Tag Archives: neck

Putting Backbone Into It (Shadow Boxing)

The Spinal Line.

  • Crown of head (not to be confused with the hair whorl)
  • Perineum (muscle between genitals & anus)
  • Point directly on the line between your 2 feet (variable if moving your weight back/forward between the feet).

The Spinal Line (when pushing an object/person).
When working with someone else, or even a static object, the correctly connected line of the spine becomes even more important.
In effect, a force against the body needs to be evenly distributed throughout it, so as to lessen the chance of damage to one part, and the spine is the main method of distribution (like the mains water pipe into the house before distribution to other outlets).

To continue the water analogy, it’s the pressure of the water behind your tap that causes the flow, not the water itself.  So, for example, when shifting a piece of heavy furniture, if you overuse the arms, you can strain them (or the shoulder joints); or if you don’t use the spine correctly, you can hurt your back.  In this example, if you treat the body this way, you’re trying to push water out of the system without backup from the mains.

How do you ‘connect’ the spinal line?
When a you push someone/thing, the force passes
⇒ down your arms,
⇒ through the shoulder joints,
⇒ connects across the bridge of the shoulder girdle to the spine,
⇒ runs down your spine to the pelvis,
⇒ passes sideways via the bridge of the pelvis to the thigh bones (mainly the rear leg thigh bone if you’re in a Bow Stance), and
⇒ travels down the leg(s) to the heel(s). (Depending on what you’re doing, it might then move to the toes, and possibly the tips of the fingers at the other end).

Or is it the other way around?
It’s also arguable that instead of thinking the force starting at your hands, you think of it starting at your rear foot, but because it’s a push, most people don’t think it this way.

Pushing furniture.
You need to move a piece of furniture in the room, and you don’t want to lift it.
You put your hands against the side of it and shove.  If you shove with only your arms they’ll get tired, and you might well hurt your neck and back (probably lower).
To move it, (1) you need to connect yourself to the piece of furniture correctly, (2) you need to push correctly, (3) you need to relax whilst pushing (strangely), and (4) your intention needs to lead you in the right direction.

1) Connect yourself:
You apply a gentle push, without intending to make it the object/person move, and you feel the connection between object and your rear foot.
You are creating an energetic line from rear foot to hands, and the easiest places to ‘break’ that line are at the shoulders and/or lower (lumbar) spine.
If the shoulders are raised, the energy from the push will run up the arms, reach the shoulders, and will then ‘leak’ or be ‘blocked’ at the shoulders; some of it might reach the rear foot, but most of it will be dissipated in the upper body.  You are ‘leaking qi’, which, in effect, means that the pipeline from hands to foot has a hole in it.
Similarly, if you haven’t relaxed your pelvis, allowing the lower spine to settle and release, the energy ‘leaks’ from the lumbar part of the spine, and you will possibly risk straining your lower back.

2) Expand/lengthen your line in an integrated way.
In this instance, expanding means forwards and backwards (‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’).
Integrated means that you distribute the force equally through your spine, arms, and rear leg.

3) Relax.
This might seem odd, bearing in mind that your pushing something, but sticking with the pipeline analogy, when you lay pipes, you need to ‘bed’ them correctly; in a long run of pipes, if you only support the two ends, the pipe will gradually start to bow over time, so the pipe needs to be able to rest.
So when pushing your object, connect to the object and feel the floor with the pushing foot, but then try to ’empty’ the middle… rest it.

4) Your intent.
Your intention simply focuses the energy, like shooting at a target.  The more finely you focus, the easier the action is.  Rather like a hosepipe, the finer the nozzle on the end, the further the water will travel.

And the point in relation to Tai Chi and Qigong is?
When you have a force that is pushing you, or conversely you are pushing someone/thing, it’s comparatively easy to feel this.  The challenge is to apply and feel this concept when doing solo tai chi or qigong.  Hence the expression “shadow boxing”.

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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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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

Using Qi to produce Movement.

You breathe (hopefully).  Maybe you breathe efficiently, maybe you don’t, but in order to live you obviously need both an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ breath; you must have both.  One breath cannot exist without the other.
You feel the end of an in-breath, and you convert it seamlessly to an out-breath.
But when moving, many people don’t do so in the way that they breathe; they often move as though they’re continuously breathing either out or in.
Breathing is yin and yang. It’s expansion and contraction. It’s tension and relaxation.  It’s the opposites that make our lives function efficiently.  It’s creative.  It’s one of our main connections to the planet and reflects everything that happens on the planet.

Exercise 1a:  Jumping.
1. Bend your knees and then STOP.
2. Without bending your knees any further, not even a millimetre lower, jump in the air.

Impossible?

Exercise 1b:  Jumping.
Now do exactly the same as (1) above, but this time when you do (2) you can allow the knees to bend further in order to leap off the ground.

What did your body do?
During that last small knee bend, prior to jumping, a number of things might have taken place:
1. You dropped a little lower, and then the second before your feet detached from the ground, you might have done an extra tiny knee bend.
2. You probably relaxed your body more.
3. You might also have taken an in-breath.
4. Your shoulders sunk.
5. You probably relaxed your neck.

In fact, this happened:

The ball is you.
And that’s exactly how your body should feel inside when you drop to jump off the floor.  The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.
Your body is elastic, it can contract/expand, compress/release, it’s flexible, and your nervous system has an infinite capacity for experiencing these aspects.
You are experiencing gravity, and, just before you leap in the air, if only one muscle holds on, you are no longer fully experiencing it, and the body has lost its pliability.
1Ball 22Ball 33Ball 4

This (slightly worrying!) video shows Sumo wrestlers grounding themselves.  Watch what happens to the bodies they ground themselves:

Now watch closely when this high jump video gets to any of the following places:
0:12-0:13, 1:02, 1:18, 1:33, and a good one at 1:55.
The body compresses just before the jump (look at the shoulders), and then see how the body expands – just like the ball did, where the top of the ball extends upwards as it left the ground:

Timing.
The jump exercise above (Exercise 1b) is a matter of ‘timing’.
You experience gravity like the Sumo wrestler, who doesn’t want to become ungrounded, but you ‘catch’ the sensation and make use of it like the high jumper, who does want to become ungrounded.
4Ball 55Ball 66Ball 7

APPLYING IT in TAIJI & QIGONG.

Exercise 2:  Without a step.
A tai chi and qigong move such as the one at the beginning of many tai chi forms is useful to feel the first part of the bouncy ball effect, i.e. when you sit down having just raised the hands.
All you have to do is to experience you body as though it actually is the sinking ball.  In other words, as you bend your knees, every cell of your body should feel as the ball might feel when it hits the ground – if it were sentient, that is; i.e.

  • Empty every cell – not just in your legs, but throughout the entire body.  Feel gravity.
  • Soften your entire body, everything becoming pliable.
  • Stop holding on.
  • Feel the weight of your body.   You can’t feel if you’re holding on.

Exercise 3:  With a step.
The basics are:-

  • Feet together.
  • Bend both knees.
  • Keeping all the weight on one foot, place only the heel of the other foot slightly ahead.

This is the same concept as the first exercise.  It is important that you remember that slight ‘extra’ sinking of the body that you did in the micro-second before leaping off the floor.  This is the moment for the step.  To put it another way, the sinking feel includes the extension of the heel (with no weight on it), and you shouldn’t move the foot ahead until you’ve felt the sinking.
Therefore, the heel moving outwards is the end of the compression of the body; the final moment of the ball spreading over the floor; the conclusion of the sinking.

And finally…
Ball 5After the compression comes the release.

Once again, this is a ‘feeling’ in the body; it’s an internal release, initially in the neck, but then through the spine and passing down through the body.  It’s this release that frees the body for movement.

This is NOT to say that you are going to do taiji and qigong as though you’re on a Pogo stick, bouncing up and down like the ball does.
To repeat what I said above, “The ball is the internal aspect of you; it’s what it should feel like inside.”

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.

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

 

‘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