Using Your Hips Based On T’ai Chi:
Written by: Bob “Bu Hao” Ashmore
Edited by: Jim “Ban Ming” Showalter and Skip “Tiao Yan” Jarrett
As a practitioner of T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Taijiquan) you are probably familiar with the T’ai Chi (Taiji) symbol. It is considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and is used by almost all schools of martial arts in one fashion or another to represent many different aspects of the martial arts. Over time I have begun to understand that the symbol is not just symbolic, it lives inside the art physically as well.
In this article I will attempt to show how the T’ai Chi symbol can be used to teach you how to physically use your hips correctly. Please note that I did not say “Use your hips correctly during your T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice.” I want you to understand that, just as with all aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it is important to take the very same principles of body movement you train to use during your practice of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and integrate them into your everyday life.
However, for the sake of keeping this article short enough for anyone to ever want to read, I will focus on using the T’ai Chi symbol to teach you how to use your hips correctly while performing T’ai Chi Ch’uan. It will then be up to you to begin to use the same principles in your normal activities.
All styles of T’ai Chi Ch’uan teach their practitioners to use “whole body integrated movement.” However, how can you use your whole body as one unit until you learn the correct usage of all of your body parts? I have found that most people understand how to use most of their body fairly well; however there is a distinct lack of knowledge amongst most students I teach about how to correctly use their hips. I found that this lack of knowledge was seriously impacting my students’ ability to learn the art of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Once I understood that I decided I had to do something to help them.
To that end I have developed a method to teach correct, T’ai Chi-based usage of the hips based on what I have learned from various Masters and Instructors of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as well as a rigorous study of the anatomy of the hips and decades of hands on experimentation. Please understand that this method of hip usage was developed by and is taught exclusively, for now, only at Everyday Taiji Cooperative, L.L.C., and is not a method officially endorsed by the International Yang Family T’ai Chi Ch’uan Association. However, if you find this method is to your liking please feel free to use it and to teach it to others.
I will present this method over several Chapters, using a series of exercises designed to slowly introduce the correct usage of the hips. I highly recommend that you read through the Chapters one at a time in the order presented and take the time to become familiar and comfortable with all of the theories and exercises in each before you move on to the next Chapter.
In this first Chapter I will give a brief explanation of what the hips are, then I will present some exercises in the order you should perform them along with several graphics designed to help you understand and follow the methods. Practicing these exercises correctly, repeatedly and diligently will eventually lead you to understand how the T’ai Chi symbol is physically integrated into the correct method for using your hips.
What are “the Hips”?
When most people speak of “the hips” they are usually referring to the entire pelvic region, which includes all of the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and fascia in the area of the upper leg and pelvic girdle. Strictly speaking, though, the hips are the two ball and socket joints located where the legs meet with the pelvis. More directly they are where the femur heads join with the hip sockets.
Rather than go into any detail describing the hip region myself, I will simply post a link to Wikipedia’s excellent page on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hip
I highly encourage you to read the Wiki article in its entirety before you continue to read this one; and as you read this article please refer back to the Wiki page frequently as it provides most of the descriptions and visual aids necessary to understand the physical aspects of the hips.
How will this article describe proper hip usage?
Instead of attempting to describe the workings of the entire pelvic region I will concentrate on teaching only one specific aspect of the hips - the greater trochanters.
Please take a moment to become familiar with the specific location of the two greater trochanters before continuing with this article as they play the primary role in understanding and feeling how to correctly rotate your hips using this T’ai Chi symbol-based method.
Please follow this link to the illustration in the Wiki article that most clearly shows this location: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Slide2DAD.JPG
The two greater trochanters can be used as a guide to proper hip usage because you can clearly both see and feel them moving through their full range of motion while most other aspects of the hip region are hidden under layers of tissue, making them difficult to see or feel. Since the greater trochanters are also one of the main attachment points in the hips for muscles, ligaments and fascia they are the location where you will feel most of the “action” when you use your hips.
How do the hips move?
The hips can open and close side to side like an accordion; spin like a wheel in either a forwards or backwards rotation; or move in various combinations of these two movements. (Please refer to the Wiki article again before you continue reading if you are not clear on these possible ranges of hip motion.)
While opening and closing the hips from side to side has only a limited range of motion, because the pelvic bone limits the movement of the femur heads, you can rotate your hips around in a circle endlessly without ever having to stop. Using these directions of motion concurrently, the full possible range of motion the hips can go through is vast and can be varied in many ways depending on the situational need.
To me, this endless rotation of the femur heads in the hip sockets is at least one physical embodiment of the T’ai Chi Ch’uan expression: “Like the Yangtze River, endlessly flowing.”
Moving the greater trochanters from side to side like an accordion is commonly referred to in T’ai Chi Ch’uan as “opening and closing the kua (qua)” and is taught by almost every T’ai Chi Ch’uan instructor I have ever known since it is pivotal for both rooting and stepping. As this aspect of hip usage is commonly taught, and well understood, I will not elaborate on it further at this time. I will come back to it later and tie it in with the rotational movements so you can understand the entire range of hip motion accurately; but for now I will concentrate on the less well known aspect of rotating the hips – using the greater trochanters as a guide – in a circle.
When thinking of these rotations, it is important to understand that there are two ways to perform them:
Rotating together - when used in this fashion both greater trochanters rotate in the same direction and stay level with each other at all times.
Rotating separately - when used in this fashion both greater trochanters rotate in the same direction and at the same time but at diametrically opposed locations.
Both of these rotational combinations are used in T’ai Chi Ch’uan and we will explore both methods in this article.
Also, while the greater trochanters can rotate either forwards or backwards, the only correct direction to do so while performing T’ai Chi Ch’uan is backwards. While rotating the greater trochanters in a forward direction can generate an incredible amount of energy that energy is nearly impossible to control accurately. Rotating the hips in a forwards direction causes you to tilt the pelvis forward, which does not allow the upper body to sink downward properly into a fold and causes a disconnection to occur between the upper and lower body. As is commonly taught in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, a forward tilted pelvis causes uncoordinated movement of the entire body so it is an undesirable position.
Rotating the greater trochanters in the backwards direction, however, allows you to keep the pelvis level at all times with almost no effort; and allows the upper body to sink downward properly into a fold, allowing for smooth, coordinated whole-body movement.
How I Will Teach You the Correct Hip Method
The following exercises and visualizations were created to help lead you to understand and use a smooth, coordinated rotation of your hips during T’ai Chi Ch’uan. Though extending this method into your everyday life is the ultimate goal, for now we’ll work on this method exclusively from the perspective of your T’ai Chi Ch’uan practice.
In order for you to understand this T’ai Chi-based method of hip rotation and feel it in yourself it is necessary for you to actually participate in each of the exercises described below. Please do not read this article while sitting down comfortably and think that you can learn it. It is necessary to stand up and work through the exercises I describe physically in order to gain any deep understanding of the method. If you are not able to stand due to a physical disability you can still perform these exercises; use your greater trochanters just as described and push against your chair with them instead of extending with your legs.
Please follow the exercises in the order I present them, as I have found the progression of exercises as listed to be vital to learning the method correctly.
In presenting this first set of exercises I am assuming that you have learned at least Preparation Form from any of the Traditional Yang Family T’ai Chi Ch’uan Hand Forms. If not then I highly recommend that you do so before you begin the exercises described below. If you are a student of another style of T’ai Chi Ch’uan this method will work for you but I am unfamiliar with the specific timing of the rotations with the forms from other styles so I cannot speak to them directly. An instructional video for learning the Traditional Yang Family T’ai Chi Ch’uan Preparation Posture and Opening, as well as the forms Left and Right Ward Off (which are not covered in Chapter 1 but will be in Chapter 2), can be found by following this link: http://yangfamilytaichi.com/video/index?file=hf1
Since it is vital that you know the locations of your greater trochanters and can “feel” them at all times to understand my method of hip rotation I have designed the Crouching Tiger/Leaping Tiger exercise to help you learn where they are and how they feel. If you are still not familiar with the greater trochanters, please reread the Wiki article referenced above to become familiar with where they are and how they move before continuing with the exercise.
Exercise 1: Crouching Tiger/Leaping Tiger
Stand in Preparation Form. Using the greater trochanters as your guide, begin sinking your upper body downwards by gently pulling both greater trochanters upwards and slightly forwards at the same time; make sure to keep them level with each other throughout this exercise. This movement allows your upper body to sink, fold or “crouch” down into your hips. Relax and allow your upper body to sink down while slightly bending your knees and rounding your back.
Imagine you are a hunting tiger, crouching in tall grass, waiting patiently for your prey. Sinking down deeply like this into your hips, allowing your whole body to crouch and fold at the hips, knees and waist, ensures that you are ready and able to leap onto your prey just like a crouching tiger. Don’t tense up. Relax and make this natural.
Now, imagine that your prey has come close enough for you to catch, and…
Do the leap by pushing both greater trochanters downwards and slightly backwards at the same time and unfolding your upper body. Pushing down with both greater trochanters while straightening your knees and upper body will allow all the energy you stored in your hips and legs to express outward and forward into your upper body. Adding in the unfolding of the upper body at the waist and extending the energy into and out from your arms brings the energy of your whole body to bear on this exercise.
When you leap imagine you are energetically grabbing something out of the air at about chest height, using the energy of the leap to “grab” the imaginary item with both hands.
It is not necessary to actually jump off the ground when you do this, though it is fun and if you are in good enough health to do so you can. As long as you express your energy outwards and upwards that will give you the full experience whether you actually jump off the ground or not.
This exercise begins to coordinate upper and lower body movement, using the hips and waist together to first coil and store energy (crouching) then to release it (leaping), as well as teaching you to feel and become comfortable with using your greater trochanters as a focal point which will assist you in the exercises still to come.
Visualization: Wu Chi and The Four Quadrants
In order to teach the correct method of using hip rotations it was necessary for me to create a system to allow you to visualize the full path of rotation of the greater trochanters. The Crouching Tiger/Leaping Tiger exercise is excellent as a starting point to begin to become familiar with the greater trochanters and using your hips, however it is not the full picture.
Since there are four distinct areas of movement along the circle that the greater trochanters follow around the hip sockets, I decided to name each quadrant of the circle using a descriptive phrase for what each quadrant accomplishes. I have named this system “The Four Quadrants” and the quadrants are: Sink, Float, Rise and Turn.
The names describe what effect each Quadrants movement has on the upper body rather than the actual movement of the greater trochanter. At first this will be confusing, however after becoming familiar with them I find that thinking of what they actually do is much clearer and easier to follow than thinking of how they move:
The greater trochanters upward movement through this quadrant causes the upper body to “sink” and fold.
The greater trochanters movement across this quadrant causes the upper body to turn from side to side when both greater trochanters are used separately and causes the upper body to “float” forwards when both greater trochanters are used in the same direction at the same time.
The greater trochanters downward movement through this quadrant causes the upper body to “rise” and unfold.
The greater trochanters movement through this quadrant causes the upper body to turn from side to side when both greater trochanters are used separately and causes the upper body to “turn” backwards when both greater trochanters are used in the same direction at the same time.
In order to begin to use the Four Quadrants, first we need a starting point. The starting point for T’ai Chi Ch’uan is always Preparation Form, sometimes called Wu Chi (Wuji) form. Wu Chi is the center position, where you rest your greater trochanters in preparation to be able to move them in any direction. Below is a graphic to help you visualize the Wu Chi position of the greater trochanters:
Below is a graphic designed to help you visualize the Four Quadrants:
Use the above graphics to help understand and follow along with the second exercise: Half Moons.
Exercise 2: Half Moons
Stand in Preparation Posture. In this position your hips are held at the center point of the X on the included graphics. This is the Wu Chi position (refer to the Wu Chi graphic above).
Begin to “sink” by pulling both greater trochanters up and forward from the center position in an arc to the upper junction of the X on the front and top of the hip rotation circle in the graphics. Both greater trochanters should follow the same path as the red arrow in the graphic below.
Next, “float” by rotating both greater trochanters together across the top of the hip rotation circle to the location of the next juncture of the X at the top and back of the circle. Both greater trochanters follow the path of the red arrow in the graphic below.
Next, “rise” by rotating the greater trochanters together down the back of the rotational circle to the junction of the X on the lower back side of the circle. Both greater trochanters follow the path of the red arrow in the graphic below.
Next, “turn” by rotating the greater trochanters together across the bottom of the rotational circle to the location of the juncture of the X on the lower front of the circle. Both greater trochanters follow the path of the red arrow in the graphic below.
Finally “sink” once again, only this time move your greater trochanters through the entire “Sink” Quadrant” by moving them along the path of the red arrow as shown in the graphic below.
Continue to rotate your greater trochanters through all four quadrants, moving them together in the same direction, and at the same time, while calling off the quadrant names, either out loud or to yourself, until you are comfortable with each quadrant; where it is located, what it is called and what you feel as you move through them.
Refer to the above graphics whenever necessary to assist in this.
Each named quadrant will affect your upper body and that is where you will mostly feel the effects of each quadrant’s movements. Sink will lower your upper body down, float will move your upper body forward, Rise will lift your upper body upwards and Turn will move your upper body backwards. Take the time to become familiar with this exercise, learn the locations of each quadrant and how each of them affects your upper body before moving on to the next part of this chapter where we will put these hip rotations into the form.
Half Moons in the Form
Examples of postures using the Half Moon method in Traditional Yang Family Form are: Opening (Beginning), Cross Hands and Closing.
I will not explain how all three postures work in this article as the method is similar enough for each that describing one will allow you to work through the rest. I will concentrate on Opening and move through it, quadrant by quadrant, describing the effect on not only the student’s body but also on his or her opponent’s body (if performed correctly). I will not describe the entire usage of the body as I will assume those reading this article will have some familiarity with the posture “Opening” from the Traditional Yang Family form.
Also, I will be breaking the movements of the posture down to the individual movements per quadrant for purposes of this article, however please keep in mind this “beginner breakdown”, as I present it here, is strictly used for the purpose of learning the method. Just as with most learning techniques, once the method has been learned correctly the movements are then all blended together into one seamless flow.
The scenario I ask you to imagine during this exercise is that someone standing directly in front of you has grabbed both of your wrists firmly with both of their hands. So, what are you going to do?
How to use Half Moon rotations in Opening:
Begin in Preparation form. In this position your greater trochanters are located at the
Center Position (Wu Chi). (Please refer to the graphics in the Half Moon Exercise portion of this article for visuals of the greater trochanters movement path by quadrant)
To move from Preparation form into Opening, first “sink” your hips by pulling the greater trochanters in a short arc upwards and forwards towards the front of the body. Use this sinking energy to slightly fold your body, join the energy with your waist and use it to extend both arms downwards.
Movement through this quadrant should root you downwards as your upper body folds slightly forwards and push your arms downward as well, which should shake the root of your opponent by pulling him slightly forward and downward, causing him to become unstable.
Next “float” your hips by moving the greater trochanters backwards until they are positioned at the top of the rotation at the back of your body. Join this floating energy with your waist and use it to begin rotating your arms from palms facing the sides of your legs to palms facing behind you.
This quadrant’s movement should produce an energetic forward movement, which should continue to keep your opponent from stabilizing his root, and begin to move him slightly backwards; at the same time, rotating your arms should collapse his elbows and force his arms inwards towards his own center.
Next “rise” your hips by moving the greater trochanters downwards until they are positioned at the bottom of the rotation, at the back of your body. Join this rising energy with your waist, unfolding your upper body slightly, and use it to raise your arms to shoulder height (shoulder height is actually not required to execute the martial movement I am describing but it can be done this way and I am staying true to the form movement for purposes of this article).
Downward movement of the greater trochanters through this quadrant should produce an upward and slightly forward movement in your upper body; at the same time raising your arms should begin to push your opponent’s arms back into his own center and move him away from you.
Next “turn” your hips by moving the greater trochanters until they are positioned at the bottom of the rotation at the front of your body. Join this turning energy with your waist and use it to “sink your elbows, set your wrists”.
Forward movement of the greater trochanters through this quadrant should produce a backwards movement of the upper body. Join this energy with your waist to allow your hands to coil over top of your opponent’s and grab him either by his wrists or forearms. His backwards movement while having his arms jammed into his center by the previous movement should have made him unstable enough to make this easy.
Next “sink” your hips again, as previously described, but this time your greater trochanters will travel the entire length of the quadrant. Join this sinking energy with your waist, fold your upper body and pull your opponent downwards again.
At this time your opponent should be folded nearly in half in front of you while you are holding his arms, controlling him. There are multiple martial scenarios that could be applied from here forward but we’ll leave it here as further martial description does not fall into the range of this article at this time.
Please practice this sink, float, rise, turn cycle during Opening a few times by yourself and then, if possible, have a training partner stand in front of you and try it a few times while in contact with your partner.
At first your partner should cooperate with the exercise and allow you to move him without resistance. Once you become familiar with the method you can then have them begin to resist until you are able to perform the movements whether they resist or not.
Return to Wu Chi:
Finally, return the greater trochanters to Wu Chi or center position by moving them in a small arc downwards and slightly backwards until they are once again located in the Wu Chi position.
Conclusion of Chapter 1:
This completes your first lesson in the correct usage of your hips. Please take the time to perform the Crouching Tiger/Leaping Tiger exercise, learn the Half Moon theory and method, and integrate this method into your form work for the named posture “Opening” from the Traditional Yang Family T’ai Chi Ch’uan form, until it becomes smooth and natural, before you progress to Chapter 2.
At first it will be necessary (and normal) to perform these movements using very large rotations of your hips, which will make the whole body movement very large and visible. After a lot of practice you should become more familiar and comfortable with using the method and your rotational circles will get smaller and smaller until to the casual observer it will not look like your hips are rotating very much, if at all.
This is the normal, and desirable, path to learning the method.
In Chapter 2 we will begin to more clearly explore why I call this a T’ai Chi symbol-based movement. If you haven’t recognized why yet, you will shortly after we begin the next set of exercises.
If you have any questions regarding this method of hip rotation or want to learn more about Everyday Taiji Cooperative, L.L.C please feel free to contact us at: