Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Feel suspended by your hair.” We’ve all heard this from our teachers, or we read it in the tai chi literature, but what does it really mean? We think we know what it means because we imagine it. But when was the last time you were suspended by your hair “?
So, what really happens when you’re suspended by your hair? The only way to describe it is to imagine a dead body hanging by its hair. Why a dead body? Because a dead body does not resist, does not try to control its posture by tightening its muscles, it lets go. That’s the key phrase. Let go! Letting go is probably the hardest thing to learn in tai chi. It is so ingrained in us that not only do we NOT let go, but our subconscious mind strongly resists it. So, letting go is a conscious act, and when you’re suspended by your hair you have to let go. So, what happens when we let go of all the tensions that we use to hold our bodies upright? Let’s look at how letting go affects the different areas of our bodies. Please note, everything we describe that happens to the body while being suspended, is exactly what our posture should be in tai chi.
To begin, imagine yourself suspended by your hair. You are hanging without any resistance. You let go and you feel your weight sinking through your feet. Bend both hip joints and knees and allow your hips to roll under you, but with as little muscular force as possible. Now, imagine that you are suspended by a long rope from a scaffolding that is high above you. What happens when you do that? You will immediately feel the line of suspension is much higher than your physical head, and your feet go much deeper into the ground.
This may be difficult for some to imagine so let me give an alternative way to feel suspended that may work better for you. Rather than feeling as if you are hanging, which may be difficult for some, feel your feet being supported by the floor. Your head is suspended from above, but your feet support you. You let go starting from your neck and working your way down to your feet. Your lower back and butt muscles (Gluteus Maximus) hold a lot of tension so you may want to spend a lot of time on letting those muscles go. You will eventually feel your full weight on your thighs. Work on relaxing each muscle group until your thighs are completely relaxed and your weight has sunk to your calves. Do the same with your calves until the weight is in your feet. By that point, you should feel that your feet have sunk into the floor up to you knees. This is a challenging process that is done over an extended time. It cannot be done in a week, a month, or even a year. Letting go is very hard, and for some, almost impossible. What makes it so challenging is that we are not consciously aware that we’re holding and tensing our muscles. Releasing what you don’t know you’re holding can be very challenging.
The only way to feel it is to try it.
The Head and Spine
The head FEELS like it is lifted, but in effect, it is the shoulders, the shoulder blades and the hips that are dropping away from the head. The feeling along the spine is that of a force simultaneous going up to lift the head, and down to drop the body. These two forces pass each other along the spine (Figure 1). Imagine pulling on a rubber band; all parts of the band move simultaneously towards the opposite ends. The feeling of the lengthening or expansion of the spine is probably the most important thing in the postures of tai chi. If you do not feel this lengthening than none of the other parts can be right. Also, this feeling of lengthening does not reach a maximum point and stops, because if it does, the spine will feel stiff and that is definitely NOT what you want. Your spine should always FEEL that it can lengthen and expand just little bit more; that you can let go just a little more. Another way to say it is to feel the elasticity of your spine, because if it becomes rigid, or tense, or stiff, it is incorrect.
Stand in any upright posture. Imagine yourself being suspended. Lengthen your neck and drop your chin. Let the rest of your body fall away from your head. Feel the lengthening in your spine. Try to feel a force going up and a force going down your spine. Allow your spine to lengthen a little more and feel it. Now, do it in a way that feels as if you can’t lengthen it any more. Feel what happens in your back. Now, relax the spine again and let it feel as if it can get longer. Note the feelings in your back. It’s important to recognize the different feelings in your spine; to recognize the up and down flow, as well as when you are lengthening the spine and when you have gone too far.
The back of the head lifts, while the front is sinking. In other words, the chin sinks down (Figure 2.2). If you’re feeling suspended, it will be impossible for the chin to come up. When doing tai chi or qigong, we sink the chin to open the back of the neck and to allow the head to lift. When our chin is up, it stops the head from lifting which moves our breathing to the upper chest; it prevents us from sinking and rooting; and it affects our balance because the head is not balanced on the spine. When done right, the chin should feel heavy as if it too is sinking.
The Front and Back of the Body
As the body is suspended and the head lifts and the trunk sinks, it creates a roundness of the back. The roundness of the back then creates a hollowing of the front of the body. This conforms to the adage of “Chest in, Back Out”. Furthermore, as the spine is stretched it straightens out the curve in the lower back. As the lumbar curve is straightened out, it slightly pulls the lower abdomen inwards, giving the internal organs and the diaphragm more space to move, allowing for deeper breathing.
The Shoulders and Shoulder Blades
The shoulders drop away from the head creating a lengthening of the neck. You’ll feel as if the space between your ears and shoulders has suddenly gotten much larger. In addition, the shoulders move slightly
forward as the chest sinks slightly inwards. Again, this is the “Chest in and Back out”. The shoulder blades do two things: they move slightly away from the spine and towards the shoulders, and secondly, they sink down towards the lower back. There are a number of muscles groups attached to the shoulder blades. At their other end, those muscle groups attach to the ribs and collar bone, so that when the shoulder blades drop, they pull the ribs and collar bone in a way that widens the chest and allows the lungs to expand more.
The hips and tailbone
When the spine is lengthened and the lumbar curve is flattened, the hips naturally tilt as if you’re tucking
your tailbone under your hips. The tucking of the hips and tailbone has been misunderstood for some time. When I first learned it, we were taught to intentionally tuck in the hips and tailbone. This is wrong because when done intentionally, you tighten the muscles to do it. Your muscles should never tighten in tai chi. The correct way to do it is to let it happen as part of feeling suspended. As the front of the body hollows, it naturally pulls on the pelvic bones and the coccyx to bring the tailbone under (Figure 4).
The arms and legs
The arms, the legs, hands and feet should all be relaxed and loose. If you’re suspended, then there is no tension in your muscles or joints. In fact, because the muscles are not tense and pulling on the bones, all the joints in your body should be relaxed and open. As the joints loosen and open, the body expands to feel larger, bigger, as if filling up the space a round you. One of the most important things to note is that your feet remain relaxed and soft. If you are suspended then your feet sink and melt into the ground, they do not push against it. When you push against the ground you stop the suspension process. The force of the ground against your feet causes your muscles to tighten, and your joints to begin to close.
Stand straight as if suspended by your hair. Feel the weight dropping away from your head and into your lower body. Feel the energy connection between the crown and your hands and feet. When you feel these things and you are completely relaxed, slightly bend your knees and hip joints so as to slightly lower your body. As your body lowers, maintain all the feelings that you just had. Play around with lowering your body to differing heights by bending the knees and hip joints. Once you are comfortable doing this, start shifting your weight from foot to foot. Try it by pushing off one foot to shift to the other, and then try it by pulling your weight from one foot to the other. What do you notice? I think you will notice that when you push, you stop the flow because your muscles tighten, and you stop the sinking. When you pull, your feet continue to sink and the energy flows.
The concept of being suspended is so simple that it can be easily overlooked, and yet it has a huge impact on the tai chi postures and form. Rooting, sinking, letting go, relaxing, turning, and a host of other factors are impacted by this simple thing. Please go back to feeling what happens when you’re suspended. Once you have achieved your perfect stance, you have to keep adjusting and readjusting your posture. Your muscles will keep trying to pull you back to your old stance by tightening up. You have to continuously readjust them by relaxing them and letting go. Posture is 90% of tai chi. Without the proper posture there is no tai chi, so feeling suspended to create the correct posture can certainly help to advance your tai chi to the next level.
When you become comfortable with feeling as if being suspended then you are on your way towards feeling the center line and how to use it. Susan Thompson posted a really nice and concise video about the center line: Four minute Tai Chi Lesson: Moving Around an Axis
Written By: Joseph Eber