Taiji (tai chi) Practice: Postural alignment
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
For those who have never done taiji (tai-chi) before or are just beginning the journey, you will learn that structure is the foundation of good function. Fredrick Matthias Alexander, the creator of the Alexander technique, believed that poor habits in posture and movement damaged spatial self-awareness and health, and that movement efficiency could support overall physical well-being.
In my experience, breaking bad habits in posture requires serious focus and deliberate training methods. To start, it is important to realize that your brain is always measuring balance through the way we hold our bodies. If we have poor posture in sitting at the computer, or at a job that requires you to stand on your feet for long periods of time, our brain recruits certain muscles by shortening, lengthening, relaxing and contracting them. Once muscle memory takes hold of these postural nuances it can easily become part of our everyday structure, which can lead to pain and other health problems.
Taiji seeks to correct this malalignment from the inside out. I believe it is more than just an exercise. On the most practical level, it is a reeducation of the mind and body achieved by learning to release unnecessary tension. It teaches the ability to gauge how much effort is truly needed for optimal function. At the core of improving body alignment and movement, is breath. Particularly, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing essentially uses your full lung capacity and the abdominal cavity. In taiji, the mind and breath move before the physical body. This allows our internal energy or qi, to circulate freely in order to create effortless movement. Much time should be spent in recognizing how you breathe and how it correlates to tension and relaxation in your body. As you inhale and exhale, energy rises and falls, expands and contracts. For example, when there is excessive energy at the top, as with anger and high blood pressure, the energy has difficulty settling down. When the energy is weak, it sinks, causing sluggishness, atrophy and depression. It does not allow the body to be upright and full of spirit.
With this, one should understand that to maintain postural integrity you should have sufficient energy and be conscious of the way in which you handle stress. Before all of my classes I ask students to recognize their mental state. Paying attention to how it effects their posture and muscle tension. The energy should settle, accumulate, and move from your center, also known as the dantian. Located in the center of our lower abdomen, the dantian is between acupuncture point Ren 6, which is on the midline of lower abdomen about 1.5 inches from the navel, and the spine. I liken this to our anatomical center that has the ability to store energy. Its proximity to the belly button, our residual connection to the umbilical cord, gives us a clue to its life giving origin.
Energy will sink to the center when the shoulders and hips relax or “song”. This requires that the breath and body weight settle enough so that it may reach our center. When it does, the hip joints absorb this weight, allowing it to continue through to our legs, feet, and into the ground. This is the realization of gravity in taiji practice. According to Sifu Kam Lee, a 19th Generation Chen Taiji master from Jacksonville, Florida: “Improvement in a natural upright structure will allow the energy to settle in the center (Dantian) and our mass to connect to the ground and root itself. We can then develop proper movement and achieve the ability to be “rou” or pliable by integrating all our movements together. This helps in the overall circulation of the body."
Taiji 10 Key Principles:
1. The cervical spine (neck), should be kept upright, as if being held up by a string from the vertex of the head. This allows the spirit and vitality to rise. The chin should be in a neutral position, neither tilted up or down.
2. The shoulders and elbows should be lowered. If the shoulders are raised the breath will have difficulty settling causing weakness in the lower half.
3. The chest should be naturally depressed. Do not expand the chest, doing so will cause the energy to become stuck and the body will become top heavy.
4. The abdomen must be completely relaxed, free from tension.
5. In order to discharge force through the spine, widen and lengthen the back. This will help to release tightness in the back, which is narrow and shortened.
6. Song or relax the hips, keep them loose so that it can revolve like a wheel. It is the commander of the whole body. If it is relaxed, weight can be transferred to the legs making the lower half stable and powerful.
7. The legs should bear the weight of the upper body, with the feet connected the ground. Rooted with the mind, yet agile. If the weight cannot root, you will easily be thrown off balance.
8. Always differentiate your weight between substantial and insubstantial. Having clarity of opposites is an important aspect of yin and yang. In this way you can turn lightly without using strength. Avoid a double weighted posture because it will be heavy and slow.
9. All actions coordinate with the mind. The “yi” or mind (intention) activates the “qi” and moves the “li” or physical body. Never use strength against strength. As the adage goes, “4 ounces deflects a thousand pounds.”
10. Move with continuity and tranquility. Like a river flowing ceaselessly. Move slowly and purposely to better understand yourself and avoid injury.