Herb Blurb
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • January 2010
Written by  Andrew Mertens

Body upright – the 2nd principle of Tai Chi

Last month I described the first and most important principle of Tai Chi: Relax. Try it right now. Relax every muscle and, if you are sitting, sink more into your chair. If you are standing, sink more into your feet. This is something I remind my students of constantly and I find that I must also remind myself to relax more. I can always relax more. Our second principle is simply stated as "body upright," meaning that we stand or sit straight without leaning while practicing the first principle.

Tai Chi is rooted deeply in the Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism that stress the importance of balance and centering. This can be demonstrated in our cultural sayings such as "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," compared to "all work and no play." Workaholism is considered as unhealthy as sloth. Gluttony is as unhealthy as anorexia. Good health is thought of as balance between diet and exercise, friends and family, work and rest.

In Tai Chi, we play this in the physical body. When we stand, the body does not lean to the front, back, left or right. The hips are lined up with the feet, shoulders and head. Many people go through their lives without noticing how they are standing. In my life, I put thousands of hours into playing the string bass, paying attention only to the sound I was producing. I tilted my torso forward and lifted my left shoulder while dropping my right. My head leaned forward into my music stand. When not playing, observing me from the front you would see my left shoulder was higher than the right. Observing me from the side, you would notice that I was slightly bent forward at the hips and my head was forward in front of my feet. I paid no attention until many years later when I began to suffer from terrible neck and shoulder pain and eventually a numb hand. I was lucky to have a friend refer me to Tai Chi while I could still correct my posture. The way I was wearing my body was leading me to major surgery and perhaps a permanent retirement from the bass. There are so many people who do not pay attention to their bodies until it is too late. The office worker who leans his head forward into his monitor will have neck pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, wrist pain. The dock worker who leans his torso forward while lifting will have low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain. Many ills can be corrected with correct posture.

Some ideas of how to use this principle: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight forward and your knees straight but not locked. Place your hips directly over your feet and your shoulders directly over your hips. Softly float your head upward from your crown point, the very top of your head, as if it were suspended from above by a string. Relax your shoulders and arms and sink down into your feet. Use a mirror or a partner to see that the body is in a line. It is very difficult to correct your posture by yourself; you may find that what you think is straight is leaning off of center. Use the idea of "floating" the head any time. I like to think of my head rising like the flame of a candle. While driving your car, relax and "float" the head. While standing in line at the supermarket, relax and "float" your head. Last month I described an exercise called "walking on thin ice." Try to add this principle. Line up your hips, shoulders and "float" the head as you take your empty step.

Next month I will tie together the first two principles with our third principle: Separate yin and yang. If anyone would like copies of previous articles or the description of the walking on thin ice exercise, feel free to e-mail me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Andrew Mertens is the director of the Oshkosh Tai Chi Center and a certified Quantum Energetics practitioner. He holds a bachelor's degree in music from Lawrence University and a bachelor of science degree from the New Physiology Institute. He is also a professional bassist and founding member of The Jazz Orgy.

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