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Trust your skeleton

A new starter must learn how to relax their muscles and utilise skeletal alignment to their advantage. Habitual muscular tension actively prevents optimal alignment.
Tense muscles lock the joints and impede natural, healthy skeletal use.


Letting-go of tension and trusting the skeleton requires a leap of faith, and here is where the difficulty lies. The student must stop doing what is comfortable and familiar, and try something entirely new.


Here is the catch-22:
- in order to use the skeleton properly a person needs to relax and allow the joints to open and the spine to settle
- relaxation requires confidence and confidence assumes security
- the unfamiliar promotes insecurity/fear and fear keeps the body tense


The human skeleton can easily be aligned in a manner that works constructively with gravity. Gravity is useful.
Rather than fight against gravity or crumple, we want our bodies to feel light, mobile and strong.

Losing the natural curvature

Instead of relaxing the lower back and allowing the pelvis to remain neutral, many people shorten the lower back.
The spine loses its natural curvature and becomes weaker; more vulnerable to injury. They are typically unaware of this habit because it is 'familiar' and seems 'normal' to them.
Releasing the lower back is easy. However, you need to monitor it repeatedly throughout the day until it becomes an established habit.

Body weight

We want to transfer body weight when we interact with a partner/opponent. Relaxed muscles are heavier than tense ones.
Relaxed joints enable the body to sink and settle; thus creating more stability and an increased ability to transmit power through the entirety of the body.

Optimal structure

With careful consideration, every form, drill and exercise can be considered with optimal structure in mind. The key thing is not to interfere with what the body itself wants to do.
Becoming attuned to your body requires awareness, sensitivity and relaxation.
It is important to feel comfortable at all times, and never to force your body into performing any movement or shape that "doesn't feel right".

When standing we should have a sensation of being more in our heels than the front of the foot. However, there should be no tendency to tighten the toes or lift them off the floor. Let the toes lie freely and allow the whole foot to 'soften'. Let the weight go down 'into' the floor so your feel grounded. This gives a firm base from which to think of lengthening upwards. Free your ankles so there is a little sway available to help discover upright balance. In order to enjoy standing without strain we should never get fixed in position.

(Noel Kingsley)


The shoulder joints, hip joints and ankles are in vertical alignment. The head floats upward but there is no conscious 'doing'. The spine must drape from the skull.
The groin and the hips are open and free. The 6 balanced pairs are adhered to. Hinging of the torso takes place at the hip, rather than the ribcage or lower back. The knees are relaxed, not deeply bent.


The hardest part is often to 'feel' where the arms and legs need to go. Cultivating this requires tuition,
partner work and feedback. The physics is not hard to understand or implement.
Working with somebody else can quickly show you if your framework is relaxed, tense, over-extended or weak and prone to crumpling.


Skeletal alignment facilitates peng. Without peng your tai chi will simply not work and you will be essentially training externally.
The rounded, flexible shape of peng is present in every single movement. It provides protection, enables stickiness and allows you to roll around a line of force instead of blocking it.

No peng?

Alignment is pointless if you do not develop peng. It must be there in every single thing you do and is never lost or broken. The possession of peng means that you never have to tense-up.
The skeleton acts as a structural conduit, and the tendons, ligaments, fascia and relaxed muscles provide the springiness.

Central equilibrium

Central equilibrium must be maintained at all times. If there is a risk of being compromised by an opponent, there are 3 options available:

  1. Turn the waist and shift the weight into the other leg

  2. Step

  3. Bend at the hip

These yielding skills will enable you to preserve your centre without losing peng.

Mobility/stability ratio

Exaggerating the size of the skeletal alignment will lead to postural instability. There will be a considerable number of evident weaknesses.
No posture is impregnable, but an overly-extended framework is liable to promote tension when put under pressure.

In the middle

The larger your frame, the less mobile the joints are. Similarly, a frame that is too small will provide excellent mobility and the ability to move rapidly, but no skeletal balance or strength.

70/30 stance

When a student has reached a degree of suppleness, flexibility and awareness that facilitates good body use, they must consider a more martial framework.
The 70/30 stance is used throughout our curriculum. It enables the student to use a deeper, longer, more powerful framework that a new starter could not physically manage.
The advantage of this stance is that it protects the centre with ease, maintains structural alignment at all times and enables rapid movement. It is impossible to over-commit or over-extend.


The connected network of body parts must move as one unit, but not in a rigid, robotic manner. A significant degree of play in the joints is required if you desire the ability to release energy.
Do not let the framework become a rigid cage. Your body must act as a conduit for the the expression of kinetic energy. Use your mind to establish groundpath.

Form movements

Form is the tool used by tai chi to teach the student how to find and practice optimal alignment.
The extensive variety of form movements challenge the student to find the best possible 'pattern of movement' with each step. Learn how to align yourself well throughout each and every form.
This is an activity best undertaken at home, through lengthy practice and contemplation. In class, ask other students to pressure test your individual form movements.

Biomechanical advantage

Instead of tensing muscles as and when needed, the internal martial arts cultivate unbroken power at all times. No tensing is required.
The unorthodox movements employed by the tai chi forms were designed to offer a biomechanical advantage when using the body.
When successfully paired with an incoming attack, they offer a position of superior leverage and strength. Learning how to accomplish this is a major area of study in its own right.

Effort/reward ratio

Internal body use challenges conventional wisdom and the conventional application of strength. The body must be strong. The application of that strength is unorthodox.

Tai chi fighting method

The aim is to unite the entire body in application. Every action is a complete action. Every part of you does every movement. This may sound strenuous but it is not.
Instead of delegating the workload to your arms and shoulders, every part of the body is involved.
Rather than force your will upon the entire attacker, you limit your attention to a small part of their body and use everything you have on that target. The strategy comes from The Art of War.


Partner work, combat drills, form application and combat work all offer opportunities to become adept at finding the most advantageous relationship.
A student must be capable of demonstrating their competence in a thorough and convincing way against any attack.
The ability to adapt, change and improvise requires a degree of awareness, presence and spontaneity that will only arise through many years of tuition, experience and practice.

Martial arts students need a weight bearing skeleton, a free psoas muscle and open hip sockets to perform well. There is a tendency to lock the psoas muscle in a defensive posture and fatigue the muscle by keeping it in a chronic contracted state. This limits the movement of the leg, encouraging the use of the lumbar spine for kicking and stops a person from performing effectively.

Being in the tai chi posture utilizes gravity to one's advantage.

(Liz Koch)

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Page created 18 March 1997
Last updated 16 June 2023