How to put the juice into Rollback and Press
Tai Chi contains advancing and retreating movements, combined with circling left and circling right. Of course, in Tai Chi all movements need to be powered by the dantien. That’s easy to say, but on a practical level, how does this work?
One way I like to think about this is that as you retreat you can think about the arm movements being pulled by the dantien and as you advance they are pushed by the dantien. You can think of ‘rollback’ and ‘press’ from the Yang Tai Chi form as being a good example of this. As you shift the weight backwards in rollback you can imagine ropes attached from your dantien to your hands that are gently pulling them as the dantien moves. Rollback is usually performed with a turn of the waist to the side as you do it, so rather than being pulled completely in towards you, the pulling makes the hands go past you and ready to circle into the next movement… which is ‘press’. At this point you can imagine the ropes snap hard and become ‘rods’, which push the hands away, so the ‘press’ is powered by a pushing from the dantien into the hands. It looks like this:
In all of this your shoulder joint is moving, and power is going through it, but the key thing is that it is not the source of the power. The power source is the triangle formed by the two feet, legs, kua and dantien. The power goes through the shoulder to get to the hands, and if you tense the shoulders then you stop the flow.
Of course, these ropes and rods I’m talking about don’t actually exist, but they do give you the idea of a kind of pressure that is either pulling or pushing your arms and hands, which I think is useful. Once you use reverse breathing to pressurise your body you can start to feel this push and pull in the arms and hands. This isn’t imaginary, it’s a genuine feeling.
If you stand in a relaxed stance you can feel the pressurisation that reverse breathing gives you. Pick the classic ‘hold the ball’ Zhuan Zhang position, then stand for a few minutes while doing reverse breathing*.
You need to feel a connection all the way to the fingers and toes that’s connected to the breathing. It should feel like a slight pressure. Then try to get the feeling of pulling that connection in towards the dantien on an in breath and pushing out towards the fingers on an out breath.
The usual disclaimers apply to any type of work with pressure in the body – don’t do anything crazy with the pressure – you don’t want to tear anything in the body, and don’t direct it into your head. That way lies madness, or at least a pretty decent headache 🙂
(* All breathing in Tai Chi is done lower in the body than normal, so that the diaphragm extends downwards when you breath in, as opposed to the chest expanding. In ‘normal’ Tai Chi breathing the abdomen expands as you breathe in, in reverse breathing you change this around so that you contract your abdomen as you breathe in – this creates a kind of pressure in the body, that you can then use to power movement.)
Once you have a handle on the feeling of being pushed and pulled you might like to experiment with a basic arm wave silk reeling exercise – as the arm moves away from you it’s the ‘push’ from the dantien, and as the arm circles back towards you, you are looking for a basic ‘pull’ from the dantien. You need to maintain the pressurised connection at all times.
Here’s Chen Xiao Wang showing some silk reeling exercises – he starts with the basic single arm wave. Unlike me, he’s an actual expert, so pay close attention.
Of course, there’s more going on than this in Tai Chi, but as a basic fundamental it’s a good place to get started. Going back to the example of rollback and press – it’s a good section of the form to work with as both hands move in the same direction. Other Tai Chi movements, like Repulse Monkey for example, are more complex, with one hand going towards you, – a ‘pull’ – and the other going away from you – a ‘push’. Of course, it’s easy to mimic the movement on a surface level, but you need to be doing it from the inside. For now I’ll leave it up to you to think about how Repulse Monkey might work when it’s powered from the dantien.