Foundation: Stance Work in Tai Chi Chuan Practice

An Interview with Masters Yang Zhenduo and Yang Jun

Conducted by Dave Barrett, Translated by Jerry Karin

journal-25_page24_image1bThis July when the Masters were in Portland, Oregon for the Seminar, they were kind enough to agree to an interview after a busy day of teaching. We ended up talking for over two hours. The first part of the conversation concerned the ethical values of the Chinese Martial Traditions in general and Tai Chi Chuan in particular. This discussion will be featured in our next issue.

The second topic of our conversation was more technical in nature, dealing specifically with foot work, leg training and stance work. As a starting point for this discussion I mentioned that Yang Laoshi had written at length concerning this topic in his most recent book. Here is an excerpt from his book to set the stage and then our conversation follows.

“When you make a bow step, as the weight shifts from one foot to the other, you should pay attention to the symmetrical arrangement of the two opposing forces – one leg pushing and the other pushing back or resisting. Whether the front leg is pushing backward and the back leg resisting, or the back leg is pushing forward and the front leg resisting, the forces must be coordinated, so as to avoid pushing out too hard or resisting too hard, or pushing out emptily without any compensating resistance. I hope you will work hard to incorporate this point in your form.

If you can achieve just the right balance in this, it will create favorable conditions for upper and lower body to work in concert during transitional moves. When extending the weighted leg to its ultimate position in a bow step, just as in the extension of an arm, extend until it is almost fully extended but not quite. If you over-extend then it becomes forced and looks stiff. If the back leg is bent too much, the pushing force cannot come out, and it will seem as if you have a lot of power but can’t use it.

The resistance of the empty leg goes through a process of gradual engagement. First touch the floor with the heel, continue by allowing the flat of the foot to touch, then the toes grab the floor, and then let the knee bend forward, letting the bending knee and shin slightly incline forward and increasing the resistance from the front leg so as not to allow the knee to pass the toe.

This way, with one leg pushing and one leg resisting, neither force subsiding or becoming too strong, the lower body will become a great deal stronger and more stable. Note that if the knee and shin of the forward leg are standing perpendicular to the ground then it is hard to utilize the resisting force and the back leg won’t be able develop power in its push forward. If the knee goes past the toe, you’ll lose your balance and the back leg again won’t be able to develop much power. Only when you make the knee and shin slightly incline forward, with the knee not going past the toe, can you thoroughly get the full strength of two forces, pushing out and resisting, to come into play… The key to achieving whole-body coordination lies in the pushing and resisting of the two legs. Try to become aware of this in your practice”.

DB: I’d like to ask you about the correct method for balancing the strength expressed in the lower body. In your recent book you mentioned that the balance of oppositional forces of pushing and resisting in the stance work is an important factor in creating a stable body frame. Could you explain how this is done?

YZD: This is a good question. In our theory we have the requirement that the root is in the foot. This is the basis for the foundation. If the foundation is good the upper body will be fine. If the foundation is no good, the upper body cannot be stable. Just like building a house: if the foundation work is not right, the upper structures will be unstable.

It is necessary to focus on the stability of the lower body when we practice Tai Chi Chuan

For example: If you don’t have your feet shoulder width in the bow step, there’s no way to be stable and it’s hard to perform the motions correctly. I really think that the lower body is extremely important and the requirements should really begin with organizing the stance work. If there is something wrong with the upper body, most probably you need to examine the lower body for the cause. If the bottom is correct, the torso and the arms will be better. Like anything, you proceed step by step: if you can’t get the basics correct and then you require something of the upper body, nothing can be done if the bottom is no good, you can’t coordinate. So it all starts from the foundation, this is important. Just like the way we develop as people: our personality should have fundamental qualities of fairness and compassion; these are real basics that provide for the development of the individual.

The most basic aspect of stance work is the relationship between deng and cheng (pushing and resisting). If you don’t have this relationship of pushing and resisting, it’s very easy for the body to go off leaning one way or another. One’s equilibrium is affected and can be easily led or taken advantage of. When you practice incorrectly, you will feel it is kind of empty, it seems like the root is not solid. There is a saying, “Rooted in the feet, developed in the legs, controlled by the waist, and manifested through the limbs.” So it starts from the feet, there is an order of precedence, if you don’t do it this way it’s all mixed up.

DB: Talking specifically about the feet: When the heel goes down and the weight begins to shift, do the toes need to grab the ground and create the oppositional force?

YZD: When you engage your toes it’s just like anything: you can’t overdo it. If you have no contact from the toes it’s no good, and if the toes are used too much it’s not right either. Many things are like this, you have to use an appropriate amount of force. Maybe if I try too hard, there’s no need for that. It’s always like this: not to have is incorrect, and to be excessive is not right either. So you should use the 10 Essentials: relax and extend, not too soft or too stiff, one needs to find the balance in between. In general you should make the essential refinements appropriately and not to an extreme. Our predecessors have formulated these principle requirements. These have helped us to avoid so many dead ends in our practice. They require us to put a great deal of effort into our study, to use practical experiences to integrate the theory into our form. Even though they are general refinements, they are very, very rich in content.

For example: the requirements for the hand. It says extend the palm and curve the fingers. This really requires an integration of stance work, torso positioning, and correct extension of the arms. This question really contains so much practical experience: when I stand the palm up, how should I do it correctly? Over the past few days I’ve noticed a good deal of variation in the palm positions of the students. Everybody says they are standing the palm, but there are not too many who are doing it correctly. So we are going through a learning process. When you study the form you can’t just stop and say, ” I’ve got it now.” We need to learn, become aware, gain practical experience, and then practice more and a little more. Through all these repetitions gradually one becomes more skillful. It’s not sufficient to look at the Essentials and say, ” It says to do this, now I’ve got it, I can read it and that’s enough.” Even though these Essentials have helped us enormously, it’s not enough. The individual needs to practice and search for them, to perfect the motions.

DB: I’d like to focus on just one more point. The formula states, “Rooted in the feet, developed in the legs.” Many students understand the importance of turning the waist but perhaps not so many are aware of developing the motion in the legs. Specifically the action of the knee: it seems that the knee needs to transfer body weight but many people hold body weight in the knee and end up injuring this area. So how can we develop the motion in the leg and protect the knee at the same time?

YZD: The knee has the function of connecting the upper and lower leg. Of course this joint is very essential. The formula mentions the entire leg, but just like when the arm is discussed it is actually several pieces. In the same way the knee is the essential part of the lower body structure. Its function is to connect the bottom and upper parts of the frame. If you use the knee correctly you can connect the upper and lower parts of the leg. If it is not correct, for example in the bow stance if the forward knee extends beyond the toes, the knee can’t perform it’s function properly. You lose the function. So as with everything, there is a definite degree that is appropriate. Not only the knees, for example if we say the waist is the commander, if you don’t connect the legs correctly even though you have this commanding feature of the waist, without the proper arrangement of the structure above and below, it won’t work. It can’t do it by itself. Very few people pay close attention to the body arrangement principles, some don’t even know that the motions requires these essential refinements, and if you don’t make these changes how can the waist operate correctly? The same goes for the knees. Although they have a type of controlling force, without coordinating the upper and lower portions of the stance they can’t work.

Throughout the course of our training there is a kind of realization that comes with practice. For example: if you are a leader or boss at work, it’s not just you. If it was just you that would be fine but the problem is there is always someone above or below you. So Tai Chi practice can give you some inspiration: I have to have managed coordination but without the bottom below me operating efficiently to help me, it won’t work out. Throughout this training I need to understand that I need to be very diligent, if I do something I have to do it carefully. We emphasize that there must be ending positions for each motion sequence. Every form has a final position, so too can this be applied to our work life, the idea is the same.

YJ: I’d like to add a point about the legwork, specifically, where one’s energy comes from during the Fajing techniques. A part of the power comes from the contracting and expanding of the leg muscles and the shifting of the body weight. Another part of the strength comes from the rotation of the waist. These combined areas produce the refined energy expressed as Jing. The root of Fajing however is in the footwork. There are other requirements, of course, and if you use these principles correctly you can amplify the power. So ” rooted in the feet, developed in the legs” is only a part of this process, how you shift the weight in a coordinated fashion is also important. So many people read, “Upper and lower combined and coordinated”, but they don’t quite understand how critical this requirement is. The intent of the technique and the body weight must arrive at the same time. It’s not that easy. When you move, the whole body must be coordinated, only then will you be able to focus, deliver, and emit energy through one place. So the whole body works together to strengthen the emission process.

YZD: It is not just an isolated part of the body or the coordination of the motion; one must also harmonize the mind to be a part of this entire process.

YJ: If we isolate the motions and practice single applications over and over, one can experience even more clearly the need to coordinate in order to make the energy develop correctly. For example: in staff training it’s very easy to see how coordinating the body will allow the energy to manifest correctly at the opposite end of the staff. If the coordinations are incorrect, the energy will be spread out and unfocused. The same applies to the sword form, if you know how to do this then the energy will travel to the tip.

YZD: It’s very clear, whether you or I or she practices in this way. Even though we perform the same motion, there seems to be some difference. Even though we say it should all be the same, there are so many variables in the personal expression of the forms.

DB: Many people when they begin studying Tai Chi are so enchanted by the handwork they neglect the stances and leg work. Hopefully this discussion will alert students that they need to pay attention to the foundation first.

YZD: The handwork, just look at the hand shape, not even the application of techniques, the shape of the hand is quite difficult. To get it just right, if you do it correctly then all of your strength can come out through there, the hand is where it comes out, the ultimate display of energy is in the hand. When we look at the students their hand positions are not quite clear or clean, it’s hard to express the Qi correctly.

DB: This is a topic for another interview! Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us.

YZD: One more thing about the hands: It’s not only the energy that is expressed, but ultimately Spirit that comes out. If you get it right, Energy, Spirit and Essence are present in the handwork. (As he was making these remarks Yang Laoshi suddenly sat upright with his eyes blazing and presented the crispest and cleanest standing palm I’ve ever seen him make, the transformation was startling and the energy expressed in this instant was electric.)

DB: I would love to talk with you at length about this topic but we have imposed too much on your time this evening. YZD: I’m very happy to be able to sit here and explore these basic ideas. This is very, very good; anytime we can do it again I look forward to it. So that we can raise the level of the general group, whether concrete aspects or general theory, let’s do this again. We can’t just practice the form, we need to use theory to enable and enrich our practice. ☯

Reprinted from Journal 25, Tenth Anniversary Issue, Summer 2009

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