Taijiquan is a guiding presence in everyday life. Doing the moves teaches me and I become more sensitive to subtle changes in the body.
Susan A. Matthews’ guided description of power stretching from the Lan Shou Quan system contains six steps to help the practitioner practice. I present step one in a previous post, which describes the beginning “basic mechanism of spiraling biomechanics and power stretching from the ground up through the legs to open/flatten the low back.” This is a basis for practically all movement in power stretching, if you want to transmit force from the ground through the upper body out to the hands. To reach this goal requires connecting the upper and lower body through the low back.
In Step 2, Shifu Matthews describes how to use the quadratus lumborum (which she describes in her video, Mind and Energy Movement in Taijiquan) to pull the lower rib cage securely down towards the iliac crest near the sacroiliac joint. “Do not arch the low back, rather open the low back by rooting (spiral screwing) into the ground with the feet (see Step #1). Release the front. Allow the shoulders and head to elevate by opening at the hips in the front. Also use the latissmus dorsi to stabilize the low back. The latissmus dorsi attaches to the humerus in the armpit. Contracting it should pull the shoulder and elbow down. Try one side, then the other, then both together. Try one side, feel the ribs contract in the back, feel the ribs open opposite front. We like rib action without twisting.”
On her website, Shifu Matthews includes instructions on testing with a partner how this step, along with step 1, can be applied.
I consider power stretching an essential practice for supporting tai chi practice or any other movement. Professional dancers, runners, swimmers, hikers, skiers, etc. know this of course, along with master martial artists. One thing I have learned about how people power stretch is that they over do it and can injure themselves, especially in the beginning of practice. They stretch when they are not warmed up, for example. Or they overstretch when it would be better to gradually work their muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints into more extension. They rip and tear, rather than coax and nurture. The older you get the more liable you are to do this if you are not mindful.
Power stretching is an essential part of practice if you want deeper benefits; but until you understand through practice over time, I suggest not over doing it when you add power stretching.
Chinese martial arts power stretching is different from other systems for the most part, but you do find things similar in other systems. One difference is how you incorporate your attention in the postures, which is more internal and energetic in nature. Some teachers offer detailed methods of observation to help sharpen our attention and our sensitivity to subtle changes in our bodies. I know my teachers and I do, anyway.
For older people who are beginning tai chi or have been practicing for a short time, stretch only as much as it is comfortable at first, then progress to more challenging extension. Most of us can go out of our comfort zone without harm. But if you are following a seasoned practitioner, don’t push yourself to match their effort and extension. You won’t be able to. However, allow them to challenge you a little. My teacher, George Xu (Guo Ming) once told me, “Go slow in the beginning. The master goes his speed, you go yours.”
We seldom push ourselves beyond our limits, or what appears to be limits. Most of us will stay where we are if it’s working for us. That’s not a bad thing, because it allows us to save energy for when we need it. It’s sort of a survival trigger, but you also risk complacency. It’s also true that the more we stretch beyond perceived limits, the more energetic capacity we develop. This is the essential tai chi principle: know your limits, but practice to go beyond them. Learn what they are, but overcome them through regular, consistent practice … alone and as part of a group. It will do wonders for you.
Be in wu chi (wuqi) in stillness and in motion. It is the center around which everything moves. It is the beginning and the end of movement where taiji becomes yin and yang. It is that part of us that is aware of everything even while our surface minds have forgotten its existence. It is replicated in the body and the mind, the whole being. It is now and never at once. It extends in all directions, yet is forever shrinking into itself. It is both unconscious and conscious simultaneously. It is timeless, placeless, yet here anyway. It is here, yet not here. It is the Tao and not Tao. It carries you in motion and in stillness. Focus attention on it to not forget it and it will have a life that you give it.
To cultivate connectedness in tai chi and build a strong, yet flexible root, and develop whole-body movement, sooner or later you’re going to discover power stretching. The following is from guest blogger Susan A. Matthews. It is part of her developing manuscript, Spiral Training.
On her website, she generously offers the kind of information that more-seasoned Chinese martial arts practitioners seek to help verify perspectives and learn new insights. Power stretching is dynamic and active in nature, in contrast to quiet and relaxed, which she addresses in later steps because, ultimately, moving with energy is preferred.
The fascinating thing about power stretching, as she states, is that it produces collateral benefits. In her work with chronic pain, she says that “this structural change is required to eliminate foot, ankle, and knee pain and swelling, as well as to reduce arthritis pain and to rejuvenate joints. The method increases energy and lymphatic circulation to muscles, bones, and tissues of the lower body.”
In the first step, she pays attention to the action in the ankles, knees and pelvis, focusing on how to visualize spiraling and rooting at first. She also links to video footage demonstrating or explaining what she is writing about. She describes testing procedures, too. This might be too detailed for some, but many enthusiasts should find useful applications from it. [Italics are mine.]
First, connect the feet to the ground by spiraling or screwing both feet outwards. Stand with feet almost parallel, hip width apart. Imagine each foot is a wing nut with the ankle joint as the axis around which the big ball [of the foot] and the inside edge of the heel grip and rotate. The foot stays planted on the ground while the spiral torque force travels up to rotate the ankle bones. Let the bones of your feet and ankle move inside the skin. Often this action lifts and restores a ‘fallen’ arch if required.
[The energy component]
It is important to use mind energy as soon as possible once the body has practiced the physical change. Imagine energy spiraling downwards instead of a screw. This spiraling goes down the inside of the ankle and sends the big toe forward while the pinky toe and outside of the ankle spiral up into the hip. …
Next, the knees also rotate outwards because the spiral travels up and rotates the tibia and fibula. … Put weight on one leg, unlock the opposite knee so that it will rotate easily. Screw into ground as described above and allow the rotating ankle to rotate the knee. … the hip will actually move back (keep weight on the big ball). … The tension in the hips is then transmitted downward and the upper and lower legs rotate inward to compensate for the tight hips. To correct this, generally, most practitioners need to outward rotate and straighten both knee joints, and this requires adjusting the pelvis….
Next, the rotation from the feet must change the position of the pelvis. We have often been taught to tuck the tailbone to open the low back and get more ground power [or root]. … Rather than tucking the tailbone with hip muscles, use the rotating feet-ankle-knee-femur-ball-socket to rotate the pelvis … . The rotating ball and socket at the top of the femur rotates the sacrum/tailbone downward/ pubic bone upward. A gentle ‘sucking up’ feeling from the perineum to the navel accompanies and helps the rotation. … It is this action that connects the ribs in the back to the hip bones. … There is an opening/stretched feeling at the inguinal fold/line.
It feels like the feet are pushing the front of the torso up and open while the scapula is pulled down … . The downward rotation of the sacrum stretches the low back (lumbar vertebra open). Do not crunch the front. Hang the pelvis.
It also works to imagine a spiraling downward force from the back of one shoulder-diagonally across to the sacrum-down the back of the opposite leg. Another feeling is to create or sense a line of force that seems to extend from the center (dantian, ball in front of the sacrum) both downwards towards the feet and upwards towards the back of the neck. This opposing, opposite force lengthens the spine and raises the posture from the ground up.