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Tensegrity & Tai Chi & Qigong

We are held together by this concept.  Every part of us, whether it be a finger, an arm, a leg, a hair, an organ, or the torso, has its own ‘tensional integrity’ – something that holds that part of our anatomy in its shape, and also in position in relation to all our other parts.

Noun: The property of skeleton structures that employ continuous tension members and discontinuous compression members in such a way that each member operates with the maximum efficiency and economy. http://www.dictionary .com

Tensegrity, or tensional integrity is defined on wikipedia as: “… a structural principle based on a system of isolated components under compression inside a network of continuous tension, and arranged in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts) do not touch each other while the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons) delineate the system spatially.”

How does this relate to our bodies?

Isolated components under compression…’ = Our bones ‘…inside a network of continuous tension‘ = housed within our muscles & tendons ………………………arranged in such a way that the compressed members (usually bars or struts)‘ = our bones do not touch each other‘ = do not directly touch/press/exert force on each other ………………………while … the prestressed tensioned members (usually cables or tendons)‘ = the muscles/tendons …delineate the system spatially.’ = form the shape of the object, in this case, the body.

In Tai Chi & Qigong

We use this concept all the time for everything, including:-

  1. to balance our entire structure,

  2. to harmonise or integrate our bodies,

  3. to produce the ability to withstand physical pressure,

  4. to walk without falling,

  5. to carry objects,

  6. to de-stress,

  7. and even to breathe.

We only feel healthy when this process is automatically working, and we experience discomfort when it isn’t.

The 5 Elements

In TCM, Traditional Chinese Medicine, the ‘5 Elements’ are used as a way of explaining the interrelationship between the body’s organs and the way that those organs affect each other. The concept is a good example of internal tensegrity.

The 5 elements, and bear in mind that the idea is analogous, are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, & Water. Each element refers to a pair of organs in the body, and describes how each pair of organs can affect other organs. In its simplest form, there is a ‘creative‘ cycle, and a ‘destructive‘ cycle, so, looking at the list (Wood/Fire/Earth/Metal/Water), Wood produces Fire, Fire turns matter to Earth, Earth is the source of Metal, and Metal is the only one that can turn to liquid – Water, which then produces Wood etc.. This is the ‘creative’ cycle. The ‘destructive’ cycle does the opposite, e.g. Water rusts Metal, Metal cuts Earth, Earth stops Fire, and Fire destroys Wood. It is only a way of explaining the functioning of the body, but also explains the tensegrity of the organs of the body.

“The Whole is Greater than the Sum of the Parts”

In Tai Chi, once you’ve learnt a set of movements (a Form), you can start to work on integrating the body, so that tensegrity becomes experiential. Once this starts to take place, you can experience an increase in energy, as well as greater ease of movement generally. In effect the body stops fighting itself, and all parts of you begin working together. This is truly a case of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. The interesting part of this is that, when you perform a movement ‘correctly’, you know, absolutely, that you have got it ‘right’… you can feel it – the movement is no effort at all, and almost leaves you wondering why you had any trouble beforehand!

Balance is everything

Balance is also true with your general health though. We all know the concept of a ‘balanced’ diet, but if you look at it from the point of view of tensegrity, it starts to take on a slightly different perspective.

As a rather extreme example, if you eat too much sugar, the body starts to suffer, and ultimately you might be in for a longterm illness; the same could be applied to an excess of meat, or, in fact, an excess of anything.

It’s a little like a seesaw in a children’s playground; to make it work properly, both people need to be matching weights. The Chinese would term the dietary imbalance as ‘an excess of Yin’ (sugar), or ‘an excess of yang’ (meat). Incidentally, trying to balance it by eating both a lot of sugar and a lot of meat is not the answer! This would be like two very heavy people on the seesaw – they would break the device.

In conclusion

All Qigong is designed to harmonise the organs of the body, but styles of Qigong go about it in different ways. A good example of ‘moving’ Qigong is the Ba Duan Jin (8 Brocade exercises) where each exercise relates to one or more acupuncture channels. In ‘static’ Qigong (Zhan Zhuang – Standing Pole, or Standing Like a Tree) the harmonisation of the organs works in a slightly different way… through tensegrity.  In this, the latent tension of the position is so well spread over the body, that no part of you works harder than any other part – the load is spread.

It’s not unlike having a business or organisation that is running perfectly, where every person in the business is not only responsible for his/her own functioning, but at the same time is keeping an eye out for all the other parts – a collective. In Tai Chi, we have the greater challenge of putting this into practice whilst simultaneously moving from one posture to another.

_____________________________________________ James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent and online. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACT: Email: Phone: 07836-710281 ______________________________________________

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