In this blog, my intent is to cover some of the concepts and principles of Tai Chi that I have watched students (both new and not so new) struggle with throughout the years. I thought I would start with arm and hand movements. This list is by no means exhaustive.
In Tai Chi, the upper and the lower body are synchronized. However, if one part moves and the other doesn’t move, the body is neither coordinated nor synchronized. Have you heard the term: body as a unit! When one body part moves, they all move. With this in mind, let’s talk about Tai Chi Arm and Hand Movements and why and how they affect our Tai Chi practice.
We also can’t talk about hand and arm movements without talking about the concept of circularity. This is an important area of upper body movement frequently misunderstood by newer students. Upper body Tai-Chi movements (arms and hands) are circular or a part of a circle. The speed and/or radius, as well as its plane continuously change. Martially, this is particularly important because it is easy for your opponent to predict the trajectory of a straight-line arm movement, but not so with the constantly changing circular movements of Tai Chi.
Beginning students (and non-students) get distracted by what the arms and legs are doing when they are watching skilled Tai Chi practitioners. Neither realizes that the center/waist (Dantian) is directing and controlling the movements of the arms. This is a very important principle that many new or even intermediate students struggle with: arm movements come from body movements. Arms do not move independently.
According to Master Jesse Tsao, PhD, author of Practical Tai Chi Training, if you (not your body) move your hands or arms, your movements will “become segmented, the energy and power will be greatly diminished.” However, if you follow this key body movement principle “your arm motions will be effortless. Once a student understands and consciously practices this principle, it will be much easier to actually do Tai Chi correctly.
James Drewe, a Tai Chi and Qigong instructor in England suggests practicing this principle in the following manner:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Without moving your feet, turn your hips to the right and/or the left.
- Come back to center (or neutral).
- Now either put your arm out in front of you or out to the side (your palm can be up or down).
- Then turn your hips out to the right and/or the left. Let the arm act as a “spoke on a wheel” and let the hips move the arm.
In other words, the body turn caused the arm movement. Simple but important to comprehend!
Before we discuss arm and hand movements, let’s talk about the shoulders and elbows. Shoulders must be loose and dropped. Lifting the shoulders must be avoided because they restrict arm and hand movements. Elbows must point down, otherwise, they lift the shoulders, again causing restricted arm and hand movements.
Arm and hand movements in Tai Chi can look quite complicated. To many new students (and observers), Tai Chi hand movements actually look random, as well. Hands often have open palms. At other times palms and hands are closed and may even form “hooks”. In most forms, the hands don’t cross the center line (i.e., the sternum) because each hand protects its half of the body.
How about the wrists? In many forms, the wrists need to “sit”. When the wrist “sits” (drops slightly) the fingers gently rise. Maybe you have heard of “Beautiful Lady’s Wrist” (also called Beautiful Lady’s Hand)! By keeping the wrist straight (straight does not mean flat) from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, you soften and relax the entire arm, including the fingers (which have a natural, relaxed curve). The result is not only improved circulation, this also allows leg and waist movements to be expressed in the hand. Bending the wrist (either inward or outward), just like bending the elbow (or any other joint), stops and/or restricts the flow of energy. Many instructors (myself included) liken this to bending a hose which stops the flow of water!
What about hands? Do you realize that a single hand movement requires approximately 50 muscles working together? Hands can punch, slap, hook, chop, neutralize, strike, stick, and so much more. In most forms, the hand positions change many times. A Tai Chi practitioner can express a full variation of abilities through the use of his or her hands. In fact, several hand forms exist today, as well as in the past.
Proper hand form is one of the keys to successful Tai Chi training and practice. Many experts believe that the different hand forms ”originally came from imitating animals”. Holding your hand in the shape of an eagle claw, mouth or claw of a tiger, or even a crane’s claw directs Qi to your hand. Each style or family of Tai Chi has different ways of forming or holding their hands. Within styles or families, hand forms may be different depending on the Master or practitioner’s experience, understanding, or even preference.
Because of tension and inexperience, many new (and even not so new) students hold their hands too tightly rather than using an open hand manner. Fists are not to be clenched, but relaxed. Palms are also relaxed but not flat. Fingers are open but not stretched straight.
A few additional interesting points: most practitioners experience loss of focus on occasion. Paying more more attention to your changing hand postures will keep your mind from wandering and generate greater amounts of Qi. This will also increase your mind-body interaction and your energy pathways. The result will be better form and better health!
Tai Chi Masters and most instructors (unfortunately, not all) talk about the Kua (also spelled Kwa and, less commonly, Kwah). Students are advised to “open” their Kua when practicing Tai Chi. However, many don’t know how to find the Kua, how to “open” them, nor why it’s important. This is confusing, particularly to new (and some established) practitioners. As well, information as to what the Kua actually encompasses is not always clear.
Where are the Kua located?
According to Master Jesse Tsao, PhD, the Kua are the “lateral articulation of the ball and socket joints, consisting of the head of the femur (thigh bone) into the pelvis.” This area connects your upper and lower body and is sometimes referred to as the crotch, groin, or hips.
According to Master Chen Zhonghua (also known as Dongliang), the Kua is the hip ball joint and is responsible for integrating the upper and lower body. Without the integration, the upper and lower body cannot work together. The Kua run from the inguinal ligament through the inside of the pelvis to crest of the hip bones.
Other experts state that the Kua consists of the entire hip area, centering at the inguinal crease (Western anatomy). They include the Kua’s relationship with the torso and the thigh, plus the muscles that connect the legs to the spine. Other experts mention the entire hip area, centering at the
Even though the descriptions of the area are slightly different, we know that the inguinal crease is extremely important in our movements!
Let’s look at some important facts regarding the Kua:
Tai Chi movements are generated by rotation of the joints (Kua). This is unique because movement is not generated by muscles and/or various parts of the body either pulling or pushing. The inner hips push outward/forward, while the outside of the hips are held inward which makes your stance more stable (like riding a horse).
The Kua are very large joints and contain some of the strongest muscles in the body. This is the area that we use when we are serious about lifting something correctly. We fold at the inguinal crease (Kua) to activate and coordinate the efforts of our leg, back, abdominal, and buttock muscles.
This inguinal crease also contains the largest number of lymph nodes in the body. Lymph, as you may know, is moved by muscle contractions and is critical in order to maintain the body’s immune system.
- Correct alignment removes tension and restriction from the body.
- When you crease your Kua, your range of motion will increase.
- When you crease your Kua, this gives you the ability to immediately respond to an attack or threat when necessary!
- If the Kua is not open, movement is resisted and the knee twists.
- Using your Kua correctly will improve your body coordination.
- The higher your skill in connecting the Kua, the better your body integration will be.
- When we open the Kua, Qi flows throughout the body. If the Kua are closed or restricted, Qi flow is restricted and clogged.
Moving from the Kua:
Movements are coordinated and proportional to the size of a joint. The Kau are large joints, so the movements will be significant. This is crucial to understand. When we move from the Kua we need to focus on the inside (not outside of the hip joint). In other words, when we open and close the Kua, our movements will be relaxed, coordinated, and balanced.
The trunk needs to be exercised as one part or unit. However, this cannot happen unless the Kua are properly aligned. The trunk, the waist and the torso must be aligned and erect, sitting on top of both legs. Both Kua must move in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the trunk is always erect and level when sitting on top of them. They are then able to guide the waist and trunk as well as adjust the actions involved in maneuvering and changing direction.
You will often rotate one Kua against the other. When they come towards each other, your waist will turn. When you rotate both Kua, this will cause the waist and Dantian to turn.
If knee actions are incorrect, the Kua can be pushed out of alignment. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the coordination of the Kua and the knees.
Unfortunately, instructors frequently see students turning from the shoulders. They err in turning from the “top” of the Dantian instead of the “bottom” of the Dantian – Kua location. This has a negative effect on their form, balance, coordination, range of motion, and more. In addition, Qi flow becomes restricted, clogged, or totally diminished.
When you are in a Bow stance (with the weight on the forward/front leg) the back Kua needs to be open. When you sit back on your rear leg, you need to ensure that the front Kua is open. This will keep your knee from collapsing which, unfortunately, is common when learning to practice Tai Chi or Qigong. It is obviously not good for your knee nor the rest of your body.
Interestingly, if even one Kua disengages from the lower Dantian, movements will unbalanced, unstable, and generally incorrect.
Locating your Kua:
In order to feel the Kua, do a semi-squat (not very deep) like sitting on a chair, and then open your knees sideways. You should feel your inguinal creases open and your stance should feel balanced and grounded. When you return to a standing position, don’t use your knees! Push your Kua forward, which closes them and protects your knees from injury.
It should now be clear why the Kua is a major contributor to our good form and good health!
- Tai Chi Commencement
- Twist Step/Brush Knee (in my opinion the trickest one to figure out)
- Play Guitar
- Repulse the Monkey
- Grasp the Birds Tail (ward off, roll back, press, push) Left & Right
Section 1: Qigong for Diabetes • Stationary
• Moving Section 2: The Core 11 Forms 1. Commencement form
2. Opening and closing
3. Waving hands in the cloud x 3 left
4. Opening and closing
5. Fair lady working at the shuttle
6. Opening and closing
8. Opening and closing
9. Waving hands in the cloud x 3 right
10. Opening and closing
11. Closing form Section 3: The Extension Forms
12. Waving hands in the cloud x 3 left
13. Opening and closing
14. Stroking bird’s tail left
15. Opening and closing
16. Stroking bird’s tail right
17. Opening and closing
18. Waving hands in the cloud x 3 right
19. Opening and closing
20. Closing form
1. Commencement form
2. Open and close
3. Wave hands – left side
4. Brush knees
6. Repulse monkey
7. Wave hands – right side
8. Finishing forms
- Dan Tian Qigong
- Commencement form
- Open Close
- Wave Hands left
- Open Close
- Harmonising Yin and Yang. left
- Open Close
- Harmonising Yin and Yang right
- Open Close
- Wave Hands right
- Open Close
- Closing Form
1. Commencing form
2. Open and close x 1
3. Wave Hands Yang style left x 3
4. Open and close x 1
5. Shuttles Yang style left
6. Open and close x 1
7. Shuttles Yang style right
8. Open and close x 1
9. Wave hands right x 3
10. Open and close x 1
11. Closing form
The Extension Movements
Add at the middle of the set:
- Open and close x 1
- Leisurely Tying Coat Chen style right
- Open and close x 1
- Leisurely Tying Coat Chen style left
- Open and close x 1