Balance depends on many elements, some of which are discussed here: 1) gravity; 2) leg strength; 3) an awareness of the pressure distribution on the soles of the feet; 4) knee, ankle, arch alignment; 5) center of mass; 6) range of motion throughout the body; 7) vision; 8) awareness of your surroundings and limitations; and 9) a brief mention of the semicircular canals.
The Riddle of the Sphinx
In the Ancient Greek play, Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles (c. 496–c. 406 BCE), Oedipus succeeded in solving the riddle of the Sphinx: "What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" The answer is "Man." Humans started off crawling on all fours, then walk upright, but finally succumb to gravity later in life and must walk with a cane.
The force of gravity is our friend—without it we would float helplessly. But we must constantly contend with it. Many seniors are concerned about falling, and fatality after a fall increases with age. Practicing taiji improves balance and reduces the chance of falling and also of being injured from falling. Of course, the probability of falling can be further reduced when a comprehension of the mechanics of balance are brought into taiji movement and daily life.
Rooting and Balance
Rooting means being connected to the ground like a tree whose roots are deeply embedded in the earth. Two main goals in martial-arts practice are to be rooted and to be skilled in "breaking the root" of an opponent. Losing a connection to the ground can have serious consequences in martial arts as well as daily life.
Rooting and SongSong (relax) is one of the most important conditions for rooting. As soon as tension develops—especially in your upper body—not only is your root undermined, but your center of mass rises, thereby increasing the chance of injury from a fall.
Song is also necessary for achieving expansive strength, which is important for effective power and bodily resilience. Finally, songresults in the center of gravity being much lower, which means increased stability and less injury should a fall occur.
Leg Strength and Mobility
When you begin to lose your balance—even to a small degree—shifting your weight is often a factor in recovering stability. So a combination of mobility and leg strength is important in preventing falling. The stronger your legs and the greater their range of motion, the greater the ability to correct for a loss of balance.
There have been a number of studies reporting that seniors and those with health issues such as Parkinson's disease fall less frequently as a result of studying taiji. This conclusion agrees with the experience of some of my students who are seniors. The question is, what is it about taiji that reduces falls?
Many seniors—and even younger people—are susceptible to falls because they spend a lot of time sitting, which causes their leg muscles to atrophy. The increase in leg strength produced by practicing taiji helps substantially. Taiji stepping involves having the weight on a stationary leg while it is bent much more than is required in daily life. The resulting stretch of the quadriceps and other muscles in the legs not only increases adaptive ability but also results in a substantial increase in leg strength.
Exercises for Strengthening Leg Muscles
Here are a few valuable exercises for strengthening calves and quadriceps.
Heel-Circling. This exercise was taught by Professor Cheng for helping a knee injury heal. It is also very valuable for strengthening the quadriceps muscle. This is not a balance exercise, so lightly hold onto something stable. Then start by standing on one leg (Fig. 1). Bend the rooted leg and lift the knee of the empty leg. Then, without lowering the knee, extend the heel outward and then down in an arc. Repeat a few times, then kick your leg to release the muscles. After resting, do the other side. Over time, as your leg strength allows, increase the number of repetitions on each side to a total of thirty-six times in a row.
Fig. 1. The heel-circling exercise shown by Cheng Man-ch'ing.
Leg-Lifting. Sit in a chair, lift one leg, and extend it horizontally, tightening the quadriceps. Then rest and repeat. Start with only a few repetitions and increase only as your leg strength increases. Make sure you always do both sides.
Body Lifts. Hold onto something stable. Then lift one leg. Rise onto the ball of the rooted foot and lower the heel. Start with only a few repetitions and increase the number of repetitions only as your leg strength increases. Make sure you always do both sides. Eventually, you can increase the intensity of this exercise with the ball of your foot on a stair tread, each time lowering your heel below the level of the tread.
Caution: Overdoing this exercise can lead to plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the fascia of sole of the foot. So take it slowly.
Over the decades that I have been teaching taiji, I start every class with a warm-up and some meditative stretching. I have observed over this time that few people of all ages can even get close to touching their toes. Most utilize upper-back mobility rather than that of their hamstrings.
There are many ways of stretching. The way I have found that provides the best combination of progress, safety, and healthful byproducts is by using expansion and gravity rather than pitting one part of the body against another.1
The active way of lifting involves contracting the hamstrings and back muscles. This way is counterproductive because it tightens and shortens the muscles we are endeavoring to relax and lengthen. The passive (and better) way of lifting is to inhale, causing the lower abdomen to expand against the fronts of the thighs, thereby lifting the body without contracting the back muscles and hamstrings. The exhalation then further releases those muscles and lowers you more than the inhalation raised you.
Repeat this way of raising and lowering three times.
Fig. 2. The body hanging from the hip joints with legs slightly bent.
Note: It is important to rise from hanging without contracting your hamstrings or back muscles for the following reasons: (1) Tensing the very muscles you have just worked on relaxing deprives you of experiencing them in their relaxed state when you come up. (2) Muscles can become traumatized when coaxed into an unaccustomed length and then suddenly forced to contract under load. They need time to recover their tone. (3) Rising by using your back muscles puts a large, potentially injurious stress on your spine as would lifting a heavy, external object that way.
Instead, come up by simultaneously bending your knees, dropping your tailbone, and bringing the trunk of your body to almost vertical while flexing your spine as little as possible. Then rise vertically by straightening your legs. You should lift your body in the same way as you would lift a heavy object— with your legs, not your back.
An additional non-passive but valuable action to do while hanging is to lift one hip joint and lower the other one. Then alternately change each side's role. The lifting action occurs by extending the muscles on the back of a leg rather than contracting the muscles in front. That way, the hamstrings and back muscles lengthen on their own terms instead of by being forced to do so by the opposing muscles.
1. For a video of the author's general stretching routine, visit https://www.chuckrowtaichi.com/StretchingRoutine.html.
The above is an excerpt from Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing by Robert Chuckrow, Ph.D., Publication date March 1, 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-741-7.