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!

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