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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Qi Magazine: Walk this Way

By Julian Wilde
From Qi Magazine - Issue 90
Winter 2009

Among the many aspects of the wonderful Taijiquan of Chen Village that I noticed was the emphasis on vertical alignment. From the youngsters who practised every afternoon, through the teenagers who were training on the edges of the central courtyard most of the day, to the older guys who popped in a few times to go through their routines, everyone was very careful to keep upright, to keep the spine vertical as much as possible. Generally, their posture was superb. Though rooted and steady, the straightness of their posture made their stepping look very light and precise. I could have spent hours watching and making notes!

The vertical alignment of head, hip and heel is quite important in Taiji but there are times in our practice when we inadvertently let the posture slip. When we do, we lose Peng, ground connection, and we distort the body, thereby robbing it of maximum efficiency. One of the most usual times we sacrifice posture is when we step. If our legs aren’t strong enough, if we can’t relax and sink enough, we unconsciously lean the body, forwards, backwards or to the side when we extend the leg. You can check this for yourself with a variation on the Chen walk.

The Chen Walk is an exercise we use as part of the warm-up in all Taiji classes. It’s simple but such a versatile sequence that I feel it deserves a little more attention. Basically it consists of crossing the arms in front of the Dantian, sliding the heel diagonally forward, and then transferring the weight over. While we’re transferring the weight, we turn on the forward heel and then pick up the back foot. Also, as the weight transfers forward we let the arms “swim” open. Simple. But here are three ways to use the same exercise. No doubt you can think of others.

Firstly, working on the afore mentioned vertical alignment: - stand on your left leg, the toes of the right foot resting on the floor. You can keep your arms by your side or behind your back, it doesn’t matter. Sink the body as much as possible and extend the leg, heel first, to the side as if preparing to step. Feel any tension resulting from this movement and get a friend to check your posture to see if you’re leaning slightly. Adjust accordingly, which usually means coming up a bit or taking a slightly shorter step.

Shift the weight to the right leg, turning the toes of the right foot out as you transfer. Before you pick up the left foot, check your posture again. It‘s common to lean forward slightly to get the weight fully over, but this means again that your step was too wide for your ability. Now try and pick the left foot up cleanly. If you have to drag it a bit, your step was too wide for you or you’re not able to sink enough for the movement to be clean. Now try the whole sequence on the other side and see what happens. Often one side is stiffer than the other.

We tried this one in class, being really careful to lift the crown of the head, which automatically tucks the chin in slightly, and trying to lengthen through the whole spine. Everyone was reminded to try to put this into their 19 step form and were surprised how different it felt!

We can use the Chen walk to exercise other aspects of our Taiji. For instance, we can train diagonal energy by making sure we push from one foot to the opposite hand when we do the walk. Transfer the weight by pushing the back foot into the floor, using the energy to push the arms out. This will definitely result in a loss of good posture for some students but it’s still a great exercise! Step as wide as you like but make sure you push from the back heel rather than just sink onto the front foot.

We can also perform the Chen walk trying to keep the head at the same height throughout the exercise. This, as you will find out, definitely works the legs hard! It will also force you to adjust the width of your step. Most people tend to come up a bit when they move on to the forward foot and sink again when they step. Just as an exercise, try and keep your height constant.

And then, of course, you can try the above three exercises all over again, but this time stepping backwards. That’s another class over! Where does the time go?

We all want to learn the exciting forms, the Cannon Fists, the spear and broadsword etc, but if we can’t even step forward or backward without distorting the body and the basic principles of Taiji, it’s better to rein in our enthusiasm and pay attention to basics. Again!