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.
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.