Handstands-The Middle Position

Practicing the “Middle Position”

In martial arts, the middle position is a place where we have the most options available to us. Depending on our environment, our opponent or our partner and even ourselves, our middle position may vary.

Being Able to Respond to Change

Generally whenever we respond to a change we have to leave the middle position. If after having responded to a change we return to the middle, we are then ready to handle any new changes as they occur. Being in the middle position makes it easier to respond to a change no matter where it comes from or what form it takes. Being in the middle gives us options, possibilities. If we continually return to the middle after having ventured away from it, we can be ready to handle new change.

Being Able to Create Change

If we are creating change without having to worry about external factors then finding the middle position, and returning to it, we can continue to create change and we can be fully flexible in the change that we create. To create the change that we desire we need to be in a position that is stable, balanced.

Even if we are moving to a position that is unstable, starting from a position that is stable will allow us to move to the new position more easily.

The middle position is the stable center that we can start from.

Having Options

In handstands, the middle position or middle handstand is a position from which we can do the most things. If we jump up into a handstand and keep our legs at the same level as the pelvis with knees either straight, bent or just slightly bent, and we can balance, then from this position we can easily pull our legs up into full handstand. We can also drop down with control into chataranga dandasana (A push up position with the elbows bent.) We can lower our feet to the floor between our hands as if jumping forwards from down dog. We can even swing our legs through our hands so that we end up sitting.

Practicing the middle position we make it easier for ourselves to do handstand, we also make it easier to do Ashtanga style sun salutations, Vinyasas, and Arm Balances as well. As an example of the latter, from the middle position we could lower down into Bakasana.

Going into the middle position we give ourselves the option of moving into anyone of these poses should we choose. Or we can simply hold it.

Moving into the Middle and Out of it

In the video I jump into middle position and from there alternate putting my feet down or pulling them up. This is an exercise I can use in my classes to teach the benefits and flexibility of this position.

In the video, I don’t quite actually make the middle position on my first jump… bad teacher! On the last jump I swing my legs through my hands… only my feet get stuck along the way! Oh well.

I could have crossed my ankles to have given myself the clearance but didn’t. If I ever do get the jump through then I would like to do it with my legs straight and ankles uncrossed and so not crossing my ankles is the way I am working towards that.

As a final note, If we can move into this position and hold it we are more likely to be able to maintain balance or a floating like quality even as we move out of it. Also, in the video I jump into it from down dog. We can also pull up into it from the forward bend position.

Video Enlarged

Practicing the “Middle Position”

Tai Ji, the Psoas and the Low Back

When I first started practicing Tai Ji in Taiwan I got some flack from my teacher for my lower back being bent backwards too much. Initially I used the excuse that my butt being so big made it look as if my lower back was bent, but then I started to practice keeping my lower back straight. Teaching classes, to make this action easier to both do and feel I had my students practice straightening their lower back and then releasing it in time with their breath. If I was going to teach people to keep their lower back straight, I thought the best way to do it was to make the action as easy as possible to practice, and comfortable too.

Practice Straightening the Lower Back

This action can be practiced while standing with the knees slightly bent. Slowly inhale and while doing so tilt the pelvis back far enough that the lower back straightens. While exhaling, slowly release.

Try to make both actions as relaxed as possible. If you like, when inhaling you can focus on pulling the lower belly inwards and upwards. You can then adjust this action so that it helps to tilt your pelvis backwards while inhaling.

Bagua Zhan-Feeling and Moving the Spine

A friend started a Bagua class and invited me to attend. I’ve always wanted to learn bagua becuase I felt that it was the perfect complement to tai ji.

Where tai ji is rooted and fixed and we use the center of the earth as our center, in bagua, the center of our body is the center we move around. In tai ji we might be radiating outwards. In Bagua we radiate inwards. In Tai Ji we are a part of the earth, in Bagua we are separate from it. In Tai Ji we wait and respond, in Bagua we test and create openings.

In my friends class, one of the movements involved moving the hands in vertical circles, both forwards and backwards but while focusing on the c7 vertebrae (The bottom most vertebrae of the neck. It connects the neck the to thoracic spine.) The idea was to move the arms in such a way that this vertebrae traveled in a vertical circle (from front to back as opposed to from side to side.)

Then we did a practice where we bent our spine backwards vertebrae by vertebrae from the tail bone up while inhaling. Then from the tail bone up we bent it forwards while exhaling. I couldn’t do my whole spine in a complete breath so while bending my spine backwards, I’d pause to exhale, and then continue bending backwards on my next inhale.

Yet another exercise involved squatting and straightening the spine while inhaling, and then relaxing and standing while exhaling. We also had to pull the chin in so that the neck felt long.

In yet another exercise where we were walking, I learned to lift my knee high enough that my lower back became straight. This feeling, of having the lower back straight, was the same feeling I used to teach my yoga students to look for when doing utkattasana (chair pose) in yoga class. When you tilt your pelvis backwards just the right amount it makes the lower back feel full.

Standing Meditation

Most mornings when I go to the park my morning practice nearly always starts of with a standing meditation. I stand with my feet about hip width, my knees comfortably bent, ribcage, and head balanced over my pelvis, and my arms hanging down from my neck and ribcage.

Depending on how I feel I might focus on the individual bones of my body, scanning them gradually. Or I do the same with my muscles. Or I focus on the meridians or my internal organs. Sometimes I might focus on a point in my body and then see where that leads me, chasing “sensations” or going to areas that need my attention. Actually, it’s like I’m exploring my body with my mind. At times I’ll be focused on a particular point and some part of my body will release and I will feel slightly more relaxed, more settled.

This morning, bearing in mind some of Jared’s lessons, I focused on moving my awareness up my spine. I did this without moving my spine. Instead, each inhale my mind traveled up my spine, vertebrae by vertebrae. Its much quicker when I’m not moving. Then each exhale my mind did the same. Usually when focusing on my spine I inhale up my spine and then exhale down the front of my body. This was different.

At times I inhaled up my spine while at the same time being aware of energy circulating down the front of my body. I did the same while exhaling. In this way I sometimes stayed aware of the energetic circuit or the complete flow of energy within this circuit. After all, if we are paying attention to one point in an energy circuit, it isn’t just that one point that flows, but all points of “energy” within that circuit that flow. Anyway, this practice felt really nice.

I carried the same feeling into my Dance of Shiva practice. I focused on feeling the moves and on knowing where my arms where going so that I could “feel” the smoothest path. Even now, a few hours later, I still feel good.

Awaiting the Impulse to Start

Afterward I worked on a sword routine but doing while holding the sword in my left hand as opposed to my right.

Standing still, getting ready to begin, I felt my body and waited for the impulse to start. Rather than forcing the movement, I felt myself internally and waited for the feeling to come from within me. So that I could continue to lead from within I did the movements slowly and kept staying relaxed. I used my legs to move my pelvis and I used the movements of my pelvis to drive the movements of my arms and the sword that I was holding. It felt pretty good.

The Psoas Accessed Via the Kidneys

Remembering something from Jared’s class, and perhaps also something from somewhere else, I continued to do the sword routine (6th duan sword) but now while focused on keeping my kidneys feeling full. I continued to maintain this feeling when I next did an open hand (no sword) form, the 42 competition form, which is classed as yang style but is actually a blend of a number of different styles.

Yet again I made my kidneys feel full. Doing so I realized I could go low, like really low, hips to the level of my knees low, and it felt easy. I felt like I looked like the Chinese guys who go low but who also seem so relaxed, as if it is easy. Going low it was as if something was holding me up from the inside.

Usually when I try to sink low my thighs will soon start to quiver and shake and I usually end up standing higher at some point. Now I could go low and it was easy. While my thighs did some work it was nowhere near the amount that they had to work when I was doing this same practice previously. And it wasn’t because my legs where stronger. It was all because I was making my kidneys feel full.

What I later figured out while waiting in line at the hospital for a check up was that when I had the “Full” feeling in my kidneys, my lower back was straight. As a result the weight of my ribcage and head could press down through the back of my pelvis making the whole upper body want to tilt backwards. If you’ve ever slumped back in a chair or on a sofa, you back naturally rounds and your pelvis tilts back. I was getting a similar sort of action, but rather than slumping completely, I was doing so just enough that the weight of my body was balanced over the back of my pelvis. My upper body was actually on the verge of falling back but my psoas, anchored by one or the other of my thighs, was engaged enough to help prevent my upper body from tipping backwards.

Experimenting further with keeping my kidneys full, I found I could turn my hips easily with a feeling of looseness and I could kick easily with a sense that I was easily transferring momentum to my leg.

The joy for me was in finally realizing why in Yang style Tai Ji we are taught to keep our lower back straight, it’s so that we can use our psoas to make the actions easier.

How does this relate to making the kidneys feel full? The kidneys are in front of the psoas. Feeling the kidneys, moving the kidneys, is one way of “Finding” and controlling the psoas.

The Science and Technology of Taking a Dump

(Why is it that I Often need to Go to the Bathroom While Swimming?)

Notice what happens next time you go to the bathroom for a number two (rhymes with poo.) Notice your abs tensing and a downwards pressing feeling. Each time you push, does your lower back feel like it is being pulled forwards?

The supposed ideal position for doing a number two is to squat. I’d modify and say that “Make sure any articles of clothing are clear of the drop zone.”

I’d also modify that further to say “Make sure that you exit orifice is directly over whatever receptacle you are using whether a hole or a porcelain “squatter.”” 
(I once had the pleasure of observing a miss placed “exit article” half on and half off the edge of porcelain. I got a distinct impression of texture which I unfortunately carried back with me to the dinner table. (The impression, not the item. I was at an Italian restaurant in Taiwan at the time.))

Anyway, with those basic guidelines out of the way, in a squat the front of the hips are closed, so that the knees are close to the chest. We can simulate this while on the bowl by slightly pressing down into our feet and leaning forwards so that our buttock are  no longer in contact with the seat or just touching it.

Feeling the Psoas

psoas side view

psoas side view

One muscle of main importance in this position, and especially while taking a dump is the psoas.  Within the belly cavity, its fibers reach forwards and down from the front of the lumbar spine to the front of the pelvis.

Some of its fibers may partially support the rectum. If not directly then via connective tissue which acts or looks like a downwards sloping hammock for the rectum. When contracted, the psoas may help to till the rectum forwards helping to put it in the ideal position for offloading our payload.

(Bombadier to pilot, bomb bay doors open, bomb positioning mechanism in place.
Pilot to bombardier. Roger that.

Because the psoas can be used to pull the lumbar spine forwards actually causing it to bend backwards, we can counter this tendency, or the body naturally counters this tendency, by engaging the abs. See if you can notice this for yourself. Each time you push, do your abs engage? Does your lower back feel like it is being pulled forwards?

If you can feel your lower back being pulled forwards as if from inside your body, that just may be your psoas activating.

The Diaphragm (The One we Breathe With)

One other sensation to look for, and another key player is the diaphragm. (Sensation is generated when it activates and presses downwards.)

Positioning bombs ready for release is fine but we need some sort of release mechanism. With bombs in an airplane we simply leg go, however if you’ve seen a b52’s bomb bay doors, those doors are huge. Generally the opening for our own bombs is a little smaller. So we have to push.

Push It Out, Push it Out…. Way Out

Where does the push come from? Well, our abs are already engaged. In doing so they help to squeeze inwards on the abdominal organs. Further push pressure can come from the diaphragm pressing down.

Women use this when giving birth and women and men can use it when pushing out a number two. This is our release mechanism. Next time your squatting, or sitting, see if you can feel a downwards push and better yet notice where it is coming from.

Now one of the cool things about all of this is that most of the same components are used when we breath, or can be used with breathing. Basically our abs and diaphragm can be used as pumps. In the case of air they can be used to create a vacuum to draw air in, and then used to push air out. In the case of a number two they are solely used as a push pump to push stuff out.

When breathing we can use our diaphragm, pushing it down to increase the volume of our lungs to draw air in. This action pushes down on the abdominal organs which cause the belly to protrude. Then we can use the abs to push these organs in and the diaphragm up to reduce lung volume and push air out.

Together we can simultaneously use the abs and diaphragm to squeeze the abdominal organs, which means we squeeze our intestines, and rectum and guess what comes out!

If we more finally tune our ab control, we can pull just our lower belly in so that our upper belly expands. If our abs are relaxed just enough then when our diaphragm contracts it can push the ribcage upwards. If in addition we expand the ribs we’ve got extra power for drawing more air in.

I Practice My Kegel Exercises Every Day!!!
(I’m even practicing them now)

So what was the point of talking about taking a dump?

A while back some guy name Dr Arnold Kegel became famous because he taught women how to orgasm by doing simple exercises that helped them tune in to their pelvic floor so that they could contract, relax and orgasm at will.

He taught them how to learn both sensitivity and control.
One description that is commonly used-“Use the same muscle that you use to control the flow of pee.

In a similar way, we can use “number two” time to feel our diaphragm, abs and psoas or to practice feeling them, or at least to practice putting our awareness in the right place so that we can get used to feeling them.

This sensitivity can be used to improve body control both on and off the pot.

As an example, on the pot if you are having trouble squeezing stuff out, you might focus on a downwards sensation in the lower belly. Focus on the feeling rather than thinking about the feeling. You may notice actually movement as a result.

An analogy could be that the bombay doors are stuck so the copilot has to go back and unwind them manually. Likewise, if your bomb bay is jammed up, put your awareness down there to help get things flowing.

(Bombs away. Roger that, returning to base.)
(Credits roll with a picture of an airmen coming out of the commode, toilet paper trailing out his pants.)

Noticing the sensations of our diaphragm, psoas and abs engaging while on the pot, off the pot we can continue to feel and control these muscles while breathing, doing yoga or tai ji or while having sex… or while doing anything else that involves the body.

The Connection to Swimming…

So why do I sometimes want to take a dump when doing lots of swimming or underwater swimming? And why did I bother mentioning it? I actually did think it was interesting at the time. Two days in a row, when I went swimming, while I was swimming, I felt the urge to go to the bathroom. I put it down to the action of my legs and hips helping to loosen my bowels. And that may in turn have been part of the inspiration for this article.

A Simple Solution to Low Back Pain (part 1)

As a yoga teacher it’s a little bit embarasing to be suffering from Low Back Pain. Shouldn’t my yoga practice be helping me? Better yet, shouldn’t my understanding of the body, both as a yoga teacher and as an engineer help me figure out a way of dealing with it or at least point me in the direction of a solution?
Well I guess all I had to do was ask if there was a way it could be dealt with.
Ask and the universe will respond.
For awhile I thought my pain was a result of me being lazy in using my abs to support my lower back.
The trouble with that line of thought was that when I did try to use my abs to straighten out my back I didn’t get any relief from the pain. I thought that maybe my spinal erectors where weak but then I realized that the real pain came from in front of my spine not from behind it. For awhile I thought I wasn’t grounding through my feet in a way that allowed the back of my legs to actively pull down on the back of my pelvis. That too brought little relief.
I thought that by stretching my psoas I would get the relief that I needed but that again wasn’t the answer to the problem.
I wanted an elegant solution, a simple one. I wasn’t sure if there was one but I thought it would be nice it there was.
I’ve worked with guns, computers, motorbikes, most often fixing them or figuring out what the problem was when things went wrong. I’ve also worked a little bit in design. In most cases, when things go wrong there is one thing that is key to it all. I needed to find… wanted to find the simple key to the problem of my lower back pain.
The answer came via a book called Chi Running which I picked up a few days after deciding that I was looking for an elegant solution to back pain. (At the same time I was also a bit skeptical to their being an elegant solution.) As I said, ask and the universe will provide. I wasn’t really that interested in Chi running (I thought I could figure it out myself!) None the less I picked the book up, if for no other reason than I needed a break from all the Chinese I’ve been seeing. (I live in Taiwan).
The answer was simple.
Reading the section on posture for running I got the answer I was looking for. I simply needed to stand with my hip joints above my ankles so that my legs where aligned with the force of gravity. With my legs aligned with gravity my psoas could relax and give me no more back pain. Well actually, it comes and goes on occasion but more and more I am finding that my back is pain free.
The irony is that I already knew the answer…. sort of. I teach handstands quite frequently in my yoga classes. The main thing I teach people to do is to use their hands to help feel where there center of gravity is. Then they can position it where they need it to be… over their hands. But in addition to this, because a lot of the people I teach may be new to handstand, I teach them to align their arms with gravity, to stack their shoulders over their wrists. This way their arm bones take the brunt of their body weight which means the muscles of their arms don’t have to (work so hard.)
This was the exact same thing I needed to do with my legs. Align them (and my center of gravity) with gravity. The funny thing was that it had never even occurred to me to do so.

  • What happens to the psoas when the legs aren’t vertical?
  • Why does verticalizing the legs help the psoas to relax?
  • What is the psoas and why is it important?
  • How can we tell if our legs are vertical and how can we keep them there?
  • Before I talk about all of that I’d like to talk about the type of back pain that I suffered and when I suffered from it. In general I was getting it a lot while standing around and also while walking. I found it especially bad when carrying the baby, and also sometimes while carrying a back pack. I got relief when I sat down.
    I also got relief doing standing meditations where I stood with my knees slightly bent, my weight centered through the soles of my feet (so that my toes could relax) and my awareness moving around within my body.
    After reading the relevant section in Chi Running I realized that I habitually stand with my pelvis slightly forwards of my feet. This means that from my feet to my hips my legs slope forwards.
    To balance this my upper body leans slightly back. The result of this position is that the weight of my upper body pushes my pelvis forwards. So that my body stays upright my psoas activates to pull my pelvis back and my legs and lower back forwards.
    The psoas joins the inner upper thigh bone to the front of the lumbar spine. To join the two it passes forwards and up from the thigh to the front of the pelvis. It passes the lip of the front of the pelvis and from there reaches back and up to the front of the lumbar spine.
    Looking at the body from the side the psoas is shaped like the head of an arrow pointing to the front of the body, with the tip of the arrow at the front of the pelvis and the two “wings” at the lower back and top of the thigh respectively.
    If the pelvis is pushed forwards relative to the feet and upper body then the psoas is stretched. To prevent itself from being stretched too far the psoas tightens. Because the legs are in contact with the ground, they remain stationary and so this tension in the psoas causes it to pull the lower back forwards causing the lumbar curve to accentuate. Enter lower back pain (or one possible cause of this.)
    Now we could try to counter this by activating the abdominals, using them to pull up on the front of the pelvis. However, the elegant solution is simply to position the legs so that they are vertical, at the same time aligning the center of the upper body (and whatever we may be carrying) over our legs.
    With our pelvis balanced on the top of our legs, and our upper body balanced on top of our pelvis, our psoas can relax and we may just be able to wave goodbye to one cause of lower back pain.
    To make our legs vertical we stack our hip joints over our ankle joints. To learn to feel our ankle joint (or sense it) we can rock back and forwards while standing, at the same time noticing the change of sensations in the region of our ankles. We can zero our attention on the spot where there is a lack of motion or feeling. We can calibrate where we imagine we sense our ankle to be by touching the inner or outer ankle bones.
    Next we can learn to feel where our hip joint is by alternately pushing our pelvis forwards and backwards, rocking it similiarly to when we where learning to feel our ankles only this time our awareness is centered on the junction between our thighs and our pelvis. For me my thighs feel heavy, dense, while the inside of my pelvis feels almost empty in comparison. Feeling the inward slanting “top” of my thighs I can then try to zero my awarenss on my hip joints. To calibrate I can tough the “head” of my thighbone. (actually this is the malleosus, not the head, but I mean the sticky out bit that we can feel just below the crest of the pelvis.)
    Now that we have an idea of how to sense where our ankle and hips are we can now practice sensing where they are with respect to each other.
    Again rocking back and forwards on our feet with our feet about hip width and parallel, we can stop when we think that our hips are over our ankles. We can then use a mirror to check. We can then repeat till we get better and better at being able to feel when our hips and ankles are aligned with gravity.
    From there we can work at verticallizing our upper body.
    Be aware that if we make our legs and spine vertical then most of our weight will be centered on our heels. We will be balanced on our heels. This is similar to the situation I am hopefully getting my students towards when they do headstand. All of their weight centered on the crown of their head. It actually feels scary when we first find this position in headstand and the same can be true when standing on our heels. However if we relax and trust, it can actually feel quite freeing. And if we don’t like it, we can always lean your upper body forwards a little, just enough so that some of our weight shifts towards the front of our feet. Meanwhile we can continue to keep our legs vertical so that our psoas can stay relaxed.