Lightness is an equally important quality in Taijiquan. The Yang to the Yin of sinking.
Yin and Yang
One of the contradictions of Tai Chi is that you are required to sink and be light at the same time. It’s not meant to be some sort of Zen Koan, like “imagine the sound of one hand clapping”. Instead, it’s meant to be the way you carry yourself in the form, in push hands and in sparring. These two qualities are a pair that work together, mutually supporting each other.
If you look at the classics of Tai Chi there are frequent references to being light, nimble and agile.
The Tai Chi Classic:
“In motion the whole body should be light and agile,
with all parts of the body linked
as if threaded together.”
The Treatise on Tai Chi:
“A feather cannot be placed,
and a fly cannot alight
on any part of the body.”
From The Exposition of Insights:
“When the ching shen is raised,
there is no fault of stagnancy and heaviness.
This is called suspending the headtop.”
“Walk like a cat.”
From Song of the 13 postures:
“To make the whole body light and agile suspend the headtop.”
There are various clues here as to how lightness is performed in Tai Chi Chuan. The first thing to note is that there’s a lot of reference to ‘suspending the headtop’. Here the classics are referring to keeping your head upright and not leaning, and the feeling of being suspended from the crown point at all times.
The crown point is where the fingertips of your index fingers meet if you put your thumbs on top of your ears and try and touch your index fingers together over the top of your head.
Your body should be organised as if it is suspended from this point. It’s the point that medical skeletons are suspended from, which indicates how it aligns the spine nicely. E.g.
The crown point is actually a lot further back on the head than most people think it is. When you try and suspend the head from a point further forward on the skull (as most people instinctively do) then you end up lifting the face, shortening the neck and making the chin jut forward. This is wrong and will make your movement worse.
Done correctly, ‘suspended the head’ should result in the chin being tucking in slightly, and the neck lengthening. But again, don’t use force to achieve this. Find your balance in nature. If you hit on the correct point to suspend from, then everything will just slot into place and feel good.
The correct alignment of the head will free up the spine to move, and hey, guess what – your movements can be lighter and more agile.
Combined with the previous advice on sinking, the upward pull on the spine that correct head position will create acts as a counterpoint to the relaxing downwards and your connection to the earth. The feeling is that you’re being lifted slightly and pulled down slightly simultaneously as you perform the form.
Another thing to note is your stepping. There are various exercises in Chinese martial arts for making your stepping light and agile – some people practice on wooden poles raised above the ground, others stepping between terracotta plant pots. All these exercises are designed to make your stepping light.
My own teacher recommended the use of ankle weights. You alternated between periods of wearing the ankle weights during the form only, and taking them off to do the form, so you wore them at all other times of the day.
This required a big commitment, and I used to get some funny looks at work(!) but the resultant lightness of stepping made a difference to my movement and my form.
Lightness in daily life
It should also be noted that lightness refers also to your attitude to practice. Tai Chi shouldn’t feel like drudgery. When you go outside to practice put a spring in your step. You’re spending time in nature doing something you enjoy. There’s no need to drag your feet.
Look at animals in nature for inspiration.
Walk lightly, smile brightly.