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Form & Function:  The Challenge of Stability

Volume 1 Number 1
Spring 2000

By Jason Yeung

Separate Leg Right and Left, and Turn and Kick with Foot, could be considered Taijiquan's "daredevil" sequence, as much of it is executed while balancing on one leg. Indeed, with one's arms thrust out to the sides for stability, the sequence can take on the look of a circus high-wire act.

This sequence is common to most styles of Taijiquan, and is representative of the most challenging moves one encounters in the form. It thus creates much frustration for the beginning student, who should take heart in the fact that it remains a substantial challenge for the experienced student as well.

The first set of moves in the sequence, Separate Leg Right and Left, or You zuo fen jiao, is a literal description of the move. The Chinese character for separate, fen, depicts the sentiment of the move perfectly: on the top half of the character, there is a line that has been cut into two, and below, the knife used in cutting. Thus the word fen means to divide, separate, or distinguish, as in the Taijiquan Classics' phrase, "Empty and Full must be distinguished clearly" (Xushi yi fen qingchu).

The next move, Turn Body and Kick with Foot, or Zhuan shen ti jiao, also literally describes the move itself. Zhuan means to turn, shen means the body, or the self. Ti is to kick, and jiao, means foot or as above, leg.

Once one is accustomed to this sequence, it can be very enjoyable to practice. There is a nice ebb and flow to it. When executed well, this whole sequence smoothly connects from section to section. When things are not going so well, one will start to wobble, and by the time Turn and Kick arrives, the wobbling will often take the form of losing one's balance and falling over. It is this subject that I will address below.

Common sense tells us that the lower one's root, the more stable the posture. This move, however, has three limbs making dramatic outward gestures, so it is logical that when coupled with the nervous anticipation that often accompanies such a move, that stability is compromised. We can then analyze this kind of move into several aspects.

  1. Preparation: How stable is the transition from the prior move? Is the body in proper alignment? Are the feet and joints flexible? Is the mind settled? When one is simply taking a step, the leg is low enough to the ground that it does not disturb one's balance too greatly, and again, does not vex the practitioner, as the safety net of the ground is close by. In this sequence, however, one must prepare even more carefully, as it is not only more physically challenging, but produces among many of us a certain anxiety, before and during, in anticipation of the difficulty of the move.

  2. Lifting the leg: Can you use the yi (the mind) to gather inward and send the root down even further? One must take care in this sequence to settle the weight deep into the root before lifting the empty leg outward. While the arms are used to counter-balance the leg movement as it goes up and out, one should remember that moving the whole leg outward in this manner transfers a great percentage of the body weight away from one's center of gravity. To this is added the momentum of the rising leg, also going out away from the body. It should be no surprise, then, that the balance is challenged.

  3. Bringing the leg in: Can you bring it in toward your root, rather than simply letting it drop back? In other words, though gravity is the primary force at work as the leg comes back, if the focus is on the gravitational pull, it may allow the leg to drop, which may create a bounce in the body. If, however, you keep the focus on the root, the force will be tranferred into the ground and you will remain more stable.

  4. Completion/Transition: Do you feel a sense of relief as you complete the move? This may imply that you were so preoccupied with the move that you now can relax. One should work toward achieving this relaxed state before and during the move as well.

We can see that Separate Leg Right and Left, and Turn and Kick with Foot above all require careful adherence to the Taijiquan principles. The dramatic challenge they present can be an opportunity for honing one's skills. The means to lifting the leg up high should be exactly the same as when stepping out comfortably low. The only difference will be the mechanics and, most importantly, the mind-set.

Jason Yeung, a native of Hong Kong, resides in Los Angeles, California,
where he works as an engineer.

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