Tim Cartmell on Tai Ji Quan Practice and Principles Part One

Hey everyone, this series, like the ones on Xingyiquan and Baguazhang, will be about Tim’s thoughts and understanding of the principles and practices of Taijiquan specifically.  There is a plethora of information here, some of which are probably going to start some arguments, and I suggest you read the information first before jumping to a disagreement.  All of this material was found on the Shen Wu Discussion Boards, this is just a small bit that I pulled off a few years ago.

Basic Postural Requirements

I’d like to point out that nowhere in the Classics of Taijiquan is it written that practitioners should “round the upper back and tuck in.”

I’m assuming you are referring to “han xiong ba bei.”

“Han” means to hold something without force (in this case the chest) and “ba” means “to lift upward,” (in this case the upper back). Lifting is the opposite of “rounding” or slumping.

The classics say that the “wei lu” (coccyx) should be “zhong zheng.” “Zhong zheng” means to be “centered.” Being centered refers to a position between extremes (in this case, neither thrusting the hips back nor pulling the hips in with force).

Keep the alignment of the spine as relaxed and natural as possible. If you are using force to pull your hips up to the front, it is too far (just as if you are using force to arch your back, it is too far in the other direction).

Relaxing the lower back allows the tailbone to drop a little, but there should still be a curve in the lower back. Nature put it there for a reason.

The Kua is the area at the front of the hips where the head of the femur inserts into the pelvis. “Opening” the kua refers to extension of the hip (increasing the angle between the thigh and trunk).

I approach postural alignment from the point of view that there is one best way to use the body, that being according to the body’s natural design, since it is designed to be used that way (it would seem to be self-evident, but I’ve found it often is not), so there should be no difference in alignment among the Internal styles, since one doesn’t morph into different musculoskeletal systems when practicing different styles/movements. 

In regards to upward and downward movement, some Taijiquan teachers will advise keeping the head at the same height at all times with no up or down movement (which makes it difficult to explain why movements like “Single Whip” or “Needle at Sea Bottom” don’t violate their “always keep the head at the same height” rule). This idea may sometimes be beneficial in the beginning stages of training, but it violates one of the fundamental principles of Taijiquan practice. 

All movements in Taijiquan should be “three dimensional” (li ti) in nature; this involves horizontal displacement, vertical displacement and rotational movement occurring simultaneously at all times. Shifting the weight while turning the body without the vertical forces of compress/rebound is referred to as “flat turning” (ping zhuan) and is viewed as incomplete movement that results in less than whole body power. The vertical displacement can be large or small, but it is necessary if the goal is to generate the potential force of the body as a coordinated and unified whole. 

I suppose the meaning of “han xiong, ba bei” is open to interpretation, but if one opts to adhere to the original meaning of the characters (I do), it is to “hold” or “contain” the ribcage in its normal position while “lifting” the back. The result is an open and lifted chest with the upper back lengthened and not hunched over forward (for a good visual reference of the correct, natural posture, look at any small child). There is no variant of meaning in Chinese in which “han” is ever taken to mean “depress” or “collapse.” The character “ba” means to “pull upward” not “slump forward.” 

Finally, the ultimate test of how one should hold their alignment and generate force in a martial art is how well it works when you are fighting. Since this yields an objective rather than subjective result, everyone should be able to eventually figure it out for themselves.

Virtually all of my teachers advocated natural posture (although with some variation in amounts of tension used and sometimes with different emphasis on breathing methods). I did have a couple of Taijiquan teachers I studied with for relatively short periods that taught the collapsed chest, tucked tailbone, “Senile Posture,” and they tended to be less into practicing Taijiquan as a martial art. 

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It might be useful to you to look at pictures of our teacher’s teachers; it’s not difficult to find pictures of people like Wu Jianquan, Sun Lutang, Yang Chenfu, Fu Zhensong, Wang Xiangzhai, Li Cunyi, Zhang Zhaodong, Sun Xikun, Cheng Youlong and others who were active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to get an idea of the posture of the famous teachers who were known for practical martial skills. These men were much closer to the source of their respective styles, and their primary concern was being able to actually fight.


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