pass us, change lanes, accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists, and deal with road rage. The next time you find your biological, I’m-gonna-be-late clock ticking because the light just turned red in front of you, wouldn’t it be nice if you had some personal tools to cool you down? A deep, relaxing breath might provide a good start. By breathing to calm yourself down, you are practicing t’ai chi.

Try this:
For the next few days, every time you stop at a traffic light start counting seconds. Use the “one one-thousand, two one-thousand…” method to calculate how long you actually sit there. You might find that you wait for less time than your impatience had you believe. Instead of feeling your blood pressure rise over a 12-second pause, you can take a few deep breaths and let yourself relax. Discovery magazine (April 2005 issue: “Stay Patient, Stay Alive”) states that over 1,300 driving-related fatalities occur yearly involving cars that are changing lanes or merging, not to mention the many thousands of fender benders that happen during lane changes. Researchers attribute many of these to “lane envy,” a traffic-density related perception that other lanes are moving better than yours. But most people get it wrong, neither calculating everyone’s average speed nor figuring out which lanes are doing better. Their perception that others are getting ahead of them causes them to impatiently jump from lane to lane. If they stayed centered on their goal of traveling from one place to another rather than competing with other drivers for momentarily “better” relative positions, they could track their own real travel time and relax much more. Letting the other guy pass you without interpreting that he is winning is pure t’ai chi. You get this when you ask, “Precisely what is he winning?”

Cell phones point to another consciousness-raising reality. According to researchers, cell phone use while driving “poses the same level of risk as driving with a blood-alcohol level at the legal limit.” Think about the number of drivers talking on their cell phones, and you can realize that defensive driving isn’t enough any more; we need something that goes deeper, something that helps us manage ourselves when we are the ones on the phone.

But, t’ai chi? Isn’t that a form of moving meditation? Yes, it is. It’s also a martial art that teaches mental and physical focus, high-sensitivity response to subtle and sudden changes in your training partner, and deep relaxation under pressure. More than ever, we need these skills when driving, working, shopping, and reading any recent newspaper. Since your car is moving among many others, and both you and the other drivers represent considerable danger to each other, you might as well be practicing a meditative martial art.

Easy Steps to Meaningful Goals

The next time you get in your car, consider setting two goals. Make the first one arriving at your destination safely, having made the trip without incident. Make your second goal to be arriving in a state of body and mind of your own choosing. Instead of letting yourself be the product of traffic conditions, choose the way you want to feel when you arrive. Imagine a positive state and set yourself a goal of cultivating that state while behind the wheel. While you might not get to Nirvana, when you arrive at work you won’t be in knots. Instead, you will have had a successful exercise in inner management that can set the tone of your day.

Try this:
Sit in the car for 20 seconds before starting the engine. Breathe and relax and visualize yourself arriving at your destination in a positive frame of mind and body. A few steps make this easy. When you get into the car, hook up your belt, put in the key, and just sit for a moment before starting the engine. Twenty seconds should do it. Just relax and feel the weight of your body settling into the seat. Hold the wheel in both hands, let your arms hang, and relax some more. Take a couple of breaths. Get your body and brain ready for a pleasant experience of your own making. This little pause can save you from going into road-stress autopilot as soon as you start the car.

As the car starts, visualize your two goals: getting there safely and cultivating the state you want to be in. Keep these goals in mind and start to breathe accordingly. Breathing can be your primary self-management tool, so use it well and often to relax you. Chances are that you want your desired-state breathing to be full, easy, and complete; no breath-holding, for example.

Next, feel your body’s current state of relaxation. Whether you are commuting over the hill or driving a few miles from home, picture how relaxed you want to be. As your brain prepares to drive, let gravity settle your shoulders, chest, and elbows. Physical tension typically means fighting gravity, and relaxation means going with gravity. With every exhalation, get yourself to let go a little more of the gravitational fight. Let your neck be long and your shoulders relaxed by thinking about gently increasing the distance between your ears and shoulders. This will come in handy while you navigate those curves, or traffic, or finding a parking spot. Let looking, listening, and feeling your root be associated with relaxing.

Presence Relaxes You

Along with breathing and relaxation, the third essential component to attaining your goals is presence: paying attention. You might be surprised to find that you will be more calm and energized at the end of the trip if you were paying attention during the entire trip. Spacing out, while in some contexts might seem like relaxing, actually gets you more tense by the end of a driving experience. This is because of the startle reflex.

Everybody has a genetically built-in startle reflex. Babies exhibit it when you are holding them and start to put them down too quickly. Their eyes fly wide open, their necks and backs stiffen, their hands and shoulders jump up, and they gasp air. We all do the same thing when surprised. But we don’t notice the hundreds of times a day in which small, jarring events invoke mini-startle reflexes in us: the phone rings while you are deep in thought; or somebody interrupts you in a significant conversation; or maybe the driver in front of you suddenly hits the brakes. Where do your shoulder go? They go up!

Spacing out behind the wheel, whether through music, cell phone conversations, or just not paying attention sets you up for getting startled into reality by unexpected events. You are better off staying attentive to the road the whole time, and your body can prove that to you in one or two commutes. You will find that steady presence taxes you less than occasional presence. Meanwhile, you can relax your shoulders.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t listen to the radio, or enjoy a pleasant conversation while driving. It means that you will do yourself a favor if you practice presence while driving. Whether commuting with a group or alone, on the phone or into the radio, you can practice presence. I suggest listening to something that helps you relax, like books on tape, good music, or talk radio that doesn’t exploit and promote your anger. Also consider turning off the radio from time to time, and just listening to your surroundings and thoughts while you drive.

The whole experience becomes increasingly pleasant when you become more sensitive to the movement characteristics of your car, which will behave according to its mass and center of gravity when you turn, accelerate, decelerate, or stop. You feel all of that much better when you are rooted in the seat, sensitive to the wheel, and relaxed. Relaxation lowers your body’s functional center of gravity and enables you to feel your car’s base on the road. The more you feel of your car’s movement on this base—its root—the more you will be able to relax.

Breathe, relax, and stay present while you are driving and you are playing t’ai chi. Just remember your root.

The web provides some interesting reading about stress and other factors that can improve your driving experience. Here are a few:




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