Category Archives: Alignment

Cross Training (Supporting your Tai Chi Practice)

Reprinted from an annual retrospective, written for students of the Tai Chi Center of Chicago.

I was recently reflecting upon the significance of a thirty-year old memory. It was toward the end of a Tae Kwon Do class, and we had just completed free sparring and our instructor was taking us through some cool-down exercises. Wearing Jeet Kune Do gloves, he knelt down, placed his fists on the ground and went into a Yoga crow pose, and then pushed into a handstand.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were routinely cross training in other areas of fitness (yoga, sprints, plyometric exercise) to help get the most out of our martial practice.

Not surprisingly, our study of the internal arts at the Tai Chi Center of Chicago also benefits from supplementary exercises. Master Hsu continued to teach from his library of Kung Fu forms, which strengthened the legs for Tai Chi weapons practice. Elizabeth followed suit by creating her 50 lb. jacket, and later became an advocate for integrating Pilates to strengthen core muscle groups.

As each of us continue dig deeper into the study of Tai Chi, we will likely need to create (and evolve) our own personal cross training routines to supplement our practice. That said, consider what you would like to work on in the coming year, and how that change could be brought into reality. Perhaps some swimming for some low-impact body strengthening and joint rejuvenation? How about some Yoga (or a foam roller) to open tight muscle groups and improve balance?

Keep in mind that cross training for an internal art need not be about physical gain. You may want to take on a more in-depth study of meditation to develop better concentration or work on your breathing skills.

Tai Chi provides numerous benefits, and it only makes sense that we listen for ways to support our practice that could make our experience more profound. So take some time to find a point of focus, get creative (or feel free to ask an instructor for advice), and explore.

Finally, if you venture into some social spaces for group study (which is a good thing, especially during these winter months), be sure to share your experiences and invite others to try Tai Chi…!

Alignment 105: The Hands

So you’ve rooted the feet, used the legs to spring, directed that power with the waist and channeled that energy up the spine and through the shoulders… now it’s time to express.

We want the forearms and hands to be awake to awake enough to be responsive, yet soft enough to listen.

Remember to keep the fingers together. This simple action calls for a little bit of effort in the hand that keeps it alert. When writing a letter or painting, notice that your hand is not gripping the pen or brush too tightly; nor is the connection too loose. It’s in a state somewhere in-between – a place that is strong to the point of being supportive, yet relaxed enough to receive direct feedback from its action. This is what the hands will do by connecting the fingers: they become an interface.

When a hand technique requires activation with a bend in the wrist (sitting hand, cut, united fingertips, knuckle punch), strike a balance between activation and alignment. The activation of the wrist allows the energy to flow down one side of the forearm to reach the hand. However, twisting the wrist or making the joint too angular will block the flow. As a general rule, do not bend the joint so far as to create major flexion folds in the wrist.

If the hand technique does not require activation in the wrist (jab, punch, back fist), keep that channel open down the forearm to the middle knuckle – straight as an arrow!

The next time you settle into the horse-riding stance at the beginning of the Tai Chi Chuan, listen as your hands and forearms activate.  Continue to carry that sensation throughout the entirety of the form.

Go play; express yourself.

Alignment 104: The Spine & Shoulders

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.