In tai chi, Balance is Power. The greater the balance, the greater the power. The reason for this is because power comes from the ability to use the whole body as one, united, with no separation between the various parts. If any one part is out of balance, for instance, too tense, or too loose, then it will become a weak point in the transition of power or force. Power will be limited in any area where there is disconnection in this way. To achieve the deepest level of balance we must reach a state of equanimity on the inside and the outside, meaning that we must not be too hard or too soft, too passive or too intense, too strong or too weak. Anything taken into excess becomes a weakness because it creates imbalance.
The wisdom of the ages
The tai chi form was developed over hundreds of years of study of the human body in conjunction with the wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine and the acupuncture system. The movements of the form are designed to facilitate the flow of the internal energy in the most effective and efficient way. The movements were not simply thrown together randomly. They were very deliberately placed in a specific order that trains the internal energy of the body. The movements of the tai chi form move the internal energy in the most successful way, which nourishes the internal organs and the entire muscular skeletal system in a way that no other art form can do.
Balance through correct alignment
As we just found out, balance and power are inextricably linked because power comes from the ability to use the whole body as one. A key factor in promoting balance is correct structural alignment. What this means is that throughout the entire physical structure from the tip of the little toe to the tip of the little finger the alignment of each part of the body is in such a perfect and correct angle that the two parts of the body essentially become one part. This closes any gaps. When the gaps are closed, power can flow without restriction.
Resistance and flow are contrary to each other
Where there is restriction (resistance) power cannot flow. To take an extreme example, have you ever tried to walk on a sprained ankle, or push something with a sprained wrist? If you have, you will know there is a particular angle that causes a great deal of pain and discomfort. The pain can be so extreme that you simple cannot walk in that way or push in that angle. Power cannot get past the point of injury. If you try to place your body weight on the sprained ankle in a particular angle you will collapsed instantly.
How our body changes shape
What we tend to do to avoid collapsing, is change our posture in order to be able to avoid the pain of the injury site. We reshape our entire structure to minimise aggravating the area. If we have done major damage we might not be able to walk at all and have to rest until the inflammation reduces. Sooner or later we begin to move again, and when we do we always change our posture, for example “limping” in order to avoid causing any more damage. We change the shape of our body to avoid the pain.
If you limp around for a week like this guess what happens? One side of your body becomes stronger than the other. This should be obvious. When we use one side more than the other, the side being used works harder than it did before, and the other side works less than it did before. It would be like going to the gym and only using one arm to lift weights. Without proper rehabilitation, the chances are very high that a permanent imbalance will be created in the structure of the body through this process of compensating.
I have had personal experience with this. I sprained my foot and could barely walk for 2 days. On day three I could limp around a little better, and after about a week and a half I could walk easily enough but I was still conscious that I was not fully healed, and I was cautious when stepping.
One day looking in the mirror I noticed that one of my shoulders was higher than the other by about an inch and a half. It looked very strange to say the least.
What I realised was that the issue was not in my shoulders but in the lower back and waist area. The action of limping around for several days required holding my posture in a new way. I had used my core muscles to avoid putting any weight into the left foot, and this made the right side of my waist and lower back tight, and the left side became more passive. Thanks to tai chi I have been able to gradually restore the balance, and my shoulders are no longer imbalanced, but deep inside the body I can still notice that something is not quite right yet.
With the above examples in mind I want to bring you back to the connection between balance and power. You might not have any injuries, but is it possible that one side of your body is more stiff and tense than the other? Have you heard what happens when people sit at a desk all day working on their computer? Hunched over, tight hamstrings, their posture changes over time. What about people who play a lot of tennis? Tennis elbow? Or golfers elbow? Whatever you do on a regular basis, if it requires and you repeat a certain posture over and over again, the chances are very high you are creating imbalances in your body, and these imbalances lead to an imbalance of the flow of power within.
Finding our Balance and Power
The circular and spiralling movements of tai chi reshape our structure from the outside to the inside and the inside to the outside. This is done through the practice of the tai chi form. The form is a sequence of movements that evolved over hundreds of years of listening to and observing the most powerful “angles” in our physical structure. Like we mentioned before when you have an injury there are particular angles that create the most pain. Likewise, there are very specific “angles” or “shapes” we can make, also known as “postures” in tai chi, where the body is naturally stronger.
If you observe a boxer in action, they have a particular stance that they use which is side-on rather than square to their opponent. Some boxers prefer right foot forwards others the opposite. Some boxers will be know for a particular punch with a particular side (right or left) and their opponent will make sure that of all the things they need to watch out for in the fight it will be (for example) the right uppercut. Their coach will say “stay away from his right side”. This is because for that fighter their right uppercut is their “signature” punch. Based on their unique physiology, method of training, and strengths, that exact punch is their most powerful strike. That is their most powerful “angle” or “shape” where they can issue the maximum amount of power and force.
In tai chi we are striving to make all of the angles equally powerful. We want to know our body so intimately that we can tell if our elbow needs to be one centimetre lower, or our wrist needs to turn 45 degrees more in one direction, or our foot needs to turn in more in order for us to have a continuous line of power from the tip of our toes to the palms of our hands. We want to study the entire structure of the body so deeply that we can notice any areas where we are slightly tense, slightly loose, where we are over-reaching. We want to notice any areas where we feel disconnected in any way.
The postures in the tai chi form, and the transitioning from one posture to the next to the next, will help us to identify areas of resistance and imbalance. But there is one tai chi principle above all others that we will need to embrace fully if we want to get the most out of the form, which is “Move from the Center”.
The center of your universe
The center is the boss in tai chi. No movement should happen without the center being involved. The center should initiate all of the moments in tai chi. The parts of the body should move around the center in the same way that the planets in our solar system move around the sun. The earth does not move closer to the sun or further away from it. It maintains a specific distance, held at this range by gravity. The planets closer to the sun revolve around it faster than the planets further away, but they all move at the same time, in synchronicity. It’s not like art moves then Jupiter moves a few seconds later. They all move together as if connected by a single thread. That’s because they are connected by a single thread, the thread of gravity.
The next time you practice your form, I want you to see your body as a solar system. Let no part move by itself alone. If one thing moves, everything should move. Did you know that the sun also rotates? Let your center be like the sun. When it moves it does not move alone. Everything is moving with at it’s own rate, but it is all moving together. Remember that every part of the body has its perfect position in the overall system. Maintain your awareness of the interconnectedness of all of the parts of the body. Do this, and you’ll take your tai chi practice to the next level.