Tag Archives: pelvis

Balance – Walking the Tightrope.

Balance.
“An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”.
Some can, some sometimes can, and some find it almost impossible. Why can some people balance and others not?

According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, balance problems  rely on four body systems working together: 1) musculoskeletal (muscle strength, flexibility), 2) sensory (eyes, pressure sensors in the skin, muscles, and joints, and the vestibular system in the inner ear), 3) neuromuscular (muscle groups functioning cohesively), and 4) cognitive (fear of e.g. falling, and postural awareness whilst multitasking) .

Generally.
Over 25+ years of teaching tai chi, I have thought a great deal about balance, had numerous discussions with osteopaths, Alexander teachers, dancers (both ballet and contemporary), and yoga teachers, and have had to deal with my own balance issues.
I’ve noticed that some days are definitely better than others, that the body sometimes balances better on one side than on the other – but that this can change, and that being aware of certain postural habits, and really understanding how to correct them, can make a huge difference.

Currently, I think that tension is the main culprit; this could be in the form of muscular inflexibility (on a cellular level) as well as stress, (mental tension and therefore also an inflexibility).
Both of these amount to being ungrounded; the muscular meaning that your body locks up and is unable to settle like silt in a pond, and the mental meaning that your energy is up in the head.  In the first case your energy is locked in the middle of the body, and in the second it’s locked in the top of the body.

Fighting ourselves.
If we were to go along the path of least resistance, I guess we would just be piles of flesh and bones on the ground, and gravity would have won.  In a sense, we fight our natural inclination to be on the floor, (perhaps that’s why going to bed is so nice!); we have definitely “taken the weight off our feet”.

Gravity.
But we don’t collapse on the floor, and therefore the body spends it’s entire upright existence sensing or ‘reading’ gravity.
What this means is that, without being aware of it, the body constantly tries to find the position that requires the least energy to stay upright.  For example, when your body bends forward, the back muscles have to become more active to stop your body from bending forward any further, and therefore more energy is used.  We are permanently fighting gravity, but we look for the path of least resistance.

When ‘reading gravity’ goes wrong.
As we grow older, our muscles and tendons lose flexibility, our nervous system doesn’t function so efficiently (see below), and our ability to adapt to our environment alters.  We might still be able to ‘read’ gravity, but sometimes are unable to adapt fast enough.

8 Factors affecting balance.
Below are 8 factors that I’ve noticed affect balance.  Below that is a brief description of each of those factors.  It’s not necessary to read the lot!  If one of them appeals, it might be the one that’s relevant to you, but then again it might not be; I’m quite sure that I haven’t got all the problems down on paper!

1. Tension in the hips (pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints).
2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
4. ‘Over-connection’ between the upper and lower body.
5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
7. Pelvic instability.
8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.

1. Tension in the pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints.
The flexibility of the spine allows for balance and counter-balance to take place. As both the spine and legs attach to the pelvis, the pelvis  therefore becomes the pivotal point for the vertical body; if the pivot is frozen, balance and counter-balance are compromised.
In addition, when the pelvis locks, it affects the flexibility of both the knees and ankles.

2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
Good body tone allows freedom of muscular movement. Stress and tension cause the body to try to ‘hold’ itself in position.
When the muscles are well toned and stretched, when there is elasticity in the tendons and ligaments, the counter-balancing system of the body works efficiently.
Because the body automatically counter-balances itself, when there is tension in one part, another part will adjust.  The classic example of this is that, if you damage your lower back, you’ll often discover that your neck becomes sore a couple of days later… the top and the bottom ‘rearrange’ themselves.

3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
Most often due to bad posture for any number of reasons, but nowadays frequently because of the time spent on screens, the cervical vertebrae wear more than the other vertebrae.
As a result, the motor messages from feet to head are compromised resulting in a fractional increase in time when the body tries to adjust itself.

4. Over-connection between the upper and lower body.
This is when the person’s waist no longer functions actively either for horizontal turning (turn your chest to left or right without your hips moving at all), or for flexing (bend down and touch your toes without involving your stomach!).
Therefore from the chest to the pelvis becomes an inflexible mass with head and legs sticking out (the potato man).
I’m not necessarily talking about overweight people; most people have inflexible waists due to lack of exercise.
As a result of this inflexibility, compensations of balance are less subtle, and double compensations – when you have to compensate twice in rapid succession, are impossible.

5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
Because the muscles are weak, the body ‘borrows’ other muscles to do the job that the leg muscles should really be doing.   In the Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting’.
In effect this locks the body’s balancing mechanism, rather like rust getting into the one part of an analogue clock’s mechanics and affecting the whole clock.

6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
The same principle as above.

7. Pelvic instability.
How the pelvis is held affects balance.
In a way this is an add-on to ‘5’ above.  When there is a problem lifting the knee (weak quadriceps and psoas muscles), the person will destabilise the pelvis by lifting it on the same side as the knee that they’re trying to raise.  (I’m not referring to what is often called a ‘pelvic tilt’; I’m referring to a left/right imbalance).
This creates such a major disturbance in the balance of the rest of the body that the body finds it difficult to compensate; it’s almost as though the maths of trying to juggle the balance equation is too much for it.  This is hardly surprising as putting the pelvis out of kilter is upsetting the very core of the balancing unit.

8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.
I have noticed, particularly when teaching older people who perhaps have had a fall, that they often spend a lot of energy trying to ‘lift themselves off the ground’, as though they are hoping that lifting their shoulders and chests – almost trying to float – will save their falling.
The result is to make matters worse; in effect they become top heavy.
I know that, from the weight point of view, this is illogical… After all, the person weighs the same whether he/she thinks up or down.
But in fact, if you try to 1) lift someone up who is thinking about the sky, and then 2) lift them up when they’re ‘playing dead’, thinking of their feet, thinking ‘through the floor’, or pretending they’re ‘asleep on their feet’, the difference is obvious.
But the other point is that, when our centre of gravity is lower, we are less likely to fall; you only have to think about that children’s toy – the impossible-to-knock-over wobbly man/woman with a rounded base coming to a smaller rounded head at the top – to know that this is true.

Other reasons for difficulty in balance.
There are other medical reasons for balance problems, such as inner ear problems, vertigo, eye problems, numbness in feet and legs, arthritis, heart and blood circulation problems, stroke, low blood pressure, diseases of the nervous system, and certain medicines (in particular ototoxic drugs that damage the inner ear).

Groups of drugs that can effect the inner ear (ototoxic):
antidepressants
anti-seizure drugs (anticonvulsants)
hypertensive (high blood pressure) drugs
sedatives
tranquilizers
anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs)
aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)
diuretics
vasodilators
certain analgesics (painkillers)
certain chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs).


Drug groups courtesy of: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/causesriskfactorsandprevention/01.html

________________________________________________________________________________________________

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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You’ve Left Your Hips Behind.

‘Natural’ movement.
We don’t usually think much about the way that we move around in our everyday lives; we just do it. However, when people take up tai chi or qigong, they often start moving very self-consciously, and a movement that they would normally do both smoothly and gracefully becomes clumsy whilst the body posture gets lost completely.

For example, moving the body from a rear foot to a front foot (this could be a push) is one of those things that brings out the differences.

Moving from back foot to front foot.
If you already have one foot ahead of you, you’re sitting on your back foot, and you want to move your weight forwards on to your front foot, all you do is to push your body off the back foot on to the front foot, and… well, that’s it … your body moves forward, still upright, as though you were walking.
Without any hands being involved, the majority of people will move correctly, as though walking with an upright body.

The unintentional re-wire.
But when you start to involve the arms, something in the brain alters, you no longer just move the body forwards, you also start to lean forward, and the body is no longer upright.  The focus is now entirely on the arms, and everything else is forgotten.

How to strain your back.
If you look at someone side-on as they do the movement this way, you’ll see their upper body angled forwards and their hips behaving as though they’ve been left behind.  Instead of pushing from the centre of the body, they have started pushing from the upper body, and their hips will hardly have moved forward at all.

I’m not saying that the body cannot lean, it can; but if the bottom starts to either ‘lift’ or become ‘left behind’, the posture is not only weakened, but is also potentially damaging to the lumbar area.

In the second picture, assuming that the subject of the photo is doing a tai chi posture, you can see that his body is leaning, but more than that, there is also a ‘disconnection’ (for want of a better word) in the shoulders, which are lifted.  To do his push, he has in effect taken his arms out of the shoulder sockets, so now  the strain will be taken by his upper spine.

Pushing in tai chi.
The problem seems to be created by the absence of anything physical to push in a solo tai chi form.  You’re pushing empty air, but you still want to feel as though you’re really pushing something.  If you were really pushing, say, a piece of heavy furniture across a room, or pushing your car, you just wouldn’t do it like that as it would have less power (although picture 1 would possibly disagree with me, where his lumbar spine is under considerable pressure).
Done in that way, with the bottom ‘lifted’, i.e. a sort of reversed pelvic tilt, the push from your back leg into the ground wouldn’t transmit up your leg, through the hip, up your spine, and along your arms.
Instead, having transmitted up your leg, it would reach your hip, and then, because the ‘line’ had been broken due to your sticking your bottom out, it would get stuck in the lumbar area of your spine and would quite likely hurt you.

Pushing a bent stick.
A slightly simplistic way of looking at why this happens is that, if you were to use a straight stick (e.g. a snooker cue) to push an object, the energy of the push is transmitted from the end that you’re holding, straight through to the other end. If you push with a bent stick, the energy of the push arrives at the bend and is then ‘split’.  Depending on the angle of the bend, some of it tries to go to the end of the stick, and some of it attempts to bend the stick further.

So, when moving the body forward in solo tai chi or in qigong, just do what you would normally do when walking, bring your pelvis toward your front foot, and not only the upper body.  Just let the upper body go along for the ride on top of the hips.

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

Making a Connection in Taiji & Qigong – Sinking Qi

When you first begin tai chi and qigong, you spend most of your time trying to remember the positions of arms and legs in the various postures, and then which posture follows the previous one.
Gradually you begin to know a repertoire of postures, one following another; in other words – the tai chi ‘form’, or a qigong ‘set’ of exercises.

yang-cheng-fuAt first this ends up as though you are physically reproducing a series of photographs; you move the body into the position of one photo, then another, until you’ve got to the end.
You’ve now learnt the shape of the form – the equivalent of a musician learning which note follows which, but without any great fluency, interpretation, or subtlety.

Then there’s all that talk about ‘flow’… ‘flowing’ from one position to another. How do you do it?  How do you smoothly transition between one movement and another?
This could be referred to as the ‘connection’.

Connecting the moves.
Connection is relaxation and continuation.  It is understanding what the energy of a movement is doing and how to convert it into something new.

In fact, we are continuously using this skill in many varied situations.

  • If friends are upset, we listen to them so as to help them convert their discomfort and see them through the problem.
  • If you’re driving your car around a 90 degree bend, you ease off on the corner in order to make the transition.
  • If you want to jump on a bus that’s passing you, you run alongside the bus before jumping on, rather than grabbing the handrail as it passes.

What takes place in all instances is a ‘listening’ to the first action in order to change it into the second action.  By doing so, you blend one action into another.

In taiji and qigong …
stance-bowstance-emptystance-bow

Let’s say you are starting in a left or right Bow stance (one leg ahead of the other, with the weight on the front leg – graphic 1, above); you are going to sit back on to your back leg (graphic 2), and then go forwards again into the same Bow stance that you started in (graphic 3).  You can ignore the hand positions.
Having sat back (graphic 2), the energy which has been going backwards needs to reverse, but without going directly forwards along the same ‘line’ that you sat back on.  If you do this, there will, in effect, be a ‘break’ in the movement, i.e. at the exact point where you finish sitting back prior to going forward again.  Trying to do that is like reaching your 90 degree bend in the road and attempting to do an abrupt right angle turn, i.e. missing out the curve of the bend.  The car would roll over.

  • As you start to sit backwards, the back knee gradually bends.  Be stance-bow-with-arrowaware that the direction of ‘flow’ is backwards (in this case), and that movement mustn’t stop – although it might change direction.  You are gradually tilting your pelvis (draw in your abdomen).
  • As you get near to the end of sitting back, think of relaxing the leg you’ve sat back on; you are actually relaxing the hip joint, but it’s easier to think of relaxing the leg.  (This is the right leg in graphic 2). Your pelvis is continuously tilting and ‘tucking under’.stance-empty-with-arrow
  • Soften your shoulders, elbows, (and hips) so that the ‘backwards’ energy/movement drops.
  • Make sure that you are breathing either in or out, it doesn’t matter which.  When you hold your breath the body can only partially relax; apart from anything else, the muscles don’t get the oxygen they need to stay elastic.
  • As you begin to reach the maximum amount that your bent rear knee can comfortably support you, your pelvis has tilted to its full amount.  Then begin to move forwards again.

What is now happening is that the body/centre is no longer moving backwards and forwards along the same horizontal line, it is now creating a circle.

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…

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’.

‘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