Should the wrist be bent when doing tai chi?
This question will surely stir controversy because it seems that every teacher does it differently. There are many players who insist that in postures such as Brush Knee or Single Whip, the wrist is bent as in the picture to the left of Yang Cheng Fu. Others will insist that the wrist should be straight as in the picture to the right of Cheng Man Ching. You may hold your wrist like one of these great masters, or somewhere in between, but the real question is WHY? Tai chi should be scientifically based, where the things we do can be tested for efficacy and results are repeatable. Holding your wrist in a certain way because that’s what you were taught is not enough of a reason. We believe that everything should stand up to scrutiny and be testable, so your decisions are made based on evidence rather than following blindly.
We have looked at both ways of holding the wrist and tested it to determine which way is better. There may be times when bending the wrist may be productive, but in general, we believe that the wrist should remain “OPEN” or straight and slightly curved (concave), and NOT be bent (“CLOSED”). In this article we will explain why and offer activities to help you in understanding why we feel this way. To be clear, our tai chi practice is neither Yang Cheng Fu nor Cheng Man Ching, so this is not about
these two great teachers, nor is this a critique of either one, or the Yang style. Our articles apply to all tai chi and are never about style; everything we write about is based on the tai chi principles and principles of movement. Some will point out that Yang Cheng Fu bends his wrist so it must be right. We obviously cannot speak for Yang Cheng Fu nor are we at his level. But we believe that your body will tell you what is right for you.
Tai chi postures are round, without sharp edges. This is to facilitate the opening of the joints and increase the flow of energy; sharp angles close the joints and constrict the flow. When we look at the bent wrist, we can see that the bending creates a sharp angle, like a kink in a water hose, and “closes” the wrist joint, creating a blockage in the flow of energy between the shoulder and the fingertips. An “Open” and slightly rounded wrist promotes more energy flow. In this article we will explain why, and suggest activities that will allow you to feel the difference:
Holding a ball
Feeling tension when bending the wrist
Feeling the flow of energy changes when the wrist is opened or closed
Feeling the connection to the lower back (ming-men)
How hollowing the hands, chest and lower dan-tien are affected
The Effects of a Closed Wrist in Push Hands
Activity: Hold a Ball
One of the most fundamental and pervasive shape in tai chi is “Holding a Ball”. A posture in its own right, it is also included in almost all the other postures. Ask yourself then, “When I hold a ball, what are my wrists doing?” To feel and understand this hold a ball (real or imaginary) and hold your wrists in various positions. Which feels most comfortable? Which lets you feel a better flow of energy?
Activity: Feeling the tension
Tension creates blockage of energy. You can easily feel the tension in your forearm when the wrist is bent. Extend your arms in front of you and have someone push on your fingers, first with the wrist bent, then with the wrist open. You will feel an obvious difference in the tenseness in the underside of your forearm and wrist, as well as your shoulder. In fact, with your other hand press your fingers into the underside of your forearm and you will feel your forearm muscles tensing as you bend and releasing as you open your wrist.
Activity: Feeling the change in the flow
While doing tai chi, it is important to extend your qi as far as you can to fill the space around you. Bending the wrist impedes the flow of energy making it harder to let send your energy out. To feel this, extend your arms in front of you and direct your energy to go towards the wall in front of you. Feel the difference in the direction of the energy; is it going outward or inward? You will notice that when the wrist is open the energy extends outward. But when the wrist is bent the energy goes towards you which is not what you want. Notice also whether your energy extend out past your fingers with the straight wrist or with a bent wrist? What we feel is that the more we “open” the wrist joint, the more energy goes through the wrist joint, past the fingertips, and out to fill the space around us.
Activity: Feel the connection to the ming-men
The classics tell us that the qi adheres to the spine so that it can go to the hands and fingers. Connecting the fingers to the lower back (ming-men) is a key component of tai chi. It is integral in unifying the body and bringing power from the feet to the hands. To feel the connection of the fingers to the ming-men push against a wall with your fingertips or have someone press on your fingertips. Expand from the inside to create a connection (a flow) from your lower back (ming-men) to your fingers. Feel the connection with a closed wrist vs. an open wrist. Which way lets you feel a stronger flow? Making this connection by having an open wrist makes a big difference in the strength and flow from the ming-men to the fingertips and out past your body.
Activity: Hollowing the hands, chest and dan-tien
The palms of the hands should be relaxed, soft, and the inside should be concave or hollowed (see Pretty Lady’s Hands). Your palms should always feel as if they are holding a soccer ball. The hollow in your hand is mirrored in the sinking of your chest and roundness of your lower dan-tien. If the hands are not concave and hollow, the chest and lower dan-tien stop hollowing too. Having hollowed hands, a hollowed or sunk chest, and hollowed or rounded dan-tien are very important in tai chi. It is what makes tai chi an internal art. When the wrist is bent or closed, the hand loses its hollowness, and the palm and fingers stiffen. This affects the hollowness in the chest and dan-tien. I encourage you to feel this to understand the importance of the position of the wrist. Standing in a tai chi stance, slowly open and close your wrist and pay close attention to your palm and fingers. Do your fingers stiffen and tense as you bend your wrists? Do your palms lose some or most of their hollowness? When the hollowness in your palm changes, is the sinking in your chest affected? Is your dan-tien affected? Your hands should always have the Tiger’s Mouth between your thumb and forefinger. How does opening and closing the wrist affect your Tiger’s Mouth?
The Effects of a Closed Wrist in Push Hands
When doing push hands, bending and closing the wrists leaves the fingers exposed to being pushed back, and for your opponent to lock your wrist. Many players try to push their opponents by bending their wrists so they can push with their palms. This is a mistake because when the wrist is bent, it can be bent even more and be trapped. Furthermore, you create tension and stiffness in your arms and trunk which your opponent can use against you.
We believe that opening the wrist allows more energy to flow through the fingers and is better overall for any tai chi practice. Does that mean you should never bend your wrist? Not necessarily. The better question is which way will move more energy through your body and create stronger connections within it. There are ways to slightly bend and spiral the wrist without blocking the energy, but that is a topic for another article. As you become more experienced, you realize that there is a lot of information out there that can help you advance to higher levels. You owe it to yourself to at least explore, ask questions, and test to find out for yourself which way is better.