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Balance in taiji

‘Balance’ in taiji

One of the aspect of taiji is to allow ‘freedom of movement’, so that the body never inhibits itself.

‘Freedom of movement’

In order to exist, a solar system must work in harmony. If one planet in the solar system were to go out of alignment, the system would become unstable.
If you see your Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour (1)body as a solar system, the torso being the sun at the centre of the body, and your hands and feet and head being individual planets within that system, those planets always need to ‘balance’ one other.

Left/Right; Front/Back; Up/Down

‘Ease of movement’ is produced first of all by relaxation. Any tension means that the body is fighting itself and therefore restricting movement … it is ‘inhibiting’ itself.

Ease of movement is also created by the interaction not only of the four limbs, but also of the upper and lower body.  Horizontally, it is about using one side of the body to help the other side, and on the vertical aspect, it is the upper half of the body helping the lower half.  In tai chi, movement never happens with only one unit of the body (e.g. one hand or leg), it is always reflected throughout (as in Newton’s 3rd law: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’).
As an example of vertical balance, you only have to think of a tight-rope walker to get the idea – he uses a long pole that stretches to either side of him to increase his ability to balance (the pole distributes mass away from the vertical axis which is the pivot point, which increases inertia).  The point is that left and right have to be balanced for this to work.

Auto-balancing

Physiologically, when damaged, the body can balance itself automatically over a period of time when left alone.
An example of this is that if you have ever damaged your lower back causing the lumbar muscles to go into spasm, you will know that your neck can be affected. After a while, the neck gets used to the new state of affairs and adjusts itself.  You go to the osteopath who sorts out the lumbar problem, and your neck gets sore again, eventually recovering as it again adjusts itself.

Open/Close

Returning to the solar system analogy, the ‘magnetic’ push/pull of the planets, which holds them in their orbits, is comparable to the physical action of breathing.
At the most basic level, an in-breath has to become an out-breath; you cannot go on breathing in forever.  This translates as ‘open/close’ (Kai/He); an ‘open’ must become a ‘close’ – you cannot continue opening forever, nor can you ‘open’ without having closed first…
E.g. it’s impossible to punch with your arms already outstretched; you have to draw them inwards first.
Neither can you have only one side of the body ‘opening’ because the body then becomes unbalanced.
E.g. when breathing in, it is obvious that the chest expands; but the back must also expand.
It is more obvious that when breathing in, not only does the left side of the ribcage expand, but the right side also expands.

Two-Person Tai Chi

Two partners, working together in tai chi, e.g. in Pushing Hands, are like two solar systems interacting; for mutual existence, one needs to sense the actions of the other and respond accordingly.  It is this interaction between the two partners that produces the softness of tai chi.

Natural rules of movement

The odd thing is that, in the everyday actions of our day-to-day lives, we follow these ‘rules of movement’ 90% of the time.  But when learning tai chi and other forms of movement, we start thinking, and all of a sudden our natural movement habits seem to vanish!  So we have to re-learn the principles of what we would normally do without thinking.  It’s also worth pointing out that when we don’t follow these principles in our daily lives, through distraction, stress, hurrying, or laziness, we often injure ourselves (e.g. picking up a heavy object from the floor without balancing the front and back of the body).

Daily use

A simple example of our daily use of the body compared to our ‘learnt’ use of the body:
If you wanted to pull a very heavy object, for example a wooden table, across a room, you might begin with one foot in front of you and one behind, you’d take hold of the edge or leg of the table, and as soon as you started the pulling action, you wouldn’t leave your elbows stuck out to the side, (you’d drop them), nor would you leave your bottom sticking out, (you’d tuck it in).  If the table were extremely heavy, you would additionally engage your abdominal muscles, possibly sucking them in…
As you dragged the table across the room, it would start to feel as though you were using your back to help pull it; and that’s exactly what you’d be doing, you’d be balancing the front leg (that you’re using for pushing) with your back.

Learnt use

 However, when it comes to learning tai chi, most people just move their weight backwards (from the front leg to the back leg), do nothing with the pelvis, don’t even drop the elbows, and just pull their arms back (bending the elbows) as though the arms are a couple of additions to the body that just happen to be in front of you.  All they see is the superficial movement of a body moving backwards from the front leg to the back leg, whilst withdrawing the arms.

So in many ways, doing a solo form of tai chi is much harder than doing tai chi with a partner where contact is involved.  In solo tai chi, it’s harder to feel that you are pulling or pushing as there is nothing to pull and push.  Your body therefore behaves differently.  It’s almost easier to perform movement efficiently when working with a partner, because often (though not always), the body will balance itself automatically, and will cease to inhibit itself.
Which is why, when performed correctly with the intention involved, solo tai chi is often referred to as ‘shadow boxing’.

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‘Open’ & ‘Close’ in taiji. (2) Using the limbs

When you are standing with one leg in front of you and the other behind (i.e. in an Empty stance) and, using only your chest, you push something ahead of you (i.e. moving into a Bow stance), your centre moves towards the object that you’re pushing.

Stance-emptyStance-bowThe centre can’t travel very far, just from the back leg to the front leg – probably a matter of only a few feet, depending on the length and depth of your stance.
In the action of moving the body forwards, your energy has already projected backwards; it has to – in order to move your body forwards …. e.g. the thrusters of a rocket pushing backwards in order to propel the rocket forwards, or the backward push from a propeller that moves the boat forwards, etc.
Stance-bow-with-pushInstead of only the chest pushing forwards, you can also extend the arms in front of you; obviously, as a push, it becomes more efficient…

The maths of this is definitely not something I’m confident about: First of all, there will be some ratio of relative forward to backward power-generation that I am sure someone will correct me on, but it’s possibly 2:1 (the rear leg pushing into the ground behind you, – the backward movement against the forward movement of the body enhanced by the use of the arms).  Secondly there’s the over-all generation of power produced through the hands.  I really should have concentrated better in physics at school.
So what has this to do with opening and closing?
The first point is that both the forward and backward movements for the push come from the centre.
Stance-bow-with-push-and-arrowsThe second point is that there is more to the push than these movements; whilst pushing, the limbs make a ‘spiraling action’, in other words, in the case of the arms, a rotation of the entire arm from the shoulder. In effect this means that the elbows will either sink or lift upwards and outwards.

Stance-bow-with-push-and-arrows plus legsThe legs will also be doing something similar, the thighs spiraling (slightly outwards in a push) in small rotations to open up the ilio-femoral joints.

Hip-Joint-Iliofemoral-DJ
This rotation of arms and legs provides more driving power in the push; it’s the difference between trying to hammer a screw into a piece of wood, and turning it with a screwdriver – both will have an effect on the wood, but one will penetrate better.
When this spiraling action is included in a push, all muscles in the body interact and become involved; nothing stagnates or stays dormant…… If you try simply pushing one hand out ahead of you as you read this without rotating the elbow inwards or outwards, you can feel that certain muscles don’t really come into play; they might stretch slightly but their actual function – medial or lateral rotation – doesn’t come into operation.
Being on the receiving end of this push becomes extremely difficult to resist when all parts of the object driving at you are rotating, even to a small degree.
So an efficient push is entire muscular integration, which cannot be achieved without the spiraling action (open/close action) of the legs and arms.

‘Open’ & ‘Close’ in taiji. (1) Using the centre.

‘Open’ (Kai, pron. ‘Kigh’, as in ‘High‘) & ‘Close’ (He, pron. as in Her) is one of the keystones to the internal aspect of taiji.
Taiji can look beautiful without it, but the beauty is skin deep… and the taiji lacks power.

Kai/He of the lower torso/abdomen involves physical effort, in the sense that you have to use your abdominal muscles; and to do it efficiently and effectively, you need to engage them more than most people seem to realise.

Pelvis & Hips 3

The Mechanics
Those of you who do Pilates will understand immediately what is going on here – you are doing a pelvic tilt.
This involves altering the angle of the pelvis, so that if you were to look at an X-ray of someone’s pelvis from the side as he/she altered it, you would see the front of the pelvis (the pubic bone, or the pubic symphysis – the join at the front between the two sides of the pelvis) rise upwards, whilst the back of the pelvis (including the iliac crests, sacrum, & coccyx) would drop. The rotation takes place along the axis of the ilio-femoral joints, i.e. where the legs meet the hips on either side of the body.
The pelvis should be able to rock forwards and backwards on these joints, although most people are quite locked in the small of the back, which restricts this movement.

The problem is not so much lifting the pelvis at the front, most people can do this, it is releasing the kidney area and lumbar spine at the back that causes many people difficulty.
The end result of not releasing the back is either 1) the top of the back leans backwards when the front is lifted, or 2) the entire action becomes like pulling on a pair of trousers (or giving yourself a wedgie) – the front might be pulled up, but unfortunately by not releasing the back, the lower back in effect is also pulled up, and the rotation is lost.

What does this feel like? (Try it out)….
This can be done standing or sitting, but for the purpose of this example, do it standing.
1) Stand with feet slightly separated.
2) Suck your abdomen in as though you’re trying to get into a pair of size 0 trousers, i.e. very small.
3) Relax the kidney area of your back, and try not to grip the buttocks.
4) When you can’t suck in any further, start to bend your knees, then suck in more. N.B. Keep relaxing and loosening the back.
Throughout this, there should be a sensation of (a) the small of the back (the kidney area) pushing slightly backwards and (b) of the skin in that area expanding and stretching gently.

The odd thing about all of the above is that under certain circumstances we automatically do this action to varying degrees.
1) Most obviously: If you were in a tug o’ war by yourself against 10 other people who were pulling the other end of the rope, you would, without thinking, engage the right muscles when pulling.
2) Less obviously: When sitting down on a chair, to a minor extend you do a pelvic rotation. You might well have experienced the sensation of when you’ve not tucked under, e.g. when sitting down on a stool that is higher than you expected, and you jar your spine because you haven’t got your spine into the right position in time.

So, in taiji, this pelvic rotation is ‘closing’ (He).  The undoing of it is ‘opening’, (Kai).
It is the equivalent of compressing a spring prior to its release.  It is coiling prior to uncoiling; drawing the bow prior to shooting the arrow; gathering power before releasing it.
In taiji, it happens before any expansive movement.  It is the yin before the yang, the black which makes white possible, the up which makes down possible, the in-breath without which there would be no out-breath …. etc. etc.
In other words, it’s the stuff that makes our world and the entire universe operate that has been quite deliberately encapsulated into a set of movements – an art form. #TaiChi #Qigong