Michael Taylor is a mind-body movement expert, martial artist, and the co-founder of Strala Yoga. In his new mbg class, The Complete Guide To Tai Chi: Everyday Practices To Drop Stress, Release Pain & Create Whole Body Harmony, you’ll learn not only the basics of tai chi but how to use it to achieve your goals and dreams with ease.
When your knees hurt, pay attention. When anything hurts, pay attention.
Sometimes self-care means backing off and taking it easy. It’s knowing when to forget about the goals, even just for a moment. And sometimes self-care is driving to achieve with everything we’ve got. Because finding our dreams is why we rest.
When you find something that hurts, you have a big chance here. As a start, it’s a chance to learn how to move in your life in a way that doesn’t hurt you. It’s a chance to learn how to heal when healing is needed. And it’s a chance to learn how to accomplish everything you want to accomplish, in a way that feels good in your own body. Which happens to be the best way there is, to do everything there is.
Part of self-care involves taking it easy. Rest when rest is needed.
Let's talk about knees.
Your knee is amazing. It’s an incredible piece of engineering, structured as a "pivotal hinge joint." This means it not only swings back and forth but also has a slight rotational capacity, allowing us to navigate easily over uneven ground. It also has a highly advanced system of lubricating fluid and cushioning sacs to keep things protected and moving easily. What’s extra-special about this protective fluid is it’s not dumb. Land hard from a jump and it instantly becomes more viscous to absorb shock. Lighten your load and viscosity immediately lessens to support easy movement.
Of course, complicated engineering can be vulnerable. If you play sports, carry heavy loads, or just live your life for a bit, you’ve probably noticed that knees don’t always feel great. They can also take quite a long time to heal, so when your knee sends you signals, it’s important to listen. The No. 1 way to prevent injury: If something hurts your knee, don’t do it. Find another way.
You always have a way to do what you need to do in your body, in a manner that doesn't injure and just feels great.
There’s so much you can do that doesn’t involve testing or straining your knees, including from sitting and lying down. And from standing, it’s also of course possible with practice to change your body position—in particular, the length and width of your stance—so your knees are no longer over-challenged.
Knee pain is often a long-term chronic problem and relates to how you move throughout your whole life. So it’s not always a tai chi puzzle and probably not great to overdiagnose how you’re doing tai chi, yoga, or whatever other practice or sport you're doing as the cause of difficulty here. At the same time, with the right approach and practice, tai chi can become a cure. And from this perspective, we have a challenge for knees that might have something to do with your tai chi form and movement.
There are many frequent causes for knee difficulty. Three of them come up pretty often in tai chi, and these same principles apply for any movement practice and across pretty much everything we do.
1. Body position.
We’re often taught to make our positions very long, or very low, and all-around awkward. This puts a great deal of strain on our knees. We then carry this strain into movement, which leads to aggravation and injury over time.
2. Using force against resistance in our own bodies.
We might also be taught to lunge and leap into our movements, by using the strength of our legs to push the rest of us along for the ride. This is the opposite of how we want to move because it requires much more force to create much less power. Over time, it also destabilizes our knees and makes them more vulnerable to injuries. Always move from your center and stay relaxed enough that your arms and legs get to go along for the ride.
3. Moving with excess tension.
We’re taught to carry a great deal of tension throughout our whole body and then move with this tension. This comes in part from an idea in martial arts that we must create a great show of strength. But it's not usually a show that we're after. It's actual ability, which begins with getting out of our own way. Moving with excess tension inhibits everything we do and keeps us working much harder than we need to accomplish much less than we can.
All of these combined lead to injury, even when the visual of "correct" alignment is maintained—because in all of these causes, our body is out of harmony with itself, and we’ve blocked our ability to move safely and naturally.
So you might experience pain directly in one transition—for example, when rolling forward or back, shifting your weight from one foot to the other—and this means don’t do this in the way you’re doing it. But it also means that this particular movement might not be your cause. The cause is likely much broader, more related to how you move in general. This is why targeted cures—just changing the look of one form or holding another—could give some temporary result but aren’t likely to work for very long. Our bodies typically need a more holistic approach.
And for a more immediate start? Hot water bottles!
Get two of them, and practice a technique called "surround the dragon." This means rather than attacking an injury directly—by poking and prodding and manipulating an injured area head-on—surround the affected area with warmth, from your ankle and calf, up through your knee, and into your thigh and hip. Do this on both sides, each day.
Also, keep taking it easy. If there are movements that hurt, don’t do them.
There are so many ways of moving that have nothing to do with pushing for forms and everything to do with responding to messages your body sends you. Your body is talking to you all the time. You just need to listen and respond. So change your movements. As a start, here are a few things to try.
Don’t arch your back as you move, as this puts most of the strain into your knees.
Instead, drop your tailbone, so there is a straight line from the base of your spine, rising through the back of your neck and out the top of your head. Play with this a bit while you're standing with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
Gradually shift your posture from an arching spine, to straight, to rounded. Notice how the tension and weight moves from your knees, into your lower thighs, upper thighs, and eventually backs of thighs. When you stand, and when you move, see if you can carry most of the weight in your upper thighs. This allows your knees and lower thighs to release unneeded tension, and support easier movement.
Also, change your stances.
Make them more stable and less awkward. Don't worry about the show, or looking like a martial arts person. Find where you're comfortable, easily movable, and move from here. This way, when you move, it doesn’t require so much strain throughout your body to move. You’ll be less aggravated, less open to pain and injury, and able to do much more with much less.
When you learn to care for yourself in this way, you’ve learned to care for yourself in every way.
Slow down enough to hear your body. Believe what you hear is worth your response. Respond to what you hear in how you move. This will help your knees. It will also help everything in you, and everyone around you.