Before we can focus on the world around us, we must focus on the world within us.
The Body is a collection of moving parts, held together by the interaction of bones, muscles, sinews, ligaments and fascia. As we move one part of the body we pull and tug at every other part as this web of tissue is deformed by our movement. Every motion we generate is actually anchored far deeper inside of the body than we are generally conscious of. If you look at your hand and move your fingers, you’ll notice that the muscles moving your fingers actually reach all the way to the elbow.
Tai Chi invites us to look at these deep connections.
Furthermore, the Yin aspect of the body is not just physical, but mental as well. The body has it’s own structure, the way it wants to be and move. Our mental state influences and warps our bodies into unnatural shapes. For example, an emotional wound can be expressed as stooped shoulders, or a muscle tension that will simply never go away. By looking closely at the physical structure of the body we can infer this emotional baggage which we are carrying around. We can look at how the body WANTS to move, and how it actually moves. The difference is the emotional weight that it is holding on to. By identifying this emotional weight, we can learn to simply drop it.
Before we can recognize the ways that stored emotions can deform our bodies, we need to determine what the natural position of the body is. To do this we can focus on three main areas:
– The Foot-Knee-Hip connection
– The Shoulders- Elbow -Wrist connection
– The spine an head connection
When all three of these connections are seen together, they describe the body as a whole.
1. The Foot-Knee-Hip connection – “The Waist is the Commander”
The connection between the foot and the hips is literally at the root of all the other components of the body. The foot is the point of contact between ourselves and the world underneath us. The legs (and therefore the knee joints) connect the foot to the hips (and therefore the waist). The waist is where the core of the body sits. The legs are therefore the way our core connects to the Earth.
Not only does the waist support the core of the body, but it also connects to the spine and, through it, connects to the upper body as well. This is why the Tai Chi Classics say that “the Waist is the Commander.” The waist is the point where the downward push of gravity on the body meets the upward push of the legs. From there it directs the flow of energies through the body, determining their directions.
The waist, through the hips, also controls motion. All stepping comes from the waist. It is the rotation of the femur as it rotates inside the hip joint that creates the swing of the leg forward and back. That rotation is at the core of the act of stepping. All movement starts in the waist, flows through the leg and ends at the foot. This simple idea is not, however, how most of us move.
The waist connection is often blurred by two entrenched ideas that we have about ourselves; our focus on extremities and our aversion to our hips.
We tend to have a vision of ourselves as begin a tiny person living behind our eyeballs, interacting with the world around us through our hands and feet. We therefore often cut ourselves off from the neck down, forgetting that our hands and feet are connected to the rest of the body. And that the rest of the body is a actually MORE real than the illusion of the self residing behind the eyes. When it comes to moving around in space, we tend to think that it comes from the foot shooting forward and pulling the rest of the body with it. We walk foot first, forgetting that in reality the movement comes from the hip. This is our outwards-directed (or Yang) view of ourselves.
On top of this outwards directed view is the Western prohibition towards fully engaging the waist. There are a lot of emotionally sensitive areas around the hips, from genitals and anus to love handles and clenched buttocks. We are told that everything “down there” is dirty, or is the source of our failings. The waist, in the West, is a weak point. In fact, the waist is the source of our strength. This is where you can find the core muscles and, through the hips, connect to the power of the leg muscles. But in order to access this strength, we must learn to engage the waist and open the hips. It is therefore extremely important to pay attention to the waist and hips as we move around. Are the legs turned inwards, closing off the waist? Are the feet landing close together when you step due to an inward turn of the hips? Are they too far out? Pay attention to the hips first in order to discover what physical tension is deforming the act of stepping.
Once the hip joint is engaged, the knees and feet have to be looked at too.
The knee is a joint which can only work one way. It opens and closes the leg, but cannot rotate side to side without causing stress on the ligaments that surround it. It is therefore enormously important that the knees are always in line with the hips. This means that a turn of the knee should really be a turn of the waist. When knee and hip are not aligned it is usually because the hip is not being engaged in the movement.
The ankle is more flexible than the knee so the foot has a greater range of motion. But the foot is also the way the body indicates your intent. Feet that are pointed inwards show a closed off, conflicted intent. Feet pointed out tend to show a diffused, unfocussed intent. The feet should point in the same direction as the hips. As the hip move, so do the feet. In order to keep a connected Foot-Knee-Hip connection, a turn of the foot should really start in the hip. A turn of the hip pulls the knee to the inside or the outside, which in turn turns the foot in that direction. When this does not happen it is often because the intent of the motion is unclear, or stunted in some way. Maybe you would like to step forward, but fear or anxiety hold you back. The step itself will reflect that conflict; the foot will not point in the direction of travel but curve in or out instead, pulled by the opposing emotions.
By examining the simple act of stepping , you can discover the ways in which ingrained emotional baggage is deforming the natural functions of the body.
2. The Shoulder-Elbow-Wrist connection – “Hollow the chest”
The shoulders are the mirror image of the hips; they too are connected to the spine, and from them extend two limbs. In the same way that the hips connect us to the ground through the legs, the shoulders connect us to the outside world though the arms. The main difference is one of direction of force; the hips receive the weight of the body through the spine, but the shoulders hang from the spine.
The connection between the shoulders and the spine is crucial. Without it, the arms are floating in space with no way to push or receive a push. The spine needs to be engaged to transfer the energy from the arms through the spine, through the waist, through the legs and into the ground. To connect the shoulders to the spine is to “Hollow the chest”. This means to round the chest so that the shoulder blades lay flat against the back. This is done by hollowing the chest (NOT slumping the shoulders!); the sternum is brought inwards as the shoulders roll forward slightly, rounding the back.
The connection of the elbows to the shoulders is similar to the one between the hips and knees. Like the knees, the elbows can only rotate in one direction. In order to move the elbow up or down, you have to engage the shoulders. If the shoulders are relaxed, the elbows sink down. Elbows that “float up” are an indication of tension in the shoulders.
The wrist, like the ankle, has a great range of motion. The hand, like the foot, indicates intent. For this reason the wrists should never be limp, but instead the hands should be “alive” with intent. The turn of the palm (either up or down) is connected through the elbow to the shoulder, and through the shoulder to the back. The hand can therefore be connected to the entire body instead of being simply that floating thing you use to touch the world.
3. The Spine- Head connection – “the head as if pulled up by a string”
The connection between the head and the spine is really the connection between the sacrum and the cervical vertebra connecting the skull to the spine. The spine is the spring that connects these two points. It can be either stiffened, allowing force to be transmitted up and down, or relaxed, allowing the spine to twist and turn. For the spine to be effective, it must connect the body together. It connects the body to the vertical, keeping us upright, and connects the body to itself. The shoulders and hips can work together because the spine is there to transmit the power generated by one to the other. The spine is a both a conduit and a support.
In order to be effective in these two functions, the spine needs to be straightened. The spine has three curves in it, curving out at the shoulders and in at the waist, as well as the natural curve of the neck. Making as if “the head is pulled by a string” is to tilt the head slightly forward in order to release the pinch where the skull meets the spine. This is down by lengthening the neck, flattening it slightly. That slight tilt opens up that joint. Do not overdo it or you’ll over-extend the neck instead of opening it.
The upper back remains rounded, but the lower back needs to curve in the opposite direction. The curve of the lower back is under tremendous pressure. The weight of the upper body compresses that area. To solve this problem, we tuck in the tailbone, tilting the hips forward just enough to straightened the lower back. Too much and you are creating a curve in the opposite direction, so beware of over doing it. The buttocks should be able to relax and not clench. The knees bend slightly in order to allow for the hips to pivot. This allows for the waist to connect to the lower back instead of the back simply resting on top of the waist. The sheet of muscles going across the lower back can expand and support the body instead of being pinched.
The head indicates intent (and especially the eyes within the head). It should face the direction is which energy is being projected. It is important that the intent is expressed through the eyes, and that they not become “dead”. If you forget the head and let it sit like a rock on top of the neck, the energy will not rise up along the spine and the movements of the body will be without spring. The body is relaxed but the intent is vibrant.
Each of these three connections have a center, a point from which movement emerges. These are the waist, the chest, and the head. We will be talking of these three points as the three Dantians, a Chinese term which is usually applied to energetic centers during Taoist meditation. We will talk about this energy, or Qi, later on. The three Dantians are called Lower, Middle and Upper Dantians, linked to the wait, chest and head respectively.
The important idea here is that these Dantians represent not just a specific point, but a center of motion, the place where physical energies are transformed. So for example the Lower Dantian is centerers around the hips, but is really the area of the waist where the hip joints, lower back and crotch work together to transform and direct the energy provided by the legs.
Similarly, the Middle Dantian is centered roughly around the sternum, but is really the connection between the upper back, the shoulder joints and the chest. The physical motion of the legs is directed by the Lower Dantian and transmitted through the spine to the Middle Dantian. The Middle Dantian then directs that motion, this kinetic energy, and transforms and directs it.
The Upper Dantian is centered behind the eyes, and in this physical aspect controls the direction in which we look. It prevents the head from being whipped to-and-for by the spine as we move around. Instead the Upper Dantian, the head, is an independent agent, capable of turning in different directions than the body ( by looking to the side, etc..)
We will later see these three Dantians as the central points of the energetic body. At this point what is important to remember is that they are points of focus, not necessarily physical points in the body. But they are crucial elements in the correct practice of Tai Chi.