On my way to being fit while steering clear of pain and injury – from high altitude mountaineering to martial competition, skiing to running and cycling, I’ve had more than my share of challenges. The good news is, tai chi has given me a way to heal problems like back pain and joint injuries faster and more completely, as well as prevent injury along the way. It’s something I love to share now in all our online Strala Yoga classes in tai chi, qigong, and yoga, as well as in our Strala Yoga teacher trainings online and in person.
We have a special online course that covers these foundations and practices, specifically for healing back pain. And it works for all kinds of muscle and joint troubles, so if you need some extra help with pain relief, as well as preventing pain from returning or finding you in the first place, you can find help right here in our Strala Training for No More Back Pain.
And in case it can help right now, I’ll share some more stories with you here, that begin with a few challenges in how I’ve approached my strength and endurance training. My guess is you might find some of this familiar.
When it comes to fitness training, there’s a problem with “Be here now.” It’s not really possible. In particular, it’s not possible if where we want to be isn’t here. And even more, it’s not possible if we don’t really like here all that much. After all, that’s the whole point of why we’re trying to get someplace else. It’s better there than here. But somehow we’re asked to stop trying to get where we think we should be, and instead get into where we are. It’s complicated.
So, this has to do with a bit more than yoga or tai chi, running or climbing, or whatever our fitness and wellbeing practices might be. It has to do with how you move around always. And it has to do with how you think – about moving, about going where you want to go.
Simple everyday everywhere movement for pain-free fitness
Let’s begin very basic, with very simple everyday movement. It’s easier to be here, to practice here, than to go right for our mindset about achievement, about life. How we move is always the same as this mindset. So we can work from very simple, very small, to change things that are very complex, very big.
Walking, heading up and down stairs, standing and sitting, all of these things are very important. Because usually we spend more time here than in practice. Until we’re just all the time practicing, which is one of the things I love about tai chi, it helps make this a little easier.
Now what happens when we have some pain, some difficulty, when we run up against a challenge? A friend asked recently about pain on the inside of her knees when she’s moving. So I’ll try to walk around this a bit and see where it can go, in a way that’s also a bit broader.
To begin, I’m wondering if pain comes when you’re standing or walking, climbing stairs or getting up and down from the floor? Or does it come along only when you practice?
There’s always a chance that how you do yoga or tai chi is the cause of trouble. There’s also a chance that how you do everything is the cause, in creating what’s happening for you. Often it’s this. And then how you do the yoga or tai chi just carries the same habits you have in the rest of life, both good and bad.
And next, I’m thinking about where you’re experiencing pain, on the insides of your knees.
Understanding causes of pain and injury
Difficulty in general often happens when we carry too much tension, too much immobility, into our movement. So this creates some strain and awkwardness, some lack of coordination and grace that has us working too forcefully, which can lead to inflammation and injury.
Pain on the insides of knees can have a few different sources. Often some torsion under tension, some twisting while the knee is carrying too much weight and tension, can lead to difficulty here.
For yoga practicers, awkward poses also play a role. For example, holding a long, low warrior 2, with the back foot perpendicular to the front, puts some unwanted pressure and strain on the inside of your back knee. Over time this can produce some unwelcome lengthening of supporting tendons. From here, the insides of your knees will start hurting when you try to move.
So it might not be the moving right now that’s your problem. It’s longer-term destabilization that creates a difficulty, wherever you are. And of course moving around more will highlight this.
If something hurts, don’t do it
There are many solutions to begin exploring. To start, if something hurts, don’t do it. There’s always a way to move better, using your whole body in harmony, with less tension, less disconnection, less forcefulness, and more ease. This can have a profound and rapid impact, both for healing injury as well as for enabling performance.
Body position is a good beginning here. Rather than long, unstable workout or yoga poses – where it’s not possible to move well either in or out – you can remake the forms you’re practicing to something more stable, and more movable. From here, you get to practice moving well, around a better form.
But this isn’t the entire solution. Just repositioning my feet to a wider or shorter stance doesn’t solve all my movement habits. Often there’s a good deal of tension in old ways of doing things. I might use a lot of force to go from one place to the next. It’s the long-term result of my body not working as well as it can, and getting too used going wherever I need to go by force.
The thing is, using the force that’s available to one or another strong part of my body, this works a lot of the time, for a lot of smaller challenges. But there’s a problem here. The most interesting challenges out there are always the ones that are bigger than us – at the very least, bigger than the limited versions of ourselves. Those big challenges, they need all of you, working together as all of you. So here’s a good fitness goal, that you can put into practice.
Posture, position, and whole-body movement
When our body isn’t working as a whole connected body, efficiently, in harmony, force can become the only option. Everything is difficult when we’re out of harmony. Even things that aren’t difficult are difficult. So we either have enough force to overcome the resistance, or we don’t. Either way, when there’s so much resistance first inside of our own bodies, we get hurt.
Trying to overcome ourselves by force is never really our best strategy.
And maybe worse, we hold onto all this force, all this tension. Even when we have a chance to rest, we don’t. It’s not our habit. Tai chi, qigong, neigong, all can highlight this quite a lot. Rolling your center from side to side while standing, allowing your arms to swing – it’s a very simple way to practice many things. Softness, posture, connection between breath and body, moving from your center, unweighting one leg at a time, learning to use what’s working and rest what’s not.
So if your knees begin to hurt in an exercise like this, there can be a few causes. Overarching in the lower spine is a common habit, which puts too much tension in knees, and makes it impossible to move well from your center. And continuously carrying excess tension and strain – even in the parts of you that are not currently working – this is also so common. It takes some practice, to learn how to give ourselves a rest.
We need a body in some harmony – soft enough to be movable, body and breath connected, moving all together from center. Without this, it’s arms and legs, hands and feet, doing all the work in their own separate corners. Knees go one way, feet and thighs another, upper and lower body not together.
Disconnection, disharmony, makes everything much more difficult. It’s how we wind up using so much force in our movement. We’re moving against ourselves. Which leads to injury and pain. It also leads us to be able to do much less than we can. Everything is harder here, without connection, without harmony.
How to get fit and feel great without pain and injury
So now I’m thinking about how to change. How do we practice connection, harmony, ease? In some ways, it’s not an easy or quick practice. Learning to let go of old habits – like using stress and tension as our strategy to get where we want to go – takes some effort. It takes many times making a choice to move differently, using a different strategy. It’s not easy creating harmony, learning to move with our whole self all together. But, you’ve probably experienced at one time or another that it’s possible to open this door, to feel a very substantial difference, right away. So this is where we want to begin.
Whether you’re practicing in yoga or tai chi, or just walking around in your life, begin where it’s easy for you to begin. Not thinking so much of poses or forms, where you should or should not be, how you should or should not look. These ideas make things hard from the start. They invite old habits back in. So instead, try this
1) Begin where you’re comfortable. Maybe it’s sitting or standing, on hands and knees or lying down. If you’re not in a comfortable position and posture right from the start, it’s tough for things to go better from not comfortable. So give yourself a good start.
2) Soften up, so your whole body is easily movable. This means when you try to move, you’re not fighting against tension and strain in your muscles and joints, just to get moving. Trying taking some deep breaths, jump up and down a bit, and give your whole body a good wiggle from your center (more belly than hips). Then walk it off, and get ready to begin.
3) Connect your breath and body together, so your breath moves you. Take a long deep inhale. So deep that your breath lifts up and expands through your whole body. Hold for a moment at the top of your breath. Now let it go, with an even longer exhale, letting your whole body release, relax, and settle down. Go through a few of these breaths. When you breathe in, wait for the feeling of lift to be real in your body, then let it lift, arms included. Same thing when you breathe out. Wait for the feeling of easing down to be real, then let your whole body ease down.
4) Move your whole body as one whole body, starting from your center. When we spend too much training time isolating and working with one body part at a time, whatever it is we really want to do gets that much harder. Because doing is something that requires coordination, both literally and figuratively. From an Eastern perspective on both marital arts and healing, you want harmony in your whole body – so every part helps every other part. It’s your best way to bring everything you are into every challenge, and that’s a very good thing to practice, in everything you do.
Once you’ve gone through these steps, keep repeating them. Right from the start, remember it doesn’t work well to begin in a bad form or position, and then try to fix it. I can work on one part at a time if things don’t look quite right – move my feet a little, adjust my shoulders, repoint my knees – and this might fix how things look. But it doesn’t quite fix the reality of where I am.
To borrow again from an Eastern perspective, where you are is created by how you get here. If my form and posture for my workout, yoga, or tai chi practice isn’t so good – maybe my knee is out of line, or I’m holding too much strain and tension in some muscles and joints – I can’t fix this by fussing with one part at a time. Because where I am right now was created by how all of me got here. So my solution also needs to be more holistic. If I want to be more capable where I am, I need to be more capable along my way here. I need to move better, all the time, in everything I’m doing.
Set new fitness goals
Goals are important for progress, and always I want to make sure the goals I’m setting point me in the direction I actually want to go. In an older way of thinking about fitness, I might set more isolated goals – how much weight I can lift, what pose or drill I can perform. But the problem with isolation is, nothing is ever really isolated.
We all know this from our workouts. I was a rower for a long time, which means strong thighs. But no matter how strong I can be on the sled, if my focus is all on training this isolated part, things aren’t going to go well for my knees. It’s that next link in the chain that suffers, from isolated goals and practices. And when one part suffers, every part suffers. It doesn’t matter how strong one or a few parts can get. What matters is everything. So you can set new goals to match.
1) Be soft enough to be movable, so you’re not moving against yourself.
2) Keep your breath and body connected, so your breath moves all of you.
3) Move every part of you together, beginning from your center. No parts left behind, every part helping every other part.
Staying relaxed enough to move easily, especially when things get hard, is a lifelong practice. So is developing a moving energizing relationship between your breath and body, and learning to move all of you as one you. The good news is, all these practices work for pretty much everything. And they don’t cause injury. Practice this way, and you get to keep doing what you love doing, better, for a very long time.