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Tai Chi Essential #3: Relax the Waist

3 Jan 2015

A key secret to the power of Shotokan karate is the use of the hip in completing a punch, often a reverse punch. Most karateka and taekwondo students are taught this hip movement, but many beginners find it unconvincing because their teachers cannot explain why. If you know about the use of the hip in karate, without an understanding of why you use it, you will find it tough to separate from the idea of using your waist, not your hip, in tai chi. If you have no karate background you will not have this problem; instead other problems will emerge.

Put your hip into the karate punch because the angular momentum arising from the twist will provide last-minute acceleration to the punch, increasing the force (force equals mass times acceleration). In tai chi our punching power is derived by totally different methods, so our use of the waist has different reasons as well. First, let's examine Yang Cheng-fu's words:

Relax the Waist

What can I say? He was a man of few words, at least in this context. Relax the waist to make it fully available for free rotation. Use your core muscles to put power into the rotation, which ironically is important in that karate punch as well. In tai chi those core muscles contribute to every movement, in every direction. For this reason some schools emphasize core muscle training and even have a 'bounce the quarter off your tummy' competition to see who has the most core power. Turns out it is easier to bounce a five-pound weight off your stomach than it is a quarter. Try it and see! Can you figure out why a quarter is more difficult?

One martial reason to relax the waist is that you can neutralize. In tai chi we neutralize an attack against us in order to deprive it of power. In theory you do not need to counterattack to prevail in a fight, you only need to neutralize your opponent. In practice this easier said than done: It requires perfect action. One mistake and you get plugged! But if you fight the attack then you have to rely on brute power to prevail. So your goal is to move freely from the waist and simply move out of the way. In the process you create an energy flow that allows you respond with a counter, if you find it appropriate.

Sticking with the physical perspective for a moment, when we move from the waist we can use our entire body to issue power. When you kick with your leg and foot, and when you punch with your arm and fist, you use only a fraction of the power available to you: You can use only the power of the limb in question. But when you turn from the waist and a kick issues through the leg, then you have power. When you turn from the waist and a punch issues through the arm, then you can do real damage (to your own hand as well as your opponent, if you are not careful). As my most senior teacher, Wang Yen-nien (1914-2008), once explained to our class: "Your hand is not a hand. Your whole body a hand." Of course this principle goes hand in hand (pun intended) with the previous principle involving the use of the upper back.

As with all tai chi principles there is an energetic aspect, this one with significant physical results. You don't necessarily have to believe the neijia basis for the work, but without the work itself your tai chi will never be complete.

So far I've talked about relaxing the waist and moving freely, rotating side to side like a wheel parallel to the ground. When that wheel turns, your limbs follow, which is how your limbs work from the waist. But often we require movement in a different dimension. Sometimes we must move as if the wheel is perpendicular to the ground, facing us like a buzz saw without jagged edges. The wheel may also move in either direction, and can be quite powerful. A third wheel, the third dimension, involves the same perpendicular wheel where the flat of the wheel faces us, so that we have another type of side to side movement.

Put these three dimensions of movement together and what do you get? A ball, centered in your core muscles, at a spot just below the naval and inside your belly. In neijia this area is called the dan tien (okay, the lower dan tien; there are three, but this one is the one often called "the dan tien"); it is a cauldron where your chi is nourished, but it is also the trunk of your body from which physical power is issued. It is built through meditation and similar exercises, in addition to physical core-building exercises.

You don't have to buy into the Chinese mysticism to see how your use of the waist improves your tai chi. Waving Hands in Clouds (Cloud Hands) is a good exercises for practicing the use of the waist, but I also recommend Golden Rooster. In Golden Rooster you need to raise one arm and one leg simultaneously. If you lead from the arm, your arm will arrive first, throwing you off balance. If you lead from the leg, your leg will arrive first, which is also imperfect. Instead, lead from the waist. Imagine a single ball, or wheel, with strings that attach to your arms and legs like that of a marionette. When you do it right, you arm and leg will arrive together, making them equally dangerous attacks.

With all respect to the teachers and students of what is called sitting tai chi, or wheelchair tai chi, the requirement to move from the waist makes it impossible for those practices to actually be tai chi. You could call them tai chi-like, in much the same way that Velveeta is cheese-like, but between this and other requirements of tai chi, those exercises belong in a different category.

Next up: How to be Full and Empty at the same time. Sitting down? Unlikely.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #2: Sink Chest, Raise Back (197)
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