Check out the latest info and research from Coach Chris' explorations in the Subject of Internal Power.
In this article I am going to introduce one of the first ideas found in the internal arts relating to the use of the legs. The method we will discuss here has a number of unique advantages, from the co-ordination of multiple muscle groups to the use of the earth in relation to the center. However, more importantly, it means that we maintain legs that are active, rather than simply relegating them to posts that we balance our weight on! The methods in this article are the absolutely basic first step to present the ideas, we will cover more details in future articles.
When we are performing this method it is important that we understand the role of the joints in the legs. How our legs are used in the internal arts may be slightly ‘un-natural’ to begin with, but with training we form a unique way of moving that becomes second nature.
Ankles – These are the gateways to our root and are what I describe as the ‘Mobility Joints’. As weight shifts or we step, the ankle is in a state of rotation, flexion and open/close to maintain a good connection to the earth. Without mobility and softness in this joint our weight constantly shifts around on the sole of the foot and we are unbalanced. This can often manifest in knee problems or as some describe it, a 'floating root'.
Knee – The knees are the ‘transfer joints’ of the body. Weight and power passes through them via complex connective tissues. The knees are not the source of power, however they play an important role in opening and closing the front and back sides of the legs during the unique leg actions of the internal arts.
Hips – The hips are highly complex ‘rotational joints’ and are responsible for controlling and co-ordinating the power of the centre and torso with the action of the legs.
Opening & closing
When we take an overview of the way the legs are used in the internal arts we see a tendency towards opening and closing. This can be something as simple as straightening one leg while the other bends or it can be the way in which the tissues on one side of the leg tighten, while those of the other side simultaneously relax. This process is characteristic of how even seemingly basic motions have a depth within them that belies their simplicity.
When a person bends or straightens the legs, the obvious point of action is in the knee. It could be perceived that the knee is the key to the visible motion and the source of the movement. This is not true however and the motion of the knee is in fact simply a result of work in other areas (at least at this early stage). The method of bending the leg that I would like to highlight in this post relates to the hip and the ankle/earth. We will see that the attention placed on these two areas, and their relationship to each other, will influence the position of the knee. Of course, we can go deeper and deeper with our analysis of this mechanic, from the tissue tensioning or relaxing, to the opening and closing on either side of the knee joint, to the screwing and grinding of the foot on the floor, but for now we will keep things simple.
Opening the leg.
When we open or straighten the leg, the knee retreats towards the hip and ankle line. This action is called opening because it is increasing the angle between the Femur and the Tibia/Fibula, hence the angle is opening.
To create this motion one of the first things we can place our attention on is how this movement of the knee occurs via the relationship of the hip and the foot. If we imagine a line drawn between the ankle / foot and the hip joint we can begin to use our mind to feel the mechanics at work. Imagine stretching this line by pushing the foot into the earth and raising the hips height. The feeling should be one of opening as the two points move away from each other and the knee pulls backwards and the leg straightens.
Closing the leg.
Closing the leg is the opposite motion to that of opening. Here the knee travels away from the ankle hip line. This motion decreases the angle between the bones of the legs and thus a closing motion occurs.
In closing, we can use the same concept we did during opening, imagining the line drawn from the hip to the foot. This time however we imagine that the line is shortening, like it is being wound in from the centre and this pushes the knee forward because of the drawing together of the hip and foot.
Simultaneous open close.
Where the internal arts get interesting is in the equal opposite actions that occur within seemingly simple movements. In opening and closing the legs we see this process very clearly. Almost all postures, movements and transitions will have one leg in extension while the other is in contraction. This paired, and equal opposite has many benefits for stability, power and security during martial exchange.
There is a tendency in some styles of internal art to simply shift weight over the legs. I like to refer to this as ‘Dead’ leg training. By this I mean that these wonderful complex limbs have been reduced to simply supporting weight. A ‘dead leg’ specialist may indeed have a good root, and may be able to maintain some stability with this idea. But they sacrifice agility, potential power generation and mobility for those attributes. When we use the legs as active complimentary opposites we are constantly in a state of readiness. We are equally able to leap or jump as we are to root or ground ourselves. This middle ground, or balance point, is maintained throughout or training and we are always in equilibrium, avoiding ‘double weighting’ or weight balancing.
It is important to re-iterate at this stage that the concept presented in this first article on the legs in merely and introduction to pairing. In other articles i will attempt to cover some more detailed and advanced work like spiraling the legs, use of the Kwa, the balance in the Crotch Arch etc. But for now, if you do not already use this method, it may be worth giving it a try and bring the legs back to life in the practice!
If you would like to learn more about this leg method I cover it in detail on the ongoing Tai Chi course, which is now up to 18 hours of content and growing month on month.
When we practice the internal arts for some time, as evidenced by the recovery of my own knees after a long period of patella tendinitis, we begin to feel that the joints are able to articulate more smoothly. Sticking, stiff and sore joints will start to be released and generally we feel much more like a 'well oiled' machine.
"Kangaroos can jump much farther than can be explained by the force of the contraction of their leg muscles. Under closer scrutiny, scientists discovered that a spring-like action is behind the unique ability: the so-called ‘catapult mechanism’ ( Kram and Dawson, 1998 ). Here, the tendons and the fascia of the legs are tensioned like elastic rubber bands. The release of this stored energy is what makes the amazing jumps possible.
Surprisingly, it has been found that the fasciae of humans have a similar kinetic storage capacity to that of kangaroos and gazelles ( Sawicki et al., 2009 ). This is not only made use of when we jump or run but also with simple walking, as a significant part of the energy of the movement comes from the same springiness described above. This new discovery has led to an active revision of long-accepted principles in the field of movement science.”
The breath is intimately linked with Internal Practices. Almost all of the internal practies i have researched or encountered have a very close relationship with the breathing system.
Obviously without breath we would not be around to practice, but why is this part of the body process so deeply focused on in the internal arts? Over the next few posts we will be examining a small section of this very large topic!
But firstly and practically, we can say that the breath is a very useful tool to lead relaxation and to remove unwanted tension. When we ask someone to relax, one of their natural responces (if they are not thinking too hard) is to let out their breath. This is the natural way for us to release tension.
'Winding' is an interesting subject. It may mean many things to many people, but I define it as a means to wrap the fascia, muscles and relevant tissues into tight spirals around the bones and body structures. If we imagine the construction of a rope, strands wrapping around each other, you will get the idea.
As we perform Winding the tissues actually 'squeeze' the bones and body alignments. With this in mind it is obvious why the very first phase of internal power training is often to correct alignment issues or postural problems. Pull or Wind on a misaligned frame and you will most definitely have problems!
In this method we use the front and back of the Lower Dan Tien or Taren, in harmony with one another. It is this complimentary harmony of opposites, a pair of actions happening simultaneously but in opposition that gives this method its name. It is not a singular direction or motion but a 'Pair' of actions creating 'one' result. The Ming Men and Qi hai are the origination and termination points for the harmonized opening and closing in of the torso we will talk about in this post.
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.
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