Tag Archives: vertebra

Turning Your Head With Ease.

Whilst teaching, I’ve noticed that people do a number of unusual things when turning their heads.
Some tilt one ear nearer the shoulder which, in effect, lies the head slightly on its side, others lift the chin, some drop the chin, whilst others push the chin forwards.
None of these are much good for the neck, and some of them are potentially damaging.

Using the neck.
There’s a considerable amount of use of the neck in both tai chi and qigong, although perhaps for different reasons (taiji arguably for martial reasons, and qigong for health reasons).  But before you even begin to turn the head, it’s important to release the neck.

How do you do that?
Easy… focus on the back of your neck and ‘stop holding on’.   If you do this with no other agenda, you’ll find that your chin drops microscopically (whatever you Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USEdo, don’t try to drop the chin).  This freeing of the back of the neck combined with the dropping has the effect of allowing movement in the upper two vertebrae of the neck – the atlas and the axis. Without the release, they catch – one of the reasons for the ‘grinding’ that you sometimes feel.

Sandra Riddell, an Alexander Teacher in Edinburgh, has the following suggestion:-
Ask the neck to “let go of the head” followed by something like “so that the head can lead the spine into length….”.  Several students have said they find this clearer and more effective than just saying ‘free the neck’; indeed I do also.

The above might be enough to solve some problems for a few people, but there is another angle.

Our senses.
The majority of our senses, taste, smell, and in particular sight, are on the front of our heads, and because of that, we tend to ‘go towards’ whatever we are trying to taste, smell, or see.

Occipital lobeWhen our eyes see an object, the message is passed to the back of the eye and then via the optic nerve to the Occipital Lobe of the brain.  This is the part of the brain that recognises and interprets those messages.  The receptors and projectors are at the front of the face, and the screen is at the back of the head.

A possible solution.
Bearing in mind that we are really seeing with the back of our heads, it occurred to me that in order for people to stabilise their heads when turning them, instead of turning the face to look to the left or right, they could try ‘looking’ through the backs of their heads.
In other words, it’s as though you have eyes in the back of your head; give some attention to the back of the head turning as though it were trying to ‘look’.

I was astonished by the results of this simple idea; where beforehand heads had lifted, angled, stretched forwards, etc., everyone’s head stayed level – not just in one class, but in several.  Furthermore, people were able to turn their heads not only more comfortably but also slightly further.

A few thoughts on this…

  1. By putting this simple idea into practise therefore, the head rotates from its axis, rather than reaching forward for information, which misaligns the upper cervical vertebrae.
  2. As you literally see with the back of your head, you are merely allowing the eyes to act as a pair of cameras and moving the screen around ‘behind’ you.
  3. Normally when we look at something, we look ‘out of’ our eyes; our attention moves away from the body during the act of turning the head (cf. ‘out of our minds’).  By the awareness of re-positioning the screen at the back of the head, we stay in the body, and instead of ‘looking out of’ our eyes, the picture comes to us.

Taiji & qigong ‘Peng’.
The best part for me was that this fitted in with the tai chi and qigong principles of ‘Peng’, where all the opposites of the body (left/right, top/bottom, front/back) should balance each other and work harmoniously.  All of a sudden, the importance of turning the head to (e.g.) the left, was also an importance of turning the back of the head to the right.

Gripping the Floor in Tai Chi & Qigong

Often in both tai chi and qigong it is necessary to ‘grip the floor’ – part of rooting and making the body more stable.

This is particularly useful in tai chi when working with a partner, e.g in pushing hands, or a 2-person form, or when testing postures.  In qigong, ‘gripping’ the floor has the function of not only providing stability, but also of stimulating the acupuncture channels that either start or end in the feet, whilst at the same time connecting the root (the feet) to both the diaphragm and the palms and therefore helping the extremities to function from the middle of the body.

I spent years practising gripping the floor by only using my toes; in other words, I curled the tips of the toes underneath slightly… No one explained it any differently, and in fact, precisely because they didn’t explain it any other way, I’m not convinced that they knew there was another way!

Foot (toes curl)However, curling the toes under and ‘gripping’ in this way has the effect of reducing all the benefits that you are hoping to achieve by 1) lifting the balls of the foot (i.e. in front of the big and little toes on the sole of the foot) off the floor, 2) creating tension and lack of flexibility in the arch of the foot by locking the instep, 3) contracting the size of the foot both in length and width, and 4) tensing the front of the calf.  By using this method you are actually shortening the length of the foot (making balance more difficult), narrowing it by pulling the little toe towards the centre of the foot, desensitising it by squeezing it, decreasing the points of balance (only the heel and the tips of the toes), and tightening the ankle.

But the feet have a connection, via the fascia, to the neck, and if used correctly they can enhance the feeling of the body working as a unit rather than as individual parts, whilst at the same time helping you to root/ground, as though you are literally holding on to the earth.  If used correctly, the surface area in contact with the floor is slightly increased (better stability), the toes themselves are still gently squeezed (acupoints on the ends of the toes are stimulated), the arch of the foot no longer locks but ‘draws upwards’ (allowing further flexibility).

Furthermore, this lifting of the arch connects via the fascia to the small of the back – running up the insides of the legs, through the bowl of the pelvis, to the transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae 1-5, (partly – though not entirely – with the help of the Psoas muscle), passes through the posterior attachments of the diaphragm (you can feel this), to the back of the neck (which releases), and up over the back of the head and to the forehead via the crown.  Anyone familiar with the acupuncture channel will recognise that I have just described part of the Du Channel, or the Governing Vessel – but, it has been triggered by the feet.

The easiest way to understand the correct method with the foot is to try it out with your hand on a table.

With your palm on the surface of the table, curl your fingers and thumb, keeping the little finger
edge of your hand on the table (this represents the side of your foot from little toe to heel).  You will immediately feel that the palm hardly moves, and almost sinks (collapses).

Then, keeping as much of both the ‘pads’ of the fingers and the joint nearest the nails in touch with the table as you can, try sliding them slightly towards the heel of the hand.  It will feel as though you are ‘sucking’ the table up into the palm – again keep the little finger edge down as much as possible.

Now do the same with your feet.  It’s easiest to feel with bare feet …Foot + arrows 2