Perhaps 12 years ago, which was a couple of years after I began studying taiji, I had one of those experiences that remains with you forever, an experience that may last only a few seconds but that somehow gets copied into memory in such exquisite detail that recalling it feels like reliving it.
I was walking across the campus of the school where I worked when it occurred to me that perhaps I could relax my lower back as I walked the same way I was learning to do in taiji. Actually, it wasn’t something I could “do,” but more something I could choose to let happen. So I let it happen. And it kept happening and happening, and suddenly I felt stricken about doing what I was doing in a public place.
I remember thinking that my butt must have dropped at least three inches—and I wondered if anyone had seen it and thought I was doing something really strange.
I am thinking about this experience now because I may have had another one like it yesterday. The day before, I’d seen a physical therapist for advice on dealing with my scoliosis, which has been getting worse with age. (I am spiraling down, instead of pancaking, which is what most people do as they lose height.)
I thought he might recommend orthotics to keep my right foot from toeing out and my right knee and hip from collapsing in.
Instead, he directed my attention to my rib cage.
He identified one prominent rib on the left side and one on the right, and applied pressure to get the top of the right rib to rotate so that the angle of the right rib was more like that of the rib on the left.
Wow! This new rib position felt amazingly light and right. I could even breathe easier. I could feel my problematic right shoulder blade seat itself, and I was able to open my right hip to the right, which meant that my right knee didn’t have to collapse inward.
If only this physical therapist could have walked around behind me for the rest of my days holding my ribs up! But, of course, I was going to have to learn to hold my ribs up myself.
He gave me some exercises to practice rotating my right rib (or ribs, because, of course, it’s the whole set that rotates) and to stretch the muscles in my right hip and leg that have become accustomed to my right-side ribs turning down and in.
The next day, though, I discovered that I didn’t have to put pressure on my ribs with my fingers, as one of the exercises called for. I could just “do” it. If I focused on the prominent right rib, I could let it rotate up and back—and then I would feel a sort of slow wave downward through my right hip and into the inward side of my right leg, letting everything line up the way nature intended.
A wave of what? I don’t know. Perhaps a wave of relaxation, of muscles and fascia letting go, but the wave also feels somehow qi-ish. It’s not a wave of letting go but a wave of coming alive, a wave that persists as a field of energy suffusing the right side of my body. The first time I felt this I thought, simply “Yes!”
I don’t actually understand what any of this means, any more than I understand what qi really is.
But here’s another odd thing. Following my physical therapy appointment, I taught a qigong class, then went home, did this and that, and found I was very tired. I wanted to do my new exercises once before going to bed. I was getting ready to do them when my back and the outsides of my upper arms and shoulders began feeling very odd, not painful, but very intense, almost tight.
I flashed on an image of my back becoming a turtle shell, like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I wondered if I might be developing a bizarre cramp like I sometimes get in my legs, or if I was having a heart attack, although the sensations didn’t seem quite right for either of those things. I decided it must just be energy that had arisen in response to my rearranging my rib cage that afternoon. I lay down on the floor to do my exercises and the feeling passed and has not returned.
I am excited about the prospect of being able to unwind some of my spiral. From a qigong point of view, I think being twisted impedes energy movement in my body. From a western medicine point of view, I think that left to its own devices, the spiral will only get worse and perhaps result in stenosis as I get older. I saw the pain my mother endured in the last years of her life, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, including myself.
The physical therapist remarked that I was more aware of my body than anyone he’d worked with. I am amazed at that, because until he started manually rotating my ribs and pointing out how doing that enabled me to seat my shoulder blade and release my hip, I really didn’t understand how all those body parts were connected. I knew that all sorts of misalignments were related to my scoliosis, but I couldn’t feel the connections.
But now I can feel the connections—and I give total credit to my practice of taiji and qigong.
In my earlier years, I certainly knew that I had a body, but mostly I lived in my head. I am quite certain I would not have been able to experience the connection of my ribs to my hip and my leg the way I am experiencing it now.
It feels like my mind and my body “get” what proper alignment is and how to achieve it. I don’t know what it would be like to do the work I need to do now without awareness of energy, but I think it would be much more difficult.
The whole thing makes me want even more to get up on some rooftop somewhere and shout, “People, do taiji! Do qigong! You take a few taiji or qigong classes and then you quit because the earth didn’t move. Give yourself some time to discover your body! You will benefit in ways you cannot now imagine.”