Walking Back to Health: An Ancient Chinese Secret

It’s 6 o’clock in the morning; my eyes have not yet adjusted to the hour, and I can still hear the call of my warm bed luring me back to sleep. But Heaven Park in Beijing is already alive and I am about to enter a different world.

Everywhere, there is movement: there are more people exercising in this expanse of trees and grass and temples than live in my town back in the US. All ages–from 9 to 99–are represented: Playing Tai Chi, learning Sword Arts, swinging their arms, rubbing their kidneys, rotating their waists, and hanging from low-hanging tree branches (to stretch their spines). And the sounds! From every direction I can hear waltzes for those students learning Ballroom dancing, intermixed with the songs of thousands of caged birds, brought to the park by old men who allow their parakeets to air while they visit their friends.

Amid all this, I see something that makes me rub my sleepy eyes to make sure that I am seeing correctly: groups of women walking backwards up the lane. Just that: walking backwards, calmly and confidently.

This ancient exercise (yes! It is an exercise!) is one of the treasures of Chinese health practice, addressing issues of balance, leg strength, back strength, and posture.  It may seem simple, but the reasons why it is a good practice are profound. Here are just a few:

1. As we age, our fear of falling makes us react wrongly.  When babies fall backwards, they roll, but this tendency disappears as we get older. Many falls end up going backward because we arch our backs. Walking backwards rounds that part of our back that we arch, and encourages ‘forward’ muscle use.

2. Everything that is wrong about your posture came from walking forward! Slumping, hunching, rounding, arching…all those bad habits. Walking backwards reverses these habits.

3. From an energetics standpoint, walking backwards actually reframes consciousness in our bodies. The simple explanation is that our attention tends to favor the front of our bodies to the exclusion of what is behind us. Chinese health and martial exercises both encourage ‘whole body’ awareness for ‘whole body’ health. Walking backwards creates a ‘sensor’ to integrate this area.

4. Walking backwards actually engages completely different sets of muscles. This is important especially as we age, since we lose flexibility and our range of motion often diminishes. By using different muscles we exercise parts of our body that need attention.

Interested? Let’s try it!

First, pick an area where the ground is fairly flat and you have about 100 safe yards (in other words, not on the edge of a cliff!)

Next, start walking backwards!

(OK, that seems a bit too simple; let me give you some things to concentrate on):

1. The ball of your foot touches the ground first
2. Don’t lean forward when you walk backward, but…
3. …If you feel tension in your neck, you are leaning back too far.
4. Try to relax the small of your back, let it be flexible
5. Stand as erect as you can, and take short steps
6. Leave your arms loose at your sides but…
7. …if you feel the need for counter-balance, hold out your arms loosely in front of your body (think Frankenstein Monster)