Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Latest Fashion in Exercise

I first started teaching tai chi & qigong in about 1990.  Back then, not so many people knew what tai chi was, and even fewer knew anything about qigong.

However, about 3 years after I started teaching, tai chi went through a massive upsurge in popularity, and suddenly, after having beginners classes with only 5-8 beginners, I suddenly had classes with 20 or more beginners.  In fact there was one term when I had 40 beginners and had to rent the theatre at RADA Studios for the ‘trial’ class before splitting into 2 groups!  But the fashion in exercise constantly moves, and after 2 or 3 years of packed classes, all of a sudden the fashion had moved on to something else.

I found this hard to understand at first; it is such a brilliantly designed form of exercise.
138 - Exercise Park (Man stretching!)40 years from when I began it, I am still constantly amazed at the subtlety and the ingenuity of its structure and design, and the depths of understanding that the Chinese must have had, and still have, in working out its principles that enable it to operate so effortlessly and with such powerful results, not only martially but also health-wise.  The latter refers to the way that the entire system is integrated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), so that tai chi, qigong, and TCM support and build upon the strengths of each other.

Yoga has always been in the limelight, but we have seen the fashion spotlight focusing on Zumba, Pilates, Military Fitness, and it’s just moving to Ballet Barre workout.
Osteopaths I have spoken to are keen on these other forms of fitness, purely for cynical reasons; the exercise brings them a lot of business.
Often the teachers don’t appear to be very well trained ….. it’s a fashion, so there isn’t time to get any deep understanding, and, generally in the West, our culture encourages impatience and fast results.  Therefore, the students are allowed to overdo it, pulling and straining muscles, overworking body parts that were quite content being dormant before being nudged to wake up a little too abruptly.

I must admit that it surprised me when I heard this about Pilates; obviously there are well-trained teachers out there, but I suppose that it’s not a lot different to someone taking a term’s tai chi lessons and then setting up their own class.  It happens, unfortunately, and the beginner doesn’t know any better.

Maybe the instant result package works for some, but it always strikes me that it’s a bit like brushing your teeth, or some other mundane daily task, where all you want is a result and the actual process is a bit irrelevant, and perhaps something to be endured.  No wonder people don’t stick to it; working for an end result means not enjoying the journey.

156 Man exercising taijiWhat I particularly enjoy about tai chi and qigong is that there’s a continuous growth in understanding about how the body works, what makes it work more efficiently, and how to make it move so seamlessly that it feels as though it’s moving itself.
I spend ages trying to teach this to my students.  I’m not saying that I  always get it right myself, I don’t, but when I do, I’m always amazed at the perfection of the movement, how the body worked in perfect unity, and how, when you’ve moved into a new position correctly, it almost feels as though you haven’t moved…. and in a sense you haven’t, because it’s you in the middle acting harmoniously.
Pretentious?  Probably, but language has always been a bit inadequate at describing how one feels about an experience.

However, in spite of Ballet Barre workout, I have noticed that the wind has changed direction slightly, and tai chi is just beginning to catch the breeze again.  Even the medical profession is referring patients to take up tai chi.  I am now getting several students every term who have been told by their doctors specifically to take up tai chi.  The Western medical profession is beginning, at last, to catch up with the Chinese medical profession and realise how astonishingly good, how amazingly versatile, how incredibly adaptable this exercise is.
236 WuShu TeamIt works well for people of all ages, from 5 to 100+ years old, and you can take it on any level you like: it exercises not only the body but also the mind, and you can go into into its depths or not as you wish and still get something from it.  You can use it as a meditation, or as a martial art, or just for some plain exercise, or to build up energy, to strengthen muscles, to relieve stress, to slow the heart rate, to improve breathing, to improve coordination, to help balance, to prevent falls in the elderly, to help with arthritis … and on and on.  And even if you chose to do it for only one of these reasons, you’ll get the benefit of all the other reasons anyway, whether you want them or not!

So what about qigong?
The majority haven’t caught up with this yet, and the Western medical profession still seems to know little about it.  I find this slightly odd, because surely the medical profession is aware of what goes on within the Chinese medical profession, where Western medicine, acupuncture, massage therapy, and qigong are used alongside each other, each supporting the other.
Qigong is taking its time, although I think that eventually, not so long from now, it will find a place that is on a par with yoga.

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Sinking to Move (2) – Connecting the Upper Body

Sinking to Move (1) was about sinking the qi from the waist downwards. Sinking to Move (2) is about connecting the upper body to the lower body.
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How NOT to sink a weight

If you sink only from the waist downwards, but leave the shoulders and torso tense, this is like throwing a stone into a pond with a balloon attached, and wondering why the stone doesn’t sink.

Two examples from the Yang 24-Step Form of using the limbs to help sinking

1) Play the Lute.  When you move from the 3rd Brush Knee & Twist Step into Play the Lute, the left palm plays an important role in helping the qi to sink in the upper body. When the rear foot (the right foot) is about to come off the floor for the half-step forwards, push the heel of the left palm downwards (the left shoulder also relaxing and dropping).
As the right toes start to lift from the floor, transfer the press in the left hand from the heel of the palm, via the metacarpophalangeal joints (the joints where the palm meets the fingers), to the tips of the fingers… in other words the fingers will end up pointing at the floor.  There is a continuous sensation of pushing downwards, but with increasing softness as the energy reaches the tips of the fingers – as though the energy is dissipating.
This connects the upper body to the lower.

2) Repulse Monkey. At the moment of 172 Taiji Parkreleasing the front foot from the floor (in order to step backwards), feel the elbow of the forward arm (which is rotating downwards) connect (metaphorically) to the opposite knee.  This is a brief connection because, after that, the left elbow works with the left hip.
So, for example, if you start from Play the Lute (Strum the Pippa), you open the arms to the right, and the left elbow will (again, metaphorically) connect to the the right knee as you lift your left foot from the floor in order to step backwards.
If you do this, all of a sudden, your elbow start to work with the hips.

Using the upper body to create free movement
If you are attempting to sink the qi to create ‘free’ movement (i.e. movement that is unrestricted and uncompromised by other parts of the body), the upper body needs to join in with the sinking.
The problems are almost always caused by the shoulders being ‘held up’.  When this happens, the upper limbs can no longer function effectively.  Once the shoulders have stopped ‘holding on,’ the qi is no longer held in the upper body when you need it to sink; the balloon bursts and the stone can drop to the bottom of the pond.
Then the sense of cross-body connection can function (e.g.) from right elbow to left knee, or from right shoulder to left hip, etc.

Sinking to Move (1) – The Lower Limbs

The Balance Problem in Certain Tai Chi & Qigong Moves
I’ve often noticed when teaching the Yang 24 that balance in certain movements often causes a problem for students – incidentally, this isn’t specific to the 24-step form, it’s just that this is a form that I teach more than others.
The moves to which I’m referring are any that require the body to turn to left or right at the same time as transferring the body weight from one foot to another (this could be a forwards or backwards step).
Some examples of this are: Parting the Wild Horses Mane, Brush Knee and Twist Step, Repulse Monkey, and Fair Lady Weaving Shuttles.
Golden Cockerel/Rooster and 164 Taiji Parkthe Kicks have their own set of problems, though perhaps for a different reason (at least, for the moment, although it will become apparent that the reason is actually the same), as there is no turn of the body in the same way in these two moves.

The knack of retaining the balance is to ‘sink the qi’ as you begin the process of moving into a posture.  The question is, how do you do this?

Stability & Instability
The basics are that, when we are standing on two feet, we are stable. When we step forward or backward, during that moment of taking a foot off the floor, we are temporarily unstable.  It is during this moment that we need to stabilise ourselves.  This is where the concept of ‘full’ and ’empty’ comes in.

Full & Empty
This concept refers to the energy status of the body; in order to be able to lift a leg, you need to ’empty’ that side of the body.  If you leave tension in the ’empty’ side, it isn’t empty, and the freedom of movement of the stepping leg is restricted.  When stepping in tai chi and qigong, this residual tension is nearly always in the hip and/or shoulder joints (which can also affect the stepping), – in other words the joints that attach the limbs to the body.

How do you sink the qi?
When teaching a move where a step is involved, I often use the expression ‘sink to step’ meaning “bend the stepping leg slightly (or a lot) just before stepping”. This is true, but isn’t the whole story.
What you really need to do is to ‘sink the qi’ just at the moment of freeing the stepping leg. This is partly something physical that you do, but it is also a feeling inside… a letting go of the hip joint amongst other things, and is a release of tension in one side of the body. There is a sensation of not holding on any longer, and the correct timing is essential.

Try a 3 stage test:24move-121
The starting position for all 3 stages is to stand with your feet side by side.

1) Notice what you normally do: Move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step). Now lift the leg ready to step. At the moment of lifting the stepping foot from the floor, try to feel what goes on in the hip.

2) Next, notice what you don’t normally do: Before moving your weight on to the right foot, stick your bottom out behind you, enhancing the ‘S’ bend in your back. Now move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step), and lift the leg ready to step.  You could try actually stepping.

3) Observation & enhancement: Now do (1) above more consciously. If you are able to let go of your hip joint at the moment of shifting the weight, you will find that your bottom sinks slightly. In other words your pelvis does a slight rotation – the tip of the coccyx dropping further as if to tuck between your legs. You will also feel the lumbar area of your spine flex slightly (the ‘S’ bend beginning to straighten out). If you don’t hurry into the step (in fact try not bothering with the step at all), you will feel a sensation of sinking into the foot that you’re stepping from.

 157a Man exercising taijiWhy does the hip rotate and the spine flex?
Each time you lift your knee, for whatever function, you need to engage your core muscles (try lifting your knee as high as possible – it’s unmistakable). This means that your abdomen draws in slightly. When you draw in the abdomen, the hip rotates and the spine flexes.
BUT, the hip cannot rotate efficiently if you forget to release the hip joint. Locking up one part of your body compromises the other parts causing them to either malfunction, or to attempt to do a job for which they are not designed. In Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting muscles’.

‘Not Holding On’
Incidentally, I used the expression ‘not holding on’ above.  I know it’s frowned upon to use negative instructions, but I have found that this is far more effective than expressions such ‘relax’ or ‘release’ etc.  If ‘holding on’ is a negative concept in the process of free movement, maybe ‘stop holding on’ is therefore a double negative (= a positive) … just a thought.

Conclusion
So, to come back to the original point, i.e. the moves in the Yang 24-Step Form, you are asking your hip to function efficiently not only whilst moving forwards/backwards, but, in the cases of Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, and Brush knee, etc. whilst turning at the same time.
When standing for Golden Cockerel or the Kicks, the same principle applies – the sinking again performs the function of grounding you by allowing your hip to move into the right position, prior to rising out of one foot.  This activates the spine, allowing it to connect from foot to waist to middle of the back (opposite the heart) to neck to crown.

Just ‘stop holding on’.

Gripping the Floor in Tai Chi & Qigong

Often in both tai chi and qigong it is necessary to ‘grip the floor’ – part of rooting and making the body more stable.

This is particularly useful in tai chi when working with a partner, e.g in pushing hands, or a 2-person form, or when testing postures.  In qigong, ‘gripping’ the floor has the function of not only providing stability, but also of stimulating the acupuncture channels that either start or end in the feet, whilst at the same time connecting the root (the feet) to both the diaphragm and the palms and therefore helping the extremities to function from the middle of the body.

I spent years practising gripping the floor by only using my toes; in other words, I curled the tips of the toes underneath slightly… No one explained it any differently, and in fact, precisely because they didn’t explain it any other way, I’m not convinced that they knew there was another way!

Foot (toes curl)However, curling the toes under and ‘gripping’ in this way has the effect of reducing all the benefits that you are hoping to achieve by 1) lifting the balls of the foot (i.e. in front of the big and little toes on the sole of the foot) off the floor, 2) creating tension and lack of flexibility in the arch of the foot by locking the instep, 3) contracting the size of the foot both in length and width, and 4) tensing the front of the calf.  By using this method you are actually shortening the length of the foot (making balance more difficult), narrowing it by pulling the little toe towards the centre of the foot, desensitising it by squeezing it, decreasing the points of balance (only the heel and the tips of the toes), and tightening the ankle.

But the feet have a connection, via the fascia, to the neck, and if used correctly they can enhance the feeling of the body working as a unit rather than as individual parts, whilst at the same time helping you to root/ground, as though you are literally holding on to the earth.  If used correctly, the surface area in contact with the floor is slightly increased (better stability), the toes themselves are still gently squeezed (acupoints on the ends of the toes are stimulated), the arch of the foot no longer locks but ‘draws upwards’ (allowing further flexibility).

Furthermore, this lifting of the arch connects via the fascia to the small of the back – running up the insides of the legs, through the bowl of the pelvis, to the transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae 1-5, (partly – though not entirely – with the help of the Psoas muscle), passes through the posterior attachments of the diaphragm (you can feel this), to the back of the neck (which releases), and up over the back of the head and to the forehead via the crown.  Anyone familiar with the acupuncture channel will recognise that I have just described part of the Du Channel, or the Governing Vessel – but, it has been triggered by the feet.

The easiest way to understand the correct method with the foot is to try it out with your hand on a table.

With your palm on the surface of the table, curl your fingers and thumb, keeping the little finger
edge of your hand on the table (this represents the side of your foot from little toe to heel).  You will immediately feel that the palm hardly moves, and almost sinks (collapses).

Then, keeping as much of both the ‘pads’ of the fingers and the joint nearest the nails in touch with the table as you can, try sliding them slightly towards the heel of the hand.  It will feel as though you are ‘sucking’ the table up into the palm – again keep the little finger edge down as much as possible.

Now do the same with your feet.  It’s easiest to feel with bare feet …Foot + arrows 2