Tai chi demands a very specific type of movement. Derived as it is from a martial art, there is tremendous emphasis on being ready to react. Movements must be smooth and controlled. Weight must be to one side or the other. The body must be kept upright. All of these things are essential to balance, stability and responsiveness.
Contrast this to your every day movement. When walking, you start the forward momentum of your body and keep your weight between your legs. In effect, you have to put the next foot forward to prevent yourself from falling. Pushing a shopping trolley, your body is leaning into the trolley to initiate and continue the momentum.
The innate knowledge your body has about movement is different to that required for Tai chi. We need to make a special effort to learn to move our bodies according to Tai chi principles. In fact, since most of our movements are unconscious, we are usually not even aware that we are not conforming to Tai chi principles.
For the beginner, this is particularly difficult. When first learning there are so many things to be mastered. The basic shape of the movements, the relative position of hands and feet, coordination or upper and lower body etc. It is often not until the student is comfortable with the basic form, that footwork can come into focus.
There are three primary characteristics of good footwork:
These things seem obvious. However, most of us will find that we can improve in one or more of these areas, with conscious effort.
Move your weight off your foot before you lift it
Immersed as we are in our daily activities, which usually involve centring our weight, it is very easy to forget this. At many times throughout a Tai chi set, all of your weight is supported by one leg. If you are to maintain balance and control, you must move your weight completely over the supporting leg before you attempt to lift your other foot.
Place your foot before committing your weight to it
The martial arts origins of Tai chi are illustrated here. If the ground were uneven or slippery and you committed your weight immediately, you would lose your balance. If you are not yet committed to the movement, you can adjust your stance.
Failure to place your foot before committing any weight to it can be seen in symptoms such as:
When you make an effort to keep your weight back when placing your foot, you will find that your steps are shorter and you have more control both entering and leaving a stance.
Kicks are very good movement to check yourself for this error. When you place your foot after a kick, do you "thump" or do you place your foot down in a controlled way? Once you have a controlled landing you can move your weight forward into the new movement.
It is just as essential to keep your weight back when stepping out into a bow stance. It is much harder to check yourself during these "simpler" movements, when you are less focused on your balance.
Use only your legs to transfer your weight
Imagine that your body, from the hips up, is supported by a typists chair. It has wheels on the bottom and slides easily forwards and backwards. It also has a central pole which allows you to turn your body from side to side.
When you transfer your weight forwards, the only part of your body that needs to be involved is your legs. The front (unweighted) leg is relaxed. You push off with your back leg and just glide forwards supported by the chair.
If you can use this image (or one that works better for you), you will find that you are better able to keep your height level. You will notice the muscles in your legs a little more. You may even find your legs getting tired when you begin practising this way. This is because you are now using your legs alone to initiate your weight transfer. You are not leaning into the movement, or using your arms to pull yourself around.
If you can master these three things, you will be amazed at the clean, smooth, economical movement you are now capable of. However, it takes constant conscious effort to ensure you don’t slip back into bad habits.
Remember, the classics say:
"The energy is routed in the feet, develops in the legs, is directed by the waist, and moves up to the fingers. The feet, legs and waist must act as one so that when advancing and retreating you will obtain a good opportunity and a superior position…If you fail to gain these advantages, your body will be in a state of disorder and confusion. The only way to correct this fault is by adjusting your legs and waist."