Up or Down?

Here’s a joke—a groaner, actually, especially if you’ve done much taiji and know precisely whereof the joke speaks:

How many taiji players does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: 100. One to change the bulb and the other 99 to say: “That’s not the way we do it at my taiji school.”

Peter Wayne tells this joke in “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi” by way of explaining that there’s enormous variation within the practice of taiji. Even the simplest movement can be done many different “right” ways.


I was reminded of his joke this week as I re-read his book and a book on qigong in preparation for classes I’m teaching this fall.

Let’s take the movement that opens and closes the Yang 108 form, which I know as “Raise and Lower Arms.” The movement is part of Wayne’s taiji fundamentals program, where it’s called “Raising the Power”; it’s also the first of the 18 movements comprising the Shibashi Taiji Qigong system, which is described in Chris Jarmey’s book, “Taiji Qigong,” where it’s called “Beginning Movement.”

The arm part of the movement is straight-forward and consistent enough: You let you arms float up to shoulder height in front of your body,  palms facing down, with wrists leading and fingers drooping. Then, as the arms begin to float back down, the heels of the hands sink and lead the fingers.

The legs, however, are another matter.

I have always done the movement both in taiji and in Shibashi Taiji Qigong by rising from bent knees as my arms rose and then bending my knees and sinking as my arms came down.

But in the Harvard “Guide,” Wayne says you should bend your knees and sink as your arms float up and then you should straighten your knees and rise as your arms come down—in other words, the reverse of what I’ve always done.

In “Taiji Qigong,” Jarmey begins his discussion of what the legs should be doing with the word “IMPORTANT!” in capital letters, saying the same thing Wayne says—that the knees should be bending when the arms are rising. A few paragraphs later, however, he notes that the exercise is often taught the other way, i.e., the way I do it—and that this opposite way is valid, too.

Sigh again.

It’s things like this that make people like me crazy.

But I love Jarmey’s book because he gives reasons. He says it’s important to bend your knees as your  arms rise for this very first movement in the 18-movement set because it establishes a sense of grounding. When you raise your arms without raising your center of gravity, Jarmey says, the qi within the body sinks downwards toward your feet, into the ground. He suggests exaggerating this effect by raising your hands quickly. You’ll likely feel a sudden heaviness in your buttocks and feet as your hands shoot up.

Jarmey’s explanation continues for a couple more paragraphs—but still, the key concept is grounding.

So, dear reader, why don’t you try doing the move both ways:

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with knees unlocked.

First, bend your knees slightly in preparation and then straighten them as you let your arms float upwards; gradually bend them again and sink as your arms float down.

Now do the reverse. Start out with knees merely unlocked and bend them and sink as your arms rise; then straighten them (but don’t lock them!) as your arms come down.

See if you can feel the difference….

I myself have decided to change what I’ve been doing for years to what Wayne and Jarmey recommend, which just feels a lot more solid.

NOTE 1: For reviews of Peter Wayne’s “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi” or to purchase it through my website, click here.

NOTE 2: For reviews of Chris Jarmey’s “Taiji Qigong” or to purchase it through my website, click here.

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