Tag Archives: alignment

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.

Alignment 103: The Waist

The Classics refer the to waist as the director, as it plays two key roles during the practice of Tai Chi. The first is that it transmits the energy generated by the legs up through the spine to the shoulders. It is also responsible for keeping the body in alignment as the body moves from posture to posture. This is why The Classics refer to the waist as the director.

There is a lot to know how to work from the waist and make it an effective director. Here are some tips to keep in mind during your practice:

• The hips should remain at the same height throughout the form. If one hip becomes higher than another, the spine must compensate in an unnatural way to maintain balance. Try to visualize the waist as a bowl filled with water to its rim; don’t spill a drop!

• The turning of the waist should be coordinated with the shifting of the weight. When gathering, the waist can be used to align an emptying foot for the next step. When shifting the weight forward in the Bow & Arrow Stance, the waist should begin to turn as the front knee tracks over the ankle toward the toes.

• Make sure that the feet and legs give the waist enough room to operate. As mentioned in an earlier post, a foundation that is too short, long, wide or narrow will leave the waist little opportunity to keep the body balanced or move the energy.

• Be aware that turning waist too far can lead to tension in the hip and knee joints, or even uproot the feet. The direction of the navel should never point outside the direction of either foot.

• To achieve a solid connection between ground (earth) and the crown of the head (heaven), the abdomen should be slightly engaged throughout the form. By this I mean that the lower back is slightly lengthened by the activation of deeper muscle groups (most notably, the psoas muscles). This can take some time to find, but the reward is more than worth the effort. For example, when one’s body begins to understand that it is the waist that directs the yin leg (whether that is to help close the back foot during a two hand push, or align an emptying foot for the next step), one’s practice will be so much more profound.

Consider the role of the waist in your Tai Chi practice as being similar to the hub of a wheel. If the hub is off-center or does not keep a tight rein on the spokes, the wheel will be unbalanced and much less effective. However, when the hub is strong and properly aligned, the wheel should be able to carry its load with grace and finesse.

Be the hub.