Empty and Full

Empty and full – Distinguish between empty and full. Have two containers and pump the water between them.

Hakutsuru 1433

As we discussed earlier, we put a lot of care in how we move, in order to protect our knees and avoid any tilt or torque on the joints (and with that possible injuries down the road). We move our weight off a foot before we turn it and back on when it’s oriented in the right direction and we’re ready to push our Qi Hai (氣海) point forward.

Think of your legs as two big buckets of water

A good way of reminding ourselves of that shifting of weight is by thinking of it as ‘shifting between empty and full’. Think of your feet and lower legs as big buckets holding water.

Now when you shift your weight back on your back leg, you envision how that water gets pumped out fo your front leg and into the back leg. Your front leg become ’empty’ and your back leg become ‘full’.

After you turned your hip and with that your foot, you reverse the process, imagining how you pump water through your legs and hips from your back leg into your front leg. Once the back leg is empty you can lift it and make a step.

Keep the water moving

As you make Tai Chi movements, you constantly shift between empty and full and various degrees between. Of course as you are lifting and moving one leg, the other one is 100% full in that moment. When you are in a bow stance, the front leg is 70% full and the back leg is 30% full. When you are standing in two sides of a line, your front leg will hold 10% of the water while your back leg will hold 90%.

As with everything in Tai Chi you don’t hold those static stances, you constantly shift and move, pumping the water, and with that your energy, around. You flow from Yin to Yang and back with all stages in between.

It All Starts With Your Feet

In martial arts and Tai Chi we try to learn making the most effective use of our strength and energy. We learn how to efficiently turn our muscle power into movement and kinetic energy.

Build from the ground up

The basic physics law of action and reaction applies to Tai Chi just as well. If we want to exert energy in a given direction, we must also be able to absorb the counter reaction. So if we want to push forward, we need to be firmly rooted in the ground in order to absorb the push back and not just be thrown backwards ourselves.

With that in mind, it all starts from our feet. If we don’t have firm grounding in our stance, everything else falls apart. Be rooted first.

We build up from there, the next link in our chain are the legs and knees, then the hips, our upper body and finally our arms. We need to build up in that sequence or our movement will not unfold its full potential.

Think of a tree, if the roots are weak the tree will die. If the trunk is flimsy it will not be able to withstand the wind. If the branches are too small, the weight of the fruit will have them break down.

Slow muscles first, fast muscles will catch up

A principle of movement in martial arts is to start with the strong and slow muscles first (our legs and our core muscles) and then engage the weaker but faster muscles (our arms and finally hands). That way we allow all movement to end at the same climactic point – the faster arms and hands will catch up with your legs easily. It won’t work the other way around though.

You can think of it like a rocket with its boosters. The huge thrusters engage first to get the rocket off the ground. Then the following smaller and more agile rocket engines will kick in as stage after stage gets engaged. They will further increase the speed of the rocket while making necessary adjustments to the trajectory as needed.

Your breathing controls the movement

Lets stay with the image of the rocket for a moment. The sequencing of the different stages is carefully controlled by the mission control center. What’s the mission control center in your body? Of course it’s the brain, but there is another way to think about it. In martial arts and Tai Chi your breath can help you control and orchestrate the movement.

That’s why we pay so much attention to our breath. If we smoothly exhale all the way from the beginning of a movement to its end, it is much easier to make it a smooth movement than if we stop our exhale somewhere along the way or have it disconnected from the movement altogether.

Same if we start our exhale before or after we start the movement or finish before or after we finish the movement. In that case there is a good chance that we will have stops and breaks in our movement and the different muscles will not coordinate as smoothly as they could. Use your breathing to control your movement.

Tai Chi is meditation in motion. Watch your breathing. Be mindful and delierate about how your movements build up.

Tuck in Your Tailbone

Tuck in your tailbone – Lower your hips and tilt them forward. Tuck in your tailbone. Pretend that you are starting to sit down and then stop halfway into the movement.

Tug in your tailbone

The teacher says “tuck in your tailbone”. That’s helpful right?

Tuck in your tailbone

What we mean with that is that you bend your knees a little and slightly tilt your hip forward. You contract the muscles on the front of your lower abdomen and let your lower back gently stretch.

We are often over pronouncing the s-curve in our back (hyperlordosis or hollow back) or in the other extreme hunching over. Contracting the muscles around our lower hip and ‘tucking in our tailbone’ helps to avoid both.

When you’re asked to tuck in your tailbone, you follow the example from your puppy when he is actually tucking in his tail and visualize that movement. Imagine how you would need to move your hips if you actually wanted (and could) tuck in your tail.

Pretend to start sitting on a chair

The other way to ‘tuck in your tailbone’ and achieve the proper posture is to imagine that you’re starting to sit down on a high chair.

You bend your knees, lower you hip and tilt it a little bit forward in order to get ready to sit on your behind. Go a little down but stop way before you would actually sit down.

It’s as if you are to sit down and then don’t.

Learn From Heart to Heart

2017-06-04 Tai Chi in the Park 001


In martial arts we teach and learn ‘from heart to heart’, and ‘from skin to skin’.

Many of the deeper principles in martial arts and Tai Chi are hard to explain and hard to understand from just a verbal description. While the intellect might grasp them on a logical level, it’s an entire different thing for the body to be able to execute them in a natural way (what we like to call ‘feeling the movement’).

We can use books and videos to remind ourselves of sequences in a form, or principles that were taught and explained in class, but it’s almost impossible to learn new content from them in the beginning years. It’s also impossible to spot all the details that are important in a video, and no video or DVD is long enough to allow the narrator to explain them all.

Observe and engage

While later on we extend your knowledge by reading from masters, it is important to learn in class and from a teacher in the beginning. Only with a teacher can we observe all the little details and subconsciously pick up the things, and the energy, that a DVD cannot give us. Only a teacher will be able to spot where we miss important details and correct us before they become hard to change habits.

You learn in martial arts by observing your teacher. Not just through class but also by observing how she thinks about life and behaves when interacting with others. In the dojo and outside. By observing a real teacher, you will understand how the art taught her to live her life, which will unveil many of the underlying principles and patterns to you. Videos can only get you so far.

Open your mind to what’s behind it

In the old days, masters used to have Uchideshi (内弟子), inside students, and Soto-deshi (外弟子), outside students.

Soto-deshis were the students that excelled the most at the techniques and the forms. They would win the competitions. They would often be the ones who represented the school and style to the outside world and built up the large organizations. They were also the ones who’s understanding often remained shallow and who missed the hidden core of the teachings.

Uchi-deshis lived with their teachers. They weren’t usually the best with physical techniques, but they spent a lot of time being with their teachers and observing them. They eventually understood what was under the obvious surface of their art and as a result got taught more of the lesser known underlying ideas and principles.

While we all have busy lives today, try to be more of an Ushi-Deshi than a Soto-deshi. Try to observe and understand the principles and drivers rather than the flashy movements. Observe your teacher as often as you can, not just when she performs the form. Good teachers will show the same principles and respect in outside life as they teach in class. If your teacher doesn’t, then run away as quickly as you can.

In martial arts we learn from observing and practicing. Try to learn from heart to heart and from skin to skin.

“Don’t listen to what I say. Watch what I do.”
Alfons’ typical classroom advice