The Relationship of the Elbows to the Shoulders – Right vs. Wrong
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
All taiji players are told from day one to lower the shoulders. We are told that a raised shoulder creates tension. This is true. When the shoulders are raised it creates tension which prevents us from relaxing our elbows and hands. We are taught that if the arms are too high and/or the elbows are too high, it causes the shoulders to rise. And yet, looking at videos on the internet there are countless examples of players simply ignoring this basic part of taiji.
There are experienced players doing the opening movement of their form and their elbows are higher than their shoulders. I see players doing the posture, Fair Lady, and their elbow is much higher than their shoulder. Watch the right elbow of players doing White Crane Spreads Wings. Many have their elbows much higher than their shoulder. I even see people doing Bagua and their arms are raised up in the air.
You might reason that arm height is particular to a certain form style . I would disagree. Keeping the shoulders down is one of the most basic things in the internal arts, and there are good reasons for it.
As soon as the elbow exceeds the shoulder, the shoulder starts rising and tightening. It may not necessarily be a visibly rise, but internally it is rising. As I said, there are basic reasons for keeping the shoulders down. Here are a few:
• For starters. when the shoulders rise, it creates tension in the shoulders.
• Your breathing moves up in your chest resulting in shallower breathing.
• Your ribs move up raising your center of gravity.
• You cut off your rooting so your feet cannot sink into the ground.
• Tensing your shoulders spreads through your back and leg muscles causing those muscles to tense and shorten.
• Raising your arms exposes your ribs to your opponent. As a martial art, when your shoulders rise it leaves your ribs and abdomen exposed. It leaves an opening for your opponent to strike your ribs, or to get in and under your shoulders to easily unbalance you and take you down.
• Taiji power comes from your lower body, but as your shoulders rise and tense, you lose that ability to connect to your hips and legs, and wind up using your arm muscles, which is definitely not what you want.
So how does one recognize when their shoulders are compromised? The changes that happen are internal and the only way is to feel them.
I am going to ask you to try some movements so that you can feel the difference. This will only take a minute, and although it will require you to stand up, I promise it will be worth it. Some of you may think that you already know this; do it anyway, you may learn something new.
Try it Activity 1:
Stand in a relaxed Tai Chi stance with your feet shoulder width and parallel. Bend you knees slightly and raise your arms to chest high; take a deep breath and let it out; and sink into your feet as you relax. Feel the weight of your shoulders sink to your hips; the weight of your elbows to your knees; your hands to your feet. In other words, feel the weight of your upper body sink into your lower body. This is the basic opening move in many styles.
Now, slowly lift your arms a little higher so that your elbows are higher than your shoulders. Now, SLOWLY lower your arms to chest high, and as you do, pay attention to your ribs. Have they moved down with your arms? Do it again and this time pay attention to your breathing. Did your breathing become deeper when you lowered your arms? Do it again and this time pay attention to your leg muscles. Do they seem to relax and loosen as you lower the arms? Finally, do it again and pay attention to how well you root. Try this a few times to get the sense of how much of your body is affected by having your elbows just a little too high.
Here is another way to test whether the elbow is too high. Do a Yang style White Crane Spreads Wings or a movement similar to it where the arm is rising. As you raise your arm pay attention to your shoulder. You will reach a point where the shoulder muscle begins to tighten. Your arm should go no higher than that. Have someone press on your forearm from above. When your elbow is too high, the force gets stuck in your shoulder. If you lower the arm while still being pressed, you will reach a point where the force gets past your shoulder and starts moving to your feet. That is another indicator of how high your elbow should go.
When I drop my elbows, I can feel my ribs relax and go down, my breathing getting deeper, my center of gravity going down, my legs relax and let go, and my root gets deeper. The aim of taiji is to relax and allow your weight to drop to your feet. Dropping the elbows allows for deeper breathing, a deeper root, and deeper relaxation. These, in turn, allow the chi to circulate, and to use the power of the whole body,
There are times when the shoulder is compromised but the height of the elbow is not the problem. The problem is the way the elbow is positioned. The elbow can be lower than the shoulder but if the elbow is not sunk, the shoulder will still be compromised.
Take for example the Ward Off posture in Yang style and other styles as well. The right arm is at chest height so the elbow height is correct. However, when the arm is in an “L” shape, meaning the forearm is parallel to the floor and the tip of the elbow is also pointing outward , the posture does not work. If someone is pushing your forearm or elbow toward your shoulder, you will need to use force to stop them.
To understand why this happens, I would like you to do what you did in the section above. This time, rather than raising and lowering the elbow in relation to the shoulder, I’d like you to hold your right arm in front of your chest as in a Ward Off posture. Slowly alternate between having the tip of the elbow pointing forward and parallel with the floor, and just letting the tip of the elbow drop just enough to allow your shoulder to relax and let go. Again, notice your breathing, your ribs, the tension in your legs, and so on.
Now, if you have access to a partner, ask he or she to slowly and gently push you while you are in Ward Off, to try and push you back. If you do not have a partner, then use your left hand to push your right forearm. Do it first with the tip of the elbow parallel to the floor, and then with the tip lowered, as if sinking to the floor. Notice the difference between the two. Feel where the incoming force is blocked in your shoulder and when that force can go to your feet.
Another easy way to feel the difference is when you have your palms together as in doing a press or a squeeze (Ji). Have a partner simply stop your hands from going forward. As you do it, change the elevation of your elbows. You’ll find that when your elbows are just slightly too high the force will come back to you. But when you sink the elbows you will find that the energy in your palms will go into your partner and move them back.
What we have experienced by doing these movements is the position of the elbow, whether the height or how it is pointing, effects what happens in the shoulder, and what happens in the shoulder affects the entire body.
The examples that I used in this posting are from the Yang style of taiji. I use them because I had studied Yang style for 10 years, and the form is very familiar to many people. The mistakes that I point out are due to what practitioners do wrong and not the style itself. Everything that I have written can be tested, so it is not whether I say so, or your teacher says so, or some book says so. Test it for yourself; feel what I describe and then decide what is right.
To recap, the position of the elbows in relation to the shoulder is of upmost importance. It affects everything: your balance, your breathing, your rooting, and your ability to handle any incoming force. The elbows should always FEEL as if they’re sinking to your knees, and they are resting there so that your arms and shoulders can relax. This takes practice but anyone can do it. Paying attention to how you hold your elbows takes practice, and eventually it becomes habitual, so that doing it any other way feels wrong.
Now….sink those elbows and go play Tai Chi!
Written By: Joseph Eber