Taiji Ann Arbor Tai Chi Taiji
Home Instruction in Chen Style Tai Chi Ch'uan



Stance Training

Stance refers to the placement,orientation and flex of the feet, knee and hips and the associated body weight distribution. Stance training consists of assuming and holding stances; it builds the strength of the legs and teaches the physical mechanics of the principal stances that appear in the form. It also provides practice in maintaining statically and dynamically the essential body structure. As practiced in class, stance training also provides elementary experience in the characteristic movement of this style of tai chi chuan. Over time, stance training gives a student the opportunity to work on melding mind and body.

Strengthening the legs is the most obvious benefit from stance training, but the obviousness does not make it less important. Leg strength is important for this style of tai chi chuan. Without leg strength you cannot control movement, so that it is smooth and continuous.

The necessity for leg strength does not mean that only those who have strong legs should practice this style of tai chi chuan. It does mean that if you want to continue to grow in its practice you must continuously work to strengthen your legs, even if only a tiny bit, by going a little lower in any time period. If you stop increasing leg strength you will be accepting that you will not grow in this practice in a balanced way.

Initially, stance training teaches the mechanics of the most important of the stances used in the short form of tai chi chuan, making the form easier to learn. Later, stance practice is the easiest place to observe errors in stances. And if the teacher or student observes issues with stances in the form, stance practice is the easiest place in which to work out the problem. Corrections can then be incorporated into that stance where ever it appears in the form.

Stance training also provides an opportunity to learn to feel weight distribution and its relation to balance. We seldom are conscious of where our weight is in relation to our feet. Stance training requires conscious attention be paid to how much of body weight is on each foot, and how that and the placement of the feet in relation to the body and each other affects balance.

Easily overlooked in stance training is the learning opportunity presented by the transitions between the stances. Arriving at and leaving the stance with balance and with the basic structure intact throughout the transition, is as important as the stance itself. In the simplest possible context, you have an opportunity to learn, again in the deep sense of the body with conscious mind doing it over and over again, how you move in tai chi chuan.

Finally, proper stance training trains the mind as well as the body and facilitates the integration of mind and body which is essential to tai chi chuan. For stance training to be effective the mind of the student must be fully engaged. You focus your mind and energy on the specifics of the specific stance now.

Tai Chi Chuan Principles

Two fundamental characteristics of tai chi chuan permeate stance practice: relaxation and sinking.

You relax all muscles not specifically being used to hold you up or to move. This does not mean that you are lazy or sloppy or act without effort. You are mentally alert and focused, but your energy is not being wasted in unnecessary effort or in fighting against yourself. You stand balanced and rooted, with only enough muscle tension to maintain proper structure and to move, with an alive awareness throughout the body. The muscles not currently being used are on call - not unconscious.

Relaxing is crucial to authentic tai chi chuan. When you relax except where you need muscles, you do not waste the energy to hold other muscles tense. More importantly, you do not block the movement through the entire body that is the characteristic of power issuing in tai chi chuan. A tense muscle is like a knot in the hose that prevent the water passing through. Finally, relaxing contributes to sinking.

The second characteristic important in stance training is sinking. All stances and movements in tai chi chuan should be made with the breath down. Your weight must remain sunk in your lower body. You should feel as though your legs, like roots, extend below the earth's surface. Whether you kick, punch, rise high on one leg or sink low, do not let your breath rise to your chest. It should remain at your center of gravity, the dan tien.

Sinking is an important feature of tai chi chuan because it constitutes an important element of the stability required to support the whole body usage techniques of tai chi chuan, whether to yield, deliver power or stand ready to move as needed.

Structure

Stance training provides the opportunity to learn, to experience, the body structure of tai chi chuan. The same structure, with a few exceptions, is maintained throughout tai chi chuan - in the training, the forms, and push hands. The structure facilitates balance and provides maximum flexibility for potential movement.

The key to correct structure is the spine. The spine is the upright column to which everything is attached and twisting around which comes the major movement. It is straight, with only the natural curves at the cervical and lumbar spine. When there is bending it occurs at the hip hinge, not in the spine itself.

The head is balanced on the top of the spine. The chin is slightly down, so that you can imagine an orange fitting comfortably under the chin. The neck is relaxed.

Shoulders and hips are parallel to the ground. The shoulders are relaxed and down; the chest is slightly concave. The hands are an extension of the arms, so the wrist is not bent, though this is frequently not true in stances or in the form. The joints are loose - never locked.

With proper structure you are relaxed, your breath is down, and you are balanced and rooted.

Movement

Training in the hallmark of tai chi chuan movement - twisting, spiraling - is largely the province of the chan si jin. In stance training however, the transitions between the stances provide an opportunity to learn to maintain the structure in movement. It also provides the first experience of moving the body as a unit; simple weight transfer, and the smooth and constant movement, with the movement of arms, legs, torso and head beginning and ending together.

The Five Stances

Traditionally in Northern Chinese gongfu eight stances were used in training. Which stances were included in the eight depended upon the style of gongfu and the teacher.

In the beginning tai chi class we practice five stances which appear in the short form. Three of them, horse-riding stance, bow-and-arrow stance and empty-leg stance appear frequently in the form. The other two, stretching stance and single-leg stance, appear less frequently in the form but have special training benefits.

The horse-riding stance (qi ma shi) is the most important stance, which can be thought of as the "mother" of stances. In traditional Northern Chinese gongfu the horse-riding stance was sometimes used by a sifu to test the sincerity and obedience of a potential student. The horse-riding stance builds a strong foundation of leg strength and balance. It is the only stance that does not have a left and right form. The other stances, with various weight distributions, angles and twists, are created from the horse-riding stance. In stance training in class we begin and end with the horse-riding stance and the right and left versions of the other stances begin with a transition from horse-riding stance and end with a transition back to horse-riding stance.

The second stance is the bow-and-arrow stance (gong jian shi). In this stance it is particularly important not to cross the legs. If the feet are not properly positioned after the transition balance will be precarious, and the rear leg will not be free to sweep forward to step, kick or block. The bow-and-arrow stance is the classic stance for the delivery of power. It appears frequently throughout the form.

The third stance is the empty-leg stance (xu shi), where all the weight is on one leg and the other foot lightly touches the ground. The empty-leg stance has the greatest potential for quick movement, since it allows a kick or step in any direction without weight first needing to be transferred. It appears more frequently in the form than any other stance.

The other two stances practiced in class appear only once or twice in the form but are useful for training. The stretching stance (pu tui shi), in which you crouch down on one leg while the other is stretched out completely, stretches the inner leg muscles and strengthens the leg muscles. The single-leg stance (du li shi), in which you stand on one leg and raise the other knee waist high, promotes balance and stability as well as leg strength.

The placement and orientation of the arms and hands is not an integral part of a particular stance. In class stance training placement of the arms and hands is specified so there is a radical twist of the waist. Placing the opposite hand and foot forward stretches and strengthens the waist and develops the capacity for movement in and out of a coiled position.

Stance Practice

Stance practice is not limited to training for the beginning student; it is a life-long practice. The focus and level of the practice may change over time, but the basic approach is the same. For stance training to be fully effective the mind of the student must be fully engaged with it. Tai chi chuan is not purely physical, but a practice to meld mind, body and spirit. Stance training is one aspect of that practice.

The focus of your attention needs to be on the specific moment. If you are thinking of what you will be doing after class or even about the deficiencies in the last stance you will lose the full opportunity to learn from that moment in that stance.

As you begin, your mind is necessarily occupied by the details of the mechanics of the stances. Do I move my right foot or my left foot? Which hand is forward? Is my hand in a fist or open? You learn the details of the stances and to apply them to your particular body, with that leg length and that specific old injury and at this particular flexibility. Initially it is important to observe the teacher's stance and to accept any corrections the teacher has. From the beginning, most of the learning is from your observation and work with yourself.

You make your stances as low as you can while still remaining relaxed and at a uniform height throughout the stance practice. As your legs gain in strength, you lower your stance, so the training remains physically challenging. In your practice on your own you can also increase the physical challenge by lengthening the time you hold each stance.

Once you are comfortable with the basics of the stance you can turn most of your attention to the basic structure - relaxation, spine straight, breath down, joints not locked, weight properly distributed, balanced and rooted. Observation of the teacher and the teacher's correction still play an important role.

When you can confidently assume the stances with few adjustments, your focus shifts more to the transition from stance to stance - maintaining the basic structure, moving the body smoothly as a unit, observing where you become tense as you move. You may still learn from observing the teacher and from teacher's correction. Now or even earlier observing your classmates may also help to identify where you need adjustments. Frequently students make similar mistakes, and it can be easier to observe them in someone else than be aware of mistakes in yourself.

After you attain some level of proficiency in the structure in the stances and transitions and in the characteristics of movement in the transitions, more and more your attention is engaged in awareness of your body - where it is in its entirety, the relation of the parts, not only of the forward arm and leg and torso, but also of the trailing, of the leg which is empty equally to the one bearing the entire weight.

The awareness grows of the entire space around your body and you are alive to the possibilities potential in the particular stance to move into that space.

No matter how long you practice the stances, you never leave behind the first stage, the details of the physical mechanics. Your practice may sometimes focus on those details because their importance never decreases. And relaxing and sinking are a never ending journey.

Check your stance

Time spent holding the stance gives you the opportunity to check the correctness of your stance. You can inspect your feet, hips shoulders, head, arms and hands to confirm they are correctly placed and oriented and that your weight is properly distributed. At first you may need to visually check, but after some time practicing, you will be able to sense the location and position of your body, and eventually will feel immediately if something is wrong with your stance.

You also have an opportunity to identify where you are not relaxed. At first this may be surprisingly difficult. You may be tense in certain areas of your body all the time, and therefore not be able to feel that tension. If you purposely tense and then relax muscle groups you can learn to feel the tension and how to relax it. For many people areas of tension include the upper back and neck, and the lower back.

You can also observe whether your breath is down and you are sinking, so that you are rooted to the ground and determine whether you are stable and balanced, and make any necessary adjustment.

Check your structure

After checking the placement for the specific stance notice the general characteristics of the structure of your stance and compare those to pattern of the correct structure.

Check your form in transitions

Through the transitions from stance to stance, stance practice gives you the opportunity to learn in the simplest context the characteristics of movement in tai chi chuan.

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TECHNICAL DIRECTIONS: THE FIVE STANCES

Horse-riding Stance (qi ma shi)

In this stance you stand with your feet parallel, a little wider than shoulder width apart and pointing forward. Your torso and head face forward and your spine is neutral between the head and the pelvis. You distribute your body's weight equally between each foot and leg. Bend your knees and sit back, as though sitting down on a chair. Bend your knees only as far you can sustain in a relaxed way throughout the stance practice. Over time, as you develop leg strength you will be able to take a deeper stance. However, do not go lower than when your thigh is parallel to the ground.

In the horse-riding stance, you extend your arms in front of you at about shoulder height, elbows bent slightly, and the forearms rotated to face each other, hands open.

Bow-and-arrow stance (gong jian shi)

To make the transition from the horse-riding stance to the bow-and-arrow stance, you pivot to the side. Pivot on the heel of the leg that will become the front leg, and on the ball of the foot that will be to the rear, so your feet are at a forty-five degree angle from pointing forward. Point each knee in the same direction as the toes of the corresponding foot. If a line were drawn laterally between your legs, the toes of the front foot and the heel of the rear foot would just touch it.

Simultaneously with the shift of feet and legs, shift your torso and head ninety degrees so you face toward the front foot and shift your weight forward slightly, so that sixty percent of your weight is on the front leg and foot and forty percent is on the rear. The rear hip is slightly opened.

At the beginning of the movement draw your elbows in towards your body, and then as your torso turns it carries the arms with it, as you push the arms forward, rounded and crossed at the wrists. When the transition to the bow-and-arrow stance is complete, you have closed each hand into a fist and crossed your arms at the wrists, with the arm from the same side as the forward leg behind the other.

To return to the horse-riding stance, you push from the front foot, turning on the heel of the front leg and the ball of the rear, so that your feet in the horse-riding stance are again parallel.

Empty leg stance (xi shi)

To make the transition to empty stance, pivot what will be your rear foot forty five degrees, shift your weight to that foot as you pivot the hips, torso, shoulder and head forty five degrees, as you complete the move of all your weight to the rear leg. The empty leg is drawn in slight, resting lightly on the toes and slightly rotated in at the hip to cover the groin.

As you move your shoulders the arms shift. As you complete the transition the hand opposite to the empty leg is open and at about nose height. The other hand reaches to below the upper arm's elbow. Both hands are in line with the nose, forward knee and the toe.

To make the transition back to horse riding stance, step with the empty foot to the original position point forwards and slowly return fifty percent of your weight to that foot.

Stretching stance (pu tui shi)

Sink slowly on one crouched leg while you slide the other foot along the ground until that leg is straight (although the knee is not locked). Both feet must be flat on the ground. The back is straight and almost upright. Your head faces the stretched leg. If you cannot crouch completely down without lifting a heel off the floor or bending, go only as low as you are able with good form.

The hand opposite the straight leg is raised, fist pointing out at the temple. The other hand is palm inward at the dan tien.

Single-leg stance (du li shi)

To make the transition from horse riding stance, slowly transfer all your weight to one leg. Move the empty leg in close. As you rise slightly, pivot your torso and shoulders forty five degrees as you raise the empty leg with toe up until the thigh is parallel to the floor, turned slightly at the hip to protect the groin. The supporting leg is bent slightly. A straight leg is too rigid. In the stance the arm on the same side as the empty leg is raised above the head, with fist pointed inwards. The other hand is in a fist finger side pointed forward.

To return to the horse riding stance, slowly lower on the standing leg until you reach the right height, as you also lower your arms. Step so your feet are shoulder width apart and return your weight to fifty-fifty, with torso facing forward, and feet parallel.

Closing after stance practice should be done with as much attention and care as any of the stances. After the last horse-riding stance, let your arms slowly drop naturally to your sides as you slowly push up from the floor. Before you would lock your knees, step your left foot to close to your right, and stand naturally, relaxed, breath down, eyes looking far.

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Conclusion

Stance training is not what attracts anyone to tai chi chuan. It can be monotonous and boring. You can't wait for the inspiration to do stance training because it will never come. You just do it. There are no short cuts. Since there is no end destination but only a direction for a journey, to arrive at the end would to miss the purpose. It is in the doing, day after day, that the mind and body are melded.

Although observing other students may assist you in identifying areas where you need improvement, you should not measure your progress against another student's. Everyone begins at a different place and has their own learning curve and pace. Enjoy your own day to day progress. Relax and enjoy the level of training you are at, not because you are content to remain at the same level forever, but because you are confident that continued conscientious practice will result in your continued growth over time. As fundamental to good tai chi chuan as practicing scales is to playing music, the opportunities to learn from stance practice never end. It is a life journey.

-- Rita Burns