Stone Atlas

Michelangelo-unfinished sculpture


I often get students who limp in suffering from some structural ailment. Frequently, they mention the physio or chiropractor they visit, and the relief they get. But very often, as soon as they are in the blissful Cloud of Unknowing called Non-Pain, they “fall into dysfunction”, that is to say, they unknowingly fall back into the postural mould that has them in the tangled mess they are in, and they must needs return to the practitioner for more temporary relief because the system cannot cope with the strain anymore.  

 The root cause is not being addressed unless the relief is permanent. How can this be achieved? Fascia can be moulded through continuous isometric holding, and the ailment relieved, as long as the alignment is correct. But what is correct alignment and how can fascia do that?

How can you possibly check if your 3-D,  conical-skyscraper self is obeying the downward pressure of gravity such that no joint or muscle feels like Atlas struggling in a Sisyphean world? The weight of the body should sustain itself buoyantly in the internal tensengrity structure, and nothing should feel heavy.

But how? Most people do not know if they have a bad back until it gives out, discs bulging out like a spare tyre, just as cardiac victims are unaware they have had a heart attack until either they see the Reaper’s scythe or the hospital ceiling lights.

Awareness and testing helps. But the teacher can’t be there all the time. Where is the still point of the balancing act, when all muscles, bones and fascia are poised on the event horizon of absolute zero positioning? Where the head balances on top of the spine like a bowling ball on top of a billiard cue? This end point is a grail of difficulty that I myself have only reached within the last few years, but when you reach it, it is revelatory. ( When I say “reached” I really mean “visited; I have yet to fully drag my reluctant head all the way back. Some millimetres-they may as well be miles-remain)

If Milan Kundera wrote a book about Perfect Posture it might be called “ The Bearable Lightness of Being”, as the whole feels like the composition of a Yin/Yang: heavy yet light, solid yet insubstantial, grounded yet buoyant. The concept “perfect posture” can be instantiated in the individual, but only with the practice of feeling how the subtle changes in head/neck positioning can trigger immediate slack or taut feedback compensation cascades in the thorax, abdomen and pelvis. These constant internal ripples and agonist reflexes, designed to prevent dangerous listing and keep the keel even are co-ordinated and executed in milliseconds. Constant sensing, what I call “body scanning” can give you unparallelled knowledge of where you are and what your muscules are doing to such an exent that correction of posture can take place with a quick downward “scan” with immediate compensations dropping into alignment.

Continuing the ship analogy, the human caravel can tolerate a huge variety of barnacles and dead weight. I have seen students with rounded upper backs as dense as a pine cone, but suffer no apparent pain, even as the head is pushed forward. Others have twisted spines or pelvis, and again are not in pain. Still others have no apparent structural issue yet suffer immense pain from nerve damage or trauma. All are different, and so no one presciption can help them. And yet they can be helped. But the impetus to help oneself must be present or progress will be geological.

The passivity of many patients is an aspect of modern westerners. Many do not do the remedial exercises given them by their physios unless they are in pain that is cramping their life. This could be because they are inherently boring and repetitive.

Qi gong is an active process. It is also repetitive, but it proceeds with awareness and vigilant listening in order to constantly improve the movements until smooth power and, yes, beauty, is reached.

What does smooth power that is beautiful look like?

It’s not just wearing silk and prancing around at dawn. Any hippie on peyote can do that.

Beautiful, powerful tai chi and qi gong motion coheres first into a potentiality; there is an “uptaking” of the body, an inbreath of movement, a harvesting of  muscular power, followed by a calibrated, proportioned expulsion like a segmented ribbon, a chain of kinematic motion unfolding like a Fibonacci fern, with the vital ingredient of torque reversion; that is, there are spiral reversals being grounded for each and every movement away from the centre to supply power.  Done slowly, the whole should look under feathery control, with the body moving like delicate kelp, rooted but swaying, the whipping motion extending out to the poles of the limbs, and then undulating back in so as to wind up again through the legs and feet. The Hun Yuan form of Master Ma showed me this better than any other Form I had learned.   Smoothness and power, effortless power, are the supreme acknowledgements that your body is moving correctly, all alignments stable yet opening up to their optimal ceiling via the serpentine whipping inertia and momentum. Animals do this unconsciously, and chlidren with normal childhoods too. Knowing that the alignments are correct takes many years of neural conditioning, combined with testing and feeling. This marks qi gong out from normal exercise. At the end of this training, you can then move your body out of alignment, still get the same results in terms of power, but you can then snap back your body to its optimal alignment, like a rubber band returning to rest.

Beginners often get discouraged. As a Beginner still on the piano, with bio-chemistry, and my long-running feud with the Chinese language, I know this sinking feeling too well. And I remember it with my tai chi too. But nothing can not not be changed. Michelangelo left many sculptures half finished, and they are among his most powerful works; the titans within struggle to escape from their marbled matrix. We understand his description of just “uncovering” the figures within.  Learning tai chi and qi gong can be like this process; you are shedding sediment, breaking free into your true self, rediscovering who you are. Becoming who you are. 

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