Walking Tips and Taiji

A friend of mine recently forwarded an article describing a couple of tips on how to reduce the risks of falling.  This triggered me to provide some walking tips from Taiji that can reduce our risk of falling and increase our balance.  Taiji is a good health exercise, and it is also a good martial art.  For most Taiji moves, one can explain that move from the health perspective or from the martial arts perspective.  This article will explain three walking tips from both the health perspective and the martial arts perspective.

How to step with your foot when walking?  When taking a step, step down on the heel first, instead of stepping down simultaneously with the toes and heel, and definitely not with the toes first.

From the health perspective, as you are walking forward with your feet, suppose the left foot is the forward foot, if you step down simultaneously with your left toes and left heel (i.e., stepping down with the left foot flat on the ground), then your body sort of stops and you don’t have a continuous forward movement of your feet and body.  This means that you are walking less efficiently because you sort of stop and then walk again, and stop and walk again.  On the other hand, if you walk by stepping down on your heel first, and then stepping down on the toes, you are continuously walking forward.  And if you step down first with your toes, then the toes are not strong enough to support you and will most likely hurt too (unless you are a ballet dancer).  Thus it makes sense that one should step down on the heel first, and then follow by stepping down on the toes.  Furthermore, the heel is closer to the rest of your body than your toes, so it can provide a steadier platform of support when the front part of your support (front foot) is not too far from the back part of your support (back foot), as the toes of your front foot are  farther away than the heel of your front foot.

From a martial arts perspective, we call this kind of stepping (first step down on the heel, then step down on the toes) “cat step.”  To be specific, let’s assume that you are stepping forward with your left foot.  Now, notice what happens when you step down on the left toes after you have already stepped down on your left heel, your left leg goes forward and your whole body also goes forward.  If you are trying to punch your opponent (who is standing in front of you) with your hand (to be specific, say right hand), you want not only your right hand moving toward your opponent, you want your leg and the rest of your body also moving toward your opponent.  This means that all parts of your body are moving simultaneously toward your opponent, thus maximizing the force of your hand strike.

On the other hand, if you step down simultaneously with your toes and heel (i.e., stepping down flat foot) or on your toes first and then step down on your heel, your leg and body don’t go forward toward your opponent as your hand strikes the opponent.

Raising your foot when taking a step:  When you walk by taking a step forward, lift your front foot about 2-3 inches (or 5-8 centimeters) off the ground, instead of having the front foot shuffling forward with that foot almost touching the ground.

Lifting foot 2-3″ or 5-8 cm while walking

From a health perspective, walking this way decreases the probability of running into something on the ground such as a board/plank separating one room from another room or some other small objects on the ground.  If you slightly lift up your foot while stepping forward, the knee of your stepping foot is almost right above your toes, i.e., the lower half of that leg is vertical (see above left diagram), which is not the case if you just shuffle your foot while walking (see above right diagram).  Keeping the lower half of that front leg vertical provides a much steadier and stronger support as compared to having that part of the leg at a slanting angle..

Furthermore, when we are walking, we should also use that opportunity for exercising.  So bringing your leg slightly higher off the ground provides a little more exercising.  Since we walk around quite a bit everyday, that little bit of more exercising per step may add up to a substantial amount of exercise everyday.

From a martial arts perspective, the optimum position of the knee of your forward leg is when it is right above the toes.  If the knee is too much forward of the toes, then you are leaning forward and you can more easily be pulled down by your opponent.  If the knee is too much behind the toes, then you are leaning backward slightly (although not obvious from the above right drawing) and you are pulling yourself back when you are trying to strike your opponent.  Furthermore, in Taiji you have to shift position constantly, e.g., between going forward and going backward.  If your upper body is straight, then you can change position much more quickly; you only have to shift the weight on your feet.

Separation of feet for balance:  When you walk, you want to make sure that your two feet are not on the same straight line.  The two feet should be separated in the transverse direction (direction perpendicular to the direction of motion) by about half a shoulder width (or the left part of your left foot to the right part of your right foot should be about one shoulder width.  This means that you should not walk as though you are walking on a tightrope, or as though you are walking like a fashion model down a runway.

If your two feet are on the same straight line, then as soon as your center of gravity is outside of that line, you will fall.  But if your two feet are separated by about half a shoulder width, then as long as your center of gravity is within the two lines of support of your feet, you will not fall.  Whether it is from the health perspective or the martial arts perspective, you want to be able to keep your balance; so the explanation is the same from both perspectives.  As a matter of fact, in Taiji it is very important that we have good support from our feet on the ground, when we are doing Taiji, we want the two feet to be separated by about a shoulder width, although in walking, half a shoulder width is sufficient.

These are very simple walking tips, but they can make a lot of difference in reducing your risk of falling.  This is especially important for senior citizens, because they fall a lot, and the injuries can be serious.

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7 Responses to “Walking Tips and Taiji”

  1. John K. Li says:

    I certainly agree that one should not walk heel-to-toe, ie, in a straight line; however, I also believe one should not walk with the feet in a transverse separation equal to one’s shoulders, which is about 20 to 24 inches. That would be walking like a duck! I believe most people walk with a transverse separation of 1/2 the width of his/her shoulders, or slightly less. Also, I don’t believe the average person lands on their toes; people land on their heels! Just take a look at the people on the street.

  2. Don says:

    John,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I just measured my shoulder width, it is about 17-18″, depending on how close to the tip I measure. For walking, I should have said that the distance from the left edge of the left foot to the right edge of the right foot is about one shoulder width, and the inside separation between the two feet is about one-half the shoulder width. However, in Taiji because it is extremely important to have a strong foundation for support, we want the inside separation between the two feet to be about one shoulder width or close to one shoulder width.

    Regarding your 2nd point, yes, people don’t walk by stepping down on the toes first. However, some people do step down with the front part of their foot first, and many people, especially older people, do step down simultaneously with their toes and heel, i.e., stepping down flat foot. In my Taiji classes, I do see people stepping down in these two ways. I should have discussed first the case of people stepping down flat foot, and then discuss the case of people stepping down first with their toes or front part of their foot. Because the article that triggered my writing my website article compared stepping down on the toes versus stepping down on the heel, I wrote the original version of my article in the previous posted sequence and in a way that triggered your comments.

    I have now made changes in my article on both of these points.

    Thank you for helping me to clarify these two points.

    Don

  3. Robert Lee says:

    Thanks for the very interesting article. I wonder what your thoughts are on bagua “mud stepping” in which the toes are pointed forward and foot is flat.

  4. Don Edwards says:

    Hi, (sorry this is a bit long)
    Very interesting information on Taiji.
    I do a form called Taoist Tai Chi (Yang style) and also considering taking up Chen style.

    My progress has been slow, at 70yo, but now researching turning hips/waist as in my form we are often told to “square the hips”. Many sites though talk about turning the waist not the hips (or controlling everything from the waist). My dilemma is that I can see how to turn the hips and shoulders, which can ‘twist’ the waist but I cant see how to actually turn the waist other than by it following the hips.

    One site I contacted said that it was a translation error and that when in Chinese it says ‘waist’ it really meant ‘hips’. Another said no, it literally meant the waist and talked about all the muscles involved in the waist area (but not how to apply to Tai Chi turning).

    So I am hoping you can throw some light on this for me please.
    Thanks in advance.

    Don Edwards

  5. Don says:

    Don Edwards,

    There is a difference between the waist and the hip. The waist refers to a higher part of the body than the hip. The waist usually refers to the narrowest part of the body or at or slightly above the navel, while the hip usually refers to a lower part of the body, around the buttock area and often is the widest part of the body (except for people with very big stomach). See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waist%E2%80%93hip_ratio.

    Turning or rotating the waist refers to turning all the parts of the body around that part of the body at or slightly above the navel, including the muscles in the back of the body on both sides of the spinal cord. Since the spinal cord ends slightly above the buttock area (see http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.apparelyzed.com/_images/content/spine/spinenerves.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.apparelyzed.com/spinalcord.html&h=587&w=595&sz=63&tbnid=3O4lv-q8p5q1dM:&tbnh=93&tbnw=94&zoom=1&usg=__nQBKWkgKReScZ1sCia-jQeHEcxo=&docid=Ym9H4K-NFK-frM&sa=X&ei=ECupUt2XK-z_yQHh9oCABw&sqi=2&ved=0CDcQ9QEwAQ), when you turn or rotate your hips does not exercise the muscles around the spinal cord as much as turning or rotating around the waist.

    Therefore, in Taijiquan it is better to say to rotate your waist, instead of to rotate your hips, because you also want to exercise and to strengthen the muscles around the spinal cord.

    Also, in Taiji, when you punch with your hand, you want to add the momentum of the rotation of your body to the power of the punch from your hand. If you are standing up, when you rotate your body and also shift the weight from one foot to the other foot, both the waist and the hips are rotating. However, if you are sitting down and punch with your hand, you can rotate your waist with no or only little rotation of the hips. Therefore, if you are sitting down and you want to rotate your body, you should say rotate your waist, instead of to rotate your hip.

    So rotating your waist involves exercising more muscles in your body than rotating your hips. That is why in Taijiquan, it is more correct to say rotate your waist, instead of rotate your hips.

    I hope this helps.

    Don Tow

  6. Don Edwards says:

    Many thanks. Your comment about sitting, so that hips do not turn, transformed my understanding and allowed me to actually feel the waist – now trying it out various ways.
    Regards, Don Edwards.

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