Category Archives: form

Hand and Arm Movements

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 Trainingif 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.

Tai Chi practitioners often use the hands and arms for “listening”. Consider the practitioners “feeling out” their opponent in Push Hands and/or sticking hands, for example.

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!

The Kua

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.

  • 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:

Kua turning is used in Tai Chi and Qigong, as well as internal Kung Fu styles (Baguazhang and Xingyiquan). In Tai Chi, we talk about the waist. However, the work is actually done by 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!

Footwork

𝟱 𝗧𝗶𝗽𝘀 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗕𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗧𝗮𝗶 𝗖𝗵𝗶 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝘁𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸

𝟭 – 𝗗𝗼𝗻’𝘁 𝘄𝗮𝗹𝗸 𝗼𝗻 𝗮 “𝘁𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁-𝗿𝗼𝗽𝗲”
Whether you are stepping forwards or backwards, you should ensure that you maintain the same distance laterally as if you are standing in the beginning posture with your feet below your hips. If you allow your feet to proceed directly in front of each other, you will be easily unbalanced. This is particularly common when you are stepping backwards, so you might try thinking of each step as a step to the side as you step backwards. If you are practising on a tiled or wooden floor, you can use the floor patterns as a guide to help you avoid this mistake, e.g. by keeping your feet one board’s width apart. Just glance down to check yourself from time to time… don’t stare at your feet!

𝟮 – 𝗡𝗼 𝗕𝗼𝗯𝗯𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗨𝗽 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗗𝗼𝘄𝗻
When you are walking in Tai Chi, imagine you are in a room with a very low ceiling (like Gandalf in Bilbo Baggins’ home). You should sink your weight and keep your knees slightly bent, and resist any urges to stand up or lock the knees out during your practice. In this way you will strengthen your legs and core muscles in a safe, natural and impact free way, buttressing the lower back and your knee joints with powerful supporting muscle fibres.

𝟯 – 𝗡𝗼 𝗥𝗼𝗰𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗕𝗮𝗰𝗸𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗱𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗙𝗼𝗿𝘄𝗮𝗿𝗱𝘀
In Tai Chi we want to move smoothly from posture to posture, with a focused and graceful intent as we advance or retreat. Don’t allow your body to get into a habit of rocking backwards and forwards as it will interrupt your flow and introduce the poor martial body mechanics of a gap. Gaps mean a break in pressure… meaning your opponent can escape or counter you by giving them physical room and time to deal with your technique. Your whole body needs to move and flow as one unit with no breaks.

𝟰 – 𝗣𝗶𝘃𝗼𝘁 𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗪𝗲𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝘁
Once you have stepped through into GongBu (bow stance), about 70% of your weight should be in the front foot. Keeping that same proportion of weight distribution, lightly raise the ball of your foot and pivot your entire body outwards around the heel of that foot, taking care to ensure your knees do not twist and the femur remains aligned with your toes. You can then fill the remainder of your weight into that foot and step through with no danger to the knee joint, and eliminate rocking or bobbing.

𝟱 – 𝗢𝗽𝗲𝗻 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗞𝘂𝗮
The Kua are the hip joints, that is the ball and socket joints at the top of each femur where they insert into the pelvis. Keeping an open Kua means holding your legs open, rather than allowing them to collapse inwards. Once you have pivoted your foot outwards and stepped forwards with the other leg, keep your rear leg open and don’t allow the knee to creep in. The reasons for this are to protect your knee joint by keeping alignment between the bones supporting it and the femur. This creates an optimal structure to support incoming force (including the weight of your own body), and also a strong platform to drive forwards from.

Tips for beginners

𝟯 𝗧𝗶𝗽𝘀 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗧𝗮𝗶 𝗖𝗵𝗶 𝗕𝗲𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿𝘀

When you first start Tai Chi it can seem quite a daunting prospect. Whether you are learning a long form or short form, there is so much to take on board, there are so many working parts to master. These are some pointers we share with our students when they start out.

𝗥𝗲𝗹𝗮𝘅 & 𝗕𝗿𝗲𝗮𝘁𝗵𝗲
If you can, try to start by relaxing your mind and body. You will find the experience a lot more enjoyable if you do this, and this will help get you in the right frame of mind and develop the right physiological habits from the beginning. I know this is easier said than done when you are trying to remember a sequence, and not fall over while doing a stick man/woman impression of the person in front of you. But the sooner you can relax into the movements the better. Probably our best tool to help us calm our minds and bodies is our breathing. It is difficult to relax while holding your breath, so remember to breathe. Breathe naturally.

𝗙𝗼𝗼𝘁𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝗙𝗶𝗿𝘀𝘁
The 𝘛𝘢𝘪𝘫𝘪𝘲𝘶𝘢𝘯 𝘑𝘪𝘯𝘨 states,“𝘐𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘯𝘰𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘵, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘣𝘰𝘥𝘺 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘰𝘳𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘥, 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘤𝘵 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘣𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘦𝘨𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘢𝘪𝘴𝘵.”
The traditional jibengong, or foundational work in Yang style Tai Chi includes walking drills, and these are probably the most important thing to get right as a beginner. Once you have got the hang of the walking drills, that way of stepping and rotating and placing your feet so that you are stable and able to balance while moving backwards and forwards, will give you a great foundation in the art. It is much easier to integrate your upper body movement onto the lower foundation, than to attempt it the other way around (which nearly always ends up being disconnected). Get your footwork right first, I promise you won’t regret it.
Moreover the walking drills also contain elements of the art which probably supply the most immediate health benefits; as you build up your leg muscle tone you support those joints, gain strength, endurance, balance and by extension our brain health (studies have shown that our brains are hard-wired to prioritise anything that challenges our balance).

𝗢𝗻𝗲 𝗦𝘁𝗲𝗽 𝗔𝘁 𝗔 𝗧𝗶𝗺𝗲
As the saying goes… Rome was not built in a day. Take your time, be resolved that this journey is going to be a long-term investment in your mind and body and that you are going to enjoy every step. Get the big brush movements down first before trifling over details and gradually commit them to your memory, step by step. Remember you are not in a hurry, this is for your own benefit and not a race, so go at your own pace. It is better to get to know the form slowly and thoroughly, so that you can remember the sequence, than to rush through to the end of the form without really having learned it at all. Ask questions, make sure you get the shape of the movement right before you move on, and don’t be frightened to ask more questions about stuff you have already learned, to consolidate your progress.