Flowing with Tai Chi Master Xi Li Chen – September, 2017
Last month in Xi’an, China, Desi and I met with Tai Chi Chuan master, Xi Li Chen, for a 2-hour private lesson in Tai Chi that included an overview of his Chen family lineage connecting back over 400 years to the source teacher of this particular Yang style of Tai Chi Chuan. Master Chen welcomed us with tea and with great enthusiasm to answer all of our questions about building and moving Chi through dynamic alignment. We were very interested to see what Master Chen would say about the pelvic alignment in poses like Earth (‘Infinity pose’ in Tai Chi) or Horse or Tribal Lunge. The standard model of neutral pelvic alignment, in which the top of the pelvic bones are level (the ASIS and the PSIS horizontally aligned) and the pubis is in a vertical alignment with the ASIS, is commonly taught in Tai Chi Chuan classes.
In my first Tai Chi Chuan lessons in 1977 with a Chinese teacher at the University of Cincinnati, I was taught that the pelvis is like a bowl that holds Chi in the lower Dantien—the lowest region of life force in the torso. Great importance was emphasized to keep the pelvic bowl in a level position so that our Chi would not “spill” and we wouldn’t waste vital force. A few years later in 1986, I had the privilege to join a Chi Gong class led by Madame Min Ou-Yang in San Francisco. She also taught a similar pelvic alignment which we practiced in an unforgettably intense, 45-minute Horse stance! Throughout the years, all of my training in the standard alignment model for a neutral pelvic position was consistent across disciplines - Tai Chi, Chi Gong, and Hatha Yoga. Not until I started working with Desi in 2012 had I considered that an anterior-tipped pelvic alignment could be effective for containing and building Chi (Jing) in the lower Dantien. Now after 5 years of Bowspring practice, I feel that I can accumulate and move more Chi with a level pelvic floor, upwardly engaged glutes and a long, bowed lower belly than with the upright pelvic bowl alignment that I practiced for 35 years. So, I was very interested to see what Master Chen would say about Desi’s heretical pelvic alignment in the Tai Chi forms!
Infinity pose, which is analogous to our Bowspring Earth pose, was the first pose Master Chen taught to me, Desi, and our Xi’an hosts--Chun Li (Yama Yoga Studio), Teacher Yali, and Vicky, our Chinese interpreter from Beijing. We mimicked Master Chen standing with feet close together, knees slightly bent, balance of alignment of head, heart, and hips in floating verticality from the top down to the feet. Starting with the head (the Sky), Master Chen taught us the detailed alignment for each key area of the body all the way down to the feet (Earth) while in the simplest, most natural dynamic standing pose, Infinity (Earth pose). In Tai Chi Chuan, the central axis of the body is the “great pole” that connects Sky and Earth, and around which flows the cosmic forces of Yin and Yang. Every form, position and movement in Tai Chi is designed to express the dynamic balance of the spinning, flowing energies of Yin (contracting, soft, downward, etc.) and Yang (expansive, firm, upward, etc.) especially coordinated with the flow of the breath.
Master Chen guided us to look at the horizon and to open the upper Dantien inside the skull with an inner expansion of light (Shen). My head felt like it was floating upward like a helium balloon as tension released around my eyes and my face softened. With each exhalation, we bent our knees a little more and settled down into the lower Dantien below the navel, where the vital force (Jing) resides to give full power for rooting and for propulsion. And with every inhalation, we radiated our Chi (Qi) in our hearts out through floating arms and softly cupped hands. Master Chen’s whole body moved fluidly, yet there was tremendous weighted power in his hips and easeful lightness in his head alignment.
With his permission, I palpated Master Chen’s upper back and felt the shape and the fullness of power arising from inside. He had a lower back curve, yet his hips were not cocked back. He instructed that the tailbone doesn’t lift nor does it tuck, and his description was consistent with standard model neutral alignment. Yet when Master Chen was physically adjusting Desi’s alignment in a narrow Horse pose, he pressed her hips straight down while she maintained her dynamic neutral (Bowspring) pelvis position. He instructed all of us to draw the lower belly to energetically contract and draw inward to give more ability to hold and direct the Chi in the lower Dantien, yet surprisingly did not adjust Desi's pelvic tilt. Master Chen’s main adjustment to Desi’s postural alignment was to have her inflate the back of her base ribs more fully, and not to push the base of her sternum forward and up.
Like in our practice of Radiant Heart, Master Chen expanded his ribcage like a big ball of energy pushing wide, lifting the middle of his sternum up and filling in the upper back between the top of his shoulderblades. Standing at around 5’8” and 200+ lbs., Master Chen is a solid mass of a mature, powerful man, yet his breath-coordinated moves are remarkably easeful and fluid. With a massive ribcage pushing out Chi, his arms seemed to float under the armpits without any contractive lifting of the upper shoulders.