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.

Feel Your Body-Move Slowly and Relax

One of the reasons for feeling the body is so that we can notice when it feels good and enjoy the feeling. Another reason is so that we can notice when there is a lack of sensation. Yet another reason is so that we can learn how the parts of ourselves relate.

If we don’t have a clear idea of what we are trying to do, then by feeling our body in whatever we are doing, we can notice how we feel and in the process gain experience.

As we gain more and more experience we’ll be better able to develop a clear idea of what we want to do.

If we have a clear idea of how we want our body positioned or how we want it to move, then if we feel our body while moving it, we can check to see if what is actually happening matches up to what we want to happen.  We can then make changes where necessary.

Moving Slowly and Smoothly-

So that we can feel our body while we are moving it, one of the things that we can do while moving from one position to another is move slowly and smoothly. Yet another thing that we can do is relax our body as much as possible given what we are trying to do.

Generally the slower and smoother we move the easier it is to feel our body. Actually, in order to move slowly most of us have to focus on what we are doing. So say we are in a lunge and we want to lift our back knee and then lower it. To do this requires awareness, not only of the knee we are moving but the front foot as well since we are using it to help us balance.

In this case the slower we move the more we have to feel our body so we can tell that we are moving slowly.

If in addition to moving slowly, we are as relaxed as possible given what we are trying to do, then the actual process of making sure that we are relaxed is a way of feeling our body. Plus, the more relaxed we are the easier it is to sense tension in our connective tissue and via that tension the weight of whatever body part is hanging downwards.

Tai Ji

Practicing Tai Ji I use my feet to tell me when I have shifted fully from one position to another. I can feel when my weight is fully on one foot, or when body has shifted so that the front and heel of my front foot are pressing down evenly. Part of this is relaxing my feet enough that I can notice changes in pressure where my foot contacts the floor.

Another part of this is “shaping” or positioning my foot so that it is naturally stable. Yet another part is moving slowly enough so that I have time to both feel what my feet are telling me and to respond to what I sense.

Being able to feel my feet I can use them to tell me which foot my center is over and exactly where in relation to my feet my center is. I can then tell when my center is where I want it to be.

Applying this to a static yoga pose like Warrior 1, I can try bending my front knee. As I do so, if I feel the forces acting through my front foot I can move my foot forwards more or back so that those forces press evenly through the front and back of that foot. When this happens I’ve got a pretty good indication that my shin is vertical or that my knee is over my foot.

Yoga

Carrying this body awareness upwards from my feet, I can then focus on feeling my pelvis and hips. I can either pull my front leg hip back or my back leg hip forwards so that my hips are square to the front. (I’m still in Warrior 1 pose.) I can then adjust my feet accordingly so that there is even pressure through the front and heel of the front foot and through the inner and outer arch of the back foot.

For a more finely tuned pose, I can brace my front foot so that my front leg acts like a buttress for the pelvis, and then I can relax my hip muscles so that my pelvis “naturally” faces the front.

Practicing Slow Movement So That We Have the Option of Moving Fast

Having practiced feeling my body while moving slowly, it is then easier to carry that feeling into doing movements quickly. I can practice a Tai Ji sequence quickly while carrying the same feeling from doing it slowly. Or I can enter straight into a pose like Warrior 1 and find the sweet spot immediately without all the fiddling around.

Making Muscle Tissue Smart

Focusing on feeling, whether moving slowly or quickly, the sensation or experience is of the parts of the body positioning themselves. Muscle memory kicks in. However, this can be more than the muscles following the same groove over and over again. It is the muscles finding the best groove depending on what is happening at the time. We give our muscles a rudimentary intelligence or consciousness so that they can respond in the best way possible depending on the circumstances as they are now.

The smarter we make our muscles and the parts of our body in general, the easier it then is to get our body to do what we want it to do. We can then lead our body by looking for the feeling of what we are trying to do, or by simply having a clear idea.

Doing Nothing to Think of Something

I’d been in Hong Kong for a week and done nothing. Well I did teach a couple of yoga classes but apart from that I haven’t seen much of the city. Oh yes, I ride the Ferry nearly every day but I still haven’t done that much.
On my one day off I took an extra long ferry ride to Lantau Island, in the process bumping into a fellow traveller for the day which was very nice, but apart from that I’ve done nothing.
What a downer. A week left to go and all I can think of is getting back to my baby. (She’s 8 months old).
Thinks got worse when I discovered I had bursitis of the elbow. Don’t know how though I have some suspicions. Anyway, my arm started to swell so the doctor cut a hole it it so all the juice could bleed out. Hole is still there.
A fellow teacher told me to come with him to a Tai Ji class next day. Wasn’t too sure about that but decided to join anyway. I’d have to get up at 630.
That’s a thing too. All these days I’ve been sleeping in till 8. No reason to get up early.
I had to drag myself out but I did, even did a meditation practice and a Conscious Movement practice. Wow I was starting to feel better.
Had breakfast which is sad because the only reason I eat breakfast at the hotel is because it is free. How lame and very sad. Still I had my two pieces of toast (there is more to be had but to be honest I can’t stomach it, so much of the same) then walked to the park.
I’d forgotten the bustle of early morning city life. Kids of to school. One school is run by a convent. Girls line up neatly and politely to be let in. Climbing a foot bridge I look into the schoolyard and kids are standing around or sitting at tables talking. I don’t get the idea that school is like that in Taiwan. Maybe they work them hard here in asia but it looks like they get to enjoy socializing which I think is great.
A few minutes more and I am at the park. I arrive early and my friends arrive late. It is to my advantage. I get to watch various groups practice Tai Ji or dance or exercise of one form or the other. I find my self a spot and stretch.
The joy of stretching outdoors surrounded by other people doing the same.
My friend shows up and takes me to his teacher. He lets me join in with a comment of not bad. Then he asks if I can do any sword routines. I can but alas I have no sword and so he lends me mine. I’m rusty (the sword isn’t) but it still feels good to be doing tai ji again even with a forearm twice its normal size, skin hanging down like a bag of water.
Afterwards I sit with my friend and his teacher who is visiting from india. He feeds me raw legumes, tells me to chew well to generate saliva.
I think of bringing raw food into my diet.
I was reminded of my first time in Taiwan, practicing every morning in Eighteen Peek Mountain park and even though I had no close friends, I had people to practice with and be with. I belonged. And the rest of my day felt better because of it.
And so now even without being with my baby, I feel my life returning again because I have something simple to live for. Practice in the park.