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
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
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
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.
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 -
With proper structure you are relaxed, your breath is down, and you are
balanced and rooted.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Your spine should be straight.
Your joints should not be locked.
Your elbows should be at least slightly bent and usually
down, feeling heavy.
Your knees should be pointed in the same direction as your
toes and usually not bent further than over the toes.
Your head should be balanced on top of your neck, which
should be relaxed.
Your shoulders should be down, and parallel to the ground.
Your hips should be parallel to the ground.
Your hands should be relaxed, and in general your wrists
should be neutral with hands extensions of the arms.
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.
First, last and always - relax.
Maintain the basic structure as you move.
Movement is usually initiated from the rear foot.
The body moves as a unit - begins, moves continuously and
Movement is smooth, fluid, and continuous.
You should be balanced throughout the movement.
When you step, keep your weight on the non-stepping leg,
place the stepping foot down heel first and then move the appropriate
weight to that foot.
Twisting is always involved in the movement.
Remain at the same level as you move from stance to stance,
except for transitions for the lower stretching stance (pu tui shi) and
the higher single leg stance (du li shi)
Your breath remains down. Observe when it moves up and move
it back to the abdomen.
* * * * *
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
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
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
close to your right, and stand naturally, relaxed, breath down, eyes
* * * * *
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