Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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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.

Teaching Taiji & Qigong.

Changing the way I teach.
I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that teaching in too basic a way in order to make tai chi and qigong accessible to new students is a mistake.  I say ‘rapidly coming to the conclusion’, but I think it’s taken me about 15 years.tai-chi-group
That’s how I was taught, and yes, it works to a certain extent, but you’re only learning patterns, you rarely get to feel the sensation of the body working in a unified way, and you certainly don’t get to experience intention effortlessly guiding your movements.
Not too surprising really, as the method of teaching is itself fragmented.

For example, here’s the instructions for moving from one Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane to a second one in the 24-step form (feel free to skip it, it’s just a description of movement):

1. Starting from the first Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, sit back on to the rear right foot.
2. Move the weight forwards again on to the left foot, and whilst doing so, turn the foot outwards by approximately 45 degrees. As you do so, fold the upper arm, bending it at the elbow and turning the palm down with the forearm approximately parallel to the ground.  The body is now facing the corner.
3. Move the weight 100% on to the left foot, and move the lower arm through in the same direction as the turned out foot.  Bring the rear leg alongside the front foot without touching the ground if possible.
4. Continue to move the rear foot forwards so as to step ahead of the other foot.  In a horizontal rising arc, sweep the lower arm out via the left side to finish forwards with palm up so that it is above the (newly placed) right leg.  Push the palm of the other hand down beside you.  Etc. etc.

The above only describes a series of movements, and probably not 112very well.  There is no subtlety, and it’s only passing from one posture to another.

There is no explanation of:

  • the feeling that you should be experiencing,
  • where you should be relaxing,
  • how to relax,
  • how to achieve complete stability in the movement as you step through with the rear leg,
  • how to make the movement work from the core/centre,
  • how to sink and lift your qi,
  • how to connect the arms with the legs so that they work together,
  • how to connect shoulders with hips,
  • how to step correctly so that your qi moves correctly,
  • and what the function of the move is so that you direct your energy appropriately.

It’s the difference between learning movements and learning a skill… Which reminds me of a student whom I taught when I was new to teaching.

I was teaching the Yang 108 Form – the ‘Long Form’, and every week, the person I was teaching wanted to race ahead with the next moves in the form.  I was too new to it all to slow down the learning process, and as a result we completed the entire form in 2 terms – fairly amazing as it took me 2 years to learn the form!
At the end of it I was expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Let’s go into it in a bit more detail now.”  But instead he said, “Thanks for that; now I know tai chi.”

So I’ve begun to teach the minutiae to all.   I wasn’t sure about it at first.  I thought it would complicated-maths-2be too much for most, and occasionally it is, but I can also see that for those who persist, it will be much easier in the long run, and far more satisfying.

Because I learnt via the ‘basic’ teaching method means that for years I’ve also taught by the same method.  Because it’s basic, most of the nuances are missing.  As I gradually discovered them over time, it meant that I had to undo my old habits.
For nearly everyone, this can be very difficult.  It’s like being inside a closed box and trying to see outside it; you know what’s inside the box, you’re familiar with it, but your preconceptions of what might be outside the box can only be based on what you already know.  In other words you’re learning with an unclean slate.
I have seen my older students struggle with having to rethink my previous ignorance.

So I started to wonder what the point was in simply teaching beginners in the same way that I’d been taught, and began to experiment with putting much more detail into the classes.complicated-maths

It worked well because people can only take in what they can take in, and, whatever level that happens to be, they work with that.  To put it another way, people hear what they’re able to hear, and no more, and what they both hear and see is based entirely upon their own received experience to date.
It can’t really be any other way – it’s nigh on impossible to make a large jump in consciousness.

I don’t know how true this is, but there’s a story of Magellan arriving on the islands close to what is now known as the Magellan Straits (I have also heard the same story being located in Tasmania; perhaps this was Abel Jans Tasman’s experience rather than Magellan’s).
Apparently the islanders had never seen large ships before; ships were completely out of their range of consciousness or imagination, so they literally couldn’t see them.  The arrival of Magellan’s sailors was therefore almost magical, as they seemed to come from nowhere.

I’ve experienced a version of this in classes many times (and no, a load of sailors didn’t suddenly appear).  I’ll say something in a class, and someone who’s been doing tai chi for years will say, “You’ve never said that before!”
But I have, probably on many occasions, and in many different ways.

And I’ve also noticed it in my own learning.  Something that I’ve heard before but interpreted in one way, suddenly takes on a new meaning, and I realise that previously I’d entirely missed the point.

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

When You Move, I Move.

… or to put it another way, if something around me changes, I need to change as well.

Change
By and large we don’t like change, unless we consider it to be positive. Change is worrying for
newton-ball-cradle-2many reasons, perhaps the main one being that we have to remain conscious – we can’t afford to go to sleep because we don’t know what’s just around the corner, and it means we can’t rest; we feel that we have to be on our guard. This isn’t just ‘going with the flow’ stuff, it’s extremely practical. Perhaps it’s really about fearing and not fearing; it’s about taking life as it comes and adjusting to the new situation.
As Alan Watts would have put it, this is ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’.

It’s making your relationships work; it’s getting what you need out of your work; it’s about not being stressed by events; it’s about coming to terms with change, even when the change isn’t what you’d hoped for; and, not very surprisingly as this is about tai chi & qigong, it’s also doing both solo tai chi as well as doing partner-work.

Practising changingDominoes falling
Normally no one practises adaptability or change; there are no mechanisms in place, no lessons in school, no times in our lives when we deliberately work on accommodating change.  By and large, we learn it through trial and error, with the help of parents and friends perhaps.  Even then we don’t really focus on the process, we’re more interested in getting through the uncomfortable moments than in understanding the process and mastering it.

Practising adaptability in solo tai chi & qigong
In solo practise, exactly the same thing is happening but is much harder to feel because no one is there to help you, you only have your own body.
You therefore have to start paying attention to what is going on inside you, feeling how not only the sides of your body support each other, but also how the front and back, and the head and the feet do precisely the same.
To take a couple of examples, if your left arm moves nearer your centreline, then your right arm somehow needs to create a balance.  Or if your hands push forwards, then something needs to go backwards.

Practising adaptability with another person
It’s easier to achieve this end in tai chi two-person work because you have to feel what is taking place in your body due to the changing pressures being exerted upon it by someone else.

How?
First you create an event; for example, the simple action of your partner pushing against
your arm.  If you do nothing you will be pushed backwards. Symbolically the event has trashed you!
The great thing about this is that, whereas most normal events only happen once, in this case you can get your partner to repeat the event as often as you want, i.e. you can practise.

change-2So what do you do about the push?  Perhaps you lift or lower your arm, or move it left or right… it’s not important, what is important is that you are finding the best way to deal with the issue, and what is more, you are starting to ‘listen’ to what is happening is the event, in this case the push.  The more you listen, the more nuances you will find in the push; no single push will be the same as another.
change

You will start to notice the subtleties in:
…Direction…
…Speed…
…Force…
and how all of these can alter.

You will also start to notice:
…How you tense or freeze…
…How sometimes you only move one part of you without the rest being involved…
…How difficult it is to find the balance between excess strength and weakness…
…And then you’ll begin to notice how the person with whom you’re working has similar problems and, even whilst pushing you, doesn’t balance him/herself correctly.

Tai chi and qigong classes with James Drewe here.