Friday, June 3, 2011

Leg Strength and Balance in Tai Chi (Taiji)

Strong legs and good balance are what keep you mobile as you get older. Balance improves as you strengthen the muscles in your legs. Tai chi is great practice to help with both strength and balance.

For many people first learning tai chi, leg strength and balance can be problems. When you first learn tai chi, you are probably taught a simplified set that is easy to learn and doable by most people. These simplified sets often omit the single-leg stances and kicks. When students finally advance to a set that requires a single-leg form, they often find it difficult to balance on one leg.

The following are examples of exercises that can be used to strengthen your legs, starting with exercises for people who have the most difficulty and need the most improvement. Pick the ones that seem most appropriate for your health. In all of these exercises, work within your comfort zone. With tai chi, slow and steady is the best.

For these exercises, or any other exercise that requires you to balance on one leg, it helps to focus your eyes on a fixed point on the wall or floor in front of you. In addition, you can turn the foot of your supporting foot outward at an angle to get a better base. It also helps to extend out your counterbalance arm before you extend your kick.

Supported Leg Lifts
For learners that have difficulty standing on one leg at all, the first step is to begin with full support. To do this, stand beside a table, counter top, or sturdy chair. Place your hand flat on the table or hold on to the back of the chair. Gently hold on and carefully lift one leg just off the floor. Hold as long as it is comfortable and lower your leg back down to the floor. Repeat with the other leg. Alternate legs and repeat several times. Practice a few minutes every day.

It may take a few days, weeks, or even a few months, but you will gradually get stronger and more confident in your ability to stand on one leg. As you get stronger, repeat the exercise and raise your leg higher or repeat with only four fingers on the edge of the table or chair. Continue as long as needed. Gradually increase the height you raise your foot, increase the time you stand on one leg, or reduce the number of fingers on the support until you feel confident enough to do this without any support.

Tai Chi Stepping
If you can stand on one leg in a fairly stable posture and hold it for a few seconds, it is time to add some dynamic action to the posture to improve your strength and stability. A good example of dynamic action is tai chi stepping. Stepping in tai chi is different than the stepping we do when walking.

Start with your feet about the width of your waist or shoulders and your weight placed evenly on both of your feet. Begin by bending your knees slightly. Then slowly shift your weight to your right leg until all your weight is there and the left leg is “empty”. Slowly lift your left foot and move it directly forward. Touch your heel down, then the rest of your foot. Slowly shift your weight forward until your left knee is bent and most of your weight is on your left leg. Pause, then shift your weight back to your right leg, slowly pick up your left foot, and bring it back to its original position. Shift your weight back to center. Repeat with your other foot. Optionally, add a very slow punch with the opposite hand, where you punch forward as you shift your weight forward and pull your hand back as you shift your weight back.

There are a couple of things to be aware of when doing this exercise. First, be careful to move your empty foot directly forward. Do not place in front of your other foot. I call that “walking a tightrope” and it is very unstable. Second, when shifting your weight forward, do not allow your knee to bend forward beyond the tips of your toes. Third, when you are shifting your weight forward, be sure to keep your heel of your back foot on the ground. If you lift your heel, you can become overbalanced very quickly.

There are a couple of visualizations that can help with this. First, visualize walking like a cat when it is stalking. It picks up one foot and carefully and quietly places it down. Try to do the same kind of step. Alternatively, visualize wearing tap-dancing shoes on a marble floor. Imagine touching your foot down without making a sound.

Loosening Your Hips
 Dr. Paul Lam teaches an exercise in his Tai Chi for Arthritis program to loosen (song) your hip. For this exercise, you need to be able to stand and be stable on one foot for a few seconds. Start with your feet about shoulder width apart. Slowly raise your hands in front of you, palms down, to about shoulder height. Slowly bring your hands back down and move them slightly past your hips for balance. Bend your knees slightly as your hands come down. At the same time, shift your weight onto your right leg. Pick up your left foot, bring your left foot forward, and touch your heel down.

Raise your hands to the front again. At the same time, bring your foot back behind you and touch down with the ball of your foot. Bring your hands down again and bring your foot forward again. Repeat for a total of three times and then switch to the other side. It’s perfectly OK to touch your foot down in the center for balance as you move from front to back. If you feel fairly strong while perform this exercise, try to bend the knee of your weighted leg a little bit and work from a lower stance.

Marching While Bouncing a Ball
This exercise is from shibashi tai chi/qigong 18 set. For this exercise, you need to be able to do the Loosening Your Hips exercise described above. Stand naturally and relax. In this movement, you slowly raise one knee. At the same time, raise the hand on the same side, palm down, to about shoulder height. Lower your leg and arm at the same time. Repeat to the other side. If you can, raise your knee to about waist height.

At any time, change the combination, e.g. right hand and left leg, or two steps on the right and one on the left, etc. The change should be smooth and relaxed. If you prefer, you can slowly punch forward instead of raising and lowering your hands while marching. You can also walk instead of marching in place. This can be in any direction. Walk forward, backward, in circles, or figure eights. When you walk, it is called "Cloud Walking."

Heel Kick While Squatting
An exercise that takes quite a bit more strength than any of the previous exercises is a heel kick done while squatting on one leg.

Stand naturally and relax. Empty your left leg and bring your left foot in to touch your right foot at the instep. Bend your knees a little and lean forward very slightly. Hold your right hand at your side with your fingertips touching the outside of your thigh. Bring your left hand forward to touch your leg at or slightly above your left kneecap.

Bring your left leg up so you can keep touching your left knee. Slowly extend your left leg toward the front, leading with the heel, in a slow-motion heel kick, keeping your fingertips on your knee. Kick three times and return to the beginning posture. Repeat on the other side. As you get stronger, use deeper knee bends and work lower and lower.

© 2011 Eric Borreson