The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Thu Jun 13, 2013 8:28 am

There seems to be some interest in the role of the spine or the spinal column in Taijiquan, so I looked up what else the classics would say on the subject, other than the ones mentioned by Louis, and come across Paul Brennan’s translation of Part 3 of Wang Zongyue’s “The Essentials of Playing Hands” (Da Shou Yao Yu 打手要言), in which the term “ji gu” 脊骨, (the spine, the spinal column or the back bones) is again mentioned:

ESSENTIALS OF PLAYING HANDS – PART 3
又曰
先在心。後在身。腹鬆。氣歛入骨。神舒體静。刻刻存心。切記一動無有不動。一静無有不静。視静猶動。視動猶静。動牽往來。氣貼背。歛入脊骨。要静。内固精神。外示安逸。邁步如貓行。運劤如抽絲。全身意在蓄神。不在氣。在氣則滯。有氣者無力。無氣者純剛。氣如車輪。腰如車軸。

In addition:
 First in your mind, then in your body. With your abdomen relaxed, energy collects into your bones. Spirit comfortable, body calm – at every moment be mindful of this.
 Always remember: if one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still. Regard stillness as movement and movement as stillness.
 As the movement leads back and forth, energy sticks to your back, gathers in your spine, and there should be stillness.
 Inwardly bolster spirit. Outwardly show ease.
 Step like a cat. Move energy as if drawing silk.
 Throughout your body, your mind should be on the spirit rather than on the energy, for if you are fixated on the energy, your movement will become sluggish. Whenever your mind is on the energy, there will be no power, whereas if you ignore the energy and let it take care of itself, there will be pure strength.
 The energy is like a wheel. The waist is like an axle.


I have underlines the sentences we need to look at, so what does, “As the movement leads back and forth, energy sticks to your back, gathers in your spine, and there should be stillness” mean?

Here is my take: We are bipedal animals, so the spinal column forms the central axis of all our movements standing on two legs. The qi in Taijiquan is the vital force that keeps us alive and it is everywhere in our body. To align the qi along the central axis would mean we are in alignment with the gravitational force as well and that will allow us to move freely and effortlessly in all directions.

But the disc in our spinal column cannot sit on each other fully, that would stop us from rotating our body properly, they need to be slightly apart at all times, so we have to lengthen our spine upward with a conscious effort (先在心。後在身。First in your mind, then in your body.) so the discs are free to rotate along the central axis and the nerves in the spine don’t pinch each other. We would do this with the muscles along our back, hence it is said, “The qi sticks to our back”.

To be still is to concentrate, to be mindful of the verticality of the spine in tune with the gravitational force so the qi can be focused to keep us in balance and to allow us to move freely and effortless in all direction (内固精神。外示安逸。Inwardly bolster spirit. Outwardly show ease).

What is your thought on this?
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby DPasek » Thu Jun 13, 2013 3:47 pm

XJ,

This is an important topic of study, discussion and practice, and I am glad that you started a new thread for it.

My initial comments are that while we are bipedal animals, I do not dismiss evolution, and if we evolved from quadrupeds, then the spinal column may not be ideal for standing on two legs (e.g. many humans suffer from lower back problems). I have been taught that the central axis that we use in martial arts training should actually be along the front of the spinal column rather than through its center. Still, this is a relatively minor quibble, and it does not really conflict with the points that you raise.

I agree with the statement that “we have to lengthen our spine upward” and that we should be conscious of how we counter gravitational forces. This concept is addressed with the energy to the crown of the head (suspending the crown – xuling dingjin) that was discussed here:
viewtopic.php?f=22&t=2043

How we position our head, the chest and upper back, and the pelvis, all affect the spinal column (the cervical, thoracic and lumbar curves respectively), and in various ways Taijiquan training seems to address these spinal curves:
Image
When we age, gravity can detrimentally affect how we maintain our spine:
Image

Pulling up the back should not produce the curvature shown above for the older woman on the right; rather, as I interpret it, the posture should remain like that for the young woman on the left. Then what is “hold in the chest and pull up the back” and “the qi sticks to our back” (etc) referring to?

Perhaps it is referring to the ‘jin source’ that in the following picture appears to show the point where the energy is transmitted from the spine into the arms (or forming a sphere that includes the arms as well as the torso):
Image

But this may not be the same thing as is being referred to when the spinal column as a whole is being referenced rather than specifically the upper back. Perhaps you are correct that “the qi sticks to our back” may be referring to the use of our muscles to lengthen our spine. I don’t know.

While posture can affect energy (and energy can affect posture), and posture and energy can affect power, they are not necessarily interchangeable terms, and I am not always confident of how I understand translations of classical Taijiquan literature.

Further discussion would be appreciated,
Dan
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Thu Jun 13, 2013 9:02 pm

Hi Dan,

Thank you for the wonderful illustrations, “a picture is worth more than a thousand words”.

In regards to the spinal column, the first five of the Ten Essentials passed down by Yang Chen-Fu (虛靈頂勁, 含胸拔背, 鬆腰, 分虛實, 沉肩墜肘), plus the idea of “qi xia dantain” (氣下丹田) are there to get us to maintain a springy spinal curvature like the young man and young woman showed in your pictures.

However, no muscular force is required, only mindfulness of how to lengthen the body upward and downward to keep the spinal curvature from collapsing and tilting the body either forward or backward.

As the classic would say, “The tailbone is centrally correct and the spirit filled up the top, thus the whole body will be nimble and the head as though being suspended from above”. “尾閭正中神貫頂,滿身輕利頂頭懸”.

Thank you for joining in the discussion.

XJ
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Sun Jun 16, 2013 7:34 am

Hi Dan,

With the last picture you showed (Illustration 84), regarding the statements “hold in the chest and pull up the back” and “the qi sticks to our back” etc. the spine need not be so bend like the man in the picture to form a perfect circle.

In reality the qi needs to be rooted to the ground, so it is more of a vertical ellipse than a circle, and the man should be more straight and more natural and relaxed in his posture, so the head is still as though being suspended from above and the feet are firmly on the ground. He seems to tuck in his tailbone too much and hunched his back.

When a sphere is being compressed it forms an ellipse and the pend jin is stored naturally ready to be released, provided that the spine is in alignment with the gravitational force at all times.

I did an amended sketch based on your picture, but I don’t know how to post it to show you what I have in mind, anyone have any ideas how to make picture attachments here?

XJ
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby DPasek » Mon Jun 17, 2013 1:01 pm

Hi XJ,

I agree with your evaluation of the last picture that I posted. I would love to see your sketch. I am uncertain about the capabilities of this web forum to post pictures, but the ones that I posted were originally from sites on the web and thus had URL addresses to link to. Perhaps if you post your sketch somewhere and then use that URL address to post the picture (using the Img button) on this forum, then you may be able to show us what you have done?

Dan
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Mon Jun 17, 2013 6:11 pm

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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Mon Jun 17, 2013 10:15 pm

In this discussion thread there is a series of animated pictures of what happens to the spinal column when the tailbone is straightened:

http://www.discuss.com.hk/viewthread.ph ... a=&page=1###.

A straightened spinal column looks a bit unatural to me. So what does 虛靈頂勁, 尾閭中正 means?
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby DPasek » Tue Jun 18, 2013 4:28 pm

XJ,

Since I do not read Chinese I cannot help specifically with the phrase you give, all I can do is give my understanding of ‘proper’ structure for the spine. The animation that you link to shows a spine straightened to what I would consider to be overly straight, and is similar to image C in the following illustration:
Image
Here is the text that accompanies the illustration:
As you can see in the above picture image “A” is of ideal posture; What to look for are: The ear, shoulder, the lower spine and hip joint, knees and ankles line up…
Translation= No Pain! The body can function in good working order without being taxing on joints and/or pressure points.

In image “B” you can see a big curve in the upper back, and the head is pushed forward…
Translation= PAIN; typically people will complain of neck and mid back/shoulder discomfort as those areas are out of their ideal position.

In image “C” you can see the spine is very flat and the hips are tucked under, this posture is typical of a “sloucher”…
Translation= PAIN; with the spine being straightened out so much the neck, lower back and hips can become aggravated.

Finally in image “D” the upper back is rounded more than it needs to be and the hips shift forward…
Translation= PAIN; The head and forward which can strain the neck, the hips forward can aggravate the lower back and each hip.

I suspect that Taijiquan desires a posture similar to what is shown in image A with the gentle curvature of the spine. Note in C that the crown of the head is in front of rather than in line with the vertical line shown, whereas in A the crown of the head is on the vertical line.

I do not know how relatively frequent the postures shown above are, but I suspect that Taijiquan addresses its instruction more towards overly curved spines (image B and D) than overly straightened ones (image C) which seems to me to be more likely in modern times with our lounge furniture and leisure time than in the times when Taijiquan was being developed in China.

How would you translate 虛靈頂勁, 尾閭中正, and would it be more consistent with A than with C?

Dan
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Thu Jun 20, 2013 12:18 pm

Hi Dan,

I am certain that traditional Yang Taijiquan desires a posture similar to image “A” because that is the natural state of being and the only way to generate power in a “wuwei” way.

The problem is many of the so-called masters misinterpreted the classic and tell their students to tuck in their tailbone when in fact 尾閭中正 says, “let the tailbone be centrally correct”, that is in their natural state without distortion.

Also they tell their students to tuck in their chin and lift their head up when in fact 虛靈頂勁 says, “Without and undue efforts, hold the head as though being suspended from above”, again that is to allow the spine to be in good working order without being taxing on any of the joints and/or pressure points.

Instead the students with the wrong instructions ended up in something like the image “C”, which is a most unnatural way to be.

The image I showed is something like image “D”, which again is unnatural, and a result of misinterpretation of the classics and an unsuitable use of geometry.

Image “B” is not something often talked about of using in Taijiquan, because it is too obvious to be incorrect.

Thank you again for your pinctures, they are very useful for us to understand the role of the spine in Taijiquan.

XJ
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby Louis Swaim » Thu Jun 20, 2013 2:40 pm

Greetings,

I would agree that of the four images of postural alignment Dan posted, 'A' is closest to the ideal in taijiquan. However, in all four of the images the knees are nearly locked. This is rarely the case in performing taijiquan, where most of the time the knees are bent. That being the case, slightly tucking in the tailbone does in fact contribute to a more optimal posture.

Take care,
Louis
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Thu Jun 20, 2013 4:57 pm

Hi Louis,

I agree with you that the knees shoud be slightly bend most of the time and so it is the same idea with the tailbone, it should be relaxed and being centrally correct most of the time and then at the appropriate moments slightly tightened to get the optimal effect but not all the time. Everything has yin and yang and tucking in the tailbone all the time means it has only one and not the other, if that is so then we would have evolved this way.

In the very first movement of the form (taiji preparation), when the hands are going up the tailbone is slihghtly tightened and when the hands are coming down, the tailbone is relaxed so the qi can sink down to the dantian and the weight goes down also so we can be rooted. Tucking in the tailbone all the while would stop the qi flow because there is no yin and yang taking place at the most crucial part of the body linking the upper with the lower, then it cannot be 上下相隨 (the upper and the lower follow each other).

XJ
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Thu Jun 20, 2013 5:56 pm

...and when you are talking about tucking in the tailbone you are talking about tightening the pelvic floor muscles because the two are intimtely connected and it is in exercising the pelvic floor muscles that we would get the health and martial benefits. It is not about straightening the spine, it is about how to send the qi up and down the body.
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby UniTaichi » Fri Jun 21, 2013 6:02 am

DPasek wrote:XJ,

Since I do not read Chinese I cannot help specifically with the phrase you give, all I can do is give my understanding of ‘proper’ structure for the spine. The animation that you link to shows a spine straightened to what I would consider to be overly straight, and is similar to image C in the following illustration:
Image
Here is the text that accompanies the illustration:
As you can see in the above picture image “A” is of ideal posture; What to look for are: The ear, shoulder, the lower spine and hip joint, knees and ankles line up…
Translation= No Pain! The body can function in good working order without being taxing on joints and/or pressure points.

In image “B” you can see a big curve in the upper back, and the head is pushed forward…
Translation= PAIN; typically people will complain of neck and mid back/shoulder discomfort as those areas are out of their ideal position.

In image “C” you can see the spine is very flat and the hips are tucked under, this posture is typical of a “sloucher”…
Translation= PAIN; with the spine being straightened out so much the neck, lower back and hips can become aggravated.

Finally in image “D” the upper back is rounded more than it needs to be and the hips shift forward…
Translation= PAIN; The head and forward which can strain the neck, the hips forward can aggravate the lower back and each hip.

I suspect that Taijiquan desires a posture similar to what is shown in image A with the gentle curvature of the spine. Note in C that the crown of the head is in front of rather than in line with the vertical line shown, whereas in A the crown of the head is on the vertical line.

I do not know how relatively frequent the postures shown above are, but I suspect that Taijiquan addresses its instruction more towards overly curved spines (image B and D) than overly straightened ones (image C) which seems to me to be more likely in modern times with our lounge furniture and leisure time than in the times when Taijiquan was being developed in China.

How would you translate 虛靈頂勁, 尾閭中正, and would it be more consistent with A than with C?

Dan


Hi All,

IMO, it should be the spine and tailbone as in C with the head as in A, chin tuck in slightly. You woould also notice that if done as described, you will ''contain your chest'' at the same time. If you can't do it, pls do not ask 'are you sure ' . I am sure I can do thing I described. 8) Some of my kung fu brothers was telling me that if you see somebody who stand this way (C+A) , he should have very good level in kungfu/taiji. In fact, in our Shaolin Yi Zhi Chan qigong ZZ , we are supposed to stand this way for minimum 30 mins up to 2-3 hrs.

Cheers,
UniTaichi
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby extrajoseph » Fri Jun 21, 2013 12:12 pm

Hi UniTaiChi,

Diagram “C” is a flat back posture and medical researches have found that this type of posture over time will most likely to shorten the abdominals, the hip extensors, the thoracic erector and the scapula refractors muscles, plus weakening the lumbar extensor, the hip flexor, the scapula protractor and the anterior intercostal muscles at the same time. Why would your Qigong system insist on doing the un-natural? It would do you more harm than good.

http://www.uptowntherapy.com/newsletter ... osture.pdf

XJ
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Re: The role of the spinal column in Taijiquan

Postby UniTaichi » Sat Jun 22, 2013 5:09 am

extrajoseph wrote:Hi UniTaiChi,

Diagram “C” is a flat back posture and medical researches have found that this type of posture over time will most likely to shorten the abdominals, the hip extensors, the thoracic erector and the scapula refractors muscles, plus weakening the lumbar extensor, the hip flexor, the scapula protractor and the anterior intercostal muscles at the same time. Why would your Qigong system insist on doing the un-natural? It would do you more harm than good.

http://www.uptowntherapy.com/newsletter ... osture.pdf

XJ


HI XJ,

Let's put it this way. The spine should be straight iso flat as described in the diagram. The diagram and the findings are of specific nature and does not relate to IMA body structure. Since these diagrams are used, I just make do with it. So far, I have not come across any diagram showing how it should be when one do all the moves of suspend head , contain chest, etc. Also the qigong systems belongs to Shaolin. On what is un-natural is presently based on what mainstream science said and there are load of instances they are wrong or not entirely correct. Eg. in IMA , qigong, yoga, the naturally way to breath is the abdominal breathing. So are we all doing it un-natural in our normal every day breathing.

Have you trained in other martial art ? Pls see links below;

http://youtu.be/YKa53AJslkg
http://youtu.be/Zu6-zBznDZc

More to come. I submit first because the system cut me off.

Cheers,
UniTaichi
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