One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Tai Chi Chuan, is to ‘keep the head suspended, as if from above’. In the Tai Chi Classics it also states “Stand like a perfectly balanced scale and move like a turning wheel”, whilst also saying, “Don’t lean in any direction; suddenly appear, suddenly disappear.”
These quotes have produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi universe. If you look at ChengFu’s student Cheng ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you can see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle of suspending the head and standing like a perfectly balanced scale. In a forward posture, Cheng ManChing kept his head, neck and back vertical in relation to the ground at all times. He allowed no forward incline at all. To stay vertical he softened his back knee a bit, which removed the straight line from the heel to the head, producing a much softer posture than his teacher, Yang Cheng-Fu, exhibited.
Whereas, if you look at pictures of Yang Cheng-Fu in a similar forward posture you can clearly see that he holds his head in the same vertical alignment, but holds his back with a slight forward incline. He keeps his back leg straighter, forming a straight line from his back heel to his head, meaning that his posture is slightly harder than Cheng ManChings, and he exerts more of a forward pressure.
Both of these approaches can be seen as interpreting the advice to not “lean in any direction” differently. The situation becomes even more confusing when you look at the Wu style of Tai Chi Chuan, derived from the version of the form practiced by ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan. Wu holds an even more inclined position, which keeps the head vertical, but often seems to break the line at the hip, so that the back heel is no longer in a straight line all the way to the head. Being of Manchu heritage, Wu Jianquan had a shuai-jiao background. He was taught martial arts by his father who was a student of Yang LuChan and also a cavalry officer and imperial palace guard, as he was, so a change in his preference for grappling techniques could very well account for the changes in his version of the form.
I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms, regardless of its orientation in the vertical plane. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of our spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. The next time you’re sitting at a laptop observe what happens when you start to type. Notice that your head wants to move towards your focus of attention, the object you are interacting with.
Recently I was watching an excellent performance by a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut, filmed in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.
Search for the video “Old Kung Fu Footage in Hong Kong in the 1960’s” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the good posture he keeps throughout – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extended and space and awareness to be present.
This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Tai Chi Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. What is required is the freedom to move our arms, but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.
But how do we train this? Here’s something simple you can try. Get a 4-pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swing it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the neck and back muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they should feel active.
You can do the same thing with a heavy sword, of course, if you want to look more like a traditional martial artist, and less like a deranged milk man. And once you get a feeling for it you can try it without a heavy object, in which case it becomes more like a silk reeling exercise, or you can try and keep the same feeling when you do the Tai Chi form. In which case it doesn’t look like anything.
Obviously, when you are standing still, or sitting, in meditation you can achieve the same relationship of the torso, neck, head and arms but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. Initially at least. If you try standing in a Zhan Zhuang posture with your arms extended for a few minutes you’ll start to feel your neck and shoulder muscles tighten. This is where you need to work on relaxing them, yet maintaining your posture. You need to let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and flow down into the ground through the centre of the foot, or through the sitting bones if you are seated.
A human head is quite heavy, at around 5KG, which is a lot more than a typical bowling ball weighs. If the head moves forward of the hips too far then we have to start using a lot of muscle to hold it up. In a way, the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing an activity is a warning sign that we’re not using our body to the best of our ability. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then the weight of the head is transfered down to the ground through our frame instead. Our breathing will be better, and we won’t lose that sense of lightness and ease that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.
Finally, his idea of keeping an open relationship between the head, neck, back and arms raises a few good questions when applied to martial arts. What springs first to my mind is, should you have your head in that position to fight? I’d say probably not – you want to tuck your chin in a bit more when you fight, for obvious reasons, but the real question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck your chin. Dropping the head towards the opponent has all the same disadvantages we’ve outlined above when applied to martial arts, and will inhibit the free movement of your arms, so critical to fluid punching, not to mention making you more hittable.
So, keep your head up, as people say to you when you’re looking down. Walk lightly, smile brightly!