Centeredness and Rootedness

The images above come to us from the author of the “Brisbane Chen Tai Chi” blog.  It’s a great resource no matter which style of tai chi you do:

More than once, my students have complained that at times their feet feel like they’re sliding out from under them.  This has happened in nearly every class I’ve taught except my first; and the only reason it didn’t happen there was because there were mats everywhere and you couldn’t slide your feet except with considerable difficulty.  The school was set up for karate and while this was ideal for training karate, it was less so for tai chi.

We ought to become comfortable performing the art anywhere we are.  I’ve done the forms on everything from tile, mats and carpets while indoors, to grass, gravel, stairs, hills and ice.  Each of these presents its own challenges and each will provide feedback to the player on whether she or he is truly rooted and centered – we’ll discuss this in a moment.

When we’re first learning, however, a smooth tile or wood floor is a nearly ideal surface.  It has no obstructions or rough surface to catch the foot or turn an ankle, it provides a smooth surface to practice rooting but isn’t as slick as ice, and it doesn’t “lock” the foot into position like a martial arts mat so we can move with lightness and agility.  Smooth floors are an ideal “laboratory” to test out our stance and our movement.  The shoes which the Yang family recommends (the same ones I recommend) are the kind that are flat so as to allow us to feel the floor, interact meaningfully with its surface and exercise the muscles in our feet. 

Rootedness is the feeling that our feet are solidly attached to the ground.  It’s a feeling best described by comparison with its absence.  We’ve all walked on ice before, and we know that there’s a sort of “sweet spot” where your feet don’t feel like they’re going to slide out from under you with each step.  That’s what “rootedness” feels like, and it’s enhanced with continual practice in tai chi.  You can get the feeling that your feet are not only solidly attached to the ground but almost as though they are rooted inside it somewhat. 

This of course take a bit of imagination and a certain “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The studio we practice in is in an older commercial building with a basement.  You may find yourself wondering how on earth you could possibly be “rooted” to a bunch of boards with nothing but joists and empty space underneath.  My advice to you is the same advice I gave myself when I was learning – don’t torture the metaphor.  The feeling is real and has little to do with what’s under the surface you’re standing on.

Centeredness builds on rootedness and is more “inside of us.”  It’s a feeling of stability, combined with agility.

This second part is important.  We can feel stable while standing firmly planted on two feet, with our weight evenly distributed between them.  But if we are not agile, we can easily be pushed over.  I’ve demonstrated this in class many times and I think we’ve all felt it.  The Grandmasters have a name for this – they call it “being double-weighted” and it’s something we work to correct.

We spend a lot of time in the form with most of our weight on one leg or the other.  Centeredness allows us to feel stable while at the same time being flexible enough to interact with incoming forces (or our own outgoing force) without toppling over.  We achieve “centeredness” by starting with “rootedness,” then lowering our center-of-gravity – “sinking the qi to the dantien” – and keeping our hips & lower back relaxed & flexible.

These feeliings take time to first become familiar with, and then to achieve them at will.  It’s like all the other myriad parts of tai chi – it’ll come to us when we’re ready for it.