Tag Archives: spine

Putting Backbone Into It (Shadow Boxing)

The Spinal Line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Advertisements

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.
________________________________________________________________________________________________

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

________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Neck – The Master of Counterbalance.

Your neck controls your future comfort.
It’s never too late to do something about your posture, although it’s probably true to say that the earlier you start, the more comfortable your later years will be.

The ‘Seesaw Law’.
In some respects, your spine works like a seesaw; if you do something to one end, there will be a reaction not only at the other end, but across the entire length of the seesaw.  In other words, if you position your neck incorrectly on your body, you are automatically setting up a series of detrimental chain reactions.

An adult head weighs something in the region of 11-12lbs (5-5½Kgs).
When balanced correctly on your body, the line of gravity passes straight through the middle of the body to the supporting feet.  So, when you incorrectly position it forward of that line, the neck is forced to take extra strain as the head moves further forwards.

The musculature in the body doesn’t like this, and will automatically try to find the most comfortable position.
Therefore, following the Seesaw Law, it will make a number of ‘better-than-doing-nothing’ adjustments; in other words, it sets up a series of counter-balances, the objective being to try to make the situation as comfortable as possible.

With these in place, you might not be 100% comfortable, but at least you can function as long as you don’t do anything extreme with your body.

The 21st Century Person.
One of our main activities which encourages both back & neck problems, and helps us to develop a permanently poor posture is the way that most of us use our mobile phones.  This can easily become a ‘habit’.

A few pictures say it all:

                                   

The ideal phone posture to save your neck.
This photo is one way of demonstrating the best position to hold the mobile phone.  You have to lift the phone high enough to look over the other person’s shoulder, and the body is upright.  (It doesn’t take into account a font that is too small, which makes us tighten the neck, perhaps pulling it forward also).

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of using the phone whilst draped around someone else is that walking becomes slightly impractical…

________________________________________________________________________________________________

James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

What do YOU do with your neck?

How is it at the moment?
How do you position your neck?
How does it sit on your body?
How does it control you?
How does it affect your comfort or discomfort levels?

Where does your neck begin and end?
Anatomically your neck is 7 vertebrae long, starting at the skull (under and up inside), and finishing at the slightly more protrusive vertebra C7 (the 7th cervical vertebra) which is at the base of the neck, above shoulder line height.

 

To be honest, I’m not actually very interested in its anatomical length, I’m much more interested in its functional length.
Functionally it finishes around about T3 (i.e. the 3rd thoracic vertebra) which is slightly further down the back, although this can be slightly lower for some people.

So what?
You might think, “So what? How does that make any  difference?”
Functionally, it makes a massive difference, because the place from where you control the movement of your neck alters dramatically, which in turn affects how you position your both your head and your spine.
Amongst other things, this affects your posture, your breathing, and how relaxed you are.

Dropping your head.
Usually when we drop our chins we think of the pivotal or ‘folding’ point as being roughly at shoulder height. As a result, when just balancing the head on the body (without lifting, lowering, or turning it), we feel as though that point of balance is roughly at C7. However, if you balance it from further down, it very much alters how and where you place your head on your body.

Think lower.
If you visualise your neck finishing lower (e.g. T3, further down your back), all of a sudden it starts to straighten, the connection point (between T3 and T4) softens and sinks slightly, and your neck actually moves backwards on its own accord.  In Alexander Technique terms, it would be described as your spine ‘lengthening’.  (AT also refers to this as ‘forward & upwards’ – I think that the ‘forward’ is slightly confusing as it implies pushing your face forward, but what actually happens is that the head rotates on the Atlas (see top diag.) and whilst the forehead moves slightly forward, the chin tucks slightly under).

Potting plants.
Positioning your upper spine correctly is not unlike pushing a stick into soil in order to support a plant (your head, in this case); if you put the stick in shallowly, there’s a good chance that it will lean over with the weight of the plant.  A stick planted deeper will be much more supportive.

Anatomically (briefly).
The reality is that you are not really relaxing your actual spine, … how can you when it’s made of bone?  You are actually softening the tissues on the anterior aspect of the spine – the side nearest your chest, at the back of the lungs, as well as the supporting muscles around the spine in this area.

Another way to think it.
When either sitting or standing, if you imagine that there is a ‘mouth’ on your upper back, and you are very, very gently putting the lips of the mouth together (you need to feel as though this is actually happening), in particular by dropping the upper lip on to the lower lip, you might feel your posture altering as the spine changes position.

And the result is …
When you allow this to happen, your back relaxes and sinks, your chest appears to lift, your shoulders feel as though they are rolling backwards, the collar bones seem to settle back, the upper arms sink into the correct area of the shoulder socket, and your breathing deepens as the ribs find their optimal position.  Additionally your balance is altered for the better, there is a sense of being connected to the ground (gravity can now pass directly through you), and the body is able to move with greater ease.

Addendum for those who can feel this.
As you position your spine, simultaneously soften the inside of the breast bone (sternum), and allow the armpits to deepen.
Why?
If you picture the upper chest (the upper part of the lungs) as being an inverted bowl, by observing only the spine, you are really only dealing with the back of the bowl.  By working on the front and sides of the bowl (inside sternum & inside armpits) you balance the front, back, and sides of the upper chest cavity which roots the neck even better.

__________________________________________________________________

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

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

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…

‘Sucking & Tucking’

Pelvic tilt, and ‘Sucking & Tucking’
How do you get your pelvis to tilt?Pelvic tilt 4
I’ve found that for most people, it’s very difficult to move the pelvis (other than
turning it to left or right!). It would appear to be the hardest part of the body for many to feel, and I’m fairly sure that for the majority, not only are its contents a mystery, but also where and how the legs connect to it!

When trying to describe it, the concept of the ‘pelvic tilt’ works for some, for others the idea of ‘sucking & tucking’ is useful, and for other people, the exercise below, combined with ‘sucking & tucking’, might work even better.

Try the following…

  • Put the knuckles of one hand on the small of your back.
  • By flexing your spine beneath your knuckles, see if you can push your knuckles backwards. [You can let your knees bend a little if necessary, but your body shouldn’t lean backwards].  To do this you are doing a ‘posterior pelvic tilt’ – see above.

The point of this is explained below.

What happens inside?
At the place where you have just placed your knuckles, the spine has an inward bend, part of the ‘S’ bend.
By straightening this bend (the lower part of the ‘S’ bend), the spine actually lengthens slightly; although the top of the spine doesn’t move, the portion below the ‘S’ does – it pushes down, pushing down on the pelvic bone to which it’s attached.

Pelvic tilt 1‘Tucking’.
If you take a round-bottomed bowl and push down on one side of it, the other side obviously rises by an equivalent amount.
Pushing the lumbar vertebrae gently backwards pushes the back of your pelvis downwards, because the ‘S’ bend in the lower spine straightens.  This is the ‘tucking’ aspect.
If the back of the pelvis drops, the front must rise – just as it does with the bowl.Pelvic tilt 2

‘Sucking’.
However, in both tai chi and qigong, you always need to balance front and back, so it isn’t enough to work only the back, you need to work the front simultaneously.
This is where the ‘sucking’ comes in.  You need to lift the front of the pelvis upwards, and you do this by lifting the pubic bone.Pelvic tilt 1

Why bother?
Because without using this part of your body in every movement, tai chi and qigong stop being what they are and become external movement only … arms and legs slowly flurrying about without the central motor doing any driving.
The two arts become “a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”