Tag Archives: pilates

The Latest Fashion in Exercise

I first started teaching tai chi & qigong in about 1990.  Back then, not so many people knew what tai chi was, and even fewer knew anything about qigong.

However, about 3 years after I started teaching, tai chi went through a massive upsurge in popularity, and suddenly, after having beginners classes with only 5-8 beginners, I suddenly had classes with 20 or more beginners.  In fact there was one term when I had 40 beginners and had to rent the theatre at RADA Studios for the ‘trial’ class before splitting into 2 groups!  But the fashion in exercise constantly moves, and after 2 or 3 years of packed classes, all of a sudden the fashion had moved on to something else.

I found this hard to understand at first; it is such a brilliantly designed form of exercise.
138 - Exercise Park (Man stretching!)40 years from when I began it, I am still constantly amazed at the subtlety and the ingenuity of its structure and design, and the depths of understanding that the Chinese must have had, and still have, in working out its principles that enable it to operate so effortlessly and with such powerful results, not only martially but also health-wise.  The latter refers to the way that the entire system is integrated with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), so that tai chi, qigong, and TCM support and build upon the strengths of each other.

Yoga has always been in the limelight, but we have seen the fashion spotlight focusing on Zumba, Pilates, Military Fitness, and it’s just moving to Ballet Barre workout.
Osteopaths I have spoken to are keen on these other forms of fitness, purely for cynical reasons; the exercise brings them a lot of business.
Often the teachers don’t appear to be very well trained ….. it’s a fashion, so there isn’t time to get any deep understanding, and, generally in the West, our culture encourages impatience and fast results.  Therefore, the students are allowed to overdo it, pulling and straining muscles, overworking body parts that were quite content being dormant before being nudged to wake up a little too abruptly.

I must admit that it surprised me when I heard this about Pilates; obviously there are well-trained teachers out there, but I suppose that it’s not a lot different to someone taking a term’s tai chi lessons and then setting up their own class.  It happens, unfortunately, and the beginner doesn’t know any better.

Maybe the instant result package works for some, but it always strikes me that it’s a bit like brushing your teeth, or some other mundane daily task, where all you want is a result and the actual process is a bit irrelevant, and perhaps something to be endured.  No wonder people don’t stick to it; working for an end result means not enjoying the journey.

156 Man exercising taijiWhat I particularly enjoy about tai chi and qigong is that there’s a continuous growth in understanding about how the body works, what makes it work more efficiently, and how to make it move so seamlessly that it feels as though it’s moving itself.
I spend ages trying to teach this to my students.  I’m not saying that I  always get it right myself, I don’t, but when I do, I’m always amazed at the perfection of the movement, how the body worked in perfect unity, and how, when you’ve moved into a new position correctly, it almost feels as though you haven’t moved…. and in a sense you haven’t, because it’s you in the middle acting harmoniously.
Pretentious?  Probably, but language has always been a bit inadequate at describing how one feels about an experience.

However, in spite of Ballet Barre workout, I have noticed that the wind has changed direction slightly, and tai chi is just beginning to catch the breeze again.  Even the medical profession is referring patients to take up tai chi.  I am now getting several students every term who have been told by their doctors specifically to take up tai chi.  The Western medical profession is beginning, at last, to catch up with the Chinese medical profession and realise how astonishingly good, how amazingly versatile, how incredibly adaptable this exercise is.
236 WuShu TeamIt works well for people of all ages, from 5 to 100+ years old, and you can take it on any level you like: it exercises not only the body but also the mind, and you can go into into its depths or not as you wish and still get something from it.  You can use it as a meditation, or as a martial art, or just for some plain exercise, or to build up energy, to strengthen muscles, to relieve stress, to slow the heart rate, to improve breathing, to improve coordination, to help balance, to prevent falls in the elderly, to help with arthritis … and on and on.  And even if you chose to do it for only one of these reasons, you’ll get the benefit of all the other reasons anyway, whether you want them or not!

So what about qigong?
The majority haven’t caught up with this yet, and the Western medical profession still seems to know little about it.  I find this slightly odd, because surely the medical profession is aware of what goes on within the Chinese medical profession, where Western medicine, acupuncture, massage therapy, and qigong are used alongside each other, each supporting the other.
Qigong is taking its time, although I think that eventually, not so long from now, it will find a place that is on a par with yoga.

‘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