Knee Problems in Chen style Tai Chi
I think it is fair to say that many people suffer with knee problems when practicing Chen style Tai Chi. And I personally had problems with my knees that almost meant that I had to stop practicing entirely. Thankfully I got my issues sorted out, and maybe this article will help someone else on the road to getting their knee problems resolved.
One thing that is clear both from the history of Chen style Tai Chi, and from my own journey with my knee issues, is that when practiced correctly Chen style does not damage the knees at all, and in fact strengthens them and maintains excellent joint health even into later life. However, the problem for many of us is getting to the point where we are practicing correctly. That can be a long road, and the knees may get damaged on the way.
If you are suffering from knee issues in your training, there are two main possibilities for the reason behind this. The first is incorrect movement. This is very common, and in fact it is very difficult to learn Chen style Tai Chi without at least passing through this stage. With continued practice and better understanding of the biomechanics of Tai Chi, it should be possible to go beyond this stage, and get to a point where the Tai Chi training is good for your knees.
The second possibility is incorrect knee function / alignment. This is a more fundamental issue, to do with the underlying biomechanics of your body, and will in all likelihood not be resolved by more practice. However it is thankfully usually possible to get these issues resolved, as I did.
It is also very possible that a person may have both of the above causes of knee issues at the same time.
So, let's have a look at the first one: incorrect movement during Tai Chi practice. Chen style Tai Chi uses circular, winding and twisting movements that utilise all the body's joints. As such, there should be some amount of circular movement in the knees in the silk reeling biomechanics. At the correct amount, this is very healthy for the knee joints, strengthening and maintaining flexibility. However, if the torsion and rotation is too much, it will wear on the knee joint, causing irritation and potential long term damage.
Usually, for a beginner there will be too much movement in the knees. This is for a number of interconnected reasons:
1. Hips not staying level - in the figure 8 movement of Chen style Tai Chi silk reeling, if the hips tilt at all, this tend to put additional torsion into the knees.
2. Lack of flexibility in the hips - as more flexibility is developed in the hips, more of the turning can happen in the hips joints. However at first when the hips are not very open, this tends to cause additional rotation and turning in the knees.
3. Knees too far forward - if the knees are too far forward, also meaning the kua is not sufficiently sunk, this puts additional strain on the knee joints.
4. Not understanding the silk reeling figure 8 - if a person doesn't understand what they are aiming at with the figure 8 movement of the hips, it is likely their movements will be unrefined, causing too much rotation of the knees.
All of the above are things that with time, continued practice, and direction from a good teacher, should be able to be resolved. So the best thing to do is to not push too much so as not to damage your knees if you're having pain. And to try to analyse your movements, and with the help of your teacher, understand how to refine the movement so as to reduce torsion in the knee.
Now let's take a look at the more tricky issue off incorrect knee function. If your knees are not functioning correctly, it probably means your whole body is not functioning efficiently. At the biomechanical level the body is like a finely tuned machine where each part is connected to the whole. So if one part is out of alignment, it means the whole body is out of alignment.
So what has caused this slight twist to run through the whole body? Unconscious and long term muscular holding patterns, that literally pull the body out of alignment. In theory the practice of Tai Chi will eventually loosen these holding patterns, allowing the body to come back into optimal alignment. However, in reality, if the body is that rigid and twisted, your knees will probably be irreparably damaged long before you ever make it to that stage.
Many people, including many doctors, physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors, think that such biomechanical issues are fundamentally incurable. However, they are all wrong!! I searched high and low for a practitioner who could help me with my knee problems. And thankfully I found him: Mr. Stefaan Vossen, one of the world's leading experts in biomechanics. Read my story about that here:
How to know whether your knees issue are caused by poor movement of incorrect knee alignment. I would encourage anybody who is practicing Chen style Tai Chi and having knee issues to go and get checked by a qualified physiatrist.
There are also some indicators you can look at yourself:
1. If you have collapsed arches in your feet and/or your feet turn outwards rather than facing forwards, this is usually a pretty good indicator of poor underlying biomechanics in your body, which probably means you knees are misaligned as part of global torsion throughout the body.
2. If you stand naked and look into a big mirror, if there is any slight curve in your spine, this would again be indicative of holistic torsion running through your body.
3. Similarly, if one of your shoulders sits higher that the other, this could also be an indicator of torsion.
If your feet arches are good, and when looking at your body naked in a mirror, everything looks very symmetrical, this may be an indication that your underlying biomechanical functioning is pretty good. However, I'd still recommend getting checked out by a physiatrist just to be sure!
Once you've been approved by a physiatrist that your basic biomechanics are OK, then you can get back to your training with the confidence that with better movement and understanding, your Tai Chi knee problems should start to resolve themselves.
And I can say from personal experience. That once my knees were sorted out, my Tai Chi practice went to the next level. And I have had no knee issues since, now my knees love Tai Chi, and feel stronger and better than ever.
I hope this article helps someone out there, because I was searching on the internet for ages about Chen style Tai Chi knee problems. Let me know if it helps you!!
I offer Chen style Tai Chi classes, taught in the tradition of Master Wang Hai-Jun. Tai Chi classes in Greenwich, south London and also close to Lewisham. Tai Chi is a great practice for health and meditation. Tai Chi classes for fitness in London, Greenwich.