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Tai Chi Essential #2: Sink Chest, Raise Back

26 Dec 2014
Tai Chi Peng
The second essential, regarding the posture of the chest and back, carries another "anti boot camp" element: instead of puffing the chest out in a show of macho posturing, the chest is hollowed inward. First let's look at Yang Cheng-fu's words:

Sink the Chest and Raise the Back.

As a young student I had difficulty absorbing this lesson except through a separate art my teacher introduced, tongbeiquan, the white ape system. Tongbei (pronounced tong-bay) emphasizes the use of the upper back for power. Although that art has other elements as well, this aspect is a common influence on tai chi practitioners because of Cheng-fu's second requirement. Digging deeper, we discover that this principle has energetic as well as physical goals.

Sinking the chest is a physical requirement because when we expand it, our body tenses up and we resort to brute force rather than internal power; the strongest person wins. Power is manifested from within. To manifest it externally we pass the energy through our upper back, our shoulders, our arms, our palms, our fingertips. Note: Some teachers eschew the use of fingertips while others, such as Cheng Man-ching disciple William C.C. Chen, teach their use to great effect. Cheng Man-ching devotee Scott Meredith also discusses it in his book Tai Chi Peng: Root Power Rising.

To accomplish this we start by moving the energy into our upper back, which we round. As we round our back we create a cavity into which we can sink our chest. If someone pushes to your chest, do you push back or do you accept it and yield? Accepting and yielding are possible only if we sink the chest. Going through the back, if our application is martial, power is issued through the arms. We are allowed complete use of our upper back muscles, because they do not interfere with the need to relax for balance, and they are more powerful than our arm and chest muscles, at least for martial purposes. You still may need that upper body strength if you lift boxes for a living!

Douglas Wile, in Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions, says that when the chest is hollowed that the back will rise naturally in the manner proscribed, but this hides a dirty secret of tai chi: Many actions that are intended to arise "naturally" are actually available only through assiduous training, including strengthening and conditioning of key muscle groups. Thus tongbei focuses specifically on training for the use of the upper back, and thus its usefulness in tai chi. But we cannot rely purely on the back: we must be able to sink the chest of its own volition.

If your application is energetic the chi passes through the upper back to the crown. From there we may wash the crown and brain with the energy, or continue it down the front of the body through the governing channel. Both types of neijia (internal) exercises have a lot of details that are beyond the scope of this article, but are crucial to a deeper understanding of the Daoist nature of tai chi.

Side note: One need not be a Daoist to approach mastery of this material, but inevitably some exposure may result through the practice, without any threat to a student's religious preferences. I have taught more than one class where the students represented Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, atheism and at least four variants of Christianity in one class. In this the practice of tai chi is truly universal. In one class, an Iraqi in a head-to-toe burkha practiced side-by-side with two Israelis. Our art brings people together. For this reason close attention to tai chi's special requirements is worth the effort.

Next up: Move from the waist, but not the hips.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #1: Crown Up (195)
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