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Song 松 & Peng

Following the previous blog, a question was posted about it: “… How does Song relate to the other thing which is said regularly, that there should be ‘Peng’ in every movement? I take that to mean that Peng should be present particularly at the conclusion of every movement, and not as tension but perhaps as extension?

Peng is possible because, although you soften the white muscle tissue (the bulk of the muscle), you don’t exactly relax the fascia, or connective tissue, you extend/stretch it, treating it like an overall flexible/stretchy body ‘stocking’.
Think of your limbs like an audio cable – there’s the core(s) of the cable, which may be any number of wires encased in different coloured plastic, and there’s an outer shield. They are all wires, but the wires on the outer shield are often meshed and can be stretched or compressed, whilst the inner wires are usually long strands without the same flexibility because they are encased in plastic, and are not usually meshed.
For the purpose of the analogy, the cable is a limb; the cores of the cable are your bulk white muscles; the shield is the stretchy, flexible fascia.

Feeling it.
If you lift your arm in front of you as you read this, curving it so that the palm faces you at approximately chest or shoulder height, and relaxing all the muscles whilst still holding the arm in position, you are halfway there. Next you feel as though the back of the forearm is gently expanding away from you, but without involving any muscles; it’s as though the gaps between the joints have expanded, not because you have stretched them (which would involve muscles), but because they have loosened at the joints.  The arm should feel heavy.

‘Unbendable Arm’.
The Aikido exercise, the ‘unbendable arm’, demonstrates this concept perfectly.
If you’re not familiar with it, a brief description of it is that you place your wrist on a partner’s shoulder, and he gradually increases the pressure of his downward push on your elbow joint.
The more you tense your muscles, the harder work it becomes, but the more that you relax and loosen whilst simultaneously gently extending your arm, the harder it is for the person pushing downwards.  Your arm will flex slightly, but it is more like a solid rubber tube bending under pressure than a stick snapping.  A very interesting exercise.

Stretched (but not) & heavy.
The trouble is that people find it very difficult to stop using the white muscle tissue; it feels like a contradiction to relax, sink, loosen, and yet simultaneously lengthen.
It’s probably easiest to work on Song first and then add Peng, rather than the other way around, and this is where Pushing Hands or any two-person exercise comes into its own. It’s very helpful to have someone else to gently and sensitively test you by providing a small amount of resistance.

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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 Tai Chi 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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‘Song’, 松 – Relaxing, Loosening, Connecting.

Softening can be difficult.  It’s a little more than just relaxation, almost a stage further.  The Chinese refer to this as “Song” 松.

There are really only two things that connect us to the planet – food and air; we eat/drink, and we breathe.  Most of the time we do both without much thought; they are functional so that we can get on with everything else we do.

Breathing
Leaving the food/drink aspect out of it, what does breathing actually mean?  We breathe in and out hundreds of times a day, but by altering our approach to this ‘activity’, we can use it to affect our over-all health.  You can’t do this every time you breathe, but there are many times in the day when you can play around with the concept; this could be when walking, going to sleep, driving, sitting on public transport, a quiet moment, etc.  Half the problem is remembering to do it.

Breathing is fundamental to ‘Song’.
You can’t relax if you don’t breathe, which is one of the reasons why breathing is encouraged during childbirth.  We’re not talking about ‘functional’ breathing here, this is about mindful breathing, breathing when you are fully aware of the breath, and not trying to think about something else at the same time.  This is breathing when you allow the oxygen to alter your cellular structure, when you open the cells to feed them, and when you organise your body in such a way as to get the most out of a single breath.

Song
‘Song’ is connecting yourself to your origins; you could say that this is a state of meditation; you are of the world, but at the same time you aren’t active in it, you are allowing the world to come to you.  You are resting in a conscious and fully aware state.   You are listening to what the world has to say to you.

‘Song’ does not mean soggy muscles.  Dr. Lam refers to this as ‘…consciously and gently stretch(ing) the muscles from within’.  It is as though you are slightly expanding the pipelines through the body, particularly at the joints, but without using or creating any tension.

Peter Wayne, in “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi”, refers to Song (he spells it Sung) as ‘active relaxation’:
“… Sung is variously translated as relaxed, loose, or open, or as a quality that permits the natural flow of energy. Sung is also described as a process related to sinking — not necessarily physically sinking, as in bending the knees or sitting into a deeper stance, but energetically sinking.  The Chinese character or pictogram for Sung depicts hair contained in a tight bun letting go and hanging freely.”

And later, in order to experience Song, he suggests a metaphor of a jar of honey that has just been turned upside down:
“It takes a while for the viscous honey to ooze back down to the bottom. … In Tai Chi training, you learn to let things “relax” downward naturally.  … To be able to flow down more freely, the Qi needs to dissolve first. Just as you would run the honey jar under hot water to turn the crystalized honey back into liquid, with Tai Chi, you use gentle movements, breathing, imagery, emotional and behavioral changes, self-massage, and other techniques to soften and free the Qi so it can more naturally settle, or experience Sung”.

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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

Heavy Arms

Each of your arms weighs about 8-10lbs (roughly 3.5-4.5Kg).
That’s heavy… though we don’t really notice it because either the arms are hanging down beside you, or, if we do come to lift them, we use so many extra and unnecessary muscles to do the job (known as ‘recruiting’ in the Alexander Technique) that their weight is spread across the shoulders and neck.

Where’s the qi?
The result of this is that the qi is held in the upper body which means that
     • our balance compromised,
     • our breathing tends to be higher,
     • our ability to relax is diminished,
     • the flexibility of our necks and is reduced,
     • we’re more inclined to get headaches,
     • the rotational potential of our waist becomes less,
     • the range of movement in both shoulders and arms is massively impacted.

It’s all about the shoulders really.
The idea is to lift up your arms, forwards or sideways, and attempt to experience the weight of your arms. What this actually means is that, in order to get that feeling, you can only use the essential muscles. This will also mean that you will need to disengage the shoulders from the task; they aren’t necessary.

Weighing a fish.
The muscles that you use to do this should feel as though they are weighing a fish with one of those spring-loaded hanging scales (I guess that could be your hand luggage also, but the fish is a bit more interesting!).  You have to give the arms to gravity, letting go of the muscles so that they gently stretch. If you’re not used to this, it can make them ache as they undo, but it doesn’t last.

Now just do it for the rest of your life!
That’s how to use your arms in tai chi and qigong, but the concept should also be applied to every activity, whether cooking, reading a book, or driving your car, etc., in fact every time you start to raise your arms from the vertical hanging position.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

Has your Balloon Got a One-Sided Leak?

When it feels right.
Sometimes when you move in tai chi or qigong you just know you’ve got it right. You don’t need anyone to tell you, you instinctively know that it worked.  It felt easy, light, balanced, friction-less, and you were completely ‘in tune’ with yourself. The movement felt free.
Typically, you then try to repeat it and can’t quite capture that same sense of ease. Irritating!  But you know it’s possible.
What you experienced was both you and your body moving as one. Just for a moment you let go; your body was in perfect balance, and mind and body were both connected and perfectly balanced.
With experience this feeling can occur more frequently.

How do you encourage it?
To feel balanced, the body constantly needs to behave like a balloon.
A ball (a globe, a balloon, a sphere, the planet we live on) is always in balance; the pressure inside is equal on all parts of the inner surface.  A ball can never fall over, but were you to cut it in half (e.g. a melon), the halves would fall over. Your body needs to feel as stable as the undivided ball!

The body has these extraneous limbs that flap about, and which are largely (though not entirely) responsible for unbalancing the situation. So, for example, for ease of movement in tai chi, when moving an arm forwards, in order to keep things in balance, we also need to do something at the back; this could be the other arm, or a leg, or possibly your spine.
The same is true for left and right as well as up and down.

When you manage to accommodate all the criteria – front back, left right, up down – correctly, you know you have got it right without being told … it just feels right … the melon can’t fall over!  But if it’s loaded on one side….

So what’s the title all about?
Simply that, when blowing up a balloon, the rubber expands equally across its surface; i.e. the pressure is equal (assuming that the rubber isn’t weaker in some places).
Your body needs to do something similar, but, rather than a physical expansion (although this could also happen), it has a feeling of ‘protection’ without tension.
If the balloon is too rigid, it is unable to expand.  So in the case of the body, muscular force (rigidity) cannot be the answer. Your body needs to behave like your lungs; on breathing in, the tissues of the lungs flex and an equal expansion takes place within.
This is known as Peng, sometimes described as ‘educated force’, and to feel it you don’t even have to move a millimetre.

If your body were a castle, you would defend all sides of it equally and wouldn’t leave any gaps for the opposition to sneak in.
So when moving in tai chi and qigong, no part of you should be ignored; the movement of one part of you (arm, leg, shoulder, back, chest, knee, etc.) should be reflected across the body; a balance needs to be maintained.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

A Bit Hard

Getting heavy.
I had a problem in a class recently. Someone stopped ‘feeling’ and began ‘doing his moves’.

We were doing some partner work, and one of the participants did what he thought might be the next move.  In other words his ‘next move’ didn’t evolve from his partner’s previous move; his move came about as a result of attempting to follow a pre-defined pattern which bore no relation to anything that his partner was doing.
He did this without noticing that the other person wasn’t going with him, and as a result, he applied force, ending up by hurting his partner (no broken bones, just a strain).
Of course, you could argue that the partner should have ‘followed’ the over-assertive movement, but unfortunately that isn’t what happened.

‘Trying to do the next move’ is not such a problem in fixed-step pushing hands, where movements are fairly repetitive, but in the Dui Lian (2-person form) it is a big problem.
This is a set routine and each person is meant to follow her part, but at the same time if you just ‘do your moves’ it’s all a bit meaningless, and just becomes a dance.  In fact done this way (which is how I learnt it for years), I don’t think there’s much point to it other than to show some basic applications.

So what do you do?
In 2-person work (and this applies to pushing hands also), when your partner does an action which affects you, you need to put him in such a position that there is only one way for her to get out of it, and that one way is whatever is the next move in the 2-person form. In other words, you close down all other options so that he can only escape through the loophole that he creates.
This way, one move follows on naturally from the previous move, and nothing is forced.

This doesn’t stop the problem of someone being over enthusiastic, but it does mean that, in the act of attempting to close down all options for the other person, you’re feeling what the other person might be able to do at any point if you give him the slightest opportunity.  In this way, all of the connecting movements for both partners stay very alive and conscious.

It’s a game.
The whole 2-person game is like playing chess, or in fact any game. You try to reduce the other player’s options, ideally forcing her into a position where she has to sacrifice something.
That ‘sacrifice’ is the moment where his energy runs out, her control is lost, or his energy is dissipated. This then allows you to do your move, which can’t be done if the other person is still able to control youand that’s the crucial point.

When you walk, you can’t step forwards with your back foot if you still have weight on it.  In 2-person work, you can’t do your move correctly if the other person is still partially in control, therefore limiting your movements!

But it’s unusual!
I should say that it’s rare for someone to be hurt.  Working with someone else is a dialogue via the senses, and occasionally verbally, and this was actually the first time that I’ve had the problem occur, although in the past I myself have been hurt on many occasions through my partner ‘doing his stuff’ without any awareness of the result of what he was doing.

…And there are places where practising any 2-person work is, to say the least, … dodgy!

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

SO serious!

Most people who do tai chi or qigong come along to a class because they want some exercise, perhaps also to meet likeminded people, maybe to do something a bit different, maybe to find some calm in a hectic working life, or to centre themselves… and so on.  Probably something like .0001% want to become teachers.

The teachers’ balancing act.
For the tai chi and qigong teacher, you want to share your enthusiasm – your insights into what you do, and what gives you enjoyment, but you also know that the vast majority are there to do something a bit different, and probably don’t take it as seriously as you do.
In other words, there’s a fine line between being overly serious in a class and making the event an enjoyable experience.
I’ve known a few instructors who take the whole thing extremely seriously without any sense of making it enjoyable, seeming to forget that most people are not there for the same reasons that they are there.

Getting irritated.
I’ve also known teachers who get annoyed when their students don’t understand something.  They seem to forget that the student is actually paying them money to come to the class, which implies that the student wants to learn, rather than be told off for apparently being stupid.  The teacher’s annoyance also strikes me as strange because, if someone doesn’t understand something in a class, surely the tutor has either aimed too high with the info, or else explained himself inadequately.  Sure, some people don’t listen, but perhaps their focus is still on something else from which you’ve now moved on.

‘I don’t get it.’
My view is that, if someone doesn’t get the point I’m trying to make, I’ve either  explained it badly, I’ve explained it in too complex a manner, I’ve taken too long to explain it, the analogy I’ve used to help people wasn’t good enough, I’ve tried to explain too much at the same time, or perhaps I haven’t demonstrated it clearly.

A tai chi or qigong class therefore has to cater for all. You need a bit of fun, a bit of a challenge, but at the same time you need to present some of the subtleties so that people leave thinking, “I didn’t know it could feel like that”, having experienced a change in either their bodies or in the way that they move, or possibly in the way that they see the world.

Asking questions.
People don’t like to ask questions.  I completely get this.  If you’re in a group of people, you don’t like to ask anything in case everyone will think the question stupid, or too basic, or missing the point, or in case you are asking a question that’s already been explained and you were too thick to get it first time around!

But in my experience, however stupid you might suspect the question is, there’s always someone else in the group who wanted to ask the very same question, and who’s really pleased when you ask it.
Furthermore, when people start asking questions, everyone suddenly gets involved and more often than not, other questions start to arise.  Then the class takes on a positive momentum of its own.
Questions mean that you’re thinking about what you’re doing and trying to get to grips with it in your own way.

Do I have to practise?
We’re not in a temple in China anymore; this is 21st century high-pressure life, and not many people want more pressure in a lunchtime or evening class.  No one wants to be emotionally beaten up by the instructor for not practising; yes, you might want to improve, but at your own speed.
For some teachers a student’s lack of practise can be very annoying, but those teachers either forget, or simply don’t take into account, that people learn for a variety of reasons, and that their students are not learning to please them.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.