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).
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.
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 the 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).
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