Tag Archives: qigong

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

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‘Enabling’ Movement

The art of effortless movement.
If you want to take a step forwards, it’s impossible to move efficiently if you still have weight on one foot, even a minute percentage.
This is like driving off in a speed boat whilst still anchored.

To move effortlessly, you have to observe not only how you shift your weight from one foot to the other, but also how you use your muscles.  Are you relaxing all those muscles that are unnecessary for the job, or are you holding on to some because, either you simply haven’t noticed that they’re tight, or they’ve been tight for so long that you just don’t feel them anymore?
Is your body well aligned?  Are you bending to step? Are you looking at the floor?  Have you lifted your shoulders to step?  Have you tightened your neck?

Stepping forwards, backwards, or sideways.
Whichever direction you want to step, the main question is, how do you do it with ease?
“With ease” means that your balance is perfect, which in turn means that you have complete confidence in it, and that it is done with relaxation.
We’re not talking about using body momentum here; yes, it’s possible to ‘throw yourself through a movement’ and as a result not notice it – a kind of simultaneous ‘in’ and ‘out of’ control, but the real skill is to do it very slowly whilst feeling comfortable (no effort, no tension) throughout.

The 100% rule.
To move one foot you must place the weight on the other foot.  Of course it’s obvious, but most people don’t do this.  Beginners (and some more advanced) in tai chi and qigong fall from one foot to another, using momentum to step; this might be okay when you’re walking but isn’t so good when you require control in, for example, a martial art – although I’m aware that not everyone is interested in this aspect.

Stepping with awareness.
Only by shifting 100% of your weight on to one side of your body can you free up the other side of the body.  By doing so, you ‘enable movement’, in other words, you allow movement to take place because the other side of your body is free to move.  This is also known as ‘full and empty’.

Next you have to step with the free leg, but if you just stick it out ahead of you, the heel won’t touch the floor.  However, by bending the knee of the leg on which you’re standing, the heel will now touch.
Only when the heel has touched the floor should you start to move the spine forwards (or sideways or backwards)… in other words, only then do you shift your weight to the other foot.

If you want the step to be bigger, then you have some options:

  1. Either you’ll need to bend the supporting knee more. (Don’t try to increase the length of the step by ‘launching’ yourself into the step; when you do that, you are briefly falling in space before the foot lands on the floor).
  2. Turn your hip; i.e. If you’re stepping with the left foot, then turn your hip to the right.
  3. A combination of the above two points.

And a neater version…
That’s all pretty messy when you do it in stages like that, so you need to try it simultaneously:
Transfer the weight on to one leg, whilst simultaneously turning and sinking the body and extending the other foot.  The extended foot has no pressure on it in this exercise.  Only then do you move the weight on to the foot that you’ve extended.

The art of movement with massive effort.
When described, ‘The art of effortless movement’ sounds like quite the opposite, but in fact it’s very close to the way that a cat, or tiger creeps up to its prey.

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

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.

SO serious!

Most people who do tai chi or qigong come along to a class because they want some exercise, perhaps also to meet likeminded people, maybe to do something a bit different, maybe to find some calm in a hectic working life, or to centre themselves… and so on.  Probably something like .0001% want to become teachers.

The teachers’ balancing act.
For the tai chi and qigong teacher, you want to share your enthusiasm – your insights into what you do, and what gives you enjoyment, but you also know that the vast majority are there to do something a bit different, and probably don’t take it as seriously as you do.
In other words, there’s a fine line between being overly serious in a class and making the event an enjoyable experience.
I’ve known a few instructors who take the whole thing extremely seriously without any sense of making it enjoyable, seeming to forget that most people are not there for the same reasons that they are there.

Getting irritated.
I’ve also known teachers who get annoyed when their students don’t understand something.  They seem to forget that the student is actually paying them money to come to the class, which implies that the student wants to learn, rather than be told off for apparently being stupid.  The teacher’s annoyance also strikes me as strange because, if someone doesn’t understand something in a class, surely the tutor has either aimed too high with the info, or else explained himself inadequately.  Sure, some people don’t listen, but perhaps their focus is still on something else from which you’ve now moved on.

‘I don’t get it.’
My view is that, if someone doesn’t get the point I’m trying to make, I’ve either  explained it badly, I’ve explained it in too complex a manner, I’ve taken too long to explain it, the analogy I’ve used to help people wasn’t good enough, I’ve tried to explain too much at the same time, or perhaps I haven’t demonstrated it clearly.

A tai chi or qigong class therefore has to cater for all. You need a bit of fun, a bit of a challenge, but at the same time you need to present some of the subtleties so that people leave thinking, “I didn’t know it could feel like that”, having experienced a change in either their bodies or in the way that they move, or possibly in the way that they see the world.

Asking questions.
People don’t like to ask questions.  I completely get this.  If you’re in a group of people, you don’t like to ask anything in case everyone will think the question stupid, or too basic, or missing the point, or in case you are asking a question that’s already been explained and you were too thick to get it first time around!

But in my experience, however stupid you might suspect the question is, there’s always someone else in the group who wanted to ask the very same question, and who’s really pleased when you ask it.
Furthermore, when people start asking questions, everyone suddenly gets involved and more often than not, other questions start to arise.  Then the class takes on a positive momentum of its own.
Questions mean that you’re thinking about what you’re doing and trying to get to grips with it in your own way.

Do I have to practise?
We’re not in a temple in China anymore; this is 21st century high-pressure life, and not many people want more pressure in a lunchtime or evening class.  No one wants to be emotionally beaten up by the instructor for not practising; yes, you might want to improve, but at your own speed.
For some teachers a student’s lack of practise can be very annoying, but those teachers either forget, or simply don’t take into account, that people learn for a variety of reasons, and that their students are not learning to please them.

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

Teaching Taiji & Qigong.

Changing the way I teach.
I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that teaching in too basic a way in order to make tai chi and qigong accessible to new students is a mistake.  I say ‘rapidly coming to the conclusion’, but I think it’s taken me about 15 years.tai-chi-group
That’s how I was taught, and yes, it works to a certain extent, but you’re only learning patterns, you rarely get to feel the sensation of the body working in a unified way, and you certainly don’t get to experience intention effortlessly guiding your movements.
Not too surprising really, as the method of teaching is itself fragmented.

For example, here’s the instructions for moving from one Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane to a second one in the 24-step form (feel free to skip it, it’s just a description of movement):

1. Starting from the first Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, sit back on to the rear right foot.
2. Move the weight forwards again on to the left foot, and whilst doing so, turn the foot outwards by approximately 45 degrees. As you do so, fold the upper arm, bending it at the elbow and turning the palm down with the forearm approximately parallel to the ground.  The body is now facing the corner.
3. Move the weight 100% on to the left foot, and move the lower arm through in the same direction as the turned out foot.  Bring the rear leg alongside the front foot without touching the ground if possible.
4. Continue to move the rear foot forwards so as to step ahead of the other foot.  In a horizontal rising arc, sweep the lower arm out via the left side to finish forwards with palm up so that it is above the (newly placed) right leg.  Push the palm of the other hand down beside you.  Etc. etc.

The above only describes a series of movements, and probably not 112very well.  There is no subtlety, and it’s only passing from one posture to another.

There is no explanation of:

  • the feeling that you should be experiencing,
  • where you should be relaxing,
  • how to relax,
  • how to achieve complete stability in the movement as you step through with the rear leg,
  • how to make the movement work from the core/centre,
  • how to sink and lift your qi,
  • how to connect the arms with the legs so that they work together,
  • how to connect shoulders with hips,
  • how to step correctly so that your qi moves correctly,
  • and what the function of the move is so that you direct your energy appropriately.

It’s the difference between learning movements and learning a skill… Which reminds me of a student whom I taught when I was new to teaching.

I was teaching the Yang 108 Form – the ‘Long Form’, and every week, the person I was teaching wanted to race ahead with the next moves in the form.  I was too new to it all to slow down the learning process, and as a result we completed the entire form in 2 terms – fairly amazing as it took me 2 years to learn the form!
At the end of it I was expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Let’s go into it in a bit more detail now.”  But instead he said, “Thanks for that; now I know tai chi.”

So I’ve begun to teach the minutiae to all.   I wasn’t sure about it at first.  I thought it would complicated-maths-2be too much for most, and occasionally it is, but I can also see that for those who persist, it will be much easier in the long run, and far more satisfying.

Because I learnt via the ‘basic’ teaching method means that for years I’ve also taught by the same method.  Because it’s basic, most of the nuances are missing.  As I gradually discovered them over time, it meant that I had to undo my old habits.
For nearly everyone, this can be very difficult.  It’s like being inside a closed box and trying to see outside it; you know what’s inside the box, you’re familiar with it, but your preconceptions of what might be outside the box can only be based on what you already know.  In other words you’re learning with an unclean slate.
I have seen my older students struggle with having to rethink my previous ignorance.

So I started to wonder what the point was in simply teaching beginners in the same way that I’d been taught, and began to experiment with putting much more detail into the classes.complicated-maths

It worked well because people can only take in what they can take in, and, whatever level that happens to be, they work with that.  To put it another way, people hear what they’re able to hear, and no more, and what they both hear and see is based entirely upon their own received experience to date.
It can’t really be any other way – it’s nigh on impossible to make a large jump in consciousness.

I don’t know how true this is, but there’s a story of Magellan arriving on the islands close to what is now known as the Magellan Straits (I have also heard the same story being located in Tasmania; perhaps this was Abel Jans Tasman’s experience rather than Magellan’s).
Apparently the islanders had never seen large ships before; ships were completely out of their range of consciousness or imagination, so they literally couldn’t see them.  The arrival of Magellan’s sailors was therefore almost magical, as they seemed to come from nowhere.

I’ve experienced a version of this in classes many times (and no, a load of sailors didn’t suddenly appear).  I’ll say something in a class, and someone who’s been doing tai chi for years will say, “You’ve never said that before!”
But I have, probably on many occasions, and in many different ways.

And I’ve also noticed it in my own learning.  Something that I’ve heard before but interpreted in one way, suddenly takes on a new meaning, and I realise that previously I’d entirely missed the point.

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.

Pain and Gain – The ‘Comfort Zone’.

Quite regularly, a beginner in tai chi or qigong is put off from continuing classes because he/she is experiencing a bit of discomfort.  This discomfort could be one of two things; 1) a muscle that isn’t used to being used, and/or 2) an existing condition that is being made to think about itself.

pain-1People get used to the way that they feel in their bodies, and the way they feel becomes their definition of ‘comfortable’. Even when in pain, this pain fits within the parameters of how they usually ‘are’, and therefore fits into the ‘comfortable’ definition.
Bizarre in one way, yet completely understandable in another.

It’s very difficult to feel what ‘more comfortable’ would feel like, isn’t it?  I mean, you are who you are at that precise moment, and anything else requires that you step out of that moment, and therefore outside who you are.
So, are you one of those who, when you feel discomfort, choose to stick with the old you, rather than try to change anything?ageing-1

Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, in fact it probably doesn’t apply to the majority; most want to stretch their boundaries, but it interests me that there are quite a few, particularly in the over-60s age group, who are reluctant to change.
Odd isn’t it?  I mean your body’s not going to get any better.  If you don’t do something about it, what with the ageing process of joints, muscles, tendons, blood supply, body tissue, metabolic rate, etc., you can guarantee 100% ageing-2that it’s actually going to get worse.
So why not push yourself a little bit to slow the whole process down?  What is there to lose?

The answer to that is … dis-comfort (or ‘not’-comfort).
It can be uncomfortable to push beyond your usual boundaries.  It not only requires effort to produce the feeling of discomfort (which can be unpleasant as it’s out of the comfort-zone), but when you have achieved dis-comfort, it requires the energy to deal with it.

This is often a simple thing like bending your knees to get a slightly lower posture, perhaps when stepping in tai chi or qigong, or when doing a standing qigong posture (which is more demanding as you  feel the discomfort more acutely).