Tai chi is a personal development discipline deeply rooted in ancient Chinese culture. One of the most basic tenets of Asian philosophy and of its many traditional mind/body disciplines is that neither the mind nor the body can ever be regarded as entirely separate from the other. This is a belief that I share. I do, however, also believe that we can find value in deconstructing certain of tai chi's more concrete features – to examine the parts that comprise the whole of tai chi in order to develop a better understanding and command of our tai chi practice.
With all due respect to tai chi's important mental, philosophical, spiritual, and theoretical aspects, its bodily aspects are unarguably its most prominent feature. Unlike meditation, which suggests no discernible body activity, tai chi is a discipline that is defined by movement, as is exemplified by tai chi's characteristic and deliberate slowness.
Tai chi movement, while slow, is anything but random. It is precise and it is exacting. Precise movement requires precise control. Exacting movement requires unerring focus and attention. For many people the acquisition of unerring focus and precise control, while fascinating, challenging, and even fun, can also prove a long and arduous process. All these features, and the fruit they bear, will be more readily acquired when you have a detailed understanding of the most important components involved in tai chi movement. For this reason, it makes sense to examine tai chi's bodily components on their individual merits, as well as in their relationships to each other.
Aside from its noted slowness, tai chi's most important mechanical aspects center at the waist. It is axiomatic in tai chi that the middle, or center of the body, including the waist and the pelvis, makes for a defining feature. Your waist is considered as a steering wheel in tai chi, directing the body (as per your mind's intention) this way or that. Your pelvis facilitates balance during movement and plays an important role in the transfer of power and force between your upper and lower body. Together, the waist and the pelvis make for a powerful combination. Yet, even as these two parts work in unison, they are not one and the same. A helpful distinction as regards their separate roles is that your pelvis "facilitates" force and energy. Your waist then "steers" that force and energy. Note: the waist can also play a role in generating force, but it can only do so if the pelvis first facilitates in its correct manner.
We can benefit by examining the separate aspects and features of the waist and the pelvis more closely. The term "waist" is mechanically imprecise. We all know where our waist is, but the waist has no defining bones or muscles to distinguish it from what is not-waist. While there are powerful muscles located at your waist, the waist itself is simply a generalized notion of what is below the ribs and above the pelvis, i.e. wherever your trousers hang or your belt draws tight. Despite this imprecision, your waist has the clear roll in tai chi of connecting your upper and lower body and orienting your body toward any given direction.
Your pelvis, on the other hand, is anatomically definable as a complement of bony structures that comprise the skeletal frame at and just below your waist. The pelvis is constructed of eight interconnected bones, including the sacrum, the ischium, the ilium, the pubic bone, and others. These bones comprise a structural junction that serves to connect the legs and hips from below to the lower end of your spine and to the whole of your upper body above.
The pelvic complement, i.e. girdle, can articulate frontward and backward along the sagittal (center-line) plane much like a hanging bucket swinging by its handle. The importance of this plane of movement, as well the advantages of mastering it, cannot be overstated. Curling the pelvis under and forward creates an impetus that allows the body to move in a frontal direction with both force and stability. Similarly, tilting the pelvis to the rear allows the body to sink back or retreat, also with balance and stability. The hinging action of the pelvis can amplify force that is moving upwards from the legs and issuing out from the body, as well as serving to neutralize and/or redirect incoming force issuing from an opponent. These are all mechanics that occur naturally (implicitly) to a degree outside of tai chi with every step you take.
While the positioning of the pelvic bones is instrumental in facilitating these advantages, bones do not move of their own volition. Bones only move when muscles cause them to move. The muscles of the lower back must relax to enable the pelvis to sink down and curl slightly under, augmenting its connection to the driving rear leg when the body is moving forward. Conversely, tensing the various lumbar muscles (while relaxing the muscles of the abdomen) tilts the pelvis rearward so that balance and force can be maintained as weight transfers from front to back. It is the delicate balance between the engagement of your abdominal (and other flexor) muscles in front, the lumbar (and other extensor) muscles in back, and also your various stabilizer muscles and muscles of the flank and torso involved in tilting and axial rotation, that determines your movement efficiency at this critical juncture. In tai chi we seek for these engagements to be explicitly deliberate and therefore intelligent, rather than habituated and inadvertent.
Having established these distinct and mutually reinforcing roles between your waist and your pelvis, let's experiment with a few simple movements that will enable you to begin to convert this information from the theoretical realm into something more concrete and practical that you can apply in your own tai chi to good advantage.
Try this simple practice. Stand upright with your hands on the sides of your hips, your fingers pointed down along the length of your legs. Carefully curl your pelvis under, and then tilt it back. You can use your hands to both gauge your degree of movement as well as help maneuver your pelvis to and fro. Repeat until you feel you've got it.
Next, in a slow but more exaggerated manner, "swing" your pelvis forward and back. Alternating between a subtler and a more exaggerated swing will familiarize you with your full range of motion. Take care to practice slowly to maintain full control throughout the movement. Keeping your hands positioned on your hips will help provide you a clearer sensation of your pelvic swing.
A helpful hint to make this movement optimally effective is to just slightly externally rotate (open) your knees (be sure to NOT externally rotate your feet, which should be held as parallel throughout). Turning your knees slightly out will peel open your inguinal crease (aka kua), affording you a fuller, better controlled, and more structurally advantageous swing. This very simple exercise can help you lay the foundation for pelvic mastery.
By correctly articulating your pelvis under and forward or outward and back as you advance or retreat, you can facilitate an optimally efficient transfer of force between your feet and legs and your upper body. Once you feel you have a more refined sense of pelvic articulation in a stationary mode you can try applying this skill to your tai chi moving practice, albeit more subtly in actual practice than in the exercise above. With practice you'll find that effective pelvic articulation is one of the keys to mastering your waist, and to high level tai chi.
This is an original article by John Loupos, M.S., H.S.E.