Tag Archives: qi

Playing with your Spine.

From head to foot.
When practicing taiji and qigong, we are often conscious of the forwards/backwards and the left/right of the movements, but it’s easy to forget the crown to feet expansion/contraction.
When doing Tai Chi & Qigong, it’s important to keep that structural line intact.

Intact?
By this I mean that any forces that the spine is dealing with are evenly spread over its length; i.e. no part of the spine is taking more force than any other part.  (I do not mean that the spine has to be vertical).
It’s important to keep the spine intact/connected at all times; but we usually don’t.

If you bend a stick, the stress is distributed over the length of the stick.  In other words, each part of the length of the stick supports the other parts.
Most people’s postures don’t reflect this, we do things both with our necks and with our hips that make the spread of force through our spines very uneven.
When working correctly though, it’s yet another example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts; all of our body-systems work much better when the individual parts (in this instance the muscles on either side of the spine) work as a collective.

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)

Feeling it.
The majority of tai chi forms begin with the hands lifting and lowering.
When lifting a heavy object, your feet naturally press downwards as you raise your arms (gravity/weight of object), and as you lift the object, your intention is to rise, so you think your head upwards.  In other words, you automatically lengthen your back (unless you’re lifting the ‘wrong’ way and lifting from the lower or middle back – an example of spinal disconnection).

‘Raise hands’ at the start of a tai chi form.
Your arms together weight somewhere between 16-20lbs (roughly 7-9kg), so if you feel their weight as you lift them, you’ll also be pressing your feet into the ground.
Not only that, if you try to gauge the weight of your arms, you have to relax your shoulders (it’s almost as though you have to isolate the arms, in order to feel their independent weight), and by doing so this helps to sink the body mass further.
The problem for many people who don’t do this is that they end up raising their whole body and become ungrounded (shoulders rise, neck tenses, and hips tighten, head actually compresses); it’s almost as though they are trying to lift themselves off the floor.

Lowering your arms or even sitting down
When lowering the arms and bending the knees in tai chi, (even when sitting  on to a chair), people make themselves a dead weight at the expense of their necks and spines; in other words, they feel as though their heads (and necks) are also sinking.  This means that the vertical expansion of the spine (Peng) is lost; the upper part of the body collapses into the lower part.  In effect, the body has ‘sagged’.
The body ceases to have spring, and becomes soggy; it’s rather like attempting to bounce some putty or a bean bag off the floor; neither object bounces but instead collapses or squashes into the floor.

This time using the spine
So, as you sit down, go with gravity, and feel the body’s mass dropping.  Feel the weight of the pelvis and let it ‘hang’, let the shoulders fall, and feel the weight of your arms, but as you do so, try softening the back of your neck from a point between your shoulder blades and up into your occiput (the hollow at the back of your head where the neck enters), through the base of your skull and to the crown of your head.  
Don’t stretch though; doing it correctly is an UN-doing, not a DOing.

Balance.
For those of you who find balance difficult, you might find that the above helps, but it takes practise as it involves a change of mindset.
This spinal line is very much a physical sense of connectivity within you; there is an actual feeling of a solid line running through the body from top to bottom, as though it were a part of you.

You don’t have to do Tai Chi or Qigong to practise this, you can do it at any time, even when lying in bed.
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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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Sinking Qi (2)

It’s a feeling, you can’t actually do it.
In fact it’s the act of not-doing… definitely a verbal contradiction.

I spent many years thinking that ‘sinking your qi’ was something that you somehow physically did, like ‘raise or lower your arm’, that it was a skill from the Grandmasters passed down over the generations, something that, one day, you’d suddenly be endowed with, or magically absorb.

It’s a feeling, and, like all feelings, is only possible to explain by comparison or with a simile (try explaining what an orange tastes like) whilst hoping that the person, to whom you’re attempting to explain the feeling, has had experiences that are similar to your own.  In other words, it’s nigh on impossible.

What does it feel like?

  • Sediment; it’s like the sediment of a murky pond settling on to the bottom.
  • It’s like ‘playing dead’ when you were a kid, with someone trying to lift you up.
  • It’s an object falling to the floor, the moment it fully impacts the ground.
  • It’s feeling gravity and borrowing it.
  • It’s the letting go of every cell in your body.
  • It’s feeling your own weight.
  • It’s no longer holding on.
  • It’s the sensation you can get in the second before you fall asleep.
  • It’s how you can feel when you meditate.
  • It’s how your nervous system feels when truly calm.
  • More esoterically, it’s a feeling of connection to the planet, or to the earth.

What’s its function?
It connects movement in tai chi and qigong (well actually any movement in anything), but is a movement in itself; it’s the out-breath before the in-breath, as well as the in-breath before the out-breath. If it’s true that any object or event is possible by virtue of the fact that its opposite exists, then it’s one side of the coin.  In other words, its function is to allow its opposite to exist.

I’m aware that this is beginning to sound a bit ‘zen’, (‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  So to bring it back to the practical, it’s what you experience when you are jumping off the floor into the air.  In the second before jumping, just as you finish dropping your body, you sink your qi; it’s the connection between the dropping and the rising – a softening.

If you try to sink your qi, you fail.
You can watch this happening if you do the jumping exercise above.  When you attempt to control it, you stop softening and start directing the muscles.  All spontaneity is lost.

This is a bit like (back to the sediment again), if you try to make the sediment sink in the pond, you just end up stirring it up.

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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

I’ve Got That Sinking Feeling.

Feeling that sinking feeling.
If you’ve ever been at the seaside and put your foot on a raised rock, and then attempted to push yourself up using only the leg on the rock, you’ve had the sinking feeling.  Your leg briefly works very hard, and it feels as though your torso is compressing your leg and foot into the rock.

But of course this could be almost any action in which you have to lift your body – it could even be walking up one small step on the stairs; but you actually do the same thing even when walking on the level.  When you put that foot forwards and move the weight on to it, for a brief moment the torso sinks into that solo leg before pushing itself upwards in order to bring the other leg through for the next step.

So what’s going on?
The Chinese wrould say that you are sinking your qi during that moment, and for some people, it’s not a very pleasant sensation.  I’ve noticed that, by and large, people don’t like the feeling of their legs working correctly.

One of the reasons tai chi teachers spend so much time correcting people’s postures is that, when we need to do something with our legs that requires effort, instead of just using our legs, we ‘borrow’ other muscles, (‘recruit’ in Alexander Technique terms), in the hips, back, and even the neck that aren’t necessary for the job.
Why?  Because it’s easier on the legs; it spreads the load.  It’s fine occasionally, but the trouble is that it rarely is occasionally … it becomes a habit.

This becomes apparent when, for example, I correct someone’s posture in Stork/White Crane Spreads its Wings, (where all the weight is taken on one bent leg).  People usually find it very difficult, even unpleasant; they don’t like the feeling of only the necessary muscles working correctly.

Passing the 40 mark.
These problems gradually become more extreme as we age.
There may be very good reasons for this, such as arthritis, worn joints in knees, hips, and ankles, debris in the joints, joints that have changed shape through misuse over time, cartilage problems, etc., but leaving these mechanical reasons aside, most people as they age don’t trust their joints as much as they used to when they were younger, mainly because they haven’t strengthened those particular connections over time, and little by little have ended up sitting down more.

Or even younger.
Leg strength used not to be a problem for people in their 20s and 30s, but over the last 10 years I’ve noticed that it’s definitely edging into these age groups.
I’m guessing that it’s partly to do with our lifestyle, including both what we eat and how much, but also screens of all types (we don’t even have to walk to the phone nowadays, it’s often in our pocket), and that so many jobs are sedentary.

I’d rather use a coat hook.
Older people often appear to be trying to ‘hold themselves up’ off the ground.  Their qi, instead of sinking, seems to be held more and more in the upper body, as though they’re trying to take the weight off their legs.  In a sense that’s exactly what they’re trying to do, because if you don’t trust your hips or knees, you’re not sure if your knees are going to give way, you’re worried about exerting pressure on the wrong part of the knee, or you’re worried about your balance, then that’s exactly what you’d want to do.
It’s a vicious circle; the less you use your legs, the less you trust them, and therefore the less you use them, etc.

And the point is?
Well, obviously… You’re doing the right thing if you’re doing tai chi or qigong.
There’s plenty of research available about how they can benefit all the joints, and even doctors, who 10 years ago knew nothing about tai chi and qigong, are now recommending that joint sufferers, and people with balance problems (and heart/blood pressure problems) take them up.
Perhaps we should all be taking deportment classes!

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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

Heavy Arms

Each of your arms weighs about 8-10lbs (roughly 3.5-4.5Kg).
That’s heavy… though we don’t really notice it because either the arms are hanging down beside you, or, if we do come to lift them, we use so many extra and unnecessary muscles to do the job (known as ‘recruiting’ in the Alexander Technique) that their weight is spread across the shoulders and neck.

Where’s the qi?
The result of this is that the qi is held in the upper body which means that
     • our balance compromised,
     • our breathing tends to be higher,
     • our ability to relax is diminished,
     • the flexibility of our necks and is reduced,
     • we’re more inclined to get headaches,
     • the rotational potential of our waist becomes less,
     • the range of movement in both shoulders and arms is massively impacted.

It’s all about the shoulders really.
The idea is to lift up your arms, forwards or sideways, and attempt to experience the weight of your arms. What this actually means is that, in order to get that feeling, you can only use the essential muscles. This will also mean that you will need to disengage the shoulders from the task; they aren’t necessary.

Weighing a fish.
The muscles that you use to do this should feel as though they are weighing a fish with one of those spring-loaded hanging scales (I guess that could be your hand luggage also, but the fish is a bit more interesting!).  You have to give the arms to gravity, letting go of the muscles so that they gently stretch. If you’re not used to this, it can make them ache as they undo, but it doesn’t last.

Now just do it for the rest of your life!
That’s how to use your arms in tai chi and qigong, but the concept should also be applied to every activity, whether cooking, reading a book, or driving your car, etc., in fact every time you start to raise your arms from the vertical hanging position.

Details of Tai chi and Qigong classes with James Drewe here.

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.

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.”

Energy, Flow, & Learning

Energy
Energy is flow; without flow there is no energy.  A shortage of energy is therefore partly about a lack of flow … i.e. partial stagnation.

The energy industryLucozade
We are  constantly bombarded by energy foods, energy drinks, energy supplements, energy this and that, and exercises and methods to improve our energy.
More often than not, this seems to make the assumption that it’s okay to continue our lifestyle exactly as before, but, by just doing something new, by including a few additional healthy foods or activities, or by simply changing where we live, we can enhance our energy levels.
So, bearing in mind that our bodies are constructed entirely of what we eat and breathe, it might be worthwhile looking at how to reduce one’s supply of energy!

How do you reduce your energy levels?
Apart from the obvious, i.e. stop eating and drinking entirely, try using or cultivating any or all of the following:

  • Food, drinks, and any other substances that the body finds either hard to break down, hard to assimilate, or toxic
  • An excess of absolutely anything and everything (this includes an excess of exercise)
  • Suppression of elimination (e.g. discharge of toxins via sweating, excretion, etc.)
  • Emotional excess or suppression
  • Musculature that lacks tone, yet requires mobilisation
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • Poor breathing habits
  • Air quality that causes the lungs to search for oxygen
  • Excess stress
  • Poor quality sleep (due to any of the above)
  • Extreme climatic conditions
  • Fixed attitudes

I realise that there’s a degree of overlap between most of these, and that we hear a lot about most of them, but I’m particularly interested in the last one.  How many times a day do we encounter that cause of stress? Hundreds? Thousands?

Fixed attitudes; inability to change
It’s that second when you find yourself thinking, “I don’t like that!”, or “That can’t be right; it’s not how I’ve done it before”, or “Why did he say that?”, or “That’s no way to behave”, or “What is that person on?”…
This is a major, if not the major, cause of stress.  When we resist something, not only does it persist, itKirlian apple holds us back like an anchor, stopping us from moving on.
I see this happening in myself all the time; I have a fixed idea of how something should be done, and, being instantly biased because I’m judging through a previously accepted set of criteria, find it very difficult to see outside the box.  The very fact that I initially have an opinion makes being open-minded very difficult.

Fixed attitudes & learning
I watch this happen when I’m learning tai chi.
Because I’ve been doing it for 40+ years means that I have a great many pre-conceived ideas of how I should be moving.  I have to consciously switch off what I think I know, so that I can attempt to view with new eyes.  It’s like trying to chew one’s own teeth; you’re using your mind to switch off your mind, whilst simultaneously standing outside yourself to become an observer.
The challenge for me is to catch this moment of lack of acceptance – the moment when I am not being completely open to the new.
If I’m able to catch it, I can see how it solidifies or hardens my attitude, blocking me.
By trying to operate through pre-conceived ideas, I’ve created in myself an energetic dam; I’ve stopped flowing; my inter-meshing with life is compromised; I’ve set myself against my current situation; my ego has got in the way; I’ve stopped learning.

How does this affect tai chi & qigong?
In the martial arts this is referred to as ‘blocking qi’, although this term is usually used to mean a raised shoulder, a tightened pelvis, a locked hip joint, or other problems such as a collapsed neck.
From the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medical) perspective, this blocking of qi causes an imbalance amongst the organs, initially causing loss of energy, and progressing over time to dis-ease, i.e. a lack of ease within the body.

I encounter this all the time, not only when learning, but also when teaching.
I’ve seen some of my students find this very hard, some of them actually leaving.
One student, I particularly remember, left after I’d taught High Pat on Horse slightly differently (as a result of my own lesson with my teacher) saying, “You never used to teach it like that, you’ve changed it.”
She was right; the basic shape of the move was identical, but, not only did it differ in the way that it connected to the moves before and after it, my interpretation of the actual movement had altered to become more circular, more flowing, and more connected to my centre. This was too much for her.
I used to be exactly the same! I wanted it all set in stone – a nice formula, a recipe, so that I ‘knew’ tai chi.

Perspective
To learn though, we have to base learning on something.  I’m not saying that all learning should start from the point of view of a clean slate; it must be built on what we’ve already learnt.
What I am saying is that we should be aware that our perspective on what we have previously learnt will alter, and we shouldn’t be too attached to the ‘old’ perspective.

So why does a ‘fixed attitude’ reduce your energy?
Energy & hose pipes
When teaching, in order to explain how energy functions in the body, I use the analogy of a garden hose pipe.
If, having attached your hose pipe to the tap, you lay it down the length of the garden and then turn the tap on, you get a free flow of water from the end of the pipe.
Hosepipe bentHowever, if there is a bend or kink in the pipe, the flow of water is restricted, and possibly even stopped.

Energy (blood & qi) works in exactly the same in the body; the bend or Muscular spasmkink is tension, whether physical or mental; where there is tension, the flow is restricted.  This could be the acupuncture channels, it could be the blood or nerve supplies, or it could be an ingrained attitude.  Nothing can grow without flow.
The qi is blocked, the water cannot flow in the pipe, the resistance to change (or something different or new) causes tension, and as a result our energy is compromised.