What About the Knees?
Does Tai Chi help or hurt your knees? There are a few things to remember when it comes to knee health: First, make sure you find a good Tai Chi teacher, someone who really knows how to correctly teach Tai Chi Chuan and also understands how the body works. Unfortunately, there are some Tai Chi teachers out there who do not understand these basic concepts. If done incorrectly, you can injure yourself — yes, even in a Tai Chi class!
Here’s the good news. Tai Chi when done the right way is amazing for knee health, helping with arthritis, and sometimes turning around injuries previously done to the knees, assisting with rehabilitation and restoration in many cases. Researchers have determined that patients over 65 years of age with knee osteoarthritis who engage in regular Tai Chi exercise improve physical function and experience less pain. A full finding of this study is published in the November issue of Arthritis Care & Research, a journal of the American College of Rheumatology.
Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan is first and foremost a martial art and should always be taught with Yang Chen Fu’s 13 Essential principles because that’s how you build good structure and gain internal power. This intelligently created system of movements was designed to give you perfect alignment and whole body connectivity. This allows practitioners to experience amazing marital power along with improved health and overall healing. Yes, you can experience both. Some people will say that health and healing are just a side effect of doing Tai Chi. But any way you want to look at it, they go hand in hand.
How We Train the Tai Chi Knee:
Weight Transferring: We know that the knee is a weight transferring joint, not weight bearing. Sifu Paler says the weight of the body should only pass through the center of the back of the knees. The femur connects the hip bone to the knee bone; the hip joint is the weight bearing joint. When you want to move gravity or pressure down the legs to the feet it must go down the back of the knees, supported by the tendons and connective tissue in that area. There’s no support in the front of the knees — just a floating knee cap. All of the health and power are in the back of the knees.
Another benefit of using the back of the knees is that this is where the 3rd largest cluster of lymph nodes is located. Using the knees in this way allows your body to flush these lymph nodes on a regular basis, improving the overall health of your entire body.
Bending: To bend the knees you need to bend at the hips or “Kua,” kind of like sitting back on a bar stool. The knees and hips should always move together in this way. In the Tai Chi Online Classes curriculum, Sifu Michael Paler perfectly demonstrates this kind of movement through various exercises and techniques that can help rebuild and heal many knee problems. You never ever want the knees to jet forward, because there is nothing in the front of the knees to support them. The best way to exercise the knees is to focus your intention on the back of the knee, moving gravity down through the center of the hip, to the center of the back of the knee, to the center of the foot, and into the ground.
Another thing to remember is to NOT let the knees bend inward (knock kneed) or bow outward (bow legged) to the sides, because they will eventually buckle and break down. You need the weight to travel straight down the legs — not getting caught in the knees. These conditions can be fixed with correct training. It’s the same principle as studs in a wall. If the studs lean in any direction, eventually the house will fall down from lack of proper support! You should also be aware of the knees bending too far forward. You should be able to see your toes when bending, and the knees should never move forward past the toes.
Gravity only moves in one direction — downward. Test it. Hold a ball in front of you and then let it go. It will always fall straight down. Gravity never changes, so we need to learn to use gravity to our advantage, and not fight it. Always move gravity down through your central channel into the ground, not letting it get stuck anywhere in the body.
Stepping: When stepping or walking, check your central equilibrium, lift your crown, and sink the chi. Make sure that you are stable and let the weight transfer through the right channels before you take a step. Practice makes perfect — so practice practice practice stepping correctly. There’s a chance that you have done it incorrectly for a long time. Some people tend to walk on their heels, and others toe step, or step inside or outside the foot. The way you walk and step also affects your knees, so it’s time to retrain the way we think and move. This takes correct training and time, so be patient with yourself.
Sifu Michael teaches new students to walk like a cat or do “lego stepping.” You should move very slowly at first like you are walking on ice, or in a dark room with legos on the floor. Check your footing and make sure it’s stable before you commit to a step. Think about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. That’s what mind-body work really is — putting your mind before the movement. Eventually, with diligent practice, the mind and the nervous system will link up and work as one, and in time you will retrain the body to support this type of intelligent movement.
Turning: When turning, turn at the hips, and allow the hip to move your foot in the direction you would like to go. Never turn with the knees. The knees are not meant to handle a twisting or wrenching motion. The knee is a hinge not a swivel. Think about a door. When you close the door, do you yank up on the handle or just swing the door naturally to close it? If you yank and pull on the door, it won’t be long before you’ll need to visit Home Depot to buy new hinges. Nobody wants to go through knee replacement surgery, especially if it can be avoided, right? Be gentle and loving with yourself. Treat yourself like you would treat a person recovering from an injury, or a child.
Do you remember the old advertising slogan “No Pain No Gain”? Well forget it. It’s not true and it never was. Sharp pain is an indicator of a deeper problem. If you are exercising and your body is experiencing this type of pain, stop and listen (Ting Jin). Always listen! There is a good kind of “feeling sore,” a discomfort that you will feel after a great workout, but it’s never painful. One should learn to recognize the difference between the two.
In Yang Family Tai Chi, we pay very close attention to every part of the body. In future blogs we will cover subjects like the Tai Chi hand, the hips, feet, shoulders, and much more.
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