Tag Archives: cervical

Turning Your Head With Ease.

Whilst teaching, I’ve noticed that people do a number of unusual things when turning their heads.
Some tilt one ear nearer the shoulder which, in effect, lies the head slightly on its side, others lift the chin, some drop the chin, whilst others push the chin forwards.
None of these are much good for the neck, and some of them are potentially damaging.

Using the neck.
There’s a considerable amount of use of the neck in both tai chi and qigong, although perhaps for different reasons (taiji arguably for martial reasons, and qigong for health reasons).  But before you even begin to turn the head, it’s important to release the neck.

How do you do that?
Easy… focus on the back of your neck and ‘stop holding on’.   If you do this with no other agenda, you’ll find that your chin drops microscopically (whatever you Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USEdo, don’t try to drop the chin).  This freeing of the back of the neck combined with the dropping has the effect of allowing movement in the upper two vertebrae of the neck – the atlas and the axis. Without the release, they catch – one of the reasons for the ‘grinding’ that you sometimes feel.

Sandra Riddell, an Alexander Teacher in Edinburgh, has the following suggestion:-
Ask the neck to “let go of the head” followed by something like “so that the head can lead the spine into length….”.  Several students have said they find this clearer and more effective than just saying ‘free the neck’; indeed I do also.

The above might be enough to solve some problems for a few people, but there is another angle.

Our senses.
The majority of our senses, taste, smell, and in particular sight, are on the front of our heads, and because of that, we tend to ‘go towards’ whatever we are trying to taste, smell, or see.

Occipital lobeWhen our eyes see an object, the message is passed to the back of the eye and then via the optic nerve to the Occipital Lobe of the brain.  This is the part of the brain that recognises and interprets those messages.  The receptors and projectors are at the front of the face, and the screen is at the back of the head.

A possible solution.
Bearing in mind that we are really seeing with the back of our heads, it occurred to me that in order for people to stabilise their heads when turning them, instead of turning the face to look to the left or right, they could try ‘looking’ through the backs of their heads.
In other words, it’s as though you have eyes in the back of your head; give some attention to the back of the head turning as though it were trying to ‘look’.

I was astonished by the results of this simple idea; where beforehand heads had lifted, angled, stretched forwards, etc., everyone’s head stayed level – not just in one class, but in several.  Furthermore, people were able to turn their heads not only more comfortably but also slightly further.

A few thoughts on this…

  1. By putting this simple idea into practise therefore, the head rotates from its axis, rather than reaching forward for information, which misaligns the upper cervical vertebrae.
  2. As you literally see with the back of your head, you are merely allowing the eyes to act as a pair of cameras and moving the screen around ‘behind’ you.
  3. Normally when we look at something, we look ‘out of’ our eyes; our attention moves away from the body during the act of turning the head (cf. ‘out of our minds’).  By the awareness of re-positioning the screen at the back of the head, we stay in the body, and instead of ‘looking out of’ our eyes, the picture comes to us.

Taiji & qigong ‘Peng’.
The best part for me was that this fitted in with the tai chi and qigong principles of ‘Peng’, where all the opposites of the body (left/right, top/bottom, front/back) should balance each other and work harmoniously.  All of a sudden, the importance of turning the head to (e.g.) the left, was also an importance of turning the back of the head to the right.

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‘Forcing’ & ‘Allowing’… it’s not just semantics…

The classics say:
Head upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head. Don’t use Li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the qi [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise“.

Actually, it’s a great description! But it begs the question, how should you position your neck … not just in Tai Chi, but in day-to-day use?
If you are told to ‘hold your head up’, you’ll probably do one of two things – either you’ll try to make yourself a bit taller, or you’ll lift your chin.
In both cases you will have tightened the back of the neck, which means that you will have used Li (external strength, i.e. the neck muscles).Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USE

So the instruction is to “have a natural and lively feeling.”
The Chinese had the same problem – that of trying to describe a feeling…. because it isn’t an action, it’s actually a non-action!
‘Natural’ here means ‘don’t do‘, and ‘lively’ means ‘aware’.
Taiji often refers to the head being drawn up as if by a silken thread; Alexander Technique refers to the head being ‘forward and upward’. It’s all the same thing, but how is it done?

A relaxed muscle lengthens.
When a muscle lengthens, the ends (known as ‘the origin’ and ‘the insertion’) move away from each other – the muscle relaxes or releases.
Conversely, when a muscle shortens, the ends move towards each other – the muscle contracts. This is always to alter the position of one body part relative to another.

TMJ 2aaa DJReleasing your neck.
To do this, there are two directions or planes that need to be taken into account – one horizontal and the other vertical.

Horizontal:
This refers to how far forward or backward the head sits on the spine/torso.
E.g. Without lifting or dropping it, try pushing your nose towards the wall in front of you – you’ll feel the neck crane forwards. You can do the same by pulling your nose backwards also.  In both cases, notice how Head & Cervical vertebrae (side) with arrows & wordsthe neck tenses.

To find the right position, try the following:-

  • Leave your lips together.
  • Drop your lower jaw inside your mouth.
    To make sure that you really have dropped the lower jaw, start to do a yawn with the lips closed (but not too much as you will tense the front of the throat).
  • Notice what happens to the back of the neck; you should find that the head needs to alter position, especially if you stick with the yawn idea.

(Incidentally, this is another example of the auto-balance of the body mentioned in the previous blog).

Vertical:Cervical Spine 3a DJ
Forget your neck for this, it’s one small part of a larger picture.

  • Feel your feet on the ground; feel the top of your head.
  • Notice the distance between them.
  • Visualize the body as a piece of elastic with the origin as the feet and the insertion as the top of the head.
  • Let the feet (and particularly the heels) feel as though they are sinking into and through the floor.
  • As you do so, let go of any tension in the elastic (muscles) which will allow the body (i.e. you don’t take any active role in this) to reach its natural height.

Drawings by Damian Johnston: http://www.fatfly.com