Sunday, March 24, 2019

Tai Chi as an Assessment Tool

Beginning students typically strive to emulate their teacher's tai chi movements but predictably, the imitative behaviours of novice practitioners do not closely approximate the precise movements of their seasoned teacher. Merely seeing a modelled behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean that one can replicate it.

Some behaviours are too complex or otherwise are not in the behavioural repertoire of the student. Some students may present with physical constraints that prevent them from replicating their teacher’s movement.

Mere modelling a prescribed set of standardized movements may result in the student’s failure. Attentive teachers would do well to be prepared to help students adapt the movements to better suit the uniqueness of their bodies.

Imagine a student’s knee moving into an excessive medial rotation (knee pulls towards the middle) that compromises the integrity of the movement. The support structure becomes compromised and unstable therefore creating distortions in the tai chi movement.

The attentive teacher will be able to correct the movement by realigning the knee.  More often that not, an incorrect movement, appearing to be correct from an outside observer, may accentuate an existing condition. This is often the case with someone who presents with excessive lordosis (excessive inward curving) of their lower back. Without proper guidance and correction, the student may amplify his lordosis and create increased lower back discomfort.

How to do a tai chi assessment and what to look for?

Keen and focused observation will lead to our skill level improving and making us better teachers. This will also shape an intuitive sense to our teaching such that there may come a time when the teacher will just “know” what to do with a student even though the teacher may not have ever performed that type of correction previously.

Following a scan of the student’s body while he repeats a movement and perhaps gaining an overall feeling or intuitive sense of the effect of the movement in the student’s body, the teacher can begin specific assessments. However, the teacher should be alert: there are usually many unseen factors that contribute to a student's performance of a movement. Even being watched by the teacher or other students can effect how a student moves.

As another example, a student may present with tight psoas muscles (core muscles connecting the lower back to the femur) that limits his range of motion. Such inflexibility in these muscles may affect the quality of their movement thus constraining the student. Perhaps in this case, his low back.

Generally, muscle problems in one area may result in the student compensating in other areas. For example, a one-sided lower back contraction may create an imbalance in the shoulders and upper back.

Students with past injures may frequently present with uniqueness in their tai chi movements. It is not uncommon for tai chi to elicit movements consistent with a past injury.

Even when a student is stationary, teachers can quickly look at shoulder and hip levels as well as knee alignments. However, what may be most helpful and challenging is to examine these same features when the student is in motion.

Detecting distortion in a student’s movement has a twofold effect: First it can aid our analysis, and second, and perhaps more importantly, it may suggest what is occurring within the body—insight that can lead to specific correction. This gives us the opportunity to assist the student and as a result, the student advances in his tai chi.

It is always the case that the quality and texture of the tissues are a determining factor in how easy or difficult it will be to help the student resolve his or her issues. For example, when tissues feel frozen and inflexible, then the problem tends to be more ingrained in the body and more difficult to resolve. In such instances, I would tend to have the student perform small movements to see if the movement itself is restricted and compromised. Sometimes the student can move easily and other times he or she cannot. Such movement assessment offers much insight into what is happening within a student's body.                                                              

Monday, March 18, 2019

Tai Chi Assessment

Presenting problem

Right Shoulder Pain and Discomfort        
                     

Objective

To see how tai chi moves affect the shoulder and to discover ways to correct any distortion in the movement and to facilitate healing the shoulder.

Chris (not his real name) is a tai chi student in his seventies. He has complained of recurring shoulder pain and discomfort for the past 5 years. He has been practicing tai chi for about 2 years. 


Assessment 1

Completed a general body scan to observe what the body presented from a natural standing position.


Assessment 2:

Completed a secondary body scan from a tai chi position (the push position with one leg forward and with both hands forward in a push position, the last move of grasp bird’s tail).

This stance puts Chris in a tai chi posture which allows us to observe his body in a more active position. We did a body scan from this position.  


Observations:

Very tight mid to upper back presenting with a dense, tight and excessive kyphotic curve in the mid to upper back.


Movement Assessment

We requested Chris to perform the tai chi moves from the beginning to the end of grasp’s bird’s tail. Here we noticed that Chris accentuates the excessive upper back curve, especially during the final extension of the move and pushing out with his hands.
Chris reveals that his upper body sometimes feels disconnected from the lower body during the tai chi practice. Many times after a practice, his lower back would feel worked out but with an uncomfortable soreness afterwards.                                                  

A significant observation was that Chris would excessively push out with his arms and hands during the tai chi move and then the upper back would compress into an excessive curve and his shoulders would feel tight and uncomfortable.

We recognized a relationship with his shoulder and upper back. Pushing and stretching out actually tighten his back and shoulder and this created more discomfort. 


Goal:


  1. For Chris to practice the movement softly and gently without any excessive pushing forward.
  2. To bring Chris’ movement to a more upright position. To take the strain and discomfort out of the shoulder.  
                                                                                                                            
Summary

As students advance in the tai chi training, there is the need to integrate the hip and lower back with the correct transitional tai chi movement to facilitate the overall connection with the spine, upper back and shoulder. We will work slowly with Chris to improve this connection as we work with the rotational move during his transitional tai chi movement. 

What is important to note here is that the simple tai chi moves were creating stress to his shoulder due to the physical constraints of his body.  Gentle instruction to perform the tai chi moves with ease and relaxation helped to reduce the overall stress and discomfort of his back and the presenting shoulder problem. 


Results:

With these gentle corrections, the student alleviated the overall shoulder strain and reduced the excessive stress and curvature off his upper back. Chris was able to deepen his personal awareness of his tai chi movements.

Tai Chi Assessment: Part 2

Progress Assessment:

It took 4 sessions but Chris is now able to perform the tai chi movements without producing excessive stresses to his shoulders and upper back.  The conflicting strains are much reduced.  He is able to coordinate his tai chi movements without excessive forward leaning and straining. 


Objective 1:                                                                                                  

The goal is to reduce the compressive strains from his mid and upper back that contribute to his right shoulder pain and discomfort. 


Objective 2:

To reduce the mid upper back from an excessive kyphotic compression. This will be accomplished by pulling the chest forward to reverse the kyphosis and then have the student engage in a gentle upward lift to lengthen the spine and vertebral bodies. The spine will then fall back into a natural more normal kyphosis. The arms and hands will gently push forward to aid in the uplifting motion.

It will be important for Chris to engage his pelvis to allow for lengthening of the spine and a full stretch.                                     

Chris’ arm position was moved slightly forward to allow for his scapula to be repositioned to an aligned position. Also necessary was to develop more awareness into the relaxation of his arm.   


Objective 3:

Create a connection through the upper and lower part of Chris’ body through the development and engagement of the sitting with the low back/hip in tai chi.

It is important to establish sitting during the transitional movements as this is where Chris loses the sitting during this move. 

The lumbars and pelvis lose the appropriate orientation to maintain a healthy sit and maintain a proper connection throughout the whole body during the movement.

  
Importance of shoulder mechanics in the tai chi movement:

In tai chi, some moves require the elbows to be down with space in the armpit. This allows for the hand and arm movement to glide in such a way that the shoulder joint will open. 

The shoulder muscles can be so tight that they can hold the joint in misalignment. Conversely the joint can be out of alignment and this may not allow the muscle tissues to correct the shoulder joint until it becomes aligned.

In the latter case, this can present a problem where the joint is resistant to correction until the joint is realigned.   

During the teaching of a tai chi movement, the teacher can aid in the  proper execution of the move to ensure that the shoulder joint maintains an openness in the movement. Any deviation from the normal will allow the instructor to analyze the causes of the distortions and point the way to effective corrections. 

An instructor can hands on sculpt the motion to ensure the proper execution of the tai chi movement. This will bring about body memory for the student to aid in remembering the movement to perform in the new way.    

When the arm and shoulder motion is configured in the appropriate way, this will affect and aid in conforming the upper back and chest and low back into a correct alignment.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Self Stabilization of the Pelvis

The junction between the low back and pelvis can be a springing off point for the lumbars to expand and contract to effectively engage a tai chi movement. As many muscles cross a joint, a good working knowledge of anatomy is helpful for knowing which muscles may be aiding or hindering a movement due to excessive tension, hypertonicity or chronic shortening. It is essential to train a flexible, strong and resilient body. This will help in development and progress of good tai chi over time.
Sculpting motion aids the student to stabilize his pelvis. When an instructor stabilizes the student’s pelvis, he can direct alignment and this can help in correcting spinal distortions. This type of guided stabilization can be done by stabilizing the sacrum and hip joint via the anterior superior iliac spine and sacrum. Also self stabilization or assisted stabilization of the pelvis helps to orient the hips and low back into a specific shape or angle. This will create a great difference in how a student will experience a tai chi move. 

This sculpting will help the movement to become more fluid and connected and will further allow the spine to stretch in rotation. This stretching will help to increase disc space within and in between the spinal vertebrae. Sometimes movement spirals will appear and reveal themselves especially when one can self stabilize the pelvis in the correct orientation. The movement will then give a wondrous feeling of almost floating and moving itself. One can experience the separation or decompression of the spine as well as the upward lifting and gentle separation of the spinal vertebrae in motion. This movement can be generated upwards as well as downwards. 

Self stabilization of the pelvis entails lumbar separation. This will also  allow the instructor the opportunity to palpate motion and vertebral separation of the lumbar spine as well as the muscular movement that is occurring with the tai chi motion. This palpation of lumbar separation provides the instructor the opportunity to assess and be aware of any possible distortion in the area. 

One possibility would be if there is too much lordosis.  Instructors can ask themselves, is the lower back frozen in lordosis during the movement? Is there any vertebrae separation during the movement? Is there freedom of hip flexion and extension in the stationary position as well as during the movement?  

Further to this, one can palpate tissue movement throughout the whole vertebral column and assess the nature of the alignment of the spine from the lumbars, through the thoracic and up to the cervical vertebrae. Certain muscle groups attach to the pelvis. It is these muscles that will allow the student to fully express the orientation needed for self stabilization of the pelvis. If certain muscles are contracted and tight, then the student may be restricted from moving into an ideal pelvic alignment. 

Self-stabilization of the pelvis is important because it allows the participation and element of self directing of one’s movement. A simple example of self stabilization of the pelvis would be where the student flexes his own hip flexors and lumbars so as to achieve a straight lower spine.

The interesting aspect of tai chi is that the body is always revealing strengths and weaknesses through tai chi movement. Any distortions or deviations from the ideal normal expression of the move can provide insights into the student’s prevailing problems. Sculpting and working a tai chi move can further the assessment of the body and bring out any distortions or disturbances in the way the person performs the move.

It is aways good to employ other types of modalities such as massage therapy, yoga, etc. to address these specific areas of blockages to those targeted muscles to help them achieve optimal function.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Body Reveals through Tai Chi

Following decades of teaching tai chi, I have found the art of instructing has morphed from merely showing a new student a movement and trying to ensure that he or she closely replicates that movement to helping the student discover that our body reveals details about ourselves as we perform the movement. I learned early on that many students initially begin tai chi for the benefits of gentle and safe exercise and with the hope of improving their health and well-being, but very often, there is a journey of self-discovery for both the teacher and the student beyond the exercise itself.

Many beginning tai chi students present with some type of physical problem or ailment. Sometimes the student is entirely aware of his or her issue but at other times, he or she is not.  Many students remain blind to the reality that tai chi can influence one’s overall health and wellbeing, as many newer research studies are now suggesting.

From the very beginning of my tai chi teaching, I have encountered many students with varying kinds of physical problems. Typically, as instructors, we see students suffering with low back pain or discomfort. In one beginning class, I remember asking the students how many were dealing with low back problems. About 9 students out of 12 raised their hands.

What makes a tai chi instructor a particularly good teacher? Or perhaps, the question is, what are the requirements to being a good teacher? It seems to me that years of proficient tai chi practice alone is insufficient. Such practice must be married with sound instructional strategies and keen insight into teaching—a keenness that evolves and develops when one sees the student as a “best teacher” and one from whom we can learn our craft. 

Everyone has health issues of one type or another. Although one practices tai chi, one may sometimes experience back pains as well. This admission is difficult for some experienced tai chi practitioners to make. So what is happening or not happening? My sense is that this can be an uncomfortable topic for some teachers. But surely this is an important topic to ponder because as many age, aches and pains become all too common. Not surprisingly then, the goal of tai chi is to prevent health problems in the first place and ease such problems as they appear though regular and daily practice.

But what happens to the practitioner who experiences a health issue, practices daily and yet still copes with ongoing aches or pain? While we could dismissively reply that this person could have been worse off had he or she not been practicing daily, I’m inclined to think that progressing from mediocre to exceptional tai chi is the key—that is, the benefits of tai chi is largely dependent on the maturity with which the student performs the movements.

Perhaps a better question is how can we help more students become exceptional practitioners? Perhaps we as teachers can become aware of the movements in a new way, where we are fully present within a move, suspending judgement and abiding in the experience and the flow of the sequence. It seems to me that such an attitude is healthy and healing.

As I have observed throughout my tai chi teaching career, many students report health improvements and often quickly so, and what tai chi teachers say and do can influence if and how students experience pain relief and health improvement. But how does that occur? What are the means by which students inch closer toward better health? Very often, health improvements occur because of the nature of the tai chi movement itself.

For example, the spine, or vertebral column, consists of cervical, thoracic and lumbar curves. There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebra and 5 lumbar vertebra. Below that is the sacrum. These curves are essential in how we support and move ourselves. How we practice tai chi affect these spinal curves and in turn, these curves affect how we practice tai chi.

Sometimes distortions in these natural curves will give an indication of improper conditioning of excessive wear and tear and these will present themselves in the tai chi movements. This will give us a way to work with the movements to improve the overall body and structure.

These movements must be choreographed and augmented and sometimes uniquely individualized for each student. Doing so will likely prove essential for students with structural or functional limitations. It will take a keen and observant teacher to analyze a student’s motion and then adapt their movement to their uniqueness.