Tai Chi Feet, Kung Fu Toes

I came up with the title of this blog post by bastardising the old Chinese martial arts saying, “Southern Hands, Northern Legs”, but I don’t really have Kung Fu Toes (the mind boggles!) but what I really want to talk about today is your feet.

In Tai Chi we talk a lot about the waist and the joints, the spine and the kua, but we rarely give the feet a mention. Every part of your body is important, but your feet are especially so. You can think of your feet as the gateway to movement. If they are injured in some way, or have foot pain, you are immediately impaired in pretty much everything you do.

Lots of Tai Chi styles pay special attention to which parts of the sole are in contact with the floor. One style of Tai Chi I did instead that the foot had to be in contact with the ground in nine, (yes, nine!) places at all times for you to be ‘on balance’. It was perhaps an excessive number of point to realistically pay attention to. Other styles of Tai Chi talk about a more manageable 3 points of contact with the ground through the foot, and other styles don’t really place that much importance on what points of the foot are in contact with the floor, just that some of it is.

In general in Tai Chi I think it’s pretty safe to say that you don’t want to be rolling the weight of your body onto the edges of your feet. Why? Because it misaligns the ankle and therefore puts you at risk from injury not to mention ruins your body structure and posture, which is so important to Tai Chi. 

Remember that style I said that talked about 9 points? Let’s go back to that because it was a pretty thorough guide to keeping your foot aligned. Here are the 9 points:

The 9 points are the 5 toes, the outside edge, the two ‘pads’ and the heel.

However, before you start to shift you weight around on your feet to get all nine points touching, let’s just remember the position of the foot is maintained by the muscles of the hips. That’s a key point. If you are having trouble keeping these 9 points (or 3 in a simplified model) on the ground when you stand, or do Tai Chi, the problem could be that your lateral hip, hamstring, gluteal, and adductor (or inner thigh) muscle strength is weak. You may need to take these areas through fuller ranges of motion than a Tai Chi form allows to enable them to losen up. Tight hips are definitely going to be limiting to your foot function. You might want to look into some form of stretchy Qi Gong or Yoga to open up your hips if you want to get your feet to be flatter.

It’s also worth considering what you’re wearing on your feet when doing Tai Chi. Have you ever done Tai Chi barefoot? Do you wear chunky trainers, or (heaven forbid!) shoes with a heel, to do Tai Chi in? 

It’s quite possible that the muscles in your feet have atrophied from years of under use. In our shoe-wearing, chair-bound society we aren’t given the chance to give or feet the workout they require from daily use. 

Wearing minimal shoes while doing Tai Chi is probably the best option. But remember, we wear shoes these days to protect us from our overly-rigid environment. Training on stone flagstones or hard flooring will come as a shock to your feet, especially if they have been used to being continually protected from these environments, so you may need to take things slowly if you’re doing barefoot Tai Chi for the first time. Don’t push your atrophied foot muscles too far too soon!

Here’s an exercise you can do to help you feel where your weight is on your feet:

Exercise 1:

Stand as you would at the beginning of the Tai Chi form. Toes pointing forward, knees off lock and weight distributed evenly between your feet. 

Now ‘think forward’ and feel what happens to the weight in your feet. Think to the right, feel again, think to the left, and behind and repeat. You may notice a subtle shift in your body weight towards the direction you are thinking. This shows you how important your mental focus is when doing a Tai Chi form.

Exercise 2:

Now let your weight move around in an anti-clockwise circle. Forward first then around to the left. After a few circles you can change direction. You should notice that as your weight shifts the distribution of it over the 9 points (and therefore down to the floor through your feet) changes. As you move more to the left the right hand edge of your foot loses some contact with the ground. 

Now try and centre yourself over your feet so that all 9 points are equally weight baring. That’s your point of balance.

Now do your Tai Chi form and just pay attention to these 9 points of the feet. When do they feel light and when do they feel heavy? Is the weight equally distributed? This might give you something to think about as you do the form.

If you need some additional listening/reading about your feet I’d recommend this podcast/article by Katy Bowman on wearing minimal shoes to go hiking in and how to strengthen you foot muscles.

3 thoughts on “Tai Chi Feet, Kung Fu Toes

  1. Another good, informative post.

    I spent decades doing postural bodywork, developing my own postural exercise system, and studying sports biomechanics. Ida Rolf taught, “What is not supported from below, hangs from above.” The feet are the foundation of all good posture. Good dynamic posture is a primary key to top performance, injury prevention, and relief from many kinds of pain.

    The foot is made up of three arches. The medial arch basically everyone knows as THE arch of the foot. Equally important for healthy foot function, however, are the lateral arch and the transverse arch. These three form a tripod within each foot. Ignore the toes for now.

    Exercise 1: Find your tripods
    Standing with the weight mostly on one foot, simply lift its toes off the ground as high as they will go without lifting your foot. This engages the “Windlass mechanism” in the foot, essentially bringing everything into alignment and locking the bones into place. You should be able to sense three points of greater pressure: the “ball” of the foot behind the great toe, the heel, and a little ball behind the little toe. These are illustrated in Graham’s article. These three points should be in balance with approximately equal pressure when in neutral standing. Relax the toes and retain the balance of the tripod.

    Low or flexible medial arch
    If you tend to put too much pressure on your medial arch, finding the lateral point behind the little toe may be a new experience. You may also feel the fourth point, or actually zone, illustrated in Graham’s graphic on the on the body of the foot, as the tissue under the lateral arch compresses a bit. This action will also set the attachment for the Achilles tendon in its efficient, upright position and often takes medial rotation out of the legs and hips.

    High or stiff medial arch
    If you have a high medial arch or a high instep, you are likely to wonder what all fuss is about. Congratulations on having a generally well aligned foot. Some people with high arches have problems with their feet becoming too stiff and not absorbing shock from the ground correctly. This often manifests as pain in other parts of the body, hips, low back, etc. Exercise and therapy that loosen the connective tissues may be appropriate.

    Rarely, the foot is rotated too far onto the lateral arch. The Great Ball of the foot barely touches the ground. Allow the muscles to relax and the weight to shift so the pressure on each point of the tripod is equal.

    Exercise 2: Flamingo
    As martial artists, we would call this exercise a variation on the Crane or Rooster Stance. You should wear shoes with good arch support and little wear in the early stages of this exercise. Later, wear shoes with less support, and, eventually, you may choose to go barefoot.

    Stand on two feet. Find the tripod in each foot. Shift your weight onto one foot. Lift the other knee to raise its foot, so the toe is a few inches off the ground, close to but not touching the weighted ankle. Avoid touching the raised foot to the weighted leg. Hold 30 sec on each foot, at first. Work up to 90 sec on each foot. Repeat every other day, at first, and daily when it is easy.

    You will notice little muscular twitches as you do this exercise. They are the exercise. They will strengthen weak muscles and loosen overly tight muscles. During this exercise, the head needs to be suspended and the breath full and natural abdominal breathing.

    Avoid holding on to anything, but if you must, wean yourself off gradually. If you lose your balance, put your elevated foot down. I usually back up my count a few seconds, lift the knee and continue.

    A Rooster stance is not a substitute for this stance. It raises the center of gravity, and lowers the sway rate, so your supporting muscles do not need to work as hard. Do both stances; they exercise different things.

    Walking
    The tripods in our feet need to be balanced when we are standing. When walking, ideally, we land on the heel, raise the toes slightly engaging the Windlass, roll onto the other two points of the tripod, so all three tripod points and the toes rest on the ground in the brief moment that is called the Suspension Phase. In a photograph, it would look like the Flamingo Exercise. Then, we push off with the forefoot (both forward points of the tripod) and toes.

    Many of us learn to push off with only the Great ball of the foot and toe. This is often due to shoes that do not allow us to engage the Windlass mechanism or sense how our foot is contacting the ground. This often leads to the great toe collapsing laterally and depositing bunions to support the joint.

    Exercise 3: Second toe forward
    The center of the propulsion part of our foot is the second toe. From time to time, notice how you are walking. If needed, change your gait to walk with the second toe leading and propelling the foot. If you do not already walk this way, it will feel awkward. With concentrated attention, this can become a habit and feel natural.

    Other things
    My clinical experiences led me to suggest often to my clients to walk on unpaved, and preferably undulating ground. Walk twice a week to maintain and three times weekly to correct posture. The latter is like hitting the reset button on the body’s posture.

    Aligning the feet may take away a compensation and highlight other problems in your posture. This may result in temporarily knotted, imbalanced muscles, muscle spasms, even nerve or joint pain. Do what you need to do for relief of discomfort or pain. But also, the let body find its way, process the changes, and find a new equilibrium. This could take as little as a day or two but up to a week or two or more, so be patient. Making postural changes through exercise usually brings on these changes gradually, so the body has time to adapt, but forewarned is forearmed.

    In Taijiquan, before I start the form, I lift my toes and find my two tripods, return my toes to the floor, then usually, I don’t focus on my feet again until the end. I have noticed as movements are performed that the amount of weight and force on each point of the tripod will change depending on the demands of the movement. However, no point should leave the ground, except when only the heel or toe are touching. If I am focusing on a movement or series, I often check to see that both tripods are functioning correctly as part of that training.

    Some martial art teachers, have their student grip the ground with their toes. This is fine. Find your tripod and use the pressure of the toes to enhance the connection of the points of the tripod. Many “rules” in Chinese martial arts are designed to improve a student’s posture and performance. Unfortunately, some students take the instructions beyond the mark and degrade their posture in the “opposite” direction. So, let postural alignment be your guide rather than extremes.

    That’s a quick synopsis of Feet 101. I have skipped a lot and tried not to use too much jargon. I hope it is helpful to someone.
    © Richard Johnson, 2022. Posted on The Tai Chi Notebook with permission.

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  2. Pingback: Tai Chi Feet, Kung Fu Toes | Fresno Reiki, Tai Chi & Qigong

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