Geometric Instructions in Tai Chi

It’s quite common for students to ask for geometric instructions, or to imagine that the hand, foot or other body part must be in a given position with respect to some geometric reference. This is a mistake. I’ll illustrate it by retelling a story which I heard secondhand. A student asked a Taijiquan (Tai Chi) master, “should my foot in this posture be at 30 degrees, or 45 degrees, with respect to this line?” The master looked at his own foot, tried it both ways, and answered:

Son, when I learned this, I didn’t even know what a degree was.

Which is a fact – that master started learning Taijiquan (Tai Chi) in early infancy. But he surely knew what a degree was when the question was posed, so why didn’t he answer?
Because that’s the wrong question to ask. There’s no good answer to it, and the given answer was that Master’s way of telling the student.

The picture above shows a number of human femurs. Please study them carefully, and notice how different their neck and head are. Different angles, tornsions, lengths, and thicknesses. Imagine how different the sockets where those heads attach can be. How can there be a fixed geometric reference for the body’s posture?
Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang says, when he starts a class:

Keep your head up, keep your body straight. Top of the head, ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles on the same line.”CHEN XIAOWANG

This could seem like a geometric instruction, but pay attention at how imprecise it is. That’s on purpose. He is simply telling the students not to lean and try to stay vertical – the hips and shoulders are so thick that mentioning them is not precise at all, and he chooses to avoid mentioning the spine.

What, then? How can we find a very precise body posture, if there isn’t any reliable geometric reference? How can there be a precise alignment, if we are all different? Clearly we need a new framework. That is Qi.

Image courtesy of Paul Grilley