The Balance Problem in Certain Tai Chi & Qigong Moves
I’ve often noticed when teaching the Yang 24 that balance in certain movements often causes a problem for students – incidentally, this isn’t specific to the 24-step form, it’s just that this is a form that I teach more than others.
The moves to which I’m referring are any that require the body to turn to left or right at the same time as transferring the body weight from one foot to another (this could be a forwards or backwards step).
Some examples of this are: Parting the Wild Horses Mane, Brush Knee and Twist Step, Repulse Monkey, and Fair Lady Weaving Shuttles.
Golden Cockerel/Rooster and the Kicks have their own set of problems, though perhaps for a different reason (at least, for the moment, although it will become apparent that the reason is actually the same), as there is no turn of the body in the same way in these two moves.
The knack of retaining the balance is to ‘sink the qi’ as you begin the process of moving into a posture. The question is, how do you do this?
Stability & Instability
The basics are that, when we are standing on two feet, we are stable. When we step forward or backward, during that moment of taking a foot off the floor, we are temporarily unstable. It is during this moment that we need to stabilise ourselves. This is where the concept of ‘full’ and ’empty’ comes in.
Full & Empty
This concept refers to the energy status of the body; in order to be able to lift a leg, you need to ’empty’ that side of the body. If you leave tension in the ’empty’ side, it isn’t empty, and the freedom of movement of the stepping leg is restricted. When stepping in tai chi and qigong, this residual tension is nearly always in the hip and/or shoulder joints (which can also affect the stepping), – in other words the joints that attach the limbs to the body.
How do you sink the qi?
When teaching a move where a step is involved, I often use the expression ‘sink to step’ meaning “bend the stepping leg slightly (or a lot) just before stepping”. This is true, but isn’t the whole story.
What you really need to do is to ‘sink the qi’ just at the moment of freeing the stepping leg. This is partly something physical that you do, but it is also a feeling inside… a letting go of the hip joint amongst other things, and is a release of tension in one side of the body. There is a sensation of not holding on any longer, and the correct timing is essential.
Try a 3 stage test:
The starting position for all 3 stages is to stand with your feet side by side.
1) Notice what you normally do: Move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step). Now lift the leg ready to step. At the moment of lifting the stepping foot from the floor, try to feel what goes on in the hip.
2) Next, notice what you don’t normally do: Before moving your weight on to the right foot, stick your bottom out behind you, enhancing the ‘S’ bend in your back. Now move the weight on to (e.g.) your right foot (ready to step), and lift the leg ready to step. You could try actually stepping.
3) Observation & enhancement: Now do (1) above more consciously. If you are able to let go of your hip joint at the moment of shifting the weight, you will find that your bottom sinks slightly. In other words your pelvis does a slight rotation – the tip of the coccyx dropping further as if to tuck between your legs. You will also feel the lumbar area of your spine flex slightly (the ‘S’ bend beginning to straighten out). If you don’t hurry into the step (in fact try not bothering with the step at all), you will feel a sensation of sinking into the foot that you’re stepping from.
Why does the hip rotate and the spine flex?
Each time you lift your knee, for whatever function, you need to engage your core muscles (try lifting your knee as high as possible – it’s unmistakable). This means that your abdomen draws in slightly. When you draw in the abdomen, the hip rotates and the spine flexes.
BUT, the hip cannot rotate efficiently if you forget to release the hip joint. Locking up one part of your body compromises the other parts causing them to either malfunction, or to attempt to do a job for which they are not designed. In Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting muscles’.
‘Not Holding On’
Incidentally, I used the expression ‘not holding on’ above. I know it’s frowned upon to use negative instructions, but I have found that this is far more effective than expressions such ‘relax’ or ‘release’ etc. If ‘holding on’ is a negative concept in the process of free movement, maybe ‘stop holding on’ is therefore a double negative (= a positive) … just a thought.
So, to come back to the original point, i.e. the moves in the Yang 24-Step Form, you are asking your hip to function efficiently not only whilst moving forwards/backwards, but, in the cases of Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane, and Brush knee, etc. whilst turning at the same time.
When standing for Golden Cockerel or the Kicks, the same principle applies – the sinking again performs the function of grounding you by allowing your hip to move into the right position, prior to rising out of one foot. This activates the spine, allowing it to connect from foot to waist to middle of the back (opposite the heart) to neck to crown.
Just ‘stop holding on’.