Tai Chi Y2D23: Pull The Flanks

During qi gong this morning, I was moved to near-tears during the two exercises or movements called “Bend the Bow”. The first of these is in Five Golden Coins, where it’s the third movement.  One hand shoots out to grasp the imaginary bow, with the first two fingers raised as if it were a sight for an arrow or a bow; the other hand bends the imaginary string backward so that it rests against the shoulder and ear.  That’s the core of the movement, but of course it’s more complicated than that.  The body below the waist stays in Horse Stance; while the upper body pivots at the waist so that the bow is aiming forward.

The only way this can really happen is if the muscles of the flanks are tensed.  First on the right side… and then as the movement is repeated on the opposite side, with the left flanks.  By flanks here, I mean the stretch of muscles between the hip and the armpit. They’re abdominal muscles, and they help support the abdominal wall, but I don’t know their name. (A quickly-consulted chart suggests that Western doctors call them the external obliques. No idea what they’re called in Chinese… [my friend Robbie calls this Google-search ‘expertise’ Wikitardia — which is funny though embarrassing.])

I’ve been carrying a lot of extra poundage around my middle for a long time; even imagining muscles there is difficult.  Nonetheless, they’re there.  And Bend the Bow deliberately works them, causing one to tighten these muscles on one side and then the other in order.

Then, as the second movement of Eight Pieces of Silk qi gong form, comes “Bend the Bow to Shoot the Hawk.”  This is the same movement, sorta. Except it’s not. It starts the same, but then shifts rapidly to a different movement.  Instead of holding a static “classical archer” pose on one side, it becomes a “Parthian Archer” pose.  The Horse Stance remains — you’re riding on a horse here, work with me, people! — but the flank pull shifts from one side to the other, as the aiming hand (the one outstretched) and the bowstring hand (the one pulled back by your shoulder) first aim at something out in front of you, and then the spine is twisted around to aim at something behind you and slightly up…  I don’t feel I’m explaining this well, and I’m running out of time this morning…

The core point is that the flanks — the external obliques! — are involved.  In the first movement, in Five Golden Coins, the pull is static: in each repetition of the exercise, it’s only the external obliques under the “bowstring” hand that are getting worked. But in the second, since the imaginary target of the bow’s arrow shifts from in front to behind, one starts with the ‘bowstring-side’ flanks tightening, and then one shifts to tighten the ‘bow-side’ obliques. And of course, this second movement also has a spine twist.

Wow.  Mental workout to try to visualize and explain these movements, after the physical workout to do them.

In any case, it’s HARD to engage these muscles. They don’t want to work this hard usually, and they would like to leave this hard work to the arms, shoulders and pectorals.  But it’s a much more powerful workout to do it with the external obliques engaged.

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  1. […] … that kind of experience doesn’t last.  Today, I did my practice in shoes after a busy first half-day at work, getting ready for the new school year.  We have great things planned for kids coming into the new school year, and I’m excited.  But the only thing that I discovered today is that I was forgetting already how important the twist was in the movements I was doing.  Wearing shoes helped anchor my feet, which raised my awareness of my waist, which made my upper body motions more effective. […]

  2. Hi Andrew! The external obliques work to rotate the spine & ribcage to the side opposite the one they’re on (relative to the pelvis); the internal obliques (which lie just beneath the externals) rotate the ribcage toward the side they’re on. So if you are turning to the left, your right external obliques and left internal obliques are contracting.

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