Category Archives: Osteopathy

To Close Is To Open

No it doesn’t make any sense literally and it might make sense in the pairs-of-opposites paradigm but what could it mean in practical terms?

If I had to  name the single most important practice in Taoism and Qigong (Chi Gung) it might be  Opening.  If there’s one message that has always come through it’s Open your body.  Open your mind.  Open your emotions.  Open your energy fields. Open everything.  Problems of all kinds are caused by tension, constriction and closing down,  so the one-size-fits-all solution is to open up.

Now the traditional way to do this is by softening, melting, dissolving, letting go.  It’s the way of Yin but every zealous student will figure out a way to overdo it, to strain, to push and pull, to make it Yang, and I was no exception.   It took about 20 years for the obvious to dawn on me:  Closing is just as important and ironically it’s often the key to Opening. 

Sometimes it’s the lenses of another profession that open your eyes to the obvious in your own field and I have Osteopathy to thank for this.  That discipline uses a number of methods where you use compression in order to produce the opposite effect of release and expansion.  Once I got that little bit of practical insight my Qigong practices suddenly began to open up and flow more naturally.

Before I get into any esoterica, consider what this could mean on an everyday level.  Say you want to expand your business or your influence in the community or your attractiveness to certain people.  Nearly everyone in our society will tell you to put yourself out there, make yourself visible, advertise, network, etc., etc.  Yet we all know that this can be done to the point of wearing yourself thin and making yourself a tiresome bother.  Our culture is very good at both these counterproductive activities.  There are times when it’s best to lie low and let the right people find you,  Closing to Open.

One trick here is knowing how and when to fine tune the lying low, to finesse the backing away, to nudge the yin/yang wheel in another direction.  This comes with experience and intuition.  The same is true of qigong exercises and healing methods.  Let’s look at the Opening/Closing continuum that is so basic to them.

From a Taoist and Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective all health and disease is a result of the balance or imbalance of Yin and Yang life forces.  Every function of our bodies and minds depends on the right balance of Expansion and Contraction.  We sometimes call this Pulsing and it refers to the natural movements of joints,  organs, energy fields, etc.  Most of them proceed on their own and some can be brought under your voluntary control, which is what you want if you’re going to get healthier.  

My very first qigong lesson many years ago was in gaining control over joint pulsations which is surprisingly easy to begin doing but rather difficult to perfect.  Joints are considered critical as the first place energy gets blocked and the first place to free it up.  When pulsing works well palpable waves of energy are released which can be put to practical use, meaning anything from physical labor to deep relaxation.  Making that happen well was frustratingly difficult.

But once I learned to emphasize the compression I was happily surprised at how easily the expansion followed, as easily as a ball bounces.  You could think of it as an air compressor.  The more the air in the container is pressurized the more it wants to expand, and when it’s released all kinds of things get done.  Conversely the more you try to expand, for example creating a vacuum in a vacuum cleaner, the more the air rushes inward and something else gets done.  To Close is to Open.  And to Open is to Close.  

(Theoretically the second ought to work as well as the first but practically I don’t experience it that way.  My best guess why is that when we open too far the nerves sense danger and go on guard, preventing a smooth, even return whereas the nerves are more comfortable with some extra closing.  It’s something like, It’s dangerous out there but safe in here.)

So how do you pull this off?  If you don’t already know how to pulsate your joints you can get a rudimentary version of Open/Close with ordinary muscle action.  Say you want to do a simple forward bend from sitting, standing or lying down.   A experienced yoga or qigong person will likely tell you to extend lengthwise as you bend and reach your normal  limit.   But try shrinking instead and see if that takes you past your  limit.  Then add the lengthwise extension and you might be surprised.  Or try extending your neck and turning your head to the side, marking the limit.  Then let your neck shrink down and you’ll turn further.  Finally re-extend your neck in the new, or a new position.  

These are examples of getting your fascia and ligaments to stretch further by “fooling” them into it.  Opening by Closing.

If you do know joint pulsing try closing them with a fair amount of effort, with yang, and allow them to release without effort, with yin.  The slowly releasing wave permeates your body with a deep relaxation.  If you want more drama put a large effort into closing and release it suddenly–kaboom, like an air rifle. Now you’re in martial arts secrets, where joint action augments your nerve and muscle action.  Just how much you compress and how fast you let go determines what outcome you get.  A true adept can fine tune to the point of relaxing while working or fighting, blending the yin and yang seamlessly.  

I will mention just one Osteopathic technique in this vein.  Sometimes the one trick that will get a neck to let go and lengthen is compression to the point of collapse.   Obviously this can be a little risky in novice hands and the are a few important guidelines:  Use small pressures, Wait for changes, and Make micro adjustments in your vectors.  This can be used throughout the body including the entire spine and torso, but the neck is a good place for an already trained person to start.  While we therapist types have good luck with it, no one has come with a definitive explanation for why it works.

And that brings us back to the mysterious nature of this very basic pair of opposites and indeed all such pairs.  We might be able to make them work but they still might not make any sense! 


Lumbaring Back

This page is a description  of the Low Back exercises found in this 24 minute video.

Low back pain is so frequent in our modern society it has been called epidemic but for the most part it does not have to be this way.  There are several easy exercises you can do to keep your low back in good working order.   The lumbar spine is supported by 3 sets of muscles in the back, sides and front, respectively called the Erector Spinae, the Quadratus Lumborum, and the Ilio-Psoas.   Most lumbar pain is caused by constriction of these muscle groups due to either too much strain or to too little activity.   The general solution is quite simply, to make them more pliable and flexible.

Over many years of practice I have found that three or four exercises at the most do the job very well.  Often only one is adequate. That one is at least as old as belly dancing and two are Osteopathic inventions so far as I can tell.

1.  The first one can be compared to belly dancing in the way it takes your waist through it’s natural range of motion.  Begin by sitting with your spine comfortably vertical.  Slouch your low back backwards creating a curve that protrudes posteriorly.   Then return upright and push your belly forward creating a curve anteriorly.  You can slowly repeat this back and forth movement for a minute or two.  Take care not to push to your full limit but stay within a nice comfortable range of 70-80%.  The reason is that as your body approaches it’s limits the nerves will sense danger and automatically begin to tighten the muscles and you’ll work against yourself.  (For a fuller discussion of this go Here.)

The next piece is to shift your torso to the left and right over your hips, preferably remaining vertical.   And the last piece is to combine the front/back and left/right motions into circles: back, right, front, left, and vice versa.  Make the circles as smooth and as comfortable as you can.  Size is not important; in fact smaller is often better because it carefully addresses the tiny constrictions which would otherwise get overlooked.  Feel for exactly where the constrictions are and slowly smooth them out.

Once your body gets used to this motion a few minutes a day of circling may be all you need.  The circling can also be done standing (where it most resembles belly dancing), or on all fours, or flat on your back with your knees up.  If you’re in so much pain you can’t get out of bed you can carefully and deliberately do the routine flat on your back and with enough time usually alleviate the worst if not all of it.

2.  The next trick comes from Osteopathy and is known Muscle Energy Technique (MET),  but it would be more accurately labeled Muscle Nerve Technique because it is designed to cause the nerves to let go.   I use this for the muscles in front and back of the spine.

2.a.  Starting with the Erector Spinae in the back,  sit comfortably and lean forward until you notice any small amount of pain or any type of small glitch at about 10 pounds of force. Again, we’re after the small restrictions so you don’t want to just blast on through. Stay at that angle and start to return upright with only 10-20% of your effort for about 10 seconds.  Then let go and you should easily lean a few more degrees.  Allow your muscles to adjust and relax into this new length for another 10 seconds.  You can repeat the whole process another 4-5 times before reaching the limits of what the technique can do.

If you prefer you can stand and lean over, or sit on the floor and lean over your extended legs.  The procedure will still be the same.

2.b.  Now we can do the same technique for the Ilio-Psoas in front of the spine, behind your organs where it’s nearly impossible to reach.  Often tension here will by mistaken for a problem on the back side.

For the right side kneel down on your right knee. Have you left leg out front, knee bent 90 degrees,  foot flat on the floor.  Support yourself with one or both arms on a chair or bed. The right knee will be a few inches behind you in a stretch commonly known as a “lunge.”   Move your torso, which is vertical,  forward, thus bending the right leg further back until you feel the first little bit of resistance or pain deep in your belly, at about 10 pounds of pull.  Try to keep your tailbone from extending backward but keep it vertical along with your torso.  A hand on your hip bone will help.

Now you activate the Muscle Energy Technique by curling the tailbone forward with 10-20% of your effort for 10 seconds.  Let go and you should right away get a few more degrees of stretch.  After acclimating for another 10 seconds you can repeat the process 4-5 times.  And of course you would do the same on the left side.

If by chance you’ve pinched anything on your backside you could simply resolve it with another forward bend.  If you have trouble kneeling you could also do the stretch standing, extending one leg behind you.  It’s also possible to lie down on on your back at the edge of a bed and let one leg fall off the edge.  To control the dangle angle, about half of your thigh should be on the bed and half off.

3.  If your issue is only on one side the tension could be in the Quadratus Lumborum.  For this the best technique is called colloquially “Fold and Hold, ” and I’ll skip the other names because they don’t describe it any better.  If you’re addressing pain on the right side lean to the right about 10-20  degrees, supporting yourself with your right arm, and compressing the muscle with the weight of your torso.  Then you could fine tune by turning the torso a little to the right and left and/or tilting the pelvis a little forward and backward.   Once you feel you’ve got just the right spot stay there for 90 seconds or so and if all goes well the muscle will relax and the pain will disappear.

How do you recognize the right spot?   One way is the place it feels most critical, which could mean most painful.   The other way is where it feels most comfortable, the least painful.  Both will work so it’s up to you.  If I can’t find a comfortable niche I go with the pain;  it’s only 90 seconds anyway.

So there we have three simple, surprisingly effective exercise that can be done in less than 15 minutes.  I like to do them every day whether I feel any constrictions or not and I’m always glad I do.   Opening up the musculature also opens the blood vessels, the nerve signals and the energy grid and you feel it right away.

Although muscle pliability alleviates most problems, too many folks in our society have a more serious problem known as bulging or ruptured discs.   These are caused by too much pressure weighing down on the spine which could have the same causes as muscle tension:  excessive strain from lifting (or gaining) too much weight,  or compression from too sedentary a lifestyle, or both.   The solution then is to take the compression off the spine so that the discs can get pulled back in where they belong.

4.  There are many ways to stretch the spine and reverse the compression and I will suggest the simplest and safest, but you’ll need to be creative.  You will need something rigid to lie on and strap your waist onto which can then be placed on a tilt.  Often gyms have a slant board for doing sit-ups which could work.  A bench, a see-saw, or sturdy plank will work.   Find a way to strap yourself onto it at waist level, at the pelvic/hip bones in particular and flatten your back by bending your knees so that your feet are flat on the board.  Then someone else will need to prop up the feet end a few  inches or more, about 10 degrees to start, and you will simple remain there for 5, 10, 15 minutes and let the weight of your upper body stretch the spine.

The appropriate degree of tilt and the optimal time will be determined by how it makes your spine feel so this calls for paying very close attention.  Some chiropractors  have special tables that use 60 pounds of pull so in theory if you weigh 120 lbs. you could safely hang from your mid-section vertically.  However it is very easy to overstretch so always err on the side of caution!  It is quite possible to tear something if you get too enthusiastic.

Finally, a less common but significant cause of lumbar pain is constriction in the abdominal organs or their attachments.   The organs are all attached to the spine through a three dimensional membrane called the peritoneum.   This may not be an issue you can resolve on your own although it is possible to relax the tensions with your own hands and certainly worth a try.  Visceral manipulation is a skill possessed by a relatively small percentage of manual therapists.  I bring it up mainly to make you aware of it.    Sometimes pain indicates an organ requiring medical treatment, for example kidney stones can be felt as low back pain.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of lumbar issues but these simple exercises will successfully treat the majority of them.  You’ll be much happier if you’re not part of this epidemic.

Lemniscate Ribbon

lemniscateRibbons can be arranged into beautiful symmetrical patterns or they can be allowed to follow their own random meanderings.    The same is true for bodies in motion.  Birds in flight follow relatively random pathways while their wings move in greater symmetry.  The movement patterns generated by pairs of wings, arms, legs, etc. can be called lemniscate (lem’ ni skaht), a word  meaning “decorated with ribbons”  whose sound fails to convey it’s lyricism.  Could there be any special advantage in turning these natural movements into deliberate qigong exercises?

lemniscate torus blueMainly a geometry term, lemniscate is a figure eight which curves back & forth around a central point.  It’s what you get when you cut through a torus (doughnut) at the edge of the hole.   In three dimensions it becomes an hourglass, and in motion natural paired movements become more complex than these simple shapes.  Hard to label or define mathematically, they exist somewhere between regularity and irregularity.


Lemniscate of Gerono hourglass 2In osteopathy, lemniscate has come to mean a treatment principle for restoring movement symmetry to hips, shoulders and other paired structures.  With a little poetic license it can refer to the symmetry between any two bodies in motion such as dancers for example.  Some dancers play off each other so well it seems like they don’t even  rehearse but just flow spontaneously.   When one moves the other reacts in mirror synchrony.

lemniscate yellow 2The pelvis and hip bones trace lemniscate patterns while walking.  The astute observer  will notice, more in women than men, that the hips circle in a complex counter synchrony.   These walking patterns have been studied and graphed and published in textbooks.

What we might call compound lemniscate can be seen in the gait of four legged animals like dogs and cats. The front right and rear left legs move together and vice versa.  In between, the torso undulates in a left/right waveform.  When we primates walk upright our arms swing in the opposite directions of our legs and our torsos rotate left and right, often with a little twist.

As qigong exercise, embodying and accentuating these natural movements is somewhat advanced but not all that difficult.  Such exercise takes your body through its wide ranges of motion while generating a spinning self-sustaining  momentum.

1.  For example the next time you’re on a leisurely walk pretend that your arms have no muscle tone at all and allow them to swing in response to your pace.  You can amplify the movement in your shoulders by lengthening your stride and/or by lowering your torso an inch or so toward the ground.

As you increase the movement in your shoulders and scapulae, the muscles, fascia and other tissues become more flexible and pliable, which is very good for them.  If you keep your head and neck lightly lifted and your shoulders dropped you will create a little stretching and unraveling action in your trapezii, the neck/shoulder muscles we always complain about.

Take your time with this exercise and feel where your restrictions are. What can you do to unwind them?  Are you as relaxed and floppy as possible?  Take note of any left/right  asymmetries.  If and when you decide to  add a little muscle effort, what is just the right amount to apply to encourage more space and fluidity?

2. Here’s a second qigong exercise from Ba Gua (a circle walking practice) meant to put the sense of spherical movement into your body.   Keeping your palms facing each other rotate them around the surface of an imaginary sphere in mirror sync, e.g. when one moves up the other moves down.  Then get the elbows and more importantly the shoulders involved in the rotations.  You can make the ball as large or small as your arms will comfortably allow and you can change it’s location.   Once you get the feeling of fluid circularity and keep it going for a good while you could try changing directions and speeds. Always maintain a connection between your palms, creating a moving central axis.

I once was shown a variation of this where the hands circled wildly around the body with the focal point being the tan tien or hara.   The woman demonstrating it loved the movement without knowing that this point in the lower belly is grand central station for all the energy channels that effect the physical body.

3.  A third exercise involves just the pelvis, not that easy for most of us.  But an easy place to try it is on a bicycle, outdoors or stationary, or perhaps sitting in a soft chair.  This is like the previous exercise but here the outsides of your hips are the surface of the ball.  The range will be quite small.  Picture an hourglass on it’s side rotating clockwise as seen from the right or counter clockwise from the left (or the reverse if you’re pedaling backwards), again in mirror sync.

lemniscate concoidsYou may be able to feel two other dimensions moving:  a) a pendular swing in the sacrum and tailbone, b) a rotating wobble as seen from above, below, front or back. This exercise is good for the health of your reproductive and elimination systems as well as the flexibility of your low back.

So where does the random spontaneity come in?  It’s anytime you change the ongoing pattern, interrupting the symmetry.  In walking it’s  anytime you’re not following a straight consistent  path.  In the Ba Gua ball exercise it’s anytime you change direction, size, location or speed. In Ba Gua proper it’s also anytime you change your walking direction, especially in any of the eight  standard complex patterns.

While random & standard may sound like a contradiction it raises an important qigong principle:  First you learn the rules and only then do you break them.   Really it’s a universal principle:  Once you know a discipline very well (or even a segment of it) you are free to bend  the rules that got you there.

lemniscate purpleAgain, we’re in an undefinable territory here somewhere between framework and freedom.    The advantage of lemniscate exercise is making  yourself learn a balanced complex rhythm that borders on unpredictability.  Since life is inherently unpredictable, and probably becoming more so,  it’s always good to increase your adaptability skills and your ability to be both stable and spontaneous.