Saturday, January 8, 2011

Agility in Tai Chi (taiji) and the Ability to Move Nimbly

Dr. Paul Lam, developer of Tai Chi for Arthritis, uses the Chinese word “huo” to mean “agility.” He says, “Being strong, having powerful qi, and being in a good mental state are essential, and these attributes will be even more effective with better agility. Agility comes from regular practice with the proper body posture, weight transference, control of movements, loosened joints, and strong internal strength. Agility aids qi cultivation and improves flexibility.” The word “ling” is also used to mean agility, as in “song ling jing” meaning “relaxed agility power”.

From readings of this term, another translation for some situations might be “adaptability” instead of “agility.” It is all about being able to adapt to the situation no matter your position.

Substantial and Insubstantial
 It is important to know the meaning of substantial and insubstantial. A substantial foot means that all (or most) of your weight is in that foot. For instance, if the whole body's weight is on the right foot, the right foot is substantial and the left foot is insubstantial, and vice versa.

If you want to step forward with your right foot, you must shift your entire weight to the left foot and leave no weight on the right foot, except a tiny bit for balance. Pick up your right foot and place it where you want to step. If you are stepping forward, touch down with the heel, then the rest of your foot, and then transfer your weight onto that foot. When you step like this, the movement will be light and agile. When you try to step forward with one foot while there is still some weight on both feet, the movement will be heavy and clumsy.

The same principle applies when stepping sideways. Transfer your weight to one foot, step out with the other, then touch down and transfer your weight. For most forms, you try to touch down with your heel when stepping sideways, although this is usually not too important. If you are stepping backward, touch down with the ball of your foot, then the rest of your foot, and then transfer your weight onto that foot. At all times, be mindful of where your weight is placed. This improves your mobility, coordination, and stability.

This type of stepping has been shown to strengthen your legs and improve coordination. This is especially important for older people to help prevent falls. In fact, several organizations have recommended tai chi to help prevent falls.

There is a simple way to improve your ability to be aware of shifting your weight. As you are practicing your tai chi forms, imagine that you are wearing a tap dancer’s shoes and you are practicing on a hard surface floor. When you step, place your feet down as if you were trying to avoid making any noise from the tap shoes. This develops your ability to shift your weight and control your balance.

Double-Weightedness
If there is no huo, then double-weightedness occurs and your body is not able to adjust or adapt to change. Double-weightedness, sometimes called “weakness of double-yang”, means that your posture limits your potential to step or move. It gives you difficulty in shifting your weight. In order to avoid double-weightedness, it is necessary to differentiate between yin and yang. Yin and yang refer to complementary aspects of a situation or posture.

In the simplest situation, you must shift your weight before you can move. You cannot step without shifting your weight to one leg and picking up the other foot. The leg that gets the extra weight is substantial, or yang. The leg that releases the weight is insubstantial, or yin. In this simple case, differentiating between yin and yang means to be aware of substantial (yang) and insubstantial (yin) and shift your weight before moving. If you do not shift your weight, you will be double-weighted and clumsy when you try to move.

A slightly more complex situation is when you are standing in horse stance where your weight must be equally distributed. You could shift your weight to move and this would be the same as the previous situation. However, there may be times when you want to spring away from the fixed stance. Here, differentiating between your yin and yang means keeping your two feet on the ground (yin) and bending in your knees (yang). If you do not bend your knees, you will be double-weighted and clumsy when you try to move.

Your body should have yin and yang on each side of the body. If the right leg is yang, the left leg is yin, the right hand is yin, and the left hand is yang. For example, if you are doing a brush knee to your left, your right leg is substantial and you sweep your left hand past your knee to deliver power. As you shift your weight onto your left leg, you bring your right forward to deliver power. If you try to make the right leg and the right hand both yin, you are double weighted. This could happen if you try to do brush knee without shifting your weight.

© 2011 Eric Borreson