Pain and Gain – The ‘Comfort Zone’.

Quite regularly, a beginner in tai chi or qigong is put off from continuing classes because he/she is experiencing a bit of discomfort.  This discomfort could be one of two things; 1) a muscle that isn’t used to being used, and/or 2) an existing condition that is being made to think about itself.

pain-1People get used to the way that they feel in their bodies, and the way they feel becomes their definition of ‘comfortable’. Even when in pain, this pain fits within the parameters of how they usually ‘are’, and therefore fits into the ‘comfortable’ definition.
Bizarre in one way, yet completely understandable in another.

It’s very difficult to feel what ‘more comfortable’ would feel like, isn’t it?  I mean, you are who you are at that precise moment, and anything else requires that you step out of that moment, and therefore outside who you are.
So, are you one of those who, when you feel discomfort, choose to stick with the old you, rather than try to change anything?ageing-1

Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, in fact it probably doesn’t apply to the majority; most want to stretch their boundaries, but it interests me that there are quite a few, particularly in the over-60s age group, who are reluctant to change.
Odd isn’t it?  I mean your body’s not going to get any better.  If you don’t do something about it, what with the ageing process of joints, muscles, tendons, blood supply, body tissue, metabolic rate, etc., you can guarantee 100% ageing-2that it’s actually going to get worse.
So why not push yourself a little bit to slow the whole process down?  What is there to lose?

The answer to that is … dis-comfort (or ‘not’-comfort).
It can be uncomfortable to push beyond your usual boundaries.  It not only requires effort to produce the feeling of discomfort (which can be unpleasant as it’s out of the comfort-zone), but when you have achieved dis-comfort, it requires the energy to deal with it.

This is often a simple thing like bending your knees to get a slightly lower posture, perhaps when stepping in tai chi or qigong, or when doing a standing qigong posture (which is more demanding as you  feel the discomfort more acutely).

Energy. Why do you need to relax?

Body Efficiency.
The efficiency of the body’s movements largely depends upon how relaxed you are.
Our amazing network of muscle & tendon, of artery & vein, of organs & lymphatic system, and of tissue with its astonishing elasticity, needs to work in a smooth and coordinated fashion for the body to function ‘like clockwork’.

Energy & Water.hosepipe-water
Energy and water move in similar ways. Energy moves through your body in the much the same way that water passes through a hose pipe. Both follow the path of least resistance.hosepipe-twisted
Both the body and a hose pipe can flex. However, if either the body or the hose pipe is bent or twisted beyond a certain amount, the flow of water/energy passing through it begins to meet resistance; the water/energy is squeezed, slowing its passage.

The ‘body hose pipes’.
There are two different points here.  The first is about general tension and stress, which is the one this blog is focusing on.  The second is that, under certain circumstances in martial arts we intentionally ‘bend the hose pipes’ in order to achieve a specific result, e.g. when doing either a hand, elbow, shoulder, knee, or heel strike.

Tension.
In the body, tension in the muscles is the equivalent of over-flexing the hose pipe. Physical/muscular tension or stress squeezes the nerves, reduces movement potential in the joints (by both pulling the joints together and by reducing flexibility), restricts the flow of blood and lymph, reduces breathing (which means that there is less oxygen for the cells, which causes an increase in stress), and reduces both coordination and balance.
In other words, the body’s energy becomes restricted and stops functioning as effectively.old-man

Getting older.
Aspects of this are particularly noticeable in older people where, because of a natural tightening of the tendons with age, the body contracts and starts to fold in on itself.  Often breathing becomes shallower, balance and coordination are compromised, and the flow of blood is reduced and the body feels colder.

Computers.computer-posture
This is also noticeable when we work for too long on computers. Our posture often becomes cramped over, the neck no longer balanced on top of the spine because we are leaning forwards. This in turn compresses the front of the body which reduces breathing, whilst our backs are under stress to support our forward-falling posture.

relaxed-apeRelaxation.
Undoing the series of hose pipes that make up the body will ensure that your tai chi & qigong movements, instead of feeling clumsy, off-balance and heavy, will feel loose and light, coordinated and flowing… unlike this character who’s a little over-relaxed.

Tai chi and qigong classes with James Drewe at http://www.taiji.co.uk/classes. 

Stepping. Don’t Just Stick Your Foot Out. 

How to step.
It’s a much more conscious process than walking:baby-stepping

  • Feet together
  • Bend knees slightly
  • Bending even more, start to extend a foot
  • Bending even more, place the foot (generally the heel, if moving forwards; the toes, if moving backwards; toes or heel, if stepping sideways).

The main point is that you keep dropping in order to step, and what most people do is to drop, then stop dropping, and then stick the foot out (forwards, backwards, sideways).

Why keep dropping?
This is easiest to understand if you have someone else to help you.
Assuming that you’re about to try to step forwards, you need someone to push gently against your chest (or if fold your arms across your chest, your partner can push your arms).curved-arrow
If you try to move directly into him/her, it’s just a case of the strongest person ‘winning’ – it’s yang against yang.
However, if you start to drop the body, the person pushing you suddenly finds that his push is no longer going in his intended direction; instead of pushing forwards, he is also starting to push downwards, which will help you to root yourself.

Solo Tai Chi form.
Because no one is pushing you when you do a solo form, it’s easy to get lazy and ignore the above. But it is essential that you do exactly the same, imagining that someone were there, trying to move you against your intention.

If, as normally happens in a tai chi movement, you are also rotating the body, this becomes even more difficult for someone who is attempting to push you, as the body now begins to move on several planes simultaneously.  Not only is the body dropping on the vertical, it is also rotating either clockwise or anticlockwise; and if the body is also retreating/advancing as well, it is very hard for your partner to get to grips with where you are and to find your centre in order to push you successfully.

Why do I need to step properly, as I never work with a partner?
You don’t.  But it depends on whether or not you want to experience your body working as a whole – unified.
When everything works together, movement becomes very easy; it feels as though you are ‘moving like clockwork’.  The expression is appropriate because, when one part of you stops moving whilst everything else continues to move, your body is behaving like an analogue clock inside which one cog goes on strike, and yet you expect the other cogs to carry on normally!

So keep on sinking as you step.

Tai chi and qigong classes with James Drewe at http://www.taiji.co.uk/classes. 

Intention… How Effective was your Lobotomy?

Intention.
Nothing much happens without intention. Creation ceases.  The driving force is lost.

Intention 1Our entire lives are directed by our intention; our jobs, interests, hopes, romantic inclinations, relationships, ambitions, aspirations, thoughts, desires, … in fact anything we want to achieve.
As Deepak Chopra said, “Everything that happens in the Universe starts with intention”.
I suspect that you cannot perform even the smallest of acts without it, unless they are ‘fight and flight’ actions triggered by the Sympathetic nervous system…by the reptilian brain.  This must mean that a lobotomy is only partial loss of intention (you can perform a great many actions having had one … apparently).

Unintended outcomes.
Intention 3I know that all of us at some point have said, “I didn’t mean to do that!”, but perhaps we really mean, “I didn’t intend that outcome”.

And there are also degrees of intention.  How much do you want to achieve something? Massively?  Or would it just be nice if it happened, i.e. no real intention?  Or somewhere in between?

How does this relate to tai chi and qigong?
Both tai chi and qigong are to do with understanding the process of constant change (in life), and with creating change (in one’s own life).  By understanding change and by working with it so that change works in a constructive way for you is (to be a bit 60s about it) ‘going with the flow’.
Both taiji ang qigong are driven by intention.

If you want energy to move through the body, if you want to create change, you need the intention to do so.
In tai chi and qigong, you learn to coordinate the body so as to make changes as efficiently and effortlessly as possible, so that it feels physically easy, and as though only the thought produced the result.
When you move in this way, you know without question that your tai chi or qigong movement was correct, that every cog in the mechanism was well oiled and functioning perfectly, … that you got it ‘right’.

Observing.
Without intention we are sitting in life’s armchair watching the show; we are observers.  This is not to say that this is a bad thing, far from it, because in both tai chi and qigong you not Intention 4only need intention, you also need to be an observer – but simultaneously.
You provide yourself with a plan (the intention), and then, because you are so familiar with the movements, you observe yourself achieving it, and move into the feeling.  And yes, plans can change, but this is adaptability, and relates more to 2-person taiji rather than solo work.

All of us are more relaxed when we know where we are going both physically and metaphorically.
Once you have the plan, you can enjoy the journey there.

Tai chi and qigong classes with James Drewe at http://www.taiji.co.uk/classes. 

The Fly & The Bay Window, or Relaxation & Perspective

The headache.Headache
I awoke with a headache a few months ago.  Still lying in bed, I tried to relax the area where I could feel the tension stemming from.

… Partial success.

The fly.
A few days later, I noticed a fly in the room which kept on attempting to get through the middle of the three windows in the bay – which was closed.  The windows at the sides were both open, but it was repeatedly attempting to crash dive the closed one; even though a fly has virtually 360 degree vision, it seemed to have tunnel vision.

fly-angles-2Perspective.
It occurred to me that my headache was also a matter of perspective, and like the fly, I wasn’t taking the over-all view, I was focusing too specifically.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of minor wake up headaches, usually coming from my upper back, and each time I’ve tried the ‘perspective relaxation’ technique, for want of a better name.fly-angles-1

What I should have done.
I put myself into the position of what the fly should have done to achieve its intention.  This was like standing outside yourself, and, with that overview, I was then able to relax a much wider area than just the specific point of pain.
This noticeably reduced the discomfort, as though, by releasing the periphery of the pain, it reduced the core.

Stand outside yourself.
This perspective is like standing 1 or 2 feet outside yourself.  It doesn’t  work if you try to feel and judge the results at the same time.  You need to ‘get outside yourself’, and attempting simultaneously to feel the results only brings you back inside yourself to the place where you experience the discomfort.

Taiji, Qigong, and The Alexander Technique.
If you’ve tried Alexander Technique lessons, you will know about taking in the whole picture as this is the basis of lengthening and widening, and fundamental to the concept of release, or ‘not holding on’.
This ‘openness’ is also fundamental to the movement of energy in tai chi and qigong.

Widening your perspective so that you see your body moving as a whole, and relaxation will ensure that your tai chi & qigong movements, instead of feeling clumsy, off-balance and heavy, will feel loose, coordinated, and flowing.

For details of current classes click here.

Using Qi to produce Movement.

You breathe (hopefully).  Maybe you breathe efficiently, maybe you don’t, but in order to live you obviously need both an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ breath; you must have both.  One breath cannot exist without the other.
You feel the end of an in-breath, and you convert it seamlessly to an out-breath.
But when moving, many people don’t do so in the way that they breathe; they often move as though they’re continuously breathing either out or in.
Breathing is yin and yang. It’s expansion and contraction. It’s tension and relaxation.  It’s the opposites that make our lives function efficiently.  It’s creative.  It’s one of our main connections to the planet and reflects everything that happens on the planet.

Exercise 1a:  Jumping.
1. Bend your knees and then STOP.
2. Without bending your knees any further, not even a millimetre lower, jump in the air.

Impossible?

Exercise 1b:  Jumping.
Now do exactly the same as (1) above, but this time when you do (2) you can allow the knees to bend further in order to leap off the ground.

What did your body do?
During that last small knee bend, prior to jumping, a number of things might have taken place:
1. You dropped a little lower, and then the second before your feet detached from the ground, you might have done an extra tiny knee bend.
2. You probably relaxed your body more.
3. You might also have taken an in-breath.
4. Your shoulders sunk.
5. You probably relaxed your neck.

In fact, this happened:

The ball is you.
And that’s exactly how your body should feel inside when you drop to jump off the floor.  The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.
Your body is elastic, it can contract/expand, compress/release, it’s flexible, and your nervous system has an infinite capacity for experiencing these aspects.
You are experiencing gravity, and, just before you leap in the air, if only one muscle holds on, you are no longer fully experiencing it, and the body has lost its pliability.
1Ball 22Ball 33Ball 4

This (slightly worrying!) video shows Sumo wrestlers grounding themselves.  Watch what happens to the bodies they ground themselves:

Now watch closely when this high jump video gets to any of the following places:
0:12-0:13, 1:02, 1:18, 1:33, and a good one at 1:55.
The body compresses just before the jump (look at the shoulders), and then see how the body expands – just like the ball did, where the top of the ball extends upwards as it left the ground:

Timing.
The jump exercise above (Exercise 1b) is a matter of ‘timing’.
You experience gravity like the Sumo wrestler, who doesn’t want to become ungrounded, but you ‘catch’ the sensation and make use of it like the high jumper, who does want to become ungrounded.
4Ball 55Ball 66Ball 7

APPLYING IT in TAIJI & QIGONG.

Exercise 2:  Without a step.
A tai chi and qigong move such as the one at the beginning of many tai chi forms is useful to feel the first part of the bouncy ball effect, i.e. when you sit down having just raised the hands.
All you have to do is to experience you body as though it actually is the sinking ball.  In other words, as you bend your knees, every cell of your body should feel as the ball might feel when it hits the ground – if it were sentient, that is; i.e.

  • Empty every cell – not just in your legs, but throughout the entire body.  Feel gravity.
  • Soften your entire body, everything becoming pliable.
  • Stop holding on.
  • Feel the weight of your body.   You can’t feel if you’re holding on.

Exercise 3:  With a step.
The basics are:-

  • Feet together.
  • Bend both knees.
  • Keeping all the weight on one foot, place only the heel of the other foot slightly ahead.

This is the same concept as the first exercise.  It is important that you remember that slight ‘extra’ sinking of the body that you did in the micro-second before leaping off the floor.  This is the moment for the step.  To put it another way, the sinking feel includes the extension of the heel (with no weight on it), and you shouldn’t move the foot ahead until you’ve felt the sinking.
Therefore, the heel moving outwards is the end of the compression of the body; the final moment of the ball spreading over the floor; the conclusion of the sinking.

And finally…
Ball 5After the compression comes the release.

Once again, this is a ‘feeling’ in the body; it’s an internal release, initially in the neck, but then through the spine and passing down through the body.  It’s this release that frees the body for movement.

This is NOT to say that you are going to do taiji and qigong as though you’re on a Pogo stick, bouncing up and down like the ball does.
To repeat what I said above, “The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.”

The Use of the Pelvis; Lifting the Knee

In both in taiji and in qigong there is often the need to raise the knee, either to kick, or perhaps as an exercise for the pelvis, or perhaps just to take a step.
As in raising your arm efficiently, there is a similar method with the leg.

What happens inside you when you lift your knee?
There are several muscles involved in lifting the leg.  If all you want to know is which are the main muscles used to do the job, then they are:

  • The Rectus Femoris
  • The Iliacus
  • The Iliopsoas

For the purpose of this Blog (because it relates to the previous Blog), the only one I am interested in is the last of the three – the Iliopsoas, often referred to as the ‘psoas’.

The nature of all muscles.Muscle mechanics 1
When at rest, a muscle is a flexible piece of ‘elastic’ connecting two fixed points (in red).  The elastic is neither taut nor floppy – a state of ‘relaxed tension’.
Muscle mechanics 2When operated by the nervous system, the elastic can either contract (shorten) or relax further (lengthen). Contraction brings the ends of the muscle together (the fixed points at the ends are pulled together – these are know as the ‘attachments’); relaxation allows the supports (attachments) to move away from each other.

Psoas & Iliacus 3The psoasPsoas & Iliacus 2
This muscle connects the small of your back (the lumbars – the lower part of the ‘S’ bend of your back), and the inside of the thigh bone (the femur).

Lifting your knee.
The act of lifting your knee is a contraction.  The supports (attachments) at either end are trying to pull together… but you don’t want both of them to move.
Crane leg lift 2What you want is the upper support to stay firm, so that the tightening/shrinking muscle pulls the lower support (which is attached to the leg) upwards.
You don’t want your lower spine to be pulled forwards (towards the abdomen); if this happens, you are in effect collapsing one of the main supports. The incorrect use of this muscle is not unlike tying a hammock to an 80 year old oak tree on one side (in this case the leg), and a 2 year old willow on the other (the spine); the willow will bend, providing no support on that side.
And practically?
When you sit down, your knee lifts towards your chest… or to be more precise, you take your chest towards your knees.
So, what happened to the small of your back when you sat down; and what did you do with your pelvis? After all, you never sit down with your bottom sticking out; if you did you’d jar your spine.
When you sat down, you unconsciously straightened out your lower spine, which had the effect of making you tuck your pelvis/bottom under.
So, when you want to lift the knee or raise your leg up in front of you, try gently pushing the lower spine backwards.  This will have the effect of automatically straightening the ‘S’ bend in your lower back, whilst simultaneously causing your pelvis to ‘tuck under’.

Give up those high heels when doing tai chi and qigong.
Wearing very high heels, which throw the pelvis and bottom backwards, will make it more difficult (if not impossible) to lift the knee high.
I must give them up…