One of the largest problems with teaching Eastern exercise or martial arts programs to Western students is language. There are many concepts that are simply hard to explain using English and because of this many students of Tai Chi lose out on some of the deeper benefits of practicing these soft styles. Qigong (pronounced: chi gung/kung) is a 3,000 year old gentle exercise routine that uses repeated movements that stretch muscles and joints and increase fluid movement in the circulatory, synovial and lymphatic systems and most importantly builds a deep awareness of how the body moves through space.
Qigong is directed toward addressing internal as well as external systems and at releasing those tensions that build throughout the day and, when allowed to accumulate, will cause a slow deterioration. Because of the critical role the spine plays in movement and wellness in general, many qigong practices are designed to make the spine healthy and strong. The spine is our body’s load-supporting beam. Injure the spine and mobility disappears. Other than skull injuries there is none more serious than spine and vertebral injuries.
To begin a spinal qigong practice, all you have to do is stand still. Try settling in to this posture:
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and soft knees
- Feel the weight of your pelvis gently hanging from the bottom of your spine
- The neck should empty, allowing the top of the head to float upward
- Release the belly while keeping the spine open
- Keep this shape, with the up/down and release/support pairs, as you breathe in a natural rhythm
- Over the next couple of minutes, let tension, strength and holding release anywhere you feel it in the spine, without big external shifts in your posture
Avoiding Lower Back/Squatting Injuries
If you are trying to heal an old injury or prevent the common lower back injuries that many people encounter, there are a few qigong practices that will help.
Lower back pain and injuries are often related to improper squatting during movements. This applies to squatting both under load, such as lifting something, or simply getting into a â€œduckâ€ squat, or as power lifters say, â€œin the bucketâ€. A lower back injury is the last thing you want when you are trying to improve your health. There are several things you can do however to avoid many injuries:
- Keep your leg joints well-oiled. If you have never trained isolated mobility exercises for your individual leg joints, you shouldn’t be moving heavy weight. Many qigong exercises teach you how to â€œrollâ€ or â€œcircleâ€ your joints. In all motion, the legs support the spine. When your legs stop moving the way they were designed to, your spine takes over, trying to twist and turn and bend in ways the hips, knees or ankles really should be doing.
- Continuously lengthen the spine. As you test your range of movement in a squat, watch how your neck and lower back move. If you cannot go further down without arching, it is time to stop. Following this principle will ensure that you are working from the legs as much as possible, integrating the legs and spine.
- Breathe naturally. You may find your breath coordinate with your movement in many exercises and that’s fine. However, if you are holding your breathing without realizing it, then you are pushing past your limit of easy, natural, coordinated movement.
The legs are the foundation of the body and the spine is the frame on which it all rests. Building the foundation and strengthening the frame reinforces the inner structures and systems because it is through this frame that our vital energies flow.Â Proper exercise keeps those energies flowing smoothly, which feeds the muscles with what they need to grow.
The Progression to More Advanced Spinal Qigong
Maintaining a good connection to the spine is one of the most important concepts in both Qigong and Tai Chi because movements involve the whole body and the spine is the center of that. As you develop a spinal qigong practice, you will learn how to:
- Feel and move distinctly each segment of the vertebrate column
- Release tension along the entire length of the spine
- Consciously coordinate the arms and legs, hands and feet, through the spine
- Learn how to work the ligament springs along the spine like a bow
- Learn arm and leg movements that will release blocked energy in the spine
- Learn to use Taoist Meditation, the meditation of movement, to get more access to deeper structures
In general the first three are most important because learning to feel and control your vertebrae and spine is basic to learning the how to coordinate the arms and legs. It is important to remember that the dynamics will change when movement begins. Keep dynamic alignment, like dropping the tailbone, can be difficult. It is hard to avoid not arching your back and sticking your butt out. The coordination in advanced qigong exercises can be very complex, but the payoff is huge and as you gain control of the movements, you are making your spine healthier and stronger.