The relationship between structure and balance

Many people begin Tai Chi training with an interest in improving their balance. Balance, however, can often seem an elusive attribute. I often have students say to me, “I don’t have good balance.” To such students I explain that there’s no need to worry about balance, nor is there such a thing as good balance or bad balance. Balance is the result of aligning your skeletal structure, and “relaxing” down through it. So balance is not something you have or don’t have. Balance is a state you’re in or out of. If you want to improve your balance, correct your structural alignment. It’s all about the relationship between weight and structure. Weight is gravity’s downward pull on the center of your body masses.

Think about it this way. If you were stacking blocks one on top of the other, they would be in a balanced state if they were stacked with all sides even and flush. Gravity’s pull on the blocks would pass vertically and centrally through their structure providing maximal support. However if you were to slide one block a little to one side, and the one above that as well, you would create an increasingly precarious state until finally the blocks tumbled over. Now imagine strings or cords attached from one block to the next. As the blocks are slid out of alignment the cords take on more stress as they attempt to keep the blocks from falling off of each other. In this analogy, the blocks represent your skeletal structure and the cords represent your muscles. That’s what being out of alignment does to our bodies. It creates a chronic tension in our postural muscles and is also why it feels so difficult to balance. Tai Chi’s answer to balance is aligning skeletal structure so that our weight rests centrally through that structure. Then gravity will pin you to the ground from head to foot.

To find this alignment, start with your feet. The balls and heels of your feet should feel evenly weighted. The center of your weight should feel as though it floats in the center of the arch of your foot just behind the balls of your foot. From there move up through your ankles, knees and hips, seeking a sense of stacking them centrally one above the other. Moving past your hips, point your tailbone toward the ground so that it isn’t shifted forward, backward, or to either side. Then extend this feeling of stacking up your spine to the top of your head. Now your structure is stacked. From there, focus on relaxing as if the stacked feeling overflows through the top of your head and pours down through your shoulders, chest, ribs, abdomen, waist and back. The vertically stacked structure and downward relaxation should feel mutually reinforcing.

When performing stepping movements in Tai Chi, it is important to understand that having balance on one foot means shifting the axial structure of your skeleton (skull to tailbone not including limbs) over the central axis of one leg (center of hip to center of foot). In other words, you are stacking your structure over the supporting foot so the other foot is unburdened by weight and can move freely. Any sense of losing balance comes from losing vertical alignment during the shifting or stepping motions. Essentially, all of Tai Chi could be described as moving while maintaining a vertically aligned structure and relaxed body-state. It’s common to mistake leaning your upper body over one foot for proper shifting. There is a feeling of heaviness in that foot that gives the impression that you’ve shifted your weight over. You have actually, just not all of it. When shifting this way you’ll find that you can’t seem to move the opposite leg without undue muscular effort while struggling to maintain the precarious balance of your less than optimal alignment. Structurally speaking, you’ve split your upper body weight over both legs, with the upper portion (head, shoulders, chest etc.) over one foot and the lower portion (ribs, stomach, pelvis etc.) over the other foot. To achieve the graceful, effortless, and relaxed movement of Tai Chi, you have to stack your entire axial structure over the supporting foot – head to tailbone. Furthermore, the percentage of weight borne on one leg is directly connected to how far your axial structure is over that leg. If your tailbone points down right in the middle between your feet your weight will be evenly distributed. A little to one side and it’s 60%- 40%, more is 70% -30% and so on until your structure and therefore your weight is 100% over one leg. When shifting, think of moving from your tailbone – not your head.

Vertically stacking your structure isn’t just the key to balance, it’s the key to independent movement in two person exercises such as push-hands. As your training partner pushes and pulls on you, your goal is to adjust your position so that you can maintain your vertical posture. If you lean toward your partner he can take advantage of your unbalanced state and pull you off your feet. If you lean away he can similarly take advantage and push you back. There are many variations and subtleties, but the principle remains the same: vertically stacked structure is the first requirement for maintaining independent and balanced action. The next principle is to remain relaxed. By naturally settling your weight down through your structure, you create a state of body that can adjust to forces without losing balance by sinking down your vertical axis and turning around it. If you don’t utilize sinking and turning then your partner’s pushing or pulling force will directly affect the position of your axial structure and force you to move off your feet. If you struggle against your partner’s force to keep your position, you created force that he can use to unbalance you simply by reversing his push to a pull or vise-versa.
This can seem like a simple thing, but good alignment is a subtle thing requiring a lot of attention and patient practice and personal investigation into the relationship between different parts of your body. However, if you take the time to engage in improving your structural alignment, you will be rewarded with balance, grace, ease of movement, and even power.