A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
by Christopher Dow
The Tai Chi Classics contain a number of basic rules for tai chi, one of the most important of which is to song (sung) or to be song. Song is a simple word that contains a great deal of import. Most basically, it means to relax the upper body, to sink the sensation of the body weight into the lower abdomen and legs, and to coalesce the sensation of the body’s internal energy within the lower abdomen. Associated concepts are opening the joints, relaxing the musculature, hollowing the chest, and allowing the arms to droop without being limp. And all of these lead one to be able to settle, which is one of the keys to tai chi’s martial power. As a concept, song is easy to understand; however, as a practice, it is very difficult to achieve.
To be able to be song, one must have proper bodily alignments, otherwise muscles and joints that should be able to relax are busy doing inappropriate work that inhibits the ability to be song and to circulate internal energy effectively. Improper joint alignment and inappropriate muscular action are defects, and the Tai Chi Classics also encourage us to seek the cause of defects first in the feet and legs—the body’s foundation, its stance.
The tai chi stance is like sitting on a three-legged stool, although only two of the legs are the actual physical legs. The third is central equilibrium, which is an axis of the body running from the crown of the head (the baihui acupuncture point), through the centers of the tantien and the perineum (the huiyin acupuncture point), to the ground. Central equilibrium is the principal stance among tai chi’s five stances. Or, the third leg can be considered an extension of the spine that intersects the ground. This sensation of possessing a third leg and sitting is present whether one is in horse stance, bow stance, or sitting stance. In all cases, the knees are flexed or bent to some degree.
The deeper the stance, the more of a workout the legs get. However, the depth or height of the stance isn’t as much of an issue as are the correct alignments of the body that allow the sensation of sitting to occur. Younger people, as a general rule, have an easier time performing lower stances, and the stances of many tai chi practitioners tends to rise with age. But higher stances, aligned correctly, can generate just as much power as lower stances, and often much more rapidly.
The top of the three-legged stool is the pelvic girdle, which is, in essence, a bowl into which the upper body sits. Or should, for that is, sadly, not always the case with regards to human posture. Too often people slump, bend forward at the waist, slouch sideways, or commit other postural errors, all of which cause the muscles of the back and shoulders to perform duties they are not well suited to doing. This causes undue muscle and joint strain and tension, both of which inhibit chi flow not to mention making it more difficult to move through one’s daily life.
The legs of this three-legged stool can flex and take weight—even the invisible third leg—thanks to proper balance of the upper body on the two tangible legs, which are strengthened in the process. This balance is effected by employing as its base the solidity of the triple-pyramidal foundation created by the three legs of the stool. The stability of this foundation allows the bowl of the pelvic girdle to remain stable, which in turn allows the spine to hold the trunk directly over the pelvic girdle so that the trunk can sit straight down into the pelvis. When the trunk sits into the pelvic girdle, muscles in the back and shoulders that were formerly misused to retain balance can now be freed to effect flexible movement of the trunk.
The sensation of sitting is a prerequisite to the action of sinking or settling flexibly on your legs, which enables you to, in effect, fall down into your stance then surge out of it with a correctly timed push from one leg or the other. This surging rebound is one of the main elements of tai chi’s martial power. It allows the leg push to accelerate the already existing rebound effect from the settling action, and this, in turn, is given a final impetus by the purely physical unfolding action of the relaxed body. The unfolding produces a whipping action whose snap is a final and appropriate tensing of the whipping body part.
Because the whipping body part is almost completely relaxed until the very brief but very thorough tensing and subsequent instant of impact, and the physical action is one of unfolding, the nerve impulses and accompanying chi fields also whip down the arm in conjunction, only to be halted and accumulated at the appropriate places by the tensing of the body part. From there, the accumulation can be transferred into the body and chi field of the opponent in the same instant that the body part has its direct physical effect. The sharper the physical action, the sharper the chi manifestation. This doesn’t mean “greater.” A blow bearing a less-powerful emanation of chi will do less damage than a blow of equal physical impact but bearing a heavier emanation.
Relaxation and proper body alignments are absolutely critical in properly effecting movements that work on both the physical and energetic levels. And the basis of those depend completely on the solidity and stability of the body’s foundation: the three-legged stool.
And there are other reasons to learn to sit into your pelvic girdle. Tai chi often is touted as an excellent exercise for aging people. One reason is that tai chi’s slow movements combined with correct bodily alignments work with but do not stress the weaker muscles and joints in older people. Also, being sunken into your lower body means you will fall less, and that when you fall, you will tend to collapse downward instead of toppling, resulting in less injury to yourself.
Yet another important aspect concerns the fact that people, as they age, shrink downward from the perpetual force of gravity and bone density loss. Continually positioning your trunk over your pelvic girdle will allow your trunk to settle more naturally and without kinks as you age. This will help prevent stress to the muscles in the back—particularly the lower back—and mitigate pain experienced there.
Any good and valid human practice is built on a good foundation, and tai chi is no different. The beauty of tai chi is that you can use it to ensure that your own personal foundation is as solid and stable as it can be. Tai chi’s value as a healthful exercise and its martial power are both rooted in a proper stance, so, the next time you stand up to do the form, remember: Sit down!