5 minute read

When you see a series of exercises, you can either look at what's common to all of them, or how they are different. In this video, I go through several variations of turning exercises, where I'm using the connection between the legs and the spine to drive body movement.

Most people will look at the arms in each exercise and say, "those are not the same movements" and that's true, but they would be missing the most important part: how the legs turn the body.

Same Motor, Different Attachments

In order to really see what's going on in this video, you need to think of a motor that can be fitted with different attachments. In our kitchen, for example, we have a mixer that can blend food together, make dough, whisk, grind meat, or cut pasta. The motor is the same in each case, but for every special application, you attach a different tool to the end of the motor.

When you watch the video above, imagine that I am doing exactly the same thing. The legs and the waist are the motor and the angle of the turn, the arm movements, and the plane that force is expressed along are all the various attachments.

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Psoas Connection

The easiest way to start to develop this connection is to understand how the psoas muscles connect the legs to the spine.

Basically, these big muscles run from the upper part of your thigh and attach to each side of your spine. They work like a steering mechanism. If you want to rotate the spine to the right, the psoas on the right contracts, pulling your spine that way. To turn left, the right side relaxes and the left side contracts.

You can see the beginning of this mechanism in the first exercise in the video, the Peg Board drill.

I learned the Peg Board drill from Z Health founder Dr. Eric Cobb. The Peg Board concept is that as one heel pushes down, the other rises up, as if it were pushed from below by a peg. So we imagine standing on a "peg board" to do this exercise. The goal is to find the connection from one leg into the spine and through the pelvis to the other leg.

The next exercises expands on the Peg Board by adding more turning (0:12). Here, I'm letting the pull through the leg turn the hips. You start the Peg Board looking a little like Elvis, but here you try to smooth it out. Think of the alternative. When you see people turn from the shoulders or even the hips, the body is not as smoothly integrated. What we develop from the Peg Board exercise is having a clear, connected, swiveling base of support. The rest of the body can come along for the ride.

Next (0:16), let the pivot go through the legs completely, to bring the hips around through a 180 degree arc. With this full pivot, you begin to perform something that looks very much like foundation training in many Northern Chinese martial arts. The "bow stance" or "gong bu" is a commonly trained posture and now you can see how it is used to develop whole-body turning.

Hopefully, you can see the evolution of the psoas connection into whole-body turning from this simple 4-part progression. Next, we need to look at the arms.

Planes of Force

Watch the way the arms move through the various exercises in the video. You will see:

  • Forward force, as in the first punching exercise (0:18)
  • Horizontal force, as in the bagua cutting exercise (0:36)
  • Vertical force, as in the double teacup exercise (1:26)
  • Combinations of force vectors like Cloud Hands and Rolling the Ball (2:02)

The cool thing about the leg power you develop this way is that you can express opposite force vectors simultaneously or with a slight change in intention.

For example, the bagua coiling exercise (1:10) is usually looked at as a drilling out with the fingers. However, if you pay attention to the elbow on the way back in, you can turn it into a pulling exercise instead. A similar thing happens with the teacup exercise. There is a powerful elbow drop hidden in the falling arm, but most people emphasize the hand or wrist coming in.

Tai Chi Cloud Hands is the ultimate test of your ability not to fixate on one particular force vector. The way it is organized, you slip through the four basic energies of Peng, Lu, Ji, and An, doing them in pairs. You have to find a way to clearly express each one, and then effortlessly change to the next. In my view, this is why Robert Tangora thinks of Cloud Hands as the ultimate practice integrator.

Practice Challenge

The best way to develop this connection is:

  • Try to get the hang of the Peg Board drill
  • Let the action of the legs in the Peg Board drill take you through bigger and bigger turning ranges until you get to 180 degrees
  • Pick one of your favorite exercises that fits this paradigm (standing qigong doesn't count for this exercise!)
  • Scale back the exercise so that it doesn't feel like you are "doing anything" with the arms (very light First Swing works well here)
  • Slowly work back up into the full shape of the movement, until you are reasonably confident that you are not using your arms to do the motion, but instead the movement of the legs and waist

Let me know how it goes!