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New starters usually suffer from tense muscles, bad posture, poor poise, ineffective skeletal alignment and limited physical awareness.
Our first concern is to free the body from tension and encourage a greater degree of movement. This is accomplished by following the basic guidelines.
These basic guidelines are essential for all students:
Head floats upwards
Hips & shoulders maintain horizontal alignment
Lengthen the front of the body
Coordination of hip & knee
Bend at the hips & knees rather than the waist
Hips & shoulders work together
Do not tense the muscles or over-reach
The human body
People who exercise commonly ignore the body and actively work against it, rather than with it. Beginners often put the body under unnecessary strain.
The human skeleton and body movement favours the upright body. Yet many martial arts encourage low squatting stances and physically awkward positions.
These are fundamentally unnatural. Injuries and long-term damage are common.
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.
Ignoring the body
Do you ever see a wild animal go against its own nature?
Humans are the stupidest creatures on the planet. We cripple our bodies to satisfy our minds and we defecate where we eat.
Some knowledge of anatomy can be useful in tai chi. The body needs to be used appropriately because mistakes can sometimes lead to injury.
Many people call the abdomen the 'stomach'. The abdomen contains the largest volume of water in the body and is the location of the lower tan tien.
Another common error is pelvis and hip. Moving the pelvis rather than the hip can lead to knee problems and fails to massage the hip joint.
Both pelvis and hip need to be passive in tai chi. We move from the centre and the hip follows.
Feeling not thinking
If you are content to simply listen to what somebody else is teaching you, then you will probably never know what it means to be natural.
Natural body use means feeling what your body is doing and being acutely aware of even the slightest strain imposed upon it.
What you think does not matter. What you are doing does. Thoughts will not help you to move in a natural way. Only feeling can accomplish this. You need to cultivate physical sensitivity and awareness.
If you want power in your tai chi, begin with your lower body. Without a firm foundation, power cannot be expressed through the framework.
Your feet must have three points of contact and the weight balanced equally between front and rear of each foot. Move up to the pelvis.
The pelvis must be stable, with most of the work happening in the hip joint. Now focus upon the torso. It must be comfortably upright, without strain; lengthening from the hip to the crown.
Without these basic skeletal requirements in place, your structure will crumple if you deliver through it.
Sinking and rooting provide an inherent use of gravity. Dropped shoulders, elbows, sunk hips and relaxed spine, knees and ankles improve root. Without root, you are 'floaty' and weak.
Additionally, you must weight shift with every movement except for kicks. If your weight is not behind the movement, where is it?
When shifting weight, the alignment of the pelvis, hips and knees must be considered.
Pay close attention to your framework. The body must be connected together with the optimal angles in order to transmit energy efficiently. Align appropriately behind the line of force.
Ensure that your body is with every strike and helping to fuel it.
Vertical alignment is the most important component. Without this, you may be prone to slumping and this will put strain on the body. Imagine your head being pulled away from the hips.
Do not watch your hands.
The first level of neigong practice is about utilising the natural framework of the body for power.
Instead of struggling with muscular force, let the stronger network of bones, tendons, ligaments and facia bear the brunt of the work.
Then, when muscles need to be more fully employed, use the stronger ones and not against undue resistance.
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.
Unfortunately, this habit prevents people from fully utilising their lower body.
Unite upper & lower
Releasing the lower back is easy. Just relax it by thinking to let-go and lengthen. However, you need to monitor it repeatedly throughout the day until it becomes an established habit.
Lack of progress
If a student remains a beginner for a prolonged period of time, they will not be using their body in the optimal way. The tai chi will be poor and the fitness benefits limited by their grade.
Progress through the grades is essential. It enables the body to grow stronger, healthier and more functional.
18 February 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023