Category Archives: Anatomy and Physiology

Dr. Bruce McFarlane’s articles about tai chi and the mechanisms through which it improves health. A melding of both eastern and western medicine.

Central Region and Physiology Weekend, May 2 – 4, 2014

SONY DSCThe Central Region and Physiology Weekend was held May 2-4, 2014  at the International Centre with 130 participants in attendance. Participants mainly came from 20 Central Region Branches (we’re counting the 7 Toronto Branches in attendance as one), but we also had representation from Eastern Region, Pacific Region, and the US’ Northeast and Southeast Regions.

Special features of the weekend were the Central Region Annual General Meeting and the Mothers’ Day Banquet held at the Dim Sum King Seafood Restaurant in Toronto.  Every mother was presented with a red carnation as we feasted on all the tasty dishes, listened to fabulous music and to the politicians’ expressions of congratulations, enjoyed the “Latin” dancers, laughed and talked.  It was a wonderful evening and an opportunity to share and learn from students at other clubs.

We were privileged to have Marsha Eberhart and Andrew Hung teach and inspire us. Among the many teaching points covered, we really focussed on the drop into the front foot.  A student who shared his own understanding in our tea circle, once we were back home, put it well: “dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping, smiling, dropping, dropping….” Both experienced and new students were surprised to feel more weight in our feet.  Andrew encouraged us to describe the feeling in our bodies. (“Good” is not a complete response Andrew often reminded us.) What did we feel? Where was this feeling? How will we remember it?  What were we telling ourselves to get there? He reminded us that being able to clearly describe what is going on in our own bodies is an important part of our learning. There were many ah-ha moments. We also benefitted from the reflections of Jim Nicholson who helped us to gain more understanding of the connection between health and Taoism.

Another valuable learning experience was particularly felt by the participants of the three branches in Northern Ontario – North Bay, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie – who were asked by the Central Region Management Committee to help coordinate this weekend. We all worked together to help the staff at the Centre register participants and prepare for this Central Region Program. We gained a better understanding of what it takes to put on all the amazing programs that are continually offered at the Centre. It was a real privilege to help and to learn.

One of the many important things we learned was that we should register as soon as possible for programs. If the staff and volunteers have the information ahead of time, it makes the job of assigning accommodations, planning meals and so on, so much easier and more relaxed. This especially applies to CIT week! If it’s your intention to attend a Program, please register early and help new students navigate the easy to use on-line registration form.

It was a fabulous weekend and the North Bay, Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie Branches are especially grateful for this opportunity to learn and help. There are many, many people to thank for our experience; Andrew, Marsha, Central Region Instruction Committee, Central Region Management Committee for their work on the Program and the Annual general meeting, the International Centre staff, the 3 Branches that organized the last Central Region Program and who generously passed on their information, and all the capable people from the northern branches who helped. Thank you to everyone who participated and made this such a wonderful event. See you at the Centre.


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Central Region Weekend, Physiology Workshop & Chinese New Year Banquet… What a weekend!

It was a weekend packed full of learning and fun for all involved!  140 Central Region Workshop participants and 20 Health Recovery Week participants joined together to learn more about Taoist Tai Chi and the fascia from Dr. Bruce McFarland with co-leaders Dr. Karen Laughlin and Marsha Eberhardt.  Add in the Chinese New Year’s Banquet at the Dim Sum King in Toronto’s Chinatown to celebrate the impending arrival of the year of the horse and you have more than a full weekend! View Banquet Pictures >

We joyfully did half step tor yu’s learning to get our hands up and out in an explosive fashion so all the connective tissue of our fascia were stretched and engaged.  Lessons learned in our practice were then applied to our tor yu’s and practiced.

The banquet was attended by 500 plus members and guests including politicians from all 3 levels of government and international representatives.  Entertainment was provided by some very talented members who sang and played.  All enjoyed dancing and clapping along to the Tai Chi Jazz Band and the Tai Chi Clezmer Ensemble.  Our special guest were impressed by the sense of community and the spirit of an organization that brings members from near and far together to celebrate and share a meal together as well as to practice the health giving arts that were left to us by Master Moy.

Sunday noon comes and for those attending the Central Region Workshop it was time to say goodbye and to take back to their individual clubs and their own personal practice the lessons learned and the community shared.  Those fortunate to be registered in Health Recovery Week stayed on to continue their learning journey.

We all look forward to gathering again at the International Centre to share in the celebrations of the Lantern Festival.

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Dispatch from Dr. Bruce in the Arctic

Many readers have asked whether and/or when the popular anatomy and physiology posts by Dr. Bruce McFarlane will resume. Indeed, they will, after Dr . Bruce returns from his busy medical post in the Arctic. Here’s what he recently wrote to us in an email:
I’m working up north for most of a six-month period from the end of February to early September (with a six-week break from early May to mid June), following which I plan to do some studying in the fields of kinesiology and exercise physiology at the University of Toronto. It has been exceptionally busy up here in the Arctic with much more illness than normal and I suspect that I won’t be writing any articles on anatomy and physiology until late September or early October. I’m thinking about future topics, of course, as I go through the day. And Jean Paul Colette, a member of the TTCS and an epidemiologist at UBC, has just sent me some info on research that looks at the interplay between stress, the inflammatory response, the autonomic nervous system, and disease states, such as diabetes, MS, Crohn’s disease, atherosclerosis, and overwhelming sepsis. These are very interesting insights for practitioners of a moving meditation. Could you post something on the blog site to indicate that articles will resume in the fall?
We’ll look forward to hearing more on this exciting research and other topics when Dr. Bruce returns in the fall.


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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


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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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