By Joe Eber
When you do tai chi, your spine should feel as if it is continuously expanding. This may seem to be unrealistic, because, after all, nothing in our physical world goes on forever. And yet, continuously expanding the spine is a key concept in tai chi.
First, let’s explore what expanding the spine means. In the tai chi posture the head goes up and the hips and legs go down. This is done with a relaxed body so that you are not trying to expand the spine, but rather the spine expands because the hips are relaxing and dropping away from the head. If you try to expand the spine by purposefully elongating it, you will find that will create an uncomfortable stiffness in your back.
Still, it is difficult to conceive of something as going on forever. To help with understanding how you can continuously expand the spine try this.
Put your arm in front of you.
Relax the arm as much as possible while still holding it up
Softly and slowly expand your arm from your shoulder as if your fingers are reaching to touch the wall in front of you. Note, you are not stretching your arm. A stretch has an endpoint. The key word is expanding.
Allow your joints to open as you relax more and more and feel as if your arm is getting slightly longer (we’re talking in millimeters or even less).
Feel as if there may be room in your arm to relax and let go just a little bit more; that you could continue to expand the arm. You may no longer be physically moving, but the feeling is that the expanding has only paused, and all the internal feelings are still there, and it can resume and continue to expand in an instant.
This is the same process that happens with your spine. By feeling as if you can relax just a bit more, that you can sink more and lift the head a bit more, the spine can feel as if it can continue to expand. In actuality, the spine may not physically expand more, but the feeling is that it can if you just relaxed a little more. That feeling of softly relaxing and expanding is there all the time. This is in contrast to feeling when the spine has stopped expanding, which is similar to when you stretch as far as you can. During the stretch there is a release, but when you reach the end of the stretch there is a tightening of the muscles as they refuse to stretch anymore. That is why in tai chi we expand rather than stretch. (This is not to say that stretching is bad or to be avoided. It definitely has its place).
Feeling this continuous expansion is then dependent on the ability to relax, let go, and sink. If you do NOT feel this continuous expansion. then you are holding your muscles and not letting go. If you feel that your spine stopped expanding it is because your hips or legs are not relaxed enough, or you are holding your head and chin in a way that is stopping the spine from expanding.
Joe Eber is a senior teacher and long time student of Master William Ting (silvertigertaichi.com).
Joe Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook