Moving the arm in Taijiquan
By Sifu Yeung Yun Choi
One of the concepts, which differentiate Taijiquan from External Martial Arts, is that the arm follows the movements of the torso. Another saying is that the torso moves but not the arm. It is not that the arm does not move but to emphasis the domination of the torso instead of the limbs. The issuing of power from the spine would be a clear example of the domination of the torso. There is also the concept of "soft externally and hard internally" where the external limbs should be soft while the torso can be hard. The aim of this article is to clarify the mechanics in moving the arm.
The reason for the torso to have an impact on the arm rather that the arm having an impact on the torso like most other arts or sports is to maintain flexibility in order to touch, stick, joint, follow and strike in fighting. A strike in Taijiquan is not a single movement of the arm but involves the whole body, "one moves nothing else is static".
In the Standard Simplified Taijiquan (24 forms), the commencing movement is simply to raise the arms slowly to shoulder level. Some elaboration is however needed here, as no matter how soft or slows the movement of the arm; it is still using the arm not directed by the torso. Therefore, it is contrary to the thesis that the torso directs the movement of the arms. It is very difficult to observe the movements of the torso because such movements are too delicate.
In the beginning posture, stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart, chest relaxed and arms hanging naturally at sides. The following steps will illustrate how the torso is involved in raising the arms to shoulder level:
1. Relax the arms, depression of the shoulder pushes the arms slightly forward
2. Depression of the ribcage with arms extended forward pushes the arms further upward.
3. Maintain the arms and shoulder connection and the ribcage back to the original relaxed position carried further the arms upward and hands near the mid-section.
4. Raise the ribcage a little to lift the arms up to shoulder level.
5. Turn the shoulder joints so the elbows are pointing downward and palms remain down with the forearms slightly twisted.
6. Move the ribcage back to the original relaxed position pushes the arms down to the mid-section and presses down the roots of the palms
These movements involve the movements of the shoulder joints, muscles around the shoulder and thoracic section of the spine to compress and extend the ribcage. Up to this point the wrists and elbows are relatively relaxed. This has demonstrated the up and down movements of the arms directed by the torso without using any strength of the arms. However, it is possible to generate a powerful downward pressure with the arms relaxed and extended, connected to the shoulder and back, bending the knees to lower the body and compress the ribcage to push the arms downward.
The amazing anatomical structure of the ribcage and surrounding muscles allow the left and right arms to move independently. Therefore it is possible to produce contrasting movements for the arms like maintaining one arm at a lower position and lifted the other arm to shoulder high. This is now ready to move to the next posture of "holding the ball". Without reference to leg movements, this can be done in the following steps:
1. Rotate the shoulder joints outward with the elbows pointing outward.
2. Relax the chest muscles.
3. Protract the back muscles to move the hands in-line with one another
4. Rotate the lower forearm with the palm facing upward
To demonstrate the movements opposite to the protraction of the back would be the next posture of "part wild horse's mane". Without reference to leg movements, this can be done in the following steps:
1. Relax the back muscles and return to the original position with hands apart
2. Raise the lower arm and drop the upper arm to the same level by moving the ribcage back to the original relaxed position.
3. Retract the back by relaxing the back and protract the front muscles moving hands further apart
4. Rotate the shoulder joint of the forward arm with elbow turned downward and palm upward while rotating the other arm with the elbow pointed further outward and palm downward.
The outward and inward movements of the arm aided by the torso will be much more forceful than just moving the arm. And it is even more powerful by turning the torso with the hip joints.
Thus, the basic mechanics of the torso enable the arm to move up, down, left and right. In Taijiquan's terms these movements are also called "ascent, descend, open and close". The combination of these movements will move the arm in all directions. Together with the rotation of the shoulder joint and forearm, it is possible to generate many postures for Taijiquan with arms relaxed and extended.
The above has demonstrated some of the possible movements of the ribcage, shoulder, forearm, back and front muscles and the thoracic section of the spine. It is not difficult to workout other movements in Taijiquan which can be done with the assistance from the rest of the body. The movements of the ribcage, the spine and joints are pointing to the reality that practising Taijiquan will have some sort of impact on the tendons to make them stronger and more flexible. The ribcage has to be relaxed to facilitate various movements and this is the reason for breathing with the abdomen. It is not good to breathe with the ribcage enlarging and executing a movement compressing it at the same time. As the result is the contraction of the throat and blocking air coming out from the lung?
Taijiquan emphasises the importance of continuity because the movements of the body are in very delicate steps and various combinations. Therefore doing a series of movements with the whole body is very difficult compared to just moving the limbs? The complexity of the movements will generate forces with different directions such as stretching out and rotating at the same time. Therefore a high degree of harmony is also required. The movements in Taijiquan are a series of distortions and then returns to equilibrium. This bounce back and forward embraces the basic mechanics of springiness in Taijiquan.
The traditional method of learning Chinese Martial Arts by duplicating a routine without understanding how the various mechanics of the body are involved in the beginning might have shortcomings. May be it is wiser to understand carefully various movements in the beginning rather than just move in habit of moving the limbs alone.
Maybe an elaboration of the concept of "using intention instead of just force" will enlighten the practitioners. Some writers translate the Chinese word "Yi" as mind or will, but the literal meaning is idea, view, opinion, wish, intention, suggestion, expectation, etc. Maybe intention would be more relevant in this case. The very idea of moving slowly in practising Taijiquan is to be fully conscious of the motions and the tensions in the body following our intention.
The Chinese word "Li" is translated as force but in Taijiquan another word "Jin" is often used. Jin is also force but is a complex kind of force, a refined or trained kind of force. Therefore, force in this case denoting the raw, stiff, untrained kind of force, which requires the training of the mind.
It is very important to understand the motions and tensions of the body properly and practice accordingly. This will enable the practitioner to develop the ability to interpret the motions and tensions of the opponent, and master the art of following, neutralising, and counter attacking simultaneously.