-Standing Like a Tree-
The Importance of Posture
In our practice of Taiji, building a foundation is paramount in establishing a firm basic practice to build off of. Aside from correct movement, we begin with a major focus on posture and alignment – what in Chinese is called the 架子 (jia zi) or frame. Students learn correct posture in two major ways: the active, moving practice of the Taiji form and the still practice of standing or 站桩 (zhan zhuang).
There are four two-part focal points in Taiji posture:
The neck is soft and the crown is lifted.
The chest is empty and the upper back is round (shoulder blades).
The shoulders are sunken and the elbows are dropping.
The tailbone is tucked and the hips are relaxed.
When a practitioner begins learning a Taiji practice it is important for him/her to begin integrating these focal points into their posture in order to do the practice correctly and receive the manifold benefits of the training. By adjusting the posture using these four focal points one can begin to release tension in some of the major places that it builds in the body - specifically the neck, shoulders, back, waist, and hips. Tension generally builds in these places from poor postural habits that can eventually become chronic problems within the body that worsen with age. When the muscles in these areas begin to relax, they allow for greater range of motion, flexibility, and encourage a more fluid flow of circulation to the rest of the body. Similar to a water hose – when a hose is compressed, the water will not flow and will eventually stagnate. When a hose is unrestricted, the flow of water through it is smooth and unimpeded. Promoting greater circulation to the body also allows for greater distribution of energy to the organs and ensures that problems caused by stagnation will not occur.
We can liken the standing Taiji posture to a tall, strong, healthy tree. Our feet are the roots of the tree. They maintain our connection with the earth and are strongly rooted as we sink our bodies into them. The feet sustain our hold and help to determine our balance, grounding, and connection with the earth beneath us. The legs are similar to the trunk of the tree as it rises from the ground. It is necessary that the legs be stable to support the rest of the body. The legs bear the weight of the body and also issue power out through the body. Regardless of the height practiced, at engaging in standing meditation as well as Taijiquan will help to strengthen the legs as well as the loadbearing joints of the lower body – strengthening the trunk so that no external forces can move it.
The waist and torso connect to the legs and also out through the arms. The waist and torso can be considered the upper part of the tree’s trunk - it still maintains the stability and poise of the tree. The arms, hands and fingers are like the limbs of the tree. The limbs of a healthy tree are always flexible and supple. When at rest and there is no wind blowing them, they still maintain their form and structure. They are extended, but not stiff - much the same way that in standing meditation the arms are extended and held up, but never tensed. They maintain the 棚劲 (peng jin) and elasticity. The tree’s limbs react in much the same way that the arms in Taiji do, they are soft and flexible, but strong. The life of a tree can often be seen in the leaves, they are generally the greenest and most vibrant part of the tree. In a Taiji practice, the fingers and the hands should also be alive and nimble. The top of a tree is always reaching higher toward the sun, the same way that in a Taiji standing practice, one’s 百回 (bai hui – crown) should always be erect and creating length in the spine (as the crown pulls up and the tailbone tucks).
A healthy tree is green and vibrant. It is strong but supple – meaning that it will not break with pressure – but bends back and returns to its original shape. When a tree begins to die it becomes stiff and brittle - its limbs become weak and easy to break. The tree can no longer bend and sway with the breeze. When a tree is no longer receiving the life force that it needs in order to prosper, it will begin to deteriorate and sometimes collapse under its own weight. The same is true of our bodies. When we are young and vibrant, our bodies are strong and supple. But if we neglect our health as we age, we become stiff and brittle.
When a tree is green and vibrant, it is extremely flexible. When humans are young they are the same as trees in that regard in both body and mind. In Chinese the word 青 (qing) means both green and young. As we age, if we do not engage in practices to maintain flexibility and promote health and vitality, our bodies begin to show signs of deterioration: we lose natural flexibility, become much more susceptible to injury to muscles, joints, and tendons, and have to pay greater attention to our overall health. But when we engage in Taiji practice, we can not only work to avoid these injuries and calamities, but also to begin to bolster, strengthen, and better our health – reversing some of the damage that may have been caused by neglect, bad postural habit, etc.
Engaging in health cultivation practices that put an emphasis on improving flexibility and suppleness works to improve the condition of the body. It improves the flexibility and the body’s ability to relax different muscles which also helps to improve the circulation of blood and energy to the body. Maintaining strong reserves of vital energy and nutrients in the body while at the same time allowing for them to circulate ensures that the body, like a healthy tree, will remain stable, flexible, and strong.