Body Upright

The Principle of Keeping The Body Upright

Stand up straight.  Keep your shoulders back. Don’t slump.  We have all heard these commands at one time or another.  We react to those commands by pulling our chest up, throwing our shoulders back and stiffening our spines.  Then we try to “hold” ourselves straight for as long as we can.  Soon we forget or fatigue and revert back to what feels “normal” to us.

When we are at our riding lessons we hear those same words about keeping our spine straight, shoulders back and be sure to relax while doing all that.  Our trainers see our posture is not correct and are in fact trying to help us find good form while riding.  We know that when we are riding, a correct posture is critical because it directly affects the horse’s balance beneath us.  But once again we feel stiff and unable to maintain the straight posture much less try to relax while holding ourselves in position.

Why does maintaining good posture seem so difficult and illusive? Let’s first look at why trying to hold ourselves straight doesn’t work.  The problem lies with the images that we use to create a correct and upright  posture.  If we use the image of holding our spine straight it is easy to take on the qualities of a board.   When we do this while riding, our horse has to try to balance a straight, hard unmoving stick up on their backs all the while being asked to relax, be flexible and to go forward.  You can see how this creates a dilemma for them.

The truth is the human spine is not straight.  It is a set of very complex joints and curves designed for structure, movement, and as a shock absorber.   In its inherent design, we can begin to see that it is a very dynamic structure and needs to move in rhythm rather than be held stiff and static.  T’ai Chi offers poetic visualizations to help us find our true uprightness, balance and relaxation without the tension of “holding” ourselves together or trying to force unnatural alignment.  We don’t ask our horse to stiffen and hold his back in order to carry us.  Instead we help train his back to be strong, resilient and flexible so that movement and energy travels through his spine unimpeded.

Imagine for a moment our uprightness as a form of two-legged.  For us bi-peds, the alignment starts at the bottom of the foot, our first contact with upright.  Feet should have our weight equally distributed side to side and front to back.  The ankle, knee and hip joints should have a slight bend and not be braced and straight.  The sacrum should be relaxed and just hanging down toward the ground.  Liken our lower back, to our horse’s croup, the pelvis is in neutral neither tipped forward nor held backward.  Our spine is gently stacked one vertebra on top of the previous until we get to the base of the skull.  The T’ai Chi classics say to “pluck up the spine”.  The chin should be tucked slightly until the base of the skull is relaxed and the top of the head is as if suspended from the heavens.

Study the nature of a tree. It seems to just know how to reach energetically upward to the heavens seeking the sustenance from the sun while its roots grow deep within the earth gathering nutrients from the soil.  There is an inherent yin/yang up/down balance within that tree. The branches trust that they are attached to the tree and hang gently downward without tension.  Imagine that same kind of energy line running up through the very center of our body reaching for the sunshine.  While at the bottom of our foot in the soft center spot we can grow roots that reach deep into the earth where we can gather the energy that we need as well.  Our arms and shoulders can be like the branches that just sit gently on the tree, hanging quietly and trustingly downward.

Professor Cheng Man-Ching says there are three treasures that we need to guard or pay utmost attention to if we are to truly be able to relax and remain upright in balance. Only through relaxed uprightness can we be truly in balance.  The first is the bubbling well, located in the center of the palm of the foot. The point adheres softly to the ground or takes root.  Second is the tan tien located 3 fingers below the navel and halfway into the body.  It is our center and all movement comes from there.  Liken it to a sphere that sits in the pelvic bowl.  Third is the top of the head, the spot that we suspend toward the heavens.  When these three treasures line up in a relaxed way we are upright, in balance and stable. Uprightness should be invoked from the inside out with rich visualizations not forced by outside standards or measurements.

Exercise: Let your alignment start in your feet,while standing and while riding, relax your feet and trust that they know how to hold you up or do their job in your stirrups. If you can relax your feet. you can relax your legs. and if you can relax your legs your torso will begin to let your shoulders and head sit quietly on top of your spine.  This too, is a practice. When you feel tension in your legs, start by relaxing your feet and soon your entire leg will begin to relax and hang down around your horse. The more you practice and pay attention to this the better your balance becomes while riding. You can cultivate body upright by learning to let go of excess tension when you become aware of where you are holding or protecting. The more you let go the closer your body comes to its natural alignment. Remember in Relax I told you that relax is an upward movement and a feeling of lightness through your entire body.  Upright is best invoked from an internal sense of what’s right not from an external measurement or imposed grid upon your body.