Tag Archives: lumbar

The Use of the Pelvis; Lifting the Knee

In both in taiji and in qigong there is often the need to raise the knee, either to kick, or perhaps as an exercise for the pelvis, or perhaps just to take a step.
As in raising your arm efficiently, there is a similar method with the leg.

What happens inside you when you lift your knee?
There are several muscles involved in lifting the leg.  If all you want to know is which are the main muscles used to do the job, then they are:

  • The Rectus Femoris
  • The Iliacus
  • The Iliopsoas

For the purpose of this Blog (because it relates to the previous Blog), the only one I am interested in is the last of the three – the Iliopsoas, often referred to as the ‘psoas’.

The nature of all muscles.Muscle mechanics 1
When at rest, a muscle is a flexible piece of ‘elastic’ connecting two fixed points (in red).  The elastic is neither taut nor floppy – a state of ‘relaxed tension’.
Muscle mechanics 2When operated by the nervous system, the elastic can either contract (shorten) or relax further (lengthen). Contraction brings the ends of the muscle together (the fixed points at the ends are pulled together – these are know as the ‘attachments’); relaxation allows the supports (attachments) to move away from each other.

Psoas & Iliacus 3The psoasPsoas & Iliacus 2
This muscle connects the small of your back (the lumbars – the lower part of the ‘S’ bend of your back), and the inside of the thigh bone (the femur).

Lifting your knee.
The act of lifting your knee is a contraction.  The supports (attachments) at either end are trying to pull together… but you don’t want both of them to move.
Crane leg lift 2What you want is the upper support to stay firm, so that the tightening/shrinking muscle pulls the lower support (which is attached to the leg) upwards.
You don’t want your lower spine to be pulled forwards (towards the abdomen); if this happens, you are in effect collapsing one of the main supports. The incorrect use of this muscle is not unlike tying a hammock to an 80 year old oak tree on one side (in this case the leg), and a 2 year old willow on the other (the spine); the willow will bend, providing no support on that side.
And practically?
When you sit down, your knee lifts towards your chest… or to be more precise, you take your chest towards your knees.
So, what happened to the small of your back when you sat down; and what did you do with your pelvis? After all, you never sit down with your bottom sticking out; if you did you’d jar your spine.
When you sat down, you unconsciously straightened out your lower spine, which had the effect of making you tuck your pelvis/bottom under.
So, when you want to lift the knee or raise your leg up in front of you, try gently pushing the lower spine backwards.  This will have the effect of automatically straightening the ‘S’ bend in your lower back, whilst simultaneously causing your pelvis to ‘tuck under’.

Give up those high heels when doing tai chi and qigong.
Wearing very high heels, which throw the pelvis and bottom backwards, will make it more difficult (if not impossible) to lift the knee high.
I must give them up…

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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