Friday, March 8, 2013

Tai Chi Opening Movement - Part 2 of 4


Sometimes there is value in going back to the beginning and focusing on the basic forms again. Let's take a look at the opening form of tai chi single-hand practice. I primarily practice Sun style tai chi, so that is what I discuss below. Different styles of tai chi use slightly different movements in this form, but they all have the basic principles in common.

Last week, I looked at the opening movement as a beginner. Read more here. This week, I am adding a little more depth by adding in more of the core principles of tai chi.

Description of the Movement
Add these principles to what you practiced at the beginner level. Use the same starting position. Notice how your weight feels on your feet. Lean forward very slightly and feel the extra weight on the balls of your feet. Lean back very slightly and feel the extra weight on your heels. Find the sweet spot where the feeling of weight on the balls of your feet is the same as the feeling of weight on your heels.

Exhale and let your shoulders relax and sink. Visualize that your fingers are being pulled toward the floor. Sink your qi and let your knees bend a little bit more. You can read more here about sinking your qi

Inhale slowly and visualize your qi pushing your hands out and up to shoulder height. Notice that your center of weight shifts forward when your hands move forward. Keep your weight evenly centered on your feet by leaning back very slightly as your hands move forward. The yang movement of your hands needs to be balanced by the yin movement of your body. At the same time, start to shift a little bit of your weight onto your left foot.

As you bring your hands back down, exhale and visualize your qi sinking from the dan tian down through your legs out through the bubbling well in the soles of your feet. Move slowly. Let it seem like your hands are hot knives cutting through butter.

As you start to shift your weight onto your right foot, allow your weight to sink on your right leg. Let your body turn naturally to the right to align your right hip, knee, and foot. This releases any torque and tension in your knee. As your body turns to the right, let your left heel naturally rise off the floor. Slowly and gently pick up your left foot and bring it straight forward. Lightly place your foot down heel first with no weight on it. Then place the rest of your foot down, still with no weight on it. This means that you must bend your right knee enough to place the left foot without putting any weight on it. Step like a cat does as it hunts.

Push off with your right foot and start to shift your weight forward onto the left foot. Use your whole body to push your hands forward, keeping your palms facing each other. Visualize pushing against a very heavy object, like pushing a sofa across the room. As your hands extend, step forward with your right foot, timing it so that you finish your hand movements at the same time you finish your stepping and weight shifting.

Control Your Movements
Slowly bring all your weight onto your left foot. The natural tendency is to push off with your right foot to bounce forward and finish shifting your weight. Instead of that, focus your attention on the weight transfer. When all the weight is on your left foot, pick up your right foot and place it beside your left foot, with the feet about hip's distance apart. This probably will take a very short step until your legs are strong enough to do it properly.

Posture and Body Alignment
Another way to think about controlling your movements is to work on body alignment. An upright body strengthens the deep stabilizer muscles. Try to keep your body upright and supple throughout all the movements.

Tuck in your chin slightly. This straightens your upper spine and helps the energy flow. Tuck in your tailbone slightly. This straightens your lower spine. Be especially aware of this when you start bending your knees because your alignment can change. When you bend your knees, imagine that you are sitting down in a straight chair (not the recliner!) and keep your back fairly straight. Use a mirror or video camera to check yourself while practicing. When you are stepping forward, this gives you a much more powerful stance.

Control Your Breath
Nearly every tai chi form has an opening movement and a closing movement. In general, inhale during movements that are up and in (opening movements) and movements that store energy. Inhale during movements when expanding your chest, such as with the open hands movement in Sun style open and close hands. Also, inhale during movements creating an insubstantial movement, such as when doing a roll back.

Exhale during movements that are down and out (closing movements) and movements that deliver energy. Exhale during movements when compressing your chest, such as with the closing movement in Sun style open and close hands. Also exhale during movements creating a substantial movement, such as when doing a push or press.

Tai chi movements generally alternate between gathering (storing) energy and delivering that energy. Inhaling during opening stores the energy, like drawing a bow, and brings in the qi. Exhaling during closing delivers the energy and sends the qi. Raising your hands in commencement stores the energy. Lowering your hands delivers energy and sends the qi. This means to inhale or exhale sometime during the movement, not necessarily during the entire movement.

Your body will develop the ability to breathe properly as you practice tai chi. If you lose track during your practice, just breathe normally and don't worry about it.

© 2013 Eric Borreson

To read the first article in this series, click here.
To read the next article in this series, click here