In the words of Grandmaster Yang Chengfu in “Ten Essentials of Taijiquan”: “Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows. To sink the shoulders means to relax and allow them to hang down. If they cannot be relaxed and allowed to hang down, then the two shoulders will lift up, and the qi will also rise, causing the entire body to lose strength. To drop the elbows means to let the elbows hang down loosely. If the elbows are raised, the shoulders cannot sink, and the opponent can easily break your structure, similar to the external martial arts’ concept of breaking power.”
Regarding “sinking the shoulders,” it starts by relaxing the shoulders and letting them hang naturally. Begin by loosening the shoulders from the center of the spine at the area called “jiaji” (between the two shoulder blades), allowing the shoulder joints to relax outward and hang down. Simultaneously, slightly bring them together and forward (slightly inward).
“Dropping the elbows” means to let the elbows hang down loosely. If the elbows are raised, the shoulders cannot sink. It is my belief that dropping the elbows starts with sinking the shoulders. Sinking and relaxing the shoulders are interconnected. Being able to relax leads to sinking, and sinking leads to dropping, which ultimately leads to strength. The sequence of relaxation, sinking, and dropping facilitates the flow of power.
Dropping the elbows involves maintaining a downward inclination of the elbow tips. Apart from certain movements where the elbows need to be slightly higher than or level with the shoulders, the elbow tips should generally be directed downward. The key to dropping the elbows is to avoid lifting or highlighting the elbows. Raising or highlighting the elbows can easily cause raised shoulders. For instance, during the initial movement when both hands are descending, the elbow tips should not exceed the back; if they do, it would be raising the elbows, disrupting the alignment of power. When performing the “White Crane Spreads Its Wings” movement, avoid turning or raising the elbows, as it might engage the muscles of the ribs and upper back, leading to raised shoulders and an upward force. To avoid this, coordinate the downward motion of the hands with the contraction of the waist and the relaxation of the muscles in the rib area, engaging the shoulder blades to separate.
The Twenty-character Formula for Yang Style Taijiquan’s Upper Body Movements reads: “Stretch the elbow tips; empty the armpits. Elbow tips, pull the shoulder tips, connect the wrists, and extend the fingers.”
Though concise, the Twenty-character Formula conveys a profound meaning. It extends not only to various parts of the upper body but also creates a chain reaction that spreads to other areas. The formula prompts both mental association and immediate tactile awareness. The actions of the upper body initiate movements in the chest and back, creating the desired effect.
The “stretch the elbow tips” and “pull the shoulder tips” portions evoke the concept of hollowing the armpits, ensuring that the arms are not glued to the sides. Loosening the armpits and allowing the wrists to flex slightly aims to establish favorable conditions for the unobstructed flow of Qi and blood through the six meridians associated with the hands. If the armpits are too open, it could lead to tight shoulders and hinder the flow of energy through the other three meridians. Thus, maintaining a natural downward inclination is vital, ensuring the proper balance between openness and containment.
Remaining naturally relaxed and composed is essential, avoiding any forced or artificial postures. By sinking the shoulders, dropping the elbows, loosening the armpits, and relaxing the wrists, the pectoral muscles, deltoids, and trapezius muscles can all loosen and relax. This enables the unobstructed flow of energy through the six meridians.
Practicing these requirements consistently during each session of forms and routines over a period of time will eventually lead to the relaxation of the shoulder joints. During this phase, you may experience difficulty lifting your arms, accompanied by a sore and uncomfortable sensation, rendering your arms seemingly immobilized, akin to dislocation. Fear not, as this is a temporary phase. Within approximately ten days, everything will return to normal. At this point, you will begin to sense a feeling of relaxation, sinking, and agility in the upper limbs. Your arms will hang naturally from your shoulders, and when you intend to move them, they will respond smoothly and harmoniously, as if guided by an invisible force. This sensation is particularly pronounced during the initial movement of Taijiquan. Each motion will feel naturally coordinated, devoid of any forced or artificial actions.