Gua-to-Gua movement in Taijiquan
Gua-to-Gua Movement in Taijiquan
The idea of Gua-to-Gua movement may be a bit confusing. There are several theories about moving within a stance, especially in moving within the Horse-stance. Most of those theories attempt to describe the movement through an explanation of what the knees are doing. The problem I have seen with that approach is the over-emphasis of knee movement to the near exclusion of Gua movement and the subsequent misalignment of the lower body. Before I get too much into my explanation, perhaps it would be best to start with my operational definition of the Gua.
The Gua is a part of the hip joint, but it is more than that. Let me explain. The Chinese view of the hip, in my understanding, is that it is two joints. First is the joint that moves the leg forward and backward as in walking and side to side as in widening or narrowing your stance. The second joint is that which governs the rotation of the leg. This is a movement very much like the rotation of the wrist. Pronation and supination allow us to turn our palm down or up respectively. Strictly speaking, in anatomical terms, pronation and supination occurs in the foot and not the leg, but in Taijiquan we are concerned with the leg rotating as a unit. In this sense Gua turning is similar to pronation and supination. We can turn the leg so that the foot points out (toe out) or we can turn the leg so that the foot points in (toe in).
In our stances, the movement of the Gua controls the relation and angle of the leg to the pelvis. For example, in the Chen style horse stance, the feet are toed out to about 45 degrees. If the feet start out parallel, we will call that zero, then they can be turned out 45 degrees from that point. At that angle our stance is stable and strong. At a lesser angle there is too much strain on the knee and ankle. At a greater angle, we become unstable and unable to root completely. When we turn out the feet to a 45 degree angle, we must turn the entire leg, not just the foot. When we are in a good, upright posture, we can look down the leg as though looking down the sites of a rifle. When we do this, without moving our posture, we can see whether the hip joint, knee and toe are all in alignment. In geometric terms, the hip, knee and toe should all be on the same vertical plane.
When we over emphasize the movement of the knees, that vertical plane is broken. What I mean is that the knees waver in and out of alignment. What this does is break our foundational alignment and by default our root.
Along with the overemphasis on the knees, many people also neglect the movement of the waist. It is a very common mistake to move the hips rather than the waist. The hips and waist are two connected but different parts of the body. When we turn from side to side the waist should twist, but the hips should remain virtually motionless. In fact, the hips should move very little, while the waist and Gua should move a great deal. That brings us back to the movement of the Gua.
In shifting the weight from side to side, we often see people shifting only in the legs and twisting the hips. What does this do? When shifting leg to leg, the tendency is to overextend the knees. When the knees are extended beyond the toes, there are several problems. First, the muscles of the legs (i.e. the Quadriceps muscles) are at their full extension and therefore at their weakest. Perhaps a brief explanation of muscles is in order? Basically, the muscles are arranged in long fibers. Those fibers bristle with little tabs called myosin heads. When a certain chemical reaction occurs, those tabs fold back or extend out. The tabs on one fiber are opposed to an adjacent fiber. That adjacent fiber has sites that match up with tabs and allow the tabs to attach. Therefore, when the tabs fold they pull the fibers together in a muscle contraction. Then the tabs extend and contract again. Each time, they are pulling against the adjacent fiber, thereby shortening the muscle. The farther the muscle contracts the stronger it gets, due to the increased number of tabs. So, in this case, the problem of purely leg-to-leg shifting is that the leg holding the majority of the weight is also the leg whose muscles are at their weakest. When the muscle is extended, there are fewer of those little tabs to do the pulling. The fewer there are the weaker the muscle. Another problem is that the overextension of the knee puts a strain on the joint itself, which can lead to injury. Also, if the knee is overextended, then the weight is not properly distributed in the stance which makes rooting and expression of power very difficult.
As for twisting the hips, the biggest problem is that the knees are twisted out of alignment. Any twisting of the knee joint itself is damaging. When the hips are twisted the opposite knee is twisted in the same direction, which collapses it into the stance. When that knee is twisted in it takes away the power of the movement. The main portion of power should be transferring through that leg. So, if the knee is twisted out of alignment, the power is trapped at the knee and cannot continue on up through the body. The twisting also causes a floating, uprooting effect in that foot. That effect serves to do one thing. It forces an over commitment of the weight in the other leg. One other problem that occurs when the hips are twisted is that the hips are not horizontally aligned. The hips should be held on the same horizontal plane at all times. They may move up or down, but they should still both be on the same plane. Twisting the hips causes one of them to pop up out of that horizontal plane, thereby breaking the alignment yet again.
Those are some, but by no means all, of the problems I have observed in moving within a stance, especially in the horse stance. So, how do we eliminate some or all of these problems? Let’s start with the feet as they would be in a horse stance. When shifting the weight from left to right, the ball of the left foot at the yongquan presses into the ground more than the heel. The front of the right heel presses into the ground more so than the right yongquan. Of course the opposite happens when shifting right to left. The weight and pressure in the feet happens this way in every movement. This is part of rooting in the feet. In every movement there is an active leg and a receptive leg. I say receptive rather than passive, because passive implies that there is no action in that leg when in fact there is. The active leg in this instance is the left leg. When the left yongquan presses into the ground, the left leg begins its push which in turn begins the weight shift. The receptive leg, the right leg in this example, presses back against the push of the active leg. The pressing is not equal to the push or no weight shift would occur. The movement would become some sort of isometric exercise. So, if the active leg was exerting ten pounds of pressure, then the receptive leg should be exerting eight pounds of pressure, this way the movement still occurs. The reason for this unequal opposing force is to help keep the weight sunk and thereby keep the root solid. What I mean is that if the weight is simply shifted from leg to leg without his opposing pressure, there is no rooting action. Instead the weight is floating along the ground. There is no connection with the ground. The Taiji classics say that movement should be rooted in the foot, developed in the legs, lead by the waist and manifest in the hands. If there is no opposing force in the legs, there is no rooting in the foot. If there is no rooting in the foot, then the rest of the movement is simply an external muscular movement with no connection.
When this shift occurs, the Gua of the active leg should open and the Gua of the receptive leg should close. Of course, neither should open nor close to the extreme. Without this opening and closing of the Gua, there is an over exaggerated leg to leg movement. The movement of the Gua in conjunction with the foot pressure causes a movement in the knees that at first is counter intuitive. The knee of the active leg will move slightly toward the active side and the knee of the receptive leg will move slightly away from the receptive side. How does this happen? In order to open one gua and close the other there is a necessary movement of the hips. Earlier I said that moving the hips was wrong. If you will recall, I said that in relation to the waist. When the hips are twisted instead of turning the waist it is wrong. It causes many problems in the stance. When the hips move in the act of opening and closing the Gua, the movement is very small; small enough not to cause the knee to twist or the hips to loose their horizontal alignment. What is happening is that the hip of the passive leg draws back away from the toe of that side. The hip of the active leg moves very slightly toward the toe of that side. This action is what causes the knees to move as they do. It is best to notice what the knees do without trying to influence it or cause it to happen. Concentrate instead on the action of the feet, gua and hips and the knees will move correctly. If this action of the feet, Gua and hips is done correctly, the weight will shift but the body will not move from side to side as it does in purely leg to leg shifting. Because of that, this is a much more subtle movement. For that reason, you can also incorporate a very slight leg to leg movement that will bring the knee of the receptive leg into vertical alignment with the ankle of that leg. In that position the active leg will still be bent. See photos for illustration of this. Note: I will be adding the other illustrations shortly.