Friday, December 9, 2011

Linking Hands and Feet in Tai Chi

This week's article is a continuation of a previous article, Manifesting Yin and Yang in Tai Chi. In that article, I wrote "As we begin to move, wu ji separates into yin and yang, the opposite poles. In other words, our body manifests yin and yang throughout the forms. Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy. Throughout a form, our hands and feet continuously transition between yin and yang."

Why is this important? What difference does it make whether a hand or a foot is yin or yang?

The answer to these questions is simple, yet subtle. Intention, thus visualization, is very important in tai chi. We need to learn to visualize the movements of the forms. When we become aware of yin and yang as described above, we start to develop a mental image of a linkage between our hands and feet. When you mentally link your hands and feet, you also coordinate the movements (link) of your upper body with your lower body so the top and bottom follow each other. With practice, it becomes more natural for the movement of your legs to create movement of your hands.

In turn, this awareness of connectedness helps you become more aware of substantial and insubstantial as you shift your weight. In turn, this makes you more aware of your balance and weight. You become more rooted.

It's a virtuous circle. As you practice your tai chi, you become aware of the interconnected principles that underlie tai chi. Spiral force helps you move properly. Moving properly helps you understand yin and yang, which relates to substantial and insubstantial. It develops into a never-ending spiral of deeper and deeper understanding.

Be aware though, you can't just read about it. You have to do it. Each time you practice, focus on one principle until it becomes second nature. Then focus on another principle. And so on. Then go back to the beginning and do it again with your newer understanding. Practice your forms. Thousands of times. There are no shortcuts.

© 2011 Eric Borreson


  1. Great post Eric, identifying yin and yang, solid from empty, visualization, where all techniques that my instructor said came in the second and third stages of practicing Tai Chi. I really think it adds a new dimension towards the way you practice.

  2. I asked for feedback about this article on LinkedIn. I received several comments there. I want to copy them here to make the picture more complete. (This is Part 1, not all comments fit here with the length limitations that are imposed.)

    I read your article and agree that understanding yin and yang is very important in Tai Chi. However you might have some concepts confused. Yin is always inward,downward and condensing and yang is outward and expanding, always in a relative mode in relation to something else. I am confused by your statement "Yin corresponds to empty/insubstantial and storing energy. Yang corresponds to weighted/substantial and delivering energy." Particularly yin being insubstantial and yang being weighted. The energy flows through the insubstantial leg, making insubstantial yang. A weighted leg would be yin. However a forward leg may be said to be more yang then yin, weighted or not.

    I am not sure what imagination has to do with anything in regards to learning yin and yang. Looking and feeling and sensing are all better ways to discover the yin and yang principles. Intention ( I Nian ) is very different then imagination. They are not the same.

    Interesting article Eric, and reflects how we might look at tai chi and the forms. I certainly agree visualisation is a useful tool, but I think it depends upon the person as to whether the focus should be on the yin or yang, or whether it is more important to focus on the intention of the movement.

    There are many who have practiced tai chi for many years, and have mastered breathing and movement - but not the direction of Chi energy for some of the yang movements; they are still just "moving about a bit". Understanding the position and where it came from (why we have a blocking movement for example) is as key to the form as breathing.

    But I am conscious that we each come at our tai chi from a different focus and your article reminded me of that. Thanks!


    I am not sure what you mean by this me, linking hand and foot refers to one of the essences of our practice, that the whole body moves as one - Unity of Body movement as Master Lui used to say to us. The heel touches first in stepping, but the whole foot does not 'clump down' the weight pours slowly into instep then ball, then full foot, as the hand and arm move into final posture along with the breath. Everything comes together at the same time, and all is flowing and integrated. this integration promotes efficiency of muscle movement and body alignment thus promoting energy with no blockages. I don't see how the hand can be Yin and the foot can be Yang...of couse I am referring to the practice of Yang Style Tai Chi. this may well be different in other styles.


    In my opinion what you write in your article is essential to Taijiquan, regardless of the form or style that you practice. In the treatise on Taijiquan by Chan-San Feng (sp?) it says Substantial and insubstantial must be clearly distinguished. Every part (of the body) has a substantial and insubstantial aspect. The entire body and all the joints should be threaded together without the slightest break (transl: Yang Jwing-Ming). This clearly talks about Yin and Yang and the body moving between these.

  3. Part 2 of comments

    ... we are aiming for something which is joined up here. It might be useful to note that some footwork is preparatory and therefore will tend to correspond to the Yin breath/ movement and some is expansive and will therefore tend to correspond to the Yang breath/ movement. It all works joined up with the upper body otherwise the techniques are rootless and unstable. Shoulders and hips need to arrive together, as do hands and feet for good structure. This is basic martial arts, but so much harder to do slowly and accurately with relaxed intent, which is the point, not zapping your opponent with your Qi raygun.

    Just for the record, Eric, I like your articles. They are simple and nicely cover important elements of T'ai Chi. I have recommended your blog to my students, so keep up the writing, please :)

    The other comments have talked about moving the whole body as one but what they don't mention, is how this linkage is the source of all our movement in T'ai Chi. The sinking and rooting into one leg actually creates the movement in the "empty" leg. The kicks are a wonderful example of this. If you have completely sunken into your left leg and turned your waist, and maintained the "string" from head to heel, your right leg/foot has no option BUT to kick out when you "unwind". And while it may be empty or "unsubstantial", it is where the energy now wants to release. And this is how, for me, all the postures work. Yes, whole body coordination is absolutely crucial but without adding this chi element, then we are back to simple calisthenics. Which is what you are saying in your article, as I read it :)

  4. Part 3

    I say to my students that we are coiling up ready to unwind, like a spring, that the Yin movement is only Yin because it is Pregnant with the possibility of the subsequent Yang movement, and even, sometimes, to pause, feel the potential in that effortless tension before we let it flow. This is why we need to relax into the movement, if we are too strong then we cannot feel whether the way our bodies wish to unleash the movement is natural or not.As a former Royal Marine I always draw an analogy with marksmanship principles. "The weapon must be naturally aligned to the target, with no undue physical effort." If you are too tense you will never know whether the movement is naturally aligned or not. The order is given "test and adjust", you relax breathe and at the end of the cycle see where you are naturally aiming, then adjust so that you are bang on, do it again and again until your body naturally feels how the weapon is aligned... The weapon is loaded, pregnant with possibility of explosion, but it isn't the Yang explosion alone that gets the job done, it is the prior action, the working on the strength of position, aim and elimination of all unnecessary tension that ensures accuracy timing and efficiency. Shooting is very much a balanced art. Taiji is SO similar. You need to join up the whole body, join up the breathing and it is in essence the same... It really doesn't need an in depth understanding of either TCM or western physiology to attain proficiency, it needs practise to be a good shot. Same, same for hand-to-hand combat, martial arts or any other skill for that matter. Any supplementary knowledge is always useful where relevant but it isn't the objective in itself.Taiji will never become callisthenics when it is being practised as a martial art. It chiefly runs that risk when mindfulness of technique is replaced with the unholy alliance of western reductionism with TCM principals. The key is bucket loads of practise and a touch of traditional holism. I don't mean holding something up as a New Age panacea, because that would be a mindless act of faith and not a mindful cultivation of skill, but rather to work at this with your entire being. You don't need an understanding of Qi theories to physically cultivate it or apply it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.I also loved the article by the way Eric, and that is how I read it!