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.
Visualizations 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.
Powerstretching is an often overlooked aspect of martial arts training. Many practitioners understand taiji as a tendon stretching exercise but they might not think of it as powerstretching. Tai chi is much more, of course. Energetic movement is a huge part of taiji that has informed my practice for a long time. It takes time to develop understanding of the many streams of this multi-layered practice. So getting to powerstretching often is not at the top of the list for many practitioners.
When powerstretching was introduced to me, I was training in Lan Shou Quan. My body responded well to the sets that my teachers were sharing. Powerstretching opens up channels and lets the body breathe in fresh energy. Like opening a window on a beautiful spring day and letting fresh breezes in to replace stagnant air, powerstretching moves stale qi out from the body’s nooks and crannies.
Master George Xu exposed me and other students to a little powerstretching back in 2002 through a simple set that was qigong-like in its execution. He still combines stretching with spiraling and internal qigong movement (he focuses on it in his Complete Practice video).
I first started really powerstretching at Master George’s China Camp in 2007 with Master Wu Ji, who gave us a set of stretches from the Lan Shou Quan system. And in 2009, Master Shou Guan Shun gave a group of foreign students his set from the Lan Shou System that we practiced several times a day for several days.
You can perform the postures as gently or energetically as you want, although Master Shou makes you really put yourself into it. I videotaped that set as well in different locales in Shanghai in 2009. Master Shou’s students, Wang Ming Bo and Rose Oliver show their international workshop participants the same set when they came to the US last year and recently this year.
These sets are very good to know and practice when you have sat for long periods of time or have done strenuous activity for a long time. They help open your body up and clean out the stagnant energy and replace it with fresh. You can do as little as three minutes or as much as 10 minutes. You can do one set three times in a row at a time. There really is no limit to what you can benefit from adding powerstretching to your daily practice.
Susan A. Matthews has posted a lot of powerstretching info and learning resources on her webpages at www.taichi-secrets.com or www.susanamatthews.com. You learn about the teachers I learned from there, as well. Her new powerstretching page contains educational content. Look for the Lan Shou page on her video store and scroll down to the bottom of the page and read her text about powerstretching.