Tag Archives: balance

Balance – Walking the Tightrope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Standing Qigong and ‘Balance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Neck – The Master of Counterbalance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few pictures say it all:

                                   

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

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

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

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

What do YOU do with your neck?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Got That Sinking Feeling.

Feeling that sinking feeling.
If you’ve ever been at the seaside and put your foot on a raised rock, and then attempted to push yourself up using only the leg on the rock, you’ve had the sinking feeling.  Your leg briefly works very hard, and it feels as though your torso is compressing your leg and foot into the rock.

But of course this could be almost any action in which you have to lift your body – it could even be walking up one small step on the stairs; but you actually do the same thing even when walking on the level.  When you put that foot forwards and move the weight on to it, for a brief moment the torso sinks into that solo leg before pushing itself upwards in order to bring the other leg through for the next step.

So what’s going on?
The Chinese wrould say that you are sinking your qi during that moment, and for some people, it’s not a very pleasant sensation.  I’ve noticed that, by and large, people don’t like the feeling of their legs working correctly.

One of the reasons tai chi teachers spend so much time correcting people’s postures is that, when we need to do something with our legs that requires effort, instead of just using our legs, we ‘borrow’ other muscles, (‘recruit’ in Alexander Technique terms), in the hips, back, and even the neck that aren’t necessary for the job.
Why?  Because it’s easier on the legs; it spreads the load.  It’s fine occasionally, but the trouble is that it rarely is occasionally … it becomes a habit.

This becomes apparent when, for example, I correct someone’s posture in Stork/White Crane Spreads its Wings, (where all the weight is taken on one bent leg).  People usually find it very difficult, even unpleasant; they don’t like the feeling of only the necessary muscles working correctly.

Passing the 40 mark.
These problems gradually become more extreme as we age.
There may be very good reasons for this, such as arthritis, worn joints in knees, hips, and ankles, debris in the joints, joints that have changed shape through misuse over time, cartilage problems, etc., but leaving these mechanical reasons aside, most people as they age don’t trust their joints as much as they used to when they were younger, mainly because they haven’t strengthened those particular connections over time, and little by little have ended up sitting down more.

Or even younger.
Leg strength used not to be a problem for people in their 20s and 30s, but over the last 10 years I’ve noticed that it’s definitely edging into these age groups.
I’m guessing that it’s partly to do with our lifestyle, including both what we eat and how much, but also screens of all types (we don’t even have to walk to the phone nowadays, it’s often in our pocket), and that so many jobs are sedentary.

I’d rather use a coat hook.
Older people often appear to be trying to ‘hold themselves up’ off the ground.  Their qi, instead of sinking, seems to be held more and more in the upper body, as though they’re trying to take the weight off their legs.  In a sense that’s exactly what they’re trying to do, because if you don’t trust your hips or knees, you’re not sure if your knees are going to give way, you’re worried about exerting pressure on the wrong part of the knee, or you’re worried about your balance, then that’s exactly what you’d want to do.
It’s a vicious circle; the less you use your legs, the less you trust them, and therefore the less you use them, etc.

And the point is?
Well, obviously… You’re doing the right thing if you’re doing tai chi or qigong.
There’s plenty of research available about how they can benefit all the joints, and even doctors, who 10 years ago knew nothing about tai chi and qigong, are now recommending that joint sufferers, and people with balance problems (and heart/blood pressure problems) take them up.
Perhaps we should all be taking deportment classes!

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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

‘Enabling’ Movement

The art of effortless movement.
If you want to take a step forwards, it’s impossible to move efficiently if you still have weight on one foot, even a minute percentage.
This is like driving off in a speed boat whilst still anchored.

To move effortlessly, you have to observe not only how you shift your weight from one foot to the other, but also how you use your muscles.  Are you relaxing all those muscles that are unnecessary for the job, or are you holding on to some because, either you simply haven’t noticed that they’re tight, or they’ve been tight for so long that you just don’t feel them anymore?
Is your body well aligned?  Are you bending to step? Are you looking at the floor?  Have you lifted your shoulders to step?  Have you tightened your neck?

Stepping forwards, backwards, or sideways.
Whichever direction you want to step, the main question is, how do you do it with ease?
“With ease” means that your balance is perfect, which in turn means that you have complete confidence in it, and that it is done with relaxation.
We’re not talking about using body momentum here; yes, it’s possible to ‘throw yourself through a movement’ and as a result not notice it – a kind of simultaneous ‘in’ and ‘out of’ control, but the real skill is to do it very slowly whilst feeling comfortable (no effort, no tension) throughout.

The 100% rule.
To move one foot you must place the weight on the other foot.  Of course it’s obvious, but most people don’t do this.  Beginners (and some more advanced) in tai chi and qigong fall from one foot to another, using momentum to step; this might be okay when you’re walking but isn’t so good when you require control in, for example, a martial art – although I’m aware that not everyone is interested in this aspect.

Stepping with awareness.
Only by shifting 100% of your weight on to one side of your body can you free up the other side of the body.  By doing so, you ‘enable movement’, in other words, you allow movement to take place because the other side of your body is free to move.  This is also known as ‘full and empty’.

Next you have to step with the free leg, but if you just stick it out ahead of you, the heel won’t touch the floor.  However, by bending the knee of the leg on which you’re standing, the heel will now touch.
Only when the heel has touched the floor should you start to move the spine forwards (or sideways or backwards)… in other words, only then do you shift your weight to the other foot.

If you want the step to be bigger, then you have some options:

  1. Either you’ll need to bend the supporting knee more. (Don’t try to increase the length of the step by ‘launching’ yourself into the step; when you do that, you are briefly falling in space before the foot lands on the floor).
  2. Turn your hip; i.e. If you’re stepping with the left foot, then turn your hip to the right.
  3. A combination of the above two points.

And a neater version…
That’s all pretty messy when you do it in stages like that, so you need to try it simultaneously:
Transfer the weight on to one leg, whilst simultaneously turning and sinking the body and extending the other foot.  The extended foot has no pressure on it in this exercise.  Only then do you move the weight on to the foot that you’ve extended.

The art of movement with massive effort.
When described, ‘The art of effortless movement’ sounds like quite the opposite, but in fact it’s very close to the way that a cat, or tiger creeps up to its prey.

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.