Author Archives: Dr. Bruce McFarlane

About Dr. Bruce McFarlane

Dr. Bruce McFarlane, BA, MD, CCFP, FCFP Dr. Bruce McFarlane is a medical advisor to the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada and a member of its Central Region Management Committee. He helps coordinate the Health Recovery Program of the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. Dr. McFarlane was born in Saskatoon and lived in Newfoundland and several other provinces before moving to Winnipeg. After high school, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree at United College before entering the faculty of medicine at the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1969. Dr. McFarlane obtained his CCFP in 1981 and later his FCFP. Following internship at the Toronto General Hospital, he spent his first year of practice in the central Arctic, travelling by small plane to 6 communities spread across a thousand miles. He then settled and worked in rural Ontario as a family doctor and emergency physician until 2003. Since then, he has divided his time between working as a general practitioner in Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island, Nunavut and serving as a volunteer instructor, advisor and administrator for the Taoist Tai Chi Society. Dr. McFarlane joined the Society in 1993 and has been instructing the Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health since 1996. He attended a number of workshops led by the organization’s founder, Master Moy Lin-shin, before his death 10 years ago. He quickly became interested in the development of programs designed for those dealing with impaired mobility or deep illness. In 1999, Dr. McFarlane was invited to help coordinate the Health Recovery Program offered by the International Taoist Tai Chi Society. Along with others, he remains actively involved with this unique program. Dr. McFarlane has also been asked to lead workshops and training sessions for the Society’s volunteer instructors in Canada, Europe and the USA. He is regularly called upon to make connections between western anatomy and physiology and the Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health. Dr. McFarlane has been married 43 years. He has 4 children and is the proud grandfather of Montgomery who is now 3 years of age.

Note on Anatomy and Physiology: Suppleness of Focus

We’ve concentrated a lot lately on the upper limbs. We’ve emphasized that, because the hands form one end of a number of continuities running through the body, their proper use has a significant impact on all our movements.

But the hands, although intimately connected to the centre, are situated out in the periphery. While they do serve as a terminus for powerful elastics and provide direction for these lines of force, the power resides along the full length of the elastic. The hands are but the tip of the whip.

Inevitably in our practice, we sometimes put too little intention into our movements. In the tor yu, for example, the hands may not get sent out far enough or the back leg fails to fully straighten. Connection is then lost between regions of the body.

On other occasions, we place too much focus on the hands and neglect to relax the elbows. This tugs too strongly on the structures that link hands to torso – the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi and thoracolumbar fascia. Now there is insufficient play in the tissues; it becomes difficult to relax and settle the weight. The amount of stretch available to the body’s tissues is finite; use too much in one locale and there is not enough in another.

With the search for the right amount of intention, there gradually awakens a sense of the middle. The handle of the whip. This is a region that proves much more mysterious than the hands. Finding the middle is to discover the dragon sitting on its treasure. As we engage the spine, pelvis and legs, the movements of the hands and feet become light and unpremeditated.

Clearly, a suppleness of focus is requisite to our practice. Today’s insights represent an essential stage along the way but will eventually be replaced by deeper understandings. The art is learned sequentially. Once something is comprehended, it becomes programmed into our movements and forgotten at the conscious level. What struck us as crucial, the arms for instance, now seems, paradoxically, unimportant.

Further, the endeavour requires patience. A willingness to give our awareness of the body time to develop. And the mind time to settle. For most of us, this unfolds over many years. Patterns of posture, movement and thinking gradually shift. Areas of weakness or tightness, and troubles with connections between spine, pelvis and lower limbs, slowly alter. Difficulties of the mind and spirit sort themselves out.

The myriad of ways humans are potentially able to learn to move allows great freedom in acquiring new skills. But it also induces confusion and consternation in the adult mind as we go through the process. Altering the rhythm of practice is helpful. Changing focus to keep things fresh. The set informs the tor yu and don yu, as well as the reverse. When starting the day’s practice, begin with what you find difficult; the body is often most ready to discover new things when it firsts begins to move. Each day’s practice is a fresh introduction to the art.

We move forward by making discoveries from our own practice, by learning from the instructors who watch over and guide us, and by teaching. Too little of one weakens the impact of the others. Each of us needs to look for the right balance – a balance that shifts as we go along.

Bruce McFarlane MD

© Taoist Tai Chi Society of Canada 2010


Filed under Anatomy and Physiology, Health Watch

Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Slings at the Front, Slings at the Back

For awhile now, we’ve been delineating hand to foot continuities that run throughout the body, providing strength, flexibility and a more developed sense of one’s body in space as they unfold. These patterns of uninterrupted flow, created by sequences of muscle, tendon, fascia and bone, come and go with movement.

We saw, last time, how motion of the hands helps create lines of pull that travel by various routes up into the torso. Our task today is to look for some of the strings that will convey these impulses from the torso down into the pelvis, legs and feet.

Back of the torso

A good place to start is at the back of the trunk. Remember that you can enlarge an image simply by clicking on it.

The next two drawings provide an overview of what Myers calls the Back Functional Line. Both illustrations reveal the same continuous line of pull running across the back and linking up each hand with the opposite leg.


Fig 1 The Back Functional Line. Myers, page 170

Fig 2 Diane Lee refers to this same line as the posterior oblique sling. No matter the name, the linkages connect thorax, pelvis and leg. Lee, page 52

Setting off from the left side, we begin with the left latissimus dorsi at its origin on the left upper arm, follow down to where the tendons of the latissimus merge with the thoracolumbar fascia, cross the midline over to the right gluteus maximus on the other side, travel with the right vastus lateralis as it passes along the outside aspect of the thigh, and end up where the vastus lateralis inserts onto the right tibia just below the knee cap.

If we had started with the right latissimus, we would have ended up at the left tibia. These two potential lines of pull crisscross the back of the torso to form an X. I use the word “potential’ because we can choose to either engage these lines or leave them dormant.

Other links carry the line eventually to the foot but you get the idea: myofascia working together with bone to form a continuous chain.

Now, let’s examine Continue reading


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Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: More On The Ties That Bind

In the tor yu, the hands draw out the spine – as the body sends out the hands.
To better understand this interplay, let’s examine further the whole body continuities that tether the upper limbs to the rest of the body.
You recall that last time we examined the lines of pull created by the muscles, tendons and bone that allow us to bend and straighten at the wrist and elbow. We saw that the contraction of any given line was associated with the lengthening of another.
And we observed that, because the shoulder and upper limb are especially designed for mobility, multiple myofascial lines are required to interact with one another, each constantly shifting the role it plays – sometimes shortening, sometimes allowing itself to elongate and become taut. The body employs multiple big tendons in different ways and all at the same time.

Thomas Myers in his book Anatomy Trains describes four lines of pull that arise, shift and interact in the upper limb as we move. Continue reading


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Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: One Big Tendon

In an earlier article, it was mentioned that we are often asked in class to open Tiger’s Mouth, bring fingertips up, drop elbow, turn wrist or send out the hands. Why is that? What role do the upper limbs play in learning our art? How do they contribute to the balance and strength of our overall structure?

Go back to our discussions about the thoracolumbar fascia and tensegrity as you think about this. We saw then that stretching out the body’s web of soft tissue grants both structure and power. For a sense of this, imagine a clothes line drawn taut, a balloon inflated to stretch out its walls, or guy ropes and poles adjusted to establish the right amount of tension in the fabric of a tent. In each instance, the separation of individual elements provides coherence of form to the whole structure and stores elastic recoil energy in the process.

We’ve looked at how Tiger’s Mouth opens the soft tissues, joints and arches of the hand. This stretching of elastic elements provides the hand with increased strength of structure. And furnishes the brain with the sensory input needed to help locate not only the hand but also the regions with which the hand eventually connects – chest, spine, pelvis and feet.

The same thing happens when the hands go out from the torso. By elongating the ties that bind the various elements of the upper limb, or connect the upper limb with the rest of the body, structure is created. One end of the elastic stretches out from the other.

As we shall see, this involves the shortening of some muscles and their tendons so that others may lengthen. The complexity of  human movement, mind you, warrants that the elements which contract and those which elongate shift from moment to moment. What is important is that there are always lines of pull.

To get an idea of the tissues that are either elongating or contracting as we make use of our upper limbs, Continue reading


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Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: The Hand and The Tiger’s Mouth

Last time, we looked at how the bones of the elbow-forearm complex are designed so that the elbow bends and the hand turns.
To better understand the influence of the hand and elbow on the strength and balance of our entire structure, we need to consider the ties binding the components of the upper limb to one another and to the rest of the body.
As we proceed, we’ll see that the periphery, the outlying elements of the body, are powerfully entwined with the central and deep structures. The centre and the periphery are inseparable in fact, making the awareness of both vital to our art.
Today, we’ll look at the hand, its bones and arches, and some of its soft tissue layers. Continue reading


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Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: The Elbow-Forearm Complex

In practicing our art, one of the things we discover is the steady rhythm of the body as it turns up and then down. Surprisingly, we also learn that attending to the placement of the hand and elbow helps us acquire that rhythm.

We will focus today on the elbow-forearm complex, its anatomy and its functions, to better understand how the hand and elbow assist with the cadence of the whole body as we move.

This complex is composed of three bones – the humerus coming down from the arm above, and the radius and the ulna of the forearm. Four joints grant movement to the assembly: the humero-ulnar and humero-radial joints at the elbow and the proximal and distal radio-ulnar joints.

As you study the images, remember that you only have to click on a drawing to enlarge it.


Fig 1 The elbow-forearm complex with its three bones and four joints. Neumann, page 174


Now, the elbow-forearm complex has two distinct functions. We make constant use of both:

  1. flexion and extension at the elbow. This changes the functional length of the arm and alters the distance between hand and body. The humero-ulnar and humero-radial joints are what make this possible.
  2. supination and pronation of the forearm. By engaging the proximal and distal joints between the radius and ulna, we are able to turn the palm up (supinate) or down (pronate) without moving the shoulder joint.

Flexion and Extension

The elbow is primarily a hinge joint constructed to flex and extend. We’ll examine this function first. Continue reading


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Notes on Anatomy and Physiology: Learning with the Hand and Elbow

Taoist Tai Chi™ internal arts of health introduce a way of moving that is novel for all students. Because the focus is on balance in all its dimensions, we develop over time a newfound sense of comfort and ease as we practice the 108 moves of the set. It feels as if we are learning to move the way a fish swims or a frog jumps – as a coherent whole.

In order to experience this manner of moving in the world, instruction in class often focuses on the upper limbs. We are asked, for example, to open tiger’s mouth, turn the wrist, send out the hands from the body, or drop elbow. Why is it that these particular uses of this part of our anatomy create balance in the overall structure of the body? What is it about the structure of the upper limbs that grants them such an important impact on everything else?

To answer these questions, we will look initially at what is referred to as the elbow-forearm complex and, later on, investigate the lines of attachment that run between the upper limb and the trunk, pelvis and lower limbs.

First, though, Continue reading


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