Tag Archives: balance

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.

2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (4)

Continuing … the next point from Blog 1

What’s the point of 2-person work?

  • To understand our own stability is obvious when we’re standing on one leg, it’s simply a case of ‘balance’; but it’s less easy to understand when we’re on two legs, with someone pushing us.
  • Working with a partner gives you the opportunity to understand and learn how to sink your qi.

Change & Testing
This is about stability, muscular interconnection (Peng), and sinking qi,
Generally people find it hard to understand their what they are trying to do when in the role of tester (rather than the person being tested).
James & M.Wang (4)To take an example: You are in the posture of Play the Lute, or Brush Knee, and your partner is holding one or both of your arms and pushing towards you in a specific direction.
When beginners first do this pushing (testing), they often push very suddenly, or very hard, or jerkily, or at the wrong angle – or a mixture of all of these!
But in fact the sensitivity of the tester is equally as important as the sensitivity of the person being tested. It is not a competition, and both parties can learn from the other.
The challenge for the one being tested is to remain comfortable and relaxed, muscularly interconnected (Peng), with the qi sunk, and without collapsing the body.
The challenge for the tester is to ‘help’ his partner.  Both parties should try to feel where the tested person’s disconnection is, where the qi is ‘wasted’, or where the ‘peng’ is dysfunctional… Obvious examples of this are when the shoulders of the tested partner are raised, the chest hasn’t relaxed, or the pelvis hasn’t tucked under.

… Continued in the final blog on “2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (5)”.

2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (1)

Two-person exercises cause a problem for many tai chi practitioners.
Some don’t like touching other people, some get frustrated because the other person isn’t getting it ‘right’, some don’t like the feeling of their personal space being invaded, and others find that their partner is either too stiff or too loose.
One thing is certain, 2-person exercises test one’s vulnerability, and understandably, most people don’t like to feel vulnerable.

James & Master Wang (cropped 2)Vulnerability
First of all, I’m a bit of an advocate for feeling vulnerable.
A lack of vulnerability seems to imply a lack of sensitivity and awareness (“I’m invincible, nothing can harm me!”),  and an absence of ‘give and take’ or communication with the world we live in.  When doing Push Hands, the ‘world we live in’ relates to the relationship between you and the person with whom you are working.

What’s the point of 2-person work?
On its own, tai chi as a solo exercise is not the complete picture.  Yes, you can do it without ever doing other tai chi exercises and, without any doubt, get a great deal from it, but there are certain aspects of tai chi that will be that much harder to grasp.

To mention a few of them:-

  • We are taught that tai chi should be ‘comfortable’ and ‘relaxed’, but when we do tai chi alone, our preconceptions of what it feels like to be ‘comfortable’ and ‘relaxed’ are largely dependent upon habit… our preconditioning.
  • Tai chi is about ‘change’ and ‘adaptability’; this is not obvious when doing solo tai chi, but when you work with a partner, you become very aware of it.
  • To understand our own stability is obvious when we’re standing on one leg, it’s simply a case of ‘balance’; but it’s less easy to understand when we’re on two legs, with someone pushing us.
  • Working with a partner gives you the opportunity to understand and learn how to sink your qi.
  • Partner-work explains the differing uses of the torso and limbs – i.e. the ‘units’ of attack/defence: 1) the body, 2) the shoulders, 3) the elbows, and 4) the wrists/hands/fingers.  The legs can be subdivided in the same way.
  • It’s easier to learn how to ‘go with the flow’ when working with someone else as he/she is providing a force for you with which to work.
  • Without partner-work, it is very difficult to understand the skill of feeling someone else’s intention, and then deflecting that intention to your own advantage.

What might it feel like?
2-Person taiji is an opportunity to ‘maintain your integrity’, in other words, to stay integrated and work as a whole.
Solo Taiji: You can experience this in solo taiji when, having created the intention, the movements seem to happen almost by themselves, as though with no involvement on your part.  There is a sense of ease as if “all’s right with the world”, as though you are completely in tune with yourself.
2-Person Taiji: If you are able to feel this whilst doing a 2-person exercise, your partner will be able to sense that there is something different, because to him, you feel light, inaccessible, smooth in movement, soft, and invulnerable; he will feel as though he cannot get to you, and yet it will feel as though you are not holding him away.

…. continued in “2-Person Exercises in Taiji – Maintaining Your Integrity (2)”

Testing Postures in Taiji & Qigong – Making Sure the World is Round (Peng Energy)

Balancing the body
When performing tai chi and qigong, you need to organise your body so that it feels as though all aspects of the body (i.e. left/right, front/back, and up/down) are supported; in other words the left is supported by the right, the front by the back, the up by the down, etc..
Because of this, the body therefore has 100% awareness of all angles, and all directions, all the time.

This is the same idea as an architect designing a building that will withstand the elements from any direction.  In order that the building stays standing, it must have a solid foundation, and the proportions must be self-balancing.
A further example is the method of construction of a stone arch, where the pressure of the stones on one side of the arch needs to equal the pressure on the other sidSphere 2 (radius) for WordPresse.

Peng energy
In taiji, you need to have this same idea of balance in the body.  In other words if someone were to gently push, or pull you from any angle when you were in a tai chi posture, you would feel as though you were stable and able to withstand the push or pull (within reason).
This is ‘Peng’ energy – a feeling of being inside a balloon, and when ‘testing a posture’ is what you are aiming to generate.

As an example of this, when you are doing a double-handed push, moving from an Empty stance with your weight starting on the rear leg to a Bow stance with your weight finishing on the front foot:

  • Qi in the back: If you do the movement described above with no qi in your back, anyone standing in front of you, who catches hold of your wrists, would easily be able to pull you forwards.
    In this instance your world isn’t round – in Chinese terms, there is no qi in the back.  The upper spine is, in effect, collapsing; the world is round at the front (qi pushing forward), but you are weak at the back (no qi, no feeling of expansion in the same way that there is at the front).
  • Testing the legs: If you were again using the same pushing movement, and if a partner were then to stand beside you and push your front or back knee sideways (e.g. inwards), you should feel stable; both knees would have a very slight sensation (certainly without making it obvious) of expanding outwards.  It wouldn’t be enough to only have one knee expanding, because then again your world wouldn’t be round.
  • Qi up and down: If your partner were to push down on the top of your head, you should be able to feel yourself pushing from the floor (i.e. downwards), up through the crown; yet again, qi in both directions.

The function of 2-person taiji
This concept should be applied not only to taiji but also to qigong.  It is precisely the reason why solo tai chi is sometimes not enough to allow you to understand and feel the structure of a posture; occasionally we need a little help.
This is where 2-person exercises and forms come in; you need someone else to act as a ‘gauge’ so that you can feel your own vulnerability.

Sphere (radius) for WordPress Becoming 3-dimensional
Because of its shape, a sphere is self-supporting; the pressure from its core to anywhere on its circumference is equal.  The world might not be a perfect sphere (apparently it’s an oblate spheroid), but it’s certainly round, and when doing tai chi and qigong we should feel as though our body, acting from its core, behaves in the same way.

The Latest Fashion in Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sinking to Move (1) – The Lower Limbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just ‘stop holding on’.

Gripping the Floor in Tai Chi & Qigong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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