Updated: Aug 24
Taiji is all about circular movement. Each movement includes turning of the trunk, arms and hands. The feet initiate and drive these turns. This turning is done internally and is not seen on the outside.
Tai chi is built on relaxing and letting go of the muscles as well as sinking everything downward. When you let go of all tensions in your body, your weight sinks to your feet and into the ground. By letting go of all tensions, your opponent’s force will go through you and into your feet and then into the ground. Conversely, when you issue force, you want it to spiral up from your feet. As you can see, the feet play a vital role in tai chi.
The tai chi classics tell us that movement/power starts at the feet, is controlled by the waist (hips), and comes out of the hands. Some people may have heard this statement as, movement is rooted in the feet and controlled by the hips. Some even argue that movement starts at the waist. But if we say that the feet are rooting, what are they doing while the hips and waist are turning? Are they just sinking? That is not what I feel. My feet start the movement and are very much involved in the turning. The turning of the feet is what moves my entire body.
All the tai chi styles talk of spiraling or silk reeling energy (san su jing); it is the hallmark of tai chi; it is what gives our relaxed movements their power. Where does spiraling start? In the feet.
Admittedly, turning the feet is not as well-known as turning from the waist, yet a number of recognized high-level masters have written and talked of movement starting at the feet. They talk about how power is generated through the internal turning and spiraling of the feet. I believe there was a time when all the styles followed this same thinking but moving from the feet can be difficult to teach and to learn, so it became easier to teach moving from the hips. However, moving from the feet, although more challenging, is more powerful, stable, and effective.
So how can the feet turn the body when there is no visible movement of the feet? It helps to think of your feet as two rotating screws turning towards each other. As we mentioned in a previous posting “Let's Talk about Stepping; Pushing vs Pulling With the Feet”, one foot pulls or receives, and the other foot sinks or gives. A screw turns in a three-dimensional axis – turning left or right while moving forward or backward. Your feet do the same. In each move the feet are giving (sinking) and receiving (pulling) as well as turning towards each other. This is not something you can see on the outside; it is done internally with your mind.
At all times, your feet should be soft with a hollow (arch) under the instep. All the edges of the feet touch the floor, including the toes, to create a suction cup feeling under the feet. To help feel the turning, imagine there is a doorknob under each foot. As the feet turn, one foot is opening a door while the other is closing a door. The feet are always turning towards each other. This may seem strange because you may think that once you’ve turned, that would be it and there will be no more room to turn. However, every time you shift your weight from one leg to the other, the turning begins anew.
Another important thing to note is that your knees do not turn. Your knees always line up with your toes, and because your feet are not moving as they turn internally, the knees stay lined up with your toes and do not turn from side to side. For your knees to stay lined up with your feet as the trunk turns, your hip joints, or quas, have to relax, bend and “open” so that your hips and shoulders can turn and rotate while your knees stay forward with your feet. To be clear, your knees will move to some degree, but as much as possible you want them to line up with your toes.
When done correctly, the turning of the feet will internally turn your entire leg. Externally, you will be able to see the muscles in your thighs move in a lengthening and spiraling motion.
Activity 1: Pulling and Pushing while turning your feet
Stand with your feet parallel as in a horse stance or opening posture for some styles. First, rock from side to side by slowly pulling your weight from one leg to the other. Do not push off to shift. As you shift weight, one leg pulls your weight, and the leg that’s emptying the weight sinks into the floor. When you feel how both feet are engaged in this movement add a turning in each foot. The right foot turns clockwise, and the left turn counterclockwise. As you pull with your right, your right foot is turning to the left. Your left leg sinks into the floor, and it is turning to the right. The turning of course is all internal. Now, pull with your left leg and turn the foot to the right, while the right leg sinks and turns to the left. So now you have a pulling and turning as well as a sinking and turning. You are creating a 3-dimensional movement that involves your entire body and connects everything together, allowing force or qi to move from your feet to your arms and back to your feet. This is how all taiji postures should be done.
Activity 2: Turning your hands to feel your feet
Do the same movements as you did in Activity 1, but this time with your hands in front of you. As you turn your feet, turn your hands as well. Feel how turning the feet can affect the turning of the hands. With enough practice, you will find that your hands rotate automatically, and your fingers sync with your toes.
It is very hard to convince people to change from what they were taught. I had studied Yang and Wu styles for 10 years each, and at that time stepping was not really explained very deeply. When I met Master William Ting, he started teaching me to use my feet to turn. It was foreign, and strange, and took a while to learn. But, once I learned, I couldn’t go back to moving in any other way. I’ve tried but it just feels empty and devoid of energy and power. The turning of the feet gives me a feeling of connecting with the ground. It helps me feel as if my body is one unit from my toes to my fingers to the top of my head. I feel a spiraling from my feet to my hands as if my limbs are wet towels that are being wrung to get the energy to spiral through them. The spiraling goes from my right foot to my left hand and from my left foot to my right hand. It is a feeling of fullness that just isn’t there for me by just turning my hips.
I recognize that this is not what most people know or do or even want to be bothered with. However, I firmly believe that this is the better way to do tai chi. It takes time to become comfortable moving this way, but when you do, you will feel the benefit and the power of this way of movement. Please try using your feet as we have described; a few may find it somewhat confusing at first, but it is well worth it. Your taiji will move to a higher level. If you have questions or just want to discuss turning the feet, please feel free to contact me.
Joe Eber is a senior teacher and long time student of Master William Ting (silvertigertaichi.com).
Joe Can be reached at email@example.com or Facebook