Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Stepping: Pulling Your Weight
When stepping in Tai Chi, some people push off their back foot in order to move forward. However, this goes against the Tai Chi principles of movement. When you push off your back foot, you're actually going against gravity and lifting yourself out of your root.
Pulling your weight vs Pushing off As you push off your leg, you lift yourself, albeit slightly, and your hip moves up just enough to stop you from sinking and rooting. Your breathing moves up in your chest and your rooting becomes shallower. One of the key rules of Tai Chi is to stay level and avoid going up and down. When you push, you are going up and down which destabilizes your posture and balance. Also, your expansion is hampered.
When we think of expansion, we usually think of our upper body because of the arms and the chest and the back. However, expansion is all over; the entire body expands. Each joint opens and expands in all directions. When you push off, you are actually hindering that expansion because you’re compressing your body.
However, when you pull into your weight and sink the “empty” leg, you are elongating your body, especially your spine and expanding it. Then you are moving within the principles of Tai Chi.
Another reason to pull with your feet is rooting. In Tai Chi we always talk about rooting. You should be rooted in every posture, every movement, and even when you are transitioning between movements. Rooting is a function of letting go, sinking into the ground, and lifting the head.
If you push your foot against the floor, are you not going against your rooting? When you push into the ground you are not sinking into the ground but creating a force against it. You may think that you’re rooting, but in effect you stop yourself from sinking because to sink you have to relax. When you push, you are actually tightening your muscles and stopping them from letting go. You cannot sink while pushing.
Activity 1: Pulling vs. Pushing with your feet
Stand with your feet parallel as in a horse stance or opening posture for some styles. I’ll ask you to shift your weight from side to side.
• First, do it a few times by slowly pushing off one leg.
Do this very slowly a few times so that you can feel the changes and notice what happens in your hip; notice your rooting; notice your breathing, notice your balance.
• Now do it and slowly pull your weight from side to side.
Slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other by pulling yourself rather than pushing off. While one leg is pulling, the other sinks deep into the ground. When the “insubstantial” leg (the one emptying) goes deep into the floor, you should feel your hips sink with it. In other words, if your weight is on your right leg and you are shifting to the left, pull with the left leg and sink your right leg into the floor.
Again, notice your hips; your rooting, your breathing; your balance.
When I push off with my foot, I feel my legs tensing; I feel my foot became stiff and losing its hollowness; I feel my hip moving up pushing me a little higher; my breathing moves into my upper chest; the flow of energy to my arms is curtailed because the connection between the arms and legs has been weakened.
Activity 2: Creating a rooted circuit between your legs
To feel the pulling and sinking in the feet try this activity:
Stand with your feet parallel about shoulder width apart. Now very slowly sway from side to side, and as you sway, use your feet to initiate the movement. If you’re swaying to the left, pull with your left foot. When swaying to the right, pull with your right. As you pull with one leg, sink the other deeper into the floor. Try to feel a circuit running between the feet, so that as one pulls the weight, it is also pulling the other foot deeper into the ground.
When this movement becomes familiar and comfortable, also feel as if both feet are rooted in the ground, as if your knees are touching the ground and your butt is sitting on the floor. Feel like you are moving an energy circuit from one leg to the other. The leg that is pulling is absorbing the energy, while the leg that is sinking is sending the energy to the other leg.
Activity 3: Stepping Forward and Back while pulling
Let’s apply this to the form Brush Knee. When you’re stepping forward, place the forward foot down and pull your weight into that leg (see the posting, “Let's talk about stepping! Part 1 - How to place the foot").
If you’re moving backwards the process is the same but it’s the back foot that’s pulling.
What is “Pulling?”
“Pulling” can take on different qualities as your skill improves. At first you pull by tensing muscles and grabbing with your toes. As you get better, you use less and less muscles, and your toes just touch the ground. When you’ve become very familiar and comfortable with the movement, you do not use any muscular force to shift the weight and the pulling becomes a feeling of “absorbing”, where you feel as if you are absorbing energy out of the ground.
In my previous article “placing the foot”, I mentioned keeping a hollow under the arch of your foot. When you “pull” or “absorb”, this hollow does the absorbing, creating an energy flow between the feet. With time and practice, the movement of stepping and pulling and absorbing becomes relaxed, natural, and effortless.
If the front leg pulls or absorbs your weight, what happens in the rear foot? Does it just hang out, going along for the ride? No, while the foot that is getting the weight is absorbing energy out of the ground, the other foot is sinking into the ground. As you shift your weight toward the weighted leg, feel your tailbone and hips going deep into the floor with your “insubstantial” leg.
Again, the only way to understand this is to actually try it.
Activity 4: Sink the “insubstantial” leg
While on your right leg, step forward with your left. Shift your weight forward to your left leg and disregard your back leg. Have someone pull on your front hand. It is easy to pull you off your heels. Now do it again and this time as you shift your weight forward, sink your back leg and then have someone pull you. It is much harder to pull you because you are rooted in both legs.
What's Next? Stepping as Giving and Receiving
There is another aspect to stepping which will be covered in depth in a later article; the turning of the feet. Stepping is really made up of the “Giving and Receiving” or “Pulling and sinking” and the turning of the feet. I will cover the turning in another post but suffice it to say that whereas the “Pulling and sinking” is a somewhat vertical plane, the turning of the feet is on the horizontal plane. Together they create a stable and rooted stepping in your tai chi and power in your movement. When there is a turning that is both horizontal and vertical, it creates a spiral. Spiraling is the hallmark of Tai Chi and what every movement in Tai Chi strives to achieve.
Of course, stepping as I have described requires diligent practice. It is not learned overnight. However, once you learn this way of stepping you will feel the difference in your rooting, your stability, your breathing, and you will begin to feel the unity of the taiji body.
Written By: Joseph Eber