Muscles are the LAST thing that the internal methods of Martial Arts focus on. We know the muscles will come! Instead, we focus on what allows the muscle to move. It's the tissue around the muscle, lubricated with fluids including blood that transport the electrical impulses to move the muscle. In other words, we want to oprimise flow in these areas to move energy through to work the muscle. If the tissues are tight the smooth flow of these body fluids is restricted. Learning to move ones fluids, connective tissue and ligaments comes first, the actual muscles are last in this hierarchy. Many people who go to the gym focus on muscle building and toning because a well toned body is visually desirable. However, pulling all those knots tighter is going to cause problems sooner or later. We all hear about marathon runners who eventually injure knees, hips and achilles tendons.
First undo your knots, then focus on toning and strenghthening
Tai Chi & Qigong postures have often been thought of as a form of exercise. But from an ancient perspective, they are not merely exercises, but techniques that place the physical body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation, concentration, and provide a foundation for meditation. The principle of learning to relax ones muscles in combination with slow motion movement and deep breathing works extremely well for those who are patient and after more than simply "feeling the burn" of hard physical exercise or aggressive stretching methods. With over 600 muscles in our bodies it's easy to focus on the larger most obvious muscles groups of the legs, arms and back. What is unique to Tai Chi and many Qigong exercises is their ability to target the hundreds of smaller muscles which most other stretching exercises rarely target.
Here are some of the efficient ways or methods that Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Qigong stretch the entire body:
- Smooth Circular Motions
Take for example the waist turning employed in Tai chi or Ba Gua, these motions are repeated many times throughout a practise session or form. The turning motions stretch all the muscles of the hip sockets, pelvis and buttocks which connect to the spine for body alignment and improved function of the spine.
- Understanding gravity
From the moment we are born to the day we die we develop a strong relationship with gravity. Basically posture refers to the body's alignment and positioning with respect to the ever-present force of gravity. Whether we are standing, sitting or lying down gravity exerts a force on our joints, ligaments and muscles. Good posture entails distributing the force of gravity through our body so no one structure is overstressed. We all need the major segments of the body (pelvis on legs, torso on pelvis, shoulders and neck on torso) sitting comfortably, one above the other for good posture to be present. If this isn’t happening then the body is in conflict with gravity – a relentless force that is present 24 hours a day.
An example of how we can use gravity as an ally is the process of quiet standing or holding a posture. The focus of stationary posture work is to establish the process of letting go and sinking whilst maintaining good posture. Correct alignment of your posture helps you to naturally and non-forcefully pull the muscles and connective tissues gently apart. The principle of lifting the crown of your head and sinking your tailbone helps to stretch and lengthen the longitudinal ligaments of the spine. Sinking the hips whilst keeping the ribcage open and not compressed takes pressure of your lower spine and helps the diaphragm function for breathing. As you can see these are all forms of stretching that help develop a great foundation for more advanced practises.
- Bending and stretching
To move away from your spine and core - then to move back towards it - helps open and stretch the limbs and spine in a coordinated way. Moving the arms all the way to the finger tips and legs all the way to the toes connects to the spine and core and the produces greater benefits for health, energy flow and physical performance. Our core or abdominal cavity which houses many of our internal organs connects with the motions via the connective tissues. This can directly improve the function of the diaphragm and vital organs.
- Mentally letting go
Our ability to slow down and allow our nervous system to release tension helps to soften the mind and makes it quieter and more still.
Developing this skill allows the body to enjoy a more relaxed state. This creates an environment to open up, stretch and let go.
The Dangers of over stretching
When practisied properly one of Tai Chi's great gifts is the increased ability to understand and listen to our own body - however this mind/body awareness takes time.
When practising, we must bear in mind that when a muscle is lengthened it's not just the muscle cells stretching out. Our connective tissues allow the stretch to happen, when too much of a stretch happens, the tissues will lose elasticity and become less functional.
This means the muscle may not return to its original shape once it is overstretched. Over time, this will lead to muscle weakness. The good news is our connective tissues have good blood circulation that can facilitate recovery. However repetitive stress through over stretching can cause micro-tears to the tissues. Small tears in the soft tissues surrounding the muscle, including tendons and ligaments could become larger tears leading to more serious injuries.
Tips to prevent injuries
- Discuss any known illness or injury with your instructor prior to class so he or she can recommend modifications. Serious muscle damage and injuries can result if proper precautions are not taken, especially for people with pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions.
- There is no such thing as a perfect looking posture. With guidance from an trained instructor, learn to know what your own best possible posture feels like. Be patient and work to what fits your body type, age, experience and be governed more by how you feel and not about how you look .In larger classes it may be difficult for your teacher to make personal adjustments to your posture, but don't hesitate to ask after class.
- Regardless of whether our bodies are tight or flexible, during practice, it is easy to go beyond our means so always moderate your movements and apply the 70% rule.
- Invest in a private session or two. You can refine your practice, learn your strengths and weaknesses, get feedback, and work on challenging postures or forms.