Updated: Oct 12, 2022
For Part 1 please see Let's talk about stepping! Turning the feet (part 1)
Tai chi is a circular art that is comprised of a series of stepping and turning movements. Each movement and each step is a weight shift combined with a turn. Why is Tai Chi circular instead of linear? The turning in tai chi makes it beneficial for health as it lengthens the muscles and opens the joints. It is an effective martial art because the turning creates a spiraling that allows incoming force to be absorbed and outgoing force to be returned to the opponent. Without the turning, a person is not able to efficiently receive force or generate force. Without the circular movements and turning Tai Chi would be ineffective as a health exercise or martial art.
When we talk about turning, there are two types of turning. There is the external turning where the turning of your trunk, arms and legs is easily seen on the outside. There is also internal turning that cannot be seen by the casual observer. The internal turning is what is known as silk reeling (chan su jing) or spiraling energy. It is felt by the practitioner, but it is hard to see by an untrained observer. The external and internal combine to make it possible to receive energy and send it to the ground, or to issue energy towards an opponent.
The tai classics tell us that movement starts at the feet, is controlled by the waist, and manifests in the arms. There is another adage that says movement is done from the bottom up and from the inside out. In this article we will look at how to use these adages in specific situations or postures. We will look at how we “give’ and “receive” force by starting our movements from our feet. Please note that this is not about a specific style, and it is applicable to all tai chi styles, push hands, bagua, and other arts.
Some teachers say that movement starts with Yi (intention). I agree. Everything starts with the mind. But to whom does the mind issue its command to start the movement? If my intention is to move, where do I start? Do I move my feet first or my hips or my arms? Also, when under pressure as in push hands or sparring and there is no time to think, only to react, is the Yi part of the reactive movements?
Some teachers teach that movement starts from the dan tien. To us, the dan tien moves and turns as part of the movements, but it is not the initiator of the movement. The tai chi classics tell us that the dan-tien adheres or connects to the spine, meaning that there is a strong connection between the dan-tien and the lower back (ming-men). The dan-tien stores our energy and sends it to the spine. But the dan-tien does not initiate the movement, it follows the movements of the body. As you move you are aware of the dan tien, just as a person needs to be aware of everything inside and outside of themselves. When we turn, we turn the space or sphere or room that surrounds us. The dan-tien is part of that space and it moves with it. When I turn right, the dan-tien turns right. When I turn left it turns with me.
Some teachers teach that turning is done from the hips or the area around the navel. That will certainly turn you, but is it as effective as turning from the feet? Even within a specific style, such as the Yang or Chen styles, some start the movements from the feet, others from the hips, and others from the waist. So, to answer the question, we must first ask how is power generated in tai chi?
Power is generated because of the interaction of the feet with the ground. Try throwing a punch while standing on ice. If you do manage to throw the punch it will be ineffective because your feet do not have good interaction with the ground. We believe that it is the turning of the feet that generates the most power, stability, rooting and the momentum to move quickly and easily from posture to posture. Furthermore, force is generated in tai chi through internal turning or spiraling, combined with the external turning. So how do we actually do the internal turning and spiraling? It starts with the turning of the feet.
The feet turn towards each other (the feet always turn toward each other) as if there are doorknobs at the bottom of each foot; one is opening a door and the other is closing a door. The knees stay in alignment with the feet because the kuas are relaxed and open allowing the hips to turn independent of the knees. This is extremely important because if the kuas are not open the hips will turn with the knees, resulting in tightening the spine and stopping the flow of energy through the body.
The hips, moving independently of the knees, create a twisting of the trunk and spine, in a way where the spine remains relaxed and flexible, especially in the ming-men (lower back) area. When the feet turn, they turn and spiral the entire leg. You can feel your thighs twist. The turning of the feet and legs, turns the trunk, which turns the arms and hands. When the feet create the spiral, it goes to the arms and causes the hands to spiral as well. In other words, the arms spiral and turn internally from the turning of the feet, and not because they are consciously turned.
Let’s look at some concrete examples of how turning the feet creates the turning of the trunk and the spiraling of the arms and hands. Please note that the examples below are demonstrating the function of the feet. The postures may look different than how you do them in your style, but the concept of how the shifting of the weight and turning of the feet work together is applicable to all styles and postures.
Some of you may reject this way of movement because you were taught a different way and you feel that it is the best way to do it. I can only tell you that for the first 15 years of my training I moved like you. But once I learned to move from my feet, I couldn’t go back. I had more power, rooting and balance, and when doing fast tai chi and bagua, the feet pull me from posture to posture creating momentum while still spiraling.
To understand the pulling and sinking of the feet as they turn, you must try the movements detailed below. Do them slowly so that you can feel the movement and the effect on your body.
Activity 1 – Step into Brush Knee
The associated diagram represents what happens when you step into a Brush Knee Left.
Stand with your feet together and then step forward with your left foot going into a Bow Stance. As your toes touch the floor pull your weight forward to your left leg (green arrow). As you pull, turn both feet towards each other (black arrows). The left foot turns clockwise as it pulls and the right turns counterclockwise as it sinks. Make sure the kuas are relaxed and open. Notice that as you shift and turn, your hips (represented by the cylinder) will naturally turn to the left (maroon arrow). The front (left) foot is pulling the weight while the rear (right) sinking. The turning of the feet creates a spiral that goes from the feet to the hips and trunk, and into the hands. You can, of course, reverse the movement and shift the weight back to your right foot. As you do, the right foot is pulling the weight (or absorbing from the floor), and the left is sinking deeper. Both feet turn inward as they pull and sink.
Activity 2 – Rooster Stands On One Leg
The first picture (1) shows the transition of going from a Bow Stance into Golden Rooster. The left foot is pulling the weight and it is turning clockwise or inwards. Picture 2 shows the weight has almost shifted completely to the left leg and the left foot is still turning to help lift the right foot. The 3rd picture shows that the turning foot helps keep a balanced stance because the turning creates a spiral that goes into the floor and up to the arms and head. The feeling is as if the foot is screwing itself into the floor, while at the same time there is a spiraling motion that is rising from the feet to the hands and head. You will find that there is more balance and power in the movement when you generate the spiraling than without it.
Activity 3 – Ward Off and Roll Back (to the right)
The act of Ward Off is to bring your energy under your opponent. When done correctly, the person who is pushing feels their toes begin to rise as their weight shifts upward and towards their heels. Many people think the Ward Off is at the end of the movement when the weight has shifted forward. This is incorrect. Ward Off starts when the weight begins to shift, and the trunk starts turning. All this is done through the feet. The feet create the spiraling needed to give the movement power to ward off an opponent.
When you step into Ward Off with your right foot, your right foot pulls you forward as if it is absorbing energy from the ground. As the front leg is pulling, your back foot is sinking into the floor (blue arrows). In this way both feet are actively involved in the move and are rooting. The Ward Off posture calls for a weight shift and a simultaneous turning. Therefore, as the right leg begins to pull, both feet begin turning (small black arrows) to rotate the trunk to the right (maroon arrow). The turning of the feet is done by the right foot turning counterclockwise and the left turns clockwise.
Roll Back is the reverse of Ward Off. In Ward Off your energy is going forward, and in Roll Back it is moving back (red arrows). Many people think of roll back as simply a redirection of the opponent’s power. It is more than that. Your arms need to sink and be heavy so that they are weighing down on the opponent’s grasp.
The weight shifts back because the left leg is pulling you back by feeling as if it is absorbing energy from the ground. At the same time, your right is sinking into the floor to give you stability and rooting (blue arrows). It is very important to remember to keep your right knee bent as you shift back and turn, because straightening the knee, weakens your root and creates an imbalance. As your weight begins to change, your feet turn inwards. The left leg turns clockwise and the right counterclockwise (black arrows). The turning of the feet causes your trunk to turn to the left (maroon arrow), and the pulling and sinking make your arms heavy so that they weigh down on the opponent.
Activity 4 – Fair Lady
The body mechanics of Fair Lady is very similar to Ward Off. The body’s weight is pulled forward (green arrow) by the front leg while both legs are turning inwards (Black arrows). The front leg is pulling or absorbing while the back leg is sinking down (blue arrows). The turning of the feet causes the hips to turn to the left (maroon arrow) and a spiraling develops from the feet all the way to the hands. This spiraling along with the turning of the trunk is what gives the movement of the arms their power.
Activity 5 – Part the Horse’s Mane
The body mechanics of Part the Horse’s Mane is very similar to Ward Off and Fair Lady. The body’s weight is pulled forward (green arrow) by the front leg while both legs are turning inwards (Black arrows). The front leg is pulling or absorbing while the back leg is sinking down (blue arrows). The turning of the feet causes the hips to turn to the left (maroon arrow) and a spiraling develops from the feet all the way to the hands. This spiraling along with the turning of the trunk is what gives the movement of the arms their power.
Turning from the feet can be readily understood if we do the above postures while expressing fa-jing. In tai chi we can generate tremendous explosive power or fa-jing. Fa-jing is compared to the snapping of a whip. A whip works because there is no tension in it, and because the handle makes a small movement to generate a big movement at the tip. To generate maximum force in fa-jing, think of your feet as the handle and your arms as the tip of the whip. Your feet make small circles that spiral up and send explosive force to your arms. Take for example the last example above of doing Part the Horse’s Mane and this time do it with fa-jing. Your feet turn as described above, and your arms whip out like the ends of a whip. That’s why we move from our feet.
Written By: Joseph Eber