Updated: Oct 12
Put Your Elbows on the Table
Think back to when you were a bit younger, and your parents would harp on you at the dinner table to “Get your elbows off the table!” Well, breathe a sigh of relief because now, not only can you do that, but that is exactly what we want you to do.
Figure 1:Pile Standing Posture (Zhàn zhuāng) Let’s look at the Pile Standing Posture (Zhàn zhuāng 站樁/站桩) or Hugging a Tree Posture (Fig. 1). As we mentioned in the previous articles, if you raise your elbow too high, you tighten and stiffen the shoulder joint which damages your posture and robs you of your power. So, relaxing the shoulder joint is imperative, and we did that by lowering our elbows until the tension in the shoulders was released.
Figure 2: But there may still be tension in your arms because you need muscles to hold the arms up. However, if you FEEL as if your arms are resting on a table then you can release them and let them go (Fig. 2). We suggest you try this so that you get the feeling. Feelings cannot be understood cognitively; they must be felt. In fact, you may want to try this a number of times until your body and mind remember and understand the feeling.
Figure 3 The next step after learning to rest your arms on a table is to relax them and release them even more. That means sinking the elbows downward and relaxing and opening the shoulder joint to create a feeling that the arms are so relaxed, they actually sink to your knees (Fig. 3). Another way to feel this is to feel as there are weights attached to your elbows and the weights are pulling the elbows down. This creates a feedback loop; the more your arms rest on something, the more they can let go, and the more they let go, the stronger the feeling that they are resting on your knees. Once you feel this, it really feels as if your elbows and knees are touching. What makes sinking the elbows to the knees more advanced is that your entire body, not just your arms, get involved. You feel the sinking and heaviness of the elbows to the point that to someone holding your elbows, they feel like they weigh 500 pounds and impossible to lift. There is no way to understand this other than by experiencing it, so we urge you to get off your chair and try it.
Knees support the elbows
As your elbows sink to your knees and you feel the elbows resting on your knees, your knees rise Figure 4 up to meet your elbows. Again, this is a feeling, but there are definitely physical things that go on to help create this feeling.
As you stand in a Pile Stance (Fig. 4), your Kuas (kwas, quas, hip joints, ❶ inguinal crease) are bent and sinking back and downward ❶. The ❷ Kua and your knees have a very close relationship. The degree to ❷ which you “open” or bend your Kua determines how much you bend your knees. Incidentally, the reverse is not true: many people bend their knees but they do not open their Kua. The more you “sit” back in the posture, the more the Kuas open and the hips sink. When the hips sink, the knees feel as if they are lifting slightly up and forward❷. This is exactly what happens when you sit in a chair: your hips sink and your knees lift. When you stand in a taiji posture, you feel like you are sitting. Since you are sitting while reading this post, notice the bend in your Kua and the position of your knees. It’s like a seesaw; the Kua goes down, the knees go up. Let me be clear, lifting the knees is more of a feeling. The knees move forward as you sit, and because the qua is sinking the knees FEEL as if they are lifting. Bending or Opening the Kua and feeling the knees move up may be one of the most important things to learn to do well in tai chi in order to move to a higher level.
The concept of the elbows resting on the knees works regardless of style or posture because it is body mechanics, and it follows the principles of taiji. Taiji is a unique art because it relies on complete relaxation of the body. But, within the relaxation there are connections that make the relaxation work, or otherwise, we’d just be like wet noodles. For your taiji to have power, it must make a connection to the ground so that in every move, in every posture you can feel all the parts of the body work together as one. This is not theoretical! This is taiji; this is natural body mechanics. Here is an example: when you hold a somewhat heavy weight what do you naturally do? Do you stiffen your arms so that you use your shoulders and lower back? No, you simply bend your elbows and knees, letting the weight go to your feet. It’s a natural way for your body to effectively handle weight or force.
The Little bow within the Big Bow
Figure 5 One of the main connections is a big bow that goes from under your feet to above your head (Fig. 5). This bow connects all our extremities together, meaning the arms to the back, to the legs, and so on. Within this bow, there is another, smaller bow that supports and helps the bigger bow (Fig. 6). This bow is the connection between your elbows and knees. Like any bow, when you draw the bow to give it power, the ends of the bow are drawn towards each other. That is what we do when the elbows rest on the knees and the knees reach for the elbows. We draw the small bow within the bigger bow to support and help the big bow do its work. The small bow amplifies the connections made by the big bow by aligning all the parts of the body to maximize the power flow in the big bow. This is why you can raise your arms in the opening posture when someone is trying to stop them from lifting. This is what gives your arms and elbow the power to drop down even though someone is trying to hold it.
Connect the Energy
Let me clarify one more important concept: the knees do not have to be vertically aligned with the elbows. Take for example the posture of Roll Back: your arms are moving to the left while your knees remain pointing somewhat forward. Even though they are not vertically aligned, the connection between them, the bow is still there. Often, I see even advanced players, move their arms while doing Roll Back and there is no connection to their knees. Their arms are moving in a circular motion, but there is no real connection to their body and their feet. If there is no sinking and connecting to your knees with your elbows, then your arms are just flailing without any power. When there is no connection between your arms and legs, your energy is leaking or dispersing out. When you are connected, you feel the energy between your arms and legs, through your back and going up your spine to your head. Again, this is body mechanics, and applicable to all taiji postures regardless of style. If your arm is sinking and connected to your knees, it means that the arm is connected to the rest of your body and to the ground, and when it moves, it is because the body is moving it.
Expand the Energy
Figure 7 There is another important point that needs to be mentioned. There are levels of accomplishments in taiji. Resting your arms on a table, sinking your arms to your knees, opening your qua to lift your knees, are all skills that need to be learned, practiced, and mastered. There are other skills that have to do with posture and expansion and rooting, but we are focusing on the elbow–knee connections so let’s stay with that. As your skill level improves, you want to expand this connection to a distance away from you. Let me explain: imagine standing in a bubble (Fig. 6). The size of the bubble or sphere is up to you, but generally, the bigger, the better. Feel your arms and feet extending to the edge of this bubble so that your fingers and toes touch the edge. Now, feel as if your elbow-knee connection is also at the edge of this bubble. So, although, the elbows are sinking down and the knees are lifting, you can make the connection at a distant point; the further the better. You can think of it as filling up the bubble with your energy or qi. In this way, your body is generating more energy and power.
Please continue reading Part 3 - Connectedness – Connecting all the parts
Written By: Joseph Eber