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.

Twisting root: Gripping the ground in Tai Chi

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An interesting side point to my previous post on wrapping in the legs and the crotch dantien in Tai Chi is the subject of the feet and gripping the ground.

There’s an old adage that the Tai Chi practitioners of Chen village used to “tear up the sandbanks” of the river bank when they practiced their form there. This indicates how much force was being produced by the legs twisting.

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It’s often said in Tai Chi that your feet want to grip the ground. This is achieved by slightly raising the arch of the foot so the toes perform a clawing action that affords you improved stability, balance and grip.

The question is, how do you do it? It doesn’t sound very relaxed to ‘grip’ the ground with your toes,  and we all know that in Tai Chi we need to be Song (‘relaxed’).

In fact, the arch of the foot and the grip of the toes is achieved through softness, rather than hardness. The answer is found in the wrapping of the legs we mentioned earlier.

If you point your knees outwards slightly you create a kind of gentle wrapping in the legs as you move, and, if you let it, this wrapping will encourage the toes to grip the ground and the foot arch to form. Of course, it should be emphasised that the action of the knee pointing outwards is achieved not by pointing the knee itself, but by rounding the inner thigh area – the Dang, in Chinese. We covered this in that last post.

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The gripping action of the toes gives you better than normal balance, especially in one legged postures. If you’ve ever looked at a Tai Chi practitioner stand on one leg without wobbling and wondered how they do it, then look at their knee and see if it’s being gently pointed outwards. That’s usually the key.

There’s not really any point in seeking the extra stability this leg posture affords if you’re only practicing Tai Chi for health reasons, which is why “rounding the crotch” or gripping with the toes isn’t talked about much in styles that predominantly focus on health matters, but it should form part of martial Tai Chi Chuan. And indeed, if you are making this all happen using too much tension, then you might end up causing more harm than good, so buyer beware.

None of the postural considerations of Tai Chi should be achieved through tensing parts of the body. That’s the key. You need to walk the middle way between trying to make something happen too hard and not trying hard enough. That’s the enigma of Tai Chi.

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