The idea of issuing force by drawing a bow crops up a lot in the Tai Chi classics and even more so in Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak’s more recent Tai Chi Chuan Revelations: Principles and Concepts. Further in typically short, succinct and betrayingly simple phrasing, Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak said this in an interview not long before his passing:
“Fa jing is often misunderstood for hard force. It is purely chi expressed in the hands from the back by hollowing the chest and using intention. My fa jing style is a very old concept that predates the Yeung (Yang) family. You discharge by moving the hip in one direction and the hands in the other – like drawing a bow. But you must have a strong root from chi kung practice.”
As Master Ip says, the idea is old. Knowledge of the physical mechanics is not unique to Tai Chi or the other internal arts out there. In fact there are several traditional, external Kung Fu systems who understand its physical use as well. It is how to make it work energetically that often lies unrealised.
Bowing the back.
We can all imagine what it is like to draw a bow and we could probably all act it out. But this is only half of the equation. To make this action internal we must first establish a Tai Chi body that responds when you draw the bow. Perhaps the key to this Tai Chi body is ‘bowing the back’.
Two of Yang Cheng Fu’s “10 Essential Points” are extremely important to bowing the back: hollowing the chest to raise the back and suspending the head from above (lifting the spirit). In Yang style we put a lot of emphasis on developing these. The additional and missing factor is what is referred to as ‘tucking the tailbone’.
On tucking the tailbone
I have noticed a couple of places on the internet that are very suspicious of the concept of ‘tucking the tailbone’. They do not pass on this transmission and try to convince others not to as well. This is a shame. Like many things in Tai Chi you need to look beyond a literal application of English language and remember that in Tai Chi you try to release – not force. A person who is holding and forcing the tucking of the tailbone/pelvis most often forces the hollowing of the chest and the lifting of the spirit as well. Apart from making the practitioner look like an angry crab, all that person succeeds in doing is impacting their intention through their body. They are not releasing, lengthening and letting go, they are holding. It is not just the sacro-lumbar region that is under threat when you force your vertebrae like this. Any weak area in the spine becomes a candidate for problems if someone is approaching their Tai Chi like this. It’s not rocket science and perhaps teachers should be more aware of the damage that could possibly occur if students misunderstand or refuse to take on board certain important teachings over a long period of time. However, in my opinion, if you throw out ‘tucking the tailbone’ you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater – you need focus at both ends of your spine to more easily bring intention to all areas of the spine. In fact done correctly lifting the spirit easily sends energy beyond the top of the spine and tucking the tailbone creates stable, controllable flows beyond the base.
So one of the true purposes of tucking the tailbone is to energise the entire length of the spine. Through repeated correct practice all areas of the spine strengthen so that it can operate as a major area for controlling flows of your and your opponent’s power (or ‘chi’).
How to Bow (energise) the back
1. Lift the Spirit.
Stand still. In your mind imagine your centre (perhaps 2” below your navel). Once you have done that, take your mind (the feeling of thinking) and put that down to your centre as well. Now imagine an upward intention increasing the space between each of your vertebrae from your centre up to your neck, through your neck and then upwards through the crown of your head. This is lifting the spirit (suspending the head from above). It is like taking one end of some beads on a string and lifting it so that the beads settle and hang down straight under gravity.
2. Tuck the Tailbone.
Having lifted the spirit, keep that intention. Now in addition imagine the same process operating from your centre down to the ground, increasing the space between each of the vertebrae in the lumbar, sacral and hip areas. The first thing you should come across is the bottom of your spine ‘elongating’. To elongate the tailbone will ‘tuck’. But it is not like an abdominal crunch. Instead it is like a release of tension so that the body stops resisting gravity. You should feel the release as a downward movement, a sinking feeling.
So in effect the intention behind tucking the tailbone/pelvis is to elongate the bottom of the spine and to guide sinking energy through the pelvis and down into the thigh bones. From here the other joints in the legs and feet release and it should feel relatively easy to bring you weight forward so that your body rests on the Kidney 1 point, in the hollow just behind the ball of the foot.
3. Hollow the chest.
Now that you are like a piece of strung harp string with the top at the crown of the head and the bottom at the kidney 1 point (just behind the ball of the foot) we can tension that string by letting the chest and shoulders relax. That is all that hollowing the chest is when not actually drawing the bow. Master Ding sometimes says it is like sighing. The position you have after sighing, but with the positive energy of lifting the spirit. This stretches and relaxes the spine even more, making more energy circulate and project up, down, forwards and backwards. All this is done without hard strength. It is all about being active yet still, soft yet strong and above all energised.
Disorganised muscles = disorganised chi = less internal fa jing
When you first try to do the above you will undoubtedly feel tension in many different areas of your body. This shows how un-cooperative your energy patterns (Chi flows) are being. Your mind’s intention (Yi) should be aiming for effortless flow around the body – from the feet to the crown of the head. Anywhere where muscles conflict and prevent the feeling of expansion between joints and lengthening and letting go in the muscles is a place where Chi is stagnant. If you can’t get these places to cooperate and flow whilst you are simply standing, they will definitely let you down and stop Chi flow whilst you try to apply your Tai Chi by drawing the bow. Your fa jing won’t reach its full internal potential and may end up being propped up with physical force. Then as you get older and the physical fades…so will you skill.
Chi Kung – Wu Chi posture
All of this should be going on within the first Chi Kung posture in Zhang Zhuan (standing post) practice. Therefore Chi Kung is more than just standing still for a while. You must actively work on releasing the conflicts that arise in the body when you try to bow your back as well as thinking about and sinking to your centre and using strong intention out.
Drawing the bow
The actual act of drawing the bow begins to be practiced as soon as you move to the next Chi Kung posture by raising your arms in front of you and bending you knees. Just as Grandmaster Ip Tai Tak says: as you raise the arms forwards, you hollow the chest more and as you bend your knees – hey presto – your hips move backwards.
After practicing this a while you can also get the same mechanism to work with one leg forward. Then whilst shifting the weight forwards, backwards or side to side. Finally whilst moving freely. At this stage you can emit fa jing at any moment and in any direction.
Of course all of this is happening in isolation to another person (or other energy system if you prefer this image). In reality much more work must also go into how to merge with an opponent under many different circumstances and at different speeds and degrees of power so that you become confident in using a purely internal approach to interacting with others, uncoloured by degrees of external force.
Conclusions on bowing the back.
Bowing the back energises the entire body. It allows you to use intention through its entire
length, but without excessive physical force. You should practice holding this sensation for long periods of time without becoming tense, or lax. When you do this it becomes a very effective tool for sensing conflicts within the body caused by physical injury, past trauma or habit. Once your entire body feels free no matter which way you send your intention, you really will have achieved something.
Chi Kung then becomes something that loads more pressure through the system whilst retaining your rooting and your strong outward intention. It allows you to build the power to draw the bow against the force of others – the power to utilise real internal fa jing. This is why Grandmaster Ip said,
““Fa jing is often misunderstood for hard force. It is purely chi expressed in the hands from the back by hollowing the chest and using intention…. You discharge by moving the hip in one direction and the hands in the other – like drawing a bow. But you must have a strong root from chi kung practice.”