Sometimes, I get questions from learners that merit sharing. This question is about whether we should pivot on the heels or the balls of the feet when changing directions in the Wu form.
QUESTION: When you turn doing Tai Chi, is it always on your heels?
ANSWER: This is a good question. By “always,” do you mean outside of class or inside? I learned in Wu style training, of which two lineages exist, to turn on the heels … except when the teacher does something else, such as turning on the bubbling well.
The point I try to convey in class is to cultivate enough control to do what you intend to do, such as pivoting on the heel, which is a hallmark method of changing directions in Wu style, either lineage, as well as Yang. This entails developing concentration and sustaining it long enough to see your skill evolve.
To me, this is the deeper training. To learn move sequences is one level, learning how to do them is a deeper level and learning to control mind intention and sustain concentration are even deeper.
My point has always been to learn a technique, become familiar with it, then through practice become more at ease with it. The ultimate practice is one in which you continually refine what you have been exposed to. So if turning on the heel is what you’re asked to do, then do that all the time in and out of class as a way of refining your skill.
I think it’s fun to keep it in mind and do when you are reminded of it.
Figuring out stances and foot work in the form is one challenge beginners face because coordinating upper and lower body simultaneously can get confusing. I think it helps to focus on one activity at a time until you familiarize yourself with the move.
The position of the feet and how you move them merits special attention until you’ve become more familiar and comfortable with the method used in whichever form you’re doing.
Different teachers follow different methods, probably because that’s how they learned it from their teachers; but also, according to its effectiveness in a martial application. I learned from my teachers to pivot on the heels when changing directions. This is common enough and you can get pretty technical when it comes to how you’re weighted in gravity and where your zhong ding is at each stage of a movement. These are things I try to cover when practicing this activity.
I learned my particular way of doing the Wu style slow form from six, either in person or through video. My first teacher, was Wang Hao Da (Wu Jian Quan lineage), but he passed away soon after I began. Then I learned more from Susan Matthews, who worked with Master Wang for about four years in a number of training camps.
Then I went to China in 2004 and trained with Xu Guo Chang (Wu Yu Xiang lineage). More recently, I studied videos of Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang, his wife Wu Ying Hua, Wen Zee. They’ve all passed away now. I’ve found perhaps one video of Grandmaster Ma doing slow form, since he preferred the fast form.
Over a couple of weekends in spring 2016, I met Yan Yuan Hua (Wu Jian Quan lineage) in Tucson, AZ and Temple City, CA and practiced with him and several of his students in both cities. He gave me a video of his forms to watch and learn. His approach differs from others I have been exposed to.
I try to incorporate what I’ve learned in such a way to simplify the process of learning of students and make their progress a steady one. Sooner or later in training we all are exposed to different ways of doing things.
I highly value the ability of a practitioner to be fluid and open to change as they encounter new information. It keeps things lively by challenging our assumptions and the tendency to develop just another habitual way of moving without questioning. Good the the brain, good for the body.
We live by the clock. You might say we’re slaves to it. A lot of our discordant feelings are due to our yearning to be free from the clock. That’s one reason why we do tai chi—to get away from THE CLOCK.
I see people looking at the clock in tai chi class. That means that they’re not concentrating enough on why they’re there in the first place. That’s OK though, because it’s not easy. But it’s easier than we think. Just showing up to practice is a masterful act of at least trying to break the chains of THE CLOCK. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Tai chi is all about change on several levels. Change is easier for some than for others. How can you make it easier for yourself? In tai chi, you can pinpoint how. It’s a matter of simply moving differently from what you are accustomed to. Visualize the parts of the body and see them move. Feel them and how they move. Describe to yourself what they are doing as they move one way or another.
Here are some things to put into play when you practice. Focus on a specific manner of movement, such as direction, speed, pressure, rhythm, range of motion, where movement occurs, and from where it originates, which is super important.
The transition from one direction of travel to another is a key moment in the move. How you do that affects the other features of your effort. Range of motion involves whether your movement is limited or hindered, or over-extended. The shape of the move is about how round or how linear. Which is preferable?
What is the pattern of the motion—is it smooth, stuttered, hesitant, performed with abandon, or guarded?
Pay attention to these features of practice and note how they manifest in your practice in order to help understand more about their effectiveness. Tai chi is not just about memorizing a sequence of postures and transitions. It is, more deeply, about how you perform the movement. It is this deeper, internal awareness and ability that you can apply to other facets of life to improve and enhance them.
An Exercise Stand in Wu Ji (Instructions are found in an earlier post). Simply focus your attention on your sacrum where your tailbone is located and move that in the shape of a figure 8 while holding your spine straight and even. Don’t sway, just shift the tailbone/sacrum/hips in a figure 8 while standing in Wu Ji. See how long you can focus your mind on the sacrum while doing the move. Allow the arms to hang loosely and sway in response to the turning of the tailbone and spine. The legs stay in position and spiral up and down. The spiraling stays close to the bone alignment or central equilibrium.
Work and job activities may cause energy to stagnate and decay. This negative inertia seems difficult to overcome after sitting long periods at a computer or performing repetitive motions for hours. We’re worn out when we get to tai chi class. We don’t feel like doing what seems like even more of the same depleting work. From within a state of fatigue, we fight a hopeless battle that can’t be won. Or so it seems.
This is when it’s time to transcend and transform. Recognize that this dragged-down feeling is not yours to keep. You don’t have to own it. It is not your energy. It is the energy of your workplace, your job and its energy-depleting tasks. You can release it all.
Transcend: seek to revitalize your own energy simply by asking for it.
Transform: practice will take you to a new place in your energetic configuration and a fresh start. and Cultivating mental concentration to release negative, decayed energy is the goal of practice. Achieving a fresh revitalizing energy is the result of practice.
When you feel depleted from the stress, you can assume that qi is not flowing. Often, we aren’t even aware it’s not. Plus, we don’t know (or forget) how to move it if we were aware it wasn’t. We are tethered to the forces that cause life force to stagnate. Qi binds up in our bodies.
The joints are the obvious spots where it gets stuck; but the lymph system is another, the brain, the eyes, the organs, the muscles, and every fraction of flesh, membrane and cells suffer from this.
In leading tai chi and qigong practice, I’ve focused on learning sequences of moves and postures while introducing techniques for developing internal awareness and concentration. Sequence, or “form,” is the what and the internal technique is the how.
You might recall that I’ve mentioned thinking of the hips being the feet. I want to explore that some more in depth with you. So keep this in mind as you practice at home in preparation for next practice.
In order to feel the hip on the ground, you need to connect the feet, legs, and hips into a single unit in which energy forms a solid, yet agile, changeable mass. I’ll show you what I know about that connection.
To prepare for next practice, I suggest doing shoulder rolls. I’ve done them many times with you in the past and I mentioned them last class. The shoulder roll, which I first learned from Master Wang Hao Da, is useful for beginners. This simple move contains many levels of activity. A beginner will only be aware of, and be able to practice, only one or two at a time. You won’t see beyond them to the next level if you don’t practice what you are familiar with now. The teacher can only show you the moves and describe various aspects of them and point out where you might take your practice.
Get a primer on shoulder rolls before next practice by viewing and following along with this video clip.
Tai chi is a way of grounding yourself while you explore your possibilities. It applies to many things you do that involve movement and personal development. In the beginning of learning tai chi, people have trouble remembering the movements. They stumble a little learning them. I think this is due partly to the degree of concentration they muster up. If you are unable to concentrate you must find out why.
Are you thinking about something other than the specific task at hand, the thing that you are there to do? To have the concentration to fully execute, your mind should be only on what you’re doing in that moment. You should be feeling it. Rally your focus onto that one thing, singlemindedly, with all of your being, not just your thoughts, but with all of your mind, body, heart and soul.
It might sound odd, but tai chi is a way of pulling together such a singular focus. Of course, you have to learn to know what it is that makes it such a powerful tool for focusing your mind. At first, you focus on simple kinds of movement, one at a time, then eventually more than one at a time harmoniously.
At a point in your practice, you cross a threshold after which you command many skills and qualities like a conductor and his orchestra. Then you can use what you learn to apply in doing other things beyond your tai chi practice. Tai chi is like nothing else this way. Doing tai chi applies to a whole lot of other things that you might do, things that benefit from greater awareness of mind-body connectivity.
What I mean is: you probably don’t learn business to apply to your skiing. You don’t learn politics to do farming. Fishing doesn’t apply to running, and reading about flying isn’t flying. But if it involves motion, tai chi can help you improve how your mind and body cooperate to achieve those things.
Students new to taijiquan often ask what is a pipa when they learn the “play the pipa” posture in the Wu style tai chi form. I found this video on facebook.com of Wu Man playing the instrument, the four-string lute, with Haruka Fujii playing Japanese symbols. View and then see for yourself what a pipa is. Also check out the Silkroad Project, Yo Yo Ma’s current project.
What’s going in inside your body is important to explore regarding control. We seem to have concluded as a population that we can’t control our insides—the autonomic nervous system functions, such as breathing, heart beat, blood circulation. We are coming around in greater numbers to a different point of view of this. We believe more and more that we can, in fact, affect inner functions of the body and mind.
We are still in the early stages of exploring the possibilities. Tai chi couldn’t have come along at a better time. It is a perfect tool for exploring the new discovery of our abilities to change ourselves in ways we didn’t think were possible. Rather than turning to others to treat and heal us, we are turning to ourselves to heal and prevent ailments through mindful movement and meditation.
Many have felt uncomfortable for so long putting all of our healthcare into the hands of others. Now we know, all that can be changed and we are working to do that as individuals and in groups. We have much to learn and that never will change. We have no spare time to waste, no extra energy to deplete. We’re doing tai chi and qigong.
Now and then, a tai chi practitioner asks “what comes after?” a particular move in the form. An underlying question to that is “How do I know what comes after?” Or, “How can I remember what to do?” We don’t consciously raise these two latter questions, normally; but they’re probably more key to remembering and understanding than the more obvious question of what comes next.
The next step for a learning tai chi practitioner is revealed in practice with awareness and observation—mindfulness, as they say. Practice changes something fundamental in us as we make mind-body connections. Energy—Qi—is the bridge that connects everything in mind and body. Relate one thing to another from a place of watchfulness.
Single basic moves make a very useful basis for building awareness of the principles and their meanings and applications. I return to them over and over for fundamental training. “Practice the principle,” as Master Xu Guo Ming often says. “Practice the feeling.”
Another way to answer these questions rests with how we learn as children. Learning comes naturally. The methods of making connections in our minds and bodies with how things work in the external world were natural to us then. We retained what we learned more readily and permanently. As we grew up we were force fed information and learning became more of a chore, which we carried with us into adulthood. I think that, intuitively, we learn tai chi to return to a natural way of learning that we enjoyed as children. I would say for you to think of what comes next in tai chi in similar ways as we learned as children, when everything was new and fun.