Master Yang Yuting, in his later years, described the essence of Tai Chi, saying, “Tai Chi is the change of Yin and Yang under the feet.” This is truly insightful. To deeply understand the essence of Tai Chi, the actual movements of the form are not as important as the concept. This reminds me of what Wang Zongyue said, “Its root is in the foot, and it manifests in the fingers.”
Its Root in the Foot
The boxing theory states: “Its root is in the foot, and it travels from the foot to the leg to the waist, all must be connected as one.” and “Upper and lower body must follow each other, making it hard for others to penetrate.” The wisdom of the ancient Tai Chi masters has saved many later generations from taking the wrong path in their studies. Enlightened by these predecessors, I had an epiphany and deeply realized that the essence of Tai Chi is in the foot; the foot is the root.
The foundation of Tai Chi is in the foot. Training the Tai Chi foot is the basic guarantee for improving the quality of Tai Chi. In the Tai Chi community, many have practiced for ten, twenty years, or even longer, spending a lot of time on the form, but their skills remain mediocre. The root cause is that they have not worked on their footwork or have not realized the importance of the foot in the overall skill of Tai Chi. In their training, they often neglect the training of the foot. Teachers also neglect footwork training for their students. Over time, even though they become proficient in the form, the essence of Tai Chi is not internalized. The direction and posture are off, the waist and limbs are stiff, and it’s merely a Tai Chi routine. The difference between a routine and true Tai Chi is that in the former, each limb acts independently, while in the latter, the hands and feet work in harmony, Yin and Yang change, and upper and lower body move in sync, embodying the profound depth of Tai Chi.
Is this startling or just an attempt to mystify? Not at all. The principles and methods of Tai Chi are scientific. If one can’t master a form after repeated practice, shouldn’t one look for the root cause in the basics, starting with the foot? Wang Zongyue astutely said, “A slight deviation at the start leads to a significant error in the outcome.” This refers to the foot; a tiny error in the foot can lead to a big mistake. This shows the importance of footwork in Tai Chi, where even the slightest deviation is not permissible.
Training the Foot
Regarding the theory of training the Tai Chi foot, the ancient Yang family manual states: “Heaven and earth are the great Tai Chi, and the human body is the small Tai Chi.” Based on this, if you practice Tai Chi, then your body becomes the vessel of Tai Chi. Your hands become Tai Chi hands, and naturally, your feet become Tai Chi feet. If your perspective and thinking do not align with the rules and standards of Tai Chi, it will be hard to master. Based on the philosophy of the Yang family manual, discussing Tai Chi is logical.
How to train the Tai Chi foot? When discussing this topic, one cannot ignore Master Yang Yuting, who was at the forefront of Tai Chi teaching. In his over 80-year teaching career, he was an extraordinary Tai Chi reformer. I began studying under him after the Cultural Revolution when he was in the prime of his life. Master Yang discussed Tai Chi starting from its foundation—the foot, guiding students into the serene world of Tai Chi, ensuring they begin their practice from the ground up, saving them a lot of trouble. This reminds me of the famous saying by Laozi: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Under Master Yang’s tutelage, until his passing at nearly 100 years old, I often practiced the “starting form” consisting of the first two movements, representing Yin and Yang. Master Yang divided the form into several movements, based on the Tai Chi principle of Yin and Yang changes. Single movements represent Yin, and dual movements represent Yang. This teaching method is grounded, making it easier for students to learn, ensuring they understand Yin and Yang from the beginning, saving them from many detours.
Yin and Yang Changes
Some people practice Tai Chi with a wide stance, with both legs exerting equal force. For instance, some might have their left leg in a bow stance, with the toes pointing east, and the right leg straight, with the toes pointing south. This foot position lacks clarity in direction and lacks the principle of Yin and Yang changes.
To practice the clear and distinct 83-form Tai Chi of Yang Yuting, there are prerequisites. Firstly, the footwork should establish a solid foundation, with one foot bearing the weight, aligning the coccyx and head in a straight line. One leg bears the weight and is solid, while the other is empty. Please note that Tai Chi is a fluid art of Yin and Yang changes, like moving clouds and flowing water. If there is no Yin and Yang change, even slow movements lack the “flavor” of Tai Chi, and the flow is merely talk.
Currently, many people practice traditional Tai Chi. Due to the weight being on both feet, during the change of weight between the left and right legs, many switch weight similar to walking. This walking style of switching weight, which even preschool children can do, how can it be considered Tai Chi skill? When we often say Tai Chi is “profound,” where does its breadth, depth, precision, and profundity lie? Master Wu Tunan said that practicing Tai Chi requires “a complete transformation, with unwavering determination.” Master Yang Yuting said, “You must challenge yourself.” How do you challenge yourself? By focusing on the change of weight in your feet, for example.
The “dual lightness” in footwork is the core skill of Tai Chi footwork and is also the most brilliant art of Tai Chi footwork.
“Dual lightness” is also called “natural emptiness.” The theoretical basis is from the ancient Yang family manual: “Double weight is a mistake, but double heaviness is not; naturally light. Double floating is a mistake, but double lightness is not; it’s naturally agile and different from floating.” Double lightness is different from floating, so it’s agile; double heaviness is different from weight, so it’s away from emptiness. This explanation mentions the Tai Chi footwork, emphasizing lightness, agility, emptiness, and direction. The final emphasis is that the practitioners should feel the natural lightness and agility in their limbs. If they don’t study the principles of lightness and heaviness, floating and sinking, it’s like digging a well and not reaching the water source, wasting a lifetime of practice.
If one practices Tai Chi only for physical exercise, in-depth study of the principles is not necessary. However, if one wishes to delve deep into the art of Tai Chi, one cannot ignore the essence of lightness. Master Wu Yuxiang also emphasized that when practicing Tai Chi, one must feel “light and agile” in every movement. One can assert that with lightness, one has everything; lightness is the key to unlocking Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not just physical movement. If one doesn’t focus on footwork, and doesn’t align with the principles of Tai Chi, all the practice is in vain. Those wishing to work on their footwork must correct any habits that go against the principles of Tai Chi. Issues like double weighting, kneeling, using brute strength, and gripping the ground with the toes all hinder the practice of Tai Chi footwork.
Master Yang Yuting required students to place both feet flat and relaxed on the ground. Master Wu Tunan required that every toe joint be relaxed. Following these principles, with each practice, both feet should land relaxedly, and the toe joints should relax. Over time, the toe joints should fully relax. This is the primary condition for Tai Chi footwork. Gradually, relax the front of the foot, the back of the foot, the entire sole, and the top of the foot. Then, progress to the practice of dual lightness. Before practicing dual lightness, one must understand the lightness and agility of Tai Chi, and the principle of using intention instead of force. With regular practice and continuous insights, the principle of using intention and not force will reflect in the movements. At this time, one will have a unique feeling; the “flavor” of Tai Chi will emerge.
The emergence of dual lightness in footwork naturally occurs when one’s movements are light and agile, and one uses intention instead of force. Dual lightness is elusive but not impossible to achieve. Please first go to a five-star hotel and walk or stand on the thick carpet. You will feel a sense of lightness and emptiness under your feet. Retain this feeling when practicing Tai Chi, ensuring your feet land flat and relaxed, not pressing down, and practice with a feeling of lightness and emptiness. As you retain this feeling under your feet for longer durations, you will experience dual lightness and maintain it. Another essential skill is that during each movement in Tai Chi, regardless of Yin or Yang, first relax the foot, using intention to lead the relaxation, allowing this relaxed and light feeling to flow from the foot up to the top of the head. Over time, as Tai Chi becomes internalized, you will have two “dual lightness” Tai Chi feet.