The Five Element Theory of ChiRunning and ChiWalking
In Chinese Medicine, the study of the elements are the fundamental way in which the human body is analyzed and understood. There are actually several approaches to the study of the elements. The elements to be considered can be: earth, water, fire, air or metal, wood, and sometimes ether. For the purpose of this article we’re going to focus on earth as it relates to structure and stability; water as it relates to flowing movement; fire as it relates to work, transformation and energy; air, as it relates to breathing and “inspiration;” and ether as the power of the mind to direct one’s energy or chi.
In the Chi techniques, various sections of the body are represented by these five elements. Your bones, ligaments and tendons are represented by the element Earth, which creates stability in your body and connection to the earth. Water represents the rotational movement of the pelvis, which allows the fluid motion of swinging of your arms and legs. The fire element can be felt in the power and energy of the core muscles. Your core is called the powerhouse in Pilates – for a good reason. In more advanced levels of ChiRunning® and ChiWalking®, you can use your oblique muscles to create more energy for moving forward. Air feeds fire, so in your lungs and breathing you can see the most important source of energy for the body. Ether is related to your mind and to chi energy. And, though they are both invisible and unmeasurable, they are the most powerful tools you have when it comes to moving your body. When you have a thought and your body responds immediately, the element of ether is at work, guided by your mind to move your body.
As you learn the Chi techniques, you start from the ground up with good posture (earth). This provides your body stable support with every stride. If your posture is not aligned during the support phase of your stride (shoulders, hips and ankles in a straight line) you will rely too much on your muscles to support the weight of your body instead of your skeletal structure. This wastes valuable energy and you’ll tire more quickly. This is the first phase of learning the Chi techniques – earth-like stability.
As you learn to run with good postural support, the next element to emulate is water, which will add some fluidity to your structure. This requires incorporating a level of relaxation into your stride. This takes a lot of practice, as most of us tend to hold tension in our pelvis and shoulders. Many of us try too hard and don’t allow the natural flow and flexibility of our body to create smooth, flowing movements. The ChiRunning Body Looseners will make a huge difference, as well as Body Sensing tension and learning to release it. Learning to relax is the crucial second stage – water-like fluidity. Water is especially important in the flight phase of your stride, when you want to allow for the greatest stretch and range of motion in your body.
The element of water is a lot about letting go. As water flows down a mountain and over a waterfall, it does not hold back. In the Chi techniques there is a sense of ease that needs to be developed in order to understand that you do not have to work hard to make movement happen. As you learn to trust the watery aspect of movement, you’ll go faster with less effort and reduce injury as well.
As you progress through these first two stages of your ChiRunning, it is important to keep in mind that until you fully feel the stability of earth and the fluidity of water, there is no point in focusing on the use of the core muscles (fire element) to enhance your movement. If you add fire to an unstable or overly rigid technique, you’ll be creating a recipe for injury. Forcing water down a twisted pipe can create a lot of problems. However, once you are moving with these two elements functioning well in our body, adding some heat and some fire can create a lot of power, especially by engaging your obliques. This is an advanced technique described in the Chi Marathon book in Chapter 9 Advanced Techniques, where you use the obliques to drive the pelvis which, in turn, drives the legs. This allows you to “use” your legs for propulsion without using your leg muscles.
When your skill with all the Chi techniques is at the stage where you can run comfortably and all of these first three elements are working like clockwork, the next ingredient for your running will be air. An interesting word associated with the breath is “inspiration,” which has a double meaning. The physical definition of inspiration is to inhale. The emotional definition is to be inspired, which is what your running or walking will be. At this level a practice session begins to feel more like a dance than a workout!
The last element to enter into your running or walking is ether. When your mind and body are integrated, just a thought can create truly effortless movement. In Chinese philosophy, moving and directing the flow of ether through your body is called Y-Chi, which can also be described as intention, where you direct the movement of your Chi to move your body.
The study of the elements is a great way to get a different feel for the Chi techniques. When you are feeling yourself stable yet fluid, learning to regulate the chi moving through your body, and getting to the place where an idea creates movement …anything is possible.