I decided to write this article as a point of differentiation between the stances of many external arts and the internal art of tai chi chu’an. A student recently asked for corrections on a stance and I gave them. He came back the following week hella deep in the stance ready to show me his progress. I took the wind out of his sails by making more corrections and realized that he studied under Master YouTube for the weekend and came back with some very different ideas. Most martial arts have bow, cat, and front stances that serve different purposes.
Tai chi stances are designed for 1) health 2) power and 3) agility.
- Health: Tai chi stances maintain open “gates” so that blood can continually flow. This means that no joint is less than 90 degrees. This includes the elbows, knees, and the thigh to stomach (Kua) angle. The armpit is not collapsed. Imagery of holding a soft ball in your armpit helps envision the posture.
- Power: Good posture is key to developing the strength that comes from the tai chi stance. By keeping the head and tailbone aligned, the joints open, and blood flow to the muscle, you can take advantage of all of the mechanical forces to create speed and power.
- Agility: Tai chi believes that you would never commit to closing down an arm or leg for some perceived advantage in strength or power. Here is an example. Many karate stances bow the lower back and close down the rear inguinal crease (knee pointed down) in the pursuit of stability and power.
Whereas in this frequent example of Chen masters, the soft lower back, open rear inguinal crease (knee pointed out), and flexed knees provide stability and agility.
Ta Dang (Tah Dong – Collapsed Shelf)
Do you want rapid progress in your tai chi stances? Do you want to rapidly size-up an opponent or teacher’s abilities? An understanding of Ta Dang is essential. Ta Dang refers to a braking of the arch that runs from the inside of one leg to the other. If you pretended to sit on a stool with good posture you would not have a collapsed shelf (Ta Dang). This arch is responsible for all of your power and agility. Trust in your alignment and strength also leads to the depth of your tai chi postures. Perfect alignment can always be maintained if: the angle of the stomach to thigh is never smaller than 90 degrees and if the inguinal creases (kuas) are open. Back to the pictures above. Notice how in the common karate posture the rear thigh and knee are pointing to the ground and Chen Xiaowang’s rear thigh and knee are pointed out and the crotch is open on both sides. Hao Dang – Good Dang
This is where the argument begins: “well maybe the styles are different” or “maybe their purposes are different.” Nine times out of ten I think it is poor transmission of ideas. For example, Aikido practitioners are notorious for an inverted lower back and rear posted leg. However, can you find a picture or video of Ueshiba locked or extended? He would take a knee before breaking this posture.
And what about Karate? Pictures of Itosu, Kyan, Motobu, Nagamine, Kanai Uechi, you name it, all have open kuas (inguinal creases) where the gi or pants don’t obscure the posture.
Common tai chi stances
Bow Stance: The bow stance is an obvious 30/70 stance is a combination of a front and horse stance. The forward knee cannot 1) cross the toe, 2) pitch inward, or 3) pitch outward.
Empty Stance: A 90/10 distribution designed for connecting two different movements.
Horse Stance: A 50/50 stance with the lower back not curved in, both kuas open, and the tailbone slightly tucked in.
So how do we practice our tai chi stances to make them great?
A tai chi stance, like the form, can be performed at three heights. Height depends on flexibility or how warmed up you are. You do not get a lower stance in tai chi from going lower. A lower stance is developed by perfecting your posture and then allowing your body to sink. You gain depth not by leaning over or closing your hip but by sliding your feet our further with the spine aligned.