As your teacher has told you, alignment is everything. The Classics tell us of the Six Harmonies in which the fingers line up with the toes, the elbows with the knees and the shoulders with the hips. These guidelines (they’re not rules, they’re “highly recommended”, a very Taoist thing) keep us from over-reaching, becoming unbalanced, prevent tension and allow our parts to fall into the right place anatomically.
Body structure or posture in tai chi is very rounded and flexible. One of my students called my teacher “a bundle of circles”. There are no hard corners, such as would be created if we let an elbow jut out or a knee bend too far.
Since we say that when we have a problem with the hands we must look to the feet, it stands to reason that we need to pay attention to the alignment of the ankle, knee and hip. They form the base that supports the torso and then transfers force to the hand.
The foot is anchored to the ground with a Three Nails concept. The ankle stacks directly on top of that so that the shin bone is vertical and supports the weight as it should. And that brings us to “dem knees”.
The knee is a hinge joint, yet it has the ability to make circles. It can make large circles when it’s bent a lot and small circles as the leg straightens. It’s best if you think of it as a hinge, though. As you shift weight from front to back as we do in the movement of push, for example, that hinge activates and bends forward and back (extends and flexes). The limits of the front knee are; knee over toe when forward and short of locking when shifting back. Conversely, your back leg does not lock when forward and the knee is over the instep or toe of the support leg when sitting back.
When we compound the shifts such as when we perform roll-back, we add a rotating component to open the hips (kwa). This may be unfamiliar, awkward or difficult for beginners. There is then a very strong tendency to let your front knee roll inward. Your knee will do this and it’s not hard to make the mistake. However, if you look at the alignment of the leg when the knee rolls in it becomes very obvious that the lines of skeletal support are off. The shin starts to deviate from the vertical. Therefore, it cannot support body weight properly. You have to start tensing surrounding muscles to support that angle. We don’t want tension, so this is a negative thing.
What makes this a problem is that over time, if you were not doing this correctly, your knee may start complaining from the repetitive stress. So take your time, pay attention to how the knees align and make any necessary corrections. Your knees will thank you and serve you well into old age.
Until next time,