Basic Training: Focus on Your Kwa Squat

Every six months or so, one of our Senior Instructors at Brookline Tai Chi tells me that he’s had an amazing revelation about how to do the kwa squat.

The kwa squat is one of the very first things we teach, he’s been doing Tai Chi for 40 years, and he gets new insight into it all the time. Amazing, right?

Tai Chi and Back Pain

One of the reasons we get so interested in this exercise is its power to relieve pressure on the spine and open up important joints of the body.

Here, our teacher Bruce Frantzis explains how Tai Chi works on the spine, including the effects of squatting, tucking, breathing, sinking your chi, and Bend the Bow techniques done in Tai Chi.

Even though there are many different ways to open the spine in Tai Chi, let’s focus on one of the core: the kwa squat.

There’s a saying in Tai Chi, which surely applies to all arts, that “high level skill is just high level basics.” The deeper you go with the fundamentals, the better you get. So let’s revisit the basics of the kwa squat. Specifically, we’ll look at how this leads to a healthier spine and integrates the body.

The Kwa Squat

The first three levels of using the kwa will get you in the game for the more sophisticated variations you use in Tai Chi. They are:

  1. Folding the kwa
  2. Bending and Stretching from the kwa
  3. Pump the kwa

Because we’re not really a squatting culture in the West, most people have a steep motor-learning curve when they try their first kwa squat.

Our hips tend to be frozen and we’ll jam into the knees to try to lower the body.

Downward Phase of Squat

In a proper squat,  the hip joint (green dot) moves back and down, while the knee joint (red dot), rotates in place. You can also track the femur movement (white line). The knee doesn’t move forward in space.

You can get a feel for the basic version by placing your knees up against the seat of a chair. When you squat, the chair shouldn’t move at all. If you press into the chair, you are pressing into your knees.

Instead, you will probably feel like you’re sticking your butt out. That’s a good thing for this exercise and it will lead us to a key difference between a Tai Chi kwa squat and the kind of squat you would use to lift heavy weight, like in a deadlift.

In a Tai Chi kwa squat, you keep the spine straight, so the pelvis hangs like an anchor from the bottom of the spine. One of the reasons this is done is to create more space in the lumbar spine. As your sensitivity and control increase in this exercise, you can even begin to use the pulsing of the kwa to create a gentle opening at the sacroiliac joint.

source: Wikipedia

Opening the sacroiliac joint makes the connection between the legs and spine much stronger, increases overall flexibility in the hips, and makes your movements much smoother.

In the process of developing this fine motor control, you need to pass through several levels of releasing and relaxing muscles and coordination. For more practice ideas, you might want to review these posts:

If you focus on developing this core skill, all the other qigong and Tai Chi movements that you learn are designed to multiply out the benefits. If you skip over the basics, though, the other movements just become fancy hand-waiving. Always revisit your basic training!

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Comments

  1. Dan,
    Do I get it right that in the beginning it is OK to stick the butt out, but eventually we want the pelvis drop during bend / sitting down so that the lumbar spine gets elongated? Shoud we intentially tuck in the pelvis or just relax it while sitting down?

  2. I’m biased towards not forcing the tuck in the beginning…you want to have a clear sense of where the fold (and eventually hollow) comes from, so less precision with the tailbone is ok at first. Otherwise, you tend to tense and hold in all the wrong places to try to make that happen.

  3. Bob Hughes says:

    Thanks Dan,
    Bending and stretching from the kwa?
    I’ll be darned if I can figure any of this out.
    (And it isn’t because I haven’t tried, or that Bruce’s or your descriptions are ambiguous).

    Stretch = relax = exhale = open = store?
    Bend = contract = inhale = close = release?

    (Shui) Sink Qi: relax, allow, stretch, joints open
    (Song) Store Qi
    (Fa) Release Qi: contract, bend, close

    So, I’m standing here with my heels together, weight 50-50 on both legs.
    I want to move my left foot laterally a half of a step to the left–to the opening position.
    I will need to get 100% of my weight on to my right leg (at least in a tai chi way).
    How do I do that?

    Initially, do I stretch the right leg or bend it (stretch the kwa or bend the kwa)?
    (I think I want the qi to run down my right leg, store it in the root, and let it rebound up the right leg to energize the left leg to move laterally to the left–effortlessly)

    “Stretching” muscle is allowing the sliding elongation of overlapping protein fibers.
    As these sarcomeres elongate energy is stored.
    As a rubber band is stretching, energy potential is building up.

    “Bending” contracts the muscle, sacromeres are shortened and energy is expended.
    When the stretched rubber band is released it snaps back to its resting position (POW!)

    Of course, in real-time muscles work in pairs–antagonist with protagonist.
    Maybe we should simplify the problem by only considering the muscles of the groin (kwa).
    (I guess that when groin muscles are bent, butt muscles are stretched.)

    If we bend the kwa, joints close and Qi doesn’t flow so nice.

    So we would need to stretch the kwa initially to start the qi running down towards the foot.
    We have to relax the kwa (shui)–but not bend it–let it stretch?
    (to let go is to relax, I’m exhaling–diaphragm is also relaxing–I’m “falling asleep”–but not collapsing)

    So, Yin and Yang analysis:
    In down there must be up.
    Kwa is stretching up–qi is flowing down.

    This is rather difficult for me to experience.
    Makes me wonder if I have any clue about tai chi.

    No need to respond–
    by writing about it I’m hoping to get enlightened.

    But I really like Bruce’s forward bending Wu style, tailbone tucking Brush-Knee-Twist.
    It really does “stretch” and relax those chronically tight lower back muscles.
    If it works, don’t knock it, eh?

  4. Hey Bob,

    I guess I would make the distinction that we first think about moving from the joints (ignoring muscle movements other than trying to relax them as much as possible). So you can “circle” the joints — think ball and socket rotation — or “fold” the joints — think elbow flexion. This is the most basic way of moving.

    “Bending and Stretching” is the next level where you actively engage the soft tissue. I’ve never tried it, but now that I think about it, it’s kind of like wearing heavy clothing that is soaked through with warm water. Every micro movement gently pulls on everything else.

    “Opening and Closing” gets activated in the joints and cavities — and whole body really — as the bend and stretch work goes deeper into your system.

    I wouldn’t focus on the one-to-one correspondences so much. Hope that helps!

  5. I’ve heard the folding of the qwa being in two different planes. Horizontal (cloud hands) or verticle (squat)
    If one is working toward the opening and closing is there a preferred order . In attempting these eventually wouldn’t the horizontal softness want to transferred to the more demanding squat. Or does the squat get the spacing and alignment of the joints to where one can then relax into the bend and stretch/opening. I’m always wrestling with this one and while the squat seems more challenging to keep together it is also harder to relax the soft tissue.

  6. So maye a good sequence for finding a soft squat where one can focus on the bending and stretching would be (assuming one has experience standing and sinking). A spine stretch (sinking thoroughly through legs) cloud hands ( no arms concentrating only on folding the kwa) then circling hands.

  7. Bob Hughes says:

    Thanks again Dan,
    Very good suggestion about focusing more on the joints.
    My biggest problem is over-thinking these things.

    For bagua, I’m trying to get how to twist soft tissue (same issues in taiji).
    My problem at this point in my development, is that I can feel how my big muscles contract and relax,
    but I cannot feel how my soft tissue is twisting.
    Bruce writes that twisting is very different from contracting and releasing muscles.
    “In fact, if you contract and release muscles, you will inhibit your ability to twist them,” he says.

    This is why your suggestion to primarily focus on the joints opening and closing is helpful.

    I think Andrew’s question is interesting, too.
    It’s here that I have a problem with the big muscles.
    I think that a muscle has to be RELAXED to stretch.
    Muscles work in antagonist pairs.
    For example, when the biceps of the upper arm are contracting, the triceps are relaxed.
    (lower arm flexes/pulls/bends toward the upper arm.)
    You might say just to think of the elbow joint as closing.
    (Can you really open and close the elbow joint just by twisting soft tissue, without muscle pull?)

    So, on the vertical plane, the vertical flexing of the hip–femur raising towards the torso (when the torso is fixed) is caused by contraction of the psoas muscles (gluts are stretching and relaxed–I guess).
    You might say just to think of the hip joint closing.
    (If the leg is fixed, the torso will be pulled down to leg by that same contracting psoas muscle).

    Another example of antagonistic pairs; abductor and adductor muscles.
    These are the muscle groups involved in the horizontal plane.
    So adductors are pulling the leg away from the torso.

    None of this seems to be relevant to the twisting of soft tissue around the hip joint when folding or opening the kwa.
    So, I’ll let Dan answer Andrew.

  8. This squat issue is a great reason for me to get back into my dragon and tiger practice. I have th idea that underneath the verticle movement of the qwa squat is complex twisting going on. dragon and together let’s that twisting be natural as possible while possibly moving from a verticle (bend forward) fold to a squating movement concentrating on one side at a time.

  9. Bob Hughes says:

    absolutely Andrew
    this is why I practice Dragon & Tiger,
    especially Movement 2, “Dragon Looks to the Horizon.”
    As early as 2006 I was attracted to Bruce Frantzis’ detailed description of hip and leg movements.
    He first came out with a good description in his book, “Opening the Energy Gates…”
    Later, this led me to get his package on D&T Medical Chi Gung.”
    He makes it clear that you use your Kwa to turn:
    “the kwa is the meeting point which connects the HORIZONTAL energy flows to the legs from the VERTICAL right or left energy channels…”
    I may sound obsessed with the details of bending and stretching the kwa,
    but in my age group hip replacements are epidemic,
    and I don’t want to show seniors a turn in taiji which damages their hips.

  10. Hello all- my understanding of this work from Bruce and my own practice often reflects on these issues. In above it seems that some elements are being combined/confused, that are separate (all the NeiGung components can each be done indiv, and then can be matched up together in different combos: as the ex of a “mixing board” in a sound studio ie an Equilizaer, many different “level-knobs” raising and lower in diff ratio-patterns… while in training development, certain relationships are easier, but once learned (distinction between learning and beingabletodo)

    Related to that- what I term Folding and Unfolding (ie the frame, for ex fold- arm straight fold at the elbow so hand is nearer to shoulder- unfold hand moves away from should and thus elbow unfolds).. that can be an Open-Close of the “Cavity”~pocket near the Elbow-jt (related but not the same) And open-close the elbow Think of pockets near the jt vs pocket “inside” the jt (as well as open-close in area not near jts, and Ultimately OpenClose is energetic and has nothing to do with physical… for a Jt or another area to get larger or smaller- like “oull on it” to “Outwardly Make it pulse” is not OpenClose… getting the EnergyGate (EGate) to Pulse is openclose… which may as a consequence drive physical expression.

    Bend and Stretch is different from the above (but as in the first part of my comment- it can and is combined with… and as in the video by Dan, “learning how to” Bend and Stretch is distinct from what that NeiGung component is “once you can do it” [Bend the (Yin) and Stretch the (Yang) – relates to the AcuMeridians and flow along the Fascia… not really “lengthening” but Lengthening isn’t just Agonist Antagonist- its like a rubber band..

    Other piece on Kwa- as Dan taught in another video- and Key concepts from Bruce (as referenced in books mentioned above) there is Kwa horizontal LeftandRight, vs “vertical “UpandDown- then there is a Circle (both the first two- so even if LeftandRight without bobbing up and down, like in CloudHands…. In CouldHands it should still be a Circle with left-right-upAndDown.. (just the Up-Down movement is small- but it is a fully-filled out shape as it moves- like a “jellyfish”)
    And then there is a Sphere (a jump up from circle, which is a jump up from the first two)– each of those 3 jumps- becomes more “alive” and it reacts and moves, vs something you “make happen”.

    In relation to the issue of HipJts- I myself, and as Bruce used to mention more in the past, about the Healing crisis, but also so major as if integrate “standing up- sitting down- moving between (~SQ), Stepping and walking.. breathing… link in NeiGung to those things… we are always doing them.. then it starts to happen ongoing (vs a “practice session” dont do.. not benefit- vs link into an ongoing “generator”)

    I hope that adds something- good luck

    ps – the note about Dr&T (and other sets as well) doing, and then seeing what it sets up in your system- not “causing” XYZ.. but what is embedded within the ChiGung Set (like Dr&T, not taught to have spiralling, let along twisting, or even really a focus on “relax” and let go- rather the motion is done, and what Isn’t needed is stopped- and the underlying “twisting” rotational Bone movements-

    once the tissue is “released” it can be felt… it is a new feeling… if look for what you expect and have felt betfore- it will only be what you already Know.

  11. Bob Hughes says:

    your comments have been very helpful

    Yesterday we used your post during class.
    We got a kick out your
    “Bend the (Yin) and Stretch the (Yang)”

    Thanks Gary,

    Bob

  12. Hello- (to Bob H: gee thx for your response, most pleased I was able to add something; and that my words were shared to your class- who hopefully all received something from them- gee, cool).

    [ re Bend Yin, Stretch Yang- wish I came up with that 🙂 but… I find that great to tune into and see more inside of as “fold” can be Bend, and “unfold” can be Bend (which I think of like bending wire- bend to an angle, or bend back straight, and Stretch- can be stretched fold, and stretched unfold.. as ex, although not all of it, feel the ligs and other connective tissue (tendons, fascial layers) stretch during both parts of the move)… and Yin and Yang not just the quals, but within the WeiChi (accupts, myofascial layer just below the skin)… ties to Peng and An quals in terms of Energy-Freq vs moves.. ]

    Anyway- your summary comments on “Empty Leg” post, about recent seminar were neat.. sensing what is allowed, and allowing what arises to arise.. that ties I think to this also..

    I at times tune in to Dan’s Blog and I’m ongoing-ly appreciative that he has this setup (as well as still holding Brookline school together: since the school moved location, is it still considered in Brookline, Dan? figured I’ll call it that anyway- ’till I can visit there again).

    best luck all (Bob H- thx again for your response to my post, neat to know words can make sense- let alone be read and not just put out there and lost/not read.) thx again D. K.

  13. LOL Gary. We actually debated how far we could move from the old location and still be “Brookline Tai Chi.” In the end, we stayed within Brookline, so it’s all good. And thanks, the move was a major risk, but it’s really been paying off.

    And by the way, the wire explanation of Bend and Stretch above is spot on. Thanks for that!