Whoever ventured in Eastern integrated movement systems such as Tai Chi or Qigong can vow for it to be darn challenging at first. Just like learning any other advanced knowledge such as a new language, orbital mechanics or quantum physics, you need to know the fundamental rules that govern that system first. Without grammar you won’t be able to structure words into an understandable sentence or without the right guidance algorithm, your rocket will plunge back to earth instead of reaching orbit. Just as the rules of physics are essential for a successful rocket mission, the rules of movement determine if a movement is organized and executed most optimal. Three main governing rules of movement are anatomy, physics and energy conservation, although there sure are more, but they are of less importance, for now. This post describes three elements that need to be understood to create a fertile ground from which advanced movement can flourish.
“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Honing a New Craft
For someone to hone a new craft to a degree that he or she isn’t depending on remembering the steps, but is able to apply the pattern and thus becomes creative, they must go through a learning curve. Starting with the basic concepts, building a general understanding of the parts involved and moving on to recognize how different parts connect and eventually forming the entire structure in its full glory. You won’t be able to build a house without first understanding the concept of a brick and how it forms a wall when stacked or how to join pieces of wood together to form the support of a roof.
Just like in the examples, movement has several elements that need to be masterd to some degree before being able to control a movement in its full form. To jump straight to a complete Qigong movement for example and execute it with accurate precision, is like a rookie juggler starting off with, 5 or something, balls. Probably not the first step you’ll take to pick up such a skill, the same goes for a complex Qigong motion. It makes a lot more sense to start off with one ball in one hand and get the rhythm going, before advancing to an increasing number of balls (and two hands). So, to obtain or advance any movement skill, you need a basic degree of awareness of at least three main elements;
To instruct your muscles to move, you first need some kind of software, instructions that tell the muscle to contract, relax or stay at place. A computer won’t start- up unless there is a program telling it to do so, as a rocket will swirl out of control unless a guidance algorithm steers it into its intended orbit. Just as any electronics hardware needs some sort of software to be functional, our human body needs a control system to operate the various mechanical parts as well. Of course, this control system is our brain and it has its own learning program, just as machine-learning nowadays. To put it simply it learns by repetition, first increasing its efficiency to direct energy to the region of neurons involved, eventually connecting individual neurons, creating a hardwire. This gives you the power not having to relearn repeatedly how to walk each time you wake-up and get out of bed. Imagine the hassle! It doesn’t discriminate between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ organized movement patterns though, as it just reinforces the most frequently used one. So, when you’re not aware and repeat a faulty pattern, you’re vulnerable to writing suboptimal software and wreaking havoc on your body. Used continuously throughout the years, it gets more imbedded in the brain, making it harder to undo. It’s therefore beneficial to start off with a clean canvas, a luxury most of us don’t have.
Program Input “Sensory”
To write the software you’ll have to master the programming language which forms our second element, sensory. Just as movement has levels of expertise, sensory awareness is a skill you can develop and enhance. To put it (very) simply, it involves ‘listening’ to your body and discriminating between various sensory sensations when it’s in motion or rest. Being able to differentiate between pain that contributes to your habitual pattern or pain that’s a result of you moving into your unfamiliar direction, is crucial. When you always sit in thoracic flexion, bend over and reach in flexion you might be able to imagine thoracic extension to be an unfamiliar and stiff direction to go into. You can bump into a lot of resistance when moving into your non-habitual patterns and thus, it’s beneficial to know that the ‘pain’ is temporary and mostly necessary to re-obtain the full range of motion in that joint, muscle or segment.
Physical Structures “Hardware”
Combining the preceding two elements, you can start to control the third which is mechanical, where joints, muscles, tendons, bones and nerves are the parts involved. Of course, the circulatory system needs to function as well (it would be a bleak day if it’s not), but we’ll leave that for a future post, cause it’s an individual rabbit hole we can dive into. We concentrate on muscles and joints in this post and look a kinetic chain for simplicity. For a basic function like grabbing something heavy off the floor, all joints (except the jaw, unless it’s such a heavy load that it needs some ‘verbal’ encouragement) must get involved if you want to execute it most optimal. Bending at the hips, knees and ankles, extending at the upper back, not to fall into flexion and so forth. There needs to be control on a level of individual joints and their connecting muscle groups as well as how adjacent structures operate together.
Dividing a complex movement into its basic constituents is helpfull for as it facilitates incremental advancements. By first understanding the physical interrelationship of one joint couple, like the low back and hips in a push off or coming back up from a squatting position, you’ll be more capable of linking-in the proximate joint in the chain, not screwing up the balance of the first couple. This can be achieved this by starting off in a position where other joints are less able to participate, making it easier to observe individual parts. Doing the same form of movement in several different positions helps the brain master a movement pattern more fully and is called the transfer principle. It creates a more complete map on every degree of motion in the joint and the corresponding muscle activation pattern, making it more resilient to fluctuating conditions.
Combining the Elements
Mastering these three elements to their full capacity gives you the tools to advance your movement skill. Note, we haven’t talked about how optimal movement is organized here, as it is a topic on its own and will be discussed in future posts. The minimum you need to know is this: Each joint (couple), muscle (group) and direction of movement have their own specific sensory sensations that will tell you how loads are distributed through the system. With this sensory awareness you’ll be able to direct the distribution of movement through the kenetic chain, loading each part proportial to their capability.
To wrap this one up, the advice here is to start small, optimizing sensory awareness and muscle control of each link in the chain, building up to a complete, balanced and harmonious movement. If you’re not educated in what optimal movement feels like, it’s beneficial to reach out to a local movement specialist to guide you. Be critical in your execution and keep on advancing your level of expertise in these three elements, as it will guide you to an optimal form.