Monthly Archives: Dec 2014

Yang 24-Step Form: Horizontal & Vertical

‘The word Peng’ (pron. ‘pung’ as in ‘sprung’) is used in a general way to explain the feeling of expansion/protection of the body as though you are inside a large balloon; the front and back, left and right, and top and bottom are all working together equally, so that, for example, if you were to push forwards, you would feel an equal expansion backwards.  The operative word here is feel, because you naturally wouldn’t be able to ‘push’ your back in the same way behind you!

However, the word ‘Peng’ is also used to describe one of the 13 Principles, occurring in every style of tai chi in one way or another.  In the Yang 24-Step form it appears at Forms 7 & 8, following the 4th Repulse Monkey (Step Back and Push); at this stage in the set of movements – assuming you began the form facing 12.00, you are facing 9.00.

In Form 7, the movement consists of the left arm simultaneously sinking (lowering) and drawing in (towards the body), before lifting up the centreline of the body to project forwards again at approximately shoulder height.
Peng directionIf you turn your body to the right during the sinking-and-drawing-in process, the movement that follows, i.e. the lifting of the left arm, changes from Peng to ‘Lie’ (or Lieh, depending upon your preferred method of spelling the word… Pinyin versus Wade-Giles ).
‘Lie’ is a sideways or horizontal movement, and is another of the 13 Principles. You can see this being used in Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane (i.e. Form 2 in the Yang 24-Step), first by the left arm, then by the right, and then by the left again.PTWHM Direction

In the previous form, i.e. Form 6 (Repulse Monkey), each of the 4 backward stepping movements is initiated by turning the body to right or left; so it’s almost automatic for beginners (and sometimes for more advanced practitioners also) to turn the body once again.
However, it shouldn’t turn, or at least it should only be a very small amount.

To stop the urge to turn the body to the right at this point, focus on the role of the right hand. Instead of allowing it to wander aimlessly out in the 1 o’clock direction (assuming you began the Form facing 12 o’clock), give it the intention of reaching towards 9 o’clock as though to grasp your opponent’s clothing, or shoulder, or even the back of his head. The right arm will still lift up into something resembling a ‘hold ball’ shape (although in reality you’ll never arrive at this shape), but the right hand’s intention will stop the body from turning to the right because the hand is leading and is reaching forward.
All of a sudden the body will feel better balanced in this movement, the left and right sides of the body will coordinate better (see the previous blog on ‘balance’), and the right arm will no longer feel so ‘useless’, or functionless.

‘Forcing’ & ‘Allowing’… it’s not just semantics…

The classics say:
Head upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head. Don’t use Li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the qi [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the headtop, it cannot raise“.

Actually, it’s a great description! But it begs the question, how should you position your neck … not just in Tai Chi, but in day-to-day use?
If you are told to ‘hold your head up’, you’ll probably do one of two things – either you’ll try to make yourself a bit taller, or you’ll lift your chin.
In both cases you will have tightened the back of the neck, which means that you will have used Li (external strength, i.e. the neck muscles).Cervical-Spine 3 DJ USE

So the instruction is to “have a natural and lively feeling.”
The Chinese had the same problem – that of trying to describe a feeling…. because it isn’t an action, it’s actually a non-action!
‘Natural’ here means ‘don’t do‘, and ‘lively’ means ‘aware’.
Taiji often refers to the head being drawn up as if by a silken thread; Alexander Technique refers to the head being ‘forward and upward’. It’s all the same thing, but how is it done?

A relaxed muscle lengthens.
When a muscle lengthens, the ends (known as ‘the origin’ and ‘the insertion’) move away from each other – the muscle relaxes or releases.
Conversely, when a muscle shortens, the ends move towards each other – the muscle contracts. This is always to alter the position of one body part relative to another.

TMJ 2aaa DJReleasing your neck.
To do this, there are two directions or planes that need to be taken into account – one horizontal and the other vertical.

This refers to how far forward or backward the head sits on the spine/torso.
E.g. Without lifting or dropping it, try pushing your nose towards the wall in front of you – you’ll feel the neck crane forwards. You can do the same by pulling your nose backwards also.  In both cases, notice how Head & Cervical vertebrae (side) with arrows & wordsthe neck tenses.

To find the right position, try the following:-

  • Leave your lips together.
  • Drop your lower jaw inside your mouth.
    To make sure that you really have dropped the lower jaw, start to do a yawn with the lips closed (but not too much as you will tense the front of the throat).
  • Notice what happens to the back of the neck; you should find that the head needs to alter position, especially if you stick with the yawn idea.

(Incidentally, this is another example of the auto-balance of the body mentioned in the previous blog).

Vertical:Cervical Spine 3a DJ
Forget your neck for this, it’s one small part of a larger picture.

  • Feel your feet on the ground; feel the top of your head.
  • Notice the distance between them.
  • Visualize the body as a piece of elastic with the origin as the feet and the insertion as the top of the head.
  • Let the feet (and particularly the heels) feel as though they are sinking into and through the floor.
  • As you do so, let go of any tension in the elastic (muscles) which will allow the body (i.e. you don’t take any active role in this) to reach its natural height.

Drawings by Damian Johnston:

Balance in taiji

‘Balance’ in taiji

One of the aspect of taiji is to allow ‘freedom of movement’, so that the body never inhibits itself.

‘Freedom of movement’

In order to exist, a solar system must work in harmony. If one planet in the solar system were to go out of alignment, the system would become unstable.
If you see your Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour (1)body as a solar system, the torso being the sun at the centre of the body, and your hands and feet and head being individual planets within that system, those planets always need to ‘balance’ one other.

Left/Right; Front/Back; Up/Down

‘Ease of movement’ is produced first of all by relaxation. Any tension means that the body is fighting itself and therefore restricting movement … it is ‘inhibiting’ itself.

Ease of movement is also created by the interaction not only of the four limbs, but also of the upper and lower body.  Horizontally, it is about using one side of the body to help the other side, and on the vertical aspect, it is the upper half of the body helping the lower half.  In tai chi, movement never happens with only one unit of the body (e.g. one hand or leg), it is always reflected throughout (as in Newton’s 3rd law: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’).
As an example of vertical balance, you only have to think of a tight-rope walker to get the idea – he uses a long pole that stretches to either side of him to increase his ability to balance (the pole distributes mass away from the vertical axis which is the pivot point, which increases inertia).  The point is that left and right have to be balanced for this to work.


Physiologically, when damaged, the body can balance itself automatically over a period of time when left alone.
An example of this is that if you have ever damaged your lower back causing the lumbar muscles to go into spasm, you will know that your neck can be affected. After a while, the neck gets used to the new state of affairs and adjusts itself.  You go to the osteopath who sorts out the lumbar problem, and your neck gets sore again, eventually recovering as it again adjusts itself.


Returning to the solar system analogy, the ‘magnetic’ push/pull of the planets, which holds them in their orbits, is comparable to the physical action of breathing.
At the most basic level, an in-breath has to become an out-breath; you cannot go on breathing in forever.  This translates as ‘open/close’ (Kai/He); an ‘open’ must become a ‘close’ – you cannot continue opening forever, nor can you ‘open’ without having closed first…
E.g. it’s impossible to punch with your arms already outstretched; you have to draw them inwards first.
Neither can you have only one side of the body ‘opening’ because the body then becomes unbalanced.
E.g. when breathing in, it is obvious that the chest expands; but the back must also expand.
It is more obvious that when breathing in, not only does the left side of the ribcage expand, but the right side also expands.

Two-Person Tai Chi

Two partners, working together in tai chi, e.g. in Pushing Hands, are like two solar systems interacting; for mutual existence, one needs to sense the actions of the other and respond accordingly.  It is this interaction between the two partners that produces the softness of tai chi.

Natural rules of movement

The odd thing is that, in the everyday actions of our day-to-day lives, we follow these ‘rules of movement’ 90% of the time.  But when learning tai chi and other forms of movement, we start thinking, and all of a sudden our natural movement habits seem to vanish!  So we have to re-learn the principles of what we would normally do without thinking.  It’s also worth pointing out that when we don’t follow these principles in our daily lives, through distraction, stress, hurrying, or laziness, we often injure ourselves (e.g. picking up a heavy object from the floor without balancing the front and back of the body).

Daily use

A simple example of our daily use of the body compared to our ‘learnt’ use of the body:
If you wanted to pull a very heavy object, for example a wooden table, across a room, you might begin with one foot in front of you and one behind, you’d take hold of the edge or leg of the table, and as soon as you started the pulling action, you wouldn’t leave your elbows stuck out to the side, (you’d drop them), nor would you leave your bottom sticking out, (you’d tuck it in).  If the table were extremely heavy, you would additionally engage your abdominal muscles, possibly sucking them in…
As you dragged the table across the room, it would start to feel as though you were using your back to help pull it; and that’s exactly what you’d be doing, you’d be balancing the front leg (that you’re using for pushing) with your back.

Learnt use

 However, when it comes to learning tai chi, most people just move their weight backwards (from the front leg to the back leg), do nothing with the pelvis, don’t even drop the elbows, and just pull their arms back (bending the elbows) as though the arms are a couple of additions to the body that just happen to be in front of you.  All they see is the superficial movement of a body moving backwards from the front leg to the back leg, whilst withdrawing the arms.

So in many ways, doing a solo form of tai chi is much harder than doing tai chi with a partner where contact is involved.  In solo tai chi, it’s harder to feel that you are pulling or pushing as there is nothing to pull and push.  Your body therefore behaves differently.  It’s almost easier to perform movement efficiently when working with a partner, because often (though not always), the body will balance itself automatically, and will cease to inhibit itself.
Which is why, when performed correctly with the intention involved, solo tai chi is often referred to as ‘shadow boxing’.