The Five Steps and Eight Energies of Tai Chi
The original books on Tai Chi Chuan were not written as explicit training manuals with step-by-step instructions. Instead, they emphasized the underlying concepts and principles, and provided a set of guidelines for Tai Chi practice. These early works, known collectively as the Tai Chi Classics, were mostly short and concise, and also rather abstract and written in poetic language.
Much like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali provides a core set of ideas for the study of Yoga, the Tai Chi Classics provides a framework for exploring both the energy cultivation aspects of Tai Chi as well as a map for discovering the sometimes hidden martial arts applications.
Rather than follow the academic model of translating and commenting on the Classics, we are going to take a practical approach. Once again we’re going to walk through the entire Primal 13 form, but this time instead of hand placement and foot placement we’re going to emphasize Yin and Yang, compression and expansion, and the various forms of expressing Tai Chi energy. Many of the Primal 13 form guidelines are drawn from the Song of Secrets for Training the Thirteen Techniques, and you can find the full translation in the Student Resources area.
The Thirteen Postures
Tai Chi Chuan is based on cultivating, unifying and controlling the life energy of the human body. This primal, vital energy is called Qi in Chinese, Ki in Japanese and Prana in the Yoga traditions of India. In the West, Qi is the idea behind “The Force” in STAR WARS.
The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.
― Obi-Wan Kenobi
In classical Chinese thought, when you move your muscles you are using a bio-electric form of energy known as Li. This is purely physical. But when you blend vital energy (Qi) with physical energy (Li) and consciously control it with the mind you develop a special kind of force or power called Jen or Jing. It is this mind-body blend of Jing which powers the Thirteen Postures.
Five of these postures relate to the footwork of Tai Chi, which is responsible for moving the body smoothly and with stability, balance and “base.” These five stepping patterns – known as the Five Steps or Wǔ Bù (五步) – are called Step Forward, Step Backward, Turn Left, Turn Right, and Central Equilibrium. The remaining eight postures refer to how Jing is expressed in Tai Chi fighting techniques.
The Eight Energies are also known as the Eight Gates or Bā Mén (八門) and are connected back to the Tai Chi Compass. These eight are further divided into the four Primary energies or the four directions, and the four Secondary energies or four corners. The Primary energies are Ward Off, Roll Back, Press Forward and Push. The Secondary energies each blend two of the Primary energies to create Pull Down, Split, Elbow Stroke and Shoulder Stroke.
All movements in all forms of Tai Chi are based on these thirteen building blocks as they continuously combine, separate, and recombine during each individual posture and transitional move. As we walk through the Primal 13 form, we will explore each in turn.
Opening the Form/Hold the Ball
The standing at attention posture prior to opening the Tai Chi form represents Wuji, the primordial single Source and the perfect unification of a non-dual, non-polar reality. As you first form the intention to move in your mind, you are seeing the appearance of Taiji, the primal magnetic pull towards duality and action.
As you pour your weight into your right leg, that leg is becoming Yang. As the left leg becomes weightless and steps out to the side, that leg is becoming Yin. As you pour weight back into the left leg to come to a 50/50 equal-weighted stance, you are now experiencing the opposite side of Taiji: the return to balance and unity. This moving into an equally weighted stance is also our first look at Central Equilibrium.
Central Equilibrium: Zhōng Dìng (中定)
Zhong Ding is the energy of balancing Yin and Yang around the center. The center is the single point where your weight sinks into the Earth. This point may be exactly centered between the feet in an Equal or 50/50 stance, forward or backwards in an Unequal-Relative (60/40, 70/30 or 80/20) stance, or directly under the body in an Unequal-Absolute (100/0) or single-leg stance. Zhong Ding requires the body to be correctly aligned and completely relaxed.
Lifting your arms outward in front of your body, you are experiencing Expansion. As the elbows sink, the arms float down and the legs slightly bend to lower the body towards the Earth, you are feeling Rooting and Sinking. The lifting of the hands away from the body and the lowering nearer to the body should also be generating a feeling of Sphericality or circularity.
Opening the Form introduces the creation and reintegration aspects of Taiji, the Yin and Yang aspects of body posture, concepts of Expansion and Compression (Sinking), and the unique Tai Chi concept of using circles to guide movement.
The Opening the Form sequence allowed us to concentrate on one Taiji principle at a time. Now as we move into the Hold the Ball posture we will “layer” concepts in a complex matrix of principles and energies.
Pouring your weight first to the left leg and then to the right, turning to the Northwest before sinking into the rear right leg combines Yin and Yang with Spiral motion, which you will continually see throughout the Tai Chi form. Sitting back into the right leg, it becomes active or Yang while the left leg becomes inactive or Yin. The turn of the body to the Northwest corner should be powered by the waist, and the rest of the body simply follows as a single unit.
As the arms round out into the “Hold the Ball” posture, every surface and joint should have a feeling of “roundness.” The armpits, elbows and wrists should all be open and rounded. As the arms are raised (a Yang motion) the body sinks into the Earth (a Yin motion). Both of the arms should be active. The bottom left arm should feel like a cradle, actively supporting the idea of the ball. The top right arm is likewise active, as if the ball were filled with Helium and the top arm must press inward to keep it from floating away. The pressing towards the center feeling of the arms is Compression, while simultaneously the mind creates the outward-pressing feeling of the imaginary ball (Expansion).
Complex Matrix: Yin + Yang + Circle + Spiral + Compression + Expansion; all in a single Tai Chi posture.
Transition Movement: Step Forward
The transitions between the postures are just as important as the postures themselves. Our first transition is from “Hold the Ball” into the “Ward Off” position of the Grasp Sparrows Tail sequence. This transition illustrates the second of the Five Steps: Step Forward.
Step Forward: Jìn Bù (進步)
With the bodyweight on the rear leg, the front leg steps forward and the front foot is placed down on the heel. As the bodyweight pours forward, the toes are placed down. Carefully pour the weight forward being prepared to reverse direction at any moment. The bodyweight should ideally pour into the heel of the front foot, but never more forward than the middle of the foot.
In this transition, you are stepping forward into the Bow and Arrow Stance or Gong Jian Bu, most commonly called simply the Bow Stance (Gong Bu or 弓步). This stance is the single most common stance in Tai Chi and provides a stable base from which to absorb or express force.
In the Bow Stance, the front foot is pointing straight ahead with 60 percent of the bodyweight resting on it. The shin should be perpendicular to the Earth with the weight carried by the large bone of the tibia in the lower leg and pressing directly into the heel. The back leg is firmly set into the ground while supporting the remaining 40 percent of the bodyweight. The knee of the rear leg is slightly bent, and the toes of the rear foot are pointed out at 45 degrees. The head and body are upright and perpendicular to the ground. From the torso to the feet, this posture is identical to Yoga’s Virabhadrasana Warrior One pose.
Grasp Sparrows Tail Left
(Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, Push)
The famous Grasp Sparrows Tale sequence encapsulates all four Primary Jing energies into a single, simple sequence. While we practice it as one sequence, with each motion flowing into the next, to really understand the energies we’re going to slow down and examine them one by one. The first energy is Ward Off, expressed as you Step Forward into the left Bow Stance, round the left arm forward and float the right hand to the hip.
Ward Off: Péng (掤)
Peng is a form of Jing that responds to incoming energy by adhering or sticking to it, and then bouncing the incoming energy back like a large inflated rubber ball. It is the primary Yang or “projecting” energy force in Tai Chi, and can be equally defensive and offensive. Peng is expressed by the entire body as a whole, unified in your center and grounded. When one standing in the correct Peng posture, it is almost impossible to move them.
Peng puts a curved barrier between you and your opponent; creating a buffer zone that prevents the first shock of an incoming attack from penetrating your defenses. This buffer zone also gives you the critical microsecond to avoid being overwhelmed by an attack, giving you neurological space to to deflect, absorb or counter an attack.
Peng energy can be compared to the type of force that causes wood to float on water or a balloon to inflate, or a garden hose to fill with a torrent of water. It has a “bounce off” sensation, like the feeling of rebounding off of a beach ball or Yoga ball. It is Peng that enables the Tai Chi fighter to hit opponents and cause them, as the Chinese like to say, “to fly away.”
Imagine a young mother standing on a crowded beach pier, searching frantically for her child. After a moment, she spots her toddler climbing up the pier railing, some 60 feet above the ocean. As she rushing to grab her child, anyone in her way would literally be “bounced away” by her singularly-focused forward energy. This is Peng.
When moving, receiving, collecting, and striking, Peng Jing is always used. Peng Jing is Tai Chi Chuan’s essential energy. The body becomes like a spring; when pressed it recoils immediately.”
– Kuo, Lien-Ying, “The T’ai Chi Boxing Chronicle”
From the Ward Off posture, your weight pours backwards into the rear leg. Your feet do not move from their placement in the Bow Stance, but as your weight shifts more onto your back leg you are now in the Four-Six Stance or Sì Liù Bù (四六步). While the feet are the same, the weight distribution is the exact opposite of the Bow Stance. Now 60 percent of your bodyweight is supported on your rear leg, with the remaining 40 percent resting on the front leg. The “taking a football and passing it behind you” motion is the second Primary Jing known as Roll Back.
Roll Back: Lǚ (捋)
Lu is a redirection energy which leads the opponent’s incoming force into emptiness, and causes them to step or lose their balance. The greater the force of the opponent’s attack, the greater the resulting loss of balance.
To continue with the football analogy, Roll Back is similar to Lucy and the football in the Peanuts cartoons. Charlie Brown runs in with an incoming force, and as Lucy pulls the football away poor Charlie Brown looses his balance and crashes to the Earth. Cartoonist Charles Schulz was obviously a Tai Chi master as well.
While Roll Back energy can be useful on its own, in combat applications it is most always paired with another energy such as Press or Ji Jing. This allows you to avoid an incoming attack through redirection, and then counter-attack while your opponent is off-balance.
From the Roll Back posture, your body pivots back to the original direction and the weight pours back into the 60/40 weighted Bow Stance. As the hands “catch the butterfly” and carry it to the forward facing line, you are expressing the energy of Press.
Press: Jǐ (擠)
Ji is a compression energy expressed as a pressing or squeezing motion away from the body. This is usually an offensive tactic used in short-range fighting. Ji requires both hands to work together, usually either with both hands overlapping or the back hand bracing the wrist of the forward hand. The compressive force is consciously directed into a very area, such as trying to push a ball down into deep water and not let it roll off your hands and float back to the surface.
The Press motion ends as the bodyweight comes fully into the Bow Stance. The hands then separate and the palms turn forward as your bodyweight again pours towards the rear leg. This time, instead of stopping at 60 percent or 70 percent, your full bodyweight compresses into the rear leg. The front leg becomes weightless and the toes lift up. The front heels rests lightly on the Earth. This is known as the Empty Stance or Xu Bu (虚步). As you sit back into the empty stance, your elbows are sunk towards your ribs and both palms are facing the forward horizon.
With the Push motion, we catch an incoming force (the giant rolling stone) and push it away using the palms. The push is not linear but actually moves upwards in a shallow arc. The power of the push, however, is not just with the hands.
Push: An (按)
While called “Push,” the Jing of An is commonly misunderstood and therefore practiced and applied incorrectly. In the Tai Chi Classics, the hand motion is described as “settle the wrist.” This means to press the base of the palm forward, and this can be done either as an offensive or defensive technique, with either one hand or both hands together. If done quickly, this Push can appear like a strike. The downward “Push,” however, is not with the hands but with the legs. The power of An comes from unifying the whole body, pushing into the Earth with the legs, and allowing the rebound energy to flow through the hands.
In classical Yang-family Tai Chi, the four Primary Energies (Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push) are presented together in the single “Grasp Sparrows Tail” sequence. This sequence is considered so important that it is always repeated on both the left side and right side to make sure the concepts and techniques are completely grasped. As we move forward through the Primal 13 form, you’ll see variations of these Primary forces, as well as the Secondary forces created with two Primary energies are combined.
From the very Yang, expanding motion of Push you now transition into the very Yin motion in the first half of Catching Stars. You will again sit back into an Empty Stance, but in this variation you will keep the front foot flat on the ground. The back leg is fully Yang, supporting 100 percent of the bodyweight while the front leg is weightless or Yin. As the elbows sink (also a Yin motion) the palms rotate towards each other to illustrate Pull Down energy.
Pull Down: Cǎi (採)
Cai blends the energies of Roll Back and Push to create a new form of Jing energy used for powerful redirection. Cai also means to pluck and then take away, as in plucking an apple from a tree or a grape from a vine. Pull Down techniques will often intercept or adhere to an incoming force and forcefully redirect it into the Earth, typically with the fingertips or palms. Just like Roll Back, a skillfully executed Pull Down can lead an attacker to an unbalanced and vulnerable position.
Cai Jing is sometimes translated as “grabbing energy,” but there should be a clear distinction. Usually grabbing implies a committed, forced control, such as grabbing someones wrist. The forceful grab often creates tension in the body, and if the opponent is stronger they can unbalance you as you struggle.
Instead of thinking of this action as a grab, think of it as a “catch,” such as catching the throwing star between the palms or catching a Frisbee with fingertips and thumb. Once you have contact, you move with the force of the incoming attack but apply a “snapping” or jerking type of energy to redirect that force to a new line. Usually you will align this redirection with gravity, either pulling straight towards the ground or pulling it into your own “ground path” or connection point with the Earth.
Following the “catch” motion of Pull Down, you again reverse direction and pour your weight forward into the Bow Stance. As the hands and arm come up in the Brace With Blade technique, you are expressing a variation on Press Energy or Ji Jing. In the first variation you pressed with the back of the left hand and braced with the heel of the palms. In this variation you are pressing with the blade of the forearm – the sharp edge of the ulna or pinky-side forearm bone –and bracing near the wrist.
The Press energy is identical, but instead of a single point where we are applying pressure, now we are applying pressure along a plane. You should also see the seed idea of Ward Off or Peng Jing in this motion, with a similarly curved forward arm and open, rounded joints.
Forward Kick Left
From the Bow Stance used in the Catching Stars sequence, the rear, right foot steps up right beside the left foot in a position similar to the attention stance in which we started the form. Once again we are going to explore the energy of Central Equilibrium, but this time in an Unequal-Absolute (100/0) or single-leg stance. As the hands trace a giant circle in the air and then cross and lift along the centerline, the weight pours from the left leg into the right, and the left knee raises into the Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg posture, Jin Ji Du Li (金雞獨立).
The Golden Rooster stance is similar to Empty Stance and serves the same purpose: to set up kicks. The knee lifts straight up allowing the lower leg and foot to point downwards, naturally aligned with gravity. The raised leg should now be able to kick at any point.
As you extend the leg in the heel kick and press both palms forward, be constantly mindful of your balance, your connection with the Earth and your “ground path.” Imagine that an attacker were rushing into you but you were able to brace him away with your foot on his hip and your hands on his shoulders. How would his incoming force impact you? Ideally you should absorb his force by sinking into the Earth and redirecting his momentum into the ground, rather than by leaning in and trying to match force against force. Instead of requiring muscular strength, you should use structure and alignment to brace against the Earth.
Play the Lute
Without withdrawing from the Front Kick position, stay in Central Equilibrium and lower the front foot again into the toe-up Empty Stance or Xu Bu. As with the Golden Rooster posture and this same foot position in Push, the weightless front foot is positioned to be ready to kick at any moment. The elbows sink, drawing the hands into the staggered Play the Lute posture.
In the transition from Play the Lute to Single Whip you will be exploring multiple Tai Chi concepts. As you form the left hand into a hook and then pin it into position, you begin to experiment with the idea of moving against resistance. For example, instead of just pinning your left hand in the air, imagine that you are holding a cable connected to a very large kite on the beach. The winds coming off the ocean are pulling very hard on the kite and threatens to pull you off balance. Instead of leaning backwards, imagine turning your entire body so that you are bracing against the pull of the cable with Bow Stance. The stepping transition from empty stance to Bow Stance uses a spiral energy called Turn Right.
Step Right: Yòu Pàn (右盼)
You Pan is the energy of a radical change of direction to the right side. This can include stepping or sliding the base foot as you pivot and step or kick to the right. Stepping right can be done to avoid incoming force or to gain advantage in your position. Movement to the right is associated with the Element Fire.
At the conclusion of Step Right into Single Whip, you are back in a Bow Stance, but for the first time in the form it is a right Bow Stance and with an important anatomical difference. Your left Bow Stances so far have been applying pressing or pushing force in a forward direction. In Single Whip – with the stationary rear hand – you are now exploring Pulling Force (as in the pull of the kite cord).
With Pulling Force instead of Pushing Force, the hips are no longer squared and facing forward, but are opened to a side angle. In fact, if you flatten the hands and extend both arms in a straight line both forward and back, you would be in a perfect Virabhadrasana II or Warrior Two posture from Yoga.
Hold the Ball
The “Hold the Ball” posture becomes a reset point for the Primal 13 form. From Single Whip you take a half-step up with the back foot and then sit back into the “Hold the Ball” posture, now facing Northeast. This posture is sometimes described as “gathering Qi,” and can be used as a moment of quiet to refocus your intent before beginning the sequences on the right side.
Note that the Primal 13 form includes a small kick to the rear before stepping out of the “Hold the Ball” posture. This kick is omitted in many of the Yang-style forms, but added here to illustrate the idea of opening the line or creating an opening (Yin) before spiraling forward with a step or kick (Yang).
Grasp Sparrows Tail Right
(Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, Push)
The entire “Grasp Sparrows Tail” sequence is now repeated on the right side. Rather than simply repeating the notes from the first section, here let’s venture a little deeper into the Yin-and-Yang, forward-and-back motions within this sequence.
As you move between Ward Off, Roll Back, Press and Push (Peng, Lu, Ji, An), your bodyweight is continually moving from one leg to another. Energetically, each leg is toggling between Yin and Yang with every move. Technically, you are also moving between Step Forward and Step Back, although we are reserving discussion of “Step Back” until a later technique.
At a more subtle level, you should not only try to differentiate between Yin and Yang or “insubstantial and substantial,” but also feel how the energy moves your entire body as these forces go back and forth. Tai Chi author Scott Meredith calls this effect, “Sloshing.”
Sloshing speaks to the magnetic, tidal forces at play when Yin and Yang energy is in motion within the human body, but in more practical and less poetic language. It involves the constant change between forward and back, heavy and light, and how this creates a palpable, rhythmic momentum. Professor Zheng Manqing described this phenomenon in his concept of “swing and return,” in which the momentum from one movement initiates the next.
The internal feeling to look for is like water sloshing side-to-side in a heavy bucket that is half full of water. Imagine how the weight of the water would feel as moved side-to-side with the rhythm of your steps as you carry the bucket. As long as you keep walking slow and steady, the water never slows down to the point of stopping and never speeds up to the point of splashing. Momentum swells the water forward, carrying your movement forward, and gravity pulls it back down, guiding your body back with it.
Becoming sensitive to this rhythmic momentum applies not just the the Grasp Swallows Tail sequence, but to the entire Tai Chi form.
Carry Water to Temple
For the “Carry Water to Temple” sequence you begin by stepping both feet together again like in the attention stance, but with one subtle but significant difference: the legs are not in 50/50 weighting. In the previous Bow Stance, the weighting was 60/40 towards the front right foot. As you step up this time, maintain that Unequal Relative weighting with 60 percent of the bodyweight still on the right foot. In this posture, the difference will be impossible to see but can be felt.
Prior to the earlier “Front Kick Left” posture you traced both hands in a large circle from top to bottom. Now you’ll reverse that line by arcing the right hand upwards, tracing the circle from bottom to top and then starting to descend again on the left side of the body. The knees will bend as the hand descends and your weight will sink into your heels. Remember to not round your back, but keep the spine long and straight.
As the left hand intersects the circle and the forearm hooks the imaginary handle of the water bucket, your hips should be pressing back and your shoulders should be stacked over your heels. As the right hand braces the left wrist and begins to lift, the weight distribution shifts from right 60/40 to left 60/40. The shift is small, but prepares the left leg for the transition to come.
As you lift this heavy bucket of water, it is not your arms carrying the weight but your legs. Lift your gaze and feel the cascade of weight-bearing alignment from your neck to shoulders to spine through the hips and into the heels. In this posture the body and legs form the exact same shape as Utkatasana, or the “Fierce Pose” in Yoga.
Needle at Sea Bottom
Energetically, “Needle at Sea Bottom” is one of the more challenging postures in the Primal 13 sequence. By comparison, it is somewhat similar to the Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana pose from Ashtanga Yoga: the single-leg forward fold.
From the “Carry Water to Temple” posture, you will pour your weight from 60 percent to 100 percent into the left leg, then step the right leg back. As you pour 100 percent of your bodyweight from the forward left leg into the back right leg, you come into the False Leg Stance or Xuán Jī Bù (玄機步). The “False Leg” stance is different from the “Empty Leg” stance in the placement of the weightless front foot. In the “False Leg” stance, the toes lightly touch the Earth while the rest of the foot is suspended.
Holding the “False Leg” stance, the right hand arcs downward towards the left toes in a single-hand variation of Pull Down. In the “Catching Starts” variation of “Pull Down,” both palms were used to catch the incoming force. In “Needle at Sea Bottom,” the tip of the thumb pinches against the base of the index finger on the right hand. Keep the spine straight and bend at the waist to lower the hand towards the Earth. Your gaze should follow the hand.
Step Forward and Raise Elbow
With your bodyweight lowered and compressed into the back heel, you now have a massive amount of potential energy to express. As you unleash the Step Forward (Jin Bu) energy here, you must carefully and consciously control it.
From the “Needle at Sea Bottom” posture, first lift your gaze to the horizon. Lift the toes of the weightless front foot and set the heel down. Press into the Earth with the rear leg, pour the weight fully into the left leg and then step forward into the right Bow Stance. Despite the power, this step should be completely controlled. Do not “fall” forward into the right foot, but set the right heel down first and then pour your weight forward. You should not bounce in this step, but rather roll forward like a powerful locomotive on smooth tracks.
As you surge forward the right elbow traces a vertical arc upwards. In the final posture the elbow points straight ahead with the tip approximately level with the tip of your nose. The right forearm is parallel to the ground and the right palm is covering your right ear. The fingertips of the left hand lightly point at the tip of the right elbow in acknowledgement of Elbow Stroke power.
Elbow Stroke: Zhǒu (肘)
Zhou Jing is the power generated by striking, pushing or controlling with the elbow. The Elbow Stroke can be applied as a powerful attack at very close range, knocking your opponent off balance and possibly striking vital targets. Skill with the Elbow Stroke can also be used to coil the opponents arms for control, or to neutralize an incoming attack or attempt to grab and hold you. Elbow Stroke can be used vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or in a spiral motion.
Horizontal Elbow and Brace
Especially in light of the earlier focus on “Sloshing” and rhythmic momentum, the next posture and the following transition will feel paradoxically static. The feet do not move and the weight does not shift. The energy, however, does not stop.
For the short duration of this posture, you are Mickey Mouse with your wizard hat and wand, fully in control of the surging waves in Fantasia. You have summoned a massive surge of forward energy with Step Forward; now sustain it. Even without moving you should still feel this almost tidal momentum of energy continuing to flow forward. It is vital that you keep the back heel firmly pressed into the Earth during the entire posture. If you lift the heel you will break the energy connection.
As you surf this wave of forward energy, you are also exploring a second variation of Elbow Stroke. The first variation was a vertical/rising stroke; this one is a horizontal stroke. The forward right elbow will arc down and sink to your ribs. The fingertips of the left hand will follow as the left elbow circles up and across.
In the final posture the left elbow is pointing to the East in line with your heart. The back of the left hand should be pressed against the center of your chest with the left wrist gently braced by the right palm. This position illustrates how Elbow Stroke power can be linked to unified with the whole body structure.
Step Backward and Brace
During the two Elbow Stroke postures you have been maintaining a tidal flow of forward energy. Now that overwhelming surge is going to swing back and flood into you. Although you have already moved back and even stepped back in the form, here is where the energy of Step Back really begins to have meaning.
To transition, release the braced left wrist, sink the left elbow and turn both palms to face the Eastern horizon in a very “Wait, dude, I don’t want any trouble” guarding posture. The hands are up to protect the heart and vital organs, but the arms are still relaxed. From here, simply “catch” the return flow of energy and step back with the right foot. The hands should stay put but the arms should straighten and lengthen as you step into a left Bow Stance. Do not bounce or “fall” into the rear leg, but rather glide with the energy of Step Back.
Step Back: Tùi Bù (退步)
Tui Bu is the energy of stepping backwards to open space or lead an opponent into emptiness. When stepping, the rear leg touches down toe first, then the heel is planted and braced as bodyweight is poured into it. During stepping you should always be prepared to return the moving foot forward if needed. Backward movement is assocated with the Element Wood.
The most common backward steps in Tai Chi come into Empty Stance or False Stance. In this particular transition, we are going to step from a right Bow Stance into a left Bow Stance. The longer step allows you to really feel the flow of stepping back, as if you are being washed ashore by that incoming wave.
This wave does not simply lap the shore, however. Like the previous forward energy, this is sustained. As your right heel touches down, feel your body brace against the incoming surge. Let the rear foot pivot outwards and brace flat against the Earth, square your hips forward and press your palms outwards. You are now feeling the Yin/Earth energy of the Bow Stance.
Before, the Bow Stance was used to express power with the Press and the Push. These are Yang/Metal energies. Now you are absorbing or receiving power and becoming still, solid and immovable. Your body is like the exposed spur of a great stone that is mostly buried in the Earth. Any incoming force will simply flow through you and into the heart of the planet at your feet.
Forward Kick Right
From your stable left Bow Stance you’re going to step up and forward into the Golden Rooster Stands on One Leg posture. However, we have to divert that tidal flow of energy from East-West into Up-Down first. To do that, we are going to insert a transitional Empty Stance.
That sustained flow of tidal energy pouring into your Bow Stance is now going to reverse direction (“slosh” or “swing and return”) and flow forward again, carrying you with it. Pour all of your weight into your forward left foot and step the right foot up with the toes aligned near the arch of the left foot. This is identical to the posture we use in “Hold the Ball.” Depending on your balance, you can either touch the toes lightly on the ground or keep them slightly hovering (like a half-inch). Either way you should be in an Unequal-Absolute (100/0) single-leg stance with all of your weight still on your left leg.
Your movement should not stop or even pause here, but continue flowing right into the “Golden Rooster” posture. The right knee simply raises straight up with the shin and toes pointing straight down.
As with the “Forward Kick Left,” your hands have traced a giant circle during this transition. From the palms-forward guarding position in left Bow Stance, the hands will lift and trace both sides of the circle from top to bottom as you step forward into Empty Stance. The hands will meet at the bottom of the circle and then lift to heart level as you raise your knee into “Golden Rooster.” The hands then uncross and press forward with palms facing outward as you lift your right heel and kick.
Your right heel presses forward, both palms press forward, and your weight sinks fully into the left leg. From here, clinch both hands into fists and sink your elbows to draw the fists back to your chest. As the hands draw in, the knee bends (and possibly raises just a bit) and the shin and toes drop back into the “Golden Rooster” posture. The right shin and both forearms should be perpendicular to the ground – straight up and down – and the knuckles of both fists should be approximately shoulder height with the palm-side of the fist towards your chest.
Box the Ears
In one fluid motion, draw the fists towards your hips by pulling backwards with your elbows. As the fists move down, sink your bodyweight into your left leg and place the right heel on the Earth in preparation to move to Bow Stance.
As you pour your weight forward into the 60/40 right Bow Stance, the fists open and the hands trace a large diagonal circle that starts at your hips and peaks forward at head-height. If someone was standing right in front of you, you have just slapped both of their ears.
As fun as that might be, don’t be so eager to whack someone that you lean your upper body forward. As with all of the Bow Stances, your body is upright with your head and shoulders balanced over your hips.
Play the Lute
From the forward energy of “Box the Ears,” you now sit back into the “Play the Lute” posture again, just with the right side forward. Your bodyweight pours back into the rear left leg as the toes lift on the now weightless right leg in Empty Stance. Keeping the palms open, let the elbows sink and draw the hands into the staggered Play the Lute posture.
The concept of Reeling Silk or Chán Sī 纏絲 is derived from ancient Chinese art of silk-making where threads of silk are drawn from the cocoon and stretched onto a rotating reel. To successfully draw out the silk the action must be smooth and consistent without jerking or changing direction sharply. Pull too fast and the silk breaks; too slow, it sticks to itself and becomes tangled. Therefore silk reeling movements are continuous, cyclic, spiralling patterns performed at constant speed with the “light touch” of drawing silk.
This resembles the strands of spun silk. Winding silk energy is applied in pushing hands when opponents probe, use locking maneuvers, neutralize, vie for control, and practice tactical movements around each other’s space.There are six methods of winding silk energy: inner, outer, upper, lower, forward and backward. They are applied from anywhere on the body: the arms, legs, hips and waist, with the body moving continuously, with endless circularity, wrapped together like intertwined filaments of silk.
– Wu Kung-tsao
Reeling Silk is not shown as much in the Yang family styles, but is central to the principles of Chen and Wu style Tai Chi. In these systems you will also hear the terms Silk Reeling Energy or Chán Sī Jīng (纏絲精) and Silk Reeling Force or Chán Sī Gōng (纏絲功). In this posture you will use Silk Reeling Energy to simultaneously explore “Stepping Left” and the power of “Split.”
Stepping Left in this posture is the identical, mirror-image stepping pattern that you used to step into “Single Whip.” The weightless right foot steps back and becomes your base as the left foot spirals and steps West into a left Bow Stance.
Step Left: Zǔo Gù (左顾)
Zuo Gu is the energy of a radical change of direction to the left side. This can include stepping or sliding the base foot as you pivot and step or kick to the left. Stepping left can be done to avoid incoming force or to gain advantage in your position. Movement to the left and looking to the left is associated with the Element Water.
You have already practiced “Reeling Silk” energy with the spiral right step and the spiral motion of the right hand as you moved into “Single Whip,” we just didn’t emphasize it there. Here, the smooth, continuous spiraling movements are everything.
As you withdraw the right foot you will pivot at the shoulder and raise the right elbow. Your goal is to place both hands side-by-side, both palms to your right side, with the left hand fingers pointing up and the right hand fingers pointing down.
Imagine that there is a large cocoon with a single ribbon of fine silk pinned right at your palms. Gently scoop up the cocoon and spiral your body to the left moving first from your hips and letting the hands gently follow. Your right elbow will tuck under, returning to your ribs as the right palm turns upwards. Both palms will be facing the sky as they cradle the cocoon, left hand forward and right fingertips close to the left wrist.
Press the ball of the right foot firmly into the ground as you pivot and Step Left, as if you are pinning the silk-stand to the ground. Without breaking the ribbon of silk, extend your hands and your energy to the West to draw it out.
Split: Liè (挒)
Lie means to separate, to twist or to offset with a spiral motion, often while making immobile another part of the body (such as an arm or leg). Splitting uses Yin and Yang energies to hold one part static while extending another, often destroying an opponent’s posture and balance.
Part Wild Horses Mane Left
In the Part Wild Horses Mane posture, repeated on both left and right sides, we explore the final form of the thirteen Tai Chi energies. While simple in appearance, the interplay of energies is complex, emphasizing Yin and Yang, balance and off-balance, spiral force, and then infusing all of that into Shoulder Stroke.
To reset, pivot on your heels to point both feet directly North and sink your weight into this Equal 50/50 stance. Pivoting directly from a Bow Stance, your feet are likely at or greater than shoulder-width distance. This is the mother of all stances in Chinese Kung Fu: the Horse Stance or Ma Bu (馬步). Bring both palms to your centerline at the front of the body: right hand with fingers pointing up and palm towards the West, left hand with fingers pointing down and palm towards the East.
Pour all of your bodyweight into your right leg. Trace a circle with the left foot, tracing forward to the North, brushing the right foot, then dramatically drawing the left foot behind you in an arc before stepping the heel down with the toes pointing West.
Bring your attention to the outside tip of your left shoulder (the head of the humerus). Push off your right foot as pivot your hips to the left and imagine a line of energy extending from your right foot through your body into the edge of your left shoulder. Feel the rotation in the socket of the scapula as the hands slide past each other and the left palm extends West and the right palm moves towards the waist.
Shoulder Stroke: Kào (靠)
Kao energy uses your shoulder, combined with your full body force, to attack or defend against an opponent. This can be a block, a push or a strike with the shoulder or upper back, often with the goal of unbalancing or knocking an opponent down. Kao also implies an angular motion such as leaning or inclining.
Part Wild Horses Mane Right
This posture resets with a pivot back to Horse Stance and a return of the hands to the centerline. This time the left hand with fingers pointing up and palm towards the East, and the right hand with fingers pointing down and palm towards the West.
Repeat the Part Wild Horses Mane sequence, pivoting to the East and extending the right palm with full attention on the line of power generated by Shoulder Stroke.
Pluck Lotus/Present Gift
For this final sequence you will begin by pivoting on your heels to reset back into Horse Stance. Both hands come to the centerline as you face North, wrists crossed over the heart, left hand outside and right hand inside, with both palms facing your chest.
Lift your energy (but not your bodyweight) as you look up. Follow this energy with your hands, turning the palms over and lifting them towards the sky. Let your toes open slightly as the hands separate and trace the circumference of a giant circle in the air. Bend your knees and sink low into Squat Stance or Zuo Dun.
Your gaze arcs downwards with your hands to find the Lotus blossom between your heels. Lift the hips to fold forward at the waist as your hands pluck the Lotus blossom with your fingertips. Again sink your bodyweight into the Squat Stance as you lift your hands, head and heart. Your gaze should be to the far horizon past your fingertips as the palms face the sky with arms extended.
Reset for the Closing Posture by closing both hands into fists and drawing them back to your ribs by pulling with the elbows. Forearms should be parallel to the Earth, fists held with the knuckles down in a horizontal line. Press into the Earth and raise your body into the Horse Stance, pivoting on your heels to bring both feet parallel.
Complete the reset by drawing the circle with the right foot and setting it down in the original position, then drawing the circle with the left foot but setting it down closer to place the feet at shoulder-width distance.
In the Closing Form our focus now shifts to Breath Work or Qigong 气功. Pay close attention to inhalation and exhalation and moving the arms and body with the breath.
Breath in deeply and place both hands in prayer position in front of your hearth. Exhale as you sink your weight and point your fingers to the horizon, separating the palms by a fist’s width. Breath in deeply and extend the arms to the horizon at shoulder height, turning the palms towards the Earth. Exhale fully as the arms relax to hang at your sides and the legs straighten. Breathe in deeply as you pour your weight into your right leg and bring the left foot beside the right. Exhale fully and pour your weight equally into both legs, returning to the original attention posture where we started.
Softly return to normal breathing and simply stand quietly for a few moments, allowing the buzzing, flowing energy to settle into its natural rhythm. This is an excellent time for a short meditation, simply following the breath without effort, or a short prayer of gratitude for the day, the day’s practice and your life.