Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.
The internal arts and methods are perhaps best defined by the way in which they utilize the body to create, receive and transform forces. There are many different ways in which the body is used in this regard from rotating and rolling the Center, to tensioning the connective tissue web, to co-ordinating the limb and body into a unified action. But in this post we will be looking at one of these interesting methods that utilizes the Axis of the body in a ‘wave’. This is often referred to as the ‘spine wave’.
The spine wave is created by the action of the Lumbar Spine, the thoracic spine and associated tissues working sequentially but in harmony with one another. It is often seen in the crashing forward direction of Xing Yi Quan’s Pi or ‘splitting’ method or in TaiJi Quan’s An or ‘push downwards’ method.
These methods utilize the spine wave to create a power akin to a wave breaking and crashing onto a beach or an Axe chopping wood. But these two examples can be thought of as slightly different in execution and practice, although extremely closely linked.
Thinking of the person chopping wood is a useful initial analogy for understanding how the spine and tissues of the axis can be used to create and release power in one of the method. During the rear swing of the axe the body will Bow storing and preparing the tissues for the forward action, then this bow will release, curving in the opposite direction as the wood is chopped.
This bowing and un-bowing of the spine is one very powerful way in which the Internal Arts adept can utilize the spine to create force or power. But the Spine wave can also produce force in a slightly different way much more akin to the ‘wave crashing’ example.
In this alternative method the Coccyx acts as the base or root of the wave and doesn’t actually move very much. The action of the wave travels up the spine from this point using the tissues of the front and back of the body to transmit the force up the torso and out of whatever surface is utilized in the action. For the root of this method to be stable and able to allow a wave to occur, the Pelvis needs to provide a stable but mobile platform for the tissues of the torso to work off. Much like the frame of a door, the pelvis is semi fixed in this method with the focal point being the coccyx. Seeing the pelvis as a triangle, using the hip joints (or sometimes the Illiac Crests) and the Coccyx to monitor 3 dimensional stability is a very useful trick when teaching this method to new students.
Once this stable root has been established the start of the wave is actually created by the rolling forward and down of the Lower Dan tien. This rolling action is physical and can be easily felt when placing the hand on the belly of a skilled adept. This forward rolling of the lower dan tien (tissues of the pelvis & lower abdomen) pulls on the Lumbar spine, increasing the lumbar curve and beginning the forward & downward motion of the torso.
This initial forward curvature of the Lumbar spine then holds its position as the curve travels to the juncture of the Lumbar and Thoracic Spine. This has the effect of actually flattening the Lumbar region as the initial ‘dent’ passes up through the Lumbar into the Thoracic Spine. As the wave travels further up into the thoracic spine, the scapular and shoulders are roll slightly back and in, somewhat loading their associated tissues. Finally at the T3 to T4 vertebrae the wave splits into the arms and is transmitted through to the utilized surface.
In the early stages of training this method is very slow, very soft and very gentle. As the strength of the tissues in the axis increases this wave motion becomes compressed until it is hardly noticeable but the huge power associated with it remains.
It is important to note that if the wave is allowed to travel up to the head past T3 & T4 it can cause problems in the juncture between the cervical and thoracic spine. This problem can be recognized by a pronounced head shake when moving quickly. Some Arts manage to display this attribute with seemingly no ill effects while others have seen pronounced health problems as a result.
Distinct from the example of the Lumberjack chopping with an axe, which is also a much utilized internal power method, this technique can be thought of as maximizing power in the vertical plane. When we add the action of the waist, which is responsible for action in the Horizontal Plane, we gain access to the all of the Diagonal planes of direction too.
In Traditional Chinese theory there is a point in the middle of the lumbar region of back that is believed to be the centre of ‘Vitality’ and where the original life essence of the individual is based, this point is called the ‘Ming Men’.
Located at between the L2 & L3 vertebra, a couple of inches above the line of the Iliac crest in most people, this point is of foundational importance to Chinese Medicine and their associated practices. It is thought to be responsible for ‘warmth’ in the body, for fuelling correct metabolic action and organ function in these traditional systems.
"rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers."
Tai Chi Classics.
This famous verse from the Tai Chi Classics identifies how the various parts of the body act in unison with each other to produce whole body connected power. One of the really interesting and often misinterpreted areas of the body for study is the waist. Some people consider this the pelvis, some the ‘hips’, some the area between the lower ribs and the iliac crests, but we can actually look at the muscle groups associated with ‘control’ to better understand why it is so important to the internal artists.
Thoracic mobility is a big subject in the health and fitness world at the moment, mainly due to the modern problem of back problems linked to working at desks or in set positions throughout the day. However, back health and mobility was well and truly on the radar of the old Internal Arts Masters. Although at the time of their creation this modern phenomena may not have been present, the Internal arts and practices also placed great importance on mobility of the spine.
In arts like the old styles of Xin Yi we find that spine mobility is one of the primary components for their particular flavor of Fa jing (explosive release). They will work on flexion and extension in their fundamental practices, freeing up and conditioning the tissues associated with the back to create a high level of mobility and strength like that of a strong, well made Long bow. In other styles like Ba Gua the ability to undulate the spine is fundamental to the evasive movement skill the style is famous for. Further, in some of the Xing Yi systems the ability to produce a 'spine wave' for methods like Pi Quan is fundamental. So it can be said that the mobility of the spine is of great important in internal training.
Grab hold of any high-level Judo-Ka and try to drag them around the mat and you notice one clear attribute, stability. In the grappling arts especially, the skill of stability is a core component of the training methods and one of the main attributes that is built.
Stability can be thought of as our ability to maintain control of our posture, position, motion, and mass, either when we move ourselves or when we move in association with a partner or opponent.
In the martial arts there are a wide variety of ways in which we can use the upper back. Some styles like to round it, some like to keep it flat with the shoulders back, some do not have any consideration of this area. But when we talk of connection and the development of internal power there are some important considerations, not least the position of the Scapula.
The Scapula are two wide flat bones that provide attachment for 3 different muscle groups.
The first which includes the Teres Minor, infraspinatus etc attaches to the Surface of the Scapula and are responsible for internal and external rotation of the Shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint). The second which includes the muscles of the arms like bicep and tricep is also responsible for action in the Glenohumeral joint. The final group is perhaps the most important to us is the group that is responsible for stabilization and rotation of the Scapular, which includes the main muscles of the upper back like the Trapezius, Levator Scapulae and Rhomboids.
In general, to allow correct use of the shoulder and maintain 6 direction stability in Internal Training, we aim for the shoulders to be sat naturally at the sides with the scapular sunk in and down towards the spine as discussed in the previous post.
However some systems have a specialization that trains a totally different mechanic in the back. This is the idea of the ‘turtle back’ or the rounded back where the shoulders are slung slightly forward, the scapula remain flat to the back but pull away from the spine with the thoracic region is slightly curved.
This posture actually creates an ‘arch’ between the hands which a very powerful and strong upper body structure in the forward direction. We see the prevalence of this posture in some of the Crane Martial Arts where upper body connection is of primary importance. Just like the arch of a bridge, the rounding of the back creates an inherently strong structure.
But there are also some problems and pitfalls with this posture if it is performed incorrectly.
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