Alignment is physical, mental, emotional, intentional, energetic, structural, and dynamic…among other things. It is also social, and tai chi can teach us a lot about our place in the world and how we can all get along.
Perhaps the most important part of tai chi training is the proper alignment of the body.
Alignment is the fundamental secret of taiji’s success both as a therapeutic healing exercise, and as a an effective martial art.
There are several types of alignment, or should I say, several elements to alignment.
There is skeletal alignment, which is a basic way of lining up the bones to achieve a function, such as balancing the parts of the body, or pushing an object.
There is also myo-fascial alignment, setting up the muscles and fascia in a way to direct various internal and external forces, and to improve proprioception, among other things.
The body is held upright by tension and elasticity of muscles and connective tissue, fascia, ligaments, tendons. The skeleton cannot support itself.
To understand this, you should research fascia, tensegrity, and muscle trains.
Alignment balancing opposing tension.
There is also mental alignment, allowing for harmony of intent and awareness.
Perfected, these alignments allow for what we might call the harmony of inner and outward, or a balance of inward and outward forces.
As a healing exercise, this perfect alignment represents an ideal environment for good health.
As a martial art, this alignment represents defending oneself with the very quality that one wishes to defend. (The better you can refine your own balance, the easier it is to defend.) Violence is the disruption of balance. So, theoretically, the more balanced you are, the more immune you are to violence. Perfect harmony is perfect defence. (That’s the theory, anyway.)
Muscular alignment. (all joints in a neutral position to that all work as stabilizers and as proprioceptive muscles.
Fascial alignment (what is fascia) (example of the string)
• relaxation exercises
• sensitivity to every muscle and tendon.
• afferent and efferent neurons
Flow of gravity
and Centripetal engagement.
The secret of Tai Chi, both as a martial art and as a healing exercise, depends on alignment…alignment of the physical body… alignment of the mind with the physical body… alignment of the bones the muscles, the fascia and the nervous system.
Now, what do we know, really, about the alignment of the body?
You see, when someone is trying to beat you in a fight, they are trying to mess with your alignment
And, in Taiji that’s what we do first. We mess with the person’s alignment. Then it’s very easy to push them and throw them around.
In our daily practice, we work on preserving our own alignment, both internal and external, in order to make it more difficult for other people to push us over. We make is more difficult for them to mess with our alignment, and make it easier for us to refine our own alignment.
Now, that means that the muscles and the bones must all be connected and the nervous system must be connected. We must have the proprioception the awareness of every muscle, tendon, bone, ligament…everything in the body.
We want to be able to feel it all at once not just to focus on one point but to feel the whole thing…and how it connects… as one continuous unbroken flow of…we’ll call it energy, or a connection with gravity.
But when we master this alignment,then we have this a current of gravity. Think
of it as a river of gravity flowing through us. And when someone tries to push us over it’s like trying to push a boat across a river that is flowing very fast when the river is flowing very quickly, If you try to push a canoe across a fast river, the canoe just gets pushed right back.
If the river is flowing a little more slowly, then the canoe may get pushed downstream a little bit before it is then pushed back to the original shore.
If the river is calm, then it is very easy to push the boat across the river. But how is a river calm? Well, usually it’s a meandering river. It doesn’t go straight down a hill like a waterfall.
Instead, it is a meandering river. So if we are aligned like so, where the body is perfectly straight and perfectly balanced, (We will find out what “balanced” means in a minute.)
But if we were standing like this, it’s like a meandering river,and the current is going to go slowly, and it will make changes in the path of the river over time. You will have these little parts of the river that break off and they are no longer connected to the river. So, what that means to the body is that, if we are not properly aligned, then pressure goes into the joints.
It pulls on the muscles. if one part of the body is leaning over to one side then the muscles will be longer on one side and shorter on the other… or tense on the long side and week and loose on the short side. Or, the tightness will cause it to curve.
So, to keep that body aligned, we have to figure out “What does alignment mean?” Little centres of gravity of the different parts of the body balanced on top of each other. A little bit like that.
But you can have a whole bunch of different shapes that are all perfectly aligned with gravity.
So, the trick within Tai Chi is to be able to take all of these different shapes and a
coordinate them and line them up so that they are all part of that same current, in spite of the shape changing.
It is a continuous unbroken flow of energy into the ground.
When we align properly, if we move the toe the finger will move. We can feel a connection through the whole body.
If I am aligned properly, then if somebody pushes on my arm I will feel it in my feet.
That is why, when you see demonstrations of Tai Chi push hands, and you see somebody getting pushed, the whole body moves as if they are deliberately jumping. They have trained to be connected so that when they get pushed, the whole body moves.
This, rather than getting pushed, and have only part of the body move while the rest of the body stays behind.
That is bad alignment.
So, this alignment. What does it mean? What is alignment, really? There is a long tradition of learning about the human body by studying dead ones. So, you study the dead human body and you try to figure out how the live one works.
It is only recently that we’ve been able to actually study and look at the human body as it’s alive and see how it moves. We are able to study fascia as it moves. We used to just cut the fascia away to study the muscles and the bones.
But now we’re starting to see that the connective tissue is really crucial. And when we talk about a continuous unbroken flow of qi, what we’re talking about is the alignment of the fascia. That connective tissue is like a like another sensory organ. I was gonna say like a nervous system but it’s it’s like another sense organ, where one part of the fascia moves and the whole fascia connects.
So, there is this proprioceptive relationship. And when you connect through the core, then when the core moves, all of the extremities move. But to do this properly requires a level of relaxation. That facilitates a great proprioception, meaning being able to feel your whole body all at once.
You have a really detailed proprioceptive map, if your mind is calm and your body is relaxed.
So, this proprioception is about aligning the fascia so that it moves and turns so well that when one part moves, everything moves.
Let me show you what I mean.
Okay. So, here I have a string. This is my this is my magic string. Okay. This is the thing.
Here is the string. I turn one end of the string and the other end turns. Right? This is possible because it is properly aligned.
But what if there’s tension? What if there is a knot in it? There. Now, I turn this and the knot moves. But the end… does! Well, it does! Well, how about that? It does.
Let us try something else. Okay how about if it is like this. The rope is curved and slack in the middle. Now, if I turn this end and the movement doesn’t quite get to the other end. So, this is not properly aligned. I can wiggle this and all I want and it’s only going to have a slight effect on the other end.
But, if I align it properly…there, and I twist one end, the other end immediately moves. See? So, one thing moves and everything moves.
The fascia is like that. If I think about my fourth toe then I can feel that connection to my hand and my fourth finger. When somebody tries to apply a joint lock to me, I don’t just fight it with my arm. I connect it to the earth through the fascia. I have that continuous flow through connective tissue, so that I think about my foot and my toes and that allows me to straighten out my hand and overpower the opponent.
There is a lot of mathematics involved, because it’s not just about the connection. It is also about what that connection does to the way that I apply levers in the body. We will talk about levers in the next video. But this is the idea.
If you want the body to be properly aligned then you need to harmonize the nervous system with the fascia, with the muscles, the bones, the tendons. Every part of the body needs to be connected…to feel as though it’s one unit. Each part moves but it moves in a healthy relationship with all the other parts.
And being able to have that kind of connection and that alignment means that you are less likely to compromise it and damage the body. So, if I am feeling my whole body like that, then when I turn my hips I will be less likely to wreck my knee.
If I’m NOT paying attention, that torques my knee. It affects my ankle and everything goes out of alignment. But if I am connected and relaxed then everything moves.
So, I can move this part without hurting that part.
The hip tends to be a bit of a bully. Right? This is a very mobile and very strong joint. There are a lot of muscles involved in moving the joint around.
The knee can move a little bit to the side to allow for the bravado, shall we say, of the hip. And the ankle is free to go anywhere that the hip points it unless it’s attached to the ground.
When the foot is attached to the ground it becomes a little bit intransigent.
So, you have the the bully and the and the stick-in-the-mud…or the the intransigent ankle, and the bullying hip. And the knee is the sensitive, new-age, codependent, hippie chick, trying to say “Everybody! Can’t we just all get along?”
So, the bully has to listen to the hippie, and the hippie has to listen to the ankle, and communicate, and convince the ankle to move in a way that will not create chaos and disruption within the whole system.
So, the hip has to listen to the knee. The knee has to listen to the foot. The foot has to listen to the hands, and so on.
So, if you have to go through the nervous system and the brain in order to coordinate that, that is a really bureaucratic way of trying to maintain peace in the entire system.
So, what we want is less of a vertical hierarchy in the nervous system. We want a more horizontal more advanced democracy, so that all of the different parts listen to each other, and communicate very well, and respect each other.
So, now the hip moves, but not in a way that bullies the knee around. That allows the knee to point the direction for the foot. So, now if I want to move the foot, it becomes a mutual decision among all parties. So, this way the knee doesn’t get torqued that foot doesn’t pronate,and the foot is able to provide a really good solid foundation, and it is able to do all the things that it should be able to do.
The foot has a lot of muscles and a lot of bones. It has a lot to contribute. But, if we’re not paying attention, then the hip doesn’t care. It just sort of pushes the feet around and doesn’t let them do what they’re meant to do.
But if the hips are relaxed and the knees are loose and paying attention, then the feet can contribute an amazing amount to balancing and to mobility, and they can let the hip do all of the things that hips do without compromising all the individual parts.
The body is like a society, and just as an individual person is the fundamental unit of any society, the strength of a society – the value of a society – is measured by the importance that places on each individual.
And likewise, the value of an individual is measured by the value that it places on the society and hence, all of the other individuals.
So, each part of the body must communicate with every other part of the body.
You can’t just be talking to the brain and telling the brain one thing because then you just have a whole bunch of voices talking to the brain and the brain delegating stuff. And that’s not a healthy way for the body to be.
If you align the fascia then when you move now everything is communicating with everything. Everything is listening to everything. When the foot moves, the hand feels it. When the hand moves, the foot feels it.
This is this is what it means to be aligned…to have this sort of connectivity within the body.
Now, as for the actual physical alignment of the body…
If you study a dead body you’ll see the meat hanging from the bones. If you study a live upright body, you will see that the bones are hanging from the meat.
There’s a thing that we call “tensegrity” where you have all the different tensions in the muscles balanced in a particular way that align the skeleton and allow the the bones to float in space, essentially.
If you just have the bones resting then you have the muscles hanging from the bones, and everything is out of alignment and the parts of the body are not listening to each other.
But if the tension is balanced, then you have the different parts of the body listening to each other. That way, you have better proprioception, because now the muscles are in a neutral position. You don’t have them pulling one way or the other. You have them just sort of sitting there and stabilizing. Then, if something gets pushed, all the muscles, all of the fascia, everything connects, and feels it. …and that goes to here, and goes to here…and then your the body is able to respond instantaneously to those little changes.
Then you get this very natural balance and harmony within the system.
But, of course, we tend to think of the body as muscle-joint-muscle-joint, and if you don’t get enough rest, or enough exercise, or enough practice standing and listening to your body, then meat is hanging from the bones. And then it is just the body sort of collapsing on itself. It becomes a winding river of gravity towards the ground.
But if you keep it straight you keep it aligned you maintain alertness and relaxation…And that is part of it…
Aligning the body with the mind means learning how to relax the body and calm the mind without falling asleep.
A lot of people cannot stop thinking without falling asleep. So, whenever we do deep relaxation exercises often we hear a lot of snoring. So, you want to be able to stand and relax and clear the mind.
This is the first posture in Tai Chi. It is called Wuji. It means, “non-duality.” It is this perfectly neutral place. We call it “preparation posture” or “getting ready to move.”
I call it, “Step 1: Achieve Enlightenment.”
So, you transcend duality with this basic posture. Your legs are straight but not locked. The hips are relaxed. The lower back is relaxed, and you scan the whole body and you look for ways to relax muscles that are tense, and find a way to balance the body so that you minimize the amount of residual tension or bad alignment that you have in the body.
Now, what is the difference between good alignment in battle alignment? Well, if you hold your arm out in a natural position like you’re going to wave, and then you extend it like you’re going to point, if you have a misalignment in musculature then you are going to get very tired holding your arm in this position.
So, if my muscles are a little too tight on one side, and I’m doing this, then my arm is in a bad position. But if I relax it just enough it’ll fall outwards like that. If I pull the elbow back then my arm will get very sore in this position after a while. That means that I’m tightening the muscles up more on the back than I am on the front. So, I let it relax and come to the front.
If I wiggle my arm around like this, I find this nice little groove where the muscles and the tendons… the tensegrity is balanced. It’s in alignment.
Coincidentally, this is also the strongest position for the arm.
I can lift more weight like this than I can like that. And if I lift it like that, it will compromise the entire structure of the body and I will feel the misalignment in my feet.
So, I let it relax. Now I can hold it there and I can adjust the rest of the body and I can hold much more weight in this position.
If I move it out like that, then I am going to hurt my neck and I am going to hurt my shoulder. That misalignment will translate all the way down through my body and into my feet. I can feel it in my knees. So, I will not be able to hold a lot of weight this way.
But, if I go back into that groove…There. Now I can lift it and the whole body can support it, with this thing called “Tensegrity.”
There are several videos good books on tensegrity and muscle trains and fascia. There’s a documentary called “Strolling under the skin.” I’ll put the links on the website.
So, you want to feel the whole body all at once.
You want everything to be balanced just nicely. And as you do that, you will find that the stress leaves your joints. You don’t find the bones rubbing against each other. You don’t find the cartilage grinding with things like patellofemoral syndrome and hip pain and back pain and things like this…
I find that with when I do it, and my students find when they do it, that it seems to relax and improve the structure…and the back pain gets better, and the knee pain goes away after a while, and the hips start to loosen up and all kinds of physical aches and pains and ailments seem to resolve themselves.
BUT, I am not a doctor and I make no prescriptions! Okay? I’m not I’m not claiming that this is a cure for anything. I am just saying that there seems to be a lot of anecdotal evidence. Anyway, I would love for there to be more scientific study about this. But, anyway…
Feet parallel, about shoulder distance apart. Knees bent. Relax the hips.
Loosen up the lower back and relax from head to toe. There you go.
You are doing it. Then, just get better at it. You can do this for years and continue to refine it and improve more and more. If you practice regularly every day for five minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour, or an hour, or four hours, or eight hours, …every day… Then after a few days, or a few weeks, you will find that things start to feel much better.
Now, we are not going very low in this posture. We are not trying to cook the thighs, yet.
You just want to slightly bend the knees.
Let us drop the hips and and pay attention, and feel, and listen, and relax. There will be parts of your body that you have not been paying attention to.
You won’t notice for a long time, until, all of a sudden, you say, “Oh! oh! Wow! There is a click there and there is a pop. That is better!” And then you say, “Oh! Why is my head like this? “I don’t know why I’m doing that.
“I pull it back and then that changes this, and that changes that.”
And the whole body will start to adjust every time you fix one thing.
We have a lot of rules for standing:
• The head is suspended from above.
• Tip of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth.
• Sink the chest.
• Relax the back.
• Relax the waist.
• Sink the breath to the lower belly.
• Focus your proprioception on the inferior mesenteric ganglion.
• Relax your hips.
• Relax your knees and your ankles and your feet.
• let the feet sort of rest on the ground like a hand palming a basketball.
Don’t try to hold the posture rigidly. Let the let the weight move and flow and change. That way, you get to find that groove. You won’t find the groove by holding your arms in place. You find it by letting them move… by letting them adjust.
You might think you have made the adjustments, and then realize that “Oh, no. I can rotate like this. Oh! I can protract. I can retract. I can rotate. I can compress and extend it. I can squeeze and expand.”
You can do lots of different things with every part of the body. And after a while, you will feel as though standing is no effort at all. While you are using muscles in your thighs, the musculature is balanced so that you have this really really cool tensegrity structure.
Look it up, “tensegrity structure.” That is a nice rabbit hole to go down, by the way. Look up tensegrity structure and you’ll find everything from architectural and biological and Lego structures that you can study when you look up tensegrity structure.
And when you get that perfect balance, nothing is pulling to one side or the other. Then you get really comfortable and you get to the state where the mind actually starts to calm down because the body is relaxed.
Your body relaxes, the mind is calm, and the mind is calm so the body is relaxed.
So, you are not just aligning the physical body. You are aligning the mind with the body. And then, you’ll discover emotional states that affect your posture and effect that tensegrity and that balance. And when you relax those emotional states you’ll find that those are attached to thought patterns and
you will change the way that you think about yourself, the universe, and your position in the world.
People quit smoking, change careers, get in or out of relationships after practicing this sort of thing.
So, hopefully all for the better.
Step one:”Achieve enlightenment.” That’s what we’re talking about.
I don’t know if that makes sense or not but we’re just scratching the surface here. this is just step one in Tai Chi.
It is called “Wuji.” “Non-duality”
Taiji is “supreme duality” or “great extremity” or “supreme ultimate”, and “Wuji” is “no duality.” So, when you stand, you find that perfect balance that tensegrity structure, and then you get to a point where you feel so balanced and your mind is so calm, that there is no up or down. There is no forward or backwards. There is no left or right. There’s neither existing or not existing. There is no past, no future, and no present.
And do that all day every day. This becomes your default position…a real neutral position. It feels really good. We say it is very easy to do but very difficult to correct. This is because people spend their entire lives developing patterns of tension, and emotion, and thought patterns that enable them to function in the world within a particular identity. And they haven not been in a neutral position since they were infants. So, to have that childlike neutrality is something that is easy to do. But it takes time to correct.
The good news is that any progress is progress.
Of course, just like climbing a mountain you very seldom climb a mountain by going straight up. Often there are some ups and downs along the way. You don’t always see where you’re going. You don’t see the top of the mountain while you’re climbing. So, when you are practicing the art of perfecting the mind and body in this position, Don’t worry if you feel like you’re getting worse sometimes. You may still be moving forward but the process is not always linear because…well, that would imply duality, wouldn’t it.
There is much more to say about this. But I think this is long enough for a video.
What I’m going to do now is see if I can build an impressive tensegrity structure without hurting myself.
I have an idea.
I have a cunning plan.
So, this is a tensegrity structure. And this is an example of how the meat holds up the bones.
It is very stable, really.
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