Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Using Imagery to Relax the Weight

In the last post, we spoke of the ability of images to assist us as we learn complex tasks that  involve the whole body.

To illustrate this, we will look at a specific example – learning to relax our weight in the don yu.

Before doing so, it is worth pointing out that the impact of a particular image depends partly on our  present understanding. Our training has an arc that develops over time. On occasion, we may not yet be ready for a particular image – and yet, once heard, puzzled over and stored away, it comes to mind later on when needed. At other times, we find that we no longer have need of that metaphor. But hearing it reminds us of an earlier stage of our learning and brings to mind how we might use the image in class to assist others.

So, let’s look at letting go of our weight.

In terms of dropping in the don yu, many of us will be familiar with the sequence of images outlined below. Keep in mind that, in the practice hall, they are offered as needed, not all at once, and not necessarily in this order:

1. Fill the feet. Let your weight drop naturally – like an apple falls from the tree. Don’t hold onto it.  The entire foot will receive the weight, from side to side, from heel to toes. Don’t worry, just let go. Attend to the filling feet.

2. Once you’ve got some sense of that, imagine you are kneading dough that is lying under each foot as you drop the weight. When making bread,we don’t knead the dough with a single finger; we use both hands and the entire body. Make bread a few times to remind yourself how this feels. There is much the same feeling in the don yu. Relax all your weight to knead the bread. Don’t get lost in the details of form. Look for the feeling involved in the movement and let that be your guide.

3. To initiate the fall, the pelvis simply accepts the ever-present downward force of gravity. Meanwhile, the arms, gently extended with palms down, imagine a soft, opposing, upward force that resists their descent. It is almost as if a large spring stands on the floor in front of you, pressing up against the arms, initially slowing their fall and that of the upper body. Something low, the pelvis, drops away from something high, the upper torso, and the don yu commences. Building on an initial, almost unbidden physical encounter with the act of letting go, the mind comes to understand that the don yu involves a separation, an elongation of elements of the torso and other tissues.

Let’s look at a few images of the feet.

Fig 1 Arches (springs) of the bottom of the foot. The white crosses in the image on the left represent the points where the foot makes contact with the earth. Karpandji, 1987, page 219

Fig 2 An outside (lateral) view of the 26 bones of the foot with their articulations. Note that the lateral arch is shallow. Netter, 2006, Plate 524

Fig 3 A view from the inside (medial) aspect, revealing the much deeper medial arch that runs the length of the foot. Netter, 2006, Plate 524

Fig 4 The superficial layer of the plantar (bottom) surface of the foot. The major structure you see is the plantar fascia, a fibroelastic tissue that runs the full length of the foot. It stretches when we settle our weight and then wants to recoil back to its resting length. Netter, 2006, Plate 532

Fig 5 This is the layer lying just beneath the plantar fascia. Beneath this layer, there are yet 2 other layers, each with its own muscles, tendons, connective tissue, nerves, blood and lymphatic vessels. The tissues of each layer contribute to the springs of the bottom of the foot. Netter, 2006, Plate 533

Now, rising up in the don yu:

1. Feel your feet to come up.

2. Feel the stored elastic force, the reaction or returning force, of the kneaded dough under the feet. Let it bring you back up. Later, we will see that this bouncing back force created by the drop involves more of the body than just the multiple layers of the foot’s arches. Some of the other tissues implicated are: the tendons and connective tissue wrappings of the two largest muscles of the body – the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps femoris; the elongated thoracolumbar fascia; and the lengthened Achilles tendons.

3. As these elastic springs bring you back up, let the weight of the shoulders remain resting gently on the pelvis, the platform of the spine, creating an opposite and downward force. The knees straighten from below, and the chest and head begin to rise, while the bottom completes its relaxed fall. The phrase, stand up, sit down same time, starts to make sense. Not intellectually but at the level of body sensation. One phase is completing as the next phase commences.

The 108 moves now become a rhythmic rising and falling. Filling, then feeling the feet. Stretching, then releasing the dough beneath the feet. Elongating the structures that run along the torso and legs, then letting them spring back. Simple images guiding the movements of the entire body.

Now, a few pictures of the torso that provide some visual clues about what lengthens with the drop and then springs back with a returning force as we rise.

Fig 6 The axial skeleton is in blue - head, spine and ribs. The 24 articulations of the spine can subtly separate, one from the other. The appendicular skeleton is made up of the bones of the extremities, clavicles, scapulae and pelvis. Neumann, 2010, page 308

Fig 7 A graphic representation of some of the muscles at the back that elongate as we drop. Myers, 2009, page 170

Fig 8 Muscles at the front that lengthen as we relax our weight. Myers, 2009, page 170

Fig 9 Deeper muscles of the back that are asked to elongate, along with their connective tissue wrappings, as we drop. Myers, 2009, page 72

The next post will initiate an examination of the spine’s design so that we can better understand just what elongates as we relax our weight and how that separation promotes health.

¹ The Physiology of the Joints, Volume 2 Lower Limb, I.A. Karpandji, Churchill Livingstone, 1987, ISBN 0 443 03618 7

² Atlas of Human Anatomy, 4th Edition, Frank H. Netter, Saunders Elsevier, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-1-4160-3385-1

³ Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System, Foundations for Rehabilitation, 2nd Edition, Donald A. Neumann, Mosby Elsevier, 2010, ISBN 978-0-323-03989-5

4 Anatomy Trains, 2nd Edition, Thomas W. Myers, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2009, ISBN 978-0-443-10283-7

Bruce McFarlane, MD

© 2010 Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada


Filed under Anatomy and Physiology, Health Watch

9 responses to “Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Using Imagery to Relax the Weight

  1. susan henderson harris

    so helpful Dr. Bruce!! I’m really enjoying your sharing and integrating it into my practice. Thanks so much!

  2. Louise-Anne

    Merci Bruce , ces articles m’aident dans la compréhension du don yu .

  3. Dawna Knowles

    What a clear, easy-to-understand way to explain to your fellow Tai Chiers how the don-yu works to benefit us. These Anatomy Notes are tremendously interesting because they apply to a practice we enjoy so much! Thank you, Dr. Bruce!

  4. Robert

    Hello Bruce,
    You have brought to observations without judgement a number of excellent points. In particular the process by which the don yu is transitioned through the physical form were well stated.
    For like the apple that falls from the tree to rest on soft ground, so does it rise as bread, to return to the bud of the branch.

    Thanks again


  5. Theodora

    Hello and thank you for your articles. I will refer to them repeatedly as I practice the form and hopefully grasp their meaning further.

    I was wondering if you have any anatomical images of the body in tai chi positions? If my drawing skills were better i think it would be a fascinating process to try and draw the changes occurring.

    Thanks again and I look forward to further posts.


  6. Eileen

    Thank you so much for these articles. They are really helpful.

  7. Ken Minami

    Since I started taoist tai chi 2 years ago,I have longed for some kind of anatomical look at the movements of tai
    chi.I greatly enjoyed your explanations
    and obvious appreciation of how we learn things through metaphors embraced and then replaced with new ones. Could you at some future time
    look at the movement of “drop elbow”
    in the same anatomical way?
    Thank you, Ken

  8. Wawa Ngenge

    Practicing with this imagery in mind has definitely made the don-yu a lighter and less dreaded exercise for me. Keep the imagery coming. Thanks

  9. Sander Smiles

    great – thanks for the info –

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