Category Archives: posture

Balance – Walking the Tightrope.

Balance.
“An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”.
Some can, some sometimes can, and some find it almost impossible. Why can some people balance and others not?

According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, balance problems  rely on four body systems working together: 1) musculoskeletal (muscle strength, flexibility), 2) sensory (eyes, pressure sensors in the skin, muscles, and joints, and the vestibular system in the inner ear), 3) neuromuscular (muscle groups functioning cohesively), and 4) cognitive (fear of e.g. falling, and postural awareness whilst multitasking) .

Generally.
Over 25+ years of teaching tai chi, I have thought a great deal about balance, had numerous discussions with osteopaths, Alexander teachers, dancers (both ballet and contemporary), and yoga teachers, and have had to deal with my own balance issues.
I’ve noticed that some days are definitely better than others, that the body sometimes balances better on one side than on the other – but that this can change, and that being aware of certain postural habits, and really understanding how to correct them, can make a huge difference.

Currently, I think that tension is the main culprit; this could be in the form of muscular inflexibility (on a cellular level) as well as stress, (mental tension and therefore also an inflexibility).
Both of these amount to being ungrounded; the muscular meaning that your body locks up and is unable to settle like silt in a pond, and the mental meaning that your energy is up in the head.  In the first case your energy is locked in the middle of the body, and in the second it’s locked in the top of the body.

Fighting ourselves.
If we were to go along the path of least resistance, I guess we would just be piles of flesh and bones on the ground, and gravity would have won.  In a sense, we fight our natural inclination to be on the floor, (perhaps that’s why going to bed is so nice!); we have definitely “taken the weight off our feet”.

Gravity.
But we don’t collapse on the floor, and therefore the body spends it’s entire upright existence sensing or ‘reading’ gravity.
What this means is that, without being aware of it, the body constantly tries to find the position that requires the least energy to stay upright.  For example, when your body bends forward, the back muscles have to become more active to stop your body from bending forward any further, and therefore more energy is used.  We are permanently fighting gravity, but we look for the path of least resistance.

When ‘reading gravity’ goes wrong.
As we grow older, our muscles and tendons lose flexibility, our nervous system doesn’t function so efficiently (see below), and our ability to adapt to our environment alters.  We might still be able to ‘read’ gravity, but sometimes are unable to adapt fast enough.

8 Factors affecting balance.
Below are 8 factors that I’ve noticed affect balance.  Below that is a brief description of each of those factors.  It’s not necessary to read the lot!  If one of them appeals, it might be the one that’s relevant to you, but then again it might not be; I’m quite sure that I haven’t got all the problems down on paper!

1. Tension in the hips (pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints).
2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
4. ‘Over-connection’ between the upper and lower body.
5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
7. Pelvic instability.
8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.

1. Tension in the pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints.
The flexibility of the spine allows for balance and counter-balance to take place. As both the spine and legs attach to the pelvis, the pelvis  therefore becomes the pivotal point for the vertical body; if the pivot is frozen, balance and counter-balance are compromised.
In addition, when the pelvis locks, it affects the flexibility of both the knees and ankles.

2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
Good body tone allows freedom of muscular movement. Stress and tension cause the body to try to ‘hold’ itself in position.
When the muscles are well toned and stretched, when there is elasticity in the tendons and ligaments, the counter-balancing system of the body works efficiently.
Because the body automatically counter-balances itself, when there is tension in one part, another part will adjust.  The classic example of this is that, if you damage your lower back, you’ll often discover that your neck becomes sore a couple of days later… the top and the bottom ‘rearrange’ themselves.

3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
Most often due to bad posture for any number of reasons, but nowadays frequently because of the time spent on screens, the cervical vertebrae wear more than the other vertebrae.
As a result, the motor messages from feet to head are compromised resulting in a fractional increase in time when the body tries to adjust itself.

4. Over-connection between the upper and lower body.
This is when the person’s waist no longer functions actively either for horizontal turning (turn your chest to left or right without your hips moving at all), or for flexing (bend down and touch your toes without involving your stomach!).
Therefore from the chest to the pelvis becomes an inflexible mass with head and legs sticking out (the potato man).
I’m not necessarily talking about overweight people; most people have inflexible waists due to lack of exercise.
As a result of this inflexibility, compensations of balance are less subtle, and double compensations – when you have to compensate twice in rapid succession, are impossible.

5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
Because the muscles are weak, the body ‘borrows’ other muscles to do the job that the leg muscles should really be doing.   In the Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting’.
In effect this locks the body’s balancing mechanism, rather like rust getting into the one part of an analogue clock’s mechanics and affecting the whole clock.

6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
The same principle as above.

7. Pelvic instability.
How the pelvis is held affects balance.
In a way this is an add-on to ‘5’ above.  When there is a problem lifting the knee (weak quadriceps and psoas muscles), the person will destabilise the pelvis by lifting it on the same side as the knee that they’re trying to raise.  (I’m not referring to what is often called a ‘pelvic tilt’; I’m referring to a left/right imbalance).
This creates such a major disturbance in the balance of the rest of the body that the body finds it difficult to compensate; it’s almost as though the maths of trying to juggle the balance equation is too much for it.  This is hardly surprising as putting the pelvis out of kilter is upsetting the very core of the balancing unit.

8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.
I have noticed, particularly when teaching older people who perhaps have had a fall, that they often spend a lot of energy trying to ‘lift themselves off the ground’, as though they are hoping that lifting their shoulders and chests – almost trying to float – will save their falling.
The result is to make matters worse; in effect they become top heavy.
I know that, from the weight point of view, this is illogical… After all, the person weighs the same whether he/she thinks up or down.
But in fact, if you try to 1) lift someone up who is thinking about the sky, and then 2) lift them up when they’re ‘playing dead’, thinking of their feet, thinking ‘through the floor’, or pretending they’re ‘asleep on their feet’, the difference is obvious.
But the other point is that, when our centre of gravity is lower, we are less likely to fall; you only have to think about that children’s toy – the impossible-to-knock-over wobbly man/woman with a rounded base coming to a smaller rounded head at the top – to know that this is true.

Other reasons for difficulty in balance.
There are other medical reasons for balance problems, such as inner ear problems, vertigo, eye problems, numbness in feet and legs, arthritis, heart and blood circulation problems, stroke, low blood pressure, diseases of the nervous system, and certain medicines (in particular ototoxic drugs that damage the inner ear).

Groups of drugs that can effect the inner ear (ototoxic):
antidepressants
anti-seizure drugs (anticonvulsants)
hypertensive (high blood pressure) drugs
sedatives
tranquilizers
anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs)
aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)
diuretics
vasodilators
certain analgesics (painkillers)
certain chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs).


Drug groups courtesy of: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/causesriskfactorsandprevention/01.html

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

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I Can’t Remember if I’m in Pain or Not.

Memory & the “Moment”.
The part of our brain that memorises events could never be said to be reliable; we remember the parts we want to remember (and even then those parts might be inaccurate), we give more importance to some memories than to others, and over time, even those can change – ‘bad’ memories taking on a rosy hue!
So with all of that going on, how do we “live in the moment”?

Pain.
In the case of pain, we know that something’s hurting (maybe physical, perhaps emotional), but to ‘get out of’ the pain-situation and back into the more comfortable-situation of which we have a vague memory, i.e. to relieve the problem, can be tricky.
So, our memories tell us that there’s an alternative, a preferable one that stems from the time before the pain.

Making ourselves healthily more uncomfortable.
Plenty of people take up yoga, Pilates, Feldenkrais, tai chi or qigong in an attempt to improve their health; this could simply be because they want to improve posture or coordination, have more energy, improve muscle-tone or balance, or perhaps it’s because they suffer from back pain, migraines, musculoskeletal disorders, arthritis, Parkinson’s, or any other number of reasons.
My interest in this is that, by trying to better our health, we often unintentionally bring pain or discomfort on ourselves; having done that, we then want to get back to the same state of comfort we were in before we began the new health regime, but at the same time, we want to keep the newfound health that we may (or may not) have acquired.

Hoping for the best.
At the start of this term, two people came to try out a class, both suffering from different problems – one from recurring migraines, and the other from ME.
As usual, I warned both of them to take things very easily, to sit down as often as they wanted, not to push themselves, and that there was no competition involved – in short, to only do as much as they were able.
The next day I received emails from both; one had a sore neck (the person who suffers from migraines), and the other had a hip that was uncomfortable.  Both won’t be returning.

If it sounds as though I’m moaning about this, I’m not – the choice was, and is, entirely theirs; I know that I did everything possible to make their experience a positive one.
However, what I do know is that, as soon as you start to try to change stuff about yourself, to ‘improve’ yourself, or to take control of your health, things change, and change can often be uncomfortable, and can happen in parts of you that you didn’t anticipate.

The Comfort Zone.
Our ‘comfort zone’ is where we are at ease with our situation and environment, it could even be uncomfortable (comparatively).  Most people try to live in this ‘comfort zone’, hoping that things will stay as they are for as long as possible, whilst at the same time waiting for the (perhaps) inevitable change which they feel to be out of their control.

So, how DO you do something about it?
If you currently have pain somewhere that, as far as you know, has arrived out of nowhere, how do you relieve it (without using painkillers)?  One moment everything was fine (comparatively again), and the next it wasn’t.
Nearly everyone wants to get rid of that pain, but as soon as you try to feel your body back to its previous state you’re definitely not ‘living in the moment’… you’re trying to bring back what you think you’ve lost – attempting to go back in time.
Isn’t this the fear of the loss of the ‘comfort zone’ – the fear being that it will never return?  In your memory, how your situation or environment used to be was a lot better than how it currently is.

Falling into the old habits.
As an example, I have recently had a pain in my upper back somewhere between T2 & T4.  I wasn’t entirely sure why it started, and because it was tiring I wanted nothing to do with it.
So I tried all the usual things: I ignored it, I tried gently stretching it, I breathed into it, I put heat on it, I practiced a lot of Alexander Technique, I took it for a steam & sauna, I focused on consciously relaxing it during everyday actions (walking, sitting, etc.), – all to no avail.
Finally the penny dropped and I realised that, because of a number of changes that I’d been working on recently (postural etc.), other things were bound to alter.  It then started to get better… and I realised that this had finally happened because I’d accepted it and thereby brought it into the present – I’d allowed it to be, rather than trying to change it.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

Standing Qigong and ‘Balance’

The Position.
There are many positions In which to do Standing Qigong, but I’ll use the one with feet a shoulder’s width apart, knees bent, and hands lifted to opposite the upper chest, as in the picture.

What does ‘balance’ mean in this context?
In this context, balance means the sense of the left and right sides, the front and the back, and the top and bottom sides of your body all working equally together, so that no area is more dominant than any other area.  It is the feeling that a balloon might have (if a balloon were able to feel) both on its skin, as well as internally (equal pressure to all parts of itself).

Feeling the position – the concept.
When you squeeze a balloon, two forces come into play – an inward and an outward force.
1) The pressure that your arms exert inwards, so that you don’t drop the object, and …
2) The pressure inside the object which pushes your arms outwards.
A balance is therefore achieved.  In other words, in Standing Qigong positions, you are being expanded whilst at the same time holding on.

The legs.
Hold the legs as though you have a ball between thighs and knees.
As above, this is a two-way sensation; you feel an outward expansion (as though the ball were pushing your knees apart), but at the same time, because you don’t want to drop the ball, you squeeze inwards.
If you get the idea for the legs, the rest will be easy to follow.

The arms (1).
The arms use the same idea.
The ball is between the elbows/upper arms and the front-sides of the torso (in other words, it’s not exactly the sides, nor is it the front… it’s what you might call the anterior-lateral aspect of the body).  Again, the same principle applies – the ball is pushing your arms/elbows away from your body, but simultaneously you don’t want to drop it.

The arms (2).
Feel as though there’s a ball within the circle of your arms.  It expands your arms, but you don’t want to drop it.

The arms (3).
Feel as though there’s a ball outside the arms and around your back.  Your back and arms expand, but simultaneously compress inwards.

The legs & pelvis.
Your knees are bent; you are sitting on a ball.   The ball is pushing your knees forwards (which lowers the buttocks), yet at the same time you want the buttocks to be lifted by the ball.  This is similar to how it would feel if you were to attempt to push an aerobics ball into e.g. a swimming pool; whilst you push down, the surface tension would be pushing up against the ball.

The fingers.
This is exactly the same principle as above.

Other applications.
You can apply this concept in many other ways:
The same idea between the toes as between the fingers.
Ditto from the backs of hands/outsides of arms to the back.
Ditto feet to head.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and Qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

The Neck – The Master of Counterbalance.

Your neck controls your future comfort.
It’s never too late to do something about your posture, although it’s probably true to say that the earlier you start, the more comfortable your later years will be.

The ‘Seesaw Law’.
In some respects, your spine works like a seesaw; if you do something to one end, there will be a reaction not only at the other end, but across the entire length of the seesaw.  In other words, if you position your neck incorrectly on your body, you are automatically setting up a series of detrimental chain reactions.

An adult head weighs something in the region of 11-12lbs (5-5½Kgs).
When balanced correctly on your body, the line of gravity passes straight through the middle of the body to the supporting feet.  So, when you incorrectly position it forward of that line, the neck is forced to take extra strain as the head moves further forwards.

The musculature in the body doesn’t like this, and will automatically try to find the most comfortable position.
Therefore, following the Seesaw Law, it will make a number of ‘better-than-doing-nothing’ adjustments; in other words, it sets up a series of counter-balances, the objective being to try to make the situation as comfortable as possible.

With these in place, you might not be 100% comfortable, but at least you can function as long as you don’t do anything extreme with your body.

The 21st Century Person.
One of our main activities which encourages both back & neck problems, and helps us to develop a permanently poor posture is the way that most of us use our mobile phones.  This can easily become a ‘habit’.

A few pictures say it all:

                                   

The ideal phone posture to save your neck.
This photo is one way of demonstrating the best position to hold the mobile phone.  You have to lift the phone high enough to look over the other person’s shoulder, and the body is upright.  (It doesn’t take into account a font that is too small, which makes us tighten the neck, perhaps pulling it forward also).

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of using the phone whilst draped around someone else is that walking becomes slightly impractical…

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

What do YOU do with your neck?

How is it at the moment?
How do you position your neck?
How does it sit on your body?
How does it control you?
How does it affect your comfort or discomfort levels?

Where does your neck begin and end?
Anatomically your neck is 7 vertebrae long, starting at the skull (under and up inside), and finishing at the slightly more protrusive vertebra C7 (the 7th cervical vertebra) which is at the base of the neck, above shoulder line height.

 

To be honest, I’m not actually very interested in its anatomical length, I’m much more interested in its functional length.
Functionally it finishes around about T3 (i.e. the 3rd thoracic vertebra) which is slightly further down the back, although this can be slightly lower for some people.

So what?
You might think, “So what? How does that make any  difference?”
Functionally, it makes a massive difference, because the place from where you control the movement of your neck alters dramatically, which in turn affects how you position your both your head and your spine.
Amongst other things, this affects your posture, your breathing, and how relaxed you are.

Dropping your head.
Usually when we drop our chins we think of the pivotal or ‘folding’ point as being roughly at shoulder height. As a result, when just balancing the head on the body (without lifting, lowering, or turning it), we feel as though that point of balance is roughly at C7. However, if you balance it from further down, it very much alters how and where you place your head on your body.

Think lower.
If you visualise your neck finishing lower (e.g. T3, further down your back), all of a sudden it starts to straighten, the connection point (between T3 and T4) softens and sinks slightly, and your neck actually moves backwards on its own accord.  In Alexander Technique terms, it would be described as your spine ‘lengthening’.  (AT also refers to this as ‘forward & upwards’ – I think that the ‘forward’ is slightly confusing as it implies pushing your face forward, but what actually happens is that the head rotates on the Atlas (see top diag.) and whilst the forehead moves slightly forward, the chin tucks slightly under).

Potting plants.
Positioning your upper spine correctly is not unlike pushing a stick into soil in order to support a plant (your head, in this case); if you put the stick in shallowly, there’s a good chance that it will lean over with the weight of the plant.  A stick planted deeper will be much more supportive.

Anatomically (briefly).
The reality is that you are not really relaxing your actual spine, … how can you when it’s made of bone?  You are actually softening the tissues on the anterior aspect of the spine – the side nearest your chest, at the back of the lungs, as well as the supporting muscles around the spine in this area.

Another way to think it.
When either sitting or standing, if you imagine that there is a ‘mouth’ on your upper back, and you are very, very gently putting the lips of the mouth together (you need to feel as though this is actually happening), in particular by dropping the upper lip on to the lower lip, you might feel your posture altering as the spine changes position.

And the result is …
When you allow this to happen, your back relaxes and sinks, your chest appears to lift, your shoulders feel as though they are rolling backwards, the collar bones seem to settle back, the upper arms sink into the correct area of the shoulder socket, and your breathing deepens as the ribs find their optimal position.  Additionally your balance is altered for the better, there is a sense of being connected to the ground (gravity can now pass directly through you), and the body is able to move with greater ease.

Addendum for those who can feel this.
As you position your spine, simultaneously soften the inside of the breast bone (sternum), and allow the armpits to deepen.
Why?
If you picture the upper chest (the upper part of the lungs) as being an inverted bowl, by observing only the spine, you are really only dealing with the back of the bowl.  By working on the front and sides of the bowl (inside sternum & inside armpits) you balance the front, back, and sides of the upper chest cavity which roots the neck even better.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent.  Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month. 

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

Sinking Qi (2)

It’s a feeling, you can’t actually do it.
In fact it’s the act of not-doing… definitely a verbal contradiction.

I spent many years thinking that ‘sinking your qi’ was something that you somehow physically did, like ‘raise or lower your arm’, that it was a skill from the Grandmasters passed down over the generations, something that, one day, you’d suddenly be endowed with, or magically absorb.

It’s a feeling, and, like all feelings, is only possible to explain by comparison or with a simile (try explaining what an orange tastes like) whilst hoping that the person, to whom you’re attempting to explain the feeling, has had experiences that are similar to your own.  In other words, it’s nigh on impossible.

What does it feel like?

  • Sediment; it’s like the sediment of a murky pond settling on to the bottom.
  • It’s like ‘playing dead’ when you were a kid, with someone trying to lift you up.
  • It’s an object falling to the floor, the moment it fully impacts the ground.
  • It’s feeling gravity and borrowing it.
  • It’s the letting go of every cell in your body.
  • It’s feeling your own weight.
  • It’s no longer holding on.
  • It’s the sensation you can get in the second before you fall asleep.
  • It’s how you can feel when you meditate.
  • It’s how your nervous system feels when truly calm.
  • More esoterically, it’s a feeling of connection to the planet, or to the earth.

What’s its function?
It connects movement in tai chi and qigong (well actually any movement in anything), but is a movement in itself; it’s the out-breath before the in-breath, as well as the in-breath before the out-breath. If it’s true that any object or event is possible by virtue of the fact that its opposite exists, then it’s one side of the coin.  In other words, its function is to allow its opposite to exist.

I’m aware that this is beginning to sound a bit ‘zen’, (‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  So to bring it back to the practical, it’s what you experience when you are jumping off the floor into the air.  In the second before jumping, just as you finish dropping your body, you sink your qi; it’s the connection between the dropping and the rising – a softening.

If you try to sink your qi, you fail.
You can watch this happening if you do the jumping exercise above.  When you attempt to control it, you stop softening and start directing the muscles.  All spontaneity is lost.

This is a bit like (back to the sediment again), if you try to make the sediment sink in the pond, you just end up stirring it up.

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James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308