You know how it is when you can tell a section of your form has gone to seed, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why? While doing the form this morning I was having major problems with one particular move. Which one is of no consequence, all that’s important is that it just didn’t feel right whatever way I did it. My form felt week and uncoordinated in that one particular spot. So, what is a student to do when they get stuck like this?
Luckily, I have a video of my teacher doing the form, so after failing to find the fault myself I simply popped open my laptop to watch how he approached that move. Immediately I saw my problem. He does the move with a lot more waist turning than I do. In fact, he does a lot more waist turning on all the moves compared to me, not just this one. The waist and legs are of utmost importance in TCC. In fact, it should have been the first place I looked for the solution to my problem rather than turning to a video, since the Tai Chi Classics already tell you that this is where you should be looking first to correct errors in your form. The Tai Chi Chuan Treaste (attributed to Chang Sang Feng) says it quite clearly:
If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist.
That seems pretty clear – if your movement feels uncoordinated or generally wrong to you then first look to the legs and waist for a solution to your problem. The emphasis on the waist echoes on through out the rest of the Classics. In the “Song of the Thirteen Postures” (Unknown Author) the first two lines are: “The Thirteen Postures should not be taken lightly; the source of the postures is in the waist.” And later: “Pay attention to the waist at all times; completely relax the abdomen”. From the Five Character Secret by Li I-Yu it says: “The ch’i is like a wheel, and the whole body must mutually coordinate. If there is any uncoordinated place, the body becomes disordered and weak. The defect is to be found in the waist and legs”, and also Yang Cheng-Fu recaps the whole matter neatly in his 10 Important Points:
“3.) Sung [Relax] the waist. The waist is the commander of the whole body. If you can sung the waist, then the two legs will have power and the lower part will be firm and stable. Substantial and insubstantial change, and this is based on the turning of the waist. It is said “the source of the postures lies in the waist. If you cannot get power, seek the defect in the legs and waist.””
On a purely physical level it’s the turning actions of the waist that generate Sung Jin (Relaxed force) in Tai Chi Chuan. For example, regardless of which style of Yang you do, after raising then lowering the hands most Yang forms start with a turn to the right accompanied by a ‘Ward Off’ movement with your right arm. For that movement to actually ward something off it needs to have power in it, rather than just being as soft as a noodle. But it needs the right type of power to avoid using just brute force. It’s the turning action of the body to the right that initiates the arm movement and puts the correct type of power (Sung Jin) in the arm. Rather than it being a separate movement powered only the arm muscles independantly, the movement is done by the whole body forming a unified shape. Still with me? Good. If not then read that again, and maybe watch a video of somebody who is good doing Yang style, like this guy.
The rotation of the waist is usually done in the horizontal vector and is most evident on the transitional movements between postures in the form*, but the waist is also the commander in forward and backwards motions which don’t involve rotations to the left or right, like the Push posture.
Integral to the idea of moving from the waist is the idea of empty and solid. If you consider the waist to be a like a wheel, which is what the Classics advise, then when you turn it to the left the upper body also turns to the left, and when you turn it to the right then the upper body also turns to the right. In Push Hands if you feel force applied to one side of your body you need to turn the waist, taking that side away from the force, effectively ‘emptying’ it, but at the same time ‘filling’ the other side. It is crucial that you fill the other side of your body at the same time as you are emptying the side that’s being pushed, otherwise your movement will be disordered and you will be pushed over. This can be trained in the form practice too, even without a partner to push you, using a simple mental awareness that whenever you turn the waist you are effectively emptying one side of the upper body as you fill the other. Imagine a fluid being transferred smoothly around your body if that helps. The principle of empty and solid is much further reaching than just this simple example, but it can really help you understand why the Classics stress that “the source of the postures is in the waist”, and later admonish you to “Pay attention to the waist at all times”.
If you’re looking to correct your form, then that’s the place to start.
* In effect, there are no fixed postures in any TCC form, but if you’re teaching it to beginners you have to stop somewhere. Once you’ve learned the form it needs to be smoothed out, so these fixed positions all dissolve into one flowing movement. That’s easier said than done though, since the process of smoothing out your form to a good enough standard to start incorporating other principles can easily take over a year.