Tai Chi is in a very fundamental way about body mechanics. The alignment of your joints and the efficiency of your muscle movements is the reason for studying the Tai Chi form, whether you’re interested in using that efficiency for martial arts or just for your daily activities. This is especially relevant for uncommon activities that can quickly stress and even injure the body, like shoveling snow.
An important point to understand about your body is that anything you are touching becomes, in a sense, another part of you. If you are holding a book, moving your arm moves the book, and moving the book moves your arm. They have become one piece. Moreover, the weight of the book is now part of the weight of your arm!
In Tai Chi practice, we work on absorbing, integrating, and redirecting force. This can be the inward force of a punch to the face, but it can also be the force of gravity. “Weight” is just a convenient term we use to describe force that is moving downward. Both receiving a punch and holding a book are tasks that require controlling an external force by routing it through your body. The greater the force, the more difficult this can be. For example, imagine a tall stack of lego blocks standing on its own. If you bend the stack so that it remains together but leans slightly to one side, it will still be capable of supporting its own weight. Now imagine the same stack with a book resting on its top. If the stack is leaning, it’s very likely the whole pile will come crashing down. Yet the stack can easily hold the book if it is lined up straight.
When we pick up a pile of snow using a shovel, the snow (and the shovel) becomes part of our arms. While our body may easily be able to hold up our arms under normal circumstances, when we increase that weight by adding the snow, now it’s a real work-out. The muscles, particularly those of the lower back, have to pull much harder than they are used to, and this can cause strain. Worse, if we then twist the back to toss the snow away, that bending and twisting under pressure can seriously injure the spine.
Here’s some ideas for the next time you shovel snow or pick up any heavy object:
1. Keep the spine straight, paying particular attention to the lower back, as there is a strong tendency to bend it when we lean forward. Bend from the waist only. Use the legs to get further down.
2. Keep the knees in alignment over the centers of the feet. Also be careful of twisting the knees or the thighs as you toss snow. Twist from the hips only.
3. Take many breaks. Shoveling snow is like going to the gym for an intense workout with no warm-ups. Every 30 seconds or so for most people is a good time to take a rest to allow the body to adapt to this new weight-lifting exercise.
4. Do less! You likely won’t be able to bend as far, twist as far, or move as fast as you’d like to. You have a choice of getting it done fast and living with the consequences or taking care of your body and moving slowly.
Listen to your body. Then you can brag to your neighbors about how you dug out your car this winter and your back feels great!