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Tai Chi Essential #1: Crown Up

18 Dec 2014

Yang Cheng-fu's first "main point" of tai chi describes the posture of the head and neck. The ramifications are physical but also energetic. If you miss this principle you will never get far in your tai chi practice.

Tai chi scholar Douglas Wile in his book Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Touchstones, translates Cheng-fu's description as follows:

The Energy At the Top of the Head Should be Light and Sensitive

Like most tai chi pearls of wisdom, we get a lot of back story packed into a small number of words. As I mentioned in my last column, my class recognizes this as Crown Up, Chin Down, Throat Relaxed. The goal is to make the entire head feel light and natural. Natural means the head and neck feel loose and relaxed without tension or stiffness. When the head is light and natural, your spirit (shen) can float to the top of your head. Though many people misinterpret this reference to energy as meaning nothing but chi (qi), chi is only part of it; shen, which is spirit and the highest of the three treasures, is the more important part. Before you can work with your shen, though, you must first have strong, healthy chi, which we will get to in a moment. First let's look at a few structural details, which will seem like a lot of discussion about very little. When you get it right it is very little, but when you get it wrong it is a big deal.

Hold the crown (bai hui) up, almost as if suspended from a string, but not quite. Many teachers fall short by saying "as if suspended from a string", without saying "almost". The absence of that word is worrisome. If you are suspended from a string, your neck is stiff and your vertebrae are separating. You are not relaxed, light or natural; you are dying. Almost mean your head is almost pulled up, but of your own volition you are putting it into place, allowing your neck and shoulders to stay relaxed.

Your chin is down as part of holding your crown aloft. Sometimes I call this "anti boot camp" because on the drill lines in boot camp everyone is expected to stick their chin out. Anyone who sticks their chin out in tai chi practice has not yet passed from the beginner stage. The problems it causes will be apparent in tui shou (pushing hands) practice; such mistakes require one to adapt or continue failing.

Hold your head thusly in order to maintain perfect balance. Perfect balance means that your center of gravity is inside your body, That point is inside the middle of the box formed by your stance. When you accomplish that balance you are relaxed and "ready to run", ready to respond to an attack from any direction, ready to move in any direction. Sticking your chin out pushes your crown back, which pushes your center onto your heels, making you easy to defeat.

Finally, hold your crown up to facilitate the movement of chi through the orbits of your body. This is not the same as allowing your spirit to rise. Allowing your spirit to rise and mix with your brain's chi is a higher goal with many nuances, but first you must learn to circulate your chi through the small and grand orbits. Both require that your chi move up your spine, through your neck, over the top of your head, and down the front of your body. The grand orbit requires a few additions. To accomplish these orbits, hold your crown up, light, loose, relaxed, natural.

An excellent way to practice crown up is in standing post meditation, or zhan zhuang. If you have no experience with standing meditation, the first track from my CD, Tai Chi Meditations, describes it in detail and provides practice. For a free download of that track, click here. The download is free but if you'd like to buy the entire CD either physically or as a download, click here. It is also available on Amazon, iTunes, and most other MP3 venues.

You may also like this related article: The Essence of Tai Chi (193)
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