Category Archives: Tai Chi

Sacred Grounding

Do you know where your Sacrum lives?  Do you know when it’s hurtin’ or happy?  Could it be important to your health?  Well from the point of view of your physical structure it’s the central bone in your skeleton.  That sounds big.  It is the wedge shaped one at the base of your spine that fits into your pelvic ring, like a keystone in an arch, where the upper and lower body join together.  Without a keystone, in its right place,  you don’t have structural integrity.  

Sacrum-Keystone 2The word means sacred since it was once thought to be the seat of the soul and was closely associated with the organs of reproduction.  To the Taoists it is important for structural and energetic reasons, reasons that often account for a bad back or a wobbly balance or a lack of feeling grounded.

Because your sacrum is the root of your spine, and is flexible, we need to talk about that relationship.  There is some controversy about what a healthy spine is shaped like.  Everyone agrees that it should be vertical as seen from the front or the back and that it should not be twisted.  No one thinks scoliosis or torque is a good idea.  From the side view we have our differences.

1. The current favorite textbook model is a serpentine shape with backward curves at the sacrum and ribs and forward curves in the neck and low back.

2.  Recently another model has emerged,  called a J shape, a relatively straighter spine, especially the lumbar, with a backward curve at the sacrum, which is thought to be a more natural indigenous form, predating our sedentary lifestyle.

3.  A third model is also a J but with the tailbone curve going forward, which you find in the likes of Tai Chi and other martial arts.

3 Spines 2

As you might expect I’m making the case for number three, but I’m not wading into the morass of denigrating the other two.

 

 

Chi Gung/Qigong has a basic premise that your body alignments are important because they set the conditions for your energy to flow freely.  It’s something like water flowing faster in a straight line flume than around curves which diminish the force and speed.  So a straighter, more vertical spine is considered preferable to a curved one.

Consider the efficiency of the physics.  Verticality by definition means aligned with gravity and hence is ironically the one position (except horizontal) where a spinal column can most be at rest.   Tilts and curves require muscular effort to maintain, the bigger the more, so they’re considered to be a waste of energy.  Any muscle/fascia/ tendon tension will inhibit the energy flow.

That’s within your body but we also live between the heavens and the earth which exude their own energies.  These are essentially vertical flows descending down and springing up so a vertical spine has the best chance of being receptive to them.  This is one of the reasons to sit with a straight spine when you meditate.

So what about the forward curve at the bottom?  It’s not much of a curve; the sacrum is still vertical or just slightly tucked under.  This is meant to send the energy from the spine down the legs and into the feet and the ground, so it gets your upper body grounded.  And Grounding is considered to be immensely important.  Connecting to the earth gives you stability, physically and meta-physically.  Physical stability has the effect of amplifying mental and emotional stability and who might like more of that? From a martial arts perspective, say Push Hands, there are practitioners who are so well grounded it feels like you’re pushing against the earth itself.

To achieve this kind of rootedness the tailbone angle has to be just right.  Again, your best indicator is a vertical sacrum but there is some leeway in the angle.  A partner can help you find the tolerances:  Standing, with your knees just slightly bent, have them take hold of your ilia (hip/pelvic bones, your waist) and press straight down toward your feet with 5-10 pounds of pressure.  If the sacrum is too far off vertical the force will go off in that direction and you will start to lose balance.  You want the angle where you feel the force going directly into your feet.

Knuckle sacrumIt helps to drop your sacrum out of your spine.  What does that mean?  It means lengthening the low back downward and creating a little more space in the vertebral joints.  You can get a feel for this by placing one or both of your hands, maybe the knuckles, on your backside just below your waist and letting the weight of your arms weigh down.  Eventually you want to accomplish the drop by just relaxing downward, no hands.

If you can find the exact hinge point of your sacrum and lowest vertebrae (L5/S1 in our lingo) try to drop open right there.

Finding the physical connection from the upper body to the lower, Seamed stockingsfrom the spine to the feet, is relatively easy.  Finding the energetic connection is trickier.  It is largely a mental exercise where you use your mind to feel the pathways, the simplest path being a line down the backs of your legs, like those seamed stockings that are long out of fashion.  

There are degrees of the energetic skill and there are a few ways to develop it.

1.  You can trace the lines with your hands as described at length here.

2.  Dissolving works well.  This is where you relax your physical tension at deeper and deeper levels, effectively removing the impediments to flow.  That’s the Yin way.

3.  The Yang way involves internally pushing down and pulling up your fluids, blood, synovial, and interstitial.  Sounds advanced?  It is.  I say a bit more about it in this yoga post.

It can take a lot of time and practice to your get your sacrum grounded while standing, and that’s one of the reasons so many qigong exercises are done standing in one place;  there are fewer distractions.  Once you get it in your body reliably you can move on to other positions like standing with your weight on one leg, bending over a workbench, squatting down, etc.

Eventually you will want to learn it while moving around.  A simple trick, again, is to walk around with one or both of your hands weighing down on your sacrum.  Walking is one of the best places to get it since it’s probably our single most common activity.  The very least you’ll walk away with is a happier back and better balance & stability.

Equinox Equilibrium

Surfer Hawaii 2This is the time of year when we in the northern hemisphere rush headlong down the wave toward winter, at least in terms of losing our daylight.  At latitude 38 where I live the change is about two minutes per day or one hour in a month.  In that dive there is a very brief moment when day and night are equal all over the earth, hence the term equinox (equal night.)

The other balance points in our orbit around the sun are the solstices where the amount of light stays relatively the same for weeks.  When the  “sun stations”  in the height of summer and the dead of winter the light change is only about 10 minutes in a month’s time.  

sine waveOn a graph this is your classic sine wave which is steep on the rise and fall and nearly flat on the peak and trough.  The top and bottom are sort of natural resting places while the the inclines rush right past the moment of equality.  So we have two kinds of balances, one where you can take your time and one where you’ll miss it if you blink, one of rest and the other of action, one of stillness, one of motion.

A main complaint of our modern life is that it requires so much action we barely have time to rest.  So the general advice we get is to carve out more time for rest & relaxation.   But there is another way, one that sounds impossible to our conditioned minds.  That is to find relaxation and balance while we are in action, to find stillness in motion.   

And just how do you pull off such a contradictory feat?  

1.  Well, let’s say you’re engaged in a physical activity like dancing, running, cycling, doing the housework,  anything really.  What you do is find a place in your body where something can always remains constant, always the same.  You just assign it the job of being a home base, a center around which the universe can revolve.  There’s no particular magic to it;  anywhere can be the center of the cosmos, but certain places lend themselves to it better.  Depending on your personality it could be your brain, your heart, your belly or your feet.  It needs to be a place that makes sense to you since you’ll return to it whenever you you start to feel off kilter.    

Ba Gua ZhangThis trick comes from Ba Gua, a marital art where you walk in circles, constantly changing direction to confront or evade another opponent.  When you do it as meditation you are creating a place of stillness within chaos.  It’s also a part of the art of twirling as in whirling dervishes and belly dancing.  There the obvious constant place would be your central axis, assuming you can find it.  

2.  You can always monitor and change your Breathing, of course.  Anxious breathing is quick, forward moving, and high up in the lungs because anxious energy rises up and rushes forward. Calm breathing is slow,  back, and lower down in the abdomen.  The beauty of breathing is that it’s very easy to control for almost everybody.  Almost anyone can learn to direct their breath to their lower spine and even into their feet.  (from the Tai Chi Classics: “The wise man breathes from his heels.”)  Next time you’re in a crazy place see what this will do to your sense of equilibrium.

3.  Another thing you can do calls for a higher level of awareness. You can tune into the essential underlying flow of whatever it is you’re doing and keep it constantly going in some part of your mind.  For example you could ask something like, “What is the primary purpose in this endeavor?”  It’s a very practical question because it requires you to distill out some basic clarity while dealing with a host of other relevant questions.   Whether you’re preparing a dinner or running a company or cultivating a relationship there is an underlying purpose that can serve as your stability amidst the many particulars that come up.  When you’re in tune with it all your particular activities can go in that direction.  There is a sense of balance in chaos.

By way of exercise examples there are many Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung exercises that move in continuous circles.  Typically there are several elements that go into that basic framework such as grounding, breathing, relaxing, clearing meridians, pumping joints and organs, moving energy in and out, controlling blood flow, etc.  Keeping track of all that can be confusing and chaotic which makes the exercise less effective.  So you could choose as your stability point just Making Smooth Circles. 

Yes, that sounds contradictory in nature but if you can experience motion itself as stillness you will have accomplished something remarkably useful for any season.