What is it like watching most older people move? Is it a source of pity or sympathy, or perhaps a foreboding omen of what we can some day expect ourselves? If we were to study older peoples' movements with respectful inquisitiveness what might we learn?
Young people walk by falling slightly forward to create momentum and continuously catching themselves with their front foot as they stride forward. This type of movement requires:
1. The ability to suddenly contract muscles should we mis-step or slip.
2. Well integrated reflexes, righting reactions, and equilibrium responses so we can stop abruptly.
3. Buoyancy in the joints(space/fluidity) and a fairly wide range of motion to account for sudden variation.
As people age it becomes more difficult to maintain the muscle tissue sufficient to catch oneself, right oneself and return to balance. As people age they often develop a reduced range of motion do to repeated injuries, including what we tend to call normal wear and tear. Even small injuries often leave scar tissue which reduces pliancy and range of motion. This along with a general loss of fluids in the joints leaves less space in the joints for movement. This not only makes large steps difficult or painful, but the righting reactions needed to re-balance are often out of ones range of motion or would themselves cause re-injury in the joints.
Big steps, or any type of reckless movement, brings the risk of falling and breaking already deficient bones. Thus how do older people walk? Hesitant little steps. They test the ground with each step and find their balance with each weight shift, doing their best to maintain their balance all the time.
Eventually, everyone's muscles and reactions degenerate and we are all, in a sense, forced to except the sensitivity that comes with weakness (in Daoism this process is called return).
When older people walk they draw on all the resources they have, (they'll take your arm if you offer it.)
Those in the past, who cultivated the Way,
Were subtle,mysterious, abstruse, penetrating,
Unfathomable, and so too deep to describe.
Because of this,
I can only tell you how they seemed.
They were cautious, as if crossing a river in winter.
Always watchful of danger on all four sides.
They were ceremonious and polite, like being a guest.
Yielding, like ice beginning to melt.
Plain and unconditioned, like an uncarved block of wood.
As open, as a valley.
Murky, like turbid water.
Who among you can be so murky and yet know
Quiet and Clarity within?
Which of you can enter stillness only to return to movement?
Those who keep this Dao,
Because they are not full,
they can renew themselves and not be worn out.
Daode jing Chapter 15 (Liu ming)
This quality of movement, testing the ground before a weight shift, avoiding muscle contractions, essentially seeking depth and ease, are all things we do when we practice qi gong, taiji, or bagua. Aging may actually make them easier to do!