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Lesson 13: Hold the ball

“Incomplete Tai chi Lesson 13:
Continuing with section 3, we look at turning out one toe and preparing to step with the other foot. This introduces us to rotating the coronal plane of the body around the left and right axillary lines, two of the most significant axial lines in tai chi.


The next movement is sometimes called “turn out the toe and hold the ball.” So, essentially, the simplest way of looking at this is to say, you turn out the right toe, and then you turn and peel off the back foot, and bring the foot in, and you stand as if you’re holding a ball, like so. Some people say, “What if you have two balls?” To that I say, “Well, the average person has one ball.”

So, we just say “hold the ball.” Actually, we’re talking about a ball that is in front of the body. So, the hands will be there. The imaginary ball about this far away from the body, like this. If the hands are too close, well then, you’re holding a cylinder. So, it’s as if you have a big ball out here. That’s the approximate position of the hands. It’s a general guideline, though. In fact, the hands might not be lined up quite so evenly, and they will cross a little bit sometimes. You see variations of this movement in a lot of martial arts. This is sometimes called “the sword and shield posture.” This is also the movement where we prepare to take our first step in the form. this movement is really important to pay attention to, in detail, because we are introducing the concept of rotating around axial lines, or around an axis. Specifically, we are talking about the “axillary lines.” 

The axillary axis corresponds to what is, in anatomy, referred to as the axillary line. The axillary line goes from the armpit down the side of the body. In anatomy, there’s the front axillary or the the “anterior axillary line” that goes from the front of the armpit down the side, the “mid axillary line” which goes from the middle of the armpit down the side, and the “posterior axillary line” which goes from the back of the armpit and goes down the side. There. Look at that. The mid axillary line would be right in the middle of that light blue stripe on my shirt, and the anterior axillary line is the front edge of it, and the posterior axillary line is at the back edge of it. In the case of this rotation, we’re not being too specific. The line or rotation itself is about the width of the hip socket. We pivot around this line or this line. I talk a lot about axial lines or the axis of rotation. And this is really important in martial arts, because there should always be a still point when you move.

If you don’t use rotation as a means of generating power then you’re probably one of these people who just basically throws their body at the opponent. So, if that’s all you’re doing, then mass is your main weapon. But if you can harness the power of rotation then can start transforming the body into a series of really interesting and useful simple machines. You can be a lever, a wheel, a wedge, an incline plane, a Galilean cannon, etc. In this case, we want to be a lever. So, we turn out the right toe…

Now, when we turn out the right toe there are a couple of ways to do this. One way that is very common is to simply hold the body in this position and turn out the toe “by itself.” So, the whole leg rotates at the hip socket. Hip rotation is a very important part of this. The other way is to rotate the body on the other hip. So, if my weight is on my left leg, and I pivot around the left axillary line. From here the right hip moves backward and the whole body swings. The coronal plane of the body rotates around the left axillary line. And that opens a bit like a door. So, this is the hinge. This hand is down here at the side, then this is the line and this arm is pretty much lying along the hinge of this door as it opens.

One teacher said once “You can’t be human and do tai chi. You have to be a door.” You can start with “adorable” and then work your way up. But here, this axillary line is the still point in the body, and the whole body opens up like this as you turn out the toe. I pick the toe up a little bit, flex it and then the whole body moves. The leg does not actually move relative to the body. It just follows along with that rotation and then I can put the toe down. 

This movement allows you to maintain the stability in the structure of the lower part of your body, to provide you with a solid base as you are moving.

An error that people make is that they will drift off to the side and their whole body moves like this. So, their hip swings out past the foot. This is no good because now the femur is going this way… It’s going off on an angle, and the shin is going that way, and the toe the foot is pronating. It’s rolling in. It’s going flat, and this is not good for the knee, and it’s not good for the structure the stability of the body.

So, what you want to do is keep the hip still over the foot keep the femur lined up with the shin and the foot, and the arch stays alive. The arch of the foot stays up. This way, when I open like this, I’m still in a solid position. If someone were to push on my forearm, this power would go right into the ground. It would get redirected through that centripetal geodesic that I speak about so often.

So, it opens and goes into the ground, and from here I switch the axis to the right side. So, now I engage the ground with my right thigh. And again, I don’t move my hip over the to the side. I just start pushing down with the right thigh into the ground, and that allows me to rotate around the right axillary line, like this. So, my whole body… the coronal plane rotates forward around the right hip.

So, let’s see that again. I’m in this position I’ve we’re continuing from Peng 掤 (from a previous lesson) where the left hip has dropped back a little the right arm is round. My weight is a little bit more on my left thigh, at least, that’s what it feels like. In reality it’s pretty much evenly balanced. But it feels like it’s mostly on the left thigh. And I pivot, rotating around the left axillary line, open up the foot – and the foot can go out 45°, 30°, 60° – somewhere around there. We don’t want to be too picky right now. And then, instead of shifting or vaulting, I simply push into the ground with my right thigh and relax my hip. That allows the coronal plane to come around like that. So, my hip goes this way at first and the center goes this way. So the whole body swings like that, around that plane, and I really drop the tailbone down, engage with the core, and the thigh pushes into the ground, and that allows me to roll, and that also causes the heel to peel off the ground.

So, as the heel peels off it gets here, and I want to let my knee drop down. I’m not going to try to pick up my foot. I’m going to let the knee reach for the ground. Then I just pick up the toe at the very end of it, just as I’m about to get to that point where I drag the toe along the floor. I don’t want to drag it, so I just flex the foot a little and the foot drops into position. So, now this thigh is pretty much lined up with the shin, and it’s just sort of dangling at the side with a little bit of weight on the toe… just the weight of the leg itself. And the thigh is lined up with the shin and lined up with the foot, and I maintain the stability of that right axillary line. I’m rotating like this.

This is a lot more work for the thighs than simply going like that.  So, this allows you to engage the ground and maintain a really solid connection to the earth, and provides you with a really good foundation upon which the biomechanics can function. It gives you a great mechanical advantage. So, let’s see that again…

I rotate backwards around my left axillary line as I turn out the toe. I push down with my right thigh, relax my hip, drop the tailbone, and let the whole body swing out and around the right axillary line, and then at the last moment pick up the toe and bring the foot in

So, the right thigh is cooking. The hip is aligned with the heel, and the thigh is lined up with the foot, and the knee is over the middle of the foot. It’s not past the toe, and I’m not just going like this. Okay.

So, let’s do that a few times and get used to the idea of doing it on the one side first. So after we get good at doing it this way now, we’ll do it on the other side like that. So, follow me from this direction. We’ve gone from the previous lesson. Now, the right hip moves back around the left axillary line. Place the toe and don’t move the knee past the foot. Keep the knee over the heel or the middle of the foot. Relax the hip. Drop the tailbone down, and the whole body goes forward around the right hip. Peel off the heel. Pick up the toe a little. Let it drop into position.

Again. Feet parallel. Then pivoting around the left axillary line as you turn out the toe, pivoting around the right axillary line as you peel off the heel, and then bring the foot in.

Again. Feet parallel.

The right hip goes back. The right toe turns out. The left hip goes forward and around. Peel off the heel and then pick up the toe.  You want to feel that weight solidly in that right thigh. 

One more time on this side

Pivoting around the left axillary line.

Pivoting around the right axillary line, bring in the toe and go back again to the beginning. Feet parallel. Now, let’s do it on the other side. So, it’s the same idea from Peng 掤, the left hip goes back, pivoting around the right axillary line. Then the left thigh engages. The hip drops. The tailbone tucks under. The end engages and then the right hip moves forward around the left axillary line. Step. Good. So, remember, it’s a line – not a point. The hip is a ball and socket joint. It has a lot of flexibility to it. It can pitch and yaw and roll. But pivoting around the axillary line gives us an orientation in space around which we want the body to rotate. So, you rotate around that line. So, this line from the shoulder to the hip joint remains still, and then the right hip goes around. Turn. Bring in the foot.

So, again, left arm Peng 掤.

The Left hip drops back. Turn out the toe. The right hip goes forward. Go around the left axillary line. Peel off the heel and bring in the toe.

Now, again, some people don’t teach it this way. They go here and then they just pivot on the on the heel. That’s fine. There are reasons for doing that. I’m doing it this way because it it suits my pedagogy…meaning I teach it this way because this is the way I teach it. So, you’ll find that a lot in different styles and with different teachers, when you go from one school to another, you pretty much have to give up what you’ve learned before in order to follow along in the class. And then, you may find that the teacher will, later on, change it, and perhaps teach it the way you had learned it before.  It depends on the context and the situation, and where you are at, and what the makeup of the class is. The methodology and the pedagogy may change.

So, let’s alternate. Let’s go with the right arm coming up first. So, Peng 掤. The right arm and the right hip move around the left axillary line. The left hip moves around the right axillary line. Peel off the heel. The foot comes in. Now, go back to center. 

Left arm. The left hip moves around the right axillary line. Engage the ground with the left thigh. Drop the hip. Drop the tailbone. Relax the hip, and let the right hip come around the left axillary line. Bring in the toe. In this position, you’re ready to take the first step. But you are also ready to change direction. So, from here I could go there. I could go here. I could go here. I could switch feet.  I can pivot and change direction and completely alter the dynamic or the the relative structure. It all depends on what’s happening in the world around you at the time. 

Right arm. The right hip moves back around the left axillary line. The left hip moves forward around the right axillary line. Peel off the heel. Bring in the toe.

The other side. Left Peng 掤.

Open. Close. Back to centre. Right Peng 掤. Open. Close.

Back to centre. Left Peng 掤. Open. Close. Back to centre. Right Peng 掤. Open. Close. Back to centre. Left Peng 掤. Open. Close.

This idea of switching, or alternating from the left axillary line to the right axillary line… or the left vertical axis to right vertical axis and then back into, perhaps, the central axis. The body tends to turn like this when you move both hips at the same time. This is your central axis. This is the axial line through here. That’s the normal way for people to move. Even when you’re doing the merengue, which I can’t do, because years of tai chi has made it impossible for me to do the meringue. If I try to do the merengue, my pelvis stays level. It just doesn’t look right. So, it’s one of the side effects of tai chi. We should have warned you about this before we started, I know. I’m sorry about that. But being able to put your mind on one auxiliary line and then switch it to the other creates a really big change in the way that power is directed through the body. It’s really useful for grapplers. It’s also useful for joint control and striking. But particularly when grappling. When you can switch your mind from one axis… one axillary line to the other, then just thinking about it will throw your opponent off balance. Because they’ll be engaging on one side and suddenly the structure is stronger on the other. The path of least resistance will cause them to lose their balance, and also confuses their mind a little. I’m going to do another video next which has to do more with the axial spine. So, rotating the waist, and the way that the spine contributes to your balance and your stability when you take this next step. But for now I think that’s lots to practice for a little bit. Get used to that idea. Make sure when you practice that you don’t overdo it. Because this is, if you do it correctly, really good work for your thighs, and if you tire out your thighs before you have developed strong tendons and muscles and-so-on, then you may find that afterwards your knees are a little weak. So, then if the tendons aren’t really strong, then you might get tendinitis in the knees if you overdo it. In the beginning, most people don’t overdo it. They just get too tired before they hurt themselves. But you know I know how people are. Consistency is more important than intensity in tai chi, and in martial arts in general. 

So, very good more practice.