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Tai Chi
Essential #5 - Drop the Shoulders

4 Feb 2015

Wuji Stance
Some years ago I visited, or tried to visit, a taekwondo school in the neighborhood to which I had recently moved. The school's owner/teacher, who advertised himself as a 7th degree black belt in taekwondo and a 5th degree black belt in judo and also in tai chi (!), looked me up and down and refused me entrance. I'm not a large guy. I'm not a threatening or imposing person unless I purposely wear my war face, which is rare, so when I discussed this with a senior kung fu brother later, we speculated about why I looked intimidating to a teacher putatively my senior; at the time I was not yet teaching. My sigung thought the school owner looked at my shoulders and saw that I could handle myself. With this roundabout story we come to Yang Cheng-fu's 5th Essential :

Sink the Shoulders and Drop the Elbows

This requirement of tai chi is one of the earliest to be identified and corrected in class. Learning to relax the shoulders is a great example of something that cannot be learned by watching videos. While some of the first four essentials I have discussed so far may be more essential than this one, the need to sink the shoulders and elbows is better understood. All beginning students come to class with stiff shoulders; indeed, their entire upper bodies are tense. If a newbie walks into your class claiming to be a beginner but has soft shoulders, keep an eye on him: he's a ringer of some sort, come to check out your school. That's why I was not allowed into that taekwondo school.

Drop the elbows along with the shoulders because if your elbows are up, so are you shoulders. You can raise your shoulders and drop your elbows, but if you raise your elbows you will find it quite difficult to drop the shoulders.

To get specific, why sink the shoulders? The shoulders are, in a sense, gatekeepers to control of your upper body. To issue power through your arms, the energy must go up your back and through your shoulders, issuing from the feet through the waist. If the shoulders are tense the energy is blocked from flowing through. Without that energy your striking power will not be noteworthy. If your only goal is health, it will not be enhanced by a stiff upper body.

That's the energetic reason. The physical reasons are even more obvious. If the shoulder joints are tense, the arms cannot move with the rotational flexibility you need to neutralize and attack. Your punches and strikes will be feeble. Worst of all, when your shoulders are up your center is high, which means you are easy to unbalance or knock down. As they might say in a familiar commercial, don't be knocked down. Instead keep your shoulders down.

How can you train for soft shoulders and dropped elbows? I advise zhan zuang, standing post meditation, in wuji stance. In this posture your arms remain by your side, which makes it easy to relax the shoulders. In many standing meditative poses the arms are held at rib height in a circle in fromt of the body, which is not helpful for relaxing the shoulders, so use the wuji stance. Even if you are accomplished and like more challenging stances, for pure relaxation opt for simplicity. For now, stand and breathe naturally at first. As you stand, increase the length of your breaths. Make the exhale thorough. Relax your neck, shoulders, and down your entire body as you exhale and sink your weight and roots into the ground, through the bubble spring in the middle of your feet.

Make your stance a moderate one, with feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Stand straight up but do not lock the knees. Relax the hips, knees and ankles along with the shoulders and elbows. The middle point in your palm, the laogong, should face the middle line down the side of your leg. The fingers should be open and alive but not tense, forming small bowls with your palms. Keep tennis ball-size pockets of space under the arm pits. This prevents the arms from collapsing against the sides of your body and becoming dead.

Standing meditation is always good. While many people favor sitting positions, as in zen meditation, standing is more natural and more conducive to full body relaxation. It is also optimal for practicing the grand circulation (macrocosmic orbit).

With this essential we finish those that have the most obvious physical components. The coming essentials, while sounding mostly mental, in every case carry key truths for physical realization of tai chi chuan.

You may also like this related article: Essential #4 - Full and Empty (201)
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