Sinking the “Empty” Leg!
Tai chi is all about balance. Yet, when many tai chi players step, they use only one side of their body. When they shift their weight forward, their emphasis is on the front leg; the rear leg just comes along for the ride. When they shift back, their attention is on the back leg and the front leg is ignored. We do this because in everyday walking we only think of the leg that we’re moving, and we ignore the other leg. But, in tai chi, when we focus on one leg and ignore the other, we create an imbalance where one side of our body is “loaded” up, and the other is emptied. To be in balance, both sides need to be equal.
To stay in balance, we must think in terms of “physical weight” and “mental or energy weight”. When going into a “Bow Stance”, we shift approximately 65-70% of our physical weight into the front leg. Therefore, we need to put 65-70% of our mind into our back leg. The reverse is also true; when shifting into a back stance, we put 70% or more of our physical weight into the back foot. To balance it out, we need to put the same amount of our mind and energy into the front leg.
How does one put their mind into their leg? It is done by sinking the leg into the floor with your mind. When thinking of sinking the leg, the hip and tailbone physically sink toward the floor. You feel as if one side of the hip is moving toward the heel of the “empty” foot. The resulting feeling is that the legs “feel as if” they are moving away from each other.
To feel the sinking of the “empty” leg, put yourself in a bow stance, where one leg is forward, as in a “Brush Knee” posture. Imagine that someone is pulling you forward trying to pull your back foot out of the ground. How do you stop them without shifting any weight into the back foot? You naturally sink your back leg into the floor to act as an anchor. Conversely, when shifting back, feel as if someone is pushing into you. Like a tree that is being pushed by the wind, you want to send your roots from the front leg deep into the ground to keep you from being blown over.
Whether moving forward or backward, it is important to keep the knee of the “empty” leg bent as you shift because it allows the sending of the roots into the ground. Too often, players straighten the knee to the point where the hip is no longer sinking. This is especially true when shifting back. To do tai chi well and to balance your legs, your hips must always sink.
What about one-legged stances as when kicking? The idea is the same, and even though the “empty” leg is not on the ground, you act as if it is. As the knee moves up, the hip sinks down. The tailbone is reaching for the heel of the supporting leg. In your mind, you feel as if your “empty” foot is resting on something making it feel “heavier”. It is vitally important that as you raise the kicking foot, the supporting foot sinks into the floor and your body does not rise or shift forward.
Putting the mind and sinking the “empty” foot takes a lot of practice before it becomes habitual. However, the benefits are worth it. Having balance and power in both feet is essential for improving one’s tai chi. The idea of balancing the physical weight with mind or energy weight is how we ROOT. Rooting is essential in tai chi and it means both legs go into the ground.