by Greg Brodsky
This article first appeared in T’ai Chi Magazine in October, 2005.
“In the three years that I’ve been teaching in the U. S., I’ve learned more than I did in the last 15 years in China,” the master said candidly. “That’s because you Americans are not afraid to ask questions.”
It was a steamy New Orleans Saturday, and I had joined 30 other people in this impressive gentleman’s workshop. He had over a dozen generations of t’ai chi masters in his family, and trained under the guidance of his grandfather, father, aunts and uncles since early childhood. I enjoyed his approach and pleasant manner, but this statement made the biggest impression on me.
“And,” he added, “you ask hard questions.”
His insight matched his candor. Genuinely curious questions from unindoctrinated people often enrich a teacher’s thinking better than educated challenges from within one’s own school of thought. We sometimes learn more by taking these questions to heart than we do when staying within the traditional boundaries of our specialties. Such moments enable us to try previously unexplored and unimagined ideas. We see things we couldn’t see before, move deeper into our art, and possibly advance the art itself.
Vertical internal movement presents such a question. In addressing it, we explore what happens when gravity itself becomes our teacher.
What if all t’ai chi movements are actually vertical?
T’ai chi students know that we must practice our solo forms without bobbing up and down. We move like people carrying pots of brewing tea in our bellies, gently letting the tea leaves settle to the bottom. Using images like this to stay on the same horizontal plane—not rising or descending in height as we shift our weight from foot to foot—we expect our qi (life force) to sink into the dantian (lower abdomen) as it is supposed to do.
But, what is actually going on inside of us? Does our energy travel horizontally as we shift our weight, or step forward or back, or when we issue jin? (intrinsic strength) What if it looks like horizontal movement when seen from the outside, but in every action, our internal energy actually rises or falls, flowing in a sine wave as we move through the form? What if all t’ai chi movements are actually vertical?
Such an idea, if it has merit, might transform one’s practice by opening doors to new skills and experiences. To explore it, let’s look at some universal moves: Beginning, stepping, withdrawing, and issuing.
|Beginning In Beginning, the initial movement of many t’ai chi forms, we raise our hands. Typically, the wrists lead and the fingers follow until our hands are about shoulder level. There, our fingers extend. This is a rising movement: up and out.What happens on the inside? Something lifts our hands, presumably qi rising through our bodies, enlivening us with our own vital essence that has been mobilized by our intention to raise our hands. Along with qi comes jin, the intrinsic strength that gives power to all our movements. These energies fill and lift our arms.Simultaneously, something sinks into our feet and beyond our feet into the earth. This we know as rooting, the complimentary action downward that gives substance to our actions upward. Without rooting, our movements would be empty, weak, and foundationless. The more powerful our downward action, the more powerful will be our upward action. The deeper the root, the more we can deliver jin. Whether you interpret Beginning as an applicable martial arts move or simply as the mobilization of qi that starts your moving meditation, this image of rising and descending energies should make clear that Beginning is a vertical movement.
|A Side Comment In the ancient way of being a student, you watch, listen, and practice what you are taught for a long time. You tune yourself to your teacher’s methods, personality, and will. You don’t ask questions; you just do. If you receive and carry forward your teacher’s transmission, after the right number of years, you can start asking “what if…?” Those years of rigor earn you the right to ask the “what if” question.My first martial arts teacher, Min Pai, turned his back to me when I asked him questions. Being 18 and new to the martial arts, this behavior intimidated and confused me. But I eventually got the idea that I had to earn the right to ask him questions. My primary job was to calibrate myself to his wavelength and do what he said. I was there to sweat.My first teacher of Chinese medicine, Masahiro Nakazono, often laughed at my questions, especially the ones that began with “why?” Maybe he saw naiveté in my inquiries, along with the fact that I hadn’t observed him long enough to catch the nuance and context behind his method.He cheerfully made me sit seiza (kneeling) and just watch him work. My job was to figure out how to absorb what I saw while my legs silently fell asleep. I was there to see.But questions arose, and the process of digging into the more persistent of them slowly created a foundation to my practice of inner cultivation, healing arts, and martial arts, most significantly t’ai chi ch’uan. Now that I am well into my 60s, this questioning process fuels the evolution of my very being.
This article presents a few answers that keep popping up, recurring possibilities that inform and inspire my practice. Testing them over several years, I find that they continue to meet the criteria I place on them—physical effectiveness, energetic enhancement, consistency with t’ai chi principles, deepening relaxation, quieter mind, a taste of spiritual fulfillment. While integral to my own practice and teaching method, these answers remain exploratory, up for grabs, ready to be tested and challenged and surpassed by other questioners. For the moment, they remain useful.
Here, I focus on one of them: vertical internal movement.
|Stepping Now, let’s take stepping. Do you think of stepping as a horizontal action? When you step forward in your form, for example, do you lift your foot a few inches from the floor and try to keep at the same height as you slowly move it to its landing spot, then place it down?This might have seemed like a no-brainer to you; of course, you step across the floor! But, if you think of stepping as movement along the horizontal plane, you will hold unnecessary tension in your legs. Stepping down—not across—relieves this tension.By definition, unnecessary tension makes you double-weighted, whether you are stepping, shifting, or just standing still. Single-weightedness, by comparison, means differentiating between substantial (full, compressed, hard, yang) and insubstantial (empty, uncompressed, soft, yin) as much as possible. When you are stepping, you want this differentiation to approach 100/0% in your legs. It never quite gets there because movement requires some muscular work, but the more clearly differentiated you can be in your legs, the more flexible and agile will be your step.If, for example, you tried to step forward while still relying on the stepping leg for support, you would fall on your face. So, you naturally relieve the leg of its weight-bearing task before you step. But, what if you still tensed the leg as if it were bearing some weight? Your step would then be stiff-kneed, wooden, insufficiently differentiated, and therefore clumsy. Similarly, if you tense your legs when someone is trying to push you, your body becomes locked and easily uprooted. So you empty one leg and release your hips when you feel a push coming your way, which frees you to neutralize the push. This is differentiation.To take a clearly differentiated, single-weighted step, don’t think about holding the foot in the air. Instead, let gravity dictate how you step. Release the leg and let the foot “fall” quietly and gently into place, relying on the other leg to be substantial and rooted in guiding it. The primary tension then resides in your supporting leg, which serves as the pillar that aligns your hips and torso to the step. In this way, you experience stepping as a release to gravity.
||Try this: Take a forward step with the idea that you are sinking into your standing foot in order to place your stepping foot. Imagine that the strength in your stepping leg had vanished just as you initiated the step. To step then, you have to mentally aim your foot where you want it to go but use the standing leg—the one that still has strength—to guide your stepping foot’s placement. This produces an empty feeling in the stepping leg and the sensation of sinking and compressing into the standing leg.Let the process be very loose so that this sinking and compressing takes on an aspect of slow, guided “falling.” Relax and follow gravity’s downward pull into your standing foot. As you sink, let the stepping foot also fall into its new location, guided by your thought, your release to gravity, and the support you get from your standing leg. Once the foot arrives, continue to fall and let your weight transfer into it.Since you were gently falling the entire time, you just took an effortless step. Gravity did the work; you just followed along.Try stepping again. This time concentrate on maintaining control over the stepping leg. Hold it up as long as you think you are supposed to, and concentrate on moving it horizontally above ground before you place it down.Which way creates a more insubstantial step? Which way makes differentiation easier? Which step feels more relaxed?Letting gravity guide you helps you cultivate optimally differentiated stepping. You increase your gravitational sensitivity by playing form with the idea that each step is a step downward, perhaps visualizing a shallow stair, or a gently sloping hill, or simply stepping down into the floor. Instead of forcing your stepping leg to move horizontally, concentrate on the other leg to guide your empty, falling foot into place. Don’t try to move it quickly or slowly, but at the rate that your sense of gravity dictates in you, feeling—as Stewart Breslin once expressed Peter Ralston’s idea to me—“the speed of gravity.”
Cheng Man-Ching said: “I’m always concentrating on letting my internal energy sink. I always put my foot down in gravity.”
This means that he advocated stepping down, not “over.”
Once you get this idea of stepping down, letting yourself experience a gently guided fall in all of your foot placements, your form becomes easier, quieter, and more relaxed. Being more relaxed, your root can become more reliable. Gravity, rather than your idea of style, becomes your guide. You avoid the flaw of keeping excess tension in the stepping leg, or a worse flaw, which I call “stepping over the invisible box.”
In the invisible box case, you raise the stepping foot as if you had to step over a box that isn’t there. This might seem like a good idea, as foot-sweep avoidance for example, but when practiced as a constant habit, it creates unnecessary tension. Further, if you study what is happening as you raise that leg, you will find that you tend to rise a little before actually stepping into place. This creates a self-inflicted uprooting, and a “noisy” telegraphing of your steps. By contrast, if you watch t’ai chi masters move, their feet slip silently into place before their opponents have a clue.
Conclusion: The more quiet and direct the step the more competent it is. Stepping with gravity—vertically downward—teaches you how to cultivate such a step.
Withdrawing, or the act of shifting from your front foot to your rear foot, presents another opportunity to discover vertical internal movement. When you withdraw, you don’t shift backward; you shift downward into your rear foot. This corrects the flaw of pushing yourself off with your front leg when withdrawing, which causes you to rise a little, then settle a little as your weight arrives over the rear foot. I call this flaw the “convex shift.”
When your shift is convex, despite the fact that you are trying to remain rooted, you float slightly as you start to shift backwards. Instead of sinking—falling—into your rear foot, your habit of pushing yourself away from your front foot causes you to rise. This is the moment during push hands in which a skilled partner adheres to you and continues your backward and upward action, uprooting you. Trying to move horizontally instead of vertically promotes this flaw. Moving vertically, you would immediately sink down into your rear foot, not shift over to it then drop down.
Try this: Play your entire form with the idea that you are continually falling straight down into your feet. Because of gravity, we are all falling toward the earth all the time. Your sensitivity to this process enables you to feel the natural sinking occurring in your body when you let go. You will discover that sung (relaxing and becoming loose so you can sink) is a passive, natural act of release that you can achieve in any position. Sinking is letting your weight fall to the bottom, not some kind of hunkering down into a stance.
With each withdrawal in your form—every time you shift from the front foot to the rear foot—let yourself relax and fall straight down into your rear foot. Externally, you don’t have to drop closer to the ground, nor should you try to. A casual observer will not see any appreciable height change in you, for example. But internally, you will feel yourself dropping with gravity, relaxing into your feet, moving vertically into a deepening sense of rootedness. Don’t shift back; shift down.
In the fourth example of vertical internal movement, let’s look at issuing: the delivery of power into the body of an opponent. Most people insist that jin issues from the rear leg and moves diagonally through the body. With the utmost respect, I suggest that in an uprooting forward push, as an example, jin issues from the front foot and moves straight up. Since in this movement you displace your opponent’s center, the upward movement becomes converted into forward movement as the opponent’s mass compresses your arms, dantian, and substantial front leg.
Some rest-of-the-world physics supports this idea of forward-moving energy issuing from the front foot. Ask yourself, which foot provides the root for a punch or the pitch of a baseball? Is it the forward foot or the rear foot? I’ve asked dozens of martial artists and athletes about this, and they all immediately answer “the rear foot.” But, after some consideration, almost all of them concede the fact that it is the leading foot: the front foot when moving forward and the rear foot when you are moving backward.
|Take the example of a baseball pitcher throwing a ball. He winds back into his rear leg, raises his front leg high in the air as he draws back the ball, pushes off of the rear leg, and plants the front foot into the ground to throw the ball. From where does he push on the ground to launch the ball? It’s the front foot!Watch a baseball game long enough to study several pitches and you will see that at the moment of launching the ball, the pitcher’s rear foot is already unweighted or off the ground. The push-off from the rear leg gets him into position, but the actual root of the throw is in the front foot. To test this in your own body, place your left foot forward (if you are right handed) and try throwing a ball while standing entirely on your rear foot. Then do it again while standing completely on your front foot. Which feels better, more natural and powerful? While you can throw from either foot, you will find yourself preferring your front foot, the natural root of a forward throw.This changes when you move backwards. Quarterbacks in American football always prefer to step forward into their throws. This enables them to plant their front foot and turn their hips and shoulders into the throw. When forced to back up as they throw, they launch from the rear foot, which, by definition when going backwards is their leading foot.
||If you think that qi, jin, or any other aspects of t’ai chi operate outside the laws of physics, you might be tempted to discount such physical-world mechanical descriptions as we explore here. Consider the possibility that, while sports and t’ai chi engage very different ideas, the same physical laws govern them.I have repeatedly asked William Chen, my teacher since 1965, if in his many years of world-wide exposure to t’ai chi masters he has ever seen anything that indicates that any master possesses abilities that transcend physics. He consistently answers, “No. It is all just physics and skill.”Should you decide to test this premise, I propose that you ask your teacher to toss a 50-pound weight with the same ease that he or she tosses a 200-pound student. Chances are, he won’t be able to do it. This might be because some beyond-physics forces hidden in your teacher don’t uproot the 200-pound person. The uprootedness comes from a combination of his own tension and your teacher’s mastery of t’ai chi principles and skills, all of which can be described through both ancient and modern metaphors and models.As 21st century students, our interests lie in bridging ancient and modern ideas as best we can. In so doing, we can learn from many sources, advance our understanding and ability to communicate with each other, and eventually earn the responsibility that will eventually fall to us if we persevere long enough: to be the stewards of our arts.
Punching employs the same mechanics; you throw a punch, after all, releasing it like an arrow from a bow. The difference between the ball-throwing analogy and the bow-and-arrow analogy is that your physical tension is greatest just before releasing the arrow and concentrates in the upper body, while you seek absolute hardness (aka physical tension) just as you penetrate the target of your punch, and this hardness concentrates along the vector line from your leading foot to your fist while everything else relaxes.
In theory, a sufficiently skilled boxer can deliver a hard shot from either foot to either hand while going in any direction. But in general, when a boxer steps into a jab, the jab is more powerful than when he or she backs up. This is because the root of the jab resides in the front foot onto which he has just stepped. When throwing a hook or a cross, the rear foot sends the boxer’s body into place for the punch, but the leading foot—the front foot—provides the base from which to actually throw the punch.
Once you realize that throwing a ball or a punch engage nearly the same mechanics (e.g., the elbow follows the hand in a punch while it leads the hand in a throw, but the rooting mechanism is the same) you can more readily look into what happens when you issue energy in any t’ai chi movement. I became intrigued about this when watching William Chen’s fluid action, and later while studying videos of Cheng Man-Ching demonstrating his uproots.
|I met Cheng Man-Ching at Manhattan’s China Institute in 1964. As a young aikido student, I was training seven days week in the same dojo as Lou Kleinsmith and Maggie Newman. Lou loved to tell stories about Professor Cheng, “the old man” who did amazing martial arts feats. So, one day, I ventured uptown to see. The silent, synchronous movement of people playing form seemed strange and beautiful in contrast to the sweaty aikido activity that I loved so much. I signed up, started learning form, and soon after, push hands.Even a minimal understanding of the principles would come years later, so despite my attempts to deflect people, everybody in the room could push me several feet away at will. Meanwhile, I interpreted pushing powerfully to be a central objective and tried in earnest to dislodge my partner whenever I could. “Investing in loss” hadn’t yet entered my consciousness.In one session, some senior students seemed bothered by the fact that this new kid could dislodge them. They became increasingly agitated as Professor Cheng watched from the sidelines. He eventually came up to me with his soft smile, and waved me to him in an invitation to join him.I felt self-conscious and kept murmuring the names of the moves to myself so I could remember what to do. “Roll Back, Ward Off, Push, Press…” Meanwhile, I tried to be aware of what was going on, what he felt like, what would be different in this person. He had not been introduced, but I had seen him there, watching and occasionally talking to the group through Tam Gibbs. I wasn’t sure if this was the “old man” that I had heard so much about or just someone else who was very senior.”Soft as butter,” I thought, so I probed, extending my Push a little. He disappeared. Letting me place my hands on his chest, he yielded to my Press. Unlike his students, he gave me lots of room, never forcing me back onto my rear foot in the struggle to find somewhere to go. He just yielded more each time. At one point, as I pressed onto his body and he seemed to lean over backwards with a smile, I thought, “Holy smokes! I’m gonna push him, too!”The next thing I felt was the wall behind me as my back slammed into it. An instant after that, my feet hit the floor. Never feeling his hands driving into me, I had traveled several feet in the air without any awareness of having been launched. I returned to contact him and Bam! He did it again. Wham! Again. He repeated this at least five or six times in succession. Having put everything into perspective, he smiled and gestured for me to continue practicing. As he walked away, glancing at some of his senior students, I thought, “OK. So that’s THE ‘Old Man.'”
||If you watch Cheng Man-Ching on video, he typically steps into his opponent when issuing a push. In preparation, he slips his back foot forward a little to close the space between them, then quietly sets his front foot into place. From there, he drops forward and launches his opponent. The rear foot, which started his self-compressive action, is empty and unweighted at the time of the launch, available for follow through and to keep balance.The energy for his uproot comes up from the front foot, vertically, not horizontally. The vertical movement translates into forward motion as the mass of his opponent compresses Cheng’s relaxed arms. Because this compression is passive—he’s not shoving with his arms—the opponent doesn’t feel anything from his hands; it’s all coming straight up through him from his foot.Uprooting is pure vertical movement issuing from the ground. You move under your opponent and come up through him or her while sending your rooted foot downward. As Peter Ralston puts it, “Hands up; you down.”
It just might be a sine wave.
How does this all play out in your form? Having looked at Beginning, stepping, punching, and issuing in the light of verticality, the idea of the entire form being a repeating sine wave begins to make sense. Energy moves down the curve as you either step, shift, or sink into place—which are all falling actions—and moves up the curve—up through your body—as you energize or “apply” each move. While you don’t bob up and down, the energy passing through your body rises and falls in a smooth rhythm. As you let your mind quietly settle into your dantian, you can feel the relaxation of each fall and the release of each issuing. This now leads to “internal throwing.”
What if playing form is just falling and throwing?
Most of us start learning t’ai chi through a series of postures that we repeat thousands of times according to a consistent set of principles. Slowly moving through these postures, we learn qualities of movement and thought that gradually change how we move and think. The martial arts usefulness of this practice depends on how much it trains us to move the way we want to move at our fastest and most effective; the more our slow, relaxed form employs the mechanics of fast, applied action the better. We can measure our form’s usefulness as an inner cultivation tool by the internal states it evokes in us, and the availability of those states in our daily lives.
While we work with postures, we are not posing. By posing, I mean holding fixed positions. Even when we practice standing meditations like the Universal Post or remaining in a particular posture, we don’t freeze in our stillness. A rich, dynamic process occurs within: relaxing and sinking, circulating and settling qi into the dantian, feeling the spirit of vitality rise to the tops of our heads, softening our breathing, expanding a little.
The T’ai Chi Classics state that when one part of the body moves, the whole body moves, and when one part of the body stops, the whole body stops. Having just acknowledged the internal movement that occurs when we are still, what does this mean about stillness when we are in motion? It means that our minds discover a place of stillness, not that some body parts stop while other parts keep moving. At no time do we hold any part of ourselves in rigid positions; nothing is locked. That would be posing.
When, for example, you extend your arm with the hand curved into the characteristic hook of a Single Whip, do you hold it there? For how long? Why? When you shift into your back foot following your Push, do your arms remain fixed at the elbows and shoulders? Are you isolating parts of your body from the whole-body fluid circulation of qi? Through such questions, you can realize that holding your arms in place—locking your joints—at any time creates a flaw in your practice. The idea of falling sheds light on this flaw and its remedy.
|If you always fall toward the earth, do you ever “land?” The answer is yes, and your landing—rooting—provides you with the foundation from which to launch your hands, feet, shoulders, elbows, knees, and hips into an opponent or into whatever posture you are playing at the moment. With a sound foundation, you can throw these parts of your body where you want them to go, sending them out like the metaphorical arrow from your bow. Relax enough and your throwing becomes effortless.Throwing becomes the corollary to falling. You fall into your feet until you don’t need to fall any more. Then, boing, you bounce up out of your feet, letting the energy of the bounce move through your relaxed body to your hands or to a kicking foot. Like tossing a tennis ball against the floor, the deeper and more completely you fall, the more powerfully your energy can bounce back up. But since you don’t want to rise, just the body part that you are launching, you throw the body part—your hands, for example—from your rooted foot.
||This is a good time to remember that the form is not an end unto itself, but a means to an end. We don’t practice form so we can perform the form; we practice it so we can cultivate deeply quiet and perhaps even ecstatic inner states, and so we can move with extraordinary skill, speed, and power while sustaining those states.Slow, consistent repetition of the same moves for years eventually develops a “track” in our bodies and minds in which those moves occur with the least amount of mental noise, tension, or extraneous action. When you learn how to release your arms or relinquish your unconscious struggle against gravity, these discoveries can serve the whole of your life. You can practice all the time.
Another of Cheng Man-Ching’s favorite aphorisms is: “T’ai chi ch’uan has no arms; if it has arms, it is not t’ai chi ch’uan.” Since t’ai chi seems to be about moving your arms a whole lot, this statement can cause a blank stare to spread across your face—until you think of falling and throwing. If you had no arms, or maybe easier to imagine, flaccid arms and lead weights as hands, and you wanted to send these heavy hands to specific places, you would have to line up your bones and throw your hands by pushing your foot into the ground, turning your hips and torso, and thinking about where you want your hands to go. Practicing form this way, you have “no arms.”
With no arms, you don’t put your hands in place; you throw them to the place that matches your picture of each posture. To accomplish this, you have to relax. You will also wind up by turning the opposite way a little before you turn into your throw. This produces a swing to the right in preparation for a move to the left. Cheng Man-Ching’s translator called this “momentating:” the momentum (wind up) created by the previous move provides the impetus for the next move. In Cheng’s words: “The entire solo form is nothing but move and swing, swing and move; that’s all.”
The “swing and move” pattern is also swing and release. You release your hands as if you were throwing them.
How do you get a released throw to occur while practicing slow form? You find the answer when you relax. Where speed enables a pitcher or boxer to release a throw, deep relaxation creates your ability to throw slowly. Relax enough, and you can launch your hand in a specific direction, release your control of the arm, and notice your hand moving to where you threw it while your whole body quietly drives the action like a well geared machine.
This requires patience. The move will “ripen,” or come to its natural conclusion. Hurrying, arbitrarily slowing yourself down, squeezing the movement into a stylistic ideal, or tightening up will interrupt the throw. You simply need to push your foot, turn your waist, launch your hand, relax, and wait. To your delight, your movement will reach its natural “apex,” the completion of the throw, which is the fulfillment of the posture. Like the tennis ball in our earlier example, having bounced to the peak of its wave, it will start to fall. You can then fall into your root and prepare for the next bounce to come.
From Confusion to Continuity
The T’ai Chi Classics state: ”Let the postures be without breaks or holes, hollows or projections, or discontinuities and continuities of form.” Falling and throwing eliminate the flaws that this passage describes. Once in motion, the wave of falling and throwing keeps you fluid throughout your form. You hold nothing, stop nothing, and ride a wave of your vital energy and intrinsic strength that rise and fall with your breath, intention, and relationship with gravity. Your interplay of substantial and insubstantial takes on a rhythm that makes playing form like playing a beautiful piece of music.
There will be some confusing moments, though, during which you “fall upward.” When you return to an upright position after playing Yang style Needle at Sea Bottom, for example, you are falling. Since you threw your hand downward as you bent at the hip and “applied” the move, the next action in your repeating sine wave causes you to fall. This becomes easy once you think of sinking—falling—into your right foot as you straighten up and slip your left foot into its bow stance position for Fan Through the Back, which comes next. Then falling into your left foot, you reach bottom and fire off your hands, throwing the left one forward like a spear, and the blade edge of the right one upward as it flies into place to protect your head.
Another confusing moment occurs as you set up your Press, which follows Roll Away in the Sparrow’s Tail sequence. Roll Away, being an applied, energized, thrown move, coincides with the rising portion of our sine wave. Once Roll Away is complete, you can fall again before the next throw, which will be Press.
1. Needle at Sea Bottom: Energy rises through you as you throw your right hand downward.
2. Transition: Falling into your rear foot as you return to an upright position.
3. Set up: Falling further as you step into place for the next move.
4. Fan Through the Back: Energy rises through you as you throw both hands.
But your hands rise as you fall into your front foot. Do your hands “fall up?” Your confusion resolves once you realize that this business of falling describes your subjective, internal experience, so you can feel the sensation of falling anywhere in your body at almost any time. Just follow gravity. Further, your whole body is not slumping when you fall; the rest of you can fall under your rising hands. Let yourself relax while you shift from the rear foot you had rooted for Roll Away so you can fall into your front foot, which becomes the root of your Press.
Your ability to let your arms rise while you drop downward produces a sense of weightlessness. Chang San-Feng said: “In motion the whole body should be light and agile, with all parts of the body linked as if threaded together.” This interplay of falling and throwing promotes such lightness, agility, and connectedness. It helps make a distinction between relaxing and collapsing, about which I was confused for many years. Even as you relax while playing your form and get “heavier than your virtual opponents,” you should not feel heavy. Play with a sense of lightness.
You can achieve this rooted lightness by feeling the sine wave and the passively compressive core that enables you to bounce out of each fall. Inwardly, your energy will be firm and direct, and outwardly your body will be soft and pliant. The sine wave model also makes silk reeling more accessible. Silk reeling enables you to find continuity within the seeming discontinuity between separate moves. When you perceive the falling and throwing that occur in each movement’s birth and maturation, the natural acceleration downward and bounce of internal strength, the movements will link together so that the end of each movement creates the beginning of the next.
Would you like some tea?
In all this discussion of vertical internal movement, you might ask, “What about the center?” So much of t’ai chi is based on the dantian as center. In fact, if falling and throwing are all you do, your practice will be, well, without a center. Let’s address that from the real-world-physics point of view we have been using.
Try this: Find a gently sloping hill with an uneven surface. A little path would be a bonus. Walk down that hill with the idea of falling into your feet as much as your safety allows, while loosely throwing your arms so you advance as easily as possible. Your task is to walk down this hill in the most economical way with respect to gravity and your energy expenditure. Get loose.
The exercise will quickly teach you that it is best to avoid a lot of bobbing up and down. You will find that if you land hard when stepping down you have to work harder to set your footing than if you landed softly; you are hitting the ground instead of joining with it. You will also find that pushing off more than forward motion requires creates extra work.
The most economical, efficient, and effective way to descend this hill is to relax into your belly and let your legs join the ground in its rising and falling. Like a skier on a downhill mogul run, you “sit” with your center gliding in the smallest possible range of vertical movement while your legs adjust —filling and emptying—with the terrain. You find yourself moving just like the teapot model mentioned at the beginning of this article teaches, but not because you are trying to move horizontally; you are, in this case, really descending a hill. Your sense of gravity teaches you how to best navigate this movement and your sense of experimental curiosity teaches you things that would otherwise take years to discover.
At bottom of the hill, ask yourself this question: Once you go back to practicing t’ai chi on a horizontal floor, why would this change?
What if it doesn’t?