When I started my investigation of Tai Chi Chuan, the shoulders seemed to be the most puzzling aspect of all. Even though I had “memorized” the form, I felt as though my shoulders were some sort of enigma: too tense to be sensitive, yet too loose to be structurally supportive. When my teacher demonstrated the deceptively simple action of properly aligned shoulders, I was always amazed. For years, I could not figure out how such subtle movements could deliver so much force. It took a long time to distill my experiences into a set of general concepts that I continue to apply to my practice:
• Allow the waist to move the entire trunk as one unit. The spine should remain long without twisting. Lift the crown of the head skyward, and slightly engage the core abdominal muscles to gently tuck the tail. This should keep and the shoulders should be aligned with the hips. A good analogy here is a bar stool – the waist pivots, and the trunk follows without effort. By letting your legs do the heavy lifting and allowing the spine to move with the waist, you free up your shoulders for sensitivity and the response.
• Keep your shoulder blades in the neutral position. To find this position, stand up straight with your hands directly out to the sides at should height. Try to sense the position of your shoulder blades in the back and the chest muscles just above your armpit. Next, draw your hands further back. Notice how the blades begin to feel compressed and the upper chest muscles feel stretched. Now extend the hands toward the front slowly, until you no longer feel the compression or stretch (it should be a little bit forward of your original ‘T’ position). This is your spot; here your shoulders are connected with your spine and waist! Any further expression through your hands should not move your shoulders from this alignment.
• Drop your elbows! Notice that as you lift your elbows to shoulder height, the shoulders want to rise as well. To keep your shoulders relaxed, visualize a small weight attached to your elbows, a reminder to keep that joint hanging gently between the shoulder and wrist.
• Let the hands lead. It’s good to keep this in mind when practicing the few postures that ask the hand to rise above the head (White Crane Spreads Wings, Fan Through the Back), but actually this rule can be applied to any posture. Imagine your hands being lifted and lowered by strings. Allow your elbows to follow along in a supportive manner, but notice how much easier it is to keep your shoulders in place.
Keeping the larger, outer muscles relaxed will result in improved blood flow and sensitivity. Gradually training the smaller, deeper muscles will finely tune the arms for a strong delivery.
Outside like cotton, inside like steel.