Back Health for Tai Chi Players by Bob Etherington ~ (May 2022)

From the moment we are born and leave our environment of floating in liquid we must deal with gravity and a less dense atmosphere of air. Since gravity never stops and air isn't dense enough (under normal circumstances) to hold us up, humans are preoccupied with not falling.


Watching young children go from creeping to crawling to standing and then walking is a fascinating reminder of what it is to be human. As tai chi players, we have long forgotten our apprenticeship into the world of being upright. Our childhood days of running around and throwing ourselves onto the ground with hardly a care are but a vague memory.


Adulthood is where it all goes wrong it seems. We are taught to sit still, keep our hands to ourselves, and most of all, behave. What does "behave" mean? Act like an adult. The downside of this is that as our intellectual capacity increases, our movement vocabulary decreases. The more our sedentary lifestyle progresses, the more we become aware of our struggles with gravity. 


Now that the problem has been identified, what can we do about it? The easy answer is to spend more time on the ground. As Moshe Feldenkrais has identified, a person's functional age is in direct relation to their ease of getting onto and off the ground. In other words, if you want to feel younger, be more childlike and play on the floor. 


As adults, we do not recognize that a chair or a couch is a prison. We even lie down by bringing the floor (our beds) about two feet off the ground to make it easier to get onto. Through the years, this results in ankles, knees and hip joints gradually losing their ability to flex, and backs losing their ability to bend. We are a user organism--how we use ourselves is how we develop.


How do we reverse this premature aging of our joints? The first answer is gently. Spend some time every day on the floor. Put your hands on the couch and then one knee on the floor and gently move the rest of the way onto the floor in a way you will figure out.


Infants learn to change location first by rolling. Rolling on the floor is a great exercise for organizing the muscles of the spine. Can you do it without using your arms or legs to push with? Pretend that you are a baby seal. It's fun! Pretty soon you may find yourself rolling down a grassy hill.


Is playtime on the ground not your thing? Then spend five minutes on the floor massaging your feet. Do a little gentle yoga or easy crunches, remembering when doing crunches that all body parts move toward the dantien since arms, legs, torso, and head all move toward the body’s center. Moving “from the dantien” is directional but not anatomical.

For those who are more adventurous, get on your hands and knees and do a few shoulder rolls. Remember to move furniture out of the way first! Once you become used to getting onto and off the floor, the floor will become your friend.


For more immediate acute needs, Advil is an effective anti-inflammatory but rough on the stomach. Don't take it for more than a few days. Massage and acupuncture can attend to specific areas of muscle spasms and soreness, but they don’t address why you got the muscle spasms or soreness to begin with. If you know a good chiropractor that you trust, an occasional adjustment can help relieve pain. 


Each person is unique and has their own habits and history. What I'd like to encourage everyone to do sooner rather than later, is to spend some time every day on the floor with a child's mind and heart and get to know the you that you have become.


With love and compassion for that person, if you spend a little time and let the inner child play, I suspect that you will be amazed at what you will find. You will be grateful and so will your back.



Bob Etherington began his tai chi studies while in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1981. He has also studied tae kwon do and judo. In 1984 he moved to New York City to pursue a singing career and continue to study tai chi in the New York School of Tai Chi Chuan. In 1988 Bob began a Feldenkrais training program and is still practicing as a Feldenkrais practitioner. He has served six years on the Tai Chi Foundation Board of Directors, with the last three as president. Bob has been teaching tai chi through the Tai Chi Foundation to apprentices and students for over 30 years.


Photo by zoranm


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