Only because I was Dr. Yang Yang’s student, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to China on several occasions and to meet privately with his teacher, Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang, at his apartment in Beijing. On my first trip to China, in 1995, I remember walking around Grandmaster Feng’s neighborhood, uncertain of which apartment building was his. I recall clearly passing an older lady who, upon seeing a Westerner walking around obviously a bit lost, smiled and, without a word spoken, pointed to his apartment building. Apparently there was little doubt what a Westerner would be looking for at that time and place in Beijing.
Though this was my first trip overseas (and my first experience with jet lag), I was bursting with excitement and enthusiasm at the opportunity to meet Grandmaster Feng and to ask him about taiji (tai chi) practice. After welcoming me into his home, we sat on his couch and he brought a large apple, peeled it, and served it to me – I was a bit embarrassed by his kindness and hospitality. He of course first asked about how Dr. Yang was doing, and about taiji in America. After greetings and probably sensing my youthful enthusiasm, Grandmaster Feng then generously began an impromptu lecture on taiji practice. The very first thing he said to me was:
Do not practice in a low stance.
There are two general and, I think fairly obvious, reasons for this. Continually practicing in a low stance: 1) is against taiji principles, and 2) will inevitably result in injury. Of course the importance of nurturing was one of Grandmaster Feng’s preeminent teachings. As noted in the previous article, the last of Grandmaster Feng’s 12 principles is:
You will be successful if you know both how to practice and how to nurture yourself.
After a lifetime of practice in the martial arts, Grandmaster Feng knew well the dangers of practicing form in a low stance, and even mentioned people he knew who blew out their knee(s) by doing so. The potential harm to the knee joint is reason enough not to practice form in an exaggerated low stance. But the obvious physical danger aside, how is practicing form in a low stance contrary to taiji (and martial) principles? Well, as the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning says, let me count the ways.
Reasons why a continually low form posture is contrary to taiji principles
1. To use Grandmaster Feng’s words, taiji is practice of yi (mind) and qi (energy), it is not practice of brute force (li). The two principle physical mechanisms of nei gong, or the power of the internal martial arts, were detailed in our article series Physical Mechanisms of Taiji Movement: Part I, Power is Released from the Spine, and Part II, Intention is Primary. In Part II we explained how relaxed movement, coupled with meditative intention on the intended length and direction of movement, improves power and efficiency of force output through intra- and inter- muscular coordination. We also shared one famous traditional saying in that article directly relevant to height of stance:
If you practice li (muscular strength) it will break; if you practice qi (breathing/energy) it will be stiff; if you practice yi (intention) it will flow smoothly. (Lian li ze duan; lian qi ze zhi; lian yi ze huo.)
Of course doing the form, or standing meditation, in a low stance is physically demanding. But this “brute force” is external strength and is not a mechanism of internal power. As noted in Part I of our previous article series on self-defence theories and practices of taiji, endurance in taiji is a function of the efficiency of energy output – it is not about “eating bitter” as so many external arts emphasize. Further, if the form is executed with relaxation and correct posture in a moderate or even high stance, one’s body is strongly rooted through the legs and the practice will significantly exercise and strengthen lower body musculature. The constant weight shifting and single leg stances (e.g in kicking movements) adds to the physical strengthening of the leg muscles. That taiji and/or qigong movement significantly strengthens lower body strength (without an exaggerated low stance) has been demonstrated in many research trials.
2. The bow of the legs is destroyed if the knees are bent beyond a certain angle. A well-known taiji principle is to keep the “5 bows” of the arms, torso, and legs. The function of the spinal bow was fully covered in a previous article. The knees and elbows should generally neither be fully straightened nor bent to such a severe angle that the bow is broken. The principal physical/structural advantage of maintaining the bows of the arms and legs is that it allows for efficient and maximal force output, and for the transfer of forces through the kinetic chain. The transfer of force occurs in two directions:
– outwards from the core through the extremities; and
– from the point of contact from an incoming force to the ground.
The first is what happens in fa jin, or the explosive release of force generated by the core musculature. (You can replace “core musculature” with “dan tian” in that sentence if you prefer traditional language.) The second point is what happens in “rooting” – either an incoming force or one’s own fajin expression. A curved structure allows force to be transferred from the point of contact or force origin to the extremities. This is why dams are curved – the water pressure is directed from the curve of the structure to the abutments at the sides. An arch above a door serves the same structural purpose. If the curve is replaced with a sharp angle, the structural benefit is completely lost. The curved structure of the “5 bows” is what allows a force to be efficiently and effectively rooted into the ground in push-hands – without expending energy or losing balance by pushing back against the force. And so rooting is completely destroyed if the structural advantage of the 5 bows is broken.
Try it yourself. Take an exaggerated low stance, have a friend push you from different angles, and see if you can root the force (without pushing back). If the legs are bent too much it is simply not structurally possible to do so; the force will be “stuck” in your lower back, or knee joints.
It may be possible to realize the bow of the spine in a very low stance, though it is very hard to do and cannot be maintained for any length of time. To keep the tailbone in a neutral position in a very low stance the hips/tailbone must be tucked under considerably (the origin of the advice to “tuck the tailbone” – something that should not be done in moderate to higher stances). Further, the toes must be splayed outwards to exaggerated degrees, severely limiting mobility/agility (see point #4 below).
3. Taiji is yin and yang. All of the above is not to say that one should never take a low posture – some movements of the form are intended to exercise lower stances and strength. But high always follows low. To go up you must first go down. To go down you must first go up. The interaction of yin/yang, the balanced flow of yin to yang and yang to yin, is the rhythm of taiji movement. To always stay in a low posture is to ignore this aspect of yin/yang rhythm, perhaps the most fundamental of all taiji principles.
4. Mobility/agility is significantly limited by an exaggerated low posture. Have you ever seen a professional fighter take and maintain an exaggerated low stance? I would bet not, as it is a severely disadvantageous posture both in terms of energy expenditure and mobility/agility. The most efficient on-guard stance is santi, with knees slightly bent and with reasonable width and length for both horizontal and vertical stability. From this position one can optimally defend or attack and engage/root an incoming force. Generally speaking, the higher the stance the greater the mobility, but also the greater the skill required to engage/root an oncoming force. To increase your push-hands skill, try practicing in a higher, not a lower, stance. If you see two people pushing, and one is in a lower, wider stance while the other is in a considerably higher/narrower stance, the latter is likely much more skilled. (Again, however, if the stance is too low the bows of the legs are broken and it is not possible to root an oncoming force.)
Full disclosure: Grandmaster Feng simply told me to not practice in a low stance, and that doing so, in his experience, can destroy your knees and is contrary to the nurturing principle. The rest was from my own understanding. It may make sense to you, or you may disagree – the above is only my understanding. But I would suggest that, if anyone tells you to practice in a lower stance, you respectfully and sincerely ask them “why?” – and see if their answer makes sense to you.