Using poor mechanics is easy — until you hurt.
Body mechanics isn’t something you learn and are done with; it is the continual analysis of posture and technique.
Even experienced massage therapists get tired and cheat, or we get focused and forget. This is why body mechanics is the practice of constantly checking in with your body and making sure you are still aligned, still moving from your legs and center.
Tai chi chuan, commonly referred to as tai chi, is a practice of self-awareness that can help you develop and maintain a practice of healthy body mechanics.
Tai chi is a Chinese martial art with its origins in Taoist philosophy. Essentially, the concepts of Taoism are applied to physical combat in an attempt to overcome a more powerful opponent.
How does tai chi relate to body mechanics? Simple: Creating force is creating force.
Bodywork requires force to be applied to manipulate soft tissue. Tai chi teaches us a very efficient way to utilize our own body for generating force, regardless of whether the goal is self-defense or effective bodywork.
Tai chi is translated a variety of ways. The discussion of the language and all the layers of meaning are beyond the scope of this article.
Suffice it to say that what we in the West call the yin-yang is actually called the tai chi tu, the picture of tai chi. Tai chi is about understanding the relative concepts of yin and yang and how they revolve around a central axis in constant motion, then simply applying that to your movement.
Use Less Energy
One core concept is called wu wei, which is often translated as not doing. This concept is often misunderstood as being about using no effort and just allowing things to happen. Wu wei is really about using the least amount of effort necessary to accomplish a goal or task. It is the equivalent of “work smarter, not harder.” This concept permeates all of tai chi and informs every aspect of body mechanics.
One example of this is when using the palm of the hand in pushing techniques. You will often find a lot of tension in the extensor muscles in this position.
This tension isn’t helping you push. But if the forearm is relaxed, the client’s body will cause the wrist to extend as you apply pressure. This means your extensors can be relaxed during these techniques.
Why waste effort contracting muscles when the client will do this for you if you just relax? This is wu wei at its finest.
Yin and Yang at the Table
The idea of tai chi and its components, yin and yang, are central to efficiently creating force. There are entire books written about these concepts, but for our purposes yin is stability and yang is mobility.
Yin and yang are relative and interdependent, and each generates the other. Thus, to create motion we must have some stillness. This sounds paradoxical and pretentious; however, it is basic physics. You must have something relatively stable to push against to create motion effectively.
The most stable thing we have is the ground, so pushing against the ground with your legs is an efficient means of creating force. Your legs are the larger and more powerful limbs. The more force you generate with the legs, the easier it is on your back and arms.
Thus, stance is of utmost importance. Many bodyworkers spend a great deal of time in a lunge. In tai chi we call this an archer stance. There are times this is a great starting stance; however, it is frequently overused or misused.
Consider this: You cannot effectively push with a straight leg. Think about walking up a flight of stairs. Which leg brings you up to the next step? Not the straight leg on the step you are currently standing on. The bent leg on the next step up is doing the majority of the work by extending the hip and the knee.
In a lunge position your rear leg is straight. This means your hip is extended, your knee is extended and your ankle is dorsiflexed.
In this position, only the muscles that plantar flex the ankle can be used to push your center of gravity forward. The large muscle groups of the lower extremity like the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps have already fired and cannot contribute to the push.
Instead your shoulders and arms create the force. You should avoid this whenever possible. The lunge is much better suited to pulling techniques where your front leg can be used to push you backward, away from the table.
In tai chi, for pushing forward we use the 60/40 stance. In this stance we have 60 percent of body weight on the rear leg and 40 percent on the front leg. This means the rear leg is in a flexed position at both the hip and the knee while maintaining a dorsiflexed position at the ankle. Allow all the major muscle groups of the leg to be used to push you forward.
When you save the upper-body work and allow the lower body to push you forward, the arms and torso are responsible for just holding shape during the stroke. This position can be used for holding static pressure or applying pressure and releasing in succession, such as in rocking techniques.
The Neutral Position
Tai chi also uses a principle of neutral positioning. This means keeping each region of the body in as close to a neutral position as possible. It can be surprisingly easy to break and not even realize it.
One common way you may be breaking a neutral position is with the cervical spine. Do you watch your hands while you work? If so, you are flexing the cervical spine out of a neutral position inadvertently.
Once you have visualized the area you are going to be working on and placed your hands on the client’s body, your eyes are no longer necessary. Bring your head back up to level to maintain the neutral spine and save a lot of wasted energy for the muscles of the posterior neck.
The same is true for leaning forward to work: You bend at the hip and keep the lumbar spine in a neutral position. Tai chi guides us to be as close to upright as possible, making it as easy as possible on the body to maintain posture.
Table height is the easiest thing to change to prevent breaking this principle. Many bodyworkers use the table lower than is necessary. Often this is because they want to get over the body and try and let gravity assist their motion. However, the arms and shoulders get overworked and the low back must resist the force of gravity in this position. This is a lot of unnecessary work.
The muscle you are compressing doesn’t know what direction you are compressing it from; it is just as easy to push down at an angle with a higher table and compress the muscles. This allows you to push with the lower body and save your back, shoulders and arms a lot of work.
Tai chi-style body mechanics is about spending nearly as much attention on what your body is doing as you do the body on your table.
Don’t take my word for it.
Lift your table, raise your head, change your stance and push with the rear leg. Try it for a while and see if you don’t feel better after a long day of doing bodywork.
Credit: J.L. Roberts Photography
About the Author:
Nate Novgrod, MAcOM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM), LAc, 4th Duan, is a licensed acupuncturist and educator. He runs Waynesville Wellness and also teaches continuing education courses for acupuncturists and massage therapists. He trained at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. His courses for massage therapists are approved by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork. He has studied tai chi for more than 22 years.