Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Back to earth ...

Taijiquan is at once very simple—balance, relaxation, standing, walking—and yet ever so complex. To learn taiji is to learn connection to earth, to find your part in nature, to learn the flow and to go with the flow, to work with change. It seems to me that much of the exercise and fitness industry is about trying to work against change, to stop the flow, to turn the clock back. The human fight against nature is a lost cause!
For years I have suffered periodically with back pain. Doubtless this has been brought on by years of bad posture, and by aging too. I suppose most folk suffer from the occasional foolish lifting of heavy objects, or twisting while carrying something. Instant pain that lasts for a day or two or longer. I have noticed that as I age these have become more frequent. Most recently I was putting heavy cases in the truck of a friend's car. Very carelessly I leaned over and pulled the heaviest case. I pulled my lower back too! So, learning how to deal with this has become a challenge.
Here's what I am learning so far:
a) I'm not in my twenties anymore! Part of living successfully is to flow with the change of getting older. That doesn't mean you give in and flop on the couch. It does mean you have to become more aware of limitations and work with them.
b) Reading widely on lower back pain, some folk are suggesting that this is our culture's current manifestation of stress. Not too long ago, the physical symptom of stress was stomach issues. Seems now it is more commonly back issues. When stressed we hold ourselves tense, our center of gravity is kept high (in the chest area). The result is bad posture, sore muscles, neck strains, back pains, pulled muscles.
c) So, if lower back pain is due to stress and bad posture, how to deal with it? I suppose, take care of the stress and take care of the posture!
d) Stress is a tricky subject and there is no consensus about what stress is, its causes, and why it manifests in different physical ways. It seems clear that we need at least some stress and tension in life. Without tension in the right places the building collapses! But too much stress and the building collapses for different reasons. Balance is needed. If the human mind/body is like a building then no tension at all and we would simply be a "blob." Gravity is working constantly to push us to the ground. The only reason we stand upright is because of the tension in the body—bone structure, tendons, muscles, fascia etc. But, get the tension wrong—bad posture— and gravity makes us feel it in aches and pains and pulled muscles.
e) Most of us keep our center of gravity too high (see my previous blog with advice from Master Jesse Tsao). I have been working on lowering the center to just below the hips, roughly at the center of the perineum (though in polite company we tend not to talk about the perineum!) This involves threes things: 1. physically lowering the center by unlocking the knees, sinking the kwa structures of the hips, 2. intentionally focusing on this lower center, and 3. on the out-breath allowing the whole structure to sink (sinking the qi). I have found this most helpful with the back pain. Instead of fighting nature (gravity) and holding an awkward posture, this works with nature and returns you to earth, rooted, connected. I have also discovered that in taiji form to take this approach means no pain at all. If I do not lower the center, sink the qi, then the back pain is present. There are also some useful qigong exercises for stretching the back ever so gently that I have incorporated into my morning routine.
f) That fixes the posture issues! But in contemporary life we face many points of stress and tension that work against a balanced life. One solution is to get rid of those stress points we don't need to live with. A toxic relationship? End it. Bad eating habits? Change them. Taking the pressures from work home? Leave them at the office door. Three other helpful strategies: 1. Some inner work is called for—looking at ego-attachments, facing grief, dealing with trauma. Sometimes you can work this through yourself. Sometimes not. A good friend or counselor can help. 2. The very same strategy for dealing with bad physical posture is also an antidote to stress. Taijiquan works! Over time taiji play linked with taiji philosophy and outlook lowers stress levels. 3. Get some body and energy work through a reiki master.
Stay rooted,

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