Often in both tai chi and qigong it is necessary to ‘grip the floor’ – part of rooting and making the body more stable.
This is particularly useful in tai chi when working with a partner, e.g in pushing hands, or a 2-person form, or when testing postures. In qigong, ‘gripping’ the floor has the function of not only providing stability, but also of stimulating the acupuncture channels that either start or end in the feet, whilst at the same time connecting the root (the feet) to both the diaphragm and the palms and therefore helping the extremities to function from the middle of the body.
I spent years practising gripping the floor by only using my toes; in other words, I curled the tips of the toes underneath slightly… No one explained it any differently, and in fact, precisely because they didn’t explain it any other way, I’m not convinced that they knew there was another way!
However, curling the toes under and ‘gripping’ in this way has the effect of reducing all the benefits that you are hoping to achieve by 1) lifting the balls of the foot (i.e. in front of the big and little toes on the sole of the foot) off the floor, 2) creating tension and lack of flexibility in the arch of the foot by locking the instep, 3) contracting the size of the foot both in length and width, and 4) tensing the front of the calf. By using this method you are actually shortening the length of the foot (making balance more difficult), narrowing it by pulling the little toe towards the centre of the foot, desensitising it by squeezing it, decreasing the points of balance (only the heel and the tips of the toes), and tightening the ankle.
But the feet have a connection, via the fascia, to the neck, and if used correctly they can enhance the feeling of the body working as a unit rather than as individual parts, whilst at the same time helping you to root/ground, as though you are literally holding on to the earth. If used correctly, the surface area in contact with the floor is slightly increased (better stability), the toes themselves are still gently squeezed (acupoints on the ends of the toes are stimulated), the arch of the foot no longer locks but ‘draws upwards’ (allowing further flexibility).
Furthermore, this lifting of the arch connects via the fascia to the small of the back – running up the insides of the legs, through the bowl of the pelvis, to the transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae 1-5, (partly – though not entirely – with the help of the Psoas muscle), passes through the posterior attachments of the diaphragm (you can feel this), to the back of the neck (which releases), and up over the back of the head and to the forehead via the crown. Anyone familiar with the acupuncture channel will recognise that I have just described part of the Du Channel, or the Governing Vessel – but, it has been triggered by the feet.
The easiest way to understand the correct method with the foot is to try it out with your hand on a table.
With your palm on the surface of the table, curl your fingers and thumb, keeping the little finger
edge of your hand on the table (this represents the side of your foot from little toe to heel). You will immediately feel that the palm hardly moves, and almost sinks (collapses).
Then, keeping as much of both the ‘pads’ of the fingers and the joint nearest the nails in touch with the table as you can, try sliding them slightly towards the heel of the hand. It will feel as though you are ‘sucking’ the table up into the palm – again keep the little finger edge down as much as possible.