Sometimes, I get questions from learners that merit sharing. This question is about whether we should pivot on the heels or the balls of the feet when changing directions in the Wu form.
QUESTION: When you turn doing Tai Chi, is it always on your heels?
ANSWER: This is a good question. By “always,” do you mean outside of class or inside? I learned in Wu style training, of which two lineages exist, to turn on the heels … except when the teacher does something else, such as turning on the bubbling well.
The point I try to convey in class is to cultivate enough control to do what you intend to do, such as pivoting on the heel, which is a hallmark method of changing directions in Wu style, either lineage, as well as Yang. This entails developing concentration and sustaining it long enough to see your skill evolve.
To me, this is the deeper training. To learn move sequences is one level, learning how to do them is a deeper level and learning to control mind intention and sustain concentration are even deeper.
My point has always been to learn a technique, become familiar with it, then through practice become more at ease with it. The ultimate practice is one in which you continually refine what you have been exposed to. So if turning on the heel is what you’re asked to do, then do that all the time in and out of class as a way of refining your skill.
I think it’s fun to keep it in mind and do when you are reminded of it.
Figuring out stances and foot work in the form is one challenge beginners face because coordinating upper and lower body simultaneously can get confusing. I think it helps to focus on one activity at a time until you familiarize yourself with the move.
The position of the feet and how you move them merits special attention until you’ve become more familiar and comfortable with the method used in whichever form you’re doing.
Different teachers follow different methods, probably because that’s how they learned it from their teachers; but also, according to its effectiveness in a martial application. I learned from my teachers to pivot on the heels when changing directions. This is common enough and you can get pretty technical when it comes to how you’re weighted in gravity and where your zhong ding is at each stage of a movement. These are things I try to cover when practicing this activity.
I learned my particular way of doing the Wu style slow form from six, either in person or through video. My first teacher, was Wang Hao Da (Wu Jian Quan lineage), but he passed away soon after I began. Then I learned more from Susan Matthews, who worked with Master Wang for about four years in a number of training camps.
Then I went to China in 2004 and trained with Xu Guo Chang (Wu Yu Xiang lineage). More recently, I studied videos of Grandmaster Ma Yueh Liang, his wife Wu Ying Hua, Wen Zee. They’ve all passed away now. I’ve found perhaps one video of Grandmaster Ma doing slow form, since he preferred the fast form.
Over a couple of weekends in spring 2016, I met Yan Yuan Hua (Wu Jian Quan lineage) in Tucson, AZ and Temple City, CA and practiced with him and several of his students in both cities. He gave me a video of his forms to watch and learn. His approach differs from others I have been exposed to.
I try to incorporate what I’ve learned in such a way to simplify the process of learning of students and make their progress a steady one. Sooner or later in training we all are exposed to different ways of doing things.
I highly value the ability of a practitioner to be fluid and open to change as they encounter new information. It keeps things lively by challenging our assumptions and the tendency to develop just another habitual way of moving without questioning. Good the the brain, good for the body.