During tai chi practice, the head should remain straight and upright with the neck straight, and the head should not incline in any direction. This position should be held in a natural, straight manner rather than in an exaggerated, extended position. The eyes look naturally forward in tai chi positions and head movement is coordinated with hand movements. See figure 2.1a for an illustration of head position from a front view and figure 2.1b for this position from a side view.
Common mistakes of the head position are inclining the head to the front or back too much (see figure 2.2, a and b) and tilting it to the left or right (see figure 2.2c). To correct the head when it is inclined back too far, return the head to an upright position with the chin held down. In contrast, if the head is inclined forward too much, return the head to an upright position by lifting the chin. If the head is tilted to the left or right, correct it by returning the head to the center. One easy way to avoid mistakes with the head position is to experience various head positions in front of a mirror and try to remember how it feels when the head is in the upright position. Getting feedback from other practitioners may also be helpful.
Figure 2.2 Incorrect head positions: (a) forward, (b) back, and (c) to the side.
Tai Chi Saying: Xu Ling Ding Jing
Meaning: Most Chinese sayings consist of four characters. In this saying, xu means “empty” or “lightly,”lingmeans “to lead,” ding means “top,” andjing means “strength.” Together, this saying means to imagine a string is holding your head up. In other words, you should have the feeling that there is a string coming from the top of your head that is slightly pulling so as to keep your head up and straight. This is one of the fundamental technical aspects of tai chi practice: The head is to be held upright, but not on a stiff neck. In addition, head movement is to be coordinated with the movements of other parts of the body.
Shoulders and Elbows
Shoulders should remain even with each other and should be naturally down or relaxed (see figure 2.3a). Relaxed shoulder joints and muscles are the key to keeping the shoulders in a low, naturally relaxed position. The elbows should also be held in a low, natural, and relaxed manner (see figure 2.3b). There should be a distance of about one to one and half fists between your elbow and your body so that your elbows can move comfortably (recall that tai chi evolved from boxing, and elbows that are raised too high could expose your ribs for your opponent to attack). Relaxed shoulders are a must for relaxed elbows. Also, a relaxed mind is important because people tend to shrug or tighten their shoulders when nervous or agitated.
Common mistakes of the shoulder position include holding the shoulders too tightly (see figure 2.4a) and not keeping them even (see figure 2.4b). When the shoulders are held too tightly, they are up close to the ears. To correct this, relax the shoulder joints and surrounding muscles. It is helpful to shrug or tighten the shoulders and then relax them several times to learn and remember how relaxed shoulders feel. When the shoulders are uneven, relax the front and back muscles of the shoulders. Practice in front of a mirror several times to make sure the shoulders are even. A common mistake with the elbow position is holding them too tightly to the body (see figure 2.5a) or holding them too high (see figure 2.5b). To correct these mistakes, relax the shoulders and elbows.
Tai Chi Saying: Che Jian Zhui Zhou
Meaning: Chen means “down,”jian means “shoulder,” zhui means “dropping,” and zhou means “elbow.” Together, this means to sink the shoulders and drop the elbows with a relaxed mind. Relaxed shoulders are crucial.