Tai Chi's Structural Bows
by Christopher Dow
Tai Chi Chuan’s correct operations are dependent on the practitioner assuming a solid foundation. This usually is described as sung: feeling as if one is sitting, which positions one’s body weight directly over the pelvis. In turn, this sitting allows all one’s sense of weight and energy to settle downward into the lower abdomen (tantien) and legs.
But there is more to a solid foundation than just standing correctly or moving through the Tai Chi postures with correct physical stances. One also must sense the way that chi energy flows through the torso and limbs. This flow tends to be perceived mostly within the yang channels since those are the pathways that send energy forth rather than receive it. Over time, the sensations of these flows produce the feeling of having three curving, energetic structures within the body: the three Tai Chi structural bows. The structural bows are not the same as the bow-and-arrow-like forces Tai Chi creates within the torso and limbs for storing and releasing energy. The structural bows are energetic in nature, while the bow-and-arrow forces are manipulations of the sinews.
One can most readily feel the structural bows when assuming the chi kung possture known as Standing Post. The primary bow is the leg bow—the arc from the feet through the legs and pelvis—because the legs are the body’s foundation. If you don’t create the leg bow, you can’t manifest the other two bows. The leg bow is created by utilizing the sitting posture and tucking the buttocks under slightly, making it seem like one is perched on a three-legged stool with the practitioner’s legs forming two of the stool legs and the third leg being an imaginary extension of Central Equilibrium that runs from the pelvis to the floor.
The second most-important bow is the back bow, which runs along the spine. It requires, in addition, a slight tucking in of the the chin, which straightens the cervical vertebrae, allowing the chi to flow unimpeded through the neck and head. Both the leg bow and the back bow can be created without bringing the arm bow into play, but the arm bow cannot be created without first aligning the leg and back bows. The arm bow arcs out along both both arms and through the shoulders and back.
Once one can achieve a stance that incorporates and activates the three structural bows and can begin to utilize the composite structure while moving and stepping, it is easy to see how the bows act to send unbroken pulses of energy from the feet and through the body to activate the limbs.