Foot Position Basics of Tai Chi for Mind-Body Workouts

By Therese Iknoian

Here are a few basic Tai Chi foot positions that you will use over and over in your mind-body workouts. And over and over. They’re the foundations of the forms that follow. Having these basics described and broken-down can make life easier when you try to do the follow-the-leader routine.

As with all the mind-body methods, different schools, styles, and instructors call different moves by different names. Maybe someone just translated a word or phrase differently; maybe someone felt his or her name better described a movement than another one did. But keep an open mind and visualize — the names are all just designed to conjure up an image of what the movement looks like.

Bow Stance (Also Called Bow and Arrow Step, or Arched Step)

Practice the Bow ‘til you’re blue in the face. Getting this stance down is crucial because it’s the foundation of many Tai Chi movements. In this stance, you bend your front leg like a primed bow, and keep your back leg straight like an arrow ready for flight.

  1. Start standing with both feet parallel and about hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly keeping your weight centered over your feet and your hips tucked under slightly.

  2. Turn your right foot out slightly (about 45 degrees) by pivoting on your heel to point your toes outward.

    This allows you to keep your hips dropped and your spine aligned and not forced into a sway-back position. If you need to, shift your weight onto your left foot slightly, before you put the weight back onto your right foot to go into the step-out, next.

  3. Nearly at the same time as you’re turning your heel, begin bending your right knee slightly and shifting your weight onto your right foot. At the same time, raise your left knee, lifting your left toe off the ground, and step out to the front leading with your heel.

    Land first (and softly!) onto the floor with your heel, rolling the rest of your foot down flat. Imagine that you’re trying to sneak up on somebody and you want to be really, really quiet!

  4. As your left foot lands, your right leg nearly straightens, pushing about 60–70 percent of your weight onto your front leg, which is bending at the knee. Your stance now looks like a lunge.

    When you get into the position, make sure that your front foot points directly forward. The toes on your right foot should point outward slightly. Plus, you should have some width between your feet as if your heels were placed on opposite corners of a square on the ground.

Centering Step (Also called T-Step)

This transitional step merely shifts your weight. But to do it well is a moment of pure heaven when you feel as if you are floating above the ground, strong in your center, focused in your heart, and totally in control of your body’s movement. Developing balance is what gets you to that nanosecond of bliss.

You don’t normally just stand around in a Centering Step, but use it to move into other positions. So use this drill to practice your body positioning and balance.

  1. Start standing with both feet parallel and about hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly (just soften the joint) keeping your weight centered over your feet and your hips tucked under slightly.

  2. Shift your hips (and your body weight) from a centered position over both feet to a centered position over your right foot, bending your right knee a little more.

  3. At the same time, lift your left foot and touch the base of your toes onto the ground next to the arch of your right foot.

  4. Open out your left knee and hip slightly, using the muscles in your buttocks and hips to rotate the knee outward.

    You should be able to stand in this balanced position with no weight on your lifted knee. Try to lift that toe for a moment — you should be able to do this without falling over. Advanced Tai Chi students never touch the ground with that toe or foot when they pass through this position to another one.

Empty Step

This step doesn’t really have a name. But teachers who name it often call it Empty Step because your rear foot is full (carrying 100 percent of your weight), while your front foot is empty (carrying none of your weight). The yin-yang concept of opposites mixing to provide a perfect balance comes into play here.

The Empty step is another transitional step that you don’t usually start from a simple standing position. But use these step-by-step instructions to get into a correct position so you can feel and practice it while stationary before putting it into motion.

Empty Step is a lot like the Centering Step except the hip of your non-weight-bearing foot is turned in and that toe is in front of the supporting leg, not beside it.

  1. Start standing with both feet parallel and about hip-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, keeping your weight centered over your feet and your hips tucked under slightly. Position your toes as if you are toeing an imaginary straight line on the ground in front of you.

  2. Step directly forward with your left foot, placing your heel on the other side of the imaginary line.

  3. Shift your weight backward, bending both knees and lifting just the heel and arch of your left, non-weight-bearing foot off the ground.

    You should be balanced and rooted on your right leg strongly enough that you can lift the front-left toe off the ground and not fall or be forced to shift your body position.

    To help you really feel the weight shift, try rocking this step forward and backward slowly and gently from front foot to rear foot. Just transfer most of your weight onto the front foot, and then rock it all backward onto the rear foot, taking a moment to find your balance, and then lift your front toe slightly.

    Be sure to alternate which foot you put forward — one side of your body is always stronger than the other.