Earlier this year, NPR ran a piece about how bending from the hips, rather than the waist, can help people avoid straining their backs. If you google ‘hip-hinge,’ you’ll see that a lot of people in the fitness world have been writing about it as well.
This a fundamental skill in tai chi and qigong. We call it 'folding from the kwa’ and we teach it with an emphasis on relaxation and healthy postural alignment.
Kwa is a Chinese term that refers to an area of the body that extends from the inguinal groove (the creases in the front of your body where each leg meets your torso) through the inside of the body to the crest of the pelvis. It includes the hip joint, the iliopsoas and adductor muscle groups, and other structures in and around this area, including the largest collection of lymph nodes in the body.
When the kwa is supple and well integrated into the movements of your body, it facilitates the smooth transfer of power from the legs through the spine and upper body. When the kwa is tight or not being used well, a multitude of problems can arise, including undue pressure on the knees and spine.
Additionally, the kwa is an important fluid pump. When it is functioning well, it pumps lymph and other fluids through the body with every step, bend, squat, and leap you take. Excessive tension and unhealthy movement patterns can disrupt this natural mechanism of the body.
As you can imagine from this simplified discussion, there are many layers of sophistication to explore when it comes to the kwa. It is a deep subject in qigong and tai chi.
For our purposes today, however, we’ll keep it simple. A first step in learning about the kwa is simply to learn to fold forward by swiveling at the hip joints while keeping your spine in a neutral position. This is what everyone is talking about, and for good reason - it is a movement pattern that protects your spine.
This is the motion that is known in the fitness world as the “hip-hinge.” In our tradition, we emphasize relaxation in performing this motion. We also have a somewhat different take on body alignment. Relaxation and internal alignment allow for the natural pumping action to move more fluids through the soft tissues, joints, internal organs and circulatory systems. This provides additional health benefits beyond protecting your spine and maintaining range of motion in your hips.
In all of our beginner classes, we teach this movement pattern with an exercise that we call the 'kwa fold.' Many of our students know it as the ‘dunking bird’ exercise, because we use one of those dunking bird toys (see picture) to model the movement. The bird does this very well, because its hip joints are its only moving parts.
First, you need to be aware of the location of your hip joints. The word hip, as it is commonly used, refers to a large area of the body. If I say put your hands on your hips, many people will put their hands on top of the crest of their pelvis. This is your hip, but it is not your hip joint. Folding forward from this area would be bending from the waist, causing your lower spine to bend. We want to keep the spine in a neutral position.
The ball-and-socket joint of the hip is considerably lower than the crest of your pelvis. If you press the heel of your palm into the outside of your thigh, and then slide it up until you feel a large bony knob, that will get you closer to the vicinity of your hip joint.
You can also find the rough location of your hip joints by feeling the front of your kwa. Place your fingers in the middle of each inguinal groove - again, this the crease in the front of your body where each leg meets your torso - and try to move from inside of that area.
The swiveling motion of the ball and socket joint of the hip is key to performing this exercise correctly, and to protecting your spine when you fold forward. By swiveling the ball-and socket joint of the hip, everything above it can fold forward as one unit, without bending your spine.
How to do the exercise:
Start in a Neutral Posture: Start with your feet about hip width apart, a slight bend in your knees (just enough so they are not locked), and gently lift the top of your head to lengthen your spine. (For a more complete discussion of standing alignment used in qigong and tai chi see last month’s post about posture.)
Initiate the Fold from the Hips: Try to initiate the movement from your kwa, not from your head, shoulders or chest. Just like the dunking bird, begin to bend forward from the hips while keeping your spine in a neutral position. This means maintaining your spine as if it was one piece of bamboo from the tip of your tailbone to the base of your skull. Thus your spine may flex just a bit, like bamboo does, but it won’t bend or collapse anywhere along it’s length.
Let Gravity Do the Work: Once you begin to tip your torso forward, simply allow gravity to do the work for you. You do not need to pull yourself down. Your only effort will be to keep your spine in a neutral position and the rest of your body aligned, and to control your movement so that you fold forward slowly and steadily.
Relax Your Body: Unlike the bird however, you do have other moving parts. Try to keep your body well aligned, but without rigidity. Try to relax as much as you can. Allow the rest of your body to adjust itself slightly as it needs to - especially your knees, which may move just a little to accommodate your weight coming forward.
Protect Your Neck: Make sure that you do not curve your neck back as you fold forward. You can gently tuck your chin, or even let your head rock forward a bit, to avoid this. Do not fix your eyes on a point in front of you, as this will cause you to bend your neck backwards. Just allow your gaze to sweep in the direction that your head is being moved, or close your eyes.
70% of Your Capacity (40% or 20% or less if you have back issues) : Continue to fold forward only as far as you can without any sense of strain. Try to figure out what 70% of your folding capacity is, and fold no more than that. Your aim is to stop before you feel any sense of strain or pain (increased pain, if you are already in pain) anywhere in your body. This way you are training relaxation and ease, rather than strain and tension, into the movement pattern.
If you have back pain, whether it is from an acute injury, chronic strain, illness or other causes, you may need to do less than 70% of your capacity. In this case you want to gently begin to loosen up tension in your back without further straining it in any way. Dialing back to even 10% or 20% can be very helpful in promoting healing. As your back becomes healthier, you can experiment with doing a little more, but still stay within your 70%.
Relax into the Stretch: Notice any sensations of stretching anywhere in your body, and try to relax into the gentle stretch. It is common to feel a stretch in your back, glutes, or legs, but every body is different. It’s fine to feel a gentle stretch, but no strain - physically, mentally or otherwise.
Push into the Ground to Rise Up: To rise back up, push down into the floor through your legs and feet to swivel your hip joints and unfold your body back into an upright position. Try to avoid pulling with the muscles of your back or upper body. You especially want to avoid arching your lower back - allow these muscles to relax as best you can. Allow the big heavy bones of your pelvis to sink with gravity as you rise back up, like the big bulb on the dunking bird. You can put the backs of your hands on your sacrum to feel it go down as your spine swivels up - like a lever or a see-saw.
Did I Mention the Relaxation Part? Try to foster as much relaxation throughout your body as you can. You will need to expend some effort to keep your spine in a neutral position and your legs aligned well beneath you. But over time, your aim is to use as little effort as possible. This is how you train your body to move in a relaxed, efficient, fluid manner.
The exercise is simple, but if you are not used to moving this way, you may find it difficult to perform, or to tell if you are doing it well. A good teacher of qigong or tai chi can help you learn this, and other fundamental movement patterns to help you maintain the health of your back, and the rest of your body, too.
You can use the awareness you’ve developed in this exercise to protect your back in everyday life. Notice where you are bending from as you go about your daily activities, and try to use your kwa and legs, rather than bending your spine.