When learning tai chi and qigong, one of the first problems encountered is learning how to step correctly.
Most beginners ‘fall’ into a step, without controlling how or where they step. Because they are reluctant to bend the supporting leg (i.e. the one they are going to leave on the floor whilst moving the other one), the stepping leg won’t reach the floor unless they do a ‘controlled’ loss of balance and fall on to it. This reluctance becomes noticeably more extreme as people age… understandable as tendons contract with age, and sedentary lives lead to weakened muscles.
In tai chi and qigong, you are trying to maintain balance and control whilst stepping. Bearing in mind that tai chi is a martial art, you don’t want to be off balance when you move because this would be a particularly vulnerable moment were you to be pushed.
How to Step.
It sounds remarkably obvious, but actually what happens is that, instead of one action taking place, most beginners usually do it as two actions.
What they do is:
they bend the leg they are standing on, and then
they stop bending it, in effect freezing it, and then place the foot where they want it to go.
The key is to keep bending the supporting leg until the stepping heel or toe touches the floor. Most people will try to move their weight on the stepping heel or toe before it touches the ground, i.e. by falling forwards. Particularly with older people, it seems as though they are trying to relieve the unpleasant pressure on the leg they are standing on by sharing the weight with the stepping foot as fast as possible. The majority will not only put weight on it, but will also try to ‘launch’ the foot further forward to make the step bigger (longer or wider) because the word ‘stepping’ implies a progression in a particular direction. It’s during that ‘launching’ that the body moves into free-fall.
‘Sinking your Qi’.
When moving one leg outwards from the supporting foot, you need to settle into the foot that is connected to the floor. This means that you release/free up one entire side of your body, thereby enabling movement. To make this whole process more efficient, you need to ‘settle/sink the qi’ into the supporting leg.
This is one of those slightly mystical Chinese ways of explaining something; so to debunk it, allow gravity to compress your weight into one foot.
This is very easy to say, but is a bigger subject than it appears as it requires that you feel or listen to what is going on inside all the muscles, fibres, tendons, ligaments etc., not only within the leg, but also within the entire body. This compression is a sense inside the body, not dissimilar to that of the silt in a pond that has been stirred up, gradually settling into the bed of the pond again.
Try an Experiment.
If you want to try an experiment as to how this feels as you read this (standing or sitting), feel your weight settling downwards through your feet (if you’re standing) or through your bottom on the chair (if you’re sitting). Don’t stop there, for then you need to follow the settling with your shoulders and shoulder blades as though they are dropping to meet your hips. Simultaneously, release the back of your neck (don’t stretch it, just stop holding on to it). If you tried the above experiment, you’ve gone part of the way to ‘sinking your qi’, or what the Chinese would call a feeling on ‘Song’. It’s the start of learning how to really relax.
Turning your Hip to Step.
Stepping in tai chi and qigong is basically walking… in a rather exaggerated way. If you try walking across the room without moving your hips at all (keep them square to whatever you’re walking towards), you will end up with a rather robotic walk, the movement is only coming from the hip joint, and the rest of the body isn’t involved very much, if at all.
When we walk, we constantly turn our hips… it makes sense… if I want to put my right leg forward, it’s attached to the right hip, and by turning the hip also, I am able to get a slightly bigger step.
If you look at an animal from behind as it walks – horse, dog, cat – its tail goes from side to side because its hip is turning from side to side. In fact, if you think about a horse’s leg, we talk about a horse’s ‘haunches’, i.e. the buttock and the leg are all one unit – we think of the leg as being part of the buttock also.
So when a horse (or any animal) moves, the pelvis is very much involved; it’s even doing a slight pelvic tilt in order to bring its leg forwards.
But humans are the same, we just happen to be standing. And yet, as soon as we start to do something like tai chi or qigong, it all goes to pieces, probably because we start to realise that, although this is an action that we’ve done for our entire lives, we don’t actually have a clue how we do it! SO… when you’ve settled your silt into one leg, and are also bending it to gently extend the other foot forward (whilst still maintaining your balance on the first leg!), turn your hip so that the hip on the side of the extending/stepping leg is moving slightly towards the direction in which you want to step.
Practise it as often as you can… it might take you twenty times as long to get round the supermarket, and you might look very strange, but your legs will get a lot stronger, and your posture will gradually improve!