Tag Archives: Tai Chi Chuan

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.

Alignment 102: The Legs

The Classics describe transferring energy through the legs as though they were springs. When avoiding, the front leg moves the one’s center back; when applying, the weight launches it forward. The center should never move so far as to uproot either foot.

During Tai Chi Chuan, the practitioner shifts his weight from one leg to the other dozens and dozens of times. Some of these transitions between yin and yang are fairly straightforward, others are slightly modified or unique, but all hold a common theme: the yin leg must be structurally stable enough (yang) to accept the energy from the yang leg, and the yang leg has to be relaxed enough (yin) to listen to the needs of the transition.

This is evident when preparing to push from a Bow & Arrow Stance. While coiling on the back leg, it should feel as though you are sitting back onto a stool, but there should still be some mobility in the hip and knee joints. The front leg should be fairly empty; however, some structure is required (bent knee aligned with the foot) for balance and also so that it can receive the weight transfer properly.

Remember also that a good set of springs is only as good as the placement of the anchors. The integrity of each foot’s connection with the earth will affect the strength and direction of your energy. If your Bow & Arrow Stance is too long, your push will not go in the intended direction. If too short, you will not be grounded enough to make an effective push.

Take a few minutes before class to practice shifting your weight from leg to leg very, very slowly. Listen as one leg fills up and the other empties. Do both feet remain completely grounded? Are you moving in the direction of intent? When sitting back, does it feel as though your legs will push in the direction you want to go?

Find your springs.

The Importance of Alignment

My investigation of Tai Chi Chuan really took off when I began approaching my practice with alignment in mind. Whether you come to this study for its health benefits, martial properties, or as a form of personal expression, working toward proper alignment on a regular basis will bring great returns with respect to flow, balance and internal strength.

Take the simple analogy of a water hose: if this conduit is left open the water continues to flow along the path; if the hose is bent, however, the output is hindered or completely blocked.

“Well,” you might say, “I’m a wee bit more complex than a tube… how does this apply to me?”

Tai Chi Chuan means “Supreme Ultimate Fist” or “Supreme Ultimate Form.” This is not a declaration of ego (quite the opposite), but rather a reference to the relationship between the Taoist principles of yin and yang. For a moment, think of the joints of your body as gates that allow energy to flow. When these gates are working in unison, energy flows freely in the direction of your intent. However, if a gate is closing (yin) when it should be opening (yang), the flow is compromised. Likewise, if a gate is opening when it should be closing, energy is lost.

As we listen to and work on alignment, our practice can’t help but improve. From a health standpoint, we become more efficient on many levels and relieve excessive body strain. From a martial perspective, we learn more about the transfer of energy and the dangers of over-commitment. Artistically, we will find ways to be more expressive and communicate with more clarity.

Over the coming weeks we’ll look at ways to get a better understanding of alignment and methods to improve it. Stay tuned.