Why is the activation of the pelvic floor (muscles) so important to the practice of Tai Chi?
The activation of the muscles of the pelvic floor is a fundamental aspect to all martial arts. The gluts, the deep abdominal (Transverse Abdominal muscle) and the muscles of the pelvic floor are important postural muscles. Their activation allows for correct spine alignment and weakness leads to postural instability and movement inefficiency. Stephen Procter explains the role of the pelvis and the "locking of the spine" on Wu Tai Chi - Understanding Hip Rotation (minute 4:40 to 6:55). From a Biomechanics perspective, an appropriate pelvic activation is required to stabilize the pelvis and lumbar area. This wisdom is at the root of musculosketal health and movement functionality.
Martial artists and Tai Chi masters are able to activate the pelvis and hold internal stability during their practice. However, in our modern western world, we are rarely taught how to activate these muscles. If this is your case, an appropriate practice of Tai Chi is an excellent activity for you. Also, we suggest you practice "The Thread" and "Activation of the postural muscles". It will help you improve body awareness and will allow you to regain control and strength.
How important is the need to feel relaxed during the practice of Tai Chi?
Relaxation is a subjective feeling. Many elements can contribute or inhibit the feeling of relaxation: breathing functionality, pain or discomfort, disease and state of mind. However, there is more to it. While performing a task, the fit and healthy individual may feel comfortable and at ease. This feeling of comfort and ease opens the possibility for true "relaxation" to develop. However, for the less fit, the same task may cause a totally different feeling: tension or unease. Under this condition, it is hard to find our way to a relaxed state.
How does this apply to Tai Chi? Physiologically, the practice of Tai Chi challenges your musculoskeletal structures in a good way. If you have good posture and exhibit functional patterns of movement, there is a good chance your body will be fit enough to practice without experiencing excessive muscular tension. Thus, the path for internal relaxation will be more accessible. Ann Carper notes in her article Anatomy and Tai Chi - The Lower Back, "...eventually, after much practice... this enables the lumbar curve to straighten internally so that [it] is accompanied by an internal relaxing".
So, it is ok if you do not feel relaxed initially. Continue challenging your mind and body and be patient with yourself. Personally, I am excited every time I find there is room for improvement in any aspect of my life, including the practice of Tai Chi.
There are several types of Tai Chi styles and many Tai Chi moves. But with few exceptions, Tai Chi moves require barely any or in most cases, no spine rotation at all. The spine and all the structures below your shoulders and above your hip joints (aka the trunk) are kept "locked" in terms of rotation. An exception to this is the move "Sweep Lotus". For most other moves, "internal unity" is required to create activation of postural muscles and other stabilizers (Ex. Transverse abdominus, glutes and muscles of the pelvic floor). Maintaining "spine unity" is key to achieve body stabilization and grounding, and contributes to a more efficient transfer of energy from the ground to the upper extremities and vice versa. Stephen Procter explains the role of the pelvis and the "locking of the spine" on Wu Tai Chi - Understanding Hip Rotation (minute 4:40 to 6:55). During this video, he shows how "twisting" the spine during Tai Chi moves contributes to injury.
"When the hips move, the upper body moves.
In Tai Chi, we want the upper body and the lower body to be one.
Everything moves as one."
From a Biomechanics perspective, an appropriate pelvic activation is required to stabilize the pelvis and lock the lumbar spine in terms of rotation. But, why the locking of the T-spine as well? Slow Tai Chi moves require barely or no Thoracic rotation at all because only the "explosive" Tai Chi moves require the use of it to feed the "whip" effect, used during a fast and powerful kinetic chain. This wisdom is vital to modern disciplines such as Functional Movement and Biomechanics and is at the root of musculoskeletal health and body efficiency/functionality. "Spine unity" or "internal unity" is something I explain on "The Foundations" section.
Note 1: Please keep in mind that the spine DOES move during the practice of the Tai Chi. The cervical, thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine undergo flexion/extension with the purpose of increasing stability, creating efficient movement, increasing space between the vertebrae, enhancing the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, improving the central nervous system functionality, etc.
Note 2: Spine rotation is widely exploited during the practice of other forms of martial arts. Spine rotation is required when rotational, fast or powerful movements are performed. In all these cases, the structures of the body act as a whip, transforming the potential energy from the ground into kinetic (movement) energy, each stable segment and each mobile segment of the body contributing on its own way to this process. In biomechanics terms, this is known as "kinetic" or "kinematic" chain.
Does Tai Chi require that I rotate my spine?
I have limitations in hip mobility. What can I do and how will that affect my practice?
CASE 1: Your limitation CAN be improved.
Poor posture, repetitive/prolonged activities, injury or insufficient muscle activation can limit our ability to rotate the hip. If this is your case, then we suggest you address the origin of your limitation so that you can get the full benefits of Tai Chi. As you regain hip mobility, your Tai Chi practice should be adapted to match your range of motion on a day-by-day basis. Listen to your body and move within a pain-free range of movement.
CASE 2: Your limitation CANNOT be improved.
There are some congenital and acquired conditions that can limit the hip rotation in a definitive way (e.g. a significant amount of femoral version/anteversion, fractures, arthritis, hip replacement). In this case, it would be useful to have a health practitioner or a physician diagnose the nature and severity of your condition. You might not be able to improve the mobility at that particular joint, but you can obtain clearance to practice exercises that will help you improve and maintain optimal range of motion in other joints.
"If your hips don’t move then nothing moves...
when the hips move the feet and hands move."
This quote highlights the important role of hip mobility in Tai Chi. Fortunately, Tai Chi is not a rigid discipline and limited hip mobility doesn't have to be an obstacle to your practice. We suggest you adjust every single Tai Chi move to your specific range of motion. Listen to your body and move within a pain-free range of movement.