Saturday, March 20, 2010

Knees Forward, Sit Back and Down

Sitting back and down in Zhan Zhuang (relaxing the lower back, rolling the femur heads forward) allows the kua to close. And, how much my kua can close is an indication of how relaxed and open my lower back is. I'm beginning to get a kinesthetic feeling of extending through my legs to the ground. A Wujifa exercise or method that helps me notice and develop this feeling is Knees Forward, Sit Back and Down. The following describes a typical classroom experience.

Sitting back and down into my heels, I would feel that I was losing my balance and falling backward. To 'maintain balance', I would tense up instead of relaxing further. So to aid in relaxing, I'd be guided to slide the knees forward (shift weight forward) so my weight would be in the center of my foot. However, when I shifted forward I also tended to lean back and my kua would pop out. This prompted another round of sit back and down to close the kua and then slide the knees forward to relax-balance.

This cycle resulted in my routinely "ratcheting down" which ended with me sitting on the floor in a sweaty, confused, frustrated heap. See the following animation. Notice how the entire torso shifts forward with "knees forward" and how the knees stay in place with "sit back and down" practice.

In this animation, I say this "ratcheting down" is the wrong way which may infer that the way I am practicing now is the right way. More to the truth, where I was and where I am now are steps or stages or refinements in my practice.

In recent months, the knees forward, sit back and down has bubbled up as a theme in my practice. However, this time, I'm not getting stuck so much in the earlier "ratcheting down" loop. I now have a better feel-understanding for the singular feeling which I earlier mis-interpreted as a two-step process.

This time around I feel an extending or a lengthening feeling in the quads which has resulted in feeling more weight loading in my thighs and feeling down my calves to the ground.

In the following diagram, "Feeling "A" - Holding" is how, in retrospect, I would describe the feeling that resulted in my "ratchet stance" as in the above animation. I did not know there was another feeling at that time. "Feeling "B" - Letting Go" is the feeling I feel now. After feeling this, I can go back and recreate Feeling "A". The yellow arrows represent the kinesthetic feeling. The red arrows indicate the intention-to feeling. There is both a physical and intention-to activity here. The result is a tactile, observable feeling. (I'm letting go just enough to feel something else than nothing. I'm still holding a lot.)

Of course, "Feeling B" is not the goal, but another first step; another level of refinement. The Knees Forward, Sit Back and Down method helped me to find this feeling in my legs. Because "Feeling A" still dominates, I consciously practice getting "Feeling B" in my stance practice. Remember, "Once you get the feeling, get rid of the method." I still set up my knees and back as in the method but closer together like one move than two and I get to that feeling much more quickly.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lower Back: Arch, Drop, and Tuck

One of the first lessons I learned as a beginning Tai Chi Chuan student twenty years ago was to "tuck under" to flatten the back. I hope this isn't still being taught because twenty years of "tucking under" ingrained a muscular habit that I had to unlearn when I began seriously practicing Zhan Zhuang. What I'm calling lower back arch, drop and tuck are also known as pelvic anterior tilt, neutral, and posterior tilt.

When I began Wujifa stance practice, I was told to "drop". I thought "tuck" meant "drop" so I tucked and I was told to not tuck but to drop. I really didn't know what my instructor wanted. What was the difference between drop and tuck? Was drop akin to un-tuck? Was drop just a little less arch? What was the difference in the feeling of arch, drop and tuck?

I struggled with this puzzle for years, never being able to really kinesthetically feel the difference. Only in recent months have I been able to distinguish these different feelings and to a lesser degree, the feeling of the intention to arch, drop and tuck.

The following videos explain the mechanics of pelvic positioning through the frame of "Muscle Balancing". (I never heard of muscle balancing before writing this article. As a layman, I like these explanations and I think they fit here.)

"Into to Muscle Imbalances" by Jeff Gordon Parker

"THE PSOAS: Low Back Pain, Lumbar Curve and Pelvic Tilt Relationships" by Sam Visnic

Even though these videos discuss muscle imbalance for the purpose of relieving back pain, the discussion seems relevant to understanding the structural, mechanical aspects of Zhan Zhuang particularly in regards to the muscular forces acting on the pelvis which helps explain why this section of the body, the tan-tian, is so challenging to calibrate. What is interesting to me is that I can now notice that arch and tuck each require a bit of muscular force. And since one of the principles of Zhan Zhuang is to relax, it doesn't make sense to use one muscular force (tuck) to counter another muscular force (arch) when the goal is to relax with balance and structure.
If one understands relax and structure, this leads to an understanding of balance. If one understands balance and relax, it leads to an understanding of structure. Understanding structure and balance leads to an understanding of relax. Remember, relax is not limp. Structure is not rigid. Balance is not polarity.
Noticing that arch and tuck each require muscular force, I now know that tuck is not relax. Tuck did not lead me to the feeling of drop or sink. Also, I now notice that when I arch, I feel a "pulling up" from my heals and when I "tuck" I feel a pulling up from the front of my thighs. Only inbetween, in drop, do I not feel that "pulling up" feeling but rather an openness, an opportunity to not pull up, to drop. Going a step further, when I'm practicing stance in class, my instructor will notice ever subtler levels of my residual tuck habit. Where I think and feel like I'm in drop (relaxed between arch and tuck), he will notice that my intention is off the bulls-eye of drop and is slightly into arch or tuck. Sometimes a very slight physical movement is needed to make the correction and sometimes a slight recalibration of my intention is all that is needed. I cannot yet notice myself where my "intention" is mis-calibrated.

The below stick figure diagram attempts to illustrate the direction of the intention to tuck, the intention to drop, and the intention to arch (the red arrows). Over time and with practice I've been able to "loosen my hips" without control, to developing some kinesthetic control, calibrating from gross mechanical muscular movements to finer discernment of where the "intention to" is focused; moving from the outer arrows to becoming more perpendicular to the ground.

This is one aspect of my ever changing Zhan Zhuang practice. This is where I am now. Happy practicing everyone!