Updated: Oct 12
To shift your weight in tai chi there are two ways: push off against the ground or pull your weight. I’ve written in the past about how we transfer weight by pulling with our feet, and not by pushing off. I received various comments from people telling me that they push, and that it works for them. But “working for them” doesn’t mean that it’s the better way to do it. I suspect that in most cases it is the only way they know. I would like to demonstrate why pulling with the feet is a better way of doing tai chi.
· Giving and Receiving Power
Tai chi is based on relaxation, and the opening of the all the joints in the body. Why? Well, aside from practical health benefits, relaxing and opening our joints allows us to root and feel energy throughout our body. From a practical martial art perspective, it allows any incoming force to pass through our body and into the ground. When you think of the various postures in tai chi, regardless of style, the intention is to let force go through the body and connect to the ground. If there is tension in your body, the force will stop and amass at the point of tension stopping the flow and making it easier to knock you off balance. For example, if someone is pushing on you, you allow their force to go to the ground, so they wind up pushing the ground. But, if your shoulders are tense, their force will go there and knock you back.
Conversely, when we give force, it is sent from the ground to our arms. If there is tension in your body, you wind up using your arm muscles to generate the power and that is not what you want.
So, it makes sense that for the energy to flow to and from the ground, the internal pathways must be open. But when you push off with your foot, the act of pushing creates tension in your leg. You may not even be aware of this tension because you have become so used to doing things this way. Another reason to not push is that when you push, you stop yourself from rooting. Rooting can only be done if the legs are relaxed and sunk into the ground. You cannot push your feet into the ground to root because the ground will only push you back. And, if you are already rooted, as soon as you push, your root begins to ebb.
· Open the Kua
Opening the kua, (inguinal crease or hip joint), is a key part in tai chi. To advance beyond a beginner’s level you have to learn to open your kuas. A simple reason is because everything going to and from the legs must pass these gates. If the kua is “closed”, the body cannot be unified, and energy cannot flow as it should. To open the kua, the knee moves away from the hip. For this to happen, the leg must sink. But, if you push with your foot, the knee actually moves towards the hip and stops the kua from opening. Neil Ripski posted a video that really brings this out (https://youtu.be/YnIl1t8WK2g). When you pull and allow the hips to sink, the knee moves away from the hip and the kua opens.
Our center of gravity has a lot to do with our balance, and the lower the center of gravity, the better the balance. In addition, in tai chi we discourage our students from going up and down as they move. However, when we push off with our leg, we tend to push the hip up which raises the center of gravity, which of course affects our balance. For some people it is very noticeable and with others it is hardly visible, but you can feel that there is something not quite right with their posture and balance. When you watch players do their form, notice the postures where they lift their knee either to take a long step or to kick. As their knee rises, does their body also rise? If it does, then that does not follow the principle of keeping the head at the same level.
When doing the Yang Style ward-off posture, or any ward-off movement in any style, it does not work very well if you push with your back leg. Of course, you can push inexperienced people around, but you will be doing it with a lot of tension in your body. That will not work against experienced players. If you take the time to notice, you will find that as you push with your back leg to move your opponent, your shoulders will tighten so that the force will not move to or from your feet. But if you sink your back foot (while pulling with the front) your back and shoulders will relax and allow the force to move through them. Some believe that you press into your back leg and like a spring it can propel your body with force. This is a very common error in push hands where if you get pushed back, you load your back leg to give you springing power to push the opponent back. That does not work very well because you wind up using arm strength, and with all the tensing that happens, it is not tai chi. Also, when there is stepping as in walking push hands or sparring, pushing off the back foot propels you forward as you take the first step, but then when you try to step again you are off balance, falling forward and without any root.
Contrary to some beliefs, Ward-off is not pushing, just as push hands is not about pushing. What makes ward-off effective is the expanding of the body. For the body to expand the head and hips must go in opposite directions. The head, of course, is lifting up. Therefore, to expand, the hips have to move down. If the back leg is pushing into the floor, there is an equal and OPPOSITE reaction in the hips. How, then, can the hips go down?
Another way to look at it is from the perspective of force against force. As the opponent is giving you force, if you give force back, it is conflict. But if you allow their force to go through you, you receive their force which is a form of yielding. When you push off your back foot, you are sending force to meet their force. But if you sink the back foot, you are receiving their force.
· Golden Rooster on One Leg
When doing Golden Rooster, or any one-legged stance, how do you avoid going up and down? Let us assume that in this posture the right knee is lifting off the ground, and the left is the supporting leg. Pushing off with your right foot to shift to the left foot, will push your hips upwards and forward. Your balance and stability will suffer because your center of gravity will move up and too far forward. The intention of the movement is to lift your knee to strike the opponent with it while your hand strikes under their chin (in some styles). A common error for many players is thinking that the power of the movement comes from raising the body to give the knee power. You can see how their body rises as they complete the move. But, it’s the sinking of the hips that lifts the arm and knee with power. If your body rises up as you lift the knee, you lose much of the power. Conversely, when you pull with your left leg and simultaneously sink the hips, it will facilitate lifting the right knee, and because your hips sink, you will generate much more force in your right knee as it comes up to strike. You will also be deeply rooted and balanced. I addition, when you lift your knee, there is a spiral that goes from your feet through your body and into your hands. This spiral gives you power as you slightly turn to the left. But, if you push off your right foot, it will raise your hips, even just slightly, but enough to stop the spiraling from happening.
· Knee moving back
Your knees should always feel as if they are trying to connect to your toes. The feeling is as if there is a bungee cord between you knees and toes trying to pull them closer together. When this connection is working, the hips drop lower and the kuas open easier. However, when we push off with our legs, that connection is weakened. The hips get pushed up and the kuas are not as open. A good example of this when you do push hands and you yield by moving back. A common error is to push off the front foot to move your body away from your opponent. Most players don’t even notice that they pushed off the front foot because they’re just trying to evade their opponent. But, when you push off the front leg, the tendency is to move the knee back, causing instability and uprooting. Let me be clear, you can shift your weight back, but you want your knee to align with your toes and point toward your opponent. If you pull with the back foot and keep your front knee bent and connected to your toe, you will be much more stable than if you move your knee back and lose the toe connection.
· Fast Tai Chi
If you have ever done your tai chi while stepping quickly you will have found out that you cannot push and continue to move quickly. When you push off with your foot your movements become choppy, clumsy and you’ll find yourself bopping up and down. When stepping quickly and pushing off, the body rises as the back foot pushes and then falls unto your front foot. Changing direction or stopping become difficult because you’re throwing your body weight forward. Imagine pushing off the rear foot while chasing someone. If you had to suddenly change directions or stop, you couldn’t. Your momentum would continue to move you forward. The Chinese call this “Chicken Walking.” But if you stay on your back leg as you move and pull with the front, you will find that you are “sitting” as you walk and run, which is what you want. Your fast walking will be smooth, graceful, and fluid, and you will not be bopping up and down. You will be able to change directions and stop at will.
There are many more examples than what I have listed that show that pulling the weight rather than pushing off is the better way to move in tai chi. I know some of you will reject this out of hand and that unfortunately is doing yourself a disservice. I suggest you try to move both ways; pulling and sinking, and by pushing off to transfer the weight. Pay attention to some of the things mentioned above, and keep asking yourself, “Am I relaxed? Are my shoulders loose? Am I better balanced? Can the force reach my feet and come back to my hands without tensing any muscles? Do I have more force?” I think you may surprise yourself.
Written By: Joseph Eber