A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
The Waist Is the Commander
by Christopher Dow
The statement, “The waist is the commander,” is familiar to most Tai Chi exponents above the level of beginner. The hips and waist comprise the mechanism that transfers and directs the energy surging up from the legs into the correct upper body part in the correct manner. The following incident might or might not illustrate that point, but it showed me how action of the abdominal region can instinctively initiate and control movement.
I was about ten years old at the time, living in central Oklahoma. At the end of the road I lived on was a large, wooded tract of property owned by a widow and her son. A prominent creek ran along the back line of the property, and my friends and I liked to explore the creek and the property itself, which had several features of interest to mischievous boys, such as a forest fire watchtower, a large hay barn, and a small brick gazebo built like a guard house into one corner of the tall brick wall that formed the front property line.
Eventually, someone had the idea that there was oil underneath the property. The surrounding neighborhoods notwithstanding, an oil exploration crew moved in, drilled an exploratory well, and generally trashed and spoiled the back third of the property before discovering that only dirt and rock lay beneath. The exploration company moved on, leaving a huge, muddy scar on the landscape, including two highly polluted detention ponds colored an iridescent vomit green. These ponds lay just slightly uphill and less than a quarter of a mile from the creek. It was just the sort of place for my friend, John, and I to explore. And others, too.
One day, John and I were down there, at the back side of the lowest detention pond, where a fringe of woods separated the “oil field” from the creek. As we were messing around, a couple of girls about our age or a little older showed up from the woods. I’d never seen them before, so they were probably from one of the new neighborhoods that were being developed on the far side of the creek. Apparently, they didn’t like the fact that my friend and I were there, so they started throwing rocks at us.
Well, I’d been in plenty of rock, dirt clod, and walnut battles, and I wasn’t intimidated. I picked up some missiles of my own and threw back. Both pairs of us hunkered down behind mounds of dirt about thirty feet apart, then we’d pop up and give fire before ducking down again, with lots of grade-school curse words hurled in between. After this had gone on for maybe five minutes, I popped up to throw another rock, and was greeted with an odd sight.
One of the girls had risen above her protective mound, and I could see her clearly from about mid thigh up—except for a weird black patch that blocked much of her upper torso. This black patch was very irregular in shape, kind like an elongated and twisted blob with half a dozen spindly and raggedly sharp projections jutting from its main body. It seemed to be hanging mysteriously in the air between me and the girl, whose arm was weirdly extended toward me.
In the split second that I saw the blob, my mind reacted, trying to figure out what it was. “Root,” a voice proclaimed. “She just threw it. It's heading right for your head!” All that information came as if in one instantaneous word. I felt a seed of panic appear inside me. The piece of root with the jagged remains of smaller roots sticking out of it, was going to hit me right in the face. But the panic had no chance to sprout. In that instant, I felt muscles wrench inside my lower abdomen, jerking me downward with a speed that I could never have accomplished consciously. As my body contracted, I felt the root tips graze the top of my head as the ragged chunk sailed over me. I’d been saved by my tantien, which had reacted to the danger even before my conscious mind had recognized it.