Tag Archives: taijiquan

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…

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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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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.

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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

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

Moving from the Centre.

The smallest movement is the strongest.
If you were to lie a cartwheel on its axle and then spin it around, a point on the rim of the wheel would move yards, whereas a point on the hub wouldn’t move much more than a foot.
More to the point is that, if you try to stop the rim, it’s not that hard, but if you try to stop the wheel turning by holding on to the hub, it’s quite difficult.

Needless to say (perhaps), the hub is your centre, (your dantien, your core), the spokes are your limbs.  When you move your body, this is the part of you that you should feel moving first.  As a beginner it’s all too easy to get distracted by what your arms and legs are doing, but actually it’s much easier to do tai chi if you make the centre direct and control all of your movements.

How do you become aware of this?
1) Stand with your feet a shoulders-width apart (not essential, but it helps for a later development of this simple exercise).
2) Turn your hips to left or right, without moving your feet.  Then return to neutral.
3) Extend your arm either sideways or ahead of you (with palm turned up or down), and then repeat the body turn.
In other words, by turning your body (acting as the hub of the wheel), the arm (acting as one of the spokes) will turn with it.

Pretty obvious, I realise, but the main point is that you were thinking about the turn of the body, and the arm movement came about as a result of that body turn.

The lower limbs.
You were standing with your feet a shoulders-width apart for a reason.
Leaving the arm out of it for the moment, as you turn the body to, let’s say, the right, turn the toes of the right foot by leaving the heel on the ground and letting the toes pivot around.  You are now letting the body control one of the lower limbs as well.
Controlling the lower limbs with the hips and waist is the part that even intermediate tai chi practitioners often don’t understand.

Finally.
Try shifting you weight on to the foot that you are turning out.  Don’t wait until you’ve turned it out and then shift it, move the weight on to the foot as you turn it.
As the weight transfers, the other foot will also need to move, otherwise it will feel twisted.  So, as you place the right foot in its new position, let the left foot turn also, either 1) by pivoting on the left heel so that the left toes turn, or alternatively 2) by keeping the left toes on the floor and allowing the left heel to push backwards (i.e. you are pivoting on the toes).  Either is okay.

Now you are doing a tai chi move with the centre leading the movement of the lower limbs.

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

Is Standing Qigong the Same Thing as Tai Chi?

To practise Standing Qigong is to practise what you should aim to feel in every moving tai chi posture.  What you’re intending to achieve with standing qigong isn’t exclusive to qigong, it’s part and parcel of tai chi.

The problem with tai chi, of course, is that you’re moving, which makes it very difficult to feel those physical alignments and sensations.  Those feelings of internal connection and relaxation, of simultaneous solidity yet openness within the body, of calmness, and of ‘Peng’, are hard to find whilst shifting the weight from one foot to another, extending and rotating arms or legs, being conscious of posture, turning the body, and leading the whole event with your intention.

When your system starts to fight itself.
This is partly why there’s so much emphasis on relaxation in tai chi. If you’re tense you cannot connect your body together efficiently, nor can you sink your qi; in effect your body is an out of control solar system, an analogue clock with a loose cog, a society undergoing a revolution, or a city’s plumbing system with worn out joints in the pipes. In effect you start fighting yourself, as though you’re trying to chew your own teeth.

Feeling.
Everything has to work together, which is why it’s necessary to feel what’s going on in your body. You don’t have to understand the anatomy and physiology, although that also can help to a certain extent, but feeling what is going on is essential.  You therefore need to be aware of how you’re holding your spine, the position and angle of your pelvis, how your feet are planted, what you’re doing with your neck, your shoulders, knees … and so on.  Nothing is left out of the mix.

The ideal personal commune.
The concept of standing qigong is that you train your body so that it works as a collective. One part doesn’t work harder than any other part. This is like dividing the effort equally amongst all component parts, and the result is that “the whole becomes greater than the sum of the individual parts”. In other words, in this case, the resultant energy of the whole is greater.

You’ve got time to feel.
The advantage of Standing Qigong is that it’s static. You’ve got time to think and feel (although, when they start, most people don’t like this feeling!). The problem with trying to apply this concept to tai chi is that tai chi constantly moves, and you can’t focus on the internal balance of the ever-changing posture shifts so easily. On the positive side though, for many people the constant movement is preferable because they don’t have to focus on the discomfort of their body, as the body is never in one position long enough to experience it!

So what do you do in tai chi?
Ultimately you focus on the movement of your centre, (your core, your Dantien) whilst moving, so that the actions of your torso and limbs come about as a direct result of the movement of your centre, guided by your intention.  This way, your core appears to move very little.  You focus on how your centre is rotating, rolling, and rising & falling, and how those movements are manifested in the movements of the limbs; i.e. the spokes and rim of the wheel are operated entirely by the action of the hub. 

To do this though, you have to know the tai chi moves very well, in fact they have to be almost second nature, which is why you practise over and over and over and …


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

‘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.