Reconditioning the Body

by Mat Beausoleil on 2012/01/06

It is a fact that most modern people, especially westerners living in urbanized areas, are not as physically active as they once were. As society becomes more dependent on machines and electric tools to do the physical labour once done manually, the bodies of modern men seem to be changing accordingly. Because most people use their bodies in the same way, carrying out the same simple motions every day of their lives, the body adapts and forms certain movement patterns to support its daily activities. After many years of living relatively non-active lives, many body parts such as the small connective muscles, tendons and ligaments which connect the muscular and skeletal structures of the body begin to cease up and harden. Because of this, the range of motion of most people’s joints are greatly restricted by poor flexibility.

Therefore, the first stage of Taijiquan training should be the reconditioning of the body. In the first few years of correct training, the body should go through a series of systematic changes in flexibility dealing with the muscles, ligaments and tendons of the joints. This “opening” of the body is crucial as it will allow the body to move in very specific ways (kaihe, open and close) characteristic of Taijiquan. Because normal people’s bodies cannot move freely due to lack of proper training and years of misuse, this stage of development must be taken very seriously. Depending on how hard the practitioner works and how correctly he trains, this stage can take anywhere from a couple of years to a lifetime to achieve.

At the beginning of one’s training, the joints of the body will be locked and their range of motion greatly restricted. The goal is therefore to slowly open up each joint in the body by stretching out and reconditioning the tendons, ligaments and connective muscles surrounding each joint of the body. At first, it will seem nearly impossible to complete the movements properly; this should be expected. The more the body “opens”, the more one is able to perform the movements correctly while following the principles of Taijiquan.
Even though the body will benefit and change every time the form or any movement is practiced, I believe it is beneficial to use a systematic approach to opening up the body. Proper Taijiquan training requires the practitioner to change the habits of movement of one’s own body. Because these patterns have been present and unnoticed for so many years, it initially seems impossible to break all these habits and replace them with new ones which follow the principles of the art. A systematic approach to opening the body breaks down the body into different sections and focuses on making changes to certain areas of the body before moving onto the next. In this organized training method, the mind’s energy is focused more clearly, the old patterns are dealt with individually and progress is made at a much faster rate.

At first, this method seems tedious and slow because one realizes that there are so many changes that need to be made. However, once a practitioner becomes comfortable with this systematic method of training, the training method itself becomes a habit and changes start occurring at an extremely fast and efficient pace. From my personal experience and experimentation, trying to focus on and change many different aspects at once scatters the mind’s energy and awareness of what is happening in the body. Trying to do too many things simultaneously leads to confusion, stress and frustration which are all detrimental to learning.

As Taijiquan is an internal martial art, one must have a basic understanding of the function of the ligaments and tendons which hold the skeletal and muscular structures together. The elastic properties of tendons and ligaments are actually what allow flexibility throughout the body. Without them, the different parts of the body would be welded tightly together and there would be no range of motion in the joints. Because they are so important to flexibility, a practitioner should always be aware that what he is actually reconditioning when working on “opening” certain joints or body parts are the ligaments and tendons.

Therefore, it is essential to remember that to properly train and engage the tendons and ligaments, they must be put under constant tension by stretching out the body parts to their maximum. Because of a lack of use, at the beginning of training the tendons and ligaments can be compared to old dried out rubber bands which have been left sitting in the sun; their elastic and spring like qualities have gone and they are easily overstretched and broken. After years of correct training however, the tendons can be compared to brand new bungee cords which are extremely supple with strong elastic properties.

Because the joints of the body have been moving in very restricted patterns over the course of one’s life, the joints start to form grooves. These grooves are created in the build up of calcium which commonly settles and hardens in the joints. This calcification is due to the build up of insoluble calcium salts in the joints which can lead to pain and restricted movement. Through the training and the opening of the the body, these grooves must be worn down through repetitious friction so that they are able to rotate and move freely in their sockets. When the ligaments surrounding the joints become more supple and flexible, the rotation of the joints normally cause some clicking and crunching sounds. Even though these clicking and crunching sounds might be a bit disconcerting, they are a normal side effect, and in my opinion, a good sign of progress.

Although every body part will eventually go through drastic changes in terms of strength and flexibility, some areas must be focused on directly while some others will get reconditioned inadvertently. Through my experience, focusing on the main joints and ligaments realigns and strengthens the smaller ones.

I believe the first area to focus on when opening the body should be the arms. Because the arms are used everyday and are easily controlled by all people, I believe it is a perfect starting point. The shoulder, the main joint of the arm, and a very important joint in Taijiquan practice, should be the first area to change and adopt new habits and develop flexibility. In modern day society people are generally taught that to have good posture is to stand with the chest pushed out, the back straight and the shoulders raised to the rear; much like a soldier standing at attention.

Because of this, most people’s posture does not comply with the Taijiquan requirements and some serious changes need to be made to the habitual way they hold their bodies. In Taijiquan, the shoulders should not be pushed up and back but should be naturally sunk down to the front. When most people try to adhere to this basic principle while doing the form, it becomes evident that the shoulders have set patterns of movement which always seems to push them up and back. The fact that the shoulders have trouble relaxing to the front is evidence that the joint is locked because its tendons and ligaments are ceased up and no longer flexible.

To help open up these joints, the shoulders needs to be consciously pushed down throughout the different movements of the form. Also, the arms should always be stretched out as far as possible to help the ligaments and tendons surrounding the joint to start stretching out to create a “gap” between the ball joint and its socket. Once the tendons and ligaments of this area start to loosen up, the shoulder will be able to be “turned over” and rotated in its socket. At this point it is important for the practitioner to start consciously turning over the shoulders every time the arms are fully extended. This rotation of the shoulder must become habitual and so requires the practitioner to be aware and conscious while doing the form. Painless clicking and crunching sounds normally come from the shoulders if they are properly turned over. If pain occurs, one should use good judgement and let the shoulders rest before continuing the training of this specific area.

When the shoulders become more open, the positioning of the elbow must be brought into consideration. One very fundamental principle of Taijiquan Practical Method is that the elbows should always be pointing down regardless of the position of the hand. This reconditions and strengthens the tendons around the elbow which run down to the wrist and up to the shoulder.

To ensure this principle is being adhered to, one must become aware of the position of the elbow at all times. The elbow must NEVER point out to the sides and must always be pointed to the ground. This new flexibility of the elbow and shoulder joints will allow the elbows to be pulled into the center of the body more accurately without contortion. This is also a very important principle of this system as it helps to round the back.

The wrists and hands should also be strengthened and reconditioned by following some basic rules. The wrist should never bend back or forward and should be as if it were welded to the forearm. To recondition the hands, it is important that the palms be pushed out and the fingers held back to create a convex shape. The fingers should be stretched out and angled much like the blade on a fan or the propeller on a boat. The thumb should be tucked into the side of the palm with the tip rounding outward.

If all these principles are consciously and slowly added into the form one by one, they will become second nature and will not require any further attention. When the tendons and ligaments of the arms are reconditioned there should be a tight sensation which runs through the arm. At this stage, one should also notice some inadvertent changes occurring to the tendons and ligaments of the neck, rear deltoids, upper back and shoulder blade regions.

While the practitioner’s attention was being focused on the reconditioning of the arms, the muscles and tendons of the legs and knees were also being conditioned without conscious effort. Generally, most people’s quad muscles are quite weak and therefore need to be strengthened in order to continuously support the body’s weight throughout the forms. Tension and stress in the knees is also very common among beginners and is usually due to the incorrect foot positioning during certain stances. Although most people totally avoid any kind of pain or stress in the knee area, I believe certain types of pain should be expected and are actually a good sign of progress.

However, one must become sensitive and aware of the different types of pain in the body, especially in the knees. If the pain seems to be in the muscles, tendons or ligaments surrounding the joint, it is my belief that it is a natural part of the reconditioning process and therefore should not be cause for concern. If the pain seems to be coming from inside the joint however, the practitioner should be cautious and rest before continuing.

Once the legs are strong enough, lower stances should be taken to help stretch out and recondition tendons of the kua and hip joints. This joint, similar to the shoulder joint, is a ball and socket joint which if properly trained and opened, can rotate in a wide range of motion normally not common in most human beings. Because the tendons and ligaments of this area are bigger and stronger than the ones in the arms, the process of opening this area seems to be much slower and difficult for most practitioners. Once the hip joints start to open up, deep clicking sounds are normally heard as the hips pop out of their sockets to rotate even further.

When the ligaments and tendons surrounding the joints of both the arms and legs seem to have gone through some major transformations and the body is much more flexible, one will realize that the waist and torso have also started becoming somewhat more flexible. Eventually, deep clicking sounds are normally heard all throughout the back and also in the chest. At this stage however, the mid section of the body is generally still locked and the tendons of the waist still ceased.

At this phase of the training, the more repetitions the body does, the more the ligaments of the body are stretched out and the more the joints are ground down. The form should be practiced consciously as many times as possible while keeping the principles discussed above in mind. It is important to remember that the muscles at this level play an extremely important role in helping to stretch out the body into the biggest stances possible and to keep certain body parts in their correct positions.

This method of training can be very taxing on the body and might seem like the complete opposite of what Taijiquan seems to be about. However, this is simply a stepping stone and in my opinion, an essential part of the systematic process. If one is to make speedy progress, it is important to train with intensity and strength. Once the internal body has gone through most of its transformations and is relatively open, the muscles and external intensity should be incrementally diminished. This however should only happen once the body is properly connected.

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carlos Hanson January 8, 2012 at 12:47 am

Another great article! This is a perfect explanation of a path to follow for practice, especially for the beginner. It is an excellent companion to the many videos Master Chen makes available. For those who are unable to find a local teacher or attend a seminar, this article should be close at hand.

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Gerry Gebhart February 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Thanks for yet another great article. I appreciate your writing skills. Your articles have helped me greatly in understanding many of Master Chen’s concepts. I can personally identify with your statement, ” trying to focus on and change many different aspects at once scatters the mind’s energy and awareness of what is happening in the body.” Your article helps me to focus on a single element at a time.
Your writing skill and progress in understanding of practical method is quite impressive. It is hard to believe you are the same person I met in Edmonton in Nov. 2010 at a week long seminar. Your progress shows the reward of continuous hard work. Keep writing, for all of us!

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Asad H October 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

Astonishingly true. Thank you Mat.

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