Improving Your Spinal Chi

Special Report

Two Important Practice Tips for Improving Your "Opening The Spine" Chi

Last updated on by Al Simon

Greetings -

Opening the Spine is one of the most beneficial practices we teach in Level 1 of the Complete ChiFusion Course. Given the large number of people who have back and neck problems in today's society, this Qigong pattern is especially valuable.

However, students have asked me about two unusual aspects of Opening the Spine. These aspects are "unusual" in that they differ from other "forward bend" exercises you may have learned from other instructors or programs.

These unusual aspects are the correct "downward movement" in the exercise, plus the breathing pattern associated with rising from the bent position.


Correct Downward Movement

The correct downward movement in Opening The Spine starts by bending forward from the bottom of the spine near the tailbone and lower back, and then working your way to the top of the spine at the neck and skull. (See the instructions for Opening The Spine in your ChiFusion Complete Course for more details on this movement.)

Bonnie, one of our students, once asked me about this:

The correct downward movement for opening the spine is proving really difficult. Rolling down, starting at the bottom of the spine is the opposite of what feels natural to me - I've always rolled down, starting at the top of the spine. I've been working on this one for 2 weeks and still feel very awkward and know that I'm not doing it correctly. I'm not having any trouble with the upward movement and have good flexibility in my spine. Do you have any hints to help with this?

I know that for many people bending from the head and neck to start opening the spine feels more natural. For a number of reasons, we tend to have more of an "upper body focus". Since we are more in touch with what's happening in the upper part of our torso than the lower, bending from the neck seems much easier to start with than bending from the lower back. Also by starting with the head, the weight of the head makes it easy to "drop" yourself down, opening each vertebrae of the spine by pulling on them with this added weight. And sometimes, prior training makes a head-initiated bend easier, since many disciplines, including some forms of yoga, actually do spine stretches starting from the head.

Our version of Opening the Spine is designed to combat these problems. We are trying to increase overall body awareness and especially focus on the lower back (becoming less "head-centric"). We are also trying to prevent "pulling" on the spine by the weight of the head, by instead using the larger muscles of the body to control the movement.

One technique you can use to help you work on this is to use a "spotter" - a partner to help you out with the practice and provide feedback. Getting feedback from a partner to work with can dramatically shorten the time it takes to learn many skills. As a matter of fact, you'll see as you work through higher levels of the ChiFusion program that we have more and more partner exercises to help you develop skills.

Your partner doesn't need to be skilled in Tai Chi or Qigong. You can provide them with precise directions, so that they can help provide you feedback. Have your partner put one hand on your lower back, just above your sacrum. Have them put the other hand on the back of your head. Start the Opening the Spine movement by lifting your hands up above your head. Pause at the top and really try to feel/focus on the hand on your lower back.

Then begin opening your spine, focusing on keeping your neck in alignment (not dipping the head), and bending from where you feel your partner's hand in your lower back. Really try to feel the warmth of their hand on your lower back, and try to bend right from that feeling of warmth.

Have your partner tell you if she feels you dip your head away from her hand or if you move from your head first, or if you move your head without bending from the lower back. Your partner should not try to grab you or force you to do it correctly, just provide you feedback on what they've felt you do. And actually, just having her hands there may provide you with your own tactile feedback, without them even having to say a word.

For additional help, you might want to peak ahead at Level  3's "Isolated Spine Stretch". It's an advanced version of Level 1's Opening the Spine. I'm not suggesting you practice the Level 3 exercise if you are still in Level 1, but look towards the bottom at the "Engaging Your Mind" section. You might find some of helpful hits there you can adapt to the Level 1 exercise. There's also a "Kinesthetic Experiment" section with a partner exercise similar to the one I described above.


Correct Breathing Pattern

The correct breathing pattern for Opening The Spine involves taking three breaths. What is "unusual" about Opening the Spine is that in the bent position, you inhale, and as you rise out of the bend, you exhale. (See the instructions for Opening The Spine in your ChiFusion Complete Course for more details on how to coordinate the breath in this movement.)

Karen, now one of our ChiFusion certified instructors, was one of the first persons to ask about the unusual breathing pattern.

In the Spinal stretch, I notice that on the rising back up from connecting with the toes, you state to breathe out - which is opposite to which I have been used to practicing. Both in my Tai Chi and Yoga, as you open and expand the body, you inhale, and when you close, contract or on physical effort breathe out. Could you elaborate on this breathing please?

In the Complete Course, we do mention the primary reason for this breathing pattern: "The unique breathing pattern may also energize and stimulate the kidneys, benefiting the uro-genital processes." In the instructions, you'll also notice that we focus on inhaling in the bent position. We specifically instruct students to "pause in this position [bent over] and slowly inhale, especially into your lower back/kidney area."

Inhaling in the bent position, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, can charge up the kidney area in the lower back. This area and indeed the entire uro-genital process is seen as one of the primary sources of "jing", the raw material from which Chi energy is said to be created. (For more information on jing, please see the Four Treasures of Tai Chi report in the bonus material of your ChiFusion Complete Course.)

BREATHING INTO THIS AREA IS SAID TO IMPROVE the conversion of "jing" into "chi". Inhaling as you are bent over and slowly letting out the air as your rise creates a "pressurizing" effect on jing conversion. By stepping up the jing-to-chi conversion, we are intending to help our students generate more chi - and more chi awareness.

While that is the primary focus for the breathing pattern, we also have some secondary considerations. One specifically has to do with the breathing pattern you mention - "expanding" on inhale and "contracting" on exhale.

In general, many of our Level 1 exercises do follow that pattern.We found that the breathing you describe can be used as a good "starter" practice to help students get in touch with their chi by using breathing as an "intermediary". Unfortunately though, a number of our students in the early years of the program who practiced "expand/inhale - contract/exhale" breathing exclusively reported a problem.

They said that the feeling of "expanding" became tightly associated with inhaling and the feeling of "contracting" became tightly associated with exhaling. As such, their chi awareness became tightly linked to breathing. They then found it difficult to disassociate chi awareness and intention from their breathing. We saw this as a problem.

In some Tai Chi styles - and ChiFusion is among them - the goal is to be able to direct Chi independently of the breath. Our ultimate goal in ChiFusion Tai Chi is to sense and become aware of chi directly, without having to rely on our breathing as a "crutch."

As just one example, no matter which Tai Chi movement you are performing, your movements should have some sense of expanding energy (called "peng" in traditional Tai Chi - we call it the Air element in ChiFusion Level 4). If your energy awareness is linked tightly to breathing, you'll find it easy to expand your chi on inhale, but much more difficult - almost impossible - to do on exhale. However, if your chi awareness is not linked to your breathing, you can expand whenever you need to, no matter how you are breathing.

In addtion, most Tai Chi movements have a "primary" intention, and many instructors teach breathing sync'd to that intention. But you may also find secondary intentions in the movement that might not be sync'd to the breathing. Moreover, a number of Tai Chi movements combine expanding and gathering in such away that both are of equal importance - neither is primary.

In ChiFusion Level 3, we show you probably the most obvious example of simultaneous expanding and gathering in Tai Chi. We discuss a movement in which you are simultaneously sending energy from your dantien to your Wei Chi field (expanding) -AND- pulling energy from the Wei Chi field into your dantien (gathering).

We eventually want to improve our skills to the point where we can sense both processes simultaneously. So most of us find using breathing as an indicator impractical, since we can't simultaneously inhale and exhale to achieve this.

BEING ABLE TO EXPAND AND CONTRACT CHI independently of your breath makes you the most adaptable in the greatest variety of situations, whether we are talking about health, stress relief, personal growth, martial arts, or spiritual aspects. In some situations, you may find it difficult to synchronize your Chi intention with your breathing, or in some cases disadvantageous.

So early on in our course, we try to "break up" the "expand/inhale - contract/exhale" pattern in a subtle fashion, so that it doesn't become too ingrained. The end part of Spine Stretch presents the perfect opportunity to combine exhaling with expanding. Especially if you follow the kinesthetic details in the course, you will be opening up your spine as you rise, expanding the inter-vertebrae space. But at the same time, you will be exhaling, having just completed the bent-over inhale. This subtly helps the student learn that they can expand during exhale just as well as they can during inhale.


Exploring Opening the Spine

So as you continue to practice Opening the Spine, pay special attention to both the correct downward movement along the spine, as well as the breathing pattern for the movements.

While Opening the Spine is already a great exercise for mobility and flexibility, you'll find that both of these unusual features will help you "rev up" the benefits you'll get to an even higher level.

As always, you have my best wishes for Chi Development,

Al Simon   Al's Signature



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