Basic movement patterns and body coherence

When I was a college student I used to give guitar lessons. It was a great way to earn money without being too time consuming and I soon realised that I really liked the teaching process, not to mention the independence of being my own boss. My students would start out by learning the basics; how to hold the guitar, simple scales, chords and so on. The only way to play more complicated tunes well, I would always explain, is to be competent at the basics, which requires diligent daily practise. How boring and not very rock ‘n’ roll at all!  The students who followed my advice over the years went on to become decent musicians able to play almost any tune well because of being forearmed with a fundamental understanding of and essential skill base in music.

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Too many people are afraid of discomfort.
Training should be mentally and physically challenging – working on the basics improves everything

The students who were most difficult to teach were the ones who were either tone-deaf or had no sense of rhythm (sometimes both!) especially when they didn’t realise it and thought they sounded amazing! To begin with they would have no frame of reference as to whether something was in tune or in time. They would make a horrible din – lots of noise but no discernible tune or tempo – and they couldn’t hear the difference between what I was playing and their cacophonic attempts. So with these students it was a really interesting teaching process and very educational for me. Slowly but surely I had to teach them, step by step, to really listen and pay attention to all the variations and nuances in tone and timing. Nothing could be assumed. Even more than usual did we have to get stuck in to basic practise with lots of repetition and comparison of simple riffs so they could gradually build up a more accurate (and sweeter sounding) frame of reference, and they had to practise, a lot. At times it was frustrating for both parties but when they improved they often couldn’t believe just how far they had had to come to understand something so simple. I guess it’s only simple when you know how.

Unconscious incompetence: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.

In this article I will discuss how learning basic movement patterns and building body awareness should be the first port of call in Taiji classes. Otherwise it is like trying to teach Beethoven to someone who is tone deaf.

The big difference between music and Taiji is that while most people have some basic sense of music, many people are completely lacking in body awareness and have poor habitual movement patterns without even realising or conceding that such attributes have much value. Basic movement ability and awareness are two of the most essential life skills – without them we are seriously compromised as individuals.

Taiji is often associated with oriental mystery and assumed to be an art of confusing subtle energies and spiritual ideals barely comprising a physical activity at all.  My experience is that Taiji training principles are based on a long history of optimal body/mind training gained through highly perceptive heuristic movement, astute observation of natural phenomena at both micro and macro levels and rigorous testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). Over a long period of time this experience culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts that we know as Taiji.

During my two decades of teaching and training Taiji the most common problem I have encountered is that people spend a lot of time trying to learn the choreography of forms but do not actually learn how to move well, often lacking the most basic level of body cohesion after years of practise. More often than not people immediately get bogged down with trying to learn and remember forms and as a consequence almost completely forgo the forging of basic body cohesion. Furthermore, by trying to remember choreographed movements rather than improving the basic nuts and bolts of human body-mechanics people can compound the problems that they have in the first place.

 ‘The more details you give people, the more they ask for details’ Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

Body cohesion is the essential fusion of balanced, connected, relaxed, 3-dimensional whole-body movement, strength and awareness that underpins all good movement and is especially emphasised in Taiji and other internal martial arts as a key-stone principle.  The increasing popularity of intelligent movement training as opposed to superficial ‘exercise’ (check out Ido Portal and Connor Macgregor for example) means that Taiji teachers really need to step up what they are doing otherwise we will all be perpetually condemned to that abysmal umbrella understanding of Taiji as a pseudo-spiritual, faux exercise for the infirm.

Body cohesion is the heart of Taiji training and more than anything else building this whole-body connection will benefit the vast majority of people in terms of their physical and mental health and overall ability to move and function well. As a teacher I want my students to experience significant change in the way their bodies operate and not to spend years worrying about remembering sequences of movements or theory. Ultimately I want to teach a person to improve the way they move, the way they use their body and the way they use their mind. As the vast majority of people are not used to learning movement or indeed moving much at all the most significant benefit is gained from establishing the basic exercises (Jibengong). In most of my classes we spend at least 50% of the time training basics.

For people taking their first steps into Taiji training the last thing they need to do is to learn a form. Learning a Taiji form offers very little benefit if instead of learning how to move well  people simply retain their old, habitual ways of moving. This is especially true if their bodies are in poor condition. Since many people come to Taiji because they think they are too damaged to do anything else and/or that the art is going to help them float away from physical reality, this a particularly salient point.

Countless hours spent trying to remember sequences of movements and puzzling over which body part goes where, when and why is almost a complete waste of time, although perhaps intellectually satisfying in a superficial sense. Instead the initial and ongoing aim should be that students look to the body and mind and build; build their awareness, build their body and ultimately build their body/mind connection. For all the major health, movement and functional (martial or otherwise) benefits our art has to offer this is the absolute foundation and without it the majority of training is a false economy.

Taiji is a martial art with a difference. Instead of learning fighting techniques the first port of call should be simply learning how to develop body cohesion. Moving well, being at ease with one’s physical existence, being immersed in down to earth sensory experience and possessing freedom of movement are vital attributes for life and are the basic skills we seek to develop in Taiji.  Ultimately this means that our training is much more physically and mentally rigorous than most people might expect. Creating a relaxed, stable, balanced and connected body requires a lot of physical work; and you have to learn to calm and focus your mind, to pay attention completely, in order to succeed. So having said that, here’s a rundown of essentials we train in my classes and what I focus on in my own training:

Find your body – Fansong Gong

All of my classes begin with Fansong Gong. Consisting of a wide range of simple though not particularly easy exercises, Fansong Gong follows a general theme of opening the soft tissues of the body along the main fascial lines. Not only does this build a body that is loose, elastic, resilient and connected but also teaches you how to feel the main kinetic chains within the body and how they are woven together to form the three dimensional body structure in a simple and tangible way. Fansong Gong also incorporates lots of variations of balancing on one leg. Some of the exercises are strenuous for not only do they create a strong stretch but also continuously emphasise developing a base that is sufficiently stable to facilitate balanced  movement from the legs and centre that emanates through the whole body. Fansong Gong thus emphasises a number of key elements that people greatly benefit from in developing body cohesion:

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Simple squat – an important basic movement skill
  • Basic movement of the hips and spine. Flexion, extension, lateral motion (side-bending) and rotation are explored throughout Fansong and seeing that these are areas which are restricted in most people, and of course vital for all movement and for developing ones Taiji, it generates delightful results.
  • Balance and leg strength. Squatting motions and balancing on one leg help to build the body from the ground up whilst facilitating functional hip mobility. As unstable bi-peds, being able to balance well and having a stable base is one the most important skills we can develop.
  • Connecting the arms to the back and freeing the shoulders. Our arms are not independent levers that are separate from the body, their strength and dexterity depends on how well they are connected to and stabilised by the back so that movement and power generated by the legs and body can flow through them.
  • Developing a clear felt sense of how all body parts are woven together, from the toes to the fingertips, through the elastic facial web.

Zhanzhuang: Standing Meditation

Learning how to stand up is the next step after the elasticating endeavours of Fansong Gong. Zhanzhuang is simple and superb: it stabilises the body, stabilises the mind and develops a clear sense of the tensegrity of the human body structure. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system via the spring-like and elastic fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems. A body that exhibits tensegrity in an optimal way is tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity:

“Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” R. Buckminster Fuller

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements.

‘Being natural is the first and foremost principle in Taiji’ Chen Bing

WCTAG, Jan Silberstorff (22)
Standing – simple and effective

Zhanzhuang is the epitome of reorganising the perceived separate parts of the body back into the homogeneous whole of a tensegrity structure.  What separates the body is habitual tension and restricted movement underpinned by a lack of awareness in the corresponding parts.  Usually we are not aware of the restrictive patterns that have become enmeshed in our structural fabric over the course of our lives.  Everybody has them but they are essentially unfelt.   Standing then, is to help us feel, locate and relax restrictions in the body structure.  It’s not that we want to replace one habitual posture for another but instead return to a settled state so that the body becomes less segmented and more integrated; a malleable mass free to be directed by our will.  Through gentle and perceptive coaxing of the body we discover how it can support itself effortlessly from the ground upwards utilising the natural power of ground reaction force.  The key is to quieten the mind by simply feeling and observing.  Curious observation through the lens of stillness allows one to discover the inherent qualities our bodies possess and work with them rather than against them.

It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness and an incorrect, intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body as a homogeneous whole and thus capitalise on its inherent, natural attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control. It is the ability to pay attention accurately which allows us to discover the inherent structure of our human form, something that is with us whatever we are doing.

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Tactile cues/posture corrections are vital for developing an accurate frame of reference

A very important point with Zhanzhuang is that tactile cues and posture corrections are essential for students to learn how to stand. One’s habitual posture is usually so engrained that without regular feedback from a teacher’s hands-on body adjustments it is very difficult to perceive. If your teacher doesn’t give you tactile cues then you should find one that does.

Thus Zhanzhuang training facilitates a number of key developments:

  • More than any other training, Zhanzhuang, due to the absence of deliberate movement, allows one to gradually perceive and use the body as a whole unit, a tensegrity structure.
  • Strengthens and stabilises the body and mind at the most fundamental level.
  • Highlights how busy the mind is and as such provides an opportunity to learn how to focus on direct experience and not just thinking.

Learning to practise meditation is probably one of the most useful skills that anyone can invest their time in. The mind is such a busy little monkey; always trying to pin things down, categorise and judge most inaccurately.  It constantly craves information and fixed points of reference. Aside from this relentless activity the mind is also capable of quietly observing. Learning how to strengthen this observational aspect of the mind comes from deliberately paying attention and forms the most basic and most useful aspect of meditation. However, sitting down more is the last thing most people need to be happy and healthy so throw away the meditation cushion and practise Zhanzhuang.

Walking the walk (Zou Bu)

After Zhanzhuang the next basic skill I like to work on with students is being able to step well. Taiji walking has many variations but all follow the theme of learning how to maintain structural integrity, balance and connection whilst stepping slowly (to begin with). It is challenging to do well and without the distraction of waving the arms around students can really focus on moving in a balanced way.

Chansigong : Silk-Reeling exercises

“The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web” Steven Levin

Simple Chansigong builds upon all of the preceding basic exercises and offers students the chance to discover how good movement flows smoothly and naturally through the whole body, from the feet to the fingertips, organised by the centre (Dantien). Training simple isolated, whole-body movements gives one a chance to get into the nitty gritty of what one is doing and most importantly how one is doing it. Any Taiji form is basically a collection chansigong variations but as one goes from one move to the next any mistakes are usually glossed over and forgotten immediately. Practising Chansigong gives you a chance to discover and then iron-out any deviations in one’s basic movement patterns using all of the preceding simpler work as a tool for accurate cross referencing.

Conclusion

When people have a good grasp of the basics they become much more physically capable, confident and independent. From here they can use their new skills to learn a form successfully with meaning and without being a slave to irrelevant details or the teacher.

I first came across the term ‘Heuristic’ in Nassim Taleb’s superb book ‘Antifragile: things that gain from disorder’. The word Heuristic comes from ancient Greek meaning to find or discover for oneself. I had not really thought about it too much prior to this but at that point I realised that this is how I learn and teach Taiji. In Taiji we have the general movement principles (one principle, three kinds of motion) or rules of thumb and it is through inquisitive tinkering via lots of basic training  that you discover, realise and then own them for yourself rather than trying force oneself to adhere to them and/or just blindly following a teacher:

Heuristic: Serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation. Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own by experimenting and evaluating possible answers or solutions or by trial and error.

I always encourage my students to pay more attention to their own body feeling rather than thinking about things too much. As soon as people start thinking they start to forgo their whole-body experience.  I want students to learn how to learn from their own felt experience of their training rather than trying to remember things. It is because many peoples’ felt experience, their sensory perception and proprioception are so limited that the mind takes over to fill in the gaps. That’s one of the reasons why people crave details, in-depth theory and spiritual mystery rather than relying on their own practise and experience. Since we are so used to being spoon fed information from external sources it can be quite a big step to become more self-reliant. Training Taiji basics for body cohesion gives you all the tools you need. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

Sam teaches full-time in West Sussex: www.sussextaichi.co.uk

Posted in Chen Bing, Fascia, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, posture, Tai Chi, taijiquan, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movement Retreat – Andalucia 2019

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To travel and discover new and amazing places is one of life’s great pleasures and Antonia and I have just returned from a wonderful to trip to Las Chimeneas in the Alpujarra mountains of Granada in Southern Spain. I have always loved being in the mountains, the great elevation offering a huge broadening of perspective. This combined with lovely people, stunningly unspoiled flora and fauna, superbly cooked locally grown food and fine weather sees Las Chimeneas firmly settled in as one of our favourite places. We are very much looking forward to our return in September to run our forthcoming retreat.

Las Chimeneas is a dramatic set of converted houses in the remote mountain village of Mairena. Run by Emma and David Illsley, they have been welcoming guests to the Alpujarra since 1998. There are nine lovely rooms, each with fabulous views across the hills to the sea in the far distance and on a clear day it is possible to see the coast of Northern Africa. Emma and David are wonderful hosts and made us feel very welcome. They are real salt of the earth people, their knowledge of the local area second to none having been fully ensconced in the traditional village life for over 20 years.

Mairena, Apujarras, Spain

As a keen naturalist the first thing I noticed as I surveyed the stunning views upon our arrival was an absolute abundance of wildlife. During our time there I observed many different species of fascinating birds, insects and flowers. One of the best things was a plethora of Nightingales, one of my favourite birds and a species quite rare in the UK these days, their hauntingly beautiful song never far away as we explored the locale and bathed our hot feet from time to time in the many gurgling streams that pervade the mountainside.

 

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Even though we live in the countryside at home we noticed that the air there was exceptionally clean and never without the addition of some delightful fragrance from the countless blossoms and wild herbs. We spent lots of time walking, exploring and training and it was all utterly delightful in such an unspoiled environment.

In fact I would go as far to say that whole the area is a walkers paradise, the steeper paths providing an excellent challenge to one’s fitness and agility. After a day of walking and training what better than to come back to the enchanting little restaurant at Las Chimeneas where we enjoyed a wide variety of delicious traditional village food cooked with a level of expertise and genuine loving care that is increasingly hard to find these days – I found it quite touching. A homage to true nutrition on all levels. We were even treated to an impromptu cooking lesson from chef Sole on how to make delicious authentic Tortilla.

We were at Las Chimeneas for four nights but that was enough for the all-pervasive peace and natural harmony to seep into our bones. As a powerful antidote to the perils of modernity this place simply oozes respite and realignment.

We are very pleased to announce that you can join us for a 5 night all-inclusive stay at the wonderful Las Chimeneas in the mountains of southern Spain from September 5th to 10th 2019

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Peace, relaxation and an authentically warm welcome prove a very winning combination, which is why ‘The Times’ rated Las Chimeneas amongst their Top 10 best mountain hideaways in the Summer of 2018.  A haven for nature lovers, keen walkers and foodies alike.

During this retreat you will be able to enjoy our bespoke Pilates, Tai Chi and movement training, walk straight out into unspoiled and rugged countryside, saviour the timeless pace and immerse yourself in a truly inspirational and unique way of life.

Available activities include traditional cookery and weaving workshops, learn more about olive oil making and tasting, wine tasting, local history and nature. Excellent massages are also available for rejuvenating weary bodies.

Pricing: shared twin/double en suite £700 per person. Single en suite £850 per person. Prices include the following:

* Return transfers from/to Granada Airport

* Full Board Accommodation

* 2-3 hours of training daily (except on travel days)

* Transport and a guided hike in the High Sierra.

You can check out my website: www.sussextaichi.co.uk or Antonia’s www.antoniastringer.com  for all the details or contact us to book your place: info@sussextaichi.co.uk or tel: 07748 113857

 

Posted in Balance, mindfulness, movement, Pilates, Qigong, retreats, Tai Chi | Leave a comment

Guest post by Antonia Stringer

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I don’t often read fiction books however on the run up to our recent retreat in Morocco I read an excellent and very funny book. It is titled ‘this book will save your life’ by the author A.M. Homes. The story is about a stocks and shares trader who works from his beautiful house in L.A and is so caught up in making money, he sees no one except his nutritionist, his trainer and his housekeeper. He has become so out of touch with his feelings that he does not realise how completely disengaged from life and other people he is until an attack of excruciating pain lands him in hospital.  While they can find no physical reason for the pain it is the catalyst to his emotional thaw and the start of his transformation to engaging more fully with his life.

At one point he goes to see a doctor who says to him ‘you have hit a wall, now climb it – literally’ and gives him the number of some rock climbing venues.  ‘Make the mental physical and the physical mental, and things will improve.’

Whilst rock climbing might not be for everyone he has a point.  In the relationship between physical and mental the line is blurred. The body is an object that inescapably conditions our thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the world around us and this in turn conditions every cell, organ and function within our body for better or worse.

Our minds and emotions are difficult to observe and tend to resist change; the body is an ideal, highly visible medium for transformation. ..when we relax the body and release tensions, the mind and emotions tend to reflect this change (and vice versa).  Conscious physical training is using the visible to mold the invisible.’  Dan Millman, The Inner Athlete

I like this quote. It suggests, as does my own experience, that a mind-body movement practice can be a powerful tool through which you can affect and change your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing in profound and enduring ways.

Physical ease is a mirror of the relationship of the body to the mind and relaxation is the single most effective indicator of whole body well-being.  Relaxation through balance is the best way of promoting vitality.

Less energy is expended by working with the body rather than against it; learning to breathe well, to stand, to sit, to get up and down and to move in ways that centre and align the bones and breath is fundamental for health and well-being.

‘A body free from nervous tension and fatigue is the ideal shelter provided by nature for housing a well-balanced mind, fully capable of successfully meeting all the complex problems of modern living’.     Joseph Pilates

Relaxation in the context of physical training is often misunderstood:

“Relaxation is not negation, it is not passivity. The moment it is considered as such, flaccidity is encouraged, both mental and physical. Take hold of your bones softly, but do not let go of them.”     Mabel Todd, The Thinking Body

Babies and children are masters of relaxed movement. They have yet to develop the tensions, imbalances, comparisons and limiting self-beliefs that often plague us as adults. They progressively, playfullly, yet determinedly persist in exploring their movement potential every day and as adults there is great benefit to be gained in rediscovering, restoring and refining basic yet fundamental movement patterns.

Thankfully most of the body’s tissues, including the brain, have a remarkable and lifelong capacity for change. Becoming aware of the chronic tension we carry is the first step in being able to release it but as with any change there is likely to be a period of discomfort as the body and mind adjust.  Indeed a sure sign of this is that we feel as if we are getting ‘worse’ as we become increasingly aware of our stiffness, tension and weaknesses.  Due to this temporary drop in self-esteem our built in defence mechanisms can cause resistance which results in us remaining stuck in old patterns and habits that no longer serve.  The will to change therefore needs to be greater.

Perhaps the crux of any mind-body movement practice therefore should not be to try to conform to an ‘ideal’ or achieve a particular standard of posture or movement but to develop our curiosity and awareness sufficiently to be able to recognise and evolve our own habits and patterns, particularly those that literally disconnect, contort and confine us within our own body.

 

Join Antonia and Sam for their forthcoming workshop ‘Centered: posture and balance’ on April 13th at Cowdray Hall. Visit Antonia’s website for all the details: www.antoniastringer.com

 

Posted in Balance, Health and Fitness, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, posture, Qigong, Tai Chi | 1 Comment

It’s not what you do…

 It’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it – that’s what gets results.

Exercise is a bit like food, we are what we eat and we are how we use our bodies. So it is well worth being intelligent in ones choice of how to exercise rather than just ‘eating anything’.

The initial contents of my classes are simple and extremely useful and perhaps a little difficult to grasp; we learn how to pay attention to our bodies. This vastly underrated first step is the keystone to really being able to move well, breathe well, feel well and live well. Although a simple concept it takes lots of daily practise to realise on an experiential level and when taken further along the line is what will allow one to get some seriously tasty results from any physical/mental endeavor (like life) owebr performance without destroying the body/corrupting the mind on the way.

For most of us our senses are extremely dull and what takes precedence in our experience of life is the content of our minds i.e. our common thought patterns and constant benign mental chatter. However, it is in fact only from our senses that we glean accurate information about both our internal and external environments and as such it is well worth addressing this top-down imbalance. Otherwise it’s like living in a dictatorship and you never really have a clear idea of what you are doing, how you are doing it and what is happening around you.

There is only one true rebellion: to free your body and mind.

Often, when people start training the first thing they notice is that their mind is a cacophony of chatter, categories, judgements, memories, predictions and unreasonable beliefs none of which have anything to do with or accurately reflect whawavet is happening in the present moment. Realising that it might be worth learning how to turn this noise down is major step in an intelligent training direction. I’m not, by the way, referring to being spiritual but instead simply being very sensible. For me this process is inseparable from ‘turning up’ our bodily senses – I take inspiration from nature, our animal friends who absolutely bristle with sensory life.

This is not something that can be taught in the traditional sense but instead something that must be learned. My job is to facilitate this learning process rather than simply disseminating information. While having its uses, information is inferior to knowledge. Knowledge is superior because it comes from direct experience and experience derives from trying things out for yourself, making a few little mistakes and learning directly from the results rather than following instructions blindly or just regurgitating what someone else has said. This all takes time and in order to learn something we must not kid ourselves that there is a quick solution.  Embrace the process, seek progress, not perfection and keep practicing.

 

Posted in Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Tai Chi, Fascia & Biotensegrity

I have always had a deep passion for nature which is one of the reasons why I love Tai Chi so much. In particular I am consistently fascinated at how all of Earth’s inhabitants, from the tiniest of bacteria to the biggest of mammals, are inextricably linked through one vast ecological web.

When running nature workshops for children one of my conservationist friends illustrates this fact by building a working model of an ecological web using many bits of twine. All of the children assist with the construction; each tentatively holds their own a piece of string which represents some aspect of, or creature from, the natural world. All the threads are then tied together to form a delicate three dimensional web and thus the many facets of our ecology are visibly connected and the constant but gentle pressure of the integrated structure is felt by each individual. Pull on a thread in one particular place and the rest of the web will move to compensate, the change in pressure felt by all. Sever a thread and the integrity of the entire structure is compromised; the web collapses. Each separate part affects the whole. Indeed the model illustrates that there are not really any separate parts. It is just our limited perception, experience and understanding that creates such divisions. It is exactly the same with the human body:

“Fascia forms a continuous tensional network throughout the human body, covering and connecting every single organ, every muscle, and even every nerve fibre.” (1)

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“The world is full of obvious things that no-one by any chance ever observes.” Sherlock Homes

Research into the role of fascia as an effective means of understanding the physical reality of the body is still a recent thing but is rapidly gaining much credence in the realms of musculoskeletal and movement therapies and sports science. For practitioners and teachers of Internal Martial Arts such as Tai Chi (Taijiquan) it is really worth looking at and acquiring an idea of the basics, which I will briefly outline here, for there are some stunning similarities between them and perhaps you will be able to observe some correlations in your own training. (2)

Before Anatomy Trains, there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from 'Chen Xin's Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan' (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

Before Anatomy Trains there was Chen Tai Chi. This image, taken from ‘Chen Xin’s Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taijiquan’ (1933) shows the spiral line of fascia that courses through the body.

That the human body moves and functions as a single unit, so well illustrated by research into fascia and biotensegrity has, in fact, been well known by Tai Chi players for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Tai Chi training principles are based not upon intellectual theory (theory is a lot like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted) but a long history of direct experience gained through highly perceptive, heuristic movement research, acute empirical observation of natural phenomena (such as the laws of physics) at both micro and macro levels and rigorous proof testing through application (fighting/self-defense/life). All of this experience eventually culminated in a most natural and optimal way to train the human body and mind for health, movement and martial arts that we know and love as Tai Chi.

The first reliable records of Tai Chi proper takes us back to Chen Village, or Chenjiagou, circa the early 1600s and cite Chen Wanting, the Ming Dynasty General, as founder of the art. Chen style Tai Chi has retained all of the authentic flavour and goodness from the old days although unfortunately much of the Tai Chi you see today is in fact  bastardised, modernised and heavily simplified. As such, it is a huge misconception that Tai Chi consists only of slow movements most suitable for the elderly or comprises some kind of pseudo-spiritual dance. Nothing could be further from the truth. At first the student of Tai Chi trains slowly and smoothly to develop highly accurate sense perception (this is requires a calm and focused mind), body coherence and balanced, connected strength. Once these basic requirements are well established we train for speed and power but with an intelligent and calm foundation that we continually work on and seek to improve.

Check out the video of Chen Xiao Wang below. Here he gives a little taster of  some the treats Chen style has to offer. At 3 minutes in you start to see some fireworks! He is 70 years old this year and has been training consistently for over 60 years. He is as strong as bull but as pliable as a baby:

Balanced, relaxed, whole-body movement forms the core principle of all good Tai Chi practice and vastly contributes to its superb efficacy  in not only optimising health and all bodily functions but also as a method for developing superb movement, power and ‘whole-body’ strength without damaging the body on the way. If you consider it carefully, to have this as the key fundamental premise for how one trains makes more sense than many other approaches, for when a system is integrated it will be optimal, adaptive and harmonious in its functioning (3):

“From one principle come ten thousand movements” Chen Xiao Wang (4)

“When one part moves, all parts move; the whole body responds” Tai Chi Classics (5)

So let’s get back to fascia. Fascia is primarily made up of densely packed collagen fibres that comprise an integrated system of sheets, chords and bags that permeate the human body in its entirety. This three dimensional fascial web is jam packed with mechanoreceptors and essentially forms a ‘global’ sensory organ which richly communicates where we are in space, what our bodies are doing and most importantly, how they are doing it. Fascia is elastic in nature and exhibits this quality even more so when in good condition facilitating connected and fluid movement. It responds to the continuous force of gravity around which it organises bodily structure and function; if you can imagine wearing an elasticated wet-suit that permeates your body entirely, adapted and yet ever adaptive to how you most commonly use your body then this may give you some idea of this incredible stuff. Although most of us are not aware of it, to extend out a limb results in a corresponding stretch across the whole fascial ‘body-suit’ priming the body to recoil in one elastic and fluid motion. Whether we run, jump, walk or do Tai Chi a large part of the energy of that movement comes from the elastic recoil and spring-like properties of fascia. Similarly, the Tai Chi classic texts state that:

“When storing energy it is like a drawing a bow, when releasing energy it is like shooting an arrow.” (6)

Incredibly, it has been discovered that the fascia of humans has a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of Kangaroos! (7) Fascia has long been ignored until recent years being seen only as a kind of unimportant bulking agent of the body. However, anyone deeply engaged with any kind of movement practise who has developed the above-average level of body-awareness necessary to do so is likely to agree that the usually favoured isolated muscle presentation as the be all and end all of movement anatomy leaves much to be desired. While some may find it intellectually pleasing to categorise and separate the human body, its actions and functions into disparate bits, it in fact operates and is organised as a unit of function; an integrated whole. (8) The human being grows organically from a single egg and so from conception to expiration this single unit operates inextricably. (9) Separating movement into discrete functions fails to provide an accurate or useful picture of the seamless integration and responsiveness seen in and experienced by a living body. Fortunately, fascia is here to fill the gap:

“…that the complexity of human movement and stability can be derived by summing up the action of these individual muscles is a naive and reductionist conviction.” (10)

The general consensus has been to think of only one or two muscles participating in any given movement but no matter how common this misconception may be the reality is that any movement is essentially a whole-body movement. For movement is not simply the mere coordinated bending of separate hinges but instead expansion, repositioning and contraction of the tensegrity of the body as a whole via the fascial web. (11) So the Tai Chi classics were certainly on to something when they told us that if one part moves, the whole body responds ‘like a string of pearls connected by interwoven threads of silk.’ (12)

At school we learn to intellectually divide the body into the skeletal, muscular, nervous and circulatory systems, etc but the only tissue that can facilitate the integrated responsiveness humans possess is fascia.(13) This ‘living matrix’ is in fact the most abundant component of human matter and forms the bulk of the human body and as such is probably worth paying some attention to. The overall form of the body, as well as the architecture, mechanical and functional properties of all its parts, are largely determined by the configuration and properties of fascia. (14) For example, we have long assumed that the skeletal system holds the body up and that our muscles hang off the skeleton and that specific muscles move the bones in isolation. In reality however, bones float in a three dimensional mass of soft-tissues, their positions determined by the tensional balance or tensegrity of the entire fascial web and thus it is this web that actually comprises our body structure.

It is mainly due to our distinct lack of body awareness and  an incorrect, intellectual understanding of movement that we do not experience the body in this way and thus capitalise on it’s inherent, natural attributes. For usually when we exercise we immediately try to force the body to change in some superficial way rather than learning how pay attention to what it does naturally without interference, intervention or biased-control. It is the ability to pay attention accurately which allows us to discover the inherent  structure of our human form, something that is with us whatever we are doing, whether we are ‘exercising’ or standing in a queue at the supermarket. What more sensible first port of call could there be to commence your training?

It is very curious that even in the typically touted holistic practice of Yoga most practitioners seem bent on achieving controlled aesthetics. Most postures have no relation to good bio-mechanics or whole-body movement and are counter productive to the development of a resilient, elastic body structure that is vital for optimal movement.

All good movement is whole-body movement

All good movement is enjoyable, relaxed, whole-body movement. Isn’t that a good premise to start training from? Photo of Skating Legend Ben Moor-courtesy of Daniel Turner

A body that exhibited tensegrity in an optimal way would be tensionally balanced in all directions under the reliable and constant pressure of gravity. This, incidentally, is the first basic and ongoing (there isn’t a fixed finished product) goal in Tai Chi training and forms the foundation for all subsequent movement. The Tai Chi classics point to this when they say that in our training, specifically regarding how we move, we should seek:

“No hollows and no protuberances. No deficiencies, no excess” (15)

And in regards to perceiving and maintaining such balanced, structural integrity in every movement:

“When there is up, there is down. When there is forwards, there is backwards. When there is left, there is right. When there is opening, there is be closing” (16)

This concept of Tensegrity also known as Biotensegrity (17) is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, such as the human body, distribute forces and movement throughout the system via the spring-like fascial web rather than being dealt with locally as they are in lever systems:

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder”  R. Buckminster Fuller (18)

Nice view of a tensegrity structure...

A man made tensegrity structure.

The classics suggest that through Tai Chi training our bodies can be so well tuned in this way that even a fly alighting from one part of the body should set our entire structure in motion – we should perceive all nuances of movement and indeed external forces as distributed through the whole. (19) Chen Xiao Wang often states that in all of our training we should constantly seek ‘balance in all directions’ and thus develop what he calls ‘all-sided support’.  He is, of course, referring to the facilitation of the inherent biotensegrity of the human body as a most sensible basis for movement.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere - the most economical and useful of shapes.

Hundreds of years before the word biotensegrity was even coined, Tai Chi players were bang on it. Another illustration from Chen Xin (1849-1929) shows the human structure as a sphere – the most economical and useful of shapes.

Tensegrity reverses the centuries-old concept that the skeleton is a frame upon which soft-tissue is draped and replaces it with an integrated fascial fabric with floating compression elements enmeshed within the interstices of tensional elements. (20) One feature of this fascial body structure is that it never stops adapting to how we use it most; the body has a great capacity for structural change at any age so we always can keep learning and improving. (21)

To me, Tai Chi is the science of optimal human movement and being. Through the process of our training we seek to discover and develop ‘global’ or whole–body awareness, connection and movement that is balanced, organised and integrated through the centre of the body. Learning about fascia can help us achieve this, but of course just having an intellectual understanding will not even nearly suffice. First to actually discover a direct sense of this whole-body connection and movement and then to augment what occurs naturally is our ongoing aim.

Right from the start, in the warm-ups and basic exercises that beginners often find tedious, and throughout all aspects of our training should we seek to observe the simplicity of whole-body integration. For once you start to get a sense of the golden feeling of whole-body movement, all training becomes is a real pleasure that is sweet like honey. Not some kind of chore to blindly flagellate ourselves with. Even basic movements like warming up specific joints should always directly relate to the whole and we can find out how by acutely focusing the mind on the physical job in hand firmly cementing the inextricable link between mind and body:

“The skin is no more separated from the brain than a surface of a lake is separate from its depths; the two are different locations in a continuous medium…The brain is a single functional unit, from cortex to fingertips to toes. To touch the surface is to stir the depths.” (22)

wave

There is a great deal to be learned from looking at nature – a quiet mind allows us to fully observe and take it all in

A good way that we can discover and develop these principles is whilst training something very simple such as the maintaining of a simple ‘neutral’ standing posture as in Zhanzhuang (standing meditation, it’s simple and brilliant – learn it from a decent teacher). The absence of deliberate movement focuses the mind into the body and heightens the senses. This allows us to discover and thus relax the restricted and unfelt areas of our body structure, which for most people, especially in the beginning, comprises the majority. This way we can improve our direct sense and functioning of the whole fascial net.

With regular practice we can perceive steadily more and start to clearly experience the body as a balanced and connected unit. As we progress to simple movements we see if we can perceive and achieve the same level of integration; do we feel the elasticity that fascia imparts to our movement? Can we feel the spherical nature of our tensionally balanced form? From here we progress to training more complicated movements, a Tai Chi form for example, and it is much more difficult to allow the same principles to come to fruition. It is an ongoing process and any deviations that we might discover can be resolved by taking a step back to the preceding basics and ironing out what seem to be current discrepancies:

“Learning Taijiquan means to educate oneself. It is like slowly advancing from primary school to university. As time passes, more and more knowledge is gained. Without the foundations of primary school and secondary school one will not able to follow the seminars at university.” Chen Xiao Wang (23)

The properties of fascia mirror many aspects of how we approach training in Tai Chi and allows us a more contempory way of understanding what we do. The important point is that not only do we normally fail to understand that the body functions as an integrated unit on an intellectual level but also on an experiential level; surprisingly low levels of body awareness or body-intelligence are the norm in our society, even (and often especially) in the very active. We tend to rely on our arms and hands and it is here that most of our awareness lies. If we were to think of the archetypal image of strength we would probably see an arm with a bulging bicep in our mind’s eye rather than a body in its entirety well connected, balanced and integrated. Remembering that the body moves as one unit, supported by our understanding of fascia, can help us keep on the right track with our training rather than being distracted by what we consider to be separate parts.

My research into fascia has yielded much more interesting and realistic results that relate to my own training and experience than I have ever encountered in the field of traditional anatomy or Traditional Chinese Medicine. I have found that the parallels with these findings and the principles in Internal Martial Arts that I know from my own direct experience are not only striking in their similarity but also fascinating. They have been very useful in my own training and teaching as I feel this more contempory and scientific approach to anatomy and movement nicely backs up what we do in Tai Chi (and related arts) without having to rely on the traditional obscurities that seem to distract people from good training so very readily.

I know of a number of established and well respected Yoga teachers who now use fascia as a basis for teaching their art rather than the traditional abstract, sometimes nonsensical concepts and explanations. (24) For me the properties of fascia, and our understanding of biotensegrity, are far more relevant to Tai Chi and similarly a basic level of comprehension can drastically help clear up misunderstandings and more abstract notions about and apparent in the art. By making it more understandable and palatable to modern society increasing numbers of people are likely to practice (the big secret) and thus enjoy the vast benefits that come from immersing oneself deep within the golden sensation of freedom of movement and natural power.

Sam Moor teaches Chen Tai Chi full time in Sussex.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

References:

1. Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
2. An accessible place to start is ‘Anatomy Trains’ by Thomas Myers, Elsevier.
3. Siegal, D. The Mindful Therapist. Norton. 2010
4. Chen Xiaowang Yanshi. Chen Family Taijiquan. 2008.
5. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

6. Ibid
7. Sawicki, G. Exercise Sports Science Review.37. 2009
8. Sills, F. Craniosacral Biodynamics. Volume One. North Atlantic Books. 2001
9. Myers, T. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
10. Myer, T. Anatomy Trains. 2001. Elsevier.
11. Levin, S and Martin, D, C. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.
12. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
13. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R. The Endless Web: Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. 1996, North Atlantic Books
14. Oschman, J. Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance. 2003, Elsevier.
15. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000

16. Ibid

17. Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com
18. Fuller, B. Synergetics. New York: Macmillan. 1975
19. Liao, W. Tai Chi Classiscs. Shambala. 2000
20. Levin, S & Martin, DC. In Schleip, R. et al. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body. 2012, Elsevier.
21. Schultz, R. and Feitis, R.
22. Juhan, D. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. 1987, Station Hill Press, NY.
23. Xiaowang, Chen. The Five Levels of Taijiquan. 2012, Singing Dragon.
24. Check out: http://www.intelligentyoga.co.uk/

Posted in Anatomy Trains, biotensegrity, Chen Taijiquan, Chen Xiao Wang, Fascia, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

Staying Balanced

First published in no. 46 edition of  ‘Tai Chi Chuan’ Magazine

Daniel: “When do I learn how to punch?” 

Mr. Miyagi: “Better to learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, then karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, then better pack up, go home. Understand?”

 Excerpt from ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984)

For me Taiji is the art of balance and the ability to ‘stay balanced’ is one of the key skills that we consistently work on in all of our training. It underpins everything we do, for as our ability to be balanced improves so too does all other aspects of our movement. Balance, however, is an idea that can be quite misunderstood. People often tell me: “Oh, I just couldn’t do Taiji; my balance is no good!” This is usually accompanied by a hazardous-looking tottering on one leg as if to demonstrate the point. It’s funny really because while balance is something that people perceive to be perhaps an obviously difficult part of Taiji training it is in fact fundamental to everything that we do as human beings.

Excellent balance - Chen Bing demonstrates 'Pounding the Mortar'

Excellent balance – Chen Bing demonstrates ‘Pounding the Mortar’

We all have the ability to stay balanced to varying degrees otherwise any movement would be impossible and balance certainly refers to much more than just standing on one leg. The simple ability to walk on two legs for example, is an incredible evolutionary achievement comprising a profound balancing act that relates through the whole body, from head to toe. However, we rarely appreciate this simple thing. So to the many people who say to me that they simply just cannot stand on one leg I like to point out that every time we get up off the sofa and take a single step we are in fact balancing, albeit briefly, on one leg. In fact, when we walk we spend about 80% of the time on one leg. [i]

 

The reasons why we evolved into bi-pedal creatures in the first place are widely debated but one thing is for sure: we sacrificed a great deal of natural animal strength and agility in order to free up our hands so that we might manipulate our environment. Furthermore, this evolutionary step was inherently bound up with the development of much larger brains, which has its pros and cons! Whereas all animals demonstrate amazing physical and sensory feats as a matter of course, we modern humans seem to struggle with achieving and maintaining the basics. Our big brains get in the way. Even Olympic athletes who are generally considered to epitomise peak physical excellence, dedicate themselves to full-time training in order to achieve kinds of body movement, which compared to our animal friends, are pretty elementary. More often than not said athletes seriously damage themselves both physically and psychologically in the process of doing so while animals, on the other hand, do not. It is a curious phenomenon which I think relates to our tendency to control and manipulate rather using awareness to discover and work with our inherent natural ability.

Squatting: an excellent way to come to terms with being a biped

 

Four legs good, two legs bad?

 

In terms of human evolution standing on two legs is still a very new thing.  You never know, perhaps it will eventually go out of fashion and we will devolve back into being more stable, grounded creatures. For unlike our quadruped ancestors and our modern four legged friends, our upright bi-pedal stance requires a much more meticulous balancing act.

 

Some years ago when I had a dog I would often marvel at his natural abilities. Not only were his senses amazingly acute but also his body extremely well tuned. If I pushed him gently on his flank his whole body would compress naturally like a spring in order to stabilise. If I pushed him more he would just compress more. Sometimes I would push him and then quickly let go but he would never lose his balance, instead he would simply return back to his neutral stance with a yawn. He used to seem to like this game and when I was practising he would often come and lean heavily on my leg inciting me to experience my own tensional balance more clearly. Or perhaps he was just getting his own back?

 

Being a Biped and staying upright is a challenging feat which involves every part of the body and although we are not usually conscious of it there is a plethora of constant adjustments, some minute, some gross, occurring across the entire body structure at all times. If we wanted to build a basic bi-pedal robot that exhibited the ever adaptive and perceptive skills seen in humans necessary for a lifetimes worth of walking, this would be a very difficult challenge indeed. Standing, walking, running, sitting, lying, you name it, our bodies are ever active in the management of this dynamic, three dimensional balance. Furthermore, our state of mind is inextricably linked to this never-ending process. If we are relaxed and calm for example, we find that any movement is generally easier and more importantly our perception of balance usually much clearer. You would never know unless you specifically paid a lot of attention to it and thus experienced it for yourself.

 

Updating our understanding of the human body structure and how it moves can really help to inform our concept of balance. Unfortunately, traditional models of anatomy are of little use. Instead of balance simply referring to standing on one leg and our ability to do so merely governed by a group of local muscles, overseen somehow by the inner ear, we can turn to the wonderful concept of Tensegrity (which I have mentioned before in this series) for a much more lifelike and useful model. The concept of Tensegrity, also known as Biotensegrity[ii], is a phrase coined by the designer R. Buckminster Fuller. Tensegrity structures, of which the human body is a prime example, distribute forces and movement throughout the entire system: every part is involved. If we take time to look more closely at nature we can see this kind of structure everywhere. In humans this occurs via the spring-like three dimensional myofascial web instead of being dealt with locally as in lever systems, which is how, somewhat misleadingly, anatomy and movement have been traditionally understood:

A man-made tensegrity structure...

A man-made tensegrity structure…

“The word ‘tensegrity’ is an invention: a contraction of ‘tensional integrity’. Tensegrity describes a structural-relationship principle in which structural shape is guaranteed by the finitely closed, comprehensively continuous, tensional behaviours of the system and not by the discontinuous and exclusively local compressional member behaviours. Tensegrity provides the ability to yield increasingly without ultimately breaking or coming asunder” – R. Buckminster Fuller[iii]

This new model of the human body gives us a more accurate way of understanding balance as being an intelligent and integrated interplay between strength, stability, mobility and perception across the whole body in relation to gravity. Facilitated by the myofascial web, all bodily systems collaborate inextricably to distribute gravity, movement and tension throughout the entire body and collaboratively organise the most appropriate response i.e. balance. Tensegrity is thus at play continuously throughout the human body and comprises the basis for how we retain our form when we move or remain seemingly motionless. Contemporary research into Fascia and Tensegrity is fascinating and is coming on in leaps and bounds.[iv] One interesting discovery is that as well as fascia’s vital structural functions it  also comprises one of our richest sensory organs being heavily laced with mechanoreceptors and proprioceptors. These receptors can be incredibly perceptive and inform our nervous system with all the essentials for successful movement, balance and interaction with the external world.[v] You could even describe the inherent sensing abilities of fascia as being our sixth sense. The most salient point here however is that a body that is free from restriction will exhibit these natural ability exponentially – so if you want to move well and stay balanced, first relax!

 

Just like riding a bike

 

Improving balance takes lots of practise and ongoing maintenance. A clearer understanding of what the term refers to can really help improve one’s training approach and here an analogy might be helpful. Learning to stay balanced is like when we first learn to ride a bicycle. To begin with it seems almost impossible to stay up on those two thin wheels and as we slowly wobble along, desperate to travel in a straight line, we make drastic manoeuvres in a bid to control our movement. This is especially so when we sense that we are losing balance, which to begin with is all the time! We panic, go rigid and thus inevitably we fall off our trusty steed. Through trial and error we learn that in order to stay balanced we have to ‘do’ much less and instead constantly ‘feel’ all the nuances of ourselves and the bike and our motions to maintain this must be fluid, relaxed and thoroughly in tune with the present moment. So after a few falls and scuffs our attempts to control lessen considerably and our motions become smoother and more natural. As we progressively relax we slowly and surely learn to navigate by the subtle but constant whole-body adjustments led by our intent to stay balanced rather than our original erratic to-ing and fro-ing.

 

Essentially there is no other way; you have to learn from your own experience and this is facilitated by making lots of little mistakes, by losing balance in fact. Mistakes are vital for learning and so we must not fear them but instead embrace them! Interestingly enough I suspect that no matter how much theory one knew about the laws of physics it wouldn’t help to learn to ride a bicycle any quicker. Direct experience is the best teacher and theory, while being important, is well just theory. In the same way a map of a place is useful for navigation it can never replace actually being in that place and experiencing it for yourself. I’ve met many physiotherapists and manual therapists over the years who have a really deep intellectual understanding of the human body but have very restricted body movement and poor balance themselves (too much time sitting down reading books). I find the incongruence between the two quite fascinating and the prospect of someone who cannot balance very well trying to teach someone else how to do it even more intriguing! It’s difficult to convey to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of simple practise and experience![vi] I would rather know very little information and possess the golden sensation of freedom of movement than the other way around. The best way to understand and improve balance then is to feel it, and often our first most essential step is simply sensing our lack of it.

 

Baby steps

 

Standing meditation, of which there are many variations, is essential for getting to grips with the basics

Standing meditation, of which there are many variations, is essential for getting to grips with the basics

To begin with it is most useful to start with a simple exercise such as Zhanzhaung (Standing Meditation) in order to concretely experience and identify this whole body balance. For learning how to balance when standing in a simple ‘neutral’ position should be quite easy when compared to complicated movements or extreme stretches.  If we assume a basic ‘Wuji’ standing posture with our arms hanging by our sides our first objective then is to find out how we balance in order to maintain this simple position. Before I even start to think about ‘doing anything’ I must first observe and simply sense my whole body in order to find out what is happening currently without interference or intervention. If this sounds easy then let me clearly state that it isn’t. It requires a lot of ongoing practise.

 

“Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence.”[vii]

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Most people struggle to feel their body without a strong stimulus and usually we discover that our bodies actually behave differently to how we think they do. In our culture we  can observe a vast imbalance between mind and body i.e. between thinking and perception. Mental activity dominates everything we do and our down-to-earth sense perception takes a distinct back seat. Even when we take up a more holistic exercise it’s all too easy to retain our mentally dominant approach and continually try to force ourselves to practise with significant incongruence between what’s happening in our mind and the more accurate, real time experience of the body.

When I first started to learn Taiji I bought and read every book on the subject that I could get my hands on. I memorised all of the information because I mistakenly thought that Taiji was mainly about thinking. Rapidly, my head became full of complicated ‘Taiji ideas’ but at ground level I couldn’t even manage the very basics. In fact, the complicated and sometimes nonsensical theory distinctly distracted me from good practise. Instead of reading books I should have just relaxed and trained the basics more. Fortunately, commonsense prevailed when I met my current teachers and I worked it out in the end!

One of the best things about Taiji is that we want to address this mind/body imbalance distinctly, right from the start because the first and most important skill we learn is to pay attention to what we are doing in the present moment both physically and mentally. It’s as simple as that. This can form an ongoing and substantial challenge for most people and what a superb challenge it is! If we stick at it, slowly but surely we can develop a much more balanced state of being, calm and assertive, but also begin to experience the sweet pleasure of natural movement, strength and agility unimpeded by unnecessary control, force and effort.

 

Don’t think, feel!

 

Through basic standing practise we can discover all kinds of nuggets of wisdom. For example we might discover that it is difficult to concentrate on feeling the body as our mind keeps on interrupting; you just cannot think and feel at the same time. Even thoughts about Taiji will detract from the job in hand!  It seems to be in the nature of the mind to keep wondering off so I like to approach paying attention as if were a game to play or puzzle to solve. Similarly, we may discover that there are lots of areas of the body  that we just can’t sense at all. Our aim is to be able to feel the whole-body. Corrections and adjustments from a good teacher are invaluable because we all have strange postural habits that are difficult to sense. I remember gently correcting a student’s standing posture some years ago and when I quietly said “Relax” he barked loudly back “I AM RELAXED!!”. We laughed about it later! Often we initially discover just how much tension we hold on to in various parts of the body that impede the tentative, fluid balance and strength of the whole and this is vital for progress.

 

Standing with one’s eyes closed often makes is easier to concentrate and feel what the body is up to. Usually people find that the body is hardly still at all but constantly adjusting, albeit in a minute way. If we were to imagine our skeleton floating unimpeded within the interwoven mesh of fascia combined the constant downward flow of gravity to make us stable then this would give us a good idea of what we are working towards.  Stiff, locked joints and rigid, restricted parts of the body impede movement and hamper the natural ability of the body to work as a whole. So an important part of our training is learning to relax all the bits that we have conditioned, either consciously or unconsciously, to be tense.  Gradually, with ongoing practise we can build a progressively more accurate, three dimensional ‘felt’ map of the body and what an excellent basis for movement and balance this makes! People often mention coordination (or lack of) in terms of the difficulty in learning Taiji. Coordination, however, implies separate parts but once you start to experience the body as an interconnected unit, a whole piece like a snake, then this term goes out of the window!

 

(Walking) The Walk

 

Once we have got to grips with basic standing training another excellent exercise to try out and test our newfound sense of the whole body balance is slow walking. For as our velocity decreases our perception of balance and movement greatly increases. For in Taiji to move quickly we must first learn to move slowly. Students usually find this slow ‘Taiji walking’ surprisingly challenging as it requires mental concentration and physical perception in equal measure. Here we can easily discover that with each slow step our awareness floods to the oft neglected legs and the feet; they constantly support the rest of the body and provide key feedback as to how we are moving. Similarly we might discover a whole host of postural tendencies we habitually assume that actually inhibit our balance without us realising it. The good thing is that once we are aware of something we have a chance to improve it. While in some cases ignorance is bliss, in others it is the backbone of stagnation.

 

Try it for yourself. First find a clear, even space to practise. Looking straight ahead walk forwards as slowly as you can comfortably manage. Relax your feet, knees, hips and shoulders so that these key players are able to move. As you step allow the heel to contact the ground first letting the rest of the foot roll down towards the toes as you gradually shift your weight forwards. This consciously engages the whole foot each time you step maximising both balance and stability. Beginners will probably find that they want to look down at their feet to see where they are going but instead we want to aim to look forwards. The human head is quite heavy and so if you look down your centre of gravity shifts compromising your balance.  Instead, you want to ‘feel’ your balance with your feet and pelvis, your centre of gravity and eventually simply with your whole body just like when we were standing earlier. Just take your time, don’t rush and keep it comfortable.

 

An allusion to a conclusion

 

The phrase ‘staying balanced’ is actually an umbrella term; we want to promote a balanced, progressive relationship between all the aspects and attributes of our physical and mental world: thinking and feeling, stability and mobility, movement and stillness, slow and fast, tension and relaxation, control and letting go. If we focus upon one attribute too much (and we inevitably always do) we sacrifice something else and start to become less balanced. Like any attribute, balance can be improved through awareness and training. While it isn’t something we might consciously address in our day to day activities, exercise or sport, by simply becoming aware of and improving our balance we can vastly benefit how our whole system operates. Therefore it seems a sensible place to start. As we move towards a balanced, relaxed and aligned body structure every action we make can become smoother and more natural, economical and ergonomic. This provides an excellent base for speed and strength and forms a basic requirement for pushing hands and more martial training. Similarly, with an elevated sense of this ‘whole-body’ balance we expend much less energy in our activities and many injuries, aches and pains related to posture can be alleviated. Similarly, such balanced physicality supports emotional and mental balance too, for of course they are inextricably linked.

 

I have outlined the above exercises in a basic way and it is good to keep things simple. In fact, watch out for people who make the simple things sound incredibly complicated! Regular practise of this kind of standing and slow movement is very beneficial as it not only strengthens and stabilises all the joints but also mobilises their functional range of movement. Similarly, it requires a certain kind of concentration that engages and trains the brain in a very wholesome way. All in all it makes for a body/mind that is strong but also, relaxed, stable and balanced and as we say in the Taiji world: ‘Strong like a mountain, fluid like a river’.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

www.facebook.com/sussextaichi

 


 

Endnotes:

[i]  For more information take a look at:  ‘Born to Walk – Myofascial Effiency and the Body in Movement’ by James Earls. Lotus Publishing, 2014.

[ii] Check out: http://www.biotensegrity.com

[iii] Fuller, B. ‘Synergetics.’ New York: Macmillan. 1975

[iv]  I’ve written about Fascia in previous editions or you can check out my blog: theinternalathlete.wordpress.com

[v] Lots of research can be seen here: Schleip, R. et al. ‘Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body.’ 2012, Elsevier.

[vi] Nassim Taleb talks about this kind of thing in: ‘ Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder.’ Penguin, 2012.

[vii] Kabat-Zinn, J. ‘Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life.’ 2004. Piatkus

Posted in Anatomy Trains, Balance, barefoot running, biotensegrity, Chen Taijiquan, Fascia, Health and Fitness, Martial arts, Meditation, mindfulness, movement, posture, sports science, Tai Chi, taijiquan, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Squeeze in some Squatting

First published in ‘Tai Chi Chuan and Oriental Arts’ magazine Spring 2014

Over the last ten years of teaching Taiji full-time I have had the pleasure of meeting many different people from all sorts of walks of life. From teenagers to 90 year olds, from gymnasts and ballet dancers to boxers and fitness trainers, from staunch businessmen to placid yogis, from couch potatoes to triathletes, you name it; they have probably been to one of my classes or booked in for some one-to-one time with me. One of the greatest things about being a teacher is meeting lots of people, and being an avid learner, ever keen to improve my own skills too, I am always fascinated in how as humans we all vividly exhibit similar patterns in how we move, think and learn despite myriad superficial differences. Just as Sherlock Homes points out we often miss out on learning some really good stuff that is in fact right in front of our noses:

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”[i]

Resting Squat

Squatting is an excellent way to get to know your lower body

One of the main things I have observed along the way, both in myself and virtually everyone around me, is that from a relatively young age we all gradually lose our body-awareness, proprioception and sense-perception and this is matched usually by diminished mobility, integrated strength and stability in the general body structure. This is especially evident in the lower half of the body comprising the feet, legs and hips and lower back. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this is mirrored by an increasing dominance of mental activity unrelated to what is actually happening within and around us in the real world, in real time, over the visceral, present, down to earth world of sensation. It’s like we slowly suffer from a kind of ever increasing disassociation from our physical selves and this supplements a gross imbalance between the physical and mental threads that inextricably twine together to form the whole human. We tend to become incredibly top-heavy as we leave childhood. Unless this imbalance is addressed from the off then I feel it is very difficult to facilitate optimum health and fitness and our more standard, less perceptive attempts to do so are somewhat counter-productive. For generally when most of us exercise, it is most often inspired by a aesthetic bid to simply change the way we look from the outside rather than a conscious re-orientation towards integration and balance. This is even, and often especially, the case in disciplines such as Yoga or Pilates. The question of ‘how’ doesn’t usually come into our equation; the actual quality of the movement/exercise we engage in, whether it requires the relaxed, focused awareness necessary to address these kind of imbalances, is rarely a consideration.

For me Taijiquan is an absolutely genius system in this sense because it immediately addresses this imbalance right from the start and from this most sensible of premises proceeds to offer stupendous benefits of all kinds (too numerous to mention!). However, developing this receptive and perceptive mindset can be quite tricky. Even with the wonderful art of Taiji it is easy for us remain mentally dominant and  just kind of intellectually collect and blindly repeat Taiji movements without paying the relaxed attention necessary to deeply immerse ourselves within the world of sensation i.e. directly engage with what we are doing in real time, that I feel fundamentally constitutes ‘doing Taiji’. Practising something very simple is a good place to start as it gives our big, interfering brains a chance to calm down and get with the programme in hand. So this time I’m going to talk about and encourage you to try the superb practise of squatting.

Almost all of us sit down far too much, even children. We humans originally evolved to be hunter-gatherers primed to be steadily on the move all day with our plethora of senses finely honed to be highly receptive. Staying firmly grounded in the present moment rather than drifting off into some revelry about the past or future was then, as it is now, vital not only for survival but also for healthy, happy and successful living.[ii]

Lack of movement in day-to-day life has seriously negative health implications; if we can simply do more walking (or more Taiji!) each day then we can placate that hunter-gather part of ourselves and begin to disperse some of our excessive mental energy. Even better, if we can improve our perception and functioning of the much neglected foundational, lower halves of our bodies then not only will this focus and engage our minds in their fundamentally embodied nature but our overall health and mobility can be seriously enhanced. A kinetic chain is only as strong as its weakest link as they say.

Back in 2004 when I first went to train in Beijing one of the many things that amazed me was just how often people would rest by squatting flat-footed on the ground rather than sitting on a chair. Everyone would do it, from little children right up to the eldest of the elderly. It seemed that the majority of people could demonstrate this excellent, basic mobility. Often after training we would eat our lunch in the park and all just simply squat down in a circle around a very low table. This was noticeably excellent for my lower body and I love training while I’m resting!  At this point in time most of the toilets in China consisted of a simple hole or small trench rather than a western toilet, and so a simple ablution would require careful, mindful squatting and balance in order for it to be successful. Fortunately, when I was twenty years old my first ever Taiji teacher taught me how to squat properly. Despite being quite young and what I thought was very flexible (I could happily do the splits for example) to begin with I found it very difficult to do and couldn’t maintain the position for very long. It really perplexed me to find such a simple thing so difficult! Yet with daily practice it rapidly became easier as my joints and spine became stronger, more mobile and more stable. It really helped with my Taiji and to this day I really enjoy squatting on a very regular basis and often much to the amusement of people around me. Funnily enough, nowadays I feel that flexibility is quite a gross misconception and an attribute that isn’t half as useful as many people make out who seem to strive for it, especially if we compare it to something much more functional like mobility. Anyway, that’s another story for another time.

Being able to squat successfully requires and facilitates excellent hip, ankle and spinal mobility, stability and leg strength. It also promotes healthy digestive, elimination and sexual functions. It is worth remembering that in reality squatting is simply a basic and fundamental human movement rather than an ‘exercise’ to torture ourselves with. Again for me it brings to mind our ancient hunter-gatherer friends squatting round a fire, relaxed, alert and ever-ready to move. Many of us in the west, even youngsters, cannot even nearly carry out a full flat footed squat but if we could learn to do it well and regularly it would do us the world of good and address some of the imbalances that impact deeply upon our health that I mentioned earlier.  It’s not something that people normally think of when they want to ‘get fit’ but what better place to start than learning how to lower your body down and then lift yourself up from the ground? Learn to walk before you run, learn to stand before you walk and learn to squat before you stand, that’s what I say! And if you want it to sound a bit more mystical then just consider it to be practicing the art of ‘sitting without sitting’. That must be in the Tao Te Ching somewhere! So try it for yourself, see how you get on and incorporate it into your daily life but don’t throw away all your chairs and sofas just yet, please wait until you have actually tried it.

Here is a rough guide to how it is done but it’s much better if you mainly just experiment intelligently with it for yourself. As long as you pay relaxed attention to what you are doing and do not force your body to anything particularly uncomfortable you will be able to discover how you body actually moves in its current state and go from there. Just practice slowly, softly, smoothly and sensibly. What we want to do is a flat footed squat as opposed to a heels up or ‘Western’ squat where we rest on the balls of the feet. The flat footed squat comprises a highly beneficial closed kinetic chain of movement whereas the heels up version does not, is invariably much easier but places more stress on the knees and is less productive in the long run, especially when it comes down to improving hip mobility in a sustainable way.

The basic squat

The basic squat

There are a few basic variations on how we can go about it so to begin with I suggest starting with a stance of approximately shoulder width apart and with your feet facing forwards or both turned a little outwards at more or less the same angle. We can vary the width of our stance all the way from a narrow gait i.e. feet together to a wider double shoulder width stance. It’s nothing to get caught up about; each variation simply offers slightly different emphasis. I suggest that once you establish the basic way of doing it that I outline here you vary how you do it from time to time and investigate the differences for yourself. Remember, try to go with the flow of how your body moves naturally rather than forcing it to move in a way that you think it should. Simply practice, observe and learn from your own experience without judgement. For example, no body is a hundred percent symmetrical and it really is counterproductive to pursue such ideals.

From our shoulder width stance then, we want to slowly but carefully relax and lower the hips down and back using our connection through the legs to the ground to support the upper body. It is just natural for the upper body to move forwards a little in order to balance the movement of the hips so do not try to force yourself to be straight. Over time as your mobility improves the amount you lean will probably lessen naturally. Gradually keep sitting down and see how low you can go without causing too much discomfort. Watch out for any pain in your joints: this is an indication to move much less or stop.

As you sit down relax your hips and with your knees soft try to keep your feet flat on the ground i.e. don’t lift your heels. Find out if you can also relax your feet. Gently encourage your knees to track the line of your feet; many of us will find that our knees want to collapse inwards. Keep working on it and slowly but surely this will improve as the tensegrity of your body structure becomes more balanced. Again, it is just natural if you feel certain parts of your body are restricted. For example, it is very common to sense that your calves and hip flexors are  tight. All these observations are just interesting insights into how you have used your body up to this point and offer an excellent starting point for great improvement. If you can only go down a little way without lifting your heels and/or knees collapsing inwards, perhaps you can just comfortably manage a half-squat, then that’s all good; just slowly and carefully lift yourself up consciously using your legs and the ground to lift and support your body. If you try it a few times in succession, a few times every day then you should find that slowly but surely your comfortable range of movement will improve until you can sit all the way down into your heels so that your backside is almost on the floor. This may take some time. Just be patient and persevere. Gradually as you get used to it you will start to notice, if you pay attention, that the whole body shifts and balances as you lower yourself down and lift yourself up. Just as with all movement, there is no part that is not involved in this balancing process. The more you can relax and focus your mind on perceiving the plethora of inherent nuances and sensations the more you can learn and benefit from the movement.

If you find it fairly easy to do a full squat then you can try staying in this squatting position for a few minutes and investigate your body-experience of this. Occasionally, slowly shift your weight side to side a little and rock your weight forward and back. Again this will emphasise different aspects of your structure allowing you insights into how you move. From here you can further experiment by executing your squats extremely slowly and continually without pause. To begin with see if you can try taking half a minute to go down and half a minute to go up again all in one fluid motion. This can be fairly hard work so just be careful; the slowness of the movement should be mirror the amount to care and mindfulness you put into it.

Lots of us will find this exercise quite a challenge and perhaps not want to do it because of this. If you find it difficult because your knees roll in or your legs struggle to support your torso for example, then this is more of an indication of the current state of your body than anything else and highlights even more of an incentive to practise and improve. It is best not to judge before experience so just relax and keep trying it out every now and again. For almost everyone, if they pay attention and persevere, will be able to glean lots of benefit from regular practise. So instead of slumping into your favourite armchair, try squatting for a bit instead. If you are fairly happy squatting anyway, experiment with yourself and see if you can watch your favourite TV show whilst maintaining this position. Often I eat my meals squatting in the garden and it is very satisfying. When I slowly get up again I feel my hips and spine are more fluidly mobile and somehow stronger than before. I’m not sure what my neighbours think though… Happy squatting!

You should always check with your GP before starting any new exercise regime and anyone attempting the exercises outlined in this article do so entirely at their own risk.

Sam teaches Chen style Taijiquan full-time across Sussex.

www.sussextaichi.co.uk

www.facebook.com/sussextaichi

References:

[i] Doyle, A.C. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” 2007. Penguin Classics.

[ii] Dawkins, R. “The Ancestors’s Tale.” 2005. Phoenix.

Posted in Chen Taijiquan, Fascia, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, sports science, Squatting, Tai Chi, yoga | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments