Stand like a balanced scale

On being upright

Harmonious movement.

This Alexander Technique article on staying upright brought back some thoughts I have on Tai Chi, and being upright, that I thought I’d share.

Being balanced is a big deal in Tai Chi. I mean, if you’re going to move that slowly through a set of movements, you might as well make sure you are on balance while you do it, right? But what exactly is ‘balanced’ in a Tai Chi sense? The Tai Chi classics famously advise: “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel” whilst also “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.” Of course, what is meant by those words is open to interpretation.

Being ‘upright’ is a bit of a contentious subject in Tai Chi as some styles advocate an active ‘lean’ in their forward postures, yet because there’s a staight line between foot and head they see it as still being balanced.

In terms of fighting, it’s hard to do a jab without a bit of a lean, so unless you want to start off your sparring career by fighting like a robot with your chin up, ready to be knocked out, I’d advise going with the protection that a slightly-leaning fighter’s stance offers:

Bruce Lee showing his lead straight.

Bruce Lee showing his straight jab

…. that is, until you are really comfortable with it. Then you can make it your own. For instance, take a look at the stance of current interim Featherweight UFC champion Connor McGreggor.

Beautiful counter punching from McGreggor.

See how ‘upright’ he is? It enables him to move fluidly and counterpunch very effectively. He knows when to lean, and when not to. In fact, I’d say he’s perfectly embodying the words “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel” and “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.”

Was this what the authors meant when they wrote the Tai Chi classics? Who knows. They were written in another time and another place, by gentlemen who may have had no connection with what would be known as ‘prize fighters’ in their day. They might, even, have looked down on them as mere pugilists, existing on a lower strata of society. It’s impossible to say, but if you look at what remains inside the family lineages of Tai Chi – the Yangs, the Chens – then it seems to have no connection to two men duelling with gloves on. Only some branches of the Wu style seems to have branched off in this direction. But this is another topic, for another time.

Either way you look at it, a head that’s directed upwards (and by which I mean, suspended as if by a thread from your crown, not by looking upwards) offers you the most options in terms of mobility because the body is free to move. You are aligned with gravity.

Watch Systema expert Vladimir Vasiliev move and you can see the same thing.

He ducks his head when he needs to, but notice how ‘upright’ he is most of the time?

To go back to that article I kicked off with for a second:

“We tend to be overly forward oriented just because of the fact that most of what we do all day is in front of us. Then there is the tendency to be future focused on all the things that have to get done instead of being present with what you are doing as you are doing it. With these two things in mind, you can easily understand how you can lose a sense of the back of yourself as you get pulled forward.”

I notice this. I work at a computer all day, and occasionally notice that my head is always being pulled forwards into the work I do (writing). It takes a bit of mental effort to bring myself back into the present and my posture back to being directed ‘up’ as I sit, not slouching or drawn forward.

When you sit in a meditation posture long enough you start to notice your habitual tendency to lean forward. It’s subtle. When you sit ‘back’ into your hips and align your head over your hips you really notice how you can rest in your structure with less effort. The whole body can relax into the present moment.

I notice it in my Tai Chi, too. It takes strong awareness to be able to stay ‘upright’ doing the form. My habit is to slump. My challenge is to stay upright.

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