Tai Chi empty stepping
Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang with Taiji stick
Tai Chi Empty Stepping
To the best of my knowledge, all styles of Tai Chi and indeed all internal arts teach that every step should be an empty step. In fact, many of the external arts I have trained in also teach empty stepping, although they do not label it as such.
What do I mean by empty stepping? To explain that, I feel that I must first explain what I see people doing in their regular walking. The way they walk down the street, when they’re not practicing martial arts. The way I explain it to students is that most people don’t really do what I define as walking. What they do is more like a controlled fall. The most obvious are the people we have all seen that seem to trudge forward. They pick up a foot and lean forward, catching themselves, then pick up the other foot stretch it out in front of them and lean, catching themselves. Over and over they lean and catch, clumping along. Nearly everyone (non-martial artists) I have ever known does this to some degree. And I mean everyone. People of all ages, athletes, couch potatoes, secretaries, lawyers, doctors, everyone seems to trudge. I mean no offense to anyone in writing this. I have just observed this kind of walking. And it is this kind of walking that I characterize as controlled falling.
That brings me back to the subject at hand, empty stepping. In empty stepping, there is no commitment to the step until the practitioner chooses to commit. What I mean is that there is never a forward lean and catch. In the above example someone pushes themselves forward without a foot in front of them. They push and then they place the free foot forward in time to catch themselves. That is why some people seem almost as if they are stomping their feet. They are falling and catching themselves, which is noisy.
In empty stepping the person sinks into one leg with all of their weight, then places the other foot forward without any weight in that leg. It is sort of like walking on thin ice. Imagine that you are walking across thin ice or an area that potentially has hidden pitfalls. You wouldn’t want to just clump along. You might fall in a hole and hurt yourself. So you reach forward with your free foot and test the ground ahead of you to make sure it’s safe. In doing so, you would not commit body weight to that foot until you were sure it was on solid ground. Empty stepping is similar.
Here is a stepping drill to help get used to the empty step. First, start with your feet hip width apart. And be honest, we all have wider hips than we like to admit, but we are only hurting ourselves by being dishonest. Shift all of your weight into your right leg. Swiveling on the left heel, turn out the left toe to 45 degrees. That will put the feet in something like the following position. \ |
Now shift all of your weight into the left leg. Sink down into the left leg, bending the knee slightly and sinking in the Gua (hip and inguinal crease). Keep the left knee in line with the toe. Now, lift the right foot and extend the right leg out in front of you, just above the floor. Keep the hip width between the feet. Set the right heel down without adding weight to the leg. Test yourself. Lift the right foot back up. Did you have to shift your weight even a little to lift the foot or were you able to just lift it up. If you can’t tell, have someone watch you. If there is even a slight shift, you are committing weight to the foot. We don’t want that. When you can take that step without committing, you’re ready to proceed. After extending forward and setting the right heel down, let the rest of the foot set down, still committing no weight. Then slowly shift the weight forward 60% into the right leg. So, that is just over half your weight shifting forward. Make sure that the right knee does not go beyond the right toe. In fact, the right knee should be centered over the instep. The left heel does not lift up, it stays firmly on the ground. Shift the weight back into the left leg again. When you have 100% of the weight in the left leg, pick up the right toe and, swiveling on the right heel, turn the right toe out to 45 degrees. Then shift your weight forward into the right leg 100%. Sink into the right leg making sure you are balanced. Then extend the left leg forward and set the heel down. Remember to keep the feet at hip width. If you are not sure the step was empty, test your self again as before. Then set the left toe down and shift 60% forward into the left leg. Shift back 100% into the right leg. Turn out the left toe to 45 degrees and so on. Continue stepping like this over and over to ingrain it. You will notice that this stepping adds an extra shift forward and backward. This is a foundational walking/stepping drill that is used latter in many other drills.
How then do we translate this drill into our everyday walking? Well, obviously we will need to cut out the extra shift forward and back. While it is essential in the drill it would most likely make people on the street think we were crazy. So here is what we do. At first, don’t worry about incorporating empty stepping into everyday stepping. Instead, just practice the drill whenever you can. In your house, your back yard, whenever and wherever you can find the time and the privacy. When you are very comfortable with the drill and you are taking empty steps every time, then try taking out the extra shift. This will be difficult at first because you don’t have the opportunity to turn the foot to the proper position. What you will need to do is keep both feet straight. Neither one will turn out. At first you may need to step slowly, but eventually you will be able to walk at your normal pace.
Some of my readers may be wondering why I think they should bother changing the way they walk. There are several reasons. The first is that as a Tai Chi practitioner, it is a way to bring Tai Chi into your everyday life and allow you to practice every time you take a step. What a wonderful thing! We all wish we could practice more. At least I do. Now every time you take a step, you can be practicing. Second, this is a healthier way of walking. How is it healthier? It is healthier because it relieves the constant pounding that our feet, ankles, knees, hips and lower backs take when we walk in the controlled falling way. If you think about it, the controlled fall walking jolts the whole body every step and it causes tension throughout the body as well. Every time you have to catch yourself, you tense your muscles unnecessarily. As we get older, and we are less sure of our balance, that controlled fall often becomes an uncontrolled fall. That results in broken wrists and hips and many other injuries. The empty stepping method may very well prevent that from happening or at least lessen the likelihood. It does so by improving the transitional balance. What I mean is that when taking an empty step, the weight is securely in the stationary leg and the balance is sure before a step is made. That is one main reason why there is no commitment of weight until the foot is securely on the ground and stable.
Now, what are the bad things about this stepping method? I can only think of two. First is that you friends may tell you to quit sneaking up on them. Your steps will be light and quiet. That can be annoying to some people. Also, at work, the gossip mongers may become irritated with you. If they can’t hear you coming they can’t safely gossip behind your back. Personally, I don’t consider either of those things bad, but…
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