Part 3 - FEET FIRST
Pushing from the feet through the spine to the top of the head is a crucial Tai Chi principle. The force generated from the feet is what drives every Tai Chi movement and gives Tai Chi its incredible power. "Push from the feet" sounds simple enough. As my own teacher often reminds me: It is simple, but it's not easy. So, how do we go about developing this principle?
In her practical book "Tai chi as a path of wisdom" Linda Myoki Lehrhaupt gives a great imagination exercise to help you develop your connection to your feet. She has you imagine you are a tree, with "roots reaching deep into the earth. Your lower body is the base, like a tree trunk it supports the weight of your upper body. Your head and arms are the branches of a tree, reaching ever upward, extending out from the solid base." If you think this sounds interesting, give the exercise below a try. If it doesn't appeal to you skip ahead to "Rooting".
Tree in a Heavy Storm (from "Tai chi as a path of Wisdom")
"Imagine it is a warm sunny day and you are a tall, healthy tree enjoying this glorious day. Your leaves absorb the sun's rays, and the warmth spreads through your body. Your roots reach deep into the earth and draw water upward to nourish the leaves and branches. There is constant movement within you, and yet you stand immobile. Imagine that a wind is beginning to blow. Raise your arms into the air and feel what it would be like for your branches to dance in the wind. At first the movements are light and playful. But as the wind turns into a storm, your movements become grander and more sweeping. Remember that you are a great tree with deep roots. So no matter how big your movements become, you remain rooted to the spot. Your feet stay planted right where they are. After you have moved vigorously like a dancing willow in a spring breeze, imagine that the wind is slowly dying down. Come gradually to a halt. Stand quietly for a minute or two, observing any sensations."
If you prefer to think in more traditional Chinese terms, you'll enjoy www.taichisociety.com where they refer to the feet first principle as "rooting". They tell us that "Rooting is one of the most significant aspects of Tai Chi practice. Rooting means the feet are rooted into the ground by physically sinking the body weight. The whole body must be sung (relaxed) and the Chi must sink to the Tan Tien ( located two fingers-width below the navel ) so that the power generated from the feet can be transferred to the upper body. Each joint and muscle drops individually towards the ground, enabling them to move independently of each other. When one is rooted the upper body is empty, the lower body full. With the whole body connected and working together, this initiates immense energy. Rooting also permits one's inner Chi to flow and connect with nature, and harness the energy coming from the earth."
Whether you're imagining yourself as a tree, or you're thinking your upper body is empty/lower body is full, pushing from the feet keeps your arms connected to your spine. This adds significant endurance and strength to your arm. You are no longer relying on your arm muscles - the mechanical structure connects your arms to your spine, which is very strong.
How to include pushing from the feet in your daily life:
- When you're playing your favourite sport think about your feet. Push from your feet when you swing a golf club or tennis racket or when throwing a football or baseball. You will find that your swing/throw goes much further with significantly less effort on your part.
- Push from your feet through the top of your head anytime you have to work above shoulder level (like installing a light bulb) or have to keep your arms elevated for an extended period of time (like scraping the ice off your windshield).
- Push from the feet when you're walking. This might seem a bit obvious, but many people (I used to be one of them) walk by picking up the leg rather than rolling from heel to toe and pushing off the foot. The key here is in allowing the hips to relax and roll with the force generated by the foot. The extra hip movement may feel a little strange at first, but this technique will increase your speed and stamina instantly. There are many books available on the benefits and techniques of walking. Check out "Chi Walking" by Danny Dreyer and Katherine Dreyer
- If you ride a sport motorcycle, try the following exercise. DISCLAIMER: My motorcycle experience is limited to a sport bike. The riding position on a touring bike or cruiser is quite different from a sport bike. If you try this exercise on a tourer/cruiser you may have different results - like a crash! If you've never heard of counter steering, or if you don't "believe" in counter steering, STOP RIGHT HERE - DO NOT TRY THIS.
So, just to be clear, the following is intended only for sport bike-riding folks who use counter steering:
When setting up for a corner, gently push from both foot pegs, through your spine to the top of your head. (Your foot pegs should be just behind the "knuckle" of your big toe - not under the arch of your foot). Remember to keep your shoulders dropped, your core muscles relaxed and your tailbone pointing down. This "roots" you so that the upper body is empty/lower body is full which, in riding terms, means it keeps your centre of gravity low on the bike and keeps your body weight off your hands. Once you get the hang of it, turning corners - even the tight ones - will feel smooth and effortless.