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Lesson 14: Coil the waist and twist the spine

This seemingly simple movement make a very big difference.


Loosening up the spine and balancing it like that allows you to rotate the spine one vertebrae at a time. And that way, here, that twisting allows me to balance the step. So now I can put the foot out like that without moving my hip, my thigh, my knee,  or my foot. Everything stays solid, and that means that I can preserve those centripetal geodesics. That means that I keep the ability to redirect external forces down my supporting leg into my foot. This means that I have more power and more balance, even in the transition. Too often in martial arts, you see people who are solid when they’re on two legs and have no balance or stability when they’re on one. So, it’s always a rush to get from this leg to two legs… from this stance to another stance. In the middle, they have no stability. What we want to do is to be able to have stability and changeability and adaptability in our stance even when we’re on one leg, like so.

So this rotating of the spine is really good for… of course, for the health of the spine, and for the movement and looseness of all the internal organs, and for the intelligence of the musculature, and the proprioception, and so on. So, this allows us to rotate and step. And now when I step, I step out like this, I place the heel and the toe, and I don’t compromise my balance or the structure.

Okay. I’m going to read this off the prompter because I’m tired and this is important. I am not a medical professional. Okay, I wish I could get a lawyer to go over this before I read this. But here we go. Okay. I am not a doctor. I am not a physiotherapist or a kinesiologist or a kinesthesiologist. I have seven years of high school behind me, and have crashed a bunch of lectures at several prominent Canadian universities… which I never enrolled in.

I am a martial art teacher who teaches old people how to sneak up on trees.

Do not take advice from me. I offer suggestions with the same authority with which a science fiction movie might describe how time travel works. In today’s lesson, I’m going to talk about the spine. I will be using words that I can’t pronounce and I will describe movements that I don’t understand. I will describe subjective experiences that science may say is not possible. My information does not come from dissecting cadavers in gross anatomy class. I could never sneak into those. It comes from personal experience and conjecture and from textbooks and other educational material that I have read selectively, and which often seem to disagree about the things like… oh… how far vertebrae should rotate, whether or not muscles like the rotatores lumborum or multifidus lumborum actually exist, or if they do anything (if they do exist.) Some sources say that the rotatores and multifidus muscles are merely stabilizers, or that they only provide proprioception. This opinion is so prevalent that I will accept that it is true.

But I will pretend for teaching purposes that it is not. Why? Well, I am of the opinion that treating proprioceptors like they can be made to actually do something improves the proprioception. Their actual function may be enhanced by imagining a bigger role for them. It’s a crazy notion that I may soon divest myself of. But it is with me at the moment and I am arrogant enough to bring you along on the ride with me. Trust me when I say that this is not the craziest or least scientific thing that you will hear from a tai chi teacher. The most important thing at this point, however, is to remind you all that not all spines are alike. Attempting to do what I am about to describe may be harmful to you, especially if you have a pathological condition that may or may not have been diagnosed. But even if you do have a nominal spine, this video may introduce you to ways of moving that you have never tried before.

As with all new exercises, you should never practice to exhaustion. A baby does not take its first steps and then spend the rest of the day walking or taking up running. If you are so bold as to attempt what I show you on this video, try a minute on the first day. If you feel okay the next day, do another minute on day two. Likewise on day three. If you don’t have any new stiffness or pain by day four, you might increase to two minutes. It might take three or four days for your body to register the damage you might have done to the muscles or soft tissue. That’s just my thing. Okay. See a doctor if you have any problems. Or, if you live in the USA, see your banker or insurance agent. I really don’t know how your health care system works down there. Again, you are responsible for this.

This is just me talking about stuff I think about. 

Today, we’re specifically talking about the rotation of the spine in order to improve our balance and structure while we take a step. So, we were working on this this movement in the last lesson, pivoting around the left and the right axillary lines. And that brings us here. We try not to pivot around the centre line. While we’re transferring the weight from one leg to the other, so that we pivot around the axillary hinge. But when we are standing on one leg and we’re about to move the foot, this is when the hips are not moving. we don’t want the weight to move then we don’t want to be rotating around the axillary hinge because this will swing our center of gravity around and compromise our balance and we don’t want to be moving the center when the extremities are moving likewise we don’t want the extremities to be moving when the center is moving but that’s another lesson so here we’re talking about balancing the body in order to take a step. One of the ways that we can do that… These are the incorrect ways. One is to simply tilt the body and put the foot out there. The problem is that now this is how far the foot can go, and if we want to go farther, we need to sink the body lower. But we can’t because there’s stress on the hip and the knee and the ankle when we do that. So, we don’t have much agility this way. Another way to do it is to move the centre back, and that likewise puts a little bit of pressure on the knee, although in a different way. It causes the foot to roll out on the foot, and it moves our center away from the direction we’re stepping. So, it doesn’t make much sense to go backwards and then put the foot out there. It actually ends up pretty much where it was before. We want to keep the right axillary line where it is, more or less, or at least keep the hip and the thigh and the shin and the foot all lined up and stable while we take this step. But again, if I don’t do something, then I either do this or this. I’m a little teapot. So what do we do? Well, this is where the spine comes in. If I want to step this way but I don’t want to tilt the body, what I can do is twist my body. That moves my arms and the mass mass of my body. That way. Now, I have a fair bit of mass. So, I don’t have to rotate very far to balance my step. But some people will need to rotate further. Farther? Further? Farther? Further, in order to balance the movement of the leg. So, if you’ve been working on strengthening our thighs, then you’ll be really good at keeping the thigh stable, and lined up with the shin, and lined up with the foot, and keeping the hip in that position. We’ve pivoted around the axillary line, bringing the centre around, like so. So, by rotating the spine, we move the centre this way. Now, most spines are not loose and relaxed. Most spines are what some people call “double weighted.” But they are sort of in suspension with with themselves. They are being stabilized and cantilevered and the little tiny muscles in the spine like the… uh what are they called?… rotatores and multifidus and thingamajigs and whatchamahoozits… little tiny muscles around the vertebrae that connect one vertebrae to the next… They don’t have much of a mechanical advantage, and they’re really small, and they are overwhelmed by the tension in the big muscle groups that sort of hold on to the spine from the outside. So, they get sort of classified as stabilizers because they’re constantly drawn taut like the cables on a suspension bridge. But if you can align the spine and relax the muscles around the spine, all of those big muscles… let them relax. Then you can start to loosen up those little tiny muscles. And when those muscles can relax, then they can contract. A muscle that is tense cannot contract. It has to relax first before it can contract. So, this is a principle that comes up a lot in the tai chi forms – learning how to relax the muscles that you don’t need so that you can contract them when you do. If they are tense all the time, they’re pretty much useless for anything except bracing and stabilizing. You lose a lot of adaptability. Your ability to balance is compromised. Your ability to respond spontaneously is compromised, and all of this is centred around the spine and around the waist. So, if you can relax the waist and relax the muscles around the spine, then you can activate the waist and you can activate the spine, and you can let each vertebrae in the spine rotate on its own and contribute to the rotation of the spine rather than having just a few big muscle groups and a few vertebrae and discs doing most of the movement. Because, often you’ll have some people who have a couple of vertebrae that don’t really move at all, and then you’ll have one that moves a lot, and then a couple that don’t move, and then one that moves a lot. This can cause some problems, and wear and tear on the discs and the vertebrae themselves. So, if you can loosen things up and allow them to move, then the whole spine can rotate, not just one vertebrae out of three, but all of them. So, this frees up the spine to move and it frees up all the other big muscles to do more interesting things, as well.

So, imagine that you can relax your body and relax the big muscles. Stabilize and balance everything. So, it’s balanced like a string of pearls on end. So, everything is really loose and very precariously balanced, so that now even the tiniest muscles in the spine can contribute to the movement. It’s like turning down the volume on all the big instruments so you can hear the little ones. So, that’s the same idea here. You relax all the big muscles and think about each vertebrae in the spine. So, think about those lumbar vertebrae. Think about the thoracic vertebrae, even the cervical vertebrae. You want to feel each one, one-at-a-time, rotating relative to the one next to it. In the beginning, this is just imagination. But after a while, you’ll start to say, “Okay, there’s the sacrum, and the coccyx. Then you get to feel the fifth the fifth lumbar vertebrae moving relative to that, and you work your way up one at a time. And if I rotate my spine, and loosen everything up, I’ll just start from the very bottom.  Each vertebra does not move very much. But if the spine is straight and loose and relaxed, then if I move just the one, my spine moves about that much. Then I go up one vertebrae and it moves that much. And then I go up one and it moves that much. Then I go up one and it moves that much. And I go up one and it moves that much. There. Now… oh now I’m getting into the thoracic. Relax the ribs and…eleven… ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four…three… Oh, I’m tensed up again. Atart at the bottom again. Loosen them up. Loosen them up. Loosen them up. There we go there. So, now I can rotate from here. And this is without moving my pelvis, I’ve gone from here, with little tiny imperceptible movements.

Oh, there are some that are still a little stiff. I loosen them up as I go. So, I get to a certain point and I realize – oh I’m still holding tension down below. So I relax that one, and that gives me a little bit more rotation.

There. So, now without moving my shoulders, keeping my hands still, I can move what feels like 90 degrees. It’s not quite. But I can tell myself it is. And I have not moved my pelvis. So, the pelvis is still. If you want to, you can practice sitting on a stool or a chair, and then try to rotate the spine.

Like that… and again, I’m haven’t perfected it yet. They’re not all moving in order, necessarily, because there is a lot of contribution from those big muscles. It’s difficult to avoid that. So, from here… one… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… oops. I missed one. There we go.

There. Now, normally when the spine turns, it leans and tilts. But with practice, you can modify that tilt. So, the spine doesn’t go back, like this. Think about older people when they are driving and they try to look over the shoulder. Because their spine is curved, they look like this. So, they can’t really turn their neck independently of the rest of their body. They actually kind of have to turn their hips and sort of do this. But if the spine is loose and you don’t have sudoku neck, then you can turn your head and look… actually look over your shoulder. With the spine like this, it doesn’t doesn’t go. So, loosening up the spine and balancing it like that allows you to rotate the spine one vertebrae at a time. And that way.

Here. That twisting allows me to balance the step. So, now I can put the foot out like that without moving my hip, my thigh, my knee, my foot. Everything stays solid. And that means that I can preserve those centripetal geodesics… meaning the ability to redirect external forces down through my supporting leg, into my foot. This means that I have more power and more balance, even in the transition. Too often in martial arts, you see people who are solid when they’re on two legs but have no balance or stability when they’re on one. So, it’s always a rush to get from one leg to two legs. From this stance to another stance, in the middle they have no stability. What we want to do is to be able to have stability and changeability and adaptability in our stance, even when we’re on one leg, like so.

So this rotating of the spine is really good for… of course, for the health of the spine, and for the movement and looseness of all the internal organs, and for the intelligence of the musculature, and the proprioception, and so on. So, this allows us to rotate and step. And now when I step, I step out like this, I place the heel and the toe, and I don’t compromise my balance or the structure.

If I step too far, of course, like that…Now, when I put my foot down, I have to move my centre. I’m going to try to avoid that. So, we’ll talk about that in the next lesson, which I will do very shortly. But for now, you can practise this. Just this rotation. Take your time. Do it gently. Don’t do too much all at once because you might be moving your spine and your waist in ways that you have never thought of before. And if you spend more than five minutes at a time at it, you could, you know, cause some inflammation, or make yourself sore. Yeah, you’ll need to schedule a trip to the chiropractor or the massage therapist afterwards, or the acupuncturist, just to get yourself moving again. Now some people like to go to the doctor and get meds and muscle relaxants. That can be fun. But it’s better if you don’t hurt yourself in the first place. If I want to feel no pain, I go to the doctor and I get the meds. If I want to fix the problem, I go to see my chiropractor or my physiotherapist or massage therapist… whatever the professional is in your neighbourhood. So, find somebody that you trust, with a good scientific methodology. 

None of what I say constitutes medical advice, remember. That’s very important. But yeah, I’m just saying, “Don’t overdo it.” Don’t hurt yourself. Listen to your body. Listen to your doctor. Listen to your physiotherapist. See, maybe if they think that any of the stuff that I’m saying makes any sense at all. If not, then you may have to find your own terminology to explain what’s going on here. But, generally speaking, you stabilize the thigh. You loosen up the spine and allow it to rotate with as little leaning and cantilevering as possible. And that allows you to place the heel and transfer the weight without compromising your balance or your structure, or endangering yourself through the application of power and leverage. Because, this is all relaxed and very gentle and very precise for now. But eventually we’ll be using this stuff to generate power, and actually throwing people who are two or three times heavier than us, or much stronger than we are.  We want to be able to do it in a way that does not hurt us. So, we learn to move and do the form in a way that makes us more comfortable. We don’t go into this thinking about how we’re going to hurt other people. We go into this thinking about how we can minimize damage to ourselves. The first rule of martial arts is “don’t beat yourself up.” The second is “don’t fight the other person.” Right. So, you know, basically… “do no harm.” So be careful, gentle, relaxed. Listen to the body. Listen to the mind. Listen to the science.

Here, and if you prove me wrong, awesome. I’ll hopefully find a better explanation for what’s going on. But so far, this is where I’m at. Okay. So, very good, more practice. 

How do you practise? You can practice sitting in a chair, so that your hips don’t move, like this, to keep your hips still. Put your hands on your shoulders and feel the spine rotate one vertebrae at a time.

Try not to lean back. So you keep the head up, the chin down, shoulders relaxed, relax the rib cage, relax the waist, and feel the spine from the bottom. Work your way up. If you have an anatomy textbook or a chart somewhere that shows you the vertebrae, it shows you all. The coccyx, the sacrum, all the lumbar vertebrae, the thoracic vertebrae, and the cervical vertebrae. You can look at the diagrams and try to visualize inside, each one of those moving relative to the one below it.  Keep yourself very relaxed and precise. Try to use the smallest muscles to do the rotation.

Then, once they’ve done their part, then you can add the bigger muscles and start twisting the spine as a whole. But try to keep it straight. Try not to get it off balance. So then the bigger muscles can contribute because the little muscles do not have a really great mechanical advantage. But they’re really good at at feeling what’s going on. They’re very sensitive.

But you can only feel what’s going on with the small muscles if you relax all of the big muscles around them.

So, you move the little muscles first, all those muscles that the textbooks say are stabilizers

And then, once you’ve moved them as much as you think you can, then you add the big muscles and you’ll get more of the rotation.

And you find you can twist the spine and relax the shoulders, without tensing them or trying to move them relative to the rib cage. You can twist the spine pretty much 90 degrees. That’s what it’ll feel like. But don’t do this with the hips. You don’t want to be rolling the pelvis like that. Then it becomes fluid and relaxed and loose and comfortable and connected. The spine becomes this living thing that then transmits its movement out to the extremities, into the toes and the fingers, into the center of the earth, into the ends of the earth. You’ll be able to feel this interaction with the universe around you. It’s cool. You can get poetic about it. I don’t mind. Okay. But if you get poetic, remember that it’s poetry. You might not be describing what’s actually, literally happening. But you may be expressing a feeling. And that works. That’s valid. It has its limits when it comes to teaching. But you know, because then you end up describing things that are not really happening

Eventually, the spine takes on a much greater role than it normally would, for most people. And then, when you come to the fight, you have a great advantage. Because, you’re not just depending on the big muscles, but you’re depending on refinement, and subtlety. And the more refinement and subtlety that you have, the more it accumulates.  Then, rather than just depending on big muscles and strength, you then have subtlety and skill. That is much greater than what you could have if you just had size and mass and strength working for you. A person who’s this big but only has this much skill, will lose to somebody who’s this big and has this much skill. Of course, if they both have the same amount of skill and one person is bigger and stronger, this person will have the advantage. So, sure. Size makes a difference. But it’s not the only thing. 

I’m going to leave it there and give you that to work with. So, a few minutes a day, or a few minutes at a time a few times a day. That’s fine. But work up to it gradually, until you can do this practice and not feel stiff two or three days later. Then it will gradually start to become something that you’re doing 24/7, so that you’ll always be feeling the spine… every vertebrae. You’ll be aware of how each one is moving.

But again, consistency is far more important than intensity. Very good. More practice.