A blog about the intersection of Tai Chi, Zen and Dao. I hope that you find something of value for your own practice.

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Thursday, 5 July 2012

Resolving Body Confusion: Your Feet

As I watch my T'ai Chi students, I often see a common problem that I'll call, body confusion.  They're not sure which part should move when and to where, and how to get it all connected. How DO you know, apart from listening to and watching your teacher?  In the next few articles, I'll give you a few simple tips to help you sort through and improve this part of your practice.

Tip 1: Work on one thing

Sounds so simple, doesn't it?  But what should you work on; hands? feet? transitions? connections? smoothness? energy awareness? and the list goes on.  How do you choose where to start?  Well, there's no right or wrong but what I like to do is work from a position of strength.  And since strength in T'ai Chi comes from your root, which is your connection to the Earth, the feet are usually a good place to start so let's talk about your feet.

First, let`s just look at your feet.  Just take your normal everyday comfortable stance that you would assume if you were talking to someone who is directly in front of you. What`s going on down there on the floor? Do you have large, small, narrow or wide feet?  Do you stand with one foot splayed out to the side? Are you pigeon-toed or knock-kneed?  Are they spaced wider than your body or very close together?  All this will have an effect on how you do your T'ai Chi forms.  Let's go right back to the beginning and start with a good technique I use for finding a good starting foot placement during T'ai Chi Form work.
  • Just stand naturally
  • Place one foot directly in front of the other, in a straight line, with the heel of the foot in front touching the toes of the foot in back.  Not so easy to stand like this is it!
  • Now, rotate the front foot on the big toe toward the side of the foot that it is - right to right or left to left - until they make a perfect right angle (corner of a rectangle) to each other, about a foot's distance apart.  You should look and feel kind of silly. 
  • Finally, rotate the front foot on the heel so that the toes are again pointing forward naturally
You should now have a good solid stance, with the toes of the back foot a little less than your foot's length from the heel of the front foot.  And there should be about a bowling ball's width spacing between your legs, depending on the size of your feet. This is a perfect position and in T'ai Chi, this is called the bow stance.  It requires very little effort to hold and also uses minimal effort when shifting weight from back to front and vice versa.

OK, let's do some analysing.  Start doing your form and at any posture of the form you're practicing, stop, hold the posture and then look at how you've placed your self and in particular, your feet.  If your feet aren't well placed, get them where they need to be and hold that for a minute or so.  Try to memorize what that feels like.  Then continue your form. Stop again and repeat.  In Forms that have repeating postures, you might see if you achieved a better position the next time it comes around.  If not, readjust and continue.  T'ai Chi is a never ending source of learning and practice.  Eventually, with good intention and many repetitions, your feet will begin to obey you. 

Most important, playing T'ai Chi should be fun. That's why we say playing, not working! Don't worry if it's not exactly right in the beginning. You have the rest of your life to get it right.    


Too much, too little, Just right

I've been thinking about this for a while now; how much is too much? How much is too little? and How much is just right?  For the most part, I'm referring to leg and knee extensions but it also applies to arms, upper body, waist turns and other aspects.

Let's concentrate on the legs and knees.  When I watch my students, I often see a fair amount of confusion as to how far to step and how far to extend the knee in relation to its foot's placement.  I have talked a little bit about how to place one's feet in relation to each other so let's focus first on how far you should step.

What I teach is that it is totally unique to each individual.  Tall people with long legs are often going to step out further than a short person like myself.  The bottom line is that there is no simple formula for distance that I know of.  It also depends on what you are practicing at a given moment.  Often, when I do a form in the morning, I'm still a little stiff and so I tend to economize in movement - all my movements - but especially the extensions.  In the afternoon and evenings, I'm a lot looser so I will often explore larger movements and leg extensions.  That translates into needing anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 the space to do the same form in the morning vs the evening!  And I'll sink lower later in the day, which also makes it easier to do longer extensions, especially in Chen forms.

Ok, how about the knees.  I have only one critical rule for your knees and it's this:
  • Never let your front knee extend past the toes of its foot!!
  • Repeat, Never let your front knee extend past the toes of its foot.
I have been in classes where some younger Taiji teachers told their students to extend their front knees past their toes because it makes them stronger.  Maybe when you're younger this is true, but most of my students are not young folks anymore (nor am I!!) and extending knees past toes while putting weight on them is a sure recipe for disaster.  What it leads to is people quitting T'ai Chi because their knees hurt when they do the form.  In my experience, the most optimal position for the knee over the foot is when the knee is directly over the heel.

Let's take a look at a picture taken from this article about Tai Chi's effectiveness for increasing motion in arthritic joints.  Look particularly at the top right and lower left drawings.  This has the angle where the leg meets the foot looking like the corner of a square when viewed from the side.  This is the most comfortable, least stressful position for the joints,  will result in smoother form work, and facilitates sending your Chi energy into the earth through the heel and bubbling well to establish your root.

Also note that the upper body has the spine at a right angle to the ground, as well.  This prevents you from overextending your arms and helps to establish a good sense of balance and rooting.

So if you haven't thought much about it, this is a good time to examine how you're positioning your body in regard to these basic concepts.  And keep practicing!!  A little effort each day can take you a long way on this T'ai Chi journey you're on.